The Role of Personal Taste in Aesthetic Judgment

Tulpan

On April 29, Dan Kois published an opinion piece called “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.”  It has since started a great debate among film critics across the web about whether or not “boring” films are good for you (and what it is that even makes a film boring in the first place).  The first key response was “In Defense of the Slow and Boring” by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, which makes some great points, but which also willfully misinterprets Kois (Dargis more than Scott) as initiating a culture war.  Thankfully, Andrew O’Hehir recently chimed in to put things in perspective.  And finally, Jim Emerson summed everything up within a useful context and with his usual brand of common sense.  Let’s begin with his summary of the “Cultural Vegetable” essay:

The Kois piece that started this particular brouhaha is based on the idea of “aspirational viewing”–movies people say you “have to see” because they’re good (and good for you?), but that you (or Kois) may find grueling to actually sit through.

As I said, Dargis and Scott of the New York Times somehow misinterpret Kois’s strikingly honest confessional as “a defense of the corporate status quo” (Scott) and claim that Kois need not worry about watching the “slow-moving, meditative” films he despises because “movie theaters offer a cornucopia of junk food” (Dargis).

As Andrew O’Hehir points out, this isn’t totally fair:

Kois said nothing about how, durn it all, them furrin films don’t have enough explodin’ bikini babes in ‘em.  His positive examples included Alfonso Cuarón and Steven Soderbergh, not “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Hangover Part II.”

Furthermore, Kois isn’t saying that the films he finds “slow-moving, meditative” are bad.  In fact, he’s glad he watched them, difficult as it was for him to do so.  When a film of this sort is over, he’s even grateful that he can now “talk about it and write about it and remember it.”  And, more importantly, he can appreciate these types of works as films of substance (i.e., films of art):

Yet I’ve nevertheless tried to write thoughtfully about the gifts that these deliberately paced movies might offer viewers attuned to their rhythms.  For instance, there is a moment from “Tulpan” I’ll never forget, in which a traveling veterinarian’s ancient motorbike is parked next to a yurt, its sidecar glumly occupied by a heavily bandaged camel.

Kois obviously isn’t trying to defend Hollywood-manufactured “junk food.”  He’s simply saying that, while he can appreciate the artistic merit of a film like Solaris, it’s just not his cup of tea (“[…] my taste stubbornly remains my taste”).  Rather than call him a populist apologist, I would say he is being intellectually honest.  Which is better:  a person admitting that he or she doesn’t personally enjoy a great work of art (while still recognizing it as art), or a person (Nietzsche’s “cultural philistine”) pretending to enjoy a great work of art only to appear cultured (enjoyment as “a performative act”)?

Thus, despite what Dargis seems to think, this isn’t a culture war.  The issue is personal taste.  Emerson admits as much:

So, I might say I found something about a movie “tedious” or “engaging” or some other thesaurus word, but I’ll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I’m talking about, and to give at least one specific example.

It’s a fascinating problem.  In our attempts to make impersonal aesthetic judgments, what role does personal taste play?  And is the issue of taste really a matter of form and style (slow art films vs. fast Hollywood films), or does it equally have something to do with a film’s content–its thematic substance?

Contrary to the crux of his essay, Kois actually suggests the latter–that taste has more to do with content and substance (and I think I agree with him):

Yes, there are films, like the 2000 Taiwanese drama “Yi Yi (A One and a Two),” that enrapture me with deliberate pacing, spare screenplays and static shooting styles.  I’ve watched “Yi Yi” five times and never once dozed off over 15 cumulative hours of low-key Taiwanese domesticity.

Kois might try to argue in his essay that it’s really the “slow, meditative” cinematic style of films like Solaris that he finds boring, but he undermines that argument here by claiming that if a film’s content interests him enough, he has no problem with its “deliberate pacing.”

So it’s not that he dislikes all slow films; perhaps it’s just that the subjects he most enjoys and finds most interesting are more commonly explored through films that happen to utilize a faster cinematic language.  It’s difficult to say with certainty, but it makes a certain amount of sense.  I enjoy both slow and fast movies, and so does A. O. Scott:

And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments.  I would like to think there is room in the cinematic diet for various flavors, including some that may seem, on first encounter, unfamiliar or even unpleasant.

Thus, as much as I praise the deliberately paced, contemplative films of Stanley Kubrick as some of the greatest works of cinematic art, I love the action films of Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese almost just as much (or the never-a-dull-moment thrillers of Hitchcock).

In sum, while knowledge and appreciation of cinema and its artistic tradition can enable us to make clear, impersonal aesthetic judgments about films, it’s our personal taste that governs which of these films we like best and look forward to experiencing again and again.

In “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” T. S. Eliot wrestles with Shelley, a poet for whom he seems to have little taste.  He asks: “[…] is it possible to ignore the ‘ideas’ in Shelley’s poems, so as to be able to enjoy the poetry?”

I would say yes.  Though a film’s content and substance will usually determine my initial level of interest, I can be won over by a film of superior artistry exploring a topic in which I have little or no interest at all.  For example, I find the subject matter of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (the story of a man rekindling his love for his wife) a bit too sentimental for my taste.  But I love the film in spite of that.  The power of the visuals, the strength of the storytelling, and the genius of the craftsmanship–it wins me over in the end.

Sunrise

Conversely, it’s possible, due to personal taste, that we might find works interesting that are of poor or no artistry–artistic failures (and this relates back to my post on “Hamlet and His Problems”).  I enjoy Joel Schumacher’s 8mm.  I find it interesting as a contemporary Heart of Darkness-style detective story.  This is due to my built-in interest in the subject matter.  However, I do not find the film interesting because it is art (it is essentially a by-the-numbers thriller with some dodgy plot points).

8mm

There is a certain disparity in comparing films such as these.  Sunrise is considered a classic, even appearing on the most recent edition of the BFI’s well-respected Critics’ Top Ten Poll (I will discuss the cultural value of such lists in a later post).  But 8mm is so mediocre, so unrecognized, that it almost appears a random and meaningless choice.  But I’m using that film as an example for precisely that reason: to show that a person’s individual interests and tastes in regard to his or her preferred subjects or content in art are just that–individual.

As critics and cinephiles, we can appreciate many films for their aesthetic value. However (and I think this is the point Kois was originally trying to make), as individuals with personal tastes, we just don’t care to experience some of them more than once.

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