This intra-critical dispute has a little to do with a lot of things, including the symbolic schism over films as different as Terrence Malick's family history of the universe, "The Tree of Life," and the Marvel Comics-derived mutant-superhero opus "X-Men: First Class." It has something to do with the utterly unsurprising fact that most critics have decanted bucketloads of scorn all over summer flicks like "The Hangover Part II" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," and have seen them go on to become massive worldwide hits, demonstrating once again that eggheads who watch 350 movies a year have become specialists or experts, of one variety or another, and don't have much connection to ordinary moviegoers or the reasons why they buy tickets.
It has a whole lot to do with the ancient 20th-century feud between advocates of art-house cinema, which is essentially a remnant of what used to be called "high culture," and fans of mass-market popcorn entertainment. Which is weird, because one side won that battle a long time ago but refuses to acknowledge its victory and wants to go on acting like the aggrieved underdog. And as tempting as it is to compare the winning side to post-Reagan conservatives who keep whining about what victims they are, decades after their demented ideology has permeated our culture from top to bottom, it isn't totally fair, so I won't!
[. . .]
Now, I'm not saying that our variety of boredom was superior to anyone else's (or, to be more honest, while I may believe that at some level, it clearly isn't true). The boredom of Eisenhower-era America produced that extraordinary cultural and political efflorescence known in the aggregate as "the '60s." The boredom of the first impoverished generations of Parisian bohemians produced Impressionist painting and Symbolist poetry. The boredom of the Hollywood studio system produced Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Brian De Palma (and, boy, talk about mixed results). The boredom of life in America's neglected Reagan-era inner cities led to hip-hop. Watch any Chekhov play, and you grasp the national ennui that preceded the Russian Revolution. I'm saying that boredom is a productive and indeed revolutionary force, by the way, not that its results are always or everywhere pleasant.
I think what gets critics all het up about contemporary culture from time to time is the sense that the tyranny or hegemony of entertainment has pushed boredom so far into the margins that it's no longer available, or at least not in the density or quality required to produce cultural revolutions. What we have instead is the meta-boredom of a pop culture that's all bells and whistles all the time, can't be switched off and watches us while we're watching it, rather too much like the telescreens of Orwell's "1984." As I wrote a few months ago when reviewing the unbelievably boring "TRON: Legacy," it's the "boredom of endless distraction and wall-to-wall entertainment, the boredom of a culture where boredom is forbidden ... and the once-proscribed Pleasure Principle has become iron law." (Andrew O’Hehir, “In praise of boredom, at movies and in life,” Salon, 7 June 2011)
It's the problem with being a movie critic these days. Everytime you watch "non-boring" movies that appeal to the current nervous state of the masses, that play to the limited kind of stimulation they can handle and assurances they require, you're for a couple hours grouped in with them, always at risk of being reminded of ways you may remain like them -- not a pleasing thing when what defines the masses these days is not so much their low-brow taste but their for-sure susceptibility to a brutal fate.
But at least it gives you the sense that you're still engaging with your fears, something you couldn't get if the gig was mostly about critiquing high-brow fare. And there is a remedy: some involved discussion afterwards of things that remind you you aren't really SO much one of them, despite whatever shared background and lingo. (Even better when the discussion can count amongst its participaters at least one who is near fully sincere.)
The reclaiming of true leisure, growth out of relaxation and boredom, could just be all good. (I enjoyed Mark Helprin's fairly recent defense of the same.) But it can remind you of articles like that one recently written by David Brooks, which argue that what we need most now is a return of a leisured, governing class -- people who are still constituted to appreciate the slow, to deliberate, patiently, and do what is necessary for the long-term. People like Obama, who can remain mostly serene, cerebral and assured, governing over a nation turning itself fully over to the lords, as far away as it can from the plebs, while making this seem somehow a return to architectural sanity. It needed, that is, be about reclaiming the '70s, but its opposite.