In 2001 I spent six months in Kenya, teaching at a rural primary school and travelling about the country. My friend Will and I shared a tiny house 20 minutes’ walk from the nearest road and another fifteen minutes’ drive from the nearest internet connection. Each evening during the week we had eaten dinner by about 6pm. It would be dark outside, and we had been advised to minimise moving around after dark because, as far as I understood the explanation, people might think we were bandits. Besides that, we didn’t know anyone anyway. We played chess, Will practiced guitar, we chatted, and we read. I had a sack full of books and about two thirds of the way through the trip, Will’s Mum visited and brought a load more. Were it not for this unique set of circumstances, I can’t imagine that I would ever have got through Finnegans Wake. And I did – every word, cover to cover. It took about a month – half of it anticipating “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” – the only item of note that I was aware of from the book – and the rest just anticipating the end. I occasionally sort of imagine that in reading it, some essence of language trickled down to my subconscious, but realistically I don’t think I gained anything by reading it. The only thing I can tell you about Finnegans Wake is that it’s long, consists of many paragraph-long sentences and page-long paragraphs and is almost completely impossible to make any sense of – on a literal, sentence-by-sentence basis. It is among the most extreme examples of what have become known as “cultural vegetables:” those works of art that, though we might find them unpalatable or difficult to get through, have been designated as good for us by some authority figure. To be sure, Finnegans Wake is a bit of a special case, with many serious people thinking it’s not worth your time, but plenty of others (Anthony Burgess included) consider it a masterpiece.
For a little while earlier this year, cultural vegetables were being much discussed. It turns out to be a subject that stirs up some strong feelings, and has actually been visited a number of times down the years by different writers and thinkers. We will now commence to descend a little into this rabbit hole, although I can’t promise to make sense of it completely. To be honest, this blog post has been a bit of a monkey on my back for the past few months – it’s felt necessary to do but difficult to execute, and I keep finding more and more articles which should make contributions to it. It is in danger, in fact, of becoming a cultural vegetable itself. Anyway: onward. There’s a good bit coming up.
This year’s discussion was kicked off by a writer/critic named Dan Kois, who had this piece in the New York Times magazine in April. I don’t know if he coined the term “cultural vegetables,” but it’s a good one and it’s a funny article with an amusing parallel arc about his daughter’s aspirational viewing of cartoons whose jokes are only intelligible to kids a year older than her. It says many things, including:
As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?
Mr. Kois has for years invested his time in cultural properties that he knows he ought to, and he’s very explicit about the fact that he does so in order to impress his friends. As he notes above, he might be moved by them but he can’t quite tell whether he’s feigning this enjoyment even to himself. It’s all about the appearance of sophistication, as delightfully exemplified here:
In college, a friend demanded to know what kind of idiot I was that I hadn’t yet watched Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” “It’s so boring,” he said with evident awe. “You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.”… After I left the library, my friend asked me what I thought. “That was amazing,” I said. When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval.
Inevitably, the article drew a response. On 3rd June this piece by Manohla Dargis and AO Scott, titled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, appeared in the same magazine. Also somewhat inevitably, I think, the writers took a somewhat disparaging tone toward the original article and end up talking past it to a degree. They make some good points, such as this, in Manohla Dargis’ half of the article:
Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour “Sátántangó” — take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.
Creating a movie in order to stimulate people to think in a freeform way is a pretty neat idea, I think, and the description she goes on to give of a film in which an extended scene shows a woman making a meatloaf in real time sounds at least interesting. But I think she does us and the original article a disservice when she implies that the only alternative to these long, slow, clever movies is the dumber kind of Hollywood output exemplified by The Hangover Part II.
Another smart thing said here, this time by AO Scott, is:
For some reason it needs to be asserted, over and over again, that the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun. Any suggestion to the contrary, and any film that dares, however modestly, to depart from the orthodoxies of escapist ideology, is met with dismissal and ridicule.
I like this. You might recall from yesterday’s bit of snobbery that I kept encountering in the Amazon reviews of bad films and books that people criticising the work had failed to “get” the point that it was supposed to be fun, and not everything had to be clever, or some such. This is weak, because it is so very possible for cinema, or books or anything else to be both entertaining and smart – and an injection of smart need not reduce the fun quotient of a film whatsoever. It is also tremendously limiting, as Scott points out, to assert that when working within any medium one is constrained to produce a particular type of work deemed suited to that medium (as in, “people making films have a duty to entertain”).
Both the Dargis and Scott halves of this article mention boredom in one way or another. Boredom happens to have been the subject of two fairly recent books which are reviewed at length here. I’ve just reread the article and can confirm that it is, indeed, boring, which is unfortunate. Apologies for the redundant paragraph.
I think I mentioned before that the notion of difficult culture and our relationship to it had been a subject of interest for some time; the confirmation is here in this long article by Jonathan Franzen. Its centrepiece is formed of Franzen’s struggles to read the novels of William Gaddis, something I haven’t put myself through but assume I can sympathise with due to the earlier recounted Finnegans Wake experience (and Ulysses if I’m honest: that was definitely a case of waiting for the famous monologue at the end). I can recommend the article (with thanks to Brendan for pointing me to it a few months ago); it begins with a funny anecdote about a disgruntled reader of The Corrections who took issue with Franzen’s fancy language and went on to describe him and his cohort as:
The elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don’t smoke, have abortions tri-yearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper’s and The New Yorker.
Which is probably true.
Franzen’s struggles are interesting because he seems to sympathise quite fully with both sides of this ongoing debate between entertainment and sophistication: he admires clever people and wants to be like them but detests the notion of producing art that excludes ordinary people. I suppose this is one area where film has a tremendous advantage over books: it is so easy to watch a film that a single product can serve a tremendously wide variety of people if it’s sufficiently well-crafted. Although… counter-arguments pop up: Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy. Writers of simple sentences that anyone can pick up, yet admired as artists on a level with most writers of their era.
OK let’s be honest, I haven’t got a good way of finishing this. I like the topic, they were some good articles. We’ll come back to it?