Danny Bowes

Film & TV critic and journalist, novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter.

AN END TO "SNOBBERY."

The advent of a new Marvel (in this instance standing in for “geek” in the same way “Xerox” does for “photocopy”) movie, joyous occasion though it is for many, is a time when the discourse among film critics, journalists, and fans crystallizes into a particularly nasty and distorted battlefield. While it's actually not often—in fact, rarely—true that both sides share proportionate blame, in this instance the animosity does derive from rhetorical tendencies in both camps. Fans, who by this point constitute a majority, have an ugly tendency to attack anyone who dares to deviate from across-the-board unilateral praise. Non-fans, who in the main favor increasingly marginalized forms of cinema and are thus on the defensive (particularly in the summer), tend to make the mistake of condescending to fandoms of various stripes, lumping them all in under an umbrella categorization of easy-to-please herd creatures of lesser intellect. It is, to put it mildly, an ugly situation.

 

I personally find myself in a very difficult position in these times, holding as I do something like dual citizenship in both warring nations. For several years, my primary outlet writing about film was a site, Tor.com, that specifically hired me to write about science-fiction/fantasy films from a science-fiction/fantasy film fan perspective. There was some rockiness, as I started getting better at analyzing and discussing things specific to cinema in the movies I was writing about, though it was my fierce loathing of the culture surrounding trailers and the way they're treated in modern film that signaled the beginning of the end of my time there. I still love all the people at Tor dearly, and certainly realized that my gradual and eventually total phasing-out there (well, almost total; there was never an official talk severing my ties over there, things just kind of died out) was just as much me as it was them, if not more so.

 

One thing I was spared, through the relative civility and sophistication of the Tor.com comments section, were accusations of snobbery and pretentiousness, a dual slur which nearly every other writer who tries to write seriously about film encounters frequently. (The raging misogyny women critics invariably face when doing anything but anointing geek movies with holy water is a separate issue, as misogyny is not a geek-exclusive property.) The slightest demurral that Marvel (and their competitors in the comics game frantically playing for the silver medal) movies lack textual depth, are visually homogenous, are preceded by ecosystem-dominating anhedonia-causing ad campaigns, and one is immediately branded a “snob.”

 

Modern discourse has a snobbery problem, but it's not the kind people complaining about Guardians of the Galaxy losing a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating would have you believe. I've always hated the categorization of (great) movies like Animal House and Caddyshack as “slobs vs. snobs.” The term was coined after the fact and does far more to dehumanize the frequently working class protagonists than it does to wave its ass at the upper-crust villains, and it substitutes glibness for accuracy. Snobbery is not synonymous with considering certain aspects of culture lesser than others. Snobbery is the state of considering certain aspects of culture lesser than others by default, and for no legitimate reason. A snob is someone who does not actually know what they're talking about, and hides behind the critical reputations established by people who actually do know what they're talking about as a means of avoiding a discussion. Pretentiousness, by definition, is a pretense to a higher level of intellect and cultural fluency than one actually possesses, and like snobbery, is a house of cards that collapses the second an actual smart person shows up.

 

That being said, a preference for or against a given thing is not ipso facto proof of snobbery and pretentiousness, and absent a prohibitively exalted facility with language and a complete familiarity with the other party's cultural worldview, the words “snob” and “pretentious” and their derivations should be used incredibly sparingly. Most of the people being accused of snobbery for not liking comic book movies simply prefer other kinds of movies. Most of the people accused of being “pretentious” for liking subtitles, alinearity, and existentialism aren't pretending. I woke up the other morning, watched, and thoroughly enjoyed Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries on Hulu Plus while I drank coffee and ate breakfast. There was no one here to impress. I didn't pretend to like it to seem cool. (If I had, I would've failed anyway; Bergman's later films starring an agonized Liv Ullman have much more cachet.) And, most importantly, I'm not going to walk around with my nose up and my zipper down accusing anyone who doesn't watch landmark Swedish cinema with their corn flakes of being a lesser being.

 

If we're to achieve a more civil discourse around this needlessly contentious subject, some ground rules are in order: fans of Marvel movies should be given the benefit of the doubt that they enjoy themselves in good faith just as someone not particularly interested in rushing out opening night should be given the benefit of the doubt that it simply isn't their thing. Neither has any correlation with intelligence or sophistication; I saw The Avengers three times and my intellect can melt planets (which is why I'm in talks to show up as Galactus in some sequel or other). I met a guy at a cocktail party in Williamsburg once who claimed to have “never read a 'B-novel,'” a statement dripping with such (actual) pretentiousness that I needed him to define what that meant; it turned out that it essentially meant he only read novels by white people who'd been dead for over a hundred years and considered cinema to be an inferior, mongrel art form. (The conversation ended with us outside smoking a joint and me, accurately but with a regrettable lack of diplomacy, telling him “you're fuckin stupid, man.”) These are both personal examples, but hopefully illustrative of the larger point, which is one of the largest points there is: generalizations all too often do nothing but breed unnecessary enmity.

 

We're never all going to like the same things, but liking different things is not an automatic call to arms. It is possible to (figuratively) shake hands and agree to mutual respect. If geek culture can learn to more gracefully accept their victory and dominion over popular culture (part of which is ceasing the demand for universal adulation), we can go far, and if more critical parties can weather the advertising onslaughts with thicker skins and attempt to not regard Marvel as the death of cinema—cinema cannot be killed—we can go even farther. Now let us have a summit and sign this accord. For fuck's sake.

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