Editor's Choice

Connoisseurship and snobbery

Felix Salmon linked to this article about the fraud of wine connoisseurship.

In 1976, an esteemed all-French jury gathered in Paris for a blind tasting to compare eight of France's greatest wines against a dozen upstarts from California. In an upset worthy of Hollywood, the United States trounced France, winning top honours in both the red and white categories.

Now, Hollywood has finally found its way to the story. Not one but two films based on the so-called Judgment of Paris will duke it out for attention this year....

The event's significance has predictably been interpreted the same way ever since: California had vaulted its way into the wine stratosphere. True. But if there's justice, the films will also be a reminder – in these boom times for wine snobbery – of a message far more overdue.... Without the benefit of a glance at the label, wine connoisseurship is so much hot air and bluster.

Perhaps in the past, wine tasters could pretend to a comprehensive expertise, but with the globalization of the wine trade, that kind of mastery has become impossible.

There is no myth about wine more enduring than that of the Olympian taster, the man or woman who can, with one sip, instantly peg a wine down to the vineyard, harvest year and grape blend. Such legendary stunts, when not actually apocryphal, almost always sound more impressive than they are.

Scratch the surface and you'll usually find the field of potential wines was implicitly very limited. Until about 40 years ago, when Bordeaux and Burgundy were the be-all and end-all, the “blind wine” was virtually always pulled from a tiny list of well-known estates in the hearts of those regions – the Moutons, the Cheval Blancs and the Romanée-Contis. If you had tasted enough of those wines from a bunch of recent vintages (not difficult and not a financial hardship in those pre-hyperinflation days), you could acquit yourself pretty well. There was no fear, say, of somebody slipping in a Chilean cabernet (a style of wine, incidentally, that defeated Bordeaux once again in a repeat of the Paris tasting a few years ago using an all-European jury).

This is suggestive of what Morgan Meis argues in the essay I linked to yesterday: "It is difficult simply to keep up with the vast global cultural output, let alone to make determinations and judgments."

I always have the impulse to link to these sorts of essays, which expose connoisseurship as essentially phony, without any basis in some kind of objective form of discrimination. Maybe I've read too much postmodernist theory, or suffer from living in postmodern times, but it's hard to recognize an objective basis for critical authority: the credibility of the critic always seems to be more at stake than the nature of the work being evaluated. (Apparently I have become a pretty committed relativist, or rather, I've become infected with anti-elitist tendencies which find expression in an urge to want to democratize aesthetic judgment.) Would anonymous reviewing ameliorate this? Without a particular critic's established ethos to supply credibility, the question of why one should take any particular opinion seriously would be inescapable. We don't have time to give every piece of anonymous criticism the same shot -- when we have the urge to consult a critic, we need criteria for selecting which ones to pay attention to. These criteria will inevitably take the form of branding, capitalism's preferred solution for helping customers sort through a surfeit of information.

When I indulge the urge to denounce connoisseurship, I usually focus on the critics who seem preoccupied with their own egos, with monetizing their personal brand and masking their commercial motives with bogus paeans to art's objective purity or beauty. But perhaps I shouldn't blame these connoisseurs who are merely meeting a demand for their style of opinionmaking. When connoisseurship springs up in regard to a particular type of experience, it indicates an influx of gullibility, and a sudden social need for authoritative voices. This happens when the experience in question ceases to be undertaken for its own sake and becomes enlisted in status-driven posturing. Yes, the connoisseurs exploit and exacerbate the insecurity which generate the initial demand for their dubious services, but ultimately, no consumers are required to take critics seriously. But we always choose to, because critics help police class boundaries, and give us parameters with which to locate ourselves in the social hierarchy, which on an official level supposedly does not exist. It's important not to lose sight of the fact that taste never transcends politics to achieve some sort of objectivity, nor is it a totally subjective matter of merely personal import; it draws up class boundaries while preserving the illusion of self-determination that's central to capitalist ideology, since social mobility as a motive requires ambiguous class boundaries. Critics and connoisseurs dispense sumptuary laws, because the state, under capitalism, cannot.

It follows that critics and connoisseurs are only as credible and convincing as their class allegiances are obvious. Connoisseurs have no choice but to be snobs.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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