Owen Franken / New York Times

September 4, 2019

QUE | On Film Snobbery

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Agnès Varda died on March 31; I’ve talked about her in various ways — in a paper, in a review, to friends, to myself. The weekend before I happened to be in Paris and insisted on dragging my friend along to visit the Montparnasse Cemetery. The place was massive and it took us two hours to find the grave of Jacques Demy, Varda’s late husband. The gravestone read “Family Demy-Varda” and I shivered at the possibility that she might leave us one day. A mere week later I woke up to the news. A few friends had already texted me about it, knowing how much she meant to me. I sank back into my bed and spent the day rewatching her films and interviews.

The next Monday in my directing class, the professor canceled class and played his favorite Varda film instead. I’ve watched Le Bonheur before but when her name appeared on screen this intense feeling of grief gratitude dawned on me; the fact that I was almost through with her filmography and there would be no more to come made me sentimental.

What really upset me, though, was that my classmates didn’t like the film. In the discussion afterwards they tore the film apart and some even accused Varda of supporting the patriarchal psyche. I stayed in my seat fuming after class, when my professor asked me what I thought of the film. Oh, I can talk about her for days, I answered. I think she had absolutely no intention of supporting the patriarchy, quite the contrary; she’s making fun of it. The clues are all over the place —

He interrupted me and told me he was glad I thought that. We proceeded to discuss all the other screenings he’s done in the class previously; they’re mostly European arthouse films, of course (we were at one of the oldest European film schools in Prague), and attendance dropped every week. This program I attended was full of typical American film students who are ambitious, sleep-deprived and huge fans of Tarantino. A friend at a prestigious film school in LA (let’s not name names) once told me that every time he refers to a film his professor would yell at him: “But how did it do in the box?” as in, how was the box office result. I honestly think that’s horrifying.

Hollywood’s deeply ingrained capitalist values have rendered too many films that are homogeneous and uninteresting, solely for the sake of desirable market outcomes. I’m by no means saying that film should be high art; since its invention, going to the movies has been an affordable pastime for the people who can’t or don’t want to go to the theatre. What I’m saying is that we are losing so much of the variety in storytelling because of how film schools nowadays, along with Hollywood, convince students that there is a formula for success, and in this case success narrowly means “doing well in the box office.”

If there is a formula at all for good filmmaking, I personally believe it would be for the filmmaker to watch as many films as they could. Most masters of cinema are cinephiles to begin with; Scorsese is incredibly well-versed in classical Hollywood, Varda constantly refers to filmmakers she loves in her interviews and of course we all know that Tarantino enjoys Asian cinema (so much that he “pays homage” to them).

You see, I’ve been called a “film snob” several times, and I can’t say it is pleasant. The word “snob” has a negative connotation, indicating an often exaggerated and unjustified sense of superiority. The last thing I want to be is an elitist, and no, I don’t think I know more than the next person, or that my taste in particular is better. What annoys me, truly, is how people take pride in not wanting to know more.

One of the few living masters of cinema Pedro Costa tells the following story in an interview:

The guy who came with me to film school is now a teacher. He stayed on. He’s been a teacher for twenty years. He is the best teacher in that school today. A year ago, he asked me to dinner. He told me that he screened Pierrot le fou. Twenty minutes after it started, the students asked for it to be stopped because it was going nowhere. Pierrot le fou? There’s guns and girls and colours. I mean really? If I was there, I would kick their fucking brains in. I would break their arms. I would break their necks. Really.

Costa definitely sounds arrogant, perhaps a bit too extreme, here. But he has a point. Over and over again I see people walking out of the theatre when the first 10 minutes of the film isn’t entertaining enough — and not just in a film class, but also in arthouse theatres and premieres at film festivals (my friend walked out of Shoplifters at Cannes only to learn a week later that it has won the Palme D’or). The movie industry is seemingly operating on this principle of efficiency: If a project doesn’t promise to make money, toss it; if a film doesn’t promise to entertain, leave it.

It’s not about class (hence snobbery is NOT elitism). From the very beginning, movie going is supposed to be a pastime accessible to all. At the movies, all of us get to escape from whatever reality we live in and watch someone else’s life unfold. Nowadays films are more accessible than ever with all the streaming services; while I have my own opinions about Netflix and such, as college students we do have free access to Kanopy, not to mention Criterion Channel and Mubi. In A Century of Cinema, Susan Sontag wistfully proclaims that the midcentury love of cinema has decayed. “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.”

None of the people that called me a snob ever explained to me what they meant by that. Was it about my use of words like “auteur” and “mise-en-scène”? Or my patience to sit through movies that are longer than two hours? Perhaps it is about my willingness to read subtitles. In any case, I’m fine with it if my not-so-appreciated cinephilia can keep cinema alive. At least Cornell Cinema and Metrograph are getting most of my income instead of a random AMC.

Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.