Richmond Park, 10th April 2015
In Jeffrey Sconce’s seminal essay Irony, Nihilism and the New American ‘Smart Film’ he coined the phrase “Smart Cinema” to classify the films made by the disparate group of filmmakers who rose to prominence in the 1990s despite appearing to operate at the fringes of mainstream American cinema (Tarantino, Solondz, Zwigoff, Payne etc.). While Peter Biskind would later identify this wave in Down and Dirty Pictures, his classification was based primarily on their modes of production and their semi-independent nature. Sconce, on the other hand, identified certain aesthetic connections in their work – namely their detached style and tone.
While the films of Quentin Tarantino and Todd Solondz may appear to have little in common in terms of content, a detached style is certainly apparent in both, as evidenced by their penchant for long, static takes. And only the most literal of beings could miss the ironic tone in their work. And these really are the aesthetic cornerstones of the smart film – long takes and irony. Sconce goes on to tie these aesthetic identifiers, particularly irony, to a desire on the part of members of the post-Baby Boomer era, Generation X, to distinguish themselves from mainstream popular culture which remained dominated, both artistically and financially, by their parents’ generation. By using irony, filmmakers could engage with a form of popular culture as conformist as narrative cinema, while maintaining a certain knowing detachment that separated them from (and elevated them above) the mainstream.
He also draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s study of the nineteenth century French bourgeoisie, Distinction. The central thesis of this work was that aesthetic judgements and cultural preferences could act as methods of class distinction and that people consciously used them to distinguish themselves as members of particular class groups. And Sconce notes how an emphasis on taste is often apparent in these films either in terms of the form – eg. the heavily annotated work of Tarantino – or the content – eg. the foregrounding of the musical tastes of the characters in High Fidelity.
The smart film was, in many ways, however, a product of its time. While Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs were obvious metatexts, the latter a commentary on screen violence, the former a metatextual study of cinematic form and genre, by 1997 Tarantino had made a much more sincere drama with Jackie Brown and by 2004 had directed a straight-up martial arts movie, Kill Bill. Overwhelmed by his enthusiasm for pop-culture he had no time left to comment on it. Todd Solondz, who had gone from treating the subject of paedophilia in a blackly comic fashion in Happiness had, by 2012, offered a fairly didactic piece on the cultural and moral bankruptcy of the comedies of Judd Apatow and their infantilised male protagonists with Dark Horse. Even Noah Baumbach’s most recent film, While We’re Young, was remarkably sincere by comparison with the rest of his oeuvre.
Anyway, there is something of the American smart film’s ironic tone in a lot of current football coverage. In an effort to differentiate themselves from mainstream figures like Richard Keys and Gary Lineker or from frothing lunatics like this guy, many commentators like to treat their football coverage with a sense of irony that often borders on disdain. Which is understandable, albeit completely phoney. Football supporting is a visceral experience. Displaying enthusiasm for the subject of football does not automatically make you an idiot. The exuberance of Tim Vickery is one of the many qualities that make him the best English language football journalist in the world. 99% of these pundits who treat football analysis with an ironic coolness and feign disinterest in the fortunes of their national team will immediately revert to rationalising and defending the performances of their own team in the face of even the slightest criticism. This also makes it really annoying and these types can remind me of the dickhead sitting behind me when I went to see The Raid who roared with laughter at every stunt so everyone could know that he got it but was so above it. It was as if he was watching an Ed Wood movie. What a moron. It had no camp value you idiot! It was straight up amazing. That guy really was a moron.
One of the most visceral experiences in football is the collective sense of injustice felt by fans and players together when decisions don’t go their way. St. Pats had another player, Lee Desmond, sent off (probably correctly) on Friday, making it four sending offs in the last three games. When John Dunleavy got away with just a warning for another foul moments later the lovable rogue himself, Killian Brennan, took it upon himself to take up this point with the referee . And when Brennan then received a yellow card for his troubles we all lost our minds with the injustice of it all (conveniently ignoring the 2 yellow cards Cork City had already received thanks to Brennan’s brilliant chicanery). And, to be honest, this was the most exciting thing about the game. Look, you can be ironic and cool watching football all you want but sometimes the only way to really enjoy it is to tear your hair out and call people wankers.