I recently got into a fight on the internet. Yeah. A fight. On the internet. Now, I’ve never been totally immune to this. The internet is a great place for discussion and argument, but I generally don’t take thing to heart. This time I did. And ever since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the implications of the argument. Without getting into the gory details, let’s just say that fiery words were exchanged, primarily dealing with the subject of my taste in and attitude toward film. Specifically, I was accused of being entirely middlebrow in my approach.
To understand why I took such offense to this accusation, I think it’s important to understand exactly what my approach is in the first place. How do I watch films, what kind of films do I prefer, what do I take away from film, and why do I watch them at all. It’s probably the “why?” that’s most relevant in this discussion. I can’t really help what films speak to me or not, but to a certain extent that has everything to do with why I watch films.
So why do I watch films? Quite simply, films open me up to new worlds. That probably sounds both quaint and overly broad, but the breadth is exactly what excites me. I don’t discriminate. I enjoy films of all shapes and sizes. Films that take me on adventures, introduce me to unforgettable characters and stories; films that engage my sense and my intellect; films that expose my own vulnerabilities and neuroses, films that barely resemble convention or buck convention entirely; films that make me laugh and cry and excite me and scare me. I don’t love all films, but I love film in every sense of that word, from the stories it tells to the chemical processes that have made it work for over a century.
This is why I took such offense. For someone, particularly someone who hardly knows me, to begin making judgements on the scope of my love of film based purely on what films I talk about enjoying is something I cannot abide. My love of film goes well beyond the confines of those films I’ve already seen. I take pleasure in watching films and re-watching them and pushing the boundaries of my comfort. I don’t always enjoy those experiments in branching out, my response to Werckmeister Harmonies being a good example of that. But for every Werckmeister Harmonies there is a Close-Up or a Last Year at Marienbad. To imply that my love for film is somehow diminished by my great appreciation for the mainstream in cinema or the durability of narrative form is to attack my sincerity in expressing that love. To call me “middlebrow” is to slap me in the face and then stab me in the heart.
Even the mere notion that such classifications as middlebrow can be applied to a person’s tastes is appallingly unfair. People watch films for different reasons. I don’t begrudge the person who likes a solid (or stupid) diversion for two hours, nor do I make judgements on the person who chooses to focus on obscure Asian films. What I cannot stand is a person who assumes that their reasons or interests in film somehow better than someone else’s. Newsflash: no amount of Renoir or Cocteau will make you better than anyone in any way. You take away from films or art exactly what you take away, and you cannot judge another person for taking away something different or not taking anything away at all.
I don’t just reject the middlebrow label because of the variety of films I watch, I reject it outright as a sign of terrible pompousness on the part of the labeler. I encourage most people I know to expand their boundaries in the world of film, just as I encourage myself. Sometimes it also helps to have outside encouragement. I’m always looking for new (or old) and interesting films to watch and sink my teeth into, and it helps a great deal to have guides on that path. And if I can offer a guide to anyone who needs guiding, I’m glad to do it. Despite some of my rhetoric, I have absolutely no interest in imposing my view of the world or of film on anyone. If someone is content with Adam Sandler films, if Michael Bay films make them happy, who am I to tell them they are wrong? At most I will tell them to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard or Back to the Future for some different perspectives.
There’s also another issue in all of this, which is that of knowledge. I am not even close to being knowledgable about film, at least not compared to some people I know. I’m constantly seeking to expand that knowledge, to understand film better. But I don’t forget that whatever levels of understanding I gain, they are still only my own. A man who’s seen every film ever made still wouldn’t see the same things that I see. This variety of impression is important and no amount of knowledge can change that, just as a more knowledgable person can never really say that somebody is wrong for liking or disliking a particular film.
I was partly inspired to write this diatribe by Ryan McNeil’s latest post over at The Matinee entitled “New Divide (Reflecting on Changing Tastes)“. I encourage you all to read it. It’s a wonderfully honest account of how are perceptions of art are not stationary. Our tastes grow and change as we do. I can tell you quite unequivocally that my tastes have changed even from what they were a year ago. A year ago I could not have called Billy Wilder my favourite director of all time. A year ago I might not have been moved so much by Five Centimeters Per Second. If you’d sat me down in front of The Tree of Life last year, before I watched his other films, I might have told you it was a masterpiece beyond compare rather than flawed-but-ambitious work by a director capable of much better.
Yes, my tastes have changed. My tastes have grown. This extends both to the films I have come to love as well as those I find I have less tolerance for. A couple years ago I might have said Thor and Captain America were very good films. I sit here today wishing I had those four hours of my life back. At the same time though, I do not regret watching any of these films. If I wasn’t willing to sit and watch mainstream Hollywood fare like Thor, I would also have missed out on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
If there is one thing I take pride in, it’s that I am open to just about anything when it comes to film. That doesn’t mean I’ll like everything, but at least I’m giving everything a fair shake. Yes, I probably do appreciate mainstream filmmaking more than some more studied cinephiles, but then I also appreciate artistically-minded films more than many. I don’t want to limit the kinds of films I watch or fall into thinking that any kind of film is better than another. All that would come of that is a limiting of my own growth as a film lover and as a person.
In the end, I stand by one thing: I love film. I love everything about it. That’s something I won’t allow anyone to take away from me. And as I grow and change I hope my tastes grow and change right along with me. And most of all, I hope I never get so jaded as to stop getting enjoyment from the purity of a simple, entertaining film. If that makes me middlebrow, then I guess I’m doomed to be middlebrow, but in that case I’ll own it and wear the badge with honour.