There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s brilliant “The Squid and the Whale” where the proudly cultured but socially inept father — Jeff Daniels — calls his rebellious son a “philistine.” He spits out the word — which refers to a person with hostility or indifference toward culture — and intends it to be an insult. But to the kid, who rejects the haughty, pretentious world of intellectuals his father inhabits, it’s a compliment. He wants to be a philistine.
We all have friends, family and acquaintances who are philistines. Maybe they’ve just never been exposed to classic films, music and books. Or maybe they simply have no desire to be. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
Or maybe you’re a proud philistine, reading this column for shits and giggles. Here’s an easy way to tell: If you’ve never heard of the film I referenced in the first paragraph and couldn’t care less about it, you might fit the description. And that’s OK too.
I know a lot about movies, but I also know enough about human nature to realize that the cineplex doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some of my friends can’t remember the last time they were in a movie theater, which creates an unavoidable disconnect between them and me: I’m part of a movie-going culture they have no desire to join. It’s not a rejection of movie-going culture, mind you — just a lack of interest. To a certain extent, I can understand it. The truth is, there are usually more important things to do than sit in a movie theater.
We can’t go scoffing at everyone who doesn’t share our interests. Otherwise, we’d all be walking around with upturned noses.
My point is you can lead a rich, fulfilling life without ever having seen “Citizen Kane” or its ilk. Just because it’s a life I wouldn’t personally recommend doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally wrong — a fact I think many people in the film industry tend to lose track of. Critics called audiences stupid for enjoying “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” just because the film wasn’t something they, as avid connoisseurs of the artform, could grasp as entertaining. That’s the wrong attitude to have.
Look, everyone is a philistine toward something in life. I, for example, have absolutely no idea what’s going on under the hood of my car, even though there are dozens of magazines and TV specials aimed at car enthusiasts. My fellow Daily Arts staffers and I are the type of people who immerse ourselves in entertainment culture mostly for fun, and we’re quick to judge those who don’t. But when we debate art culture with the disinterested, we don’t change anyone’s opinion, and we’ve lost the opportunity to have a civilized, non-pretentious conversation.
By no means am I saying we should put an end to critical debate about the arts. I’m saying we need to be conscious about whether we’re debating a film’s merits or the merits of a person who refuses to see the film. Because if you’d rather shove hot pokers in your eyes than watch an Ingmar Bergman picture, that’s your prerogative. And if you’ve attended the opening nights of every “Saw” film, that’s your prerogative too.
I can suggest other movies that would help broaden your knowledge of the medium, but it’s not like you have a disease that needs to be cured. However, if I was a film physician, I would prescribe “Fanny and Alexander” for Bergman haters and “The Silence of Lambs” for the “Saw” lovers, to give them a chance to watch what I consider to be a masterwork of the “bloody thriller that messes with your head” genre.
But philistine or not, you’re welcome to continue reading this column. Agree with me — or don’t. I can’t promise to avoid all the insider talk, and I don’t think I should, because my intended audience speaks my movie language. What I will promise, though, is to keep my nostrils at parallel — no sneering at those who haven’t seen movies like “The Squid and the Whale.” By the way, if you saw the movie and hated it, that doesn’t make you a philistine.
It makes you a critic. Welcome to my world.