For many people I know, the LoveFilm DVD rental list is a graveyard of good intentions: Three Films by Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, some Ken Loach, a smattering of Andrei Tarkovsky. Look closely and you’ll see that they’re all set to “low priority”, which translates as: “Please don’t actually send these movies to me.”
Though I love Cassavetes and Welles as much as any discerning film fan, I can sympathise. I could spend a Thursday evening after work watching The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which, LoveFilm tells me, is “at once a love story, a documentary, a socio-political statement and a film of the music of Bach” – but I’m more likely to go for an old episode of Beverly Hills, 90210.
“Great” cinema, like much of “great” literature or art, can be challenging. It can also be a downer. Susan Sontag wrote in 1963: “The truths we respect are those born of sickness.” More than half a century later, this equation of pain with potency remains the conventional wisdom, and many lauded films – Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, say – combine “challenging” and “downer” in a relentless onslaught. And Manchester is apparently a great movie. Maybe I’ll put it on my LoveFilm rental list . . .
Difficulty serves as an aid to intellectual engagement. “Small bursts of mental complexity – also known as cognitive disfluency – encourage us to think more clearly,” explained Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, in 2013. When Robert Browning wrote his notoriously difficult poem Sordello, he doubtless intended to use disfluency to corral readers towards truths hitherto unexplored in verse, but Tennyson’s response to it summed up the dangers of the strategy: “There were only two lines in it that I understood.”
Academe celebrates complexity in part because it gives scholars obvious things to write about. Canons are formed through critical consensus, but to what extent and how accurately do they reflect a society’s values and dreams?
Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars: the Force Awakens, Jurassic World and The Avengers: these are the most profitable films of all time, and none is canonical in any meaningful sense. They are, to be frank, dumb and devoid of complexity yet millions of people love them. Critics may howl when something deemed trashy captures the public imagination – for instance, the music of Ed Sheeran, who recently topped the charts with his album Divide, despite warnings from reviewers about its “flagrant sense of scheming” and “deeply uncool whiteness” – but our relationship with culture is a personal matter. There’s no shame in loving what a bunch of journalists have decided is a bit rubbish.
After all, what the critics in one era think great can become a laughing stock in another, and the reverse is also true. Douglas Sirk was largely dismissed as a pedlar of sentimental “women’s pictures” in the 1950s, even as he made films later accepted as masterpieces, such as All That Heaven Allows.
And it’s worth remembering that even Christianity initially got terrible reviews: Nero had followers of the faith burned alive as human torches and torn apart by dogs in 64AD. Less than three hundred years later, the then Roman emperor, Constantine, had converted. Perhaps in a couple of centuries, Highlander 2 (“a movie almost awesome in its badness”, according to Roger Ebert) will similarly be reappraised as vital to human happiness. Or maybe Sheeran will replace Bob Dylan in the history books as the musician of our era. I doubt it, as they really are bogus – but, as the song goes: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round . . .”
A critical consensus forms and then is eventually replaced by a new one. What matters in the end is whether you are moved by something or not – it’s the only mark of quality that you can be sure of. To argue for the binning of established canons to make way for the lionisation of, say, Dumb and Dumber and 90210 would be absurd, yet it is just as daft to deny that “low” culture can have a powerful, and therefore equally valid, effect on us. So don’t feel guilty if you’d rather read a Fifty Shades of Grey sequel than Proust.
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution