Swanberg Fantastic Fest

In 2009, I got a day job at a credit union because the credit card companies started rejected the cinquain poems I wrote them as payment for some reason. The site was in its salad days, but for all the keeping my head down I did from 9-5 (right next to Brian Salisbury, it should be noted), I’ll never forget what happened when a colleague found out late in the year that I wrote about movies. “I cannot wait for Tooth Fairy. The one with The Rock. I just love him!” she said, acting every bit as excited as if I were The Rock and had just agreed to sign her wrist so she could get it tattooed over.

It wasn’t a long conversation, and my gut reaction made me feel like a snobbish prick. I couldn’t reciprocate the feeling even as I struggled to appreciate it, but her pure joy was a nice reminder that there are all kinds of movie fans out there and that movies have always belonged to them. In differing ways, neither Andrew O’Hehir at Salon or Devin Faraci at Bad Ass Digest seem to recognize that.

O’Hehir, as he’s done regularly for years, has called the current state of film culture into question, and Faraci, as he’s done regularly for years, has figured out what the article is “really saying” and gone on the attack. There are three really funny things about the exchange. The first is its timing; when leaves start to fall, movie writers start testing who can stare harder at their belly button to see whose will produce gold coins first. You can set your calendar by it.

The second is that, even if O’Hehir and Faraci disagree, they fundamentally agree on the same incorrect premise: that the status of movies in the cultural conversation was at one point ruled by art houses and the NYC elite. Or solely by cinephiles at all.

Boiled down, their theses might look something like this:

  • O’Hehir: Movies have lost their position in the populist cultural conversation due to quality television and the internet as partially evidenced by the way the New York Film Festival’s line-up and importance have shifted (and diminished from a classic perspective).
  • Faraci: Movie culture is alive and thriving, but it belongs now to people who don’t own monocles and who attend Fantastic Fest because movie enthusiasm is changing and the internet has democratized everything. Also, “mise en scene.”

On the one hand, O’Hehir (at least Faraci’s top hat-donning characterization of him) seems to lament the loss of a film conversation with Antonioni at its core and cleverly-named cocktails being served. The piece reads like my uncle trying to make the case that politicians should still be chosen in cigar smoke-filled rooms made entirely of mahogany (though it’s important to point out that O’Hehir admits to hyperbole in service of the argument). Faraci wants to tear down those mahogany walls to claim that those mahogany-lined days ended when “fans” picked up the torches and stormed the hoity-toity castle. And, no, I’m not just repeating the word “mahogany” because Rob bet me I couldn’t use it five times in an article. (Mahogany.)

But was this fantasy of exclusive conversation ever really the case? Was the whole of filmic dialog happening at upscale parties in Manhattan? Were the keepers of “what’s really important in movies” living within a few square miles of one another? Was there a Cultural Bastille to storm? Has the internet really saved us from elitism?

I certainly don’t remember any of that on I Love the 70s. Joe Namath and Brian’s Song were definitely there, but I must have dozed off during the long-form dissection of Michael Cimino’s work from Hal Sparks and The Snapple Lady.

The reality is that “the cultural conversation” isn’t something that can be reduced down to one apartment or given the blanket label that the internet’s democratization offers. It’s true that there’s evidence to support the theory that our interests are more fractured and numerous than ever. Chuck Klosterman was right when he said there’d never be another thing like Johnny Carson. But the cultural conversation was never just one thing, and the era of record-breaking box office numbers has muted the potential power the age of fractured entertainment interests wields. There were always too many of us for a singular source to control the conversation, and the internet has done more to reveal that fact than it’s done to somehow cause the conversations to start. Not to piss all over the democratically-lit torches, but people didn’t start having opinions when AOL started sending free CDs in the mail. The internet isn’t the first place for them to voice those opinions either, and it’s not even a particularly good place even if it offers the illusion that your writing (or mine) is going to everybody.

The third funny thing about this is watching Faraci – the Armond White of film criticism – attempt to brand someone else a “snob.” Even as O’Hehir makes himself an easy target for that with this piece, Faraci is inexorably part of a new group of film snobs, like a punk rock bass player who hasn’t realized that all of his fans dress the same for a reason. A glorified message board commenter who still believes firmly in correct opinions and knowing “the right movies” even if the titles have shifted from the stuffier auteurs to genre output and the party has moved from the Manhattan loft to the porch outside the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. Call it Elitism in Blue Jeans, but there’s something equally snobbish about thinking 1) that “regular people” don’t watch documentaries or foreign flicks with depth and that 2) a cartoon version of “regular people” somehow exists writ large in the “real world.”

Even the people who unironically watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have interests that go beyond it. That’s hard to take if you’re a cynical snob, but it’s a pretty obvious truth.The depth and breadth of fandom is so much more vibrant and interesting than the stereotypes O’Hehir and Faraci are toying with here. Both pieces willfully pretend that movies weren’t always popular entertainment, that there weren’t always a multitude of cultural conversations even as two dozen elements from all over the spectrum gained a momentary larger spotlight, that the Good Old Days not only existed but are now gone. They also both presuppose that anyone gives two flying shits about “the state of film culture.” Whatever that means here in the echo chamber.

That bubble is pervasive. So much so that I can’t imagine how either of them would respond to my friend’s pure elation at the prospect of The Rock wearing CGI wings and slamming into stuff. But since both titled their pieces as questions, they deserve an answer:

Is film culture really, truly, deeply dead? Nope, but it also hasn’t been radically altered in the past 10 years. Or the last 100. For the most part, we’re still responding to a similar mix of popular fluff and trenchant indie work (as well as the popular deep stuff and frivolous indie output…). It’s the same mix of event movies (of all kinds) causing buzz and new filmmaking royalty rising into our awareness. Film as an art form has gotten more popular over the past century, some individual movies have stood out to reach the larger masses, and filmmaking itself has changed in some profound ways. Some big conversation pieces have been pure spectacle, others thought-provoking. So it goes. The internet may have democratized filmmaking, but the only thing it’s done for fans is to give us greater access, which is something to never stop celebrating.

Both O’Herir and Faraci are taking something too seriously, though it’s tough to pinpoint what it is.  Still, it’s fun to stare into the lint. Maybe a gold coin or two will pop out.


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