A new episode in the mass culture debate happened last week, involving Kevin Smith.
Smith, aka "Silent Bob," is an independent film icon from the 1990s, and could be accurately described as something along the lines of a "raunch auteur." His breakthrough flick, Clerks, which he made for less than $30,000 by maxing out his credit cards, is a case of the cinematic American dream in action. And throughout the 90s, he sketched his own self-contained universe, a New Jersey suburb filled with aimless, hyper-articulate post-adolescents who have nothing better to do with their time and energy than debate Star Wars. At their best—and they're often inconsistent—his 90s films alternately show sensitive insight (Chasing Amy), on-target satire (Dogma), and strong character-based comedy (Clerks). (Mallrats, though a critical flop, is the perfect movie for a middle schooler to watch when his parents aren't around.) As many have noted, including Smith himself, he isn't particularly remarkable when it comes to directing. But that never really mattered, since he wrote some of the wittiest comic dialogue in 1990s America film.
This decade, though, has seen Smith become more of a Hollywood hitman. When I saw the trailer for Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which he wrote and directed, and which was a pretty solid raunch comedy, what surprised me was that the trailer didn't mention him or his past work at all. Compare that with Dogma, which positioned itself as "from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy." (As far as credits go, Smith, I believe, likes to emphasize group collaboration over the whole auteurist claim of individual authorship—which I actually find very admirable.)
The transformation seemed complete when I saw the trailer to his latest flick, Cop Out, a film in which, sigh, a comically irresponsible black dude and a comically stern white dude team up to fight crime. Not only did it look like a formula star vehicle, it wasn't even his script. It looked like a sign that his identity was being subsumed by Hollywood formula, and nothing I heard since did anything to change that impression.
But all of that was just a prelude. As Anne Thompson notes at indieWIRE, Kevin Smith caused something of a stir recently (an internet stir) by insulting the critics who panned Cop Out--which was, as Thompson points out, his highest gross to date.
Smith's post is a long one, touching on the righteous (the ridiculousness of rabid hating, the mellow enjoyment of simple pleasure) before going into his take on critics, complete with a long, incredibly detailed politically incorrect metaphor. Take a deep breath. His accumlated posts, which came in response to fan question about film theory, are as follows:
@coked_up_jesus “I gotta say that every day I hate film theory & film students & critics more & more. Where is the fun in movies?” Sir sometimes, it’s important to turn off the chatter. Film fandom’s become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up on the ol’ brand-new blog. And if a schmuck like me pays you some attention, score! MORE EYES, MEANS MORE ADVERT $. But when you pull your eye away from the microscope, you can see that shit you’re studying so closely is, in reality, tiny as fuck. You wanna enjoy movies again? Stop reading about them & just go to the movies. It’s improved film/movie appreciation immensely for me.
I find this to be a very interesting entry in the basic mass culture debate—which is also, for that matter, the root of a great many internet arguments: populism ("don't overthink, just enjoy") versus intellectualism ("this is mediocre").
Seriously: so many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on #CopOut like it was JenniferJasonLeigh in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. Watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. Like, it’s called #CopOut; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called “Schindler’s Cop Out”? Writing a nasty eview for #CopOut is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple chuckles from the normies by singing AFTERNOON DELIGHT.
Suddenly, bully-dudes are doing the bad impression of him, using the “retart” voice. The crowd shifts uncomfortably. And you may impress a couple of low IQ-ers who’re like “Yeah, man! Way to destroy that singing retart!” But, really? All you’ve done is make fun of something that wasn’t doing you any harm and wanted only to give some cats a some fun laughs. It was just ridiculous to watch. That was it for me. Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid? It’s a backwards system. People are free to talk shit about ANY of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it. Fuck this AnimalFarm bullshit.
And I think there are, to this issue, a great many nuances.
On the one hand, I think that movies should be fun--or rather, that there should always be a place for fun movies. But I'll never buy the argument, which I see over and over again, that critics don't like fun films.
A brief detour to Rotten Tomatoes shows that recent blockbuster hits like Iron Man and Star Trek got rave reviews—to pick a gender-flipped example, Julie & Julia got strong critical notices as well. (Or, to pick something older, Singin' in the Rain continually tops lists of the greatest films of all time, and I defy anyone to find a happier, more bubbly movie). I think critics do like "movies," they just like them to bring something to the table. Entertainment is a good thing--not the only thing, but a good thing--but most bad movies don't qualify as entertainment by the pure fact that they don't entertain. At best, they only qualify as distraction.
Of course, one man's entertainment is another man's distraction, and having times when you can turn your mind off can be a great privilege. But I don't think people should be discouraged from reading or thinking about the media they consume. And if extremely low ambition is the producer's defense, I'm not sure that's an argument worth winning.
I'm reminded of a quote by Ebert, who is hardly an intellectual elitist (no one can be and give Vin Diesel's xXx three-and-a-half stars at the same time). Ebert wrote--in a discussion of the most unapologetically intellectual director in film history, Jean-Luc Godard--that we live in a time when the mainstream audience expects to be "congratulated for its narrow tastes, and catered to." The use of "narrow" rather than "bad" is key. And I agree: currently, the idea of intellect in the public arena is too often seen as something to be sneered at.
Snobbery is its own problem, and it should be avoided. After all, it occurred to me that I watch movies by Jean-Luc Godard for the same essential reason that someone else watches, say, Cop Out: it's what we like to do during our spare time to keep ourselves busy and make us contented. But I can't get on board with Smith here. I think people should be encouraged to poke around, to read up on films, to look into what makes all these ostensibly-great movies so great instead of just uncritically accepting the latest execution of a formula. And in the meantime, I hope we see more movies from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy.