NEXT, PLEASE: WHY CULTURAL LITERACY IS DYING
This article is written by MARSHALL FINE at THE HUFFINGTON POST
MARSHALL FINE is a distinguished film critic with his own website: HOLLYWOOD & FINE
I read a piece earlier this month by VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN on THE NEW YORK TIMES website that struck a chord and kind of crystallized something I’d been thinking.
Simply put, I’m ready to concede that context and cultural literacy – the awareness of cultural history and its impact and influence on contemporary art, whether it’s literature, film, music or something else – don’t really matter to today’s audience. They still matter to me, but more about that in a minute.
Ms. Heffernan was writing about education and the fact that most current education models don’t take the digital age – and the way young people receive information today – into account. There is still this expectation that the old ways are the best, still have value – that the canon, as it were, still has importance. But, as she observed:
When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching The Candidate, we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is. And then we’re punishing students for our blindness. Those hallowed artifacts – the Thomas Pynchon novel and the Michael Ritchie film – had a place in earlier social environments. While they may one day resurface as relevant, they are now chiefly of interest to cultural historians.
The examples she picks – THOMAS PYNCHON’S sort of unreadable postmodern novel from 1972 and MICHAEL RITCHIE’S cult classic from 1972 – are odd but not inappropriate. Both are the kinds of titles that critics still reference. Or, at least, critics who are old enough to be aware of them. And when you come right down to it, critics are cultural historians of a sort, trying to tie the present to the past.
Audiences, however, apparently don’t give a rip. Or, at least, the audience that seem to matter most now, people in their 30s or younger. Cultural literacy – as in, having an awareness of culture before, say, 1980 – is dying. Those values hold no sway with this audience.
Not that I don’t cling to the notion that taking a more global or historical view is important in reviewing films. But it also seems increasingly futile. I’m not going to change my approach; but I’m aware that there is a growing audience that simply doesn’t care about that stuff.
I knew this stuff but I guess I didn’t want to admit it to myself. For example (and this isn’t really news), most people don’t seek edification from popular entertainment – they just want something that lets them escape for a little while. The urge for knowledge, growth, quality and standards don’t really figure in most people’s decision when they’re seeking entertainment. Yet the critic tries to approach his job as if the opposite were true – that quality is what matters most to audiences, instead of least.
This isn’t new; the battle between art and entertainment is older than SHAKESPEARE. But the changes in attitudes about it have shifted sharply in the past 10 or 15 years – since the internet ate the world. When I started working professionally as a critic, writing about entertainment and being a critic were specialized pursuits. You had to have a job on a newspaper to practice them (or mimeograph or Xerox your own newsletters and zines). To get one of those jobs, you had to be able to demonstrate a level of knowledge that others didn’t have – and the ability to communicate it in writing.
The internet changed that. No judgment; it just did. Anyone can publish now; no qualifications necessary – just an opinion and a little digital know how.
Which is why we get the movies we get and why we have the critical landscape that we have: because this world does belong to the young. Those of us with experience are aging out, as it were, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the popular discourse.
But here’s the thing: Even if you’re a young genius critic, you’re still young. And when you’re young, your context is limited and your tastes are different.
I recall my college years and the decade or two immediately afterward – a time when, essentially, I craved sensation and valued it as artistic expression. It’s the roller coaster mentality: If it shocks me, it must be worthwhile. That was my primary attraction as a young critic to all sorts of gruesome horror and violent action films of the period.
My taste for sadistic violence in movies has dwindled as I’ve gotten older, as the level and graphic nature of that movie violence has grown; torture porn, I believe it’s called. At some point, that craving for sensation dissipates, as you find that your own life provides more than its share of jolts and shocks.
But some things – like that youthful lust for the sensational – don’t change. So I concede: Being a critic in the traditional sense is a losing battle.
I’m not going to change my approach. I’m just coming to terms with the level of interest that the larger audience has in that sort of thing. Hopefully, my experience and body of knowledge still makes my view and my reviews worth reading.
At least until reading is replaced by something else.