(Mostly) Against Movies

by Jason Peters on February 10, 2010 · 51 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place



Rock Island, IL

Never at any age did I clamor to be amused; always and at all ages (where I dared) I hotly demanded not to be interrupted.

—C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

It is futile to dispute tastes and impermissible to speak ill of forms, yet I would do both. I would say a word against movies and movie-going. It seems to me that an appetite for movies is a sign of bad taste, and ill-nourished is the man who feeds on them.

This can’t end well for me, but why should today be different?

Front Porchers Kauffman and Beer, good men both, have served me a ration of abuse for never having seen Hoosiers. No amount of explaining–that I simply do not care for movies–answers the charge. Localists and basketball players have seen this movie and like it. This is Sanctioned Localist Opinion. I of all people ought to know.

Their moral outrage has been most impressive, and I almost feel myself diminished in some degree for having been on the receiving end of it.

But all this has changed. I have now seen Hoosiers. I have seen it and I want my hundred minutes back.

Nothing against Hoosiers, mind you. The road to Hoosiers is paved with good intentions. It’s just that almost all movies leave me feeling robbed of time: time, whose wingéd chariot ever at my back I hear—time, that subtle thief of youth, that running grave that tracks you down.

I’m quite sure I haven’t seen any movie that came out in the last decade. I remember how treasonous it was that I hadn’t seen ET. It was ill-breeding and lack of intellectual curiosity that kept me from seeing Matrix. I once heard someone call Fight Club a “must-see,” an epithet that resounded in my ear like an interdiction from God not to see it, so I didn’t.

But I do remember making a grave error once. I allowed a student to write an essay on American Beauty, and this, like most mistakes, led to a second: seeing the movie. American Beauty is far and away the most puerile flick I know of—and, of course, it won Best Picture. Not even Kevin Spacey’s line about the couch could redeem it. I find it hard to believe that anyone not suffering a severe rectal-cranial inversion could utter a single unaccented syllable in its favor. It is, plainly and simply, a P.O.S. But that’s just the technical term for it.

And of course I didn’t see—hell’s bells, I don’t even know what else it is I haven’t seen. I know only that I won’t be seeing it. I don’t have any plans to see anything.

The reason is that movies are by nature, and in principle, boring—and I can’t see the sense in parting with my money to bore myself.

(I once went to the movies under compulsion and made my buddy, Scott, pay my way. I also made him pay for my dinner beforehand. I was that serious about not accompanying him and our wives to the movies.)

But my boredom–and this is the part so few people understand–is only natural. If you go to the movies and look around you, what you see are people who are bored out of their minds. That’s why they’re there. Why else would anyone sit—without the benefit of a body condom—in a seat that God-knows-how-many teenagers have copulated in? Nothing but boredom could make a grown man do this. I certainly won’t do it.

Nor do I have an account at any video store. Netflix I’ve heard of but can’t get excited about, and I certainly won’t use “netflix” as a verb—as in “I netflixed it.” (That is what we call an abomination unto the Lord.) I’ve never had cable television. Only last year did I cave in to familial pressure and buy a DVD player—only to find that it wouldn’t hook up to my antediluvian television set: proof from above, as if proof were needed, that movie-watching is a colossal waste of time.

And so it is—due respect to Kauffman and Beer, who are otherwise good guys, and also to everyone who has written about movies on the FPR. (The Porch is big, and there’s room for lots of people on it, but only one of us can be right all the time.)

I would not, however, be regarded as a fundamentalist. Zum Beispiel: Several years ago I taught a course that featured five novels and five films. Those films, if I remember correctly, were Winter Light, The Seventh Seal, The Mission, Jesus of Montreal, and … and, well, I can’t remember the fifth. Blackrobe maybe? Babette’s Feast? I’ll allow that each of these, and the mystery fifth, is good so far as films go. And I’m sure there are others of which I am unaware—just as there are others I have managed to cultivate an affinity for: Jaws, for example, which I first saw when I was twelve and hobbling on crutches. I was scared to take a shower for weeks. Or Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, with William Katt and Tom Beringer (not Redford and Newman). Or . . . well, I’ve run out already.

I know there are some well-made movies out there. I don’t deny this. I have probably seen some of them. What I deny is that you can reach a certain age and still be addicted to this form of entertainment, that you can “go to the movies” intending not to see something in particular but intending simply to “go to the movies” or “take in a movie” or, because it’s Friday, “rent a movie.” At a certain age you must come to prefer your book and a chair by the fire, or the pleasures of argument with friends over beer; otherwise, I own, you must admit some unflattering things about yourself.

Let it be said—and then let us be done with the matter—that movies are inferior to books and conversation. If I allow that bad books are inferior to good movies, or that good movies are more to be desired than dull conversation, I hasten to add that movie-watching is never the same as reading—and it is certainly not as strenuous as engaging in dull talk. Movie-watching is like Gilligan’s exercise regimen: lifting bamboo poles weighted with empty coconut shells.

Moving-watching is to reading what phone sex is to sex.

Hank Devereaux in Straight Man says that, like everyone else, he just wants to be entertained. Well and good. But Hank finds real life (which is free) plenty entertaining. The lesson is: train your lens on the follies of those around you. If that becomes wearisome, entertain yourself with Straight Man instead of Rain Man, with Jayber Crow instead of Russell Crowe.

But if you must go to the Multiplex, for God’s sake practice safe cinema and wear a garbage bag.

Postscript: One of the most delightful movie-going experiences of my life occured the time I hoofed it through the snow in my little Michigan town to watch A River Runs Through It at the old Sun theater (pictured above). I paid two bucks not so much to see a good flick—though it’s a pretty good one—as to walk into town in a snowfall, to warm up a bit in a classic movie house, and then, after a spell, and with something to think about, to walk home again in the still falling snow. Take away the small town, the Sun theater, the walk, the snow, and what are you left with? A movie, and that is not enough.


avatar Bruce Smith February 10, 2010 at 10:16 am

A good movie is surely just putting human beings under a magnifying glass to observe how they work out their dilemmas as to what is good or bad, just and unjust. Sometimes we benefit from this observation and get catharsis too. Sometimes we just get catharsis without really understanding much else. A bad movie though is useful in helping you fall asleep.

avatar Mike Bogdan February 10, 2010 at 10:35 am

I love your postings and always look forward to your midweek pick me up. I was very excited about your coming to Notre Dame this past year and the chance I had to meet you and chat a bit because I do enjoy reading your posts so much. But I don’t fully agree with you here. I’d love to write a well thought out response, but unfortunately I’m chained to my desk till 5 and do not have the freedom to spend that much company time, so here’s my stream of conscious thought.

I think your points are these:

• You don’t like wasting time
• Books are vastly superior to Movies
• Why spend time with a movie when you could be reading or being with friends

Here’s my thought process. You enjoy reading books and you enjoy company. What happens if we combine the two? What if we read a book out loud? Then we have a wonderful was to spend a snow day or an evening by the fire which incorporates both books and people. But what have you introduced? Acting. You’re now adding a deeper component to the text itself and you’re sharing it! No longer is it a personal thing which is in your mind. You are now on stage. Just like you are when you’re teaching! Why does your school need you? Is it because you’re entertaining and your students need to be entertained to learn? You may say yes, but I’m sure you think better of your profession and understand that there is something to that interaction between the teacher and his audience. It goes beyond the interaction that you have with a text.

So what do you think about theatre? Is this also just a way to whittle away time or is this a method by which to incorporate both the person and the text in meaningful way that brings people together?

I think you see where I’m going with this. Now I’m someone who does not have the internet in my home, nor do I have cable or even a TV. I hate TV, and I hate how so many people waste their lives living other people’s lives which aren’t even real. But I do enjoy watching movies because while it is not the same as theatre, it is a presentation of a text which creates a deeper experience of the message. Most scripts may not have a worthy message. But that doesn’t mean that movies cannot, and are not used for a worthy means.

Okay, I think that’s what I was throwing around in my head. I realize you didn’t intend your article to be taken so seriously, but being an actor I had to throw my thoughts in.

avatar Anamaria February 10, 2010 at 11:21 am

Mr. Peters,

Like Mike, I love your articles (and must admit I have a twinge of excitement when I realize it’s Wednesday and the Porch should have a new post by you). But I also have to express my disagreement, and I’ll do so in the same method as Mike- explaining my thought process.

My parents started watching a lot of TV sometime while I was in college. We didn’t while I was growing up, and I still find it bizarre. My mom defends this by asking if it would really be that much better if they were to just read books between dinner and bed. For a year my answer was yes. My answer, in some sense, is still yes, but in thinking more deeply about it, I realized that was the wrong alternative. What did people do in the days before TV? I’m sure they read books sometimes, but leisure time in the evenings, if there was any, encompassed playing music together, playing games, talking, reading aloud, etc. These are the types of things we should be doing on Friday nights to be together, but because our culture is so saturated in television, we’ve forgotten that that’s the alternative. We’ve forgotten that we can entertain ourselves.

There’s a communal dynamic to watching a movie together that people enjoy that isn’t present in each reading his or her own book. Mike is right about the appeal of acting, and the manner of sharing a text together that isn’t present in reading privately (even if it’s discussed). There’s a shared experience. That is part of what people want when they go to a movie, and that is present in reading aloud. The answer is not to tell people to read Jayber Crow by themselves (although the certainly should do that), but to tell them to learn to interact with each other in a different way.

Finally, a word in defense of movies themselves. Yes, most movies aren’t good; yes, most people go to movies because they’re bored and don’t know how to entertain themselves. But there is an understanding of a story that comes from the visual, from hearing and watching it acted out with corresponding music that is distinct from the understanding that one gets from reading a story. The beautiful shots place the story visually in a different way; the small gesture of a man placing his hand on a woman is both significant and insignificance, and the simultaneousness of both can’t be conveyed in a novel (by taking the time to explain it, only the significance is conveyed). And sometimes this takes a skill or tools that the majority of us cannot replicate in our living rooms. In other words, sometimes movies are art. While most of the time, it’s worth creating our own art, even if it’s not as good, sometimes it’s worth watching something beautiful. Ryan’s Daughter, Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, The Mission: these are movies that could not be conveyed in the same beautiful way in a novel.

avatar Bob Cheeks February 10, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Ya know Peters if this pious pontificating continues you’re apt to develop wounds in your hands and feet.
Yes, most movies are a waste of time and are designed to display breasts and arse and titillate (I just wanted to write that dirty word!!!!) so my recommendation is don’t go. And, then you have the ‘eye-candy’ movies like Transformers so don’t go and see that crap either.
But, once in a while there’s a decent film that actually tells a story that is actually grounded. I like them, alot.
The one I’d recommend for you and the wife, but don’t take the chillins’, is The Book of Eli…dude, I had tears in my eyes.
Me and the Mrs. saw it in the hood, and when the movie was over I got up and started applauding and my bros and sisters joined in and we started shouting “bravo….bravo!”
So yoo, yoo, yoo!”
Once in a while Hollywood lets one slip by. I know you read my review at PoMoCon and I ain’t kiddin’ or exaggerating.
This smells a lot like Cheeks bait and I just hit it…damn!

avatar Major Slack February 12, 2010 at 6:45 am

These things I loath: Republicans, movies, tourist attractions, restaurants.

avatar N. P. West February 12, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I enjoy a good read as the next person but I get just as much out of a film or television program that has good acting, storytelling, cinematography, and music. Some of the best films and television programs I can think of that do not employ violence or sex or foul language are just as good as any book.

I would like the editors of FPR to get together and come up with a list of the best films and television programs which reflect localism, communitarianism, distributism, conservation, orthodox faith, and the natural family.

I also have an appreciation for the stories of Port William and have thought for some time that PBS should do an adaptation of the books into a series similar to the BBC shows “Lark Rise to Candleford” and “Ballykissangel”.

avatar Jon S. February 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm

I second Anamaria’s statement, “There’s a communal dynamic to watching a movie together that people enjoy that isn’t present in each reading his or her own book.” While reading a book can be a communal activity, going to the movies certainly is. One of my fondest memories is going to the original Star Wars (Episode IV in George Lucas’s sick mind) when re-released in the late 90s. I was a grad student in Chicago and some friends and I saw the film at a large downtown theater (not the multi-plex) with about 1000 people. When the Death Star blew up (sorry to spoil the ending!) the whole crowd cheered. It was a thrill to have a common cultural experience, something sorely lacking in our time.

This is the superiority of the theater to home video or television, although I think artistically television at its best (which is admittedly rare) is better than the movies. At least the movies and live theater encourage us to get out of the house and be with people.

It is correct, though, that the way most people encounter movies/television is in a manner similar to going to sleep. In that sense, they become less human and more like cows. They really don’t want to think; they simply want to be diverted. This also explains the love affair my students have with video games. Why talk to people, or think, or even leave your dorm room when you can sit alone and distract yourself with Madden 2010?

And Mr. Peters is correct that the cult of the film has led to illiteracy. I have noticed how many of our references and inside jokes relate to movies and television, not to books. Look at how political rhetoric used to reference the Bible and Shakespeare or ancient mythology. Now when we want to make a cultural allusion it is to movies or television. This suggests a kind of cultural impoverishment, one that comes from people who do not read. Given that our popular culture tends to be shallow and disposable, this is a real loss for our language.

BTW, Mr. Cheeks is correct re: Book of Eli, although I did not like it as much as he did (the story moves a distractingly slow pace). It is an edifying and, ultimately, entertaining film.

avatar Sam M February 12, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Do these complaints apply to theater as well?

If not… what if someone filmed a good performance for later viewing?

What if, instead of filming one continuous performance, someone developed the idea of going through the action several times and selecting the best performances of each and splicing them together?

Wat if, soon thereafter, someone thought that instead of filming all the scenes in one place, he could go to different locations to film certain scenes?

In general, I think it’s good when people get together to do stuff. Sometimes that stuff is active, like fishing or pitching horseshoes or havong a picnic. Sometimes it’s more passive, like birdwatching, or looking at waterfalls. When I was a younger man, one my favorite activities was to go sit on the grass in a certain place and watch girls walk past. We didn’t say much to the girls or to each other. We just watched. Some people get together to watch stock cars make left turns.

In all cases, I think this is a good thing. Even if I think the underlying “event” or “reason” for getting together is not suited to my tastes or position in life. So no, I don’t go to the local “stitch and bitch,” I don’t go to bowling leagues, and I don’t gather with young guys to watch girls walk past anymore.

ButI don’t think that people who use these things as a pretense to meet are base or dumb or wrong.

avatar Jesse Walker February 12, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I feel the same way about literature. And all the arts, really, except for mobiles, comic books, and the washtub bass. At some point in life you’ve got to give up on other entertainments and spend your evenings contemplating a mobile dangling from the ceiling, reading a Spider-Man comic, or listening to someone playing the washtub bass. (No, you may not do these simultaneously. Barbarian!)

avatar D.W. Sabin February 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Obviously Peters, you have never seen “Anaconda” and witnessed J. Lo in her acting debut as “Baby Bird” and Ice Cube feigning drama or Jon Voight being spat out a monster snake whilst winking…not to mention the waterfall going backwards because they only wanted to spend enough money to film it once and had to show the boat going by the falls twice.

Ditto “Snakes on a Plane”.

Anything with a snake is my rule. It worked originally and has never lost its effectiveness.

avatar Sam M February 12, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Movies like “The Jerk” and “Caddyshack” have contributed immensely to my life. I am serious. They have helped forge friendships. They have given me a common lexicon when conversing with people across time, or with people from distant lands. I am a better person for the time I spent memorizing the lines and laughing with friends when one of us unloaded one at the right time.

If I were to tell you that Object X could do those things, and put it in a box, I think we would all agree that Object X had some value.

Would this have had more value if the object had been some bawdy poem by Alexander Pope, or Gargantua or something? I really don’t think so.

Besides, he hates these cans.

I thank god for that movie.

avatar James Kabala February 13, 2010 at 11:37 pm

The germophobia of this piece is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, right?

avatar Rob G February 14, 2010 at 12:11 am

Most Hollywood movies are crap. You do get the occasional standout, and the even less frequent true gem, but for the most part they are empty-headed fluff. The better films these days are the “small” ones — the indies and the foreign movies. Some of these films approach the level reached by great literature in terms of their impact on the viewer, their power to move, etc. I would never have movies replace books, but I do have a list of a dozen or so indispensable movies I would not want to be without.

You do have to do a bit of hunting, however, and the process can be like picking peanuts out of poop (bless you, Guy Ritchie!) But you learn to read reviews, listen to friends’ recos, etc., and it grows ever less difficult.

avatar Sam M February 14, 2010 at 8:16 am

“Most Hollywood movies are crap.”

Ever been to a Barnes & Noble or a library? Most books are crap, too. In about the same proportion as movies are crap. That hardly seems like an indictment of the form.

From Greek tragedy to Italian romance to novels to movies to television. In each case, people have harrumphed that the new form was lesser, intrinsically, than the old form. In all cases they have been wrong.

Is Saved by the Bell the equivalent of Dante’s Inferno? Of course not. But it seems rather unfair to take the very best of a form from hundreds of years ago, forget about al the also rans, then compare them to all of today’s popular entertainment, writ large.

I am guessing we will never really know, but is there any reason to assume that people went to see the Iliad performed for any reason other than “they were bored out of their minds”?

avatar Rob G February 14, 2010 at 4:52 pm

“Ever been to a Barnes & Noble or a library? Most books are crap, too. In about the same proportion as movies are crap. That hardly seems like an indictment of the form.”

Didn’t say it was, Sam. There are, though, far more books published every year then there are movies produced. Yet for some reason, a lot of folks aren’t as picky about what they watch as they are about what they read. My point is that one can (and perhaps, should) be as selective about film as one is about books. Most of us who are serious readers have learned how to avoid the stinkers; we can do the same with movies as well. And when you do, you find that film isn’t such a bad medium after all.

avatar Sam M February 14, 2010 at 8:08 pm

But most people make no effort to avoid “stinkers” at all. Want a list of the most borrowed books from British libraries from 2000-2010? Here it is:


Spoiler: People aren’t borrowing Chekov.

Just seems to me that the original post here is pretty far off the mark. Yeah, OK, a lot of people go see “Dude, Where’s My Car,” and love it. I don’t think that points to any moral failing on their part, but whatever. They are “bored,” I guess. And sure, maybe they ought to read more books. But if we did convince them to do so, I can’t envision there being a huge spike in sales of Dostoyevsky. Although I bet Danielle Steele would be a lot richer.

avatar N. P. West February 15, 2010 at 7:19 am


Your comment on “boredom” reminds me of Russell Kirk’s comments on “Social Boredom” in some of his many essays. I forget what he said exactly but as I recall he thought that social boredom (or a society which finds itself trapped in the ennui of boredom) was responsible for many of the cultural problems facing the United States. For Kirk social boredom and emptiness leads to consumerism, materialism, hedonism, crime, decadence, and a technology-driven populace. On some levels film and television reflects this, which is why Kirk was so famous for being against TV (he also called automobiles “mechanical Jacobins” but I digress…).

The point is one reason why celebrity and Hollywood have such popularity in this country is that we have a people who have spent the past 60 years (since the advent of TV and maybe earlier with the advent of film) being entertained instead of entertaining themselves. Where once people made their own music, read their Bibles, and eat food they had grown themselves now Americans listen to the awful sounds pushed on them by large corporations, read “People” and “TV Guide” and wallow in a diet of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

Being bored means you are more susceptible to superficial diversions. One reason the fictional writings of Wendell Berry are so refreshing is that they show a world before the advent of the television age, a time when one’s day was filled with an agrarian-distributist life of farming, raising a family, and being a member of your community. Such a life seems simple yet in many ways it is more fulfilling than the boredom that comes with a world inundated with images, image and 15 second soundbites.

I still watch film and television but I can’t help to think that the past 30 years have seen another explosive transition to a new age where technology and social boredom are joined. Our culture and communities deserve better. I’m not that inclined to think turning away from film is the answer but it could be a start.

avatar John Willson February 15, 2010 at 7:55 am

In one week in 1971 I saw “Easy Rider,” “The Last Tango in Paris,” and “Straw Dogs.” I didn’t again enter a movie theater until my youngest daughter forced me to take her to one of the Indiana Jones flicks sometime in the late 80s. HOWEVER, saying that movies are boring or a waste of time is just like saying that one should never, ever, have gone, and suffered through the abuse and stink, to see a play by Billy Shakespeare. I still don’t go to many movies, but anything in which Meryl Streep plays is to me about as much a waste of time as reading a Robert Frost poem. Goodness, what could constitute a non-waste of time?

avatar Rob G February 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

~~~most people make no effort to avoid “stinkers” at all~~~

True enough. But most people aren’t what I’d call serious readers. They read for the same reason they watch movies — entertainment and diversion. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but a serious person will not read (or watch movies) solely for those reasons, in the same way he will not eat loaded nachos for every meal.

BTW, I agree (mostly) with Jason’s preference for reading over movie-watching. But I read an awful lot, and sometimes when I’m too tired to read but not tired enough to sleep, watching a decent film will fit the bill exactly. And I don’t watch TV — I haven’t had cable for almost 10 years, and don’t miss it a bit.

avatar Arthur MacInness February 15, 2010 at 9:03 am

Let me see if I understand you, Mr. Peters. You can justify wasting your own time by writing snarky and snobbish *blog posts* like the one I just read — blog posts which are not even half as “smart” as you yourself take them to be. And you can justify giving someone like me the opportunity to waster his own time by reading (and commenting on) your snarky, snobbish, and not-so-”smart” blog posts. But you can’t justify the time it took to make or the time it takes to watch the works of Bresson, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Ozu, Renoir, Roehmer, Tarkovsky, Tati, Truffaut, and Welles — just to pick a baker’s dozen. Have I understood what you are trying to say? If so, well … um … *ok* and good luck with that.

PS: Watching Sturges’s comedies might help you actually *be* as witty as you only *think* you are.

avatar John Willson February 15, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Gosh, MacInness, a really constructive comment.

avatar Arthur MacInness February 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Mr. Wilson,

My comment was a good bit more constructive than was Mr. Peters’s post.

I recommended — if only implicitly — fourteen (count ‘em, fourteen) different things that Mr. Peters could do to further his inadequate education where film is concerned, and thereby to transcend (one hopes!) his present state of manifest ignorance masquerading as discriminating taste.

To wit, the fourteen (count ‘em, fourteen) different things Mr. Peters could do to educate himself and to spare the rest of us from any more of his manifest ignorance where film is concerned:

1. Watch Bresson
2. Watch Ford
3. Watch Hawks
4. Watch Hitchcock
5. Watch Kubrick
6. Watch Kurosawa
7. Watch Ozu
8. Watch Renoir
9. Watch Roehmer
10. Watch Tarkovsky
11. Watch Tati
12. Watch Truffaut
13. Watch Welles


14. As a bonus to my baker’s dozen: Watch Sturges — Sturges who does what Mr. Peters tries to do far better than Mr. Peters does

If those recommendations don’t seem constructive enough for you, perhaps you should actually try them yourself — along with Mr. Peters — and *then* let me know … i.e. let me know what you think, when you what you’re *talking* about is something that you’ve ever *thought* about.

avatar Lee C February 15, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I see your bid and double it. I think you’re mistaken; the movies are not just boring; they are (taken as a group) so immensely, painfully trivial. Worse yet, they are trivializing–they take what is very, very good in Creation and trivialize it; and they take what is very trivial and glorify it. The first is a kind of blasphemy; the second a kind of idolatry.

I have now attended quite a few Presbyterian and other churches that serve the demographic of the movie industry–the directors and writers who live in Brentwood; the camera grips and sound effects folks who live in Burbank; and the actors and various performers who live in Hollywood. I keep hoping to hear the pastors say something to this effect–the movies are largely boring, trivializing, idolatrous. But instead, sermons often come larded with quotes or (worse) clips from movies; but what the gospel might be remains rather a mystery.

Now will you please take on televised sports? Either sports are worse than movies, or movies are worse than sports; but I have a hard time telling which is worse.

avatar J.D. Salyer February 15, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I’d like to call everyone’s attention to what I think may be the actual rubber-meets-the road point of Prof. Peters’ essay:

“What I deny is that you can reach a certain age and still … ‘go to the movies’ intending not to see something in particular but intending simply to ‘go to the movies’ or ‘take in a movie’ or, because it’s Friday, ‘rent a movie.’ ”

That is, Mr. MacInness, it’s one thing to deliberately seek out *Yojimbo* or *The Third Man* because you know something of the director or are curious about how successful Graham Greene was in translating his vision into cinema; it’s another thing entirely to say to your buddies on a Friday night, “Hey, let’s go to the movies,” without giving any thought to what is playing, because you simply want the experience of going to the theater.

A lot of people do in fact do the latter, and wind up sitting through craptastic epics, simply for the sake of the warm all-American consumer-fuzzy of eating popcorn and milk-duds, getting blasted by Dolby, watching the previews, etc…

I think the last film I saw in theaters was *Valkyrie*. I saw it because I had specifically sought it out, not because I happened to be at the movies that particular day. (And I found it quite powerful, the antic-ridden rep of Tom Cruise notwithstanding.) I think there may have been one or two movies since then that I would have liked to have seen, but never found the time.

avatar J.D. Salyer February 15, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Lee C:

I’ll see your “movies are … immensely, painfully trivial” and raise: NOVELS are overrated.

I’m not kidding. Look into the history of literature, and you’ll find that serious intellectuals were as skeptical (if not hostile) to the novel as their modern-day counterparts are to TV and movies.

I’m not saying you should burn your copy of Pride & Prejudice; but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s as fruitful as (say) reading The Odyssey in Homeric Greek.

avatar Arthur MacInness February 15, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Mr. Salyer,

But Mr. Peters “hates” Netflix — the use of which requires one to *discriminate* among films in *choosing* which ones to place in one’s queue — just as much as he “hates” any (and every) other means of watching films.

The wonder is that he doesn’t also “hate” novels, since there are plenty of grandmothers who simply read whatever Harlequin romance turns up at the local library, as opposed to exercising discrimination to choose whatever it is that Mr. Peters would have them read instead of reading that random Harlequin romance … or watching, say, *Pather Panchali.*

It’s a wonder also that he doesn’t “hate” basketball, since that also prevents one from making good use of one’s time doing “more important things” like writing snarky, snobbish, and not-so-”smart” blog posts about how much you “hate” movies and how everyone else should too.

avatar Bob Cheeks February 15, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Hey, I’m loving this. You guys are beating old Peters black and blue and if it doesn’t stop, well I’m going to have to get Sabin to defend him and you don’t want that.
But MacInnes this is good: “like writing snarky, snobbish, and not-so-”smart” blog posts about how much you “hate” movies and how everyone else should too.”
BTW everybody, you might want try the Netflix movie “Into Temptation.”
I liked it a lot.

avatar Sam M February 15, 2010 at 7:52 pm

J.D says:

“I’d like to call everyone’s attention to what I think may be the actual rubber-meets-the road point of Prof. Peters’ essay…”

OK. But I like to look higher in a piece for the main thesis. I have identified this”

“It seems to me that an appetite for movies is a sign of bad taste, and ill-nourished is the man who feeds on them.”

So, you meet a guy who is a classics professor. He has excellent taste in wine, food, women and books. He is well traveled and can handle his own in a street brawl. He grows vegetables that take blue ribbons at the county fair. His somes are soldiers and statesmen. His daughters are brilliant, well educated and well spoken.

But one day you discover that this fellow has an “appetite for movies.” And let’s assume these are not the edifying art-school type. He likes Dumb and Dumber. Star Wars and Jaws.

The thesis statement here would seem to indicate that this fellow has bad tastes. And is ill-nourished.


JD also says:

“It’s another thing entirely to say to your buddies on a Friday night, ‘Hey, let’s go to the movies,’ without giving any thought to what is playing, because you simply want the experience of going to the theater.”

Is it another thing entirely? Why? I do all kinds of things on a Friday night with my buddies. Discuss books. Talk about our growing families. Of course, sometimes we get together to pitch horseshoes and drink beer until someone falls off his share. Sometimes we get together at hunting camp and play silly card games. Same guys. Different nights.

Seems to me that the height of poor taste and ill-nourishment is to sit and gloat that your pasttimes are in better taste or more nourishing. To go to a movie, a communal setting packed with friends and family seeking a common experiences, and declare them all lesser because they aren’t demanding their 100 minutes back.

Perhaps they are not as idiotic as you think they are, and their social interactions are a bit more complex than you are willing to admit. But what would I know? Sometimes I have the terrible taste to be ill-nourished by throwing darts with my chums. I mean, I could have been reading the Federalists Papers. What a huge failure on my part.

avatar J.D. Salyer February 15, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Speaking only for myself, I will go on record as wholeheartedly endorsing darts, cards, and beer. And good movies by good directors, such as those alluded to by Mr. MacInness.

I will even endorse purely entertaining films for relaxation, *provided* there is nothing toxic mixed in with the amusement.

I do not endorse the notion implied by Sam M, that whatever film, or book, or activity happens to give pleasure to a person — and/or gives a group of people justification for getting together– is A-OK.

I’m sure when the Roman Republic was crumbling, somebody asked if it was such a great idea for everybody to obsess so much over the gladiatorial games and gobble up bread & circuses … and, undoubtedly, some guy next to him took umbrage at this rank snobbery.

If a person’s taste in film runs toward, say, a steady diet of psychos in ski masks employing chainsaws to dismember naked screaming coeds … why, then, yes, call me an elitist, but I do think this says something unpleasant about his character. Even if he bonds with his buddies while doing it.

I contend that yes, it really does say something positive about a man that he prefers Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel The Big Sleep over, say, The Turner Diaries.

These are odd extremes, yes; but only the most naive would deny that most Hollywood productions are designed — CONSCIOUSLY DESIGNED — to appeal to the worst parts of our nature, to pander to the lowest common denominator of extreme sex, spectacle, ignorant prejudice, and violence.

In doing so, such productions dumb down the population and make us worse people — which is to say that they make us better and more voracious consumers.

This is not to say that everything must be some exercise in “enrichment,” anymore than every meal must be comprised of health food. But a film or book should not actively propagate superficiality, foolishness, or nastiness. Garbage in, garbage out.

And yes, if somebody has a taste for superficiality, foolishness, or wickedness, then in that particular respect they are superficial, foolish, or wicked — that is, they have what is known as a vice, a shortcoming. This doesn’t mean they can’t be otherwise fine people.

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 4:03 am

I’ve been following the comments here with the usual disinterest in whatever follows Dr Peters’ last one liner, but Sam M’s delight in his own wrongness is just going a bit far. For instance:

Quoting Peters: “It seems to me that an appetite for movies is a sign of bad taste.”

Sam M concludes that an otherwise tasteful person would be considered, by Peters, as being a person of bad tastes, were such a person also a movie-goer.

Well, Sam M, being possessed of “a sign of bad taste” is hardly the same as having no taste at all, is it?

And decrying what you presume to be Peters’ advocacy of blog reading and writing is simply a red herring. It’s irrelevant to the topic at hand. For even if Peters wrote (which he didn’t) that bloggers were the pick of our cultural litter, it wouldn’t matter a wit to the argument that the love of movies is a sign of bad taste–unless he were using his own blogger status as support for his argument (which he wasn’t).

Try giving the post a fair reading before building your next straw man out of it.

The point, which you’ve done your best to miss despite Peters’ clear exposition of it and Salyer’s patient effort at fair consideration of your obviously angry ripostes, is that, while there may be great films out there, (1) they won’t measure up to the best books, and (2) watching films is, by and large, worse for you than reading books.

As to (1), say what you will, but you won’t convince anyone that even The Seventh Seal is better than Portrait of a Lady or The Sun Also Rises. And for as fair a defense as I can give of such a claim, I encourage you to read Hume’s short essay, “Of the Standard of Taste.” History hasn’t venerated film in the way that it has venerated literature, so claims as to the cultural import of most films are just misplaced, until history has the chance to judge them similarly.

And as a related note to (1), you might consider just what distinguishes the medium of film from that of literature. For one, the films available to a wide audience are made by staggeringly smaller number of people than are the books available to a wide audience. You might rightly respond that the reason for this is that films are more expensive to make, and this naturally narrows the market for prospective film makers. Fair enough.

But there is another, more interesting reason for this phenomenon. Since films cost so much to make, those making them have a significantly higher interest in making each film very profitable than do the publishers of most books. For books, publishers let a thousand flowers bloom (though, of course, they do promote some that may have wide appeal), and make money off of books that sit on shelves for months. This is what allows great, but commercially unsuccessful, books to make their cultural marks. The film industry cannot work in the same way, because the expensive operation of theatres disallows any unprofitable film–regardless of its cultural worth–from spending more than a week or two in theatres.

All of which is simply evidence of the significant interest that film studios have in manufacturing and promoting products that appeal to the lowest common denominator in their audiences. And thus, any multiplex not in either downtown giant metropolis USA or the best of the best college towns won’t have access to truly excellent films. Let’s assume (fairly, I’d say) that most multiplexes are not so located. It follows, then, that if a film is commercially unsuccessful (let’s say, as unsuccessful as your data suggests that Dostoevsky is) it will not make it to most viewing audiences for a length of time that would allow people to make it to the theatre to see it. One notes that books really don’t suffer from such a condition.

Another note on the medium of film: you call for the near-impossible when you ask viewers to be at all discerning in what they watch–or at least, as discerning in the way that they are when they watch a film. A film last 90-120 minutes. By the time you’ve made any informed assessment about the nearly any films quality, you (1) are already half-way through the film and (2) have already paid your money. Two factors motivating you to sit through the rest of the film, to be sure. But additionally, there’s no way for you to tell the movie industry that you want to see something better, because you’ve already paid for your product. With books, you can sit in nearly any bookstore and peruse at your leisure, choosing to buy or not to buy based on the first twenty or thirty pages. And then, when you get to page seventy-five and you don’t like it, you can take it back. What I’m saying is that books are free-marketed in a way that films are not, because the response mechanisms for film are severely limited. This is why films are reliant on advertising in a way that books aren’t. Film studios must tell you what to see, and you must believe them, or they stand to loose the sort of money on every single film that a publisher stands to make or loose on maybe one or two books each year.

As for (2), that watching films is worse for you than reading books, some of what I said about the availability of great films applies here. But you might also note the effect of watching the worst movies against the effects of reading the worst books. When you read a book, even a bad one, you hone an important skill that’s useful for reading other books and for other things you’ll do in life; in short, you can become a more proficient reader, even by reading tripe. But how could you make such a claim for bad films? What skill do you hone? Watching? My guess is that this is what Peters had in mind with the claim that most moviegoers (see Walker Percy) are bored.

As for communal enjoyment, yeah, whatever. But Peters didn’t say that communal catharsis while watching The Mission was so problematic, did he? You can’t defend against Peters claim that “most movies are bad” with your list of great directors, and then try to defend crappy films on the basis of communal catharsis and bonding. The point is that communal experiences while watching great films can be a very valuable; comparable perhaps to (though surely smaller in scope than) the enjoyment of reading and discussing a good book with a valued friend or teacher. But as I’ve already discussed about the difficulty of seeing theatre films that aren’t just terrible, and then being tricked into thinking that the award-winning films really have some real cultural worth, it’s much more easy and likely that one will have this sort of experience with books than with movies.

So, all of that said, your defense of film rings pretty hollow–in no small part because you took Peters claims to be absolutely necessary, admitting-of-no-counter-example sorts of claims. If you read the post again, you’ll find that he was simply pointing out some significant problems with the ways in which we watch films today, and how reading will generally do more for you than will watching movies. But that isn’t to say that we couldn’t do better with films–better in such a way that Dr Peters would even consent to watch one again.

But for what it’s worth, I mostly agree with you about Netflix. I think that many of the ills of mentioned (but that you’ve overlooked) with the film industry can be, at least partially, remedied by the many options it give us, as well as the degree to which it limits our exposure to ads. However, I haven’t deigned to patronize it just yet; my own local rental place has quite a selection of foreign and classic films that I haven’t seen yet, and I’d like to try to give my money to someone I’ve met before a computer program or the red piece of metal sitting outside of the gas station.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 7:35 am

Ugh. Just had two long and brilliant (I promise) responses eaten by the ether. Both times it happened when I typed the words “Daving Denby” and “New Yorker” into the comment box. Coincidence? It’s entertaining to think not. Kids crying. You will all have to wait for my thoughts. Or not.

avatar Arthur MacInness February 16, 2010 at 7:43 am

Mr. Schroeder,

You can (hen)peck away at your keyboard till the cows come home, but all for naught.

Mr. Peters hoist himself with his own petard with the very first keyboard-(hen)peck of his own attempting to damn the medium of film via the medium of — of all bloody things — the *blog-post.*

I didn’t like “mean girls” in high school, and I like them even less when I’m a grown-man and so are they.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 7:46 am

“I do not endorse the notion implied by Sam M, that whatever film, or book, or activity happens to give pleasure to a person — and/or gives a group of people justification for getting together– is A-OK. ”

Well, I never said that. But I think it’s fairly obvious that going to a KKK rally for kicks is on a different order of magnitude than watching “Dude, Where’s My Car.” And I don’t see how getting together over the latter is in some way worse than getting together to watch girls walk past, or any of the other completely un-edifying things people do in groups. Sometimes, being in a group is the edifying part, and choosing not to spend that time in earnest pursuit of edification is part of the draw.

I think it’s more clearly a sign of bad taste when the neighborhood scold makes SURE to tell you she does not own a TV, and therefor has nothing to add to your discussion of The Wire. Because, did I mention I don’t own a TV! Never have! Or the dude who has 16 t-shirts telling everyone that he “eats local.” Just so you know.

It’s not all that different than the teenage girl who wears her hair a certain way because she saw Miley Cyrus do it. Only these people have replaced Miley Cyrus with Wendell Berry.

But it would certainly seem like a stretch to use these people as proof that not owning a television or eating local is a sign of bad taste.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 7:52 am

Holy cow. I just typed “David Denby” again, and the system bumped my whole comment. You guys got something against Denby?

Lat try: Aaron says: “The point, which you’ve done your best to miss despite Peters’ clear exposition of it and Salyer’s patient effort at fair consideration of your obviously angry ripostes, is that, while there may be great films out there, (1) they won’t measure up to the best books, and (2) watching films is, by and large, worse for you than reading books.”

Even if I concede these points, you can’t leap from them to conclude what Peters does regarding taste and nourishment. I provided a link above showing that people tend to borrow really “crappy” books from libraries. It’s completely nonsensical to extrapolate from that a claim that people who read have bad taste, or that people who go to libraries are ill nourished.

The if-then structure does not hold.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 8:23 am

Finally,regarding JD: I will grant that ignorant prejudice is bad. But are sex, spectacle and violence REALLY “the worst parts of our nature”?

Does great literature ignore these things and appeal to something else?

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 9:08 am


Good point. That must be why we can’t trust anything written, because writing is inferior to real experience, too. Someone should’ve let Shakespeare, et al, in on the secret.

And you’re point about ‘mean girls’ is well-taken, but unnecessary. Most who’ve followed your posts already got the idea that you didn’t get on well with the ladies, even back then.


Since Dr Peters mentioned the “nourishment” of moviegoers in the context of “feeding on films,” one suspects that a metaphor might’ve been in the mix. Or did you think that films were edible?

And yes you can make the leap; read the Hume essay, for one. Film is going to be inferior because it hasn’t been judged by history in the way that literature has been. This is why it’s fair to say that any claim about the superiority of any contemporary novel to, say, The Odyssey is simply misplaced. Two, it’s unlikely that the set of films available to most people is of any significant aesthetic quality at all, for precisely the reasons I’ve mentioned (and you’ve left unaddressed). Thus, Peters’ claim that frequent movie-going is a sign of bad taste–not a sufficient condition for it–seems pretty well-placed.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 11:07 am

“Since Dr Peters mentioned the ‘nourishment’ of moviegoers in the context of ‘feeding on films,’ one suspects that a metaphor might’ve been in the mix. Or did you think that films were edible?”

I am entirely aware of this. I am not sure what I wrote that would indicate otherwise.

“it’s unlikely that the set of films available to most people is of any significant aesthetic quality at all, for precisely the reasons I’ve mentioned (and you’ve left unaddressed).”

I didn’t respond because it’s a complete non sequitir. I am not sure to what extent you are an authority on what’s available to “most people.” But I live in a tiny rural town and we have… a library. It has films of all sorts. We also live within an easy drive of a smallish movie theater that regularly offers all kinds of movies. Yes, they have “Dude, WHere’s My Car.” But they also showed “A River Runs Through It.”

Of course, most people live in cities, or with easy access to cities and all the cultural offerings thereof. People also have access to things like the internet.

But of course access is beside the point anyway. The people of England have access to world-class libraries and, as shown, choose to read something other than books that are accepted as “great.” I assume that the sales of movie tickets in cities with great cinematic assets shows a similar disinclination towards literary edification.

So… people can find great movies if they want. And great books. Most people, even when they do choose to consume these forms, choose something other than greatness. So I am not sure how this means that choosing to consume one form is an indication of bad taste.

“Thus, Peters’ claim that frequent movie-going is a sign of bad taste–not a sufficient condition for it–seems pretty well-placed.”

He says nothing of frequent movie-going. Again, what he said was: “an appetite for movies is a sign of bad taste, and ill-nourished is the man who feeds on them.”

So, even if we accept your claims that people don’t have access to great movies, which I think is easily falsifiable, that doesn’t matter. Even if I were a rural farmer with great taste in movies, a yen for the accepted classics of the form, and I refused to watch lesser entries in the genre, the mere fact that I have an APPETITE for the movies is a sign of my bad taste. I don’t even need to go to the theater. The fact that I WOULD go to the theater if great movies were playing is enough to tag me with the “sign of bad taste.”

Of course, if someone then built a theater in my hometown to meet my demand for cinema, and I “fed” on this terrible brain candy, my soul would then become ill-nourished.

But speaking of non-addressed claims… Does David Denby have bad taste? Is he ill-nourished? He wrote a whole book about re-reading the Great Books. It’s a wonder he has any fondness for them, isn’t it?

Sure, you can say, well, he’s an exception! Well, I can reply with the same response regarding readers with good taste and well nourished intellects. Yes, some people do regard reading as a way towards such benefits. But the vast majority of readers do not. Thus… is it fair to say that reading is a sign of bad taste, and that readers who feed on this form are ill-nourished? More often than not, that assessment would be true. So can we say that, generally, of the form?

If you are curious as to how often this happens, go to your local book store and ask how many copies of Canterbury Tales have sold in the past year. Then ask how many copies of The DaVinci Code have sold.

Darn readers. Such bad taste.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 12:28 pm


It’s worth diving into this claim again

“it’s unlikely that the set of films available to most people is of any significant aesthetic quality at all”

I obviously disagree. But even if I accept your point, doesn’t it argue AGAINST the notion that we should use an affinity for movies as a sign of bad taste?

For instance, let’s say there is a small, isolated town in Iowa. It has one restaurant. A really, really bad restaurant. But it’s the only one in town, so people go there for all sorts of reasons. Maybe someone is just passing through. maybe a guy’s wife kicked him out. maybe a family is having their kitchen redone. Maybe someone is having an event, such as a rehearsal dinner, that their culture seems to think should happen at a restaurant. Whatever the case may be, it is fair to say that some of the people there might not actually have bad taste, they simply don;t have other options.

Now let’s look at a fine French restaurant in New York City. It has received five stars from all the major reviewers. The foodies adore it. But you investigate, ans soon discover that 99 percent of the people there do not order off the menu, but instead insist that the waiters serve them twinkies and hot dogs. they completely ignore all of the excellent, culturally approved offereings in favor of junk.

I think that in THAT case, it is safer to assume that someone walking through the door of the restaurant has bad taste, seeing that you know that there in 99 cases out of 100, that patron will ignore the good stuff and buy the junk.

So in your view, we have movie theaters that offer no good films. Meaning that a person who likes movies is left with very view intellectual or edifying options. Well, what’s the guy supposed to do?

But in the case of a library or book store, even a crappy library or bookstore, we have readers consistently favoring Dan Brown and Oprah over Alexander Pope and Shakespeare.

Would you have a sounder argument, then, by positing that the guy entering the bookstore is more likely to have bad taste?

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm


If you’d read my earlier post, you’d have noticed that the bulk of my criticism was leveled at films in theatres–not the complete set of available films. And further, that I agreed with you about the ameliorative effects of film-library sorts of institutions (e.g. Netflix) on the selection available to film ‘consumers.’ But you should also notice that the bulk of Peters’ criticism was leveled at theatre-going as well–not at deliberate, considered film screening in one’s own home. My sense is that Peters would have far less bad to say about films if such a high proportion of film profits weren’t dependent on megaplexes offering a tiny selection of varying shades of excrement. And how can I say that that’s what the film industry is producing and distributing? Because that’s what they’re most incentivized to produce and distribute.

This isn’t to say that a worthwhile film isn’t widely distributed once in a while. But if the cost of that one film once in a while is the gigantic edifice dedicated to the consumption of drivel, it seems reasonable to say that most of what people are watching when they go to the theatre is not worth watching. And if that’s what most people are watching, then an addiction to movie-going will covary with bad taste, simply because, by and large, the good films that are made aren’t widely distributed.

Consider a hypothetical analogue. What if bookstores were like movie theatres and could sell only ten to fifteen books at a time. Bookstores in large cities and suburbs could probably sell a few more, and those in small towns might be able to sell only three or four. In such instances, of course almost all of what gets sold would be tripe. Why? Because the production and distribution of tripe by publishing companies would be incentivized in ways that excellence would not be, because tripe would appeal to the lowest common denominator in readers, thus attracting the greatest number of consumers. So, maybe a few private publishing houses would put out a few great books that a few people would discover while reading a journal online and checkout at their library. In such an instance, you’d be right to say that taste in film would be the same as tastes in books.

The significant difference, of course, is that only the film industry is incentivized to produce crap in the way that the hypothetical book publisher is. By and large, book publishers are not incentivized in this way, because their products are almost all produced akin to the best sort of film viewing that you praise. That is, for the best films, you have to browse, consider, maybe experience a little of through a reviewer, and then almost always rent the film. The same for nearly all books, except you buy it and can read a little of them before purchasing. The difference is that movie-going does not allow for such careful consideration before the product is purchased–especially when we go to films “because it’s Friday” or whatever. The money is paid for the crappy product, and your preference is expressed, thereby incentivizing the film producer to produce more crap.

I don’t know how to write this in a way to make the point more clear to you: books aren’t like theatre-going because we don’t read books like we go to the theatre. Thus, the incentive structure for the production of theatre-films will not be the same as the incentive structure for printing books.

On a separate but related note: you seem to think that the public is no less discerning in choosing what it reads compared to what it watches. Perhaps. But you might note that all of our middle and high schools and most of our universities require some exposure to the sorts of criteria that people might use for assessing just what makes a book great, and thus how to select one. There is no such training whatsoever for films. And before you jump the gun and assume that I’m saying that every single student who has sat through English Comp 1 in 9th grade is more qualified to choose a great book than any film, let’s be clear: that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that I take it to be good inductive evidence that, by and large, we’re better at picking good books than we are good films, because every one of us who has graduated from high school has had more training in picking good books than we have had of picking good films. Of course that will differ from person to person. But the effects of such training across an entire culture would seem significant.

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

To your later post. Just because they eat there on a time of occasion doesn’t mean they have bad tastes, no. But that’s because, if they had good tastes, they would surely yearn for a better restaurant but know that the demands of their culture required them to have it somewhere. But the people in that small town will have bad tastes if they insist that what the crappy diner is serving is gourmet. So what if they haven’t been exposed to better food? Having or not having bad tastes may or may not be one’s own fault, and I’m not sure that Peters was commenting on that. The point is simply that exposing oneself to things of low taste would develop bad tastes in people. Full stop. So, it’s good inductive evidence that if the overwhelming majority of films available at the theatre are of low tastes, then the people going to see them with any frequency have bad tastes themselves. It isn’t a necessary condition; it’s simply good inductive evidence.

I think my most recent post responds to your other considerations.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

So people who don’t have access to high culture have bad taste. But people who have access to high culture but refuse to consume it don’t.

Interesting concept, but I am not buying it.

I also don’t buy the argument that people who live in a small town and frequent a single bad restaurant acquire bad taste, full stop. They might have developed good taste in food at home, for instance. Or they might developed good taste in food when living in a city for college, or when traveling in the service. Have you ever lived in a small town? Has it been your expereince that everyone there agrees that the limited cultural offerings are the cat’s meow? I have lived in small towns, and my experience tells me the opposite.

But what we do have is your claim that most people do not have access to good movies, so going to movies is a sign of bad taste.

And we have the fact that most everybody has access to good books, and evidence that almost all readers eschew the good books that are available in favor of Marley and Me, and choose to wallow in low culture despite easy access to high culture.

From this set of assumptions and evidence, you conclude that it’s the movie goers that are taste-challenged. Interesting.

avatar Jim Dooley February 16, 2010 at 1:38 pm

It seems to me that Walker Percy had more to say about most moviegoers than they are bored. Alas they discover in the experience their own true selves. Look at me, the big innerlectual taking on Bergman. Look at me, just a commuter on the 5:45 to Short Hills and taking Pelham 123. Hey, I thought I was bad but how about that slut getting punched in the face down the Jersey Shore. And she’s like…famous. I could do that. Don’t be so disgusting, Madison.
The restless ghost tarries for a couple of hours, maybe a little longer, before taking to the road again.

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I’m sure you’d find it more interesting, Sam, if you’d read what I wrote.

It’s not that ‘small town people’ (which, by the way, I thought you were using as a term in your example for ‘unexposed to good taste people’) necessarily have bad taste. It’s that people who haven’t been exposed to good things will almost certainly have bad taste. I mean, your only counter-examples to the small town diner involve people whose tastes have been developed elsewhere than the crappy diner. That is, even the small town people who have good taste didn’t get that way by being exposed to crappy food. So, by analogy, how could you then claim that movie-goers who’d never been exposed to excellent films could not have bad tastes without having been exposed to good films elsewhere?

And about books, I honestly don’t know how you’re not seeing the false comparison, here. No one is saying that being a reader is a sufficient condition for having good taste–as evidenced by the link you’ve provided. And no one is saying that being a movie-goer is a sufficient condition for having bad taste. The point is simply that access to excellent films and to the know-how necessary to find which films are excellent is something most people lack in a way that they do not lack with excellent books and the capacity to recognize those. Why? First, because very few of us have any culturally sanctioned exposure to films, and we do have such exposure with books. And second, because those who produce films have a significantly greater incentive to produce bad films than do publishers to publish bad books. It follows from these assumptions, then, that the likelyhood of a person having bad taste is increased if they are a movie-goer.

Part of the point you seem to be driving is that people might go to bad movies, even though they have good taste–just as they might eat at the bad diner, in spite of their knowledge otherwise. Maybe. But–and maybe we’re actually getting somewhere with this–I’m inclined to think that a necessary condition on having good taste is an inability to tolerate products in bad taste. I don’t have any real evidence that isn’t anecdotal, but here are two possible lines of argument.

Line 1. When we take in cultural artifacts–like movies, books, essays, concerts, etc.–there’s a sense in which we make those artifacts a part of who we are. Call this the Self Set. And that’s the case even for artifacts that we reject; they define us negatively, in constituting the set of things we are not. Call this the Exclusive Set. But how is it that artifacts come to belong to and be excluded from the Self Set? My sense is that–and Plato and Aristotle would agree, I think–artifacts come to belong to the Self Set by habituation. So, when we listen to rap or baroque music constantly, that music becomes a part of who we are. When we watch pornography or read Romantic poetry often, those become part of who we are. And when some things become a part of the Self Set, other things that are opposed to the contents of the Self Set become parts of the Exclusive Set, and we develop a distaste for them. So, when video games become a part of the Self Set, it’s easy to see why exercise and physical labor become a part of the Exclusive Set. And that is not to say that people can’t enjoy video games can’t enjoy exercise; only that bringing mutually contradictory elements into the Self Set can be very difficult, and it is unlikely that most have achieved that sort of balance.

And this is just what good and bad taste amount to. One can be said to have good taste in proportion to the degree of good things that constitute his or her Self Set and to the degree of bad things that constitute his or her Exclusive Set. Conversely, one can said to have bad taste in proportion to the degree of bad things that constitute his or her Self Set and to the degree of good things that constitute his or her Exclusive Set. And it’s habituation that’s key, here. For when we become habituated to bad things, those things come to constitute our Self Sets, and we will be more likely to have bad taste. Conversely for good taste.

So, when we say that a movie-goer is exposed overwhelmingly to bad films (because such is their training and such is the incentive for movie studios to produce), it’s reasonable to say that a movie goer is habituated to seeing bad films, and thus that bad films are more likely to constitute such a person’s Self Set than are good films. And since a Self Set constituted of bad things is often the mark of a person with bad taste, it follows that being a movie goer will likely be a mark of a person with bad taste.

And the point here, again, isn’t that readers can’t have Self Sets comprised of bad books. It’s simply that almost all readers have some training in discriminating between good and bad books, and also that the incentive for publishers to produce and distribute excellent works is much greater in than is the incentive for film studios to produce and distribute good films. Thus, it’s more likely that readers will have Self Sets comprised of good books than will movie goers have self sets comprised of good movies. And so, Dr Peters’ original claim, that an addiction to movies is often a mark of bad taste, seems apt in most cases.

avatar M. February 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I think the real problem with this article and the ensuing discussion is Dr. Peters’ assertion:

“Let it be said—and then let us be done with the matter—that movies are inferior to books and conversation. If I allow that bad books are inferior to good movies, or that good movies are more to be desired than dull conversation, I hasten to add that movie-watching is never the same as reading—and it is certainly not as strenuous as engaging in dull talk.”

To categorically dismiss movies as a medium is a mistake. There are many forms of true leisurely activities. One could not say that experiencing art or nature or watching a play/ballet/opera/concert is inferior to reading, it may be or it may not. For example – meditating on an icon of the Theotokos “Donskaya” or reading the works of the Desert Fathers – to dismiss one as inferior would be to not take into account the person, time and purpose of the activity. As someone mentioned, Shakespeare is definitely meant to be watched rather than read and Homer did not sit down to write a book that was to be read. And sometimes, it is better to watch a sunset together rather than to talk. That said, to make a fetish out of one form of activity is to forget that we are human and that human creativity has many outlets.

Which brings me to movies. In my mind, movies are controversial because they are a modern medium. But it is as natural for people to be drawn to motion pictures as it is to pictures and it is as natural to enjoy watching people speak on a screen as it is on a stage. To dismiss motion pictures entirely as a medium because some (or even many) movies are bad or even because television is bad is to miss the opportunity to see the good in the creativity of the human, which reflects the creativity of God. The fact remains that there are good movies and these are worth seeing for their own sake, not because one has nothing better to do or to avoid a boring conversation, but for their *own sake*. It may be that movies have a long way to go before any movie has the genius of a Homer, but we do not stop reading Woodhouse because he is not Homer nor because the English publishing houses gave rise to Mills & Boone novels.

avatar Sam M February 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Well I suppose we are getting somewhere with this, in particular:

“But–and maybe we’re actually getting somewhere with this–I’m inclined to think that a necessary condition on having good taste is an inability to tolerate products in bad taste.”

My evidence is anecdotal as well, but it works in the exact opposite direction. I know people who have excellent taste in food. People who work at five-star restaurants. And these are people who crave McDonald and Taco Bell from time to time. I know excellent novelists who yearn to watch sophomoric teenage soap operas. Tenured professors in the Classics who wallow in pop fiction.

I guess we just know different sets of people.

But I am pretty convinced that I would never, under any circumstances, take a look at a whole FIELD of endeavor and declare that a passion for that field amounts to a sign of bad taste. I know lots of people who are quite worldly and manage to make a case for chainsaw carving or professional wrestling. It seems exceedingly strange to me to make the leap that these are the only cultural artifacts these people embrace, and that therefor their mere presence at the exhibirion of such amounts to a sign of poort taste.

Even Tom Wolfe had a thing for NASCAR. In fact, every single person who I can think of who has come to be associated with “good taste” had a thing for something. The famous Adam Gimbel, who built Saks Fifth Avenue from the 20s through the 70s, had a thing for fake ski slopes made of soap. His wife, the famous Sophi Gimbel, invented cullottes.

Cab you name a single person who was so enured with good taste that they had not a single happy daliance with something lesser?

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 11:33 pm


You’re ‘counterexamples’ aren’t that. They’re examples of people whose tastes, to some degree, deviate from what’s good. So, while we might claim that such people “have good taste,” we really mean, “for the most part, such people have good taste.” But what justifies the “for the most part” is the very fact that they have some preferences that deviate from the good. And the greater the degree that their preferences are so deviant, the weaker their claim on having good taste. After all, it’s even weirder to imagine the gourmand who prefers and indulges only in fast food. How could such a person believe that some food was the best (e.g. not fast food) and nonetheless prefer the very antithesis to the food they believed was the best?

And just to drive home the point, you know these people who have good taste, save for the occasional happy dalliance. But wouldn’t it follow, then, that if those dalliances just are deviations from good taste, their tastes would be better if they didn’t bother with those happy dalliances? Since, if they didn’t bother with deviations from good taste, their Self Set would be constituted entirely of tasteful things?

To help motivate this, consider asking a music historian for advice on what music was the best. Now, both historians might have listened to all of the same music, and they might even recommend the same music to me. But if I were to discover that one had an idiosyncratic preference for Boyz 2 Men, having memorized their lyrics, bought tickets to numerous concerts, and the like, whose advice would it be most reasonable to treat as the more trustworthy? The point becomes starker if they make contrasting recommendations. Whose advice, honestly, would you take to be the more trustworthy?

avatar Aaron Schroeder February 16, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Check that last paragraph. “Consider asking two music historians…”

avatar Arthur MacInness February 17, 2010 at 8:14 am

Mr. Schroeder,

Back in the day, I got on — and today I still get on — quite well with the *ladies.*

My problem is with *witches* like Mr. Peters and you.

avatar Sam M February 17, 2010 at 8:15 am

But now you are moving the goal posts, if not changing the sport entirely. Just a few posts ago, you said:

“I’m inclined to think that a necessary condition on having good taste is an inability to tolerate products in bad taste. ”

Now you are saying that people of good taste… tolerate products in bad taste!

If the inability to tolerate products in bad taste is a NECESSARY CONDITION of having good taste, as you stated, then people who occasionally dally in bad taste do not meet the necessary conditions of good taste. Because they would not be able to tolerate such products. Their tolerance of such products would be dispositive.

If tell you that an inability to tolerate sunlight is necessary condition of being a vampire, and we see someone tolerating sunlight, however briefly, we must conclude that person is not a vampire.

I would add that, in my mind, your definitions of good taste are beginning to strike me as a definition of “insuffereable snob.” For instance, let’s say that guy from small Iowa town has a family reunion. He does not have enough seats at the table in his home, so he arranges to have people eat at the local restaurant. He knows it’s not great, but he has no other options.

So Cousin Good Taste arrives and announces, upon seeing the buffet: “Sorry, Cousin Bad Taste. This food does not appear to be good food. And I CANNOT TOLERATE bad food. I will have to sit here and go hungry until I can arrange to eat food that meets my high standards.”

I think your idea that people of good taste cannot tolerate products of bad taste is a completely untenable definition.

avatar J.D. Salyer February 17, 2010 at 9:23 am

At this point I am utterly lost. Since the initial post commenced with C.S. Lewis, I thought maybe this excerpt from *The Screwtape Letters* might be of interest:

“The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation … No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food:

‘Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.’

Now, this useful phenomenon is in itself by no means new. Under the name of Envy it has been known to humans for thousands of years. But hitherto they always regarded it as the most odious, and also the most comical, of vices…

Under the influence of this incantation those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever before to pull down everyone else to their own level.

But that is not all. Under the same influence, those who come, or could come, nearer to a full humanity, actually draw back from fear of being undemocratic. I am credibly informed that young humans now sometimes suppress an incipient taste for classical music or good literature because it might prevent their Being Like Folks; that people who would really wish to be — and are offered the Grace which would enable them to be — honest, chaste, or temperate refuse it.

To accept might make them Different, might offend against the Way of Life, take them out of Togetherness, impair their Integration with the Group. They might (horror of horrors!) become individuals…

Meanwhile, as a delightful by-product, the few (fewer every day) who will not be made Normal or Regular and Like Folks and Integrated increasingly become in reality the prigs and cranks which the rabble would in any case have believed them to be. For suspicion often creates what it expects. (‘Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.’)”

avatar Jason Peters February 17, 2010 at 9:57 am

We might all benefit by willfully subjecting ourselves to the sting of Mr. Salyer’s useful remarks.

This thread ceased to be useful the moment it cut itself off from charity, so I am closing the comments.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: