In Defense of “Elitism,” In Film and Elsewhere


The culture of film criticism has an odd tendency to turn pejoratives out of things that really shouldn’t be considered insulting.  Words like “artsy,” “depressing” and “sentimental” are thrown around as a jab by too many movie reviewers without any sort of explanation for why those traits of a given work are bad.  But then I got a load of Oscar pundits.  Hoo boy, were their negative associations even more baffling.  Chief among them is a term that has gotten a bad rap not only in cinema, but nearly in every facet of American culture.  Every year it pops up a couple of times during the awards season.  It’s called “elitist”…and I’m taking it back.

My frustrations started with an opinion piece in The Hollywood Reporter two months ago.  Reporting on the PGA’s decision to keep ten nominees for Best Picture in the wake of the Academy’s rule change, Gregg Kilday argued that this somehow created a problem for AMPAS.  According to him, a film like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 will probably make the PGA’s shortlist while the Oscars will most likely ignore it and, in a telling conclusion, writes, “The PGA will look inclusive, and Oscars not so much. And the Academy will find itself back where it was three years ago, fending off accusations of elitism.”

Okay, since when was honoring the best achievements in cinema not outright synonymous with honoring the elite?  If anything, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ought to embrace “accusations of elitism.”  They should not only shout from the top of the Hollywood sign that they and they alone single out the cream of the crop, but show it through their nominees and winners.

I am not naïve, of course.  I realize that the Oscars rely on ratings as much as any other televised ceremonies, so it’s useless to knock them for nominating a film like Inception over a film like White Material.  There’s a balance that must be struck between the artistic and popular achievements in order to be successful, and for the most part AMPAS has been surprisingly adept at walking that line.  Unfortunately, due to “journalists” like Kilday, the demands for the Oscars to tip their scales to populism has reached disheartening levels, and the squirrely rule changes from the organization over the past three years suggests that they have been trying to change their ways to appeal to populist entertainment…which is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

But don’t tell that to one Academy member who contends that The Town missed out on a nod over films like The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone because “the process favored indies.”  I don’t think it ever occurred to that member or Tim Appelo that the Academy has favored independent films in recent years because they have simply been better (before anyone raises an objection, yes, I realize that a lot of people legitimately thought that The Town was better than Winter’s Bone.  I’m taking issue with this article’s absurd reasoning).  If anything, the idea of a small, independently-funded film beating out higher-profile fare for an Oscar nomination is the model for egalitarianism (see also: the latest TIFF People’ Choice Award winner).  But to The Hollywood Reporter, awards bodies should lower their standards for popular films regardless of quality.  There’s zero demand for the blockbusters to up their game, oh no.

Okay, so that was an aggravation, but it soon passed.  Then about a week ago, Jim Emerson posted a twenty-minute video dissecting the famous chase sequence in The Dark Knight and what he personally found so confusing about it:

He presents a comprehensive and well-reasoned video, though I’ve always believed that editor Lee Smith does compensate for his weaknesses in spatial coherence with impressive kineticism. But don’t tell that to the readers of Cinema Blend and JoBlo, who have decided that any sort of formal criticism of Christopher Nolan’s specific filmmaking choices is tantamount to heresy.  Some commenters express measured disagreement, but most fell along the lines of “What a bunch of crap, who the hell analyzes a movie like that? This guy is a moron who just wants to show people how smart he thinks he is…..ITS A MOVIE IDIOT!! Sit back and enjoy it!”  Wow, such a thoughtful rebuttal.

Let me give you a little history of Mr. Emerson.  This is a guy who has not only spent most of his adult life writing about movies, but has been involved in nearly every aspect of it.  From writing screenplays (It’s Pat and Saturday Night Live, among others), to production, marketing, you name it.  He’s written for Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Film Comment,, and Premiere.  He was the director of the Seattle International Film Festival and is currently the Editor of  The guy lives and breathes film, and has done so for nearly his entire professional life.  Does that make his opinions unquestionable?  Absolutely not; speaking for myself, I find his tastes far too much in favor of dark and odious “noir-ish” films (including the excremental The Killer Inside Me), and his previous anti-Nolan rants have struck me as occasionally myopic (Is a single cropped shot that damnable?).  But he certainly deserves more consideration than “just a hack, a blogger at best.”

But this is what really set me off (starting at 1:23):

You don’t need any special knowledge to run a zoo?!?  You just need a “lot of heart” to properly regulate the diets, environment, and medical needs of a several different wild animals, and run it as a tourist business?  I understand that most movies do not operate on the same level of reality as the real world, but there comes a point at which fantasy steps from “harmless escapism” to “insultingly mawkish,” and one wonders if a film could even get away with thumbing their nose at people who actually put in the hard work and study required for things like this in other countries.

The new role model for film discussion?

Some of you may believe that there is a seeming contradiction in this whole rant: I am not an elite film critic or writer myself.  I have no formal training in cinematic technique, I have never published any written material on the professional level, so what “right” do I have to champion and encourage elite discussion and schools of thought?

To put it simply, anyone who values something should always encourage the best of it to come out.  When President Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last May, he didn’t send a team of decently-trained soldiers; he rightfully sent SEAL Team Six, who are as elite as one could possibly get in the U.S. Armed Forces (give or take Delta Force).  Bohdan Pomahac, the doctor who performed an unprecedented face transplant in the United States not long ago, was not some Joe Schmo who got “pretty good” grades in medical school.

In fact, in just about every area of expertise where we give a damn, we hold up the elite.  We aspire to be like them one day.  Even if we disagree with their input, we don’t ignore or downplay it.  But in today’s world, if you have any sort of extraordinary or highly focused knowledge of something, particularly in art and politics, you’re dismissed as being disconnected from “the common man.”  Is it any wonder then, that people complain about how (American) movies are getting worse?

  • WillQ

    This is an interesting article and I agree with it for the most part. It’s a shame when the Academy wants to cater to mainstream audiences when nominating movies like The Blind Side and Inception over some better indies. That being said, do you really think there is absolutely no bias toward mainstream fare in the Academy? The Dark Knight, one of the most critically praised and awarded movies of 2008, did not get a Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, it was given to The Reader. It would be hard for even avid fans of The Reader to agree with this blatant elitism towards Hollywood product. Harry Potter will also not get nominated for Best Picture despite a strong case for it. Is it because it doesn’t deserve it? Or is it just the Academy trying to seem more cultured by not showing real affection for it…again?

    Now the Academy has awarded very popular films Best Picture before, and often, but they can rub me the wrong way sometimes. However when a movie like The Hurt Locker wins despite fanboy praise for Avatar and Inglourious Basterds, it gives me great pride for the Academy and so-called “elitism” everywhere. A happy medium between the two should be encouraged, not frowned upon I think.

    • I actually don’t think there’s much of a bias against mainstream Hollywood films from the Academy. Certainly one could point out a correlation between popularity and lack of Academy recognition over the last ten years, but I would attribute that more to the declining quality of blockbusters. Sure, The Dark Knight got snubbed in the top categories (though it should be noted that the film did receive a whole slew of nominations below-the-line, plus walked away with Best Supporting Actor), but what about Avatar or Toy Story 3?

      For the most part, I try to avoid speculating on ulterior motives of this or that film being ignored by the Academy because I honestly don’t think they exist. The Dark Knight was shut out of Best Picture for the simple reason that not enough voters loved it…there’s no collective effort to preserve a “cultured” image.

      I also happen to agree with you on the idea of a balance between them spotlighting the credible and the popular (and – with any luck – a film that overlaps the two) being acceptable. As I pointed out in my piece, I’m not unrealistic enough to demand that they would go for really challenging arthouse fare. Ignoring a film like Last Train Home or the aforementioned White Material is not only understandable but perhaps even necessary for the Oscar telecast to survive these days. What I want is for moviegoers like us to demand more from our blockbusters so that they can at least approach the level of modern indie/international cinema. This whole “Shut up, sit back and enjoy the espolshuns!” attitude on the sites I linked to (not saying you’re one of them by ANY means) is why the top ten highest-grossing films of recent years is populated with garbage.

  • koook160

    I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with this article. I know I disagree on The Dark Knight’s snub, which I’m still convinced of snobery in the Academy. Why else was a film as odious as The Reader nominated? Still, you have a point about the Academy trying to bow down to the public all of the sudden. The Blind Side is the obvious reason I believe this. But has it occured to you that “fanboy films” like Inglourious Basterds and Inception might have actually appealed to the younger Academy members? Maybe I’m biased because I love those movies too, but Is it possible that there’s a section of the Academy that liked those films without trying to battle elitism or trying to be “hip”?

    • My article wasn’t really directed at the Academy per se, rather the media culture surrounding it that admonishes them every time something “artsy” outside of their wheelhouse gets embraced by their voting body. And yes, I absolutely believe that Inception and Inglourious Basterds genuinely appealed to them; I never claimed otherwise. Artistic “cred” and financial success do not have to be mutually exclusive, and I take issue with the prevailing idea that it does.

      Plus, that mob mentality also has an aggravating habit of attaching hidden motives to those not jumping on a pop culture bandwagon and shutting down critical discussion. Case in point is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which people like Gregg Kilday are already lamenting a snub that hasn’t even happened yet for reasons of “elitism” without being open to the idea that others maybe, just maybe, don’t think it deserves such a prestigious honor.