books, friends, movies, television

Times We Have Faked Being More Sophisticated Than We Really Are.

Our friend Katie Stratman writes,

So … I usually don’t read the books you guys recommend on your blog … I always feel like you have much more sophisticated taste than me and I usually can’t understand half of what goes on in them… but I picked up Little Princes at the library yesterday and I absolutely love it!

First of all, we’re glad you enjoyed Little Princes, Katie. It really is a good read.

Secondly, we are not that sophisticated … we like “Wipeout.” But Katie’s e-mail made us think of something we read this weekend, the “Riff” column by Dan Kois from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, about “eating your cultural vegetables.” Kois attempts to answer the question of why we subject ourselves to art that “we know [is] good for us but we don’t actually enjoy.” Writes Kois,

I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. … As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables. … While I’m grateful to have watched Solaris and Blue and Meek’s Cutoff and The Son and Antanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and Three Times and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste.

Kois finishes his column with an anecdote about how he championed HBO’s “Treme” during its first season, arguing that it was “a good show whose slow development was a welcome antidote to the context-free dramas surrounding it on television.” Kois missed the season finale but DVRed it, until “months went by, and I never felt like watching that episode.” He never did.

Katie’s e-mail and Kois’s column made us reflect on several different questions.

  1. Are our tastes too “highbrow” or “sophisticated”? Do our friends look at our recommendations and think, “There’s a [movie/book/TV show/album] I definitely won’t get because the Vores like it”?
  2. Are our tastes too “lowbrow” or “derivative”? This is basically what goes through our head anytime we write a “Voreplay” and/or imagine what Eric Bescak/Jerry Grit thinks of our taste.
  3. Why do we like what we like anyway? Is it because it gives us genuine pleasure? Or because we convince ourselves we like it? Or are we attracted to the idea of liking something and recommend that abstract feeling rather than the artifact itself?
  4. Have we made recommendations in this space that we should revisit for our readership by critiquing our critique?

We essentially bypassed #1-#3 and had a field day with #4. Here we will now revisit some of our recommendations over the years that we feel need either 1) clarification, 2) amendation, or 3) amplification. We’ll also share a few things, usually films, that have caused considerable argument between us during the course of our marriage.

Full disclosure: Usually, though not always, Ben falls on the side of “Mmmm, mmmm, this cultural vegetable tastes really good!”, while Erin is unafraid to call bullshit on him. This is another way of saying Ben is generally the more pretentious one. Not always, just generally.

For example: Ben purchased, sight unseen, the DVD of Wendy & Lucy, based on its uniformly excellent critical reviews and director Kelly Reichardt’s prior film, Old Joy. (We recommended Old Joy, via Will Oldham, here.) Ben really wanted to like Wendy & Lucy, a film in which a drifter (Michelle Williams) has basically everything go wrong for her. Here’s the summary from IMDB:

A woman’s life is derailed en route to a potentially lucrative summer job. When her car breaks down, and her dog is taken to the pound, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she is led through a series of increasingly dire economic decisions.

Does this sound like a movie you — and by you we mean anyone — would enjoy? And yet Ben still really, really wanted to see it, so much so that he was willing to make it a permanent part of our DVD library. But upon finishing it, Erin turned to him and said, “That was a terrible movie.” We have never watched it since.

(Reichardt directed Meek’s Cutoff, one of the films referenced in Kois’s column. David Denby calls the film “pleasureless.” Sign us up!)

Another movie that would fall into this category is Cache … also purchased sight unseen by Ben. (Notice the trend here.) Cache is a far superior movie to Wendy & Lucy, and a powerful, unsettling film. We (and by “we” we mean “Ben”) could talk about the final scene for hours (so subtle, so suggestive!) except that we (and by “we” we mean “Erin”) will not tolerate any discussion of this “abominable” movie which, like Wendy & Lucy, is a black mark upon our movie library.

We have loaned both of these films out recently and, with any luck, will never have them returned.

What about some of the things we have specifically recommended on this blog? Well, this one’s a biggie, as we’re running the risk of sabotaging any and all trust you, the reader, may have in our critical honesty.

In our 2010: The Year in Books post, I (Ben) recommended David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land, calling it “undoubtedly a masterpiece.” (I did add that “our only grudging criticism is that this is an easier book to admire than enjoy.”) Here’s the thing: I never finished the book. I had every intention of doing so — my bookmark remains on page 464, almost one hundred pages from the finish line — but I simply couldn’t do it. I lost momentum. I collapsed in defeat. I confess: I failed.

Is it dishonest of me to have still so heartily praised it? I’m not sure. I am glad to have read what I did. I still hope I’ll finish it one day. It is a powerful, moving novel, made all the more so by how closely it mirrors Grossman’s own experience (he lost his son while writing it). I don’t think “masterpiece” is an exaggeration. But did I enjoy reading (most of) it? Honestly, no. It was an effort.

But so was Shakespeare, and Moby Dick, and any other number of classics I read in high school and college that I’m very grateful to have read, and which have shaped me in ways I’ll probably never fully appreciate. After finishing Moby Dick in Professor Lentz’s American Literature course, every paper I wrote for the rest of the year was a comparison to the themes in Melville’s novel. I couldn’t shake it.

Do I want to read it again? Absolutely not.

What else?, you may be wondering. Let’s revisit some of the other shows, books and music we’ve plugged in this space.

The Wire.” As good as advertised. Every good thing that has ever been written or said about “The Wire” is true. What’s also true is that the final season was the weakest of the five, with some outrageous plotlines and atypically black-and-white characters. And yes, white people love “The Wire.”

James Blake, James Blake. The up-and-coming ambassador of dubstep has been called “brilliant” but, so far as we can tell, there’s just not much going on. (“The Wilhelm Scream” is a good song, but “brilliant”? No.) Whenever we’ve put this album in — or, similarly, when we recently tried to get into Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me — we didn’t last long before putting in something that was actually fun to listen to, like Girl Talk, the new TV on the Radio or the Sing Along With Putumayo kids CD, the one with Rufus Thomas singing “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.”

2666. Ben actually read this book … honestly! While this sprawling, posthumous, five-part, 898-page (and essentially unfinished) novel has “pretentious” written all over it, it was an engrossing read. I ended my review by wondering “how long it will be before I feel compelled to pick it up again.” The answer to that question is, “At least two years, and probably a minimum of two more.” But I do intend to reread it again … someday … especially if there really is a recently discovered part six.

Ulysses. You may recall that we were part of “Wandering Rocks,” an online “reading group/social media experience” devoted to James Joyce’s masterpiece, frequently cited as the best book of the 20th century. Dear reader, we could not hack it. (We fell short before page 200.) What surprised us, two English majors, about Ulysses was that we found so little pleasure in the actual reading of it. There was a certain pleasure in deciphering Joyce’s literary Easter eggs — and it should be said we would not have made it half as far as we did without the group structure that WR provided — but at the end of the day it must be said that while we aspire to be people who can say they read Ulysses, we also aspire to avoid willfully subjecting ourselves to great pain and discomfort. These cultural vegetables we gladly scraped into the trash can, uneaten.

Because, truth be told, we’d much rather be watching “Wipeout.”

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10 thoughts on “Times We Have Faked Being More Sophisticated Than We Really Are.

  1. In the mid 80s, Peter Buck described R.E.M. as “the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff,” which really described them perfectly. I think most of the things I enjoy fall into that category. Just off the top of my head:

    R.E.M.
    Ben Folds
    Bill Simmons
    IPAs
    It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

    I’m sure these entities seem pretty bland to Voreblog readers, but the general public doesn’t like them. The GP likes The Black Eyed Peas and “Two and a Half Men” and Bud Light. It takes time and effort and money to seek out the cultural vegetables of music, literature, and cinema (Sleigh Bells, To The End of The Land, etc). I tried for a while when I was at WMSR, but it is too much work if you aren’t having the newest, coolest stuff shipped directly to you. I’m happy hanging out on the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff, shunned by both hipsters and the GP.

  2. Can I assume that Radiohead falls into this category as well. No one actually likes them, musicians are just told that they are supposed to like them.

  3. Matt,

    You cannot assume this, especially if you are referring to early Radiohead (The Bends and OK Computer in particular). The latest album, however, is a dud. A real stinker. They pooped it out in their sleep. But they are just as capable of producing something great the next time around.

    Andrew,

    I’ve never heard that Peter Buck quote before. I like that.

    Are Amarettos and Diet Vernor’s on the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff?

    1. Amaretto and Diet Vernor’s might fall into another category: the douchey edge of unacceptable stuff. I’m very comfortable in this space also, drinking my A&DV while listening to Paramore.

      I like picturing Radiohead pooping out an album in their sleep. A TURD MERGER!

  4. I think it is fine to enjoy both the acceptable and the unacceptable for different reasons. I like “It’s Always Sunny” because of poop jokes and because if people like these exist… then I am doing well. I like Radiohead, because if it’s playing in my car, it makes me feel like I am the star of my own indie movie. I like Bud Light, because it makes me drunk.

  5. This is thought provoking.

    How do we even know that we aren’t bullshitting ourselves? I went to Austin last fall for work and I really, really wanted to like it becuase everyone told me how fantastic Austin is. It kinda sucked, though. The bad part is that I’ve tried to defend it with “well if I wasn’t here for work” and such, because the guy I want to be/want you all to think I am, that guy likes Austin. He thinks Austin is cool and had a helluva time. But I didn’t and I can’t say I did. I don’t know that we get lazier/fatigued with our cultural vegetables as we get older so much as we just stop caring. What I like is what I like and the amount of effort I’ll out forth in seeking out the new/hip/unknown is not nearly as great as it was just a couple of years back. Maybe we just get more honest with ourselves and everyone else.

    Specifically, our book tastes seem to line up well on non-fiction, (my guess is Ben’s non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:9 and mine is the reverse of that) but I’ve felt like a moron pretty much every time I tried to read any fiction you recommend. I don’t even attempt your movies.

  6. Keep it simple. Read, listen, watch, eat, buy what you like for yourself. If you happen to like those 2000 page books that Vore likes to read or bands so obscure that they haven’t even been formed yet that Beszak likes – cool. But do it because you geniunely enjoy it man – not because you feel like you should. Real life isn’t like some version of High Fidelity where Jack Black’s character is judging you for what you put on your desert island Top 5.

    I got to get home and catch up on my DVRed episodes of Real Housewives of Atlana now.

  7. Coach, I just want you to know that my love for The Verve Pipe’s “Freshman” was bona fide, and not because I thought Jack Black’s character would approve. Because I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t.

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