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The Populist Problem in Movie Discourse

Imagine, for a moment, a person who eats almost exclusively fast food. Ignoring the health risks of such a diet, is there anything inherently wrong about this decision? No, not really. If that’s what a person likes, then that’s what they like, and they shouldn’t be shamed for enjoying it. Not to mention the accessibility and availability of fast food restaurants makes them easy dining choices for everyone.

But suppose now that this person occasionally gets a craving for something different. Something healthier. Perhaps even a vegan meal just to mix things up. And let’s say there’s a well regarded vegan restaurant only a few blocks away from the McDonald’s this person frequents. But instead of giving that restaurant a chance, this person petitions for McDonald’s to serve more vegan options. Does that sound illogical? Unreasonable? I suppose you could argue that, but this person has a counterargument for you. You see, that little independently owned vegan restaurant a few blocks away? Going there is elitist. Y’know…real hipster bullshit. That doesn’t mean this person doesn’t value healthy, vegan food, but that little restaurant you’re talking about isn’t widely accessible to most people, so it hardly even counts as a restaurant. Why, they don’t even have the budget for advertising. How are regular people supposed to know it even exists? And the children! They don’t even serve kids’ meals, let alone Happy Meal toys. There should definitely be vegan options available for the sake of diversity, but it doesn’t really count until they’re incorporated into a restaurant I’m already familiar with and truthfully would have gone to regardless of their inclusion, but having them available there would just make me feel better about my decision to continue eating there, this person thinks. Which is really what it’s all about: the ability to feel good about the decisions you’re already making so you don’t have to make any different ones. Clearly that other restaurant is just for snooty elitists.

So the better option, this person decides, is to focus on integrating more vegan options into fast food menus while disregarding the efforts of local, independently owned restaurants as inherently pretentious. After some social media hashtagging succeeds in getting the topic trending for like half a day, McDonald’s responds: they hear your concerns, and they will be introducing an all-new vegan option to the menu. There is much rejoicing in the Twitterverse. And how brave of McDonald’s. How progressive and forward-thinking! The mark of a great company is one that listens to its customers, after all. Would that hole-in-the-wall restaurant you recommended have done the same? I doubt it. They only seem interested in serving the type of food they want to make. How self-indulgent of them. A good restaurant allows its patrons to dictate the menu, obviously. It’s called supply and demand, something our hero is sure those small, independent restaurants know nothing about. And of course not — if they understood the concept, they wouldn’t be small, independent restaurants; they’d be mega-chains, which is surely the goal of every restaurant, right? Because if it’s not, they’re just self-indulgent elitists, and you needn’t waste your time dining there. Unless, of course, you’re a pretentious hipster or something.

This scenario might seem outlandish and ridiculous to you. And to my sensibilities, it damn well should. But this being a movie blog (ostensibly, anyway), unless this is your first time on this site, I assume you must have picked up on the point I was making about people’s attitudes about movies. Maybe you agree with the person in that admittedly silly comparison. I don’t think I’ll be able to dissuade you from your position if that’s the case. But for those of you who (rightfully, I would suggest) think the person in that hypothetical scenario is doing nothing but performing empty platitudes that ultimately only uphold the status quo and benefit the very corporate interests they claim to be taking a stand against, I’m with you. Because we’ve gotten to a point where it seems we’ve admitted defeat in the battle against corporate monopolies and are all too happy to support them so long as they make the adjustments we demand of them so that we don’t have to make any adjustments to our habits instead. It’s essentially participatory consumerism; a total embrace of supply and demand as an ethos. We — the consumers — demand it, they — the corporations — supply it. They oblige, we consume, everyone wins.

Oh right, except for the people who always been supplying on a much smaller level what we’ve only recently started demanding on a much larger level. They’re kind of fucked in all this. But oh well. They’re elitists anyway, remember? Only snooty hipsters actively seek out what they want even if that means venturing outside their comfort zone instead of demanding to be given it in the form of something they’re already familiar with. Familiarity means comfort, and comfort means accessibility. Accessibility is key here. Anything deemed not widely accessible on the broadest possible level shall be dismissed from consideration and likely derided as inherently lesser; those things simply don’t count in the cultural discussion that we’re presenting as righteous populism but is really just corporate apologia coupled with an unhealthy dose of good old-fashioned anti-intellectualism.

To clarify, I want to stress that it is a good thing when mega corporations introduce more diversity into their products, so don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. It’s not the pushing big Hollywood studios to do something different that I have a problem with. What frustrates me is the all too common behavior of ignoring and often outright dismissing the very same things you’re purportedly advocating for when they’re in smaller, independent, or heaven forbid foreign films and instead just waiting for those things to finally make their way into movies you know damn well you would have seen regardless. My problem is with the attitude that implies independent movies are at best inconsequential and at worst fully contemptible for the mere fact of their inaccessibility relative to billion-dollar blockbusters.

Like so many other issues, modern movie discourse — particularly on social media, although that should go without saying given that’s where a vast majority of movie discourse takes place nowadays — has been overtaken with reductive binaries that make it all too easy to dismiss any opinions and tastes that are contrary to your own. Populism and elitism both exist, of course, but with the way most people seem to discuss movies now, it seems there is neither middle ground nor overlap between the two, and every movie and movie watcher must be grouped into one or the other. If you like Marvel movies, you’re a populist. If you like independent movies, you’re an elitist. Automatic categorization, no questions asked. No matter what movie inspires you to proclaim your love for it, rest assured that either hipsters will chalk you up to being basic, or basic people will chalk you up to being a hipster. No nuance, no actual engagement, and indeed no individuality: your taste is defined by a series of checkmarks that determine whether you are on Team A or Team B, and that’s it. Your identity is a hashtag. All the more convenient for companies to effectively reach their target audience.

“Just let people enjoy things” has become a go-to retort to this mess, and I completely agree with that sentiment in theory. The problem is that even that has been sort of co-opted by the would-be populists in this “debate” (in quotes because that’s not even really what it is, despite it being framed as such) and has too often been tainted by transparent hypocrisy for it to hold any weight anymore. Because yes, if someone is into Marvel movies (I’m trying not to harp on that as an example, but it’s undoubtedly the most appropriate example to use at this particular moment in time), they should absolutely not be shamed for it in any way. But unfortunately the defense of “just let people enjoy things” must be universally applicable for it to have any semblance of meaning, and a whole hell of a lot of the people who use that defense are all too eager to dismiss those who like different movies. You can’t only use “just let people enjoy things” as a defense of big-budget blockbusters and then turn around and label independent cinema as a mere concept pretentious and imply that the people who gravitate more towards smaller and/or foreign films are all snooty hipsters. Otherwise what you’re really saying is “just let people enjoy things that I enjoy.”

Granted, this growing tide of populism in movie discourse is largely reactionary and usually more defensive than offensive. Prior to the proliferation of social media (which is still a very recent phenomenon, despite our collective short memory), film discourse was dominated by professional critics and scholars, and they shaped a canon of their own design and told everyone that was the be-all-end-all of film study. Mainstream Hollywood blockbusters were usually regarded as nothing more than light entertainment even if they were good, and certainly not “great” or “serious” cinema. It was conventional wisdom for a long time that great cinema was made and defined by independent auteurs, not studios and conglomerates. So understandably, those whose tastes align more with the sort of big-budget spectacles the critics roundly disregarded as fluff had an axe to grind when social media placed their voices and perspectives on equal footing with the so-called professionals (which is what social media has done in every facet, let’s be clear, and that has both positive and negative effects).

So while I do acknowledge the push towards this sort of self-righteous brand of cinematic populism probably originated as a mere retaliation against what was definitely an elitist culture of film discourse, it has, again, devolved into yet another endless Us vs. Them clique war. It’s one thing to champion populism as an alternative to stark elitism, but it’s another thing entirely to assume that everything that doesn’t have broadly populist appeal is automatically elitist and should be criticized as such. And what’s more, the assumption that the people who like less mainstream movies are inherently elitist is no better than the assumption that people who only watch big-budget movies are inherently stupid. In general, making character assumptions based on something as simple as taste in movies is a deplorable but startlingly common behavior exhibited in modern film discourse. In this warped mentality, you cannot simply have different tastes, preferences, and sensibilities than someone else; one of you must have the right tastes, preferences, and sensibilities, and the other must be misguided or ill-informed, if not completely wrong. And that usually involves attacking their personal character — or rather, what you assume about their personal character based on these false, hashtag-baiting binaries of taste we’ve constructed to ensure we never have to give credence to any differing views — because after a certain point, it becomes clear that the debate you think you’re having isn’t even about movies; it’s about perception of character and, often, warring cases of intellectual insecurity.

One of the hallmarks of populism in modern movie discourse seems to be a rejection of auteur theory. I say that without any judgment either way, although I realize because of everything I’ve just detailed that it can’t possibly come across that way and I’ll have to take a stance in one direction or the other. So I’ll be open about my preferences (you’ll surely know them anyway if you’re a longtime reader): I’m an unabashed proponent of auteur theory. I believe in the integrity of the filmmaker’s vision and the purity of cinema-as-art. I know not everyone puts stock into that, and I’m telling you I don’t mind if you don’t. I simply tend to prefer films that have a singular, authorial voice behind them, as I think they result in a movie that feels more personal and purely artistic than what might disparagingly be referred to as commercial filmmaking. I don’t devalue the efforts of filmmakers who make big-budget studio movies; I just feel less of a personal connection to those films on the whole. But I fully admit that is my own personal preference, and I don’t think it makes the movies I like superior to the ones you might like instead (nor, for that matter, does it make them inferior; again, we may just value different things in a movie, and that’s okay).

But as much as I genuinely don’t mind if someone rejects or at least doesn’t subscribe to auteur theory, a lot of the attitudes that have followed this rejection are troubling to me — especially as an artist myself — in that they seem to be kind of…well, anti-art. I know that sounds like a reach, but it’s really not. Some of the implications made by those who argue against auteur theory as a cinematic ideal cross the line from simply advocating for more collaborative filmmaking into fully devaluing and even shaming the concept of art as a personal expression. There’s a growing resentment towards filmmakers who even so much as dare to refer themselves as artists or to their films as works of art, as though merely having explicitly stated artistic intentions is an act so insufferably pretentious that it must be ridiculed from its conception. Any film that bears a strong personal vision unmistakably tied to its director is liable to be criticized as “self-indulgent,” which has become a convenient buzz word used to shoo away movies that aren’t primarily motivated by commercial prospects or aiming to be crowd-pleasers. Again, it’s the infuriating accusation that anything that isn’t overtly populist in nature is automatically elitist. If it’s not A, then it must be B. Ignore the rest of the alphabet.

Particularly for films that are slow, “serious,” or “artsy” in nature, rarely do those who don’t like them ever seem to present their disinterest as a matter of it not being their preferred type of movie. Instead, objection to such films often comes in the form of a more aggressive “how dare this movie exist” assertion. It’s not a matter of “this doesn’t entertain me, therefore I don’t like it;” it’s more like “this doesn’t entertain me, therefore it serves no purpose and shouldn’t have been made or distributed.” The implication being that entertaining you specifically should be a consideration of every filmmaker whose work finds its way to your screen. That daring to make a personal work of art is an act so inherently narcissistic that it deserves scorn and contempt on principle alone.

Of course, the truth is that every artist by nature is at least a little bit narcissistic. To even devote the time, energy, thought, and introspection necessary to create a work of art and then decide to share it with the world on any public platform could easily be construed as a narcissistic endeavor in that it comes with the implicit assumption that other people will be interested in your personal thoughts, feelings, and imagination. And while I understand that may rub some people the wrong way from the get-go (there are definitely people who openly despise artists on principle, and I can attest to that), the prevalence of this position in a lot of modern film discourse is a cause for concern. My instinct is to wonder why people who resent the idea of art as an intrinsic value would even bother watching movies if they can’t get past the revelation that, yes, creating any kind of art on a base level requires a somewhat narcissistic personality, but I fear that misses the point. Because it gets to a deeper issue than just which movies we like and don’t like; now for all intents and purposes, we are debating whether or not movies are art, or more specifically, whether or not they should even strive to be art, and whether or not we as the audience should treat them as such.

Since I’m sure most of you knew this point was coming, let’s just get it out of the way now since it’s definitely related to where we’re at in this discussion: this is where the recent schism between people who self-identify as artists and those who self-identify as content creators is occurring. I’ve heard the arguments that “content creator” is simply a broader, more inclusive term for the same basic thing, but I’m calling bullshit on that. It’s a marketing term, pure and simple, and one that’s designed to undermine the artistic integrity of commercially backed media. Audiences are becoming accustomed to having content targeted to them, and it’s making a lot of them feel entitled to a specific type of content to the point that they view it as a failure of said content when it doesn’t deliver exactly what they wanted from it. Their willingness — if not their ability — to engage with art has been replaced by a demand for creators to simply fulfill the exact specifications they desire in their content. This attitude is, not to mince words, anti-artistic in its rejection of individual expression in favor of audience-minded (if not even audience-participatory) strategy, which invariably involves marketing research, test screenings, targeted ads, and the like that all amount to the sort of calculated, catered content that gets celebrated for its crowd-pleasing nature.

When an artist relies fully on personal vision and eschews consideration of the audience’s potential enjoyment, a lot of people seem to really hate it on a visceral, gut level. What they believe a “great” movie to be is one that appeals to the broadest audience possible, offends the lowest amount of people (and I mean that not necessarily in terms of moral offensiveness but in terms of aesthetic or artistic sensibility, “offensive” being more of a substitute for “challenging” in this case), and maintains some level of arbitrarily defined technical skill which they mistake for “objective” quality. As I stated earlier, it’s about accessibility here. A movie is either accessible in the broadest sense of the word or it’s pretentious, navel-gazing, self-indulgent nonsense. There’s no in between, and there’s no overlap. Basically, you can have openly artistic ambitions with a film and be labeled an elitist, or you can succumb to the model whereby the market-researched audience’s entertainment is the paramount objective and embrace being called a content creator. Is it possible to do both? Of course. But the assertion that the audience’s enjoyment of what you create should always take precedence over your own personal artistic vision is where the line is drawn, I think.

An artist owes nothing to the audience, at least not in the way that a lot of people seem to think. They owe honesty and a personal perspective, and from there it’s up to each individual member of the audience to decide whether or not they connect with the art. But it’s not a failure of the artist if they don’t reach everyone or even a majority of people. The existence of anyone at all who forges a genuine connection with the art is evidence enough that the artist has succeeded. Resentment towards outwardly non-populist forms of cinema — the more abstract, esoteric, transgressive, challenging, obscure films out there — is an insinuation that the quality of a film is determined by its ability to reach large numbers of people. Accessibility certainly does not preclude a movie from being great (and suggesting so would indeed be elitist), but it’s also not an indicator of quality either way.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this behavior at some point: you’ll tell someone who’s not as obsessed with movies as you are about a film you loved, and their response will amount to “well, if it’s so good, how come I’ve never heard of it?” And I want to highlight that attitude because it reveals one of the biggest problems in this whole abject insistence upon populism and accessibility that I’ve been talking about here, which is that it leads to the frankly disgusting mentality that not only is a movie’s quality contingent upon its accessibility but also on its budget. There’s not a more discouraging, disheartening attitude to independent filmmakers than that one. I recall one instance when someone I knew remarked that an upcoming film was almost certainly not going to be good because it was going straight to a lesser known streaming service rather than Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Max, which meant it must be cheap and therefore probably bad. I held my tongue, but I was enraged. But there are people for whom the simple predicament of not having heard of a movie is almost an affront to them, as though the movie’s failure to market itself adequately raises suspicion of its legitimacy. I mean, I know people got upset with Martin Scorsese when he proclaimed that Marvel movies were “not cinema” (for the record, I think he put his foot in his mouth with that statement, which is a shame because the actual, overall point he was making in that article was spot-on and an important one to make), but is that really worse than acting like independent movies that you’ve never heard of are basically not “real” movies? Of course it’s not. The attitude that a filmmaker hasn’t truly “made it” until they’ve directed a mega-budget blockbuster or been nominated for an Oscar is so damaging to the sanctity of cinema as an artform that I almost think it must be deliberate. Independent films, short films, student films, etc. must be viewed as films in and of themselves with their own value and merit, not merely as practice for big-budget studio movies. Otherwise we are literally giving up on movies as art and fully embracing them as commercial products only.

And even when most of the staunch would-be populists are willing to at least give a smaller film a chance (sometimes going into them with knives out because they actively want to dislike them in order to support their narrative of Team A is better than Team B, but let’s ignore that for a second), the criticisms are more often just admissions that they’re not in the film’s intended audience and were therefore probably never going to like it, but of course they have a way of presenting this difference in preference as an objective flaw on the movie’s part. Things like “it’s too slow,” “it’s style over substance,” “there’s not enough emphasis on plot,” “the characters’ alignments/motivations aren’t clear,” etc. are not inherent flaws, despite constantly being spun as such. Citing those as reasons you didn’t respond to or like a movie is totally fine, but all it means is the movie didn’t cater to your specific preferences and sensibilities. It doesn’t mean that it’s objectively “bad” or that people who like it are somehow wrong. Any assertive statement about what a good film “should” do is inherently wrongheaded because it implies that all films should be judged according to the same criteria. I’ve gone over this several times before (like here and here), but cinema is not one thing; it’s an umbrella term for many different, sometimes even opposing interests. Do you criticize poetry for not being narrative literature? Do you criticize jazz for not being pop? I mean, maybe you do (am I wrong, or does there actually seem to be a rising number of people who don’t like anything poetic on the grounds that “it doesn’t tell a story”?). I just think it’s unfair and foolish to do so. Obviously you don’t have to like poetry or jazz, but what kind of ego do you need to have to think that your personal distaste for those artforms means they don’t have any value? The same is true of other forms of cinema — not just other genres (which a lot of people act like is the only distinction that needs to be made between different movies), but different forms entirely that serve different functions and are intended for different audiences.

Still, the conventional wisdom seems to be that a good movie should be able to appeal to anyone. But the notion that we should or could ever all collectively agree on anything is naive at best and destructive at worst. Our differences are worth celebrating. The push towards a more streamlined, purely populist cinema only devalues the differences in our tastes that make us individuals. And so the worry is that any societal or cultural curation of art is almost intrinsically an attempt to control what others watch and don’t watch, or at the very least shame them for their viewing choices when they don’t reflect the values put forth in their efforts. No movie will appeal to everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with a movie that only tries to appeal to a specific, sometimes even extremely small audience. I guess by definition that does make its appeal exclusive, but we need to stop equating “exclusive” with “elitist.” Or “esoteric” with “pretentious.” Etc., etc. Maybe it really is all just a matter of how you look at it, but the way I look at it, those knee-jerk reactions to independent or arthouse films as being innately elitist just come across as spinning an argument in order to score Twitter points. Because they’re not criticizing the film itself; they’re simply categorizing as “elitist” and therefore attempting to attach a stigma to liking it, that way they don’t have to actually engage with people who genuinely like it and can just group them into Team B and take cheap shots at them. Don’t worry, plenty of people do the reverse by categorizing other movies as “basic,” so it’s just a giant clusterfuck of assumptions, labels, and cliques that only serve to discourage conversation and settle instead for smug generalizations of others’ tastes.

The thing is, there’s plenty of room for both ends as well as the entire spectrum between them that often goes neglected. I just shudder to think of a society that reacts to independent artists with contempt and only values corporate-sponsored content creators. If a culture discards art made for art’s sake and embraces only art made with economic prospects in mind (so essentially becoming a society of your condescending relatives who only ever express how proud they are of you when it’s something financially beneficial to you and never when it’s a purely personal or artistic accomplishment), is it even a culture at all? Or is it the near-dystopian, bureaucratic, corporate nightmare structure that those “starving artists” of yore feared, where human expression — art being the most obvious form of it — is commodified based on its profitability as projected by marketing research on the trends of so-called “general audiences?” If we can’t see any value in art independent of its potential for mass appeal (and therefore profit), then we can’t see any value in art, period. And I don’t want to live in that world. Call me romantic, call me idealistic, call me whatever, but I still believe in artistic integrity. I still believe in art. And lately I feel the need to stand up for it, because all the content creators in the world don’t have as much to offer me as a single artist whose resolution to maintain their own personal voice and use it without compromise to say what they want to say motivates the creation of their art more than any financial prospects do.

I’ve written and spoken a lot about my opposition to elitism, so hopefully you don’t misinterpret this as some sort of defense of elitism. That’s not what this is. I’m only writing this because I don’t see a whole lot of people pointing out that populism can be just as bad, especially as it pertains to independent artists, whom I think are well worth sticking up for. The sort of populism that leads to attitudes such as the all too widely held one of “I won’t even give your movie the time of day unless it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make, is advertised everywhere, and takes up multiple theaters as my local multiplex, so keep your little practice independent movie and get back to me when you make something everyone can enjoy.” Because next to elitism, of course populism sounds like the better option, but that’s only because we’ve convinced ourselves that all art falls into one of those two categories. But that’s not true, and in modern film discourse, what gets passed off as “populism” is really just “being defensive about watching exclusively big-budget studio movies.” It may be framed as positive, “just let people enjoy things” populism, but more often than not, it’s really just cynical corporatism that amounts to little more than telling independent artists to “get a real job.”

Truly, just let people enjoy things. Whether they’re giant franchise blockbusters or no-budget experimental films. And don’t act like their preference irrefutably places them into one of two made-up categories that you can use to dismiss them if you’re not on the same imaginary debate team. In general, people who love movies need to start focusing more on finding others whose tastes they relate to and less on fighting with others whose different tastes bring out the worst in their combative intellectual insecurity.

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