The Case Against Faux Art Films: Why I Walked out of THE BETTER ANGELS and JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD

I’m sick of the incognizant derision that arises when a casual film-goer acknowledges an “art film” for its boring, snooty self. Like the hive mind of Twihards (and other noxious YA fan whose title I’m too old to know), coveting a film just because it’s black-and-white, has no story and lacks any acting to speak of is just as bad, if not worse, than piling on mindless praise for an existing fad-pop franchise. It’s the navel-gazing intellectualism for those who won’t switch to eBooks because they’d lose the superiority that goes hand-in-hand with lunking leather-bound tomes around, hanging from their hands like literacy trophies, reminders of their unquestioned intelligence.

So when you hear the choir of inevitable high praise of films the likes The Better Angels and Jamie Marks is Dead, films that wander through their narratives so slowly a snail wouldn’t be caught envious, peppered with the endless gratuity of sunshine peeking through trees, incomplete without innocuous philosophical whisperings, I can’t help but shrug it off. My approach looks a lot more like me giving them about thirty minutes and promptly exiting the theater.

It’s not that these films are universally bad but nor are they high art only to be understood and appreciated by intellectual giants. They just leave the same shallow, useless taste in my mouth that the likes of the majority of Malick’s more recent work. Furthermore, I’m hard pressed to buy the reality that others are really finding this stuff riveting, much less worthy of their two hours. Laziness and Malick-footstepping seem to be two in the same and yet they are celebrated in equal measure. Worse yet is the perfunctory need to herald these films as if they are something few can really “get”. The presumption that people are Philistines for not liking these “art films” is just the mindset of a pedantic snob, so don’t get too worked up if you’re amongst the descenders.

Like the best and worst of poetry, it can be legitimately difficult to decipher between absolute hogwash and something that’s really rich and deeply meaningful. Brilliance does not always stand out the first time through. And a lot of the time one’s appreciation for a piece comes down to their subjective point of view – the ability to connect with something and see it for more than what it may appear at first. Throughout time, the pieces that have uniformly lasted are not only those that have stood out to the snotty demands of the art critics but those that have also had added value for the minutia of the mainstream.

The ability to connect with the mainstream is paramount to the industry, particularly within the studio system. The existence of this need for mass appeal seems to have created this reckless reactionary backlash against it, characterized by idol worship of its antithesis. But battling appeal for the sake of appeal is a self-defeating prophesy. Within the independent film system, an inevitable push against the ceaseless narrative drive of blockbusters, often also characterized by attempts to connect with the widest international audience possible, has meant doing the opposite for the opposite’s sake. But when it goes too far and takes itself too seriously, it’s privy to its own scammed system of contrivance. The natural opposite of slurring Hollywood blockbusters involves slowing things down to a halt, depriving audience’s of character and putting the owness fully on us to make what we will of the film. In opening the proverbial can of worms, it’s time for us critics to take a stand against this arbitrary artistry as much as we do the mind-numbing blockbusters that crowd theaters.

These days, we seem to be witnessing a proliferation of trashy film school abortions unblinkingly called high art. More than anything though, these seem to be films celebrated because people don’t want to feel dumb for not “getting it”. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes gag where everyone in town is complimenting the wonder of this trend-setting wardrobe but there’s really actually just nothing there save for a naked old buffoon exposing himself to the townsfolk. It takes the wisdom of a child to point this fact out. So here, I stand as that child.

At this year’s Sundance, I walked out of two films: Jamie Marks is Dead and Better Angels.
Both were so meandering, so lifeless and so infinitesimally drab that I found my mind wandering to just about anything outside the confines of the theater. Admittedly tired from the scramble of the fest, I even feel asleep during Jamie Marks is Dead. So while I guess I can’t attest to how bad Marks was, the fact that I fell asleep and felt no pressure to wake up speaks volumes. The Terrence Malick-produced Better Angels on the other hand was an absurdly dull affair that I had the misfortune of staying awake for- another wandering, narrativeless art film for snobs by snobs. Hackeyed filmmaking at best and artistic cowardice at worst, this brand of Sundance darling is exactly the type of art film masquerading with purpose but entirely empty and entirely boring.

Tirade or no, I just couldn’t find myself reviewing either and feel that this diatribe against art films presuming their intelligence is the only suiting response to my infinite boredom during both screenings. Further, I’d like to take the upper hand from those willing to laud these boreflicks and give the power back to the people. It’s not that there’s something there that we’re too dumb to see, we’re just the only ones willing to ridicule the nude old man strutting around.

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