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An attack on rich smug postmodern people whose moral vacuity is matched only by their moral preening, the film has drawn rebukes from the New York Times and the New Yorker reviewers. The NYT is the milder of the two:

The condition it depicts will be familiar to just about anyone who buys a ticket, and its insights might have been generated by a Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism smartphone app.

Nicely written. But the New Yorker reviewer is more than dismissive; he is hopping mad. He argues that mindlessly toxic films like The Square, and many like it, which unfairly accuse a class of educated and not entirely depraved people of brutal, clueless, narcissism, destroy liberal culture and make the world safe for reactionaries:

[Films like this one work to] feed the maw of populist resentment, to exacerbate hostility toward liberal society, to propose no change or improvement, to lament no tragic conflicts, but, rather, to reject liberal society with a muffled, derisive frivolity, to despise institutions, norms, mores, and—above all—the educated urban bourgeoisie and the professional competences and administrative order that it sustains. Lacking artistic originality to propose or effect a shift in consciousness or a new mode of experience, they offer a constipated realism that rubs others in their filth while keeping their own hands rigorously pristine. Theirs is a cinema of reactionary snobbery, a righteous snort of contempt of exactly the sort that feeds far-right rejectionism all the way around to where it meets far-left rejectionism—in haughty, self-righteous, and humanly challenged cynicism.

The artwork that comes to mind reading this is Wallace Shawn’s performance piece, The Fever, where he attempts precisely to take seriously – in emotional, intellectual, and ethical ways – the costs of what the New Yorker’s critic calls “bourgeois comfort and sophistication”:

[Hyper-realist films like The Square display] the conspicuous restraint of aesthetic nonintervention, of falsely bland repudiation of visual expression, as if to let the facts onscreen speak for themselves. But the actual artistic point of these satires on bourgeois comfort and sophistication is a visual simplicity that matches the dramas’ repudiations of technological, intellectual, and bureaucratic modernity… The bureaucracies [these films] despise are, so to speak, the bureaucracies of others; their films aren’t shot through with the discourse or the intricacies on which they depend—as many of the best films of the time are, often in surprising ways. (Such a varied films as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Get Out,” “The Future” and “Let the Sunshine In” grapple with the increasingly abstract complexities of modern life in styles that reflect those complexities.) In short, cinematic invention goes together with societal investigation; for Haneke and the Hanekets, the social cinema is a sneer under glass.

And now what comes to mind is Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, in which he distinguishes between what he calls the cultural left (post-structuralist theorists, mainly) and the progressive left (politically pragmatic, not terribly theoretical people who write within a basic acceptance of liberal democracy that Richard Brody sees missing in these films). Rorty writes about a “spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left,” which seems, in regard to The Square and its ilk, apt.

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3 Responses to “From Two Reviews of the Film “The Square””

  1. dmf Says:

    Rorty was a post-structuralist but most of the cultural left not so much, more the dawning of PC/identity-politics (people who say things like racism isn’t personal but structural) lots of light readings of Marx and the like.


  2. Jonah R. Says:

    So in short, what the New Yorker reviewer is saying is that these movies are bad because they are literally not politically correct? That pompous millionaires in the high-art world should be protected from mockery, lest another Trump minion pop into being?

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonah R.: I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. It’s not that these films are not politically correct; it’s that they’re not political.

    I take it his point is that if you’re going to make a film yet again revealing (in the NYT critic’s dismissive shorthand) the cultural contradictions of capitalism, there should be a reason for it to exist (originality; cultural critique…), since variations on amusing blind amoral pompous high-art millionaires are now a dime a dozen. People make much of the scene in The Square of a “wild animal” striding threateningly through a hyper-civilized party crowd, for instance, though Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) and many others before him have done that one to death.

    One doesn’t necessarily have to follow the New Yorker writer into his anger at what he sees as the political quietism and even damage of lazy films like these – I’m not sure I myself do. But I do find convincing the other part of the argument, which he shares with the NYT writer: These films are heavily recycled.

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