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Schlock jocks

The Film Snob's Dictionary An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge David Kamp with Lawrence Levi Broadway Books: 118 pp., $11.95 paper

March 19, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a film critic for Time. His most recent book is "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

IN 1968 -- America's year of living dangerously on every front -- Pauline Kael published a seminal piece of film criticism in Harper's magazine called "Trash, Art, and the Movies." In most respects, it was a typical Kael production: 42 seemingly endless pages of dither and blither, good ideas and half-baked ones all mixed up in her characteristic edge-of-hysteria manner. Her essential point was, however, unexceptionable: "Perhaps the most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture."

In the darkness of the movie theater, she argued, "the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses." Never mind that the examples with which she buttressed her case were absurd (her taste in individual movies was wonky). Nor was she the first critic to observe that many of the movies we love best subvert the official, prize-giving culture (Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow and Manny Farber preceded her). But she addressed this issue more directly than they had. And coming at a moment when intellectually hoity-toity America was beginning to take movies seriously as an art form, her piece liberated their silly side -- and many wonderful films from the "guilty pleasure" closet.

But after her, le deluge. Or, to be more specific, the video revolution, which, combined with the rise of film schools, film festivals and academic film gabble, spawned ... the Film Geek. Or, alternatively, the Vault Nerd. He looked like any other accumulating weirdo -- pallid and overweight behind Coke-bottle glasses -- but he (the Geek/Nerd was almost always male) was somehow scarier. For he was talking about something most people care about, not stamps or coins. He was prating obsessively about what had been lost -- directors' cuts, studio-snuffed endings, mythically unreleased films -- and also about what he had found in the film culture's sub-basement: Bollywood, anime, chop-socky, wire-fu, women in prison, or WIP, pictures and Mexican wrestling movies. He had nothing to say about "Grand Illusion" or "Children of Paradise," which he regarded as being so day-before-yesterday in elegance of expression and so lacking in transgressive spritz.

Here was a confusion of "art" and "trash" quite unanticipated by Kael or any of the rest of us happily restoring "His Girl Friday" and "Out of the Past" to the collective movie consciousness and reveling in "Chinatown's" expansion of that consciousness. Here was a peculiarly virulent form of reverse snobbery in which a poverty of means, of formal artistry and of sober critical response guaranteed a film's lowlife purity of intent. The more a movie subverted the notion of film as a mass medium, the harder it was to impute traditional values to it and the more treasurable it became. This is a short step away from Quentin Tarantino and the idiot savantery of his video-store clerkship.

I'm not arguing that the schlock impulse can't transform a few films into something like movie art as Kael defined it. Tarantino's own "Pulp Fiction" proves that. So does "Fargo" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In our enervated movie age, you have to look for energy wherever you can find it. But mostly, our trash is of the trailer-park variety, appropriately collectible only by the garbage trucks.

It's the useful business of "The Film Snob's Dictionary" to make cool, often genuinely witty fun of bad movies and the faux icons who make them. One might finish this collection of alphabetically arranged material and think, you should never send a nonbook to do a real book's job. On the other hand, one may be pleased to welcome a good start on a huge task. We're not talking the Augean stables here. We're talking toxic waste on a worldwide scale.

But David Kamp and Lawrence Levi have a problem, which might be summed up as carelessness, an inability to firmly define their territory. For example, they muddle the classic avant-garde tradition and the newer one. Almost from the beginning of the medium, there has been an elitist audience for a nonnarrative, nonstudio cinema -- for Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon," Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's "L'Age d'Or," the collected works of Stan Brakhage and others. These filmmakers belonged more to the art galleries than to theaters, and they certainly don't belong to the chop-socky crowd today, who as far as I can tell have shown no interest in their work (at least in comparison to their avidity for the "witchie-poo" works of Barbara Steele). They are a digression.

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