Reflection

On Kevin Smith’s Potential

Every film has a goal. To explore the capabilities of a framing device. To decry the bourgeois camera style of early directors. To demonstrate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget. Some goals aren’t quite so lofty. Many films exist to simply divert, to entertain, to provide a convenient way for general audiences to fork over thirteen dollars. And that’s totally okay! The existence of blockbusters isn’t dependent upon the failure of art house cinema, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to adhere to a formulaic critical philosophy in order to ensure the survival of one’s preferred strand of film.

But some critics seem to be out of touch with this idea. Why criticize a Transformers movie for its “special effects incontinence” (this is from an actual review) when the whole franchise is intended to exist as little more than a drawn-out CGI battle? Identify what the film is attempting and then evaluate how well it achieves it. It’s simple.

And now I’m going to utterly violate this rule in order to criticize Kevin Smith.

But it’s for a good reason! It’s difficult to separate a film from the director who created it. Any time I see a movie by someone I’m familiar with, it’s inevitable that I’m going to trace common threads between what I’m watching and what I’ve seen before. For evaluative purposes I have an obligation to distance myself from the rest of their filmography, but knowledge of what someone has done before gives a critic a glimpse into what they’re capable of.

Kevin Smith is capable of a lot. We know that because we’ve seen him live up to his potential. Clerks is an oft-cited example of well-executed low-budget cinema, and Chasing Amy shows that he’s capable of taking a nuanced stance on ideas like love and sexuality. The man has talent, moreso for writing than for experimenting with film form, but we’ve nonetheless seen that he’s capable of creating art with substance.

So why on Earth isn’t he using it? I’m not going to criticize the content of Yoga Hosers and Tusk, because he never wanted them to be good in the first place. I am, however, comfortable saying that Kevin Smith’s willingness to make mindless entertainment is worthy of criticism. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with mindless entertainment, but because Smith shouldn’t be the one creating it. In the same way that driving a Ferrari strictly in areas with a speed limit below 35 is a waste of potential, Smith’s recent filmography is disappointing purely because of what the man could achieve if he only tried.

It doesn’t look like Smith will be changing his tack any time soon. He’s currently developing a film called Moose Jaws, a sequel to Yoga Hosers. It’s a quasi-parody of Spielberg’s Jaws, but with a moose rather than a shark. I’m not expecting too much out of that.

I just hope that Smith realizes, preferably sometime soon, that making something that will be remembered as more than just entertainment is worth the effort. Good movies, movies that do more than hold our attention for ninety minutes and make us chuckle, can have a profound impact on our culture. Silly films about walruses and living sausages are fine, but leave them to less capable directors. You have more important things to do.

The Inseparability of Romanticism and Science

As a humanities-focused student and a “romantic” according to Robert Pirsig’s definition, I’ve always had some preconceived ideas about people who pursue math and science. For instance, I tend to think of them as fact-driven, emotionally detached from their investigations, and focused on the utilitarian outcomes of their work. Of course, some scientists probably fit this description fairly well, but a quote from Einstein raises another possible motivation for the pursuit of these disciplines that I hadn’t considered before. He claims that some scientists are drawn to their profession out of a desire to “escape from everyday life” and “[trace] out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.” It may not even be the useful outcomes of their investigations that draw them in, but the experience of the process itself. Human life is emotionally turbulent and opaque, often not understandable by cold logic alone. Science, on the other hand, relies entirely on objective observation. Although the process is challenging and involves countless missteps, the tools that garner answers in science are well-defined and easily observable. Perhaps these tools attract those who are turned away by the volatility of everyday life.

 

There is, however, a hint of irony in Einstein’s justification of scientific pursuits. Everyday life, just like science, could be broken down using methods of logic and inference. It’s just that the objective tools of scientific investigation are rarely applied in an informal setting, and therefore human life takes on the appearance of an impenetrable mystery marked with emotion and uncertainty. If we stick to Pirsig’s definition, then claiming that science is understandable via logic and everyday life isn’t is itself a highly romantic statement. It’s looking purely at the observable veneer of each pursuit: science as a chain of reasoning and life as an ever-changing combination of mysterious factors. A true scientific mindset would hold that life can just as easily be approached using logical tools of inference. Perhaps this tension, this inability to see the entirety of existence through an objective lens, shows that we all have a degree of romanticism within us. The tools we use to perform science may be based entirely on observation, but the motivations for utilizing them are not so pure. Even Einstein couldn’t deny that science is sometimes pursued for reasons beyond the purely utilitarian and logical.
Furthermore, science is also influenced by rules of morality and justice, rules that are based entirely on romantic intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the evolutionary conditions that have trained us to cooperate with others, ethics are based primarily on emotion and instinct. Science, thankfully, is restrained by these ideas, which demonstrates that there is a degree of intuitive decision making that affects even the most objective discipline. It seems to be impossible to separate ourselves entirely from our romantic affectations, which is probably for the best.

Wyoming, Tourism, and Raw Experience

For the most part, it was a fairly normal vacation. My father took the family to Wyoming to see Yellowstone and other odds and ends. I enjoyed my time there and would certainly recommend it to anyone, but there was one specific event that got me thinking. It was our first full day of the trip, and my dad had hired a tourism company to show us around Grand Teton national park. There was nothing wrong with the tour guide at all; he was personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. Nor was there anything amiss with the park itself. It was certainly an enjoyable excursion with many beautiful sights, but something didn’t feel right about the experience itself. It felt unnatural and contrived, like a trip to Disneyland rather than to one of America’s great preserves.

It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to realize the source of this feeling. After we got back from the tour, I went out on my own to explore the resort town we were staying in. I found my way to the base of the ski slopes (sans snow, as this was during the summer) and set out to climb to the top. It was an exhausting endeavor, and I didn’t even make it to the summit. When I reached my limit I sat on the slope and looked down onto the town, the surrounding plains, and saw other mountains far in the distance. It was certainly a beautiful view, but nothing like I had seen in the park a few hours earlier. Despite this, I felt a strange sensation. I was sitting atop a mountain tailored and manipulated by humans, but I felt more fulfilled than I ever did in the largely untouched park. I took in the view and sat in silence, enjoying the spontaneity and adventure of the moment. I felt a sense of discovery and escape that I didn’t experience earlier in the day. This was very odd to me: the park was much larger, much more natural, and more beautiful than what I saw sitting on the slope. Shouldn’t I have been much more excited by that?

On the way down, I was able to pinpoint the reason for this disparity. Climbing the slope may have been less exotic and seemingly less interesting than visiting the national park, but it was of my own doing. I set out on my own, I made my way to the slope, and I decided to climb it without planning. When I completed my journey, I had all the time in the world to sit and enjoy the experience. It wasn’t anything daring or extravagant, but it was entirely my own. While our trip to the park was entertaining and informative, it was largely manufactured. The tour guide picked us up at our rental condo, drove us to the park, and ferried us around to predetermined points of interest. There was no discovery or uncertainty involved, and discovery and uncertainty are the very things that make something like a vacation meaningful. This doesn’t apply only to something like a trip, though; it can be used to consider the value of any experience, even those that seem pedestrian. An experience is not memorable or meaningful purely because of what is seen or done. The way one engages with an experience, connects with it, explores it, and makes it their own is what truly matters. A truly meaningful experience cannot be contrived, but must be sought after individually and organically.

After considering my experience on the slope, I began to wish that I had been able to experience the park on my own terms. It was, of course, a family vacation, so I absolutely understood the need for a degree of structure, but I still felt a twinge of annoyance that such a promising opportunity had been marred by artificiality. Later, my family discussed the tour. Everyone thought that it was highly beneficial to our experience because it allowed us to see more of the park and find things that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. I don’t find this to be a compelling argument against my proposal for a more natural approach. Sure, we may have been able to see more, but wouldn’t it have been better to intimately and meaningfully engage with whatever we managed to find on our own, rather than viewing everything the park has to offer on the surface level? I sure thought so, and I still do.

I certainly don’t want to sound like an ungrateful brat. I’m appreciative of all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but I do feel that many of these experiences could have been greatly improved. I now make an effort to allow experiences to unfold in a natural manner so that I can engage with them and connect with them on a more visceral level. I do believe that it can help to enrich life, so I implore you to do the same. Explore life’s joys without any pretense or structure, wander aimlessly, search for nothing in particular, and take the time to reflect on what these experiences mean to you. Forego the tour guide and truly connect to whatever you manage to stumble upon. Make an effort to search for nothing in particular, and I guarantee that you’ll find something of value.