Tuesday, 30 August 2011

False Consciousness in Food and Film

According to Mark Kermode, an important part of a film critic’s job is “explaining to people why they haven't actually enjoyed a movie even if they think they have”. In his article in The Guardian on Sunday, he suggests that people who liked Pirates of the Caribbean 3 only did so because they have been weaned on mindless blockbusters, and have forgotten or are unaware that film can be any better. In his words, they are “simply suffering from the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation of the basics of a civilised existence”.

Kermode’s sentiments make an interesting contrast with those of Peter Preston, writing in the same newspaper the following day. Whereas Kermode’s essay is a polemic against the state of modern Hollywood cinema, Preston offers a nostalgic reminiscence of Britain’s culinary past. Stumbling upon one of his mother’s old cookbooks, he contrasts its parochialism to the ambition (or pretentiousness) of modern food. There is a suspicion of anything too exotic, and the majority of ingredients seem to come out of cans. It’s all corned beef, baked beans, tinned soup and (for some reason) pineapple rings, assorted in ingenuity-stretching combinations.

This was not good food as we would recognise it today. Peter Preston knows that. Reading his article made me feel queasy rather than appetised (though that might have something to do with the psychological aversion to corned beef I developed working in a deli). It was just the food eaten by people living under post-war austerity who knew nothing better.

Notice the similarities between these descriptions of food in 1950s Britain, and contemporary film. In both cases, we have a group of people whose aesthetic taste has been dulled by a lack of exposure to ‘quality’ produce. Yet while Kermode sees this as a problem in need of remedy, Preston appears to think it is a cause for regret that this innocence has been lost. Just as film critics are perpetually accused of having lost the ability to see movies through the eyes of ordinary cinemagoers, so modern caterers are “a little too knowing, too sophisticated” to recreate the food of the past.

So if there is such a loss involved in ‘enlightening’ people, why bother? If people enjoyed POTC, why should Kermode be so churlish as to rob them of this pleasure? One possibility is that he sees his task as combatting something like ‘false consciousness’. On this view, to enjoy bad films is to be under a misapprehension which harms your deep interests. It is to hold a false belief which makes your life worse.

This sort of account is most plausible where there is an uncontroversial human interest at stake, for example health. So Anthony Bourdain’s culinary elitism is more defensible because its target is defensible because its target – excessively fatty, fried Southern food – is genuinely injurious to those who develop a taste for it.

But what is it that Kermode is trying to protect us from? How is he making our lives better by making certain films less enjoyable?

1 comment:

  1. Couple of factors at play here:

    1) Dr. K is part man, part character. The Dr. Kermode brand, which is a pretty lucrative one, is largely based on an intellectual snobbishness; it's part of his remit to distance himself from anything that qualifies as ineptitude. Classic critic's problem; not simply a guardian of his audience, but a journalist forging a career.

    2) That said, I like Dr. K and think he has at least as much integrity as the next critic; I think a lot of his ranting against POTC/3D comes from genuine anger at the cynicism of their creators. He perceives in the process a laziness - an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience with the minimum of effort. This doesn't answer your question - in fact we could say that creating maximum-appeal entertainment in the most efficient manner possible has its own great good. But it does explain him a little.

    3. Finally, a defence of Dr. K. I think he has a point in trying to defend a slide in quality. He makes a point in the Guardian introduction to his latest book about the law of diminished expectations; we're happy to enjoy a POTC film because we're not used to regularly getting something better.

    Kermode's trying to defend film as an art form, and prevent it from becoming a coldly mechanised industry; if studios consistently appeal to the widest possible audience with the laziest-made work, eventually they'll stop putting the craft into genuinely well-made art. Why make £5m on Citizen Kane when you could make £200m on Transformers 9?

    Really, it's part of a wider problem - the drive towards efficiently-created product and mass-market appeal is swamping genuine craftsmanship across a huge range of art forms and industries. Kermode's point isn't entirely that, if sitting down in front of POTC, that you shouldn't enjoy it - it's more that you shouldn't validate its creation above and beyond work that has genuine invention and care, and that hasn't been created as part of a cynical branding exercise. Ho hum.