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  • Amir Steklov

On "Self-Indulgence" in Film Criticism

Written by: Amir Ovadia Steklov - all rights resaved



The term "self-indulgence" is one that I hear more and more these days when reading others' critiques and talking with film and art scholars. It's always associated with a negative reception of a film and criticizing the director personally for their poor work.


Tagging a film as "self-indulgent" is often an act of cancellation. It is one of the most aggressive terms in film criticism. It leaves no room for the filmmaker to respond to the criticism because every word they utter about it will only worsen the argument for "self-indulgence" in their work. When conducting my own research on the term, I found many different interpretations of it, from people saying it's synonymous with "self-importance" to "lack of awareness" and "self-pity". Bowdoin Van Riper has an interpretation that is widely popular among scholars; he writes:

 

"Self-indulgence" means that the director has included elements that they personally like, while forgetting or stubbornly ignoring the fact that they add nothing (or even subtract) from the film.

 

One thing that I find missing is the literal meaning of the term:

Self – a person's individuality and soul.

Indulgent – prioritizing the enjoyment of pleasurable things.

 

Why is the act of personal enjoyment being received as repulsive by film and art critics?

To answer that, I'd like to note that the word "indulgence" has another meaning: In the Catholic Church, indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due for sins that have already been forgiven. It is believed to be granted by the Church through the merits of Jesus Christ and the saints. When looking at the term "self-indulgence" through the eyes of the Catholic Church, one can reason that it would be a great sin; to give oneself indulgence would be like taking on the role of the church or even God itself.

 

I would like to argue that the Christian roots of "self-indulgence" are the basis for the negative discourse about filmmakers and artists nowadays. In the 2020s, the act of "self-indulgence" in art and film is seen as a great sin, something that the artist shouldn't do no matter what.


The message I receive from this discourse is that to be a "good artist", one should do the opposite of “self-indulgence”; to suffer for the greater good and be thankful for it. A "good artist" should sacrifice their life for the art so others can find peace in it. The act of self-indulgence conflicts directly with the practice of self-sacrifice.


Take the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for example: a very famous tourist attraction for the whole family, where parents and children can enjoy colorful oil paintings hanging on walls in a large building. Children can also enjoy the story of the artist who suffered so much to the point of taking his own life, and by doing so, gifted us this loving family experience of appreciating colorful oil paintings, many of them of Van Gogh's own portraits, not showing a trace of his life struggle; he kept his pain to himself and channeled fun, colorful family time through his brush. And you, children, should learn from Van Gogh if you want to be artists when you grow up.

*I'm not saying this is what Van Gogh meant in his art. I'm saying that's the message the museum is conveying to the visitors.

 If that's not a description of a Christian church and Jesus, I don't know what is.


In Catholic teaching, the seven deadly sins list "gluttony" as the first one. Its description on Wikipedia reads "over-indulgence and over-consumption of food or drink." And in Protestant teaching, there are other sins related to self-enjoyment, like masturbation. As a non-Christian filmmaker, I find those sins very foreign.


I come from a Jewish background where there are no concepts like "guilty pleasures" and "self-sacrifice" for others' sins. Living in Berlin, Germany, and being part of the art and film world, I have also criticized films as "self-indulgent" in the past. But now, after thinking and researching about it, I would like to change my ways.


I do not want to be part of an emerging religion or a group that uses religious terms against the legitimacy of artists to make their work the way they want to make it. I do not believe that an artist should suffer in order to be considered a "good artist". I also don't believe that self-sacrifice has any role in determining the quality of artwork.


I truly believe that if a director is enjoying the process of filmmaking and can communicate their passion to the audience, while being smart and entertaining, they can achieve great art. After all, aren't cinema all about human connection and entertainment? So, what's wrong with connecting with a director through things they enjoy doing themselves?


Quentin Tarantino is famous for saying, "Why? Because we love making movies," before a new shoot. If Tarantino is making the enjoyable aspect of filmmaking the main motivation for him and his crew to make movies, is that a practice of "self-indulgence"? – I've never heard anyone criticize him for doing so. And if they do, I don't think the self-indulgent aspect of his work is his weak point; vice versa, it's his strong point.

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