16 June 2009

Cinemachismo: A Prime Example

I want to start using this space for more frequent quick-hit items, even if that means that I'm mostly picking fights with people. (Longtime readers will recall that Listen Eggroll's inaugural post, nearly five years ago, was a petulant rant about escalator idiocy.) So since I just all but hocked a loogie on my monitor after reading Daniel Kasman's introduction to his interview with Pedro Costa on The Auteurs, I may as well share the bile and phlegm with all of you. Here's how Kasman begins:

Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s star has been on the ascent for some time now, generally kept as a secret until 2006’s Colossal Youth’s screening at Cannes aggravated a certain kind of audience enough for us to know a new master had suddenly jumped into the limelight.

Now, I confess that I am not at this point a big fan of Costa's work, having so disliked Colossal Youth that I've yet to work up the stomach to tackle anything else. But that's not the point. What rankles—apart from the misuse of "aggravate," an error so commonplace that I should probably just learn to accept it—is the passage's ugly separatist vibe, one that I've frequently encountered elsewhere and that has long prevented me from getting fully behind a number of otherwise smart and perceptive critics. I have no doubt whatsoever that Kasman, whose taste is largely impeccable, could make a strong case for Costa on the basis of the films themselves, but here we learn that the world (= the few with a clue) recognized Costa's genius when he made a movie that succeeded in pissing a bunch of people off. And not just any bunch of people, but "a certain kind of audience." Oh, how the Philistines gnashed their (our) teeth that fateful May evening!

I'm sorry, but this is cinephilia as machismo, and hugely unproductive. It's one thing to recognize that certain "difficult" filmmakers are working in a mode that's going to appeal only to a small, select audience; it's another thing to implicitly celebrate that alienation, as if it were itself a laudable goal. Jonathan Rosenbaum used to pull this kind of thing, too—my copy of Movies as Politics is in a box right now, but I recall him looking back with at least some regret at a snotty remark along the lines of "my first clue that Alain Resnais' Providence might be something special was hearing that all the New York critics hated it." Surely there are better uses for cinema than as a self-congratulatory status symbol: "Yeah, I loved it, Rex Reed gnawed through six sets of legs to reach the aisle."


Scott Tobias said...

I have only room for one Pedro in my life-- so sorry Señor Almodóvar!

Daniel said...

Sheesh Mike, did it really deserve this?

I admit the tone of that passage is rather purposeful, but, as I remarked in a comment to your comment on the interview, people who don't get to go to Cannes must take what they can get from the overseas coverage. The reports about the Costa screening were the first indication that he was someone to pay attention to, and that instinct turned out to be justified during the retro of his that subsequently toured the States. As a side note to this, I know quite a few people, and perhaps you are included among them, who read Variety reviews during major festivals specifically to pick up on the films the trade paper rags on for being too arty or catering only to a director's fans...code words for it won't make money but people who like this kind of cinema will like it. That's what I was going for in the intro, and it was interesting that Costa brought up something similar at the end of the interview.

As a side-side-note, I'm a pretty terrible copy-editor all around, and would love to know what the issue with "aggravated" is.

msic said...

Not to derail this discussion, but just my own two cents. The cinemachismo thing is a big problem in the avant-garde, mostly as a defensive position, and it never helps anything to be like, "You can't HANDLE the truth of Paul Sharits!" Just leads to cliquishness, that in turn hastens the death of the scene.

Joshua said...

Daniel: I'm guessing that the dispute over "aggravate" is whether it can be appropriately used to mean "to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading," as distinct from its earlier meaning of "to make worse, more serious, or more severe."

However, I would say that both meanings are acceptable. According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, the "to rouse to displeasure ..." meaning has been around since the 17th century.

md'a said...

Hey Daniel:

As Clint once said, deserve's got nothin' to do with it. Sure, it's an overreaction, but I've been mightily annoyed by the tone of the discourse surrounding Costa for several years now, and this was a final straw of sorts. I probably wouldn't have reacted as I did had you even gone the J-Ro route and written something like "the hostile reaction to the Cannes screening was the first suggestion that something interesting might be happening"—I'd be lying if I said that I'm not often intrigued by films that make the trades and the hacks bridle. But the notion that one could identify a "new master" without even seeing the film, based solely on the reaction of a "certain kind of audience"...seriously, man, isn't that a tad grotesque? It's like, I love Nathan Lee to death, but when I saw him shortly after Cannes '06 (which he didn't attend), he said something to the effect of "Southland Tales has to be a masterpiece to inspire that much vitriol." Which made it impossible for me to take him seriously when he subsequently saw the film and declared it the year's finest. See what I'm saying? It just makes you look like you're taking an ideological stand.

As for "aggravate," that's a bit of SNOOTish pedantry on my part, as I more or less admitted. The primary definition is and always has been "to make (a problem, injury, or offense) worse or more serious"; it wasn't originally applied to human beings as a synonym for "irritate" or "annoy." But most dictionaries do include the latter as well—the one in my iMac labels it "informal" but also includes a note defending it as "comparable to meaning changes in hundreds of other words which [sic! lol] have long been accepted without comment."

thanksbud said...

"Some people claim that aggravate can only mean 'to make worse,' and not 'to irritate,' on the basis of the word's etymology. But in doing so, they ignore not only an English sense in use since the 17th century, but also one of the original Latin ones. Sixty-eight percent of the Usage Panel approves of its use in 'It's the endless wait for luggage that aggravates me the most about air travel.'"
( http://www.answers.com/aggravate )

Arkaan said...

But if Armond White hates something, we're allowed to assume it must be great, right?

Nathan said...

That's ok, Mike. I also find myself impossible to take seriously.