Each week, Now in Rep Cinema compiles the best repertory and art house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements.
Monday June 27, 7 p.m.
|Of Gods and Men
Tuesday, June 28, 9 p.m.
Thursday June 30, 4:15 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday July 1, 9:30 p.m.
A while back, a bit of a dust-up erupted between some film critics at the New York Times. The topic was the matter of “slow and boring” films—also known as “stately, meditative” films, depending on who you talk to. The lines were drawn between Dan Kois, who in his New York Times Magazine essay “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” owned up to half-napping through every “deliberately-paced” drama his fellow critics raved about. The rejoinder came more than a month later, when Kois’ co-workers A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis struck back with “In Defense of Slow and Boring,” which spread like unhurried wildfire across Facebook and Twitter, eagerly shared by more patient cineastes who don’t (like Kois) regard film viewing as a “performative” aspect of the larger gesture of taste-making. (Unless of course they’re so entrenched in the performance that they’d champion treatises they don’t believe in defending films they don’t actually enjoy. But that’s a bit cynical.)
The main film in question, which drew a line in the dry Oregonian dirt between the enlightened philistinism of Kois (“I likes what I likes!”) and the more studied, sober cinephilia of Scott and Dargis (“No you don’t.”) was Kelly Reichardt’s plaintive (/boring) Meek’s Cutoff. We’ve written about Meek’s Cutoff here before. First during TIFF, hailing its “placid pacing and depthless beauty” and awarding it a perfect five-out-of-five stars. And then again when it opened at the Lightbox in May, singing the praises of Reichardt’s “parched aesthetic of austerity.” So we’ll check the rhapsodizing. Instead, let’s weigh in the whole debate, on the occasion of Meek’s making probably its last tumble-weed turn through the Toronto rep circuit this week.
The main problem with Kois’ “eat your veggies” argument is that it misapprehends something crucial about cinema’s possibilities. He talks a lot about “rhythms” and how he finds himself out-of-sync with the pacing of contemporary cinema (let’s just call it “art cinema,” because that’s really what he’s talking about). There’s always this weird schism between “movies” as popular entertainment and “cinema” (or “filums”) as something else, which is weird, not because it doesn’t exist but because it so obviously exists that it seems silly to not address it outright. The medium and experience of film and film-going establishes a kind of flattened sameness that weighs on what’s being projected. It’s outright silly to think that, just because the mechanism and presentation is comparable, that there’s anything shared between Meek’s Cutoff and Transformers: A Moon Darkly or whatever it’s called, just as it’s silly to think that your copy of Wittgenstein’s Mistress shares anything with your copy of whatever the new Tom Clancy book is called just because they both more-or-less consist of bound, paginated ink and pulp. There’s a confused sense that art cinema is haughty and self-interested, and that in being interested in things other than flash and speed narrative unraveling, they are punching outside of the weight class of a medium that has long been a popular entertainment. They are, to use a word often bandied about, “pretentious.” But the rhythms of Meek’s, and art cinema like it, aren’t a rejoinder to anything, or an arid exercise in testing our ever-winnowing attention spans. Their fealty is only to their own logic (like any piece of art, Meek’s is a film that instructs you in how to engage with it), pacing, and presentation: be it one established atomically, by the film itself, or by the longer cinematic tradition which it emerges out of and submerses back into.
The other problem is Kois’ whole rap about “aspirational” viewing. It’s especially annoying in this case because Kois is a paid film critic for probably the major print outlet in the world, and thus should be expected to have to, you know, work when he goes to the movies. But the idea also certifies another long-standing, and mostly bogus, divide among film viewers. This is the idea is that people who do like Meek’s Cutoff or (Solaris or Blissfully Yours or whatever) only like them because doing so elevates them into some stratified Snoot Class. Kois rolls his eyes in this direction, snarkily calling his contemporaries (i.e. Scott and Dargis) “smarter than me” and writing with a Pauline Kael-ish tone of boastful anti-intellectualism. Loads of lazy thinking here, like in the suggestion that filmmakers would expend massive energy into creating products just so they’re certified by the Snoot Class. Worse than this, Kois seems to think that the pleasures of film-going are not seeing but having-seen (and, maybe most importantly, talking about the having-seen).
Like those people who cordon off a whole summer to read Infinite Jest, daunted by its heft and reputation, merely so they can say they’ve read it and not realize that there’s oodles of wit and spark on every one of its 1,000+ pages, Kois assumes that there is no pleasure to be found in attuning yourself to the rhythms of art films. Certainly, critics like movies like this (to some extent) because they are slow and because this slowness allows plenty of time for their (hopefully) mercurial intellects to savour and rationalize what’s on screen, effectively allowing them to craft their reviews in the process. But this process isn’t limited to Snoot critics. The space that “slow and boring” films jimmy open for us to think about them, and to follow the train of images and associations they accommodate, is part of their great pleasure. Ditto the care put into the images and the emotional fallout accompanying them. One can feel truly dwarfed, to the point of existential humility, by the scope of Tree of Life or 2001, where the flash and menace of, say, Transfomers: Blackened Behind or whatever it’s called, invites only a stupefied awe: a slack-jawed terror of its sheer bigness.
By bringing Transformers into the equation here, repeatedly, I’m not trying to fall back into the same false equivalencies that Kois seems to backslide into (though Kois is more interested in Soderbergh than Michael Bay, apparently). Rather, the aim is to put forward the crazy suggestion that different movies do different things and must therefore be approached differently. One shouldn’t roll into Meek’s expecting a rollicking Western horse-drama. But if one adjusts (or, even better, evacuates) expectations accordingly, the pleasures can be vast. And if you can’t get into the rhythms, at least you know you gave it the ol’ college-educated film-Snoot try. Then you can get back to railing about how everyone who likes things you don’t like is an asshole who’s just trying to sound smarter than you. (Though, for sure, there are plenty of people like that. They’re just not all like that.)
Also Unspooling…Of Gods and Men
Talk about “slow and boring,” right? Jeez! In this five-alarm snooze, based on a super-dull true story, a bunch of Trappist monks living in Algeria are held hostage during the Algerian Civil War of the mid-1990s. Yawn, right? Add in stellar performances, including Lambert Wilson as a monk working diligently to keep the faith, and Xavier Beauvois’ Cannes Grand Prix winner comes off a real sleeper. So bring a pillow and get ready to saw some logs to this first-rate motion picture that, unlike every other movie you’ll see this summer, is not about robots that turns into cars or vice-versa.
Wow. It’s only like six weeks out from its theatrical release and we already have warm-fuzzies for Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Let’s blame Green Lantern, which is so disappointing that it makes Thor look like this summer’s golden boy. Like Lantern, Thor offers up an uneasy mix of fantasy-realm superheroics and earthbound do-goodery. But unlike Lantern, Thor has a really good sense of humour about itself. And star Chris Hemsworth, who plays the God of Thunder with self-deprecating mimbo charm, is most of the reason why. If you need something to get the taste of Green Lantern out of your mouth, you should check out Thor.
O, Canada, you little rascal. Guess what? It’s your birthday on Friday, buddy! And we’re going to throw you a party, at the Lightbox, with a whole bunch of the finest movies you’ve birthed. For free! That’s right, Canada, you and all your freeloading citizens get to not pay to see a movie. And while the day’s itinerary is crammed with freebies, we’re going to be there for Black Christmas, Bob Clark’s seminal slasher that helped mould the stock-and-chop boilerplate that would come to define two generations of horror cinema. So save us a seat, Canada, you delightful scamp of a nation-state!