How Not to Watch a Movie
Excellent blog-o-person Christian Toto — by way of two of my favorite sites, his own home at Big Hollywood, and Newsbusters — brings to light these really kind of pitiful comments from New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis. Speaking with fellow (and far superior) critic A.O. Scott, Miss Dargis says this about this summer's patriotic mega-hit The Avengers:
The world has moved on -- there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state -- but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.
Now most of us don't turn to movie critics for wisdom, so it may be unkind to expect Miss Dargis to do much more than parrot the rote, conformist wisdom of the intellectual bourgeoisie of her time. This sort of thing is, after all, just the sort of post-modern Babbittry that has transformed Times culture reporting from an essential to an irrelevance. Miss Dargis has a job to do and I assume she's in tune with her Timesean masters when she praises bad movies like Hoover because their ideology fits hers and attacks a fun summer picture like The Avengers because it doesn't represent some correct racial and sexual mix or whatever. So what? If a critic is a lockstep leftist and there's no one around to hear her, does she even make a sound?
So rather than reassemble what's left of the poor girl after Toto got through with her only to rip her to pieces again, I'd like to point out that there's plenty of this sort of thinking on the glorious right as well. One ideology is as small as another in this regard, and there are plenty of good folks I know who can't enjoy a book or film unless it praises God or country or Mom's apple pie (which is, admittedly, extra special good). It's actually a rare critic who, like Big Hollywood's John Nolte, will praise a work of art even if he finds its ideology foolish. But then Nolte has a big brain. It's his wife's, but still...
And look, there's nothing wrong with enjoying art and entertainment that comfortably reaffirms us in our world view. If it's good stuff, it's good stuff. Art is meant to be a delight before it's anything else. But there's plenty of good and delightful work that goes against everything we feel to be right and true, and I think by immersing ourselves in its vision unafraid we actually benefit, sharing someone else's view of life for a period and expanding our own. This obviously isn't going to happen to the goose-stepping Miss Dargis, but for the rest of us — I don't think we have to feel that our essential values are so fragile that a touch of disagreement will shatter them. Rather the opposite. If they really are essential and true, they will withstand the assault of even a great artist's moral errors and become all the stronger for them.
When I went to college, I was living proof of Allan Bloom's famous assertion that: "almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…" Then I read Dostoevsky's great suspense novel Crime and Punishment and the relativist barrier to wisdom was blasted out of my head by the book's insight and dramatic power. It was that novel, as much as the Gospels themselves, that set me on the road to Christ and eternal jolliness. Years later, when I had entered a period of philosophical atheism and was reading various atheist writers, I came upon the porno-philosophic work of the Marquis de Sade, from whom we get the word sadism. The combination of his unassailable moral logic and his dramatization of the psychopathic results of that logic made me realize that moral atheism could not ultimately be defended. Seeking to confirm my belief system, I destroyed it.
The point is, we should at least now and then look to cultural works to change our minds not to sit there nodding at us like so many bobble-headed dolls. Has that approach led me down some wrong roads from time to time? Sure it has. Nietzsche's hypnotic; Freud's convincing; Hemingway's cool — I went some way with each of them for a time. But even error strengthens you in truth ultimately, if you keep your mind and heart open, because in the end you not only wind up knowing what you think but why you think it. As a result, with luck, you reach a point where you can be convinced, but not seduced, where you're open-minded but not empty-headed — a consummation devoutly to be wished, as Snooki or someone once said.
Miss Dargis and her leftist ilk may be beyond help. They don't know what they don't know. But for the rest of us, in my humble O, art should be a playground for the soul. We don't need to argue with it. We can lose ourselves in it and trust we'll still be there when we get back.
Cross-Posted from Klavan on the Culture