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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Calling Bullsh*t on Willful Ignorance and Stupidity

This morning, the very intelligent Matt Zoller Seitz got my blood pressure up a notch by posting to Facebook this recent GQ column by Natasha Vargas-Cooper titled “Canon Fodder: Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” This piece angered me, not because it’s thoughtful or well-written or smart or greatly contributes to a discussion of film generally, but because the author’s specious argument is so mind-bogglingly off-base, so astoundingly, willfully ignorant, that it cannot be allowed to pass as what we call “writing about film” without a challenge.

Let’s start with the very title of this presumably ongoing column series, “Canon Fodder.” Perhaps GQ and Ms. Vargas-Cooper weren’t intentionally name-stealing from the very popular Onion AV Club series, New Cult Canon. Let’s be kind and just assume that, since the rest of her piece implies that everything that she needs to know to write about film can start with all things post-Tarantino, the author perhaps also isn’t terribly well-versed in the rest of that great big place called The Internet (much less anything printed on that ancient medium, paper) wherein a lot of very smart people are writing now, and have written in what we like to call “the past,” much smarter pieces that this about film. Ignorance is no excuse, though; Vargas-Cooper and her GQ editors should perhaps go peruse the much more intelligently written and thoughtful pieces in New Cult Canon, and then seriously reconsider both the name of this column and the need for it to exist at all.

Now, back to this piece of ridiculous fluff, which masquerades as “writing” much like a toddler likes to totter around it its mother’s stiletto heels and makeup, pretending to be a real grown-up. Vargas-Cooper opens her piece with this gem of wisdom:

As an experiment, let’s exist in a universe where our generation of filmmakers is enough to fill out the movie canon. Let the film school prigs, art house snobs, and the better half of film critics publishing today slavishly catalogue the classics and engage in numbing debates over who did it first and who did it better. Whether reverence for movies from a bygone era is rooted in merit, nostalgia, or neurosis about film being an inferior medium to literature, movies keep pace with social mores of a time and deserve to be free of the tastes and prejudices of people who grew up without Quentin Tarantino.

First off, the assumption that all younger writers are unwilling or unable to appreciate the way in which the history of filmmaking informs the present is simply false. That may be the case for Ms. Vargas-Cooper, but I do happen to know quite a few 20-something filmmakers and film journalists who would beg to differ that it applies to them. If you are one of that set of smart, thinking younger filmmakers and journalists, well, you know who you are, and the forthcoming smack-down does not apply to you. But if you are a younger writer and you read Vargas-Cooper’s piece and thought “Yeah, right on!” or “Hell no! We don’t need us no edumacation about movies. Good movie makes big loud boom!” then yes, I am talking about you too, kiddo.

So. As an experiment, let’s pretend that those among us who “slavishly catalog” the classics and engage in what, to many of us, constitutes more “intelligent discourse” than “numbing debate,” do so for reasons that perhaps the author hasn’t bothered to consider while wallowing in the unbridled youthful arrogance and lazy thinking of this collection of words we’ll loosely refer to, for the sake of argument, as “writing.”

I mean, I get that when you’re learning to write about film you don’t know everything. Hell, even when you have been writing about film for as long as I and some of my oldster friends have, you still don’t know everything. Far from it. I’ve been studying film intently for well over a decade now, and the gaps in my own knowledge even after all those years of work and rigorous study humble me. If you want to write intelligently about a field as complex as film, you are always and forever learning new things, honing your understanding of how this film influenced that one, learning from the path that all those who have gone before you have forged. You need to seek to expand the universe of your mind beyond the little kid grilled-cheese-and-mashed-potato-diet that you subsisted on in your youth, and be willing to experiment with the foods the grown-ups eat. So you try sampling the sushi and the kim-chee and the steak tartare, all the incredible variety of foods on the cinematic buffet, to expand your experience and hone your own taste in film by gaining an appreciation for all the things that aren’t already familiar to you.

It’s by learning, and study, and discourse with people who know more than you do, and thinking really hard about why a film works or why it does not, that you learn to expand your intellectual cinematic palette. You don’t go into writing about film thinking that everything you need to know about it can be learned by studying only the films your generation grew up on. Sorry, but it’s just not that easy. The ease of typing words on a keyboard and publishing them on the Internet has had the unfortunate effect of making an awful lot of people who are not, in fact, good or even fair-to-middling writers, think that they are, but the ability to string some words together using basic sentence structure does not mean you are yet a writer capable of writing intelligently or thoughtfully about film, anymore than the ability to aim a video camera and push a button makes one a filmmaker whose output is worth watching.

Moreover, for someone who presumably wants to write about movies as a career goal to assert, essentially, that the 120 year or so history of filmmaking is somehow irrelevant to the present of our field is mind-bogglingly dense. And I don’t mean “dense” in the sense that Ingmar Bergman’s films are dense — but then perhaps the author isn’t actually aware of his work, him being one of those old-school filmmakers whose work she doesn’t want to consider as having any relevance to film in the present. What I mean here is “dense” as in “stupid and thick-headed.” Just so we’re on the same page.

I mean, criminy. I don’t think you need a degree in film studies to write about film, but in the absence of that you sure as hell need to have a passion for film (which includes those boring classics that sometimes make your brain work a little hard) and more importantly, a willingness to know where the gaps in your knowledge are and to do your best to fill them through a rigorous course of self-study. If you’re not willing to do that, to apply a little thought and critical thinking to your work, then for pity’s sake, go find another line of work that is better suited to a willingness to remain so blissfully ignorant of the history of your field. The desire to embrace ignorance, to say, in essence, that it’s just too hard to study and learn the foundation of your field, does not qualify one in any way to be writing about it from the perspective of “ignorance is bliss.” What cheek.

Working in any intellectual field — architecture, science, mathematics, history, religion, philosophy, literature, and, yes, film — requires an understanding of the history of that field, because that history is the very foundation on which everything that is current in that field was built. Reverence for movies from a “bygone area” has nothing to do with baseless nostalgia, young whippersnappers. It is about understanding how filmmaking came to evolve to where it is today. It’s not about any neurosis about film being inferior to literature, it is about understanding that film is an art form that has been largely hijacked as a medium for mind-numbing entertainment, and about appreciating those filmmakers — and those fuddy-duddy critics and scholars — who are striving every single day to keep the watermark for film as art high. It’s about not allowing an art form that we feel passionately about to be reduced to little more than bullshit reality television for the masses on a big screen.

Art can also be (and often is) entertaining, but the assumption that modern social mores should circumvent an innate understanding of the foundation of cinematic history, that working out of ignorance and banality has any merit whatsover, is just ludicrous. Or to put it in simpler terms to make it easier to digest: Bullshit.

18 Responses to “Calling Bullsh*t on Willful Ignorance and Stupidity”

  1. Fully agree with everything said. I wish I could add more but I really think everything is covered. Far too often the “anti-intelligence” brigade are quick to dismiss anyone whose willing to look into the history of film, especially it’s history as an art form. The worst thing is when reading their articles and comments the ignorance displayed remind me why it can be so difficult to bring forth interesting and different mainstream movies. Under such thinking, films such as The Godfather would be left on the cutting room floor. Let us not forget it was filmmakers looking at the history of the form that help bring us many aspects we take for granted today.

  2. Matt says:

    I agree the piece is ignorant but I give the author more credit. Look at the magazine audience for whom it was written. She and her editors are simply trying to engage their willfully ignorant audience.

  3. Nictate says:

    Nicely done. Thank you for expressing my sentiments exactly.

  4. David Bright says:

    Very good analysis. One point, though. The quote that you published shows an unparalleled depth of ignorance, given that the reason Tarantino is a great director is because he is first and foremost the most uber-film literate person I’ve ever seen. He’s a film historian masquerading as a director.

  5. Eric says:

    The GQ piece was initially called “The New Canon,” before The A.V. Club (do we still need the Onion clarifier?) and its readers called them out on it.

  6. Kim Voynar says:

    David, excellent point. Thank you. And none of that was to say, btw, that I have any qualms with Tarantino. I happen to love most of his films. It’s the idea that anything pre-Tarantino is antiquated and irrelevant with which I take serious umbrage. Jesus. Almost 1:30AM and I’m STILL irritated about this. Clearly I need sleep.

  7. film fanatic says:

    Your argument might have a leg to stand on if the author hadn’t prefaced her intentions with the phrase “as an experiment.” That spells out that she’s limiting the purview of what she is going to discuss, as a sort of intellectual exercise, and provides context to the rest of her piece. It also would have been nice, given how thoroughly and angrily you trashed her, to have actually cited something else from her article, like maybe the actual CONTENT of her arguments, instead of penning an 11 paragraph screed based on one isolated short paragraph she wrote. But maybe that’s too much to ask.

  8. Kim Voynar says:

    Sorry, Film Fanatic, but the tone of her entire piece debunks your argument. If you want to read the content of her arguments, I provided a link to them. I assume you can click that and read. It wasn’t about reprinting her entire column for you here.

    But to be very clear for you: This piece was an argument refuting the entirety of her piece, not the one bit that I pull-quoted from. I think that was pretty evident, and other commenters seem not to have had difficulty grasping that. This piece was about MY arguments for an opposing point of view to the points her piece made. Basic debate technique, we learned those in a place we oldsters call “school.”

  9. Kim Voynar says:

    And further, her use of “as an experiment” as a device is indicative of her intent to want to branch away from what she sees as the standard, old-school way the overly intellectual critical set discusses and views modern film. The context of her piece is that she wants to discuss film more emotionally than intellectually, that she doesn’t want to discourse about how the foundation of filmmaking laid by the “classic” films she openly scorns are relevant to films being made today.

    Go back and read her piece more thoroughly. The ideas she’s propagating are not new, there’s certainly a set of the younger film journalists (and, frankly, some of the older fanboys as well) who share the point of view she’s expressing here. And it that viewpoint wants to cleanse discussion of film of all intellectual discourse and reduce it to “But it was cool, man!” These are the same people who, when they read an actual critical piece about a film, are prone to comment with things like, “Take a chill pill!” and “Over-think much?” and “Jesus, it’s just a movie! Relax!”

    It’s the same bullshit that underlies much of the crap that oozes out of Hollywood studios, gets labeled as “movies” and rakes in millions of dollars in box office dollars off of the same audience that also buys into the idea that reality television constitutes “entertainment.” And further, the clear attitude she conveys with this piece is that all that history stuff doesn’t matter anyhow, that it’s all oh-so-boring, that modern film, and modern film writing should be about what she calls the modern social mores — i.e. lazy-ass apathetic 20-something hipsters swigging their PBR and trying to talk smartly about film when they don’t know enough to even KNOW they don’t know enough. Jesus.

    Enough.

  10. C Hyatt says:

    Film Fanatic, Ms. Vargas-Cooper’s “as an experiment” is what you need to call bullshit on, because it’s not an experiment — it’s the way most people outside of our cinephile circles have viewed movies for years and therefore not that experimental. If we followed that standard of thinking, Brett Ratner is the king of the avant-garde filmmakers. The statement is more of a way to make her sound like she’s thinking when, in truth, she’s celebrating the closed nature of her mindset when it comes to writing about movies. What you should be horrified by is the fact that someone has received a high-profile, presumably well-paying gig writing about movies and that someone is not just ignorant in regard to movies but actually celebrates that ignorance as a qualification (in that sense, she’s the Sarah Palin of film criticism).

    I have no beef with the idea of modern films (especially genre films) being discussed as serious achievements in filmmmaking. I used to argue that point ad nauseum when I was a young whippersnapper in film school. (If you want to guess how old I am, those “modern” genre movies were directed by folks like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, who are now considered auteurs by the current academic and critical establishment — ah, the respectability age brings on the disreputable …)

    But let’s follow her suggestions and apply them to other art forms. By her argument, a teenage kid who admires Jack White doesn’t need to have his horizons expanded by listening to Jimi Hendrix or Bo Diddley as he learns to play the guitar. An aspiring painter need only study the work of Julian Schnabel and has no need to look at Picasso or Joan Miro (or heaven forbid, Michelangelo or Goya). Young novelists need only read Dan Brown and can throw anything by Raymond Chandler or Poe in the trash. ‘Cuz that other shit is, like, old and of no value to us in our lives.

    And it’s not as if the article isn’t pointing out anything new on the subject of Terminator 2 that wasn’t already pointed out by, oh, ninety percent of the reviews the film received when it was first released (but of course, for the author to know this she would have to have read, like, a bunch of newspaper and magazine articles from two decades ago and that would be, like, gross and stuff because they were written by a bunch of old people that might be dead now anyway).

    And that is why I am seconding the call of BULLSHIT put forth by Ms. Voynar. And calling BULLSHIT on your defense of Ms. Vargas-Cooper.

  11. Don R. Lewis says:

    Great piece, Kim and I agree with your sentiment. As someone who is passionate about film it’s eternally frustrating that “kids these days” don’t get it. More frustrating is the fact they almost pride themselves on not getting it. That being said…

    There’s really not alot of well versed film writers who are willing to not be arrogant or condescending towards newer writers still finding their way. That’s a huge turnoff to trying to learn more about films that are tougher to decipher and understand. It’s always struck me the better learned film writers on the internet are like the Jack Black character in HIGH FIDELITY and it makes it impossible and worse, embarrassing to find entry points to challenging work.

    That’s not to let Vargas-Cooper or her ilk (like that Dan Kois dude) off the hook. We all found a way to discover and get something from older or more challenging films. I’m just saying there’s a degree of almost impenetrable arrogance when it comes to asking questions about why Ozu or Godard are important to modern cinema. But in the internet groupthink era we live in it’s alot easier to obsess over ATTACK THE BLOCK or Tarantino than find a jumping off point for Howard Hawks.

  12. william says:

    Ha Ha Kim. One more pompous bloviating cinephile you are. The kid really got your dander up over…. Terminator 2. LOL. Bullshit? Take a look in the mirror!

  13. Kois says:

    I’m right here, you guys.

  14. Kim Voynar says:

    William, what are you, 12? Thanks for making my point so well about the type of readers who would be likely to find any relevance in Ms. Vargas-Cooper’s piece, though.

    Nice to see you can use a thesaurus to come up with some big words, I guess. So yay for you. Now, if you have anything actually useful and intelligent to contribute to the conversation, speak up, kiddo. Otherwise, please go back to the kids’ table. The grown-ups are talking here.

  15. william says:

    Kim, I eat people your age for breakfast! I tried not to use too many big words as I didn’t want to tax your mind. What we have here is quite simple to see through. We have a collection of effete, neurotic “cinephiles” who believe it is some form of heresy to write about film from the stated perspective of what most of the realfilm audience is i.e. younger consumers. BFD! This is something to get your kickers all twisted about? You need help, child.

    Vargas-Cooper states clearly that she is experimenting and playing a sort of game with clearly defined parameters. She makes no claim, as you implicitly do, that she is in some way speaking for some greater community of oh-so-deep critics. What’s really happened here is that an Outsider has had the temerity of penetrating your little self-referential group of cine circle-jerkers and you don’t like the intrusion.

    Well, tough.

    BTW, I just ran a Google and Amazon search on Vargas-Cooper whom you write off as willfully ignorant and…oops!… we find she has written a critically acclaimed BOOK on Mad Men that reveals a deep understanding of American culture of the 50’s and 60’s when many of your sacred cow classics were churned out. How about that? How did that happen??

    I will admit that I had trouble finding your book because, um, you have apparently never written one.

    Now, I shall return to my 12 year old sandbox as you put it after a rigorous viewing of Citizen Kaine and The Third Man. Maybe a little Renoir too.

  16. Kim Voynar says:

    You eat old people for breakfast? Isn’t our old, sinewy meat tough to chew on? I personally prefer to eat children. But not my own, because that would just be wrong.

    William, I don’t care that she wrote a book on Mad Men. First, that’s a television show and no matter how good and relevant her take on Mad Men (which is not a bad show, as far as TV goes) may be, that has zero relevance to her understanding of the history of film and how it applies to modern filmmaking and criticism. And as one of the commenters above pointed out, she cites “post-Tarantino” without making any reference to the obvious fact that, of all the modern, bigger-name filmmakers working today, he probably has the MOST understanding of the history of film, and applies that knowledge rigorously to his craft.

    But more to the point, citing the fact that she’s written a book about a television show, however critically acclaimed that book may be, and then implying from that fact that this makes her column and film and film criticism any more insightful or accurate is an argument from authority that is completely irrelevant in and of itself. As is your attempt to argue from the reverse that the fact that I have not written a book on criticism somehow invalidates my own arguments here. It does not. See: the logical fallacies … Philosophy 101.

    Further, I never said that Ms. Vargas-Cooper is willfully ignorant in general, nor did I say that she is willfully ignorant in anything else she’s written. What I said was that her arguments in that specific piece are willfully ignorant, and I stand by that.

    I also never said that it’s invalid to write about film from the perspective of a younger audience. I do think critics who aren’t writing strictly for academia do have a responsibility to write their criticism in a way that challenges readers to think about film from a higher perspective than “Wow, cool explosions, dude!” And I will absolutely admit that some of the more strictly academic writing about film can be inaccessible to someone who hasn’t yet gained that perspective.

    I grew up in Oklahoma City and didn’t see an independent or foreign film until I was in my mid-20s. If you’d asked me to write about film when I was, say, 22, my non-existent knowledge of the history of film when I was that age would have greatly limited my ability to write intelligently about it. But once I knew this was the path my career would take, I watched as many indies, foreigns, docs and classics as I possibly could, immersed myself in digging up and reading criticism from all the old school critics (including Roger Ebert, whose written criticism, I think, is both superb and more accessible than much of Kael, Sarris, et al), and got myself up to speed on my field so that I could write about it not just from my own limited perspective, but with a greater base of knowledge from which to understand that about which I wanted to write for a living.

    If you’re just writing about film on your blog for your friends and relations, or talking about the latest blockbuster over a case of PBR, you can have whatever limited perspective you want. But if you want to write about film for a career you do actually need to dig a little deeper and do the work to learn your field. I stand by that too, and if that makes me a neurotic cinephile, well, that’s fine by me. I’ll get some Neurotic Old Cinephile t-shirts printed up for the snooty critic set to wear around festivals, so that we can be easily identified as your potential breakfast fodder.

  17. william says:

    After six years of blogging you have damn little too show in terms of real writing and you basically are a neurotic cinephile writing for a second tier site. The mere amount of verbiage you spilled on this subject speaks volume as to how ingrown your world is.

    Tried to find the archives of ur old blog and your husband’s baby blog. Now THAT is substantial. But I couldn’t find them.

    Good luck splashing around in your little pool. And find another hobby,

  18. A Different William says:

    And here I was hoping William’s response would comprise more than ad hominem attacks and “you took a subject seriously! Gotcha!”

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