Are there significant disadvantages to your present fame?
Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, double obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.
—Vladimir Nabokov, in an interview with Herbert Gold and George Plimpton, The Paris Review, October 1967, reprinted in Strong Opinions, McGraw-Hill, 1973
Was that true at the time? Novelistically speaking, Nabokov was between Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the latter of which would earn him a 1969 Time magazine cover with the line "The Novel Is Alive And Well And Living On Antiterra." Lolita, at least as a concept if not a novel, was still famous. And what about now? You and I might not think so, but I think it's close to being true. it's on its way to being true. One way that it's going to get to be true is via what cannot be called a systematic dismantling of Nabokov's reputation, because to call it a systematic dismantling of Nabokov's reputation is a little bit conspiracy-theory minded. But on the other hand, the notion of an actual zeitgeist is not tinfoil-hat based. Although it might be considered a bit of a stretch for me to base a zeitgeist prediction on literally a snippet of actual evidence, I'm gonna do it anyway, because that really is how such things start: with an offhand, brief dismissal from a modish critic who's thought by his/her editors and at least a certain portion of his/her readership to represent an exhilarating new perspective on that thing we call, in this case, literature. The piece is "A View From The Margins," which was published in the New York Times Magazine late last year, and which reprinted a bunch of scribblings that critic Sam Anderson had made in books he had read over 2011. In June he looked into Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense, written in the late 1920s and published in English translation in 1964, near the height of the author's fame or whatever it was. The translation was prefaced, as all of his translations of that time were, with a short essay on the work by Nabokov, in which he never failed to include a swipe at Freud (got kind of tedious after a while, I gotta say) and in which he generally took a kind of pomp-ironical perspective on his own status as a literary grandmaster while at the same time taking that status very seriously indeed.
Thus, in this particular preface, describing the process by which he wrote the book, he cuts off some recollections of butterfly-hunting landscapes, like so: "Some curious additional information might be given if I took myself more seriously." Anderson has underlined this sentence, and in the margin written, "Oh please sometimes I hate Nabok."
And it is of course the "Oh please" that will be the predominant attitude in the coming debunking of Nabokov. Unable to best a particularly obdurate mandarin in the field of erudition or ability, the default reaction will be the eyeroll, followed by the shrugging dismissal. Never mind "What is the guy trying to say?" From hereon in the questions are "Who the hell does this guy think he is?" and "What has he done for me lately." And the answers will be "A doubly obscure novelist with an unpronounceable name" and "Wrote a pervy book about a child molester." And Sam Anderson won't have to "hate Nabok" anymore. (I know that Anderson tells a different story in the audio snippet that accompanies the multi-media presentation of the piece that I've linked to. I don't buy it.)
For a guy who's been unfairly made a poster boy for art-cinema self-seriousness on and off for almost fifty years now, Alain Resnais is a pretty cheery fellow. The photos of him shooting, and attending screenings of, his 2009 film Wild Grass show him to be not merely spry but practically jaunty for a near-90-year-old, which he was at the time. (He turned 90 this past June.) The English-language Wikipedia entry on the man has a quote from him that I like, which is, "I hope that I always remain faithful to André Breton who refused to suppose that imaginary life was not part of real life."
This sentiment is not only attractive in itself, but also as a way into his films. Pauline Kael rather famously grouped the 1961 Last Year At Marienbad, which Resnais made in close collaboration with the the then-almost-notorious novelist and theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet, in her "Come Dressed As The Sick Soul Of Europe Parties" collection of films (along with La Dolce Vita and La Notte), as if the film were really attempting to Say Something Profound about contemporary malaise. Her reading has persisted; a few years ago when the movie, finally, came out in an excellent DVD edition, one critic (if I recall correctly) wondered why the movie hadn't been subjected to a Simpsons parody, given its status as a cultural touchstone versus what was perceived as its risible stiltedness.
What occured to me at the time, and what I failed to articulate in a very constructive way, is (and this is not exactly an original thought, but it's also not a popular one) that Marienbad was already a parody, albeit not a parody of anything that's immediately recognizable to a North American audience. That for all its possibly lachrymose melodramatic posturing there's a vein of playfulness running through the thing, which I've discussed in other blog posts: a cameo from a cardboard cutout of Alfred Hitchcock, a pastiche of postures from Charles Vidor's Gilda in which Marienbad actors Sacha Piteoff and Delphine Seyrig act out in manners similar to George MacCready and Rita Hayworth (which puts persistent suitor Giorgio Albertazzi into the Glenn Ford role). And all of this is secondary or even tertiary to the fact that this is not a lament for the Sick Soul Of Europe in the least but rather something like a science-fiction film in which cinematic conventions and modes of manipulation are used to fold time. Which is kind of neat. But difficult to see if all you can look at are the tuxedoes and the scowling faces and all you can hear is lugubrious organ music. That's all Kael could do. The author of Deeper Into Movies was incapable of looking at Marienbad that didn't hew to her verdict of "empty." Years later, reviewing the droll, ironical, and poignant Providence, Kael persisted: "Resnais's movies come out of an intolerable mixture of technique and culture."
Take out the "intolerable" and she might be on to something. Because, let's face it: Both technique and culture figure strongly in Resnais's films. So let me put this out there: the extent to which you might feel that he's able or unable to imbue his work with that ultimate intangible Kael refers to as "feeling" might depend on how much, or in which way, you respond, or are able to respond, to the culture that informs his films.
While not necessarily "sick-souled" the milieu of the movie is certainly European or at the very least Euro-centric; I don't know of any convention in North American vacation culture that's quite so, um, formal. the European context renders certain other Resnais pictures more obscure to United States viewers than others. The original French title of the 1997 Resnais movie released here as Same Old Song is On connaît le chanson, which translates as "You know the song;" and indeed, in France viewers likely did know the French pop songs that its characters spontaneously broke into lip=synching, as the originals played on the soundtrack. Here in the U.S., we could get off on the playful movie karaoke but didn't necessarily get the same cognitive rush we might have had the song been, say, "Free Fallin'."
The examples could go on and on. With Resnais films, and with films not by Resnais. Your appreciation of Muriel might well be enhanced by some basic knowledge of the French war in Algeria. That weird prologue to Stavisky with Trotsky might be enhanced by knowing who Trotsky was, and maybe a little more than that. Taking note of the fact that the road signs in the long highway scene in Tarkovsky's Solaris are in Japanese and not Russian might help make the sequence more "interesting," or less "boring." A cursory knowledge of the so-called "Doctors' Plot" in the Stalin regime may not help you all that much with Alexei German's Khrustalyov, My Car!, I'm afraid. But it could.
Which brings us to Resnais's new film, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which comes up in an essay by Jason Bailey on The Atlantic website entitled "Film Culture Isn't Dead, It's Just More Fun." I met Jason under rather unusual circumstances recently; he was sitting directly to my right, unbenownst to me, as I bitched to Farran Smith Nehme about his piece on Paul Thomas Anderson. The initial mortification that followed his introduction was followed by a constructive conversation, and I don't want to spoil our collegial relations so soon after they've been established. But I don't believe what I'm about to point out will, or should. I'm not going to talk about the thesis, or theses of the piece, which I address, in sometimes oblique and sometimes direct ways in, I think, every post I write on this blog. Anyway, here he is on the Resnais: "Maybe it's blasphemy to give up on a Resnais, but I'll own it: I couldn't find a way into the film, so I looked for a way out of the theater. It's handsomely staged and marvelously cast, but the picture is so frightfully dull that I couldn't lock in on it. He's so busy constructing magical realism and frames within frames that he doesn't accomplish the simpler task of engrossing his audience."
Let's begin with the straw man, which is "maybe it's blasphemy to give up on Resnais." All I can do, whenever someone makes an assertion like that, or like, "pushy film snobs have forced me to see The Master more times than I wanted to" or any such thing, is ask, "Who?" Who are you talking about? Who uses words like "blasphemy" when characterizing your negative reaction to a Resnais film? I love Resnais's work, practically revere it, but if someone doesn't like it or doesn't want to know from it, that's his or her business. On the other hand, when someone disparages it on grounds that I find on examination to be untenable, then I'll debate the point. And even when I disagree, it's never gonna come down to "you better like this, or else you're philistine who can't be taken seriously." I offer as Exhibit A a passage from one of my favorite writers, Georges Perec, from his novel Things: A Story Of The Sixties: "They were highly suspicious of so-called art movies, with the result that when this term was not enough to spoil a film for them, they would find it even more beautiful (but they would say - quite rightly - that Marienbad was 'all the same just a load of crap!')" Find me one writer who does this on a regular basis. One. (No, not Wells.) The reason this straw man is so irritating is that it gives the writer the opportunity to adopt the pose of the oppressed: "Oh, these film snobs, it's not enough that they like the most impenetrable crap, they want US to like it too." It's no wonder guys like me get paranoid enough to believe that the agenda's being reset to squeeze the challenging stuff out.
It's fine for Bailey to admit that he couldn't "find a way into the film." But the way he lays all the blame for that on Resnais is flimsy, evanescent. He accuses the filmmaker of being preoccupied with "magical realism" and failing to "engross the audience." Well what does he have to do to engross an audience? It may well be that a French audience finds the cast sufficiently engrossing, as it's packed with some of the best, and most prominent, performers French theater and film has to offer. And it may well be that a French audience, one with a decent liberal arts education, may well be at least intrigued if not engrossed by Resnais's "mashup" of two plays by Jean Anouilh, who is to French theater what, say, Edward Albee is to American theater. Now granted, a cinematic mashup of Virginia Woolf and The Goat would not likely be a box-office bonanza here, but it would not be something that either Jason or I might consider entirely hermetic, particularly were it to be directed by, say, Mike Nichols. An American director who, like Richard Lester, knows from Resnais.
Again: I'm not saying it's not all right to not like You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet. I myself was rather surprised to see it got U.S. distribution of any kind, given that its elements of cultural specificity make it a challenging sell. What I'm saying is that as critics we have to take some responsibility for our own ability, or lack thereof, to see as fully as possible what a picture is up to before we put the assessment pedal down.
The punchline to this will be that Bailey did his master's thesis on Anouilh.
But seriously: in complaining about a supposition that "truly great cinema must be met (at least) halfway," can one not detect a whiff of chauvinism? If going halfway or further is now unacceptable, do we just throw away works that are "too" French, for instance? This goes deeper than taste, you know. And "taste" is just a function of vanity anyway. Just ask Pascal. Another French dude.