Updated: Dec 12, 2021
“Well, art films are fine and that, but sometimes the only thing that really hits the spot is watching Jason Statham punch a giant shark, in its giant head.”
Well, I suppose I should begin by apologising for quoting myself. That is unforgivably lame, although if it helps, the intention is confession and the sentiment behind it is remorse. It was Induction Fortnight (Covid Edition) and I was running a film quiz for undergraduates in which I was struggling to strike the right balance between the many different forms of film appreciation typically seen in 18 year olds who have looked at a university prospectus and circled the page titled ‘film’ with intentional disregard for parental side-eye and any received social wisdom about ‘graduate employability’. (Although just so I’m not egging on this harmful stereotype, I should really point out that according to ONS employment data, students of media courses are really not much worse off than the scientists in this regard, Covid excepted).
I was trying to lighten the mood of online teaching, because I’d discovered that students are unanimously unfond of showing their faces or talking onscreen, which meant a whole lot of lecturing into a weird digital void of blank avatars and muted microphones. But later I considered the potential impact that statements like this one might have in the classroom. While it might seem universally evident that The Meg is not exactly high art, it’s an unforgivable fallacy to pit the amorphous notion of ‘art’ (what do I even mean? European independent cinema? Auteur cinema? New Hollywood?) against action cinema, blockbusters and mega co-productions. I was unintentionally invoking that false binary where ‘art’ becomes synonymous with ‘pretentious’, like a black and white film made after 1980, or a person who begins a blog by dissecting one of their own bullshit observations. What I wanted to get across to the students is the idea that all cultural texts are valid and interesting in their own contexts, but instead I ended up reinforcing the old art vs blockbuster cliché. Oh dear.
Film academics have written at length about how the ‘bad object’ (the action film, the exploitation horror, the romantic comedy – choose your fighter) is only considered to be a ‘bad object’ because of our inherited social assumptions about value, taste and distinction. Social meaning and artistic value in art is determined by the dominant culture, and this extends to all aspects of our cultural lives. Your grandparents had to suffer through Evelyn Waugh in school, and now so do you. Sorry about that, but you know, it really is good for you.
Various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have spoken truth to the power of that lie by demonstrating that no one cultural form is better than any other, and that every text should be considered in its context. Film academics know that the mega-blockbuster about a giant shark is just as fascinating for what it can tell us about globalisation as for what it can tell us about the evolving visual style of the Hollywood action movie. Our cultural lives consist of a multiplicity of contested meanings (although in my darker moments, I have sometimes wondered if postmodernism was invented by academics to keep us all in work). And this is all perfectly wonderful. Isn’t it?
The Stath knows that hierarchies of cultural taste are inherited expressions of bourgeois ideals.
While I might enjoy some cultural forms more than others, in general I won’t see ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when I watch a film, only ‘hmm, interesting’. Slice me open and you’ll see ‘Cultural Studies’ engraved on my innards like the writing on a stick of Blackpool rock. But the problem is that non-academics probably weren’t there for the postmodern turn, and whilst in our everyday lives we might be continually surrounded by metanarratives and multiplicities of meanings, it is less clear how meaning, value and distinction might actually relate to film culture. Or to art in general.
Frameworks of inherited taste and distinction still determine how we think about the social value of film. Long tracking shots and characters having stilted conversations while internalising their pain are still held to be vaguely ‘arty’. On the other hand, frenetic edits, CGI and cluttered frames are considered to be ‘trashy’. But really, these things are all similarly predictable in their own generic ways. If we have seen Almodovar films, we have a fair idea of what we might get from the new Almodovar film. If we have seen Michael Bay films, we have an idea of what we might get from the new Michael Bay film. That is not to say that these things are equivalent, or that they are so generic as to be uninteresting, just that they operate according to specific and distinct cultural and artistic rules and frameworks. But how do we set the tone for our new undergraduates? Showing them all kinds of cinema is great, and on any film degree (including our degree at Hull) students will watch everything from European auteur cinema to Japanese horror to American exploitation films. But we should always be critical of how we curate that canon, particularly in the first year of any media or film degree. Showing students the classics, or the films we might find on Mubi… that’s good too, but it is also possible that these might be things they don't have much of a cultural framework for understanding. Only 3-6% of films shown in multiplex cinemas each year are non-English language films, which means that around 90+% of them must hail from either Britain or (as is usually the case) North America.
It is possible that many people growing up with British/Hollywood cinema as the most freely available form in their cultural diet may not understand the intertextual references in a Fellini film. That is not meant to sound patronising: it is simply that Fellini films hail from a cultural framework that is less familiar, and is therefore less well understood. But the relationship between cultural value and class in British society could mean that for some students this might be profoundly alienating, rather than just mildly frustrating. We are not always aware of the ways that cultural unknowingness can be internalised as class alienation, and so we should make clear to them that it's not by our own deficiencies that we do not understand a cultural reference. This is just another cultural tradition that hasn't yet been learned because we don't have a lot of space in our mainstream cinema for films by Italian auteurs. Hollywood action cinema, we know. Fellini, we generally don't.
… but whoa, we really should.
As the saying goes, ‘strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet’, and I believe that other cinemas are just cultural traditions that we haven’t met. Getting to know them is a joy, and we might even become lifelong friends. It is just unfortunate that I was in my mid-20s before I felt able to approach some of my favourite avant-garde directors in the spirit of friendship, rather than in the guise of a shy, lumpen impostor. And I worry that because of our inherited assumptions around class and cultural distinction, undergraduates who don't gel with films outside their cultural frameworks will just internalise that as ‘well, perhaps this is not for me’, or even worse, ‘well, I must not be very smart if I don't understand this *insert really fucking obscure classical mythology reference here*’. Ideally, the first thing we should teach students is that all culture is worth experiencing, and that all culture does its own particular thing, because unless we do then there’s a danger that in our selections we could be passing on a version of the art/trash binary that is reinforced by those sociological intersections where class hierarchies meet cultural taste.
Certain kinds of culture may be alienating for many reasons, and I have already mentioned what I consider to be the main reason: scarcity. Because they are not part of our everyday cultural conversations, there are many texts that we have to make a special effort to seek out, and it just so happens that the people who go to the effort of seeking them out tend to embody those cultural taste markers specific to the middle classes. Another reason why certain types of culture might be alienating is inscrutability. If we don’t understand a cultural reference in a film, that may be because we don’t understand the social world it originates from, or perhaps because we didn’t read the specific book/poem/play that the film is referencing as part of our own national curriculum. It may also be because the director is telling us something about their internal worldview that is so specific and unrelated to our shared human experience that few people would be able to understand it (this behaviour is what we might call ‘indulgent’, as in, speaking to the self and not to the viewer).
In those situations, we can actually end up going too far the other way, and seeing art and culture as purely an expression of class distinction with little value in and of itself. We may think: ‘surely this is all one big joke? Surely this thing that doesn’t make sense isn’t actually good?’ And if only we were all brave enough to call it what it is: utter wank! The emperor is wearing no clothes! Well, it’s true that sometimes he isn’t. But most of the time I would say that the emperor probably is wearing clothes. We just might lack a frame of reference for why he is wearing his shoes on his head and his underpants on his feet. But there is the class reproduction angle in all of this, and that’s why when we select films to teach from among the canonical greats we must be very careful, because the lesson we are teaching might be received as ‘here is what you should like, because the previous generation of cultural tastemakers liked it’ not ‘here is an exciting new friend that you haven’t met yet.’ In selecting and curating our canon we might also unintentionally be reinforcing the received social and cultural wisdom that is woven into our lives as they are defined by our social class: that ‘this behaviour is best’, that ‘this way of seeing the world is best’ and, even more damaging, that ‘you actually really want to belong to the class in society that actually watches this stuff’.
As a friend recently reminded me, dissing art is a privilege that you can only afford to claim if you present as privileged. If you do not present as privileged, this can actually be a huge risk. Without the accumulated social and cultural capital to say ‘I actually think Almodovar is shit, and Michael Bay is excellent’ there is a danger that members of your peer group might think your opinion is uninformed – that you are a philistine - and this can lead to losing the respect of your peer group. But, regardless of your starting point in life, if you are educated, if you can measure your legitimacy in the letters after your name, and if you can point to the published articles that stand as evidence, in black and white, that you really know what you’re talking about, then dissing art is not only a privilege: it is a sign of discernment.
If your position in life is less likely to be affected by an admission of ignorance, and if that admission of ignorance may even be taken as evidence of some kind of deep knowledge about culture and society – then that is a privilege. But really, anyone, anywhere, has exactly the same right to talk about how they responded to a cultural form, no matter what their background or level of education. Any feeling is an authentic response to art, and it’s wonderful to be able to share this feeling with others, free of judgment. We often find such value and ‘all-feelings-are-valid’-ness in fandom and fan communities (the supportive ones, anyway).
I am a mindful philistine because I want others like me to see the lie that kept my new friends locked behind those walls made of ‘not for me’ for such a long time. But in the end, I am a mindful philistine because, like many film scholars (and, hopefully, many film students), I can value the cultural, social, industrial, textual, aesthetic and sociological importance of watching Jason Statham punching a giant shark, in its giant head.