The journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has, either in spite or because of his standing as something of a self-important clod, made several significant contributions to the lexicon of show business. I was reminded recently of his late ‘80s citation of his former agent, the diminuitive and feisty Michael Ovitz. Ovitz, according to Eszterhas, responded to Eszterhas’ announcement that he was leaving Ovitz and his agency CAA by telling Eszterhas that he, Ovitz, had “foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day” who would “blow [Eszterhas’] brains out.” Such colorful language. Hollywood, like so many other fields of endeavor, is full of emotionally disturbed people who often fancy themselves tough guys.
What brought the denied-by-Ovitz Ovitz pronouncement to mind was a piece that appeared on New York magazine’s Vulture website nearly two weeks ago, by one Brian McGreevy, entitled “Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave.’” I need not go into the larger substance of the piece here; I’m not a television critic and I’ve already (I think) expressed my opinions on the use of the word “brave” as applied to performers, artists, what have you. What struck me was what came after McGreevy’s largely sensible exhortation that Lena Dunham’s public persona does not necessarily line up with Lena Dunham’s function as a creator or artist. “Lena Dunham is not weak,” McGreevy warns the reader. “Lena Dunham will cut your throat in your sleep.”
“She will do no such thing,” I laughed. I laughed even more because prior to his fulminations in this vein (and there are a lot of them), McGreevy included a clause reading “as a producer.” What has McGreevy produced? According to his bio below the piece, he has executive-produced a Netflix series based on a book he has written.
I know that David Foster Wallace once made mild fun of Susan Faludi for referring to a porn movie set as an “ecology,” but reading McGreevy’s piece I myself found myself contemplating a cultural ecology in which an individual with precisely one producing credit to his name feels sufficiently confident to swing an inflated rhetorical dick around like he’s Mace Neufeld or something (I’ve actually met Mace Neufeld and I doubt he’d stoop to anything so vulgar, or unnecessary). A cultural ecology in which the Internet arm of a major publication will pay probably-not-that-good money for the inflated rhetorical dick swinging. And most of all, a cultural ecology in which consumers are expected to be pleased to be told that Lena Dunham will cut their throats in their sleep.
“[A]ll art is a product of shameless opportunism that deserves to be applauded,” McGreevy continues. “[Dunham] is a woman who has risen through a masculine power hierarchy to become one of the most important culture-makers of the 21st century without compromising her artistic identity, and is fucking a rock star, this is more or less as baller as it gets.”
The unfortunate adolescent quality of McGreevy’s language aside, we are, once again, quite a long way from the ethos of our old friend Andrei Tarkovsky, who once wrote: “Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives. As Pasternak put it:
“Keep awake, keep awake, artist,
Do not give in to sleep…
You are eternity’s hostage
And prisoner of time.
“And I’m convinced that if an artist succeeds in doing something, he does so nly because that is what people need—even if they are not aware of it at the time. And so it’s always the audience who win, who gain something, while the artist loses, and has to pay out.”
Call me crazy, but I see a pretty straight line connecting a skepticism toward the “difficult” in art and “We Saw Your Boobs,” a production number I’ll admit to having missed during its initial broadcast, and still haven’t caught up with. Hostile, ugly, sexist: these are the words that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson uses to describe Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s schtick as host of the ceremonies. I have to admit my reaction to some of the outrage (not Davidson's, I hasten to add), in part, is to say, in my imagination, and now here, to a certain breed of multi-disciplinary pop-culture enthusiast, well, you picked your poison, now you can choke on it. It’s all well and good to make “fun,” “irreverence,” “FUBU” or any number of related qualities the rocks upon which you build the church of your aesthetic, or your worldview. But you might want to remember the precise parameters of the choices you made on the occasion that they bite you on the ass. Not to mix metaphors or anything.
Also published on the Internet around two weeks ago, on the website Buzzfeed, was something I guess is referred to as a listicle, entitled “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” in which the author, Amy Rose Spiegel, expressed her immense disdain for the musical form in digital rebus style. She takes immaculate care to only lampoon the white, and rather hackish (per conventional wisdom), practitioners of the form, until the very end, in which she allows “But really, the worst part of despising jazz is when people say ‘No, no, you just haven’t heard the good stuff! Blah blah blah Miles Davis Charles Mingus blah blah blerg.’ Actually, I have. I have, and I hate it.”
Now all this is arguably ignorant, arguably hateful, arguably racist. It excited a fair amount of disapprobation in my circle on Twitter, where it became clear that some of the people complaining about it were friendly with the piece’s “editor,” to whom I myself expressed some displeasure, and she in turn expressed displeasure that I was making it “personal.” Call me crazy, again, but I can’t see too much of a way not to respond “personally” to such a piece. Plenty of people in the “conversation” allowed that, well, Buzzfeed DOES do great things, but that this wasn’t one of them, and that it was regrettable. I see it completely the opposite way. I see “What’s The Deal With Jazz?” as absolutely emblematic of Buzzfeed and all it stands for, just as I see the charming piece called “Django Unattained: How Al Sharpton Ruined A Cool Collector’s Item” as absolutely emblematic of the site Film School Rejects. I know I’m possibly coming off like Susan Sontag yammering about how a million Mozarts could not cancel out the fact that the white race is the cancer of civilization. I’m aware of the good that is out there. But let’s face it: Robert Fure, Amy Rose Spiegel, and tens of thousands of others are eager to bulldoze it, and the Jeff Jarvises of the world are happy to let them do it, if only because it will prove their theories about the Internet to be correct.
In 1998 a couple of writer friends, who I’ll call K and L, made me the gift of a personal introduction to a man I’ll call D, whose work as a journalist and an artist I had long admired. Our first dinner was at a steakhouse on Tenth Avenue, after which we went to see P.J. Harvey at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Great show, you shoulda been there. Anyway, during the course of the dinner conversation, K was talking about how he had recently seen the movie Belly, a kind of hip-hop gangster movie starring DMX and Nas and directed by Hype Williams. K described his discomfort with the movie and some of its depictions, but was having trouble articulating that discomfort. D, a person of exceptional perspicacity and directness, and someone who had been something of a professional mentor to K in the past, cut to the chase.
“Did you find it morally objectionable?”
K thought this over for a bit. It was clear that he did not want to seem prim. It was also clear that trying to bullshit D wouldn’t do.
“Yes,’ he said. “Yes, I found it morally objectionable.”
D smiled and cut into his steak and said, “Well then you should say: ‘I found it morally objectionable.’”
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.
In her September 20 A/V Club piece "Should Some Movies Be Taken More Seriously Than Others," Stephanie Zacharek, doing the sort of end run that's become a reliable feature of the "Your Art Film Sucks And So Do You" thumbsucker, characterizes the music score of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master as "interesting," and then muses that that term, which she put in quotes to begin with, "might just be a euphemism for something you wouldn't want to play at home with your cats around." In a parenthetical, she then adds, "And I say that as someone who has subjected her own cats to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and late Coltrane, God help their small ears."
I should add here that Stephanie is a friend, but also that I feel for her as Edmund Wilson did for Vladimir Nabokov, that is, a "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation."
Anyway, you get what she's doing there—she's trying to tell you, and in an ingratiating way, that just because she's hostile to this particular piece of possibly "difficult" art, she's hardly hostile to ALL such art. Dan Kois did the same thing in his notorious "cultural vegetables" piece when he admitted that he eventually "got" Derek Jarman's Blue, which still tops the shameless self-aggrandizement chart in that it bids to make himself look not just open-minded but gay-friendly and compassionate. (Jarman himself has yet to tell Kois "Good on yer, mate!" or any such thing, alas.) But I'm not writing this to decry the rhetorical device as such. I'm writing this because cats really don't care what kind of music you play in their presence. For the most part.
We like to romanticize and anthropomorphize our delightful feline friends, but let's face it: the domesticated feline consciousness, such as it is, is simply not wired to respond subjectively to, let alone process, music. Cats are attentive, sure, and have very sharp senses. But their senses are arranged in a way that's entirely different from our own, and their pleasure centers have very little to do with those of humans. It stands to reason that the inverse follows—they're annoyed by different things. Loud noises startle cats, to be sure, just as they startle humans. A blaring saxophone, played by Coleman, Ayler, or Coltrane, simply doesn't register to a cat the way it does to us. Cats don't try to make sense of it because A) their intellectual apparatus is not so sophisticated as they're able to make sense of it and B) there's no practical need for them to make sense of it. They categorize sounds in an almost binary way: those that are specifically friendly and inviting (your voice, the snap of a cat food can opening) and those that either threaten them or put them in stalking mode (as in the chirp of birds on a branch outside a window). If you put on No New York, your cat won't saunter in front of the speaker, raise a cat eyebrow, and ask "What's HE on about" as James Chance and the Contortions subject "I Can't Stand Myself" to a seizure.
My cat, the above-pictured Pinky, a.k.a. The Pinkster, a.k.a. Beast, a.k.a. Purr Beast, a.k.a. about two dozen other really stupid nicknames, never showed any visible reaction to any of the music I played in my apartment during the period of our cohabitation, which was from 1990 to 2006. He was five years old when my cohabitating girlfriend of the time, Beth "The Shermanator" Sherman adopted his adorable ass, and we had no idea what environment he came from or what kind of music was played in it. As you can imagine, what with my being a very nearly professional Rock Snob of a certain age and having come of a certain age in a certain era, the amount of ostensibly Unlistenable Noise in my music library is pretty formidable, and I can find it for you in pretty much nearly every genre in which the quality of unlistenable noisiness is possible. From AMM to Xenakis with DNA, Metal Machine Music, Swans and The Velvet Underground in between, the Pinkster heard it all, and frankly, he didn't give a shit.
All except for one recording. The 1991 Gramavision CD The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, a particular iteration (the 1984 "Melodic Version") of a piece by the American composer LaMonte Young. Young is a composer with a particular interest in long durations, microtonal intervals, and drone music, and unlike his The Well-Tuned Piano, High Tension Line Transformer is not, on the face of it, a particularly complex or knotty piece; it consists here of an ensemble of trumpet players who chose between four specific pitches and play them at varying lengths. The first time I played it at home on my stereo, which was/is pretty good and can get pretty loud, it made Pinky very nervous. I don't know if it was the specific pitches, or the phases they might seem to go in and out of, the sounds in relation to the silences, but the piece made him immediately extremely nervous. In very specific way: he began pacing in front of the speakers, and pausing, and then he would look at me, and then he would pace some more, then look at me. It was the damnedest thing. After about four minutes I just had to turn it off. He never reacted to any other music, including the scant amount of Young music on disc, in the same way again. And, you know, in the interim, Keiji Heino made A LOT of records and I owned and played a lot of them.
Some time soon after the unfortunate experience with The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer I had the occasion to interview LaMonte Young and his partner Marian Zazeela, and I told him this story in the spirit of sharing a droll anecdote. Young is a man of rather gentle demeanor, but that did not prepare me for his reaction: he was genuinely upset, almost hurt. Whatever his overt intentions concerning his music, causing unrest in the nervous system of another living creature did not figure. The idea that it did my cat some brief harm was not even vaguely amusing to him.
Artists are unusual people. And their thought processes are unusual, and the extent to which their thought processes are unusual is often not unrelated to the medium in which they work. Later in Zacherek's article about...whatever it's about, she says "[t]he movie I’m yearning to see again was not made by anyone who has been deemed a great artist, but by a sometime-director who mostly writes screenplays." This movie is Premium Rush, which I haven't seen. I couldn't review it because not one but two friends worked on it, but I hear it's very good and I look forward to catching it. I rather doubt, however, that sometime-director David Koepp would really appreciate having his movie adopted as a club with which to attempt to beat The Master and its fans over the head. The implication Zacharek is barely bothering to try to cover up is that there are some directors who like you and who want you to have fun, and some directors who hate you and want to punish you and make you do homework. Because no actual pleasure can be had from a "difficult" film. Even if you do own some Albert Ayler records.
Before I get too exasperated, I'll give the last word to Orson Welles, who, in a mid-'60s interview for a British television show called Tempo, is asked by the interviewer: "To what extent, though, do you normally consider the audience you're going for?"
Welles pauses for a good five seconds, then answers:
"Not at all. Impossible to.
Sounds arrogant. It isn’t meant to be and I don’t think it is. It’s because the
public is so unimaginably large. Whenever I do a play I think not only of the
public but of the specific public of that year and that time. And what it will
be like. That’s part of what’s
good about the theater. And part of what’s bad. What limits it even as it makes
it wonderfully immediate. But a film you simply cannot think of the public
because it’s made up of people in Manila, in the mountain vastnesses of the
atlas in the Andes, in Indianapolis, in Manchester, in…tin huts in the jungle.
You simply cannot think of that audience or think what they like because…they
simply aren’t an audience. It’s just a whole…population, you’re making it for,
of the globe, some percentage of which…will drift into a hut or a movie palace
and see what you did. Which is what limits films to an extent but which to a
great extent frees you. But the people, the PURELY commercial people, the
downright movie hacks who 'give ‘em what they want' are not thinking of the
public they’re thinking of the distributors. They know what the distributors
want, but they’re not anymore thinking of the public than I am. They can’t
imagine that public any more than I can. They just know the distributors say, 'There’s a market this year for tough, sexy spy movies. So give ‘em what they
want.' But they’re not really thinking of a public that likes them. They’re
thinking of bookers who will play them and report that we did that much money.
I think it’s an important distinction."
The Tempo interview is an extra on the excellent foreign-region Blu-ray disc of Welles' The Trial, a movie that wants to punish you and make you do homework.
Here is another picture of my cat Pinky, God bless him, who I miss every day and whom I aspire to be more like all the time. As in, for instance, this:
Hollywood follows the mass audience and the mass audience follows Hollywood; there is no leader. The worst of the past is preserved with new dust. How many films that we once groaned at do we now hear referred to nostalgically? When the bad is followed by the worse, even the bad seems good. (Film addicts talk about Grand Hotel or Busby Berkeley's choreography, as if those were the days.) The hostility toward art and highbrowism that infect much of our culture helps to explain the popularity of so many untrained and untalented screen performers. Richard Burton and Dan O'Herlihy do not stimulate the fans; Tony Curtis, Tab Hunter, Janet Leigh, Jane Powell do. Fans like untrained actors; perhaps they like even the embarrassment of untrained actors (why should they tolerate the implied criticism of speech or gesture that derives from a higher culture?). The office girl says, "No, I don't want to go see Howard Keel—he was a professional singer, you know." The taste of the mass audience belongs to sociology, not aesthetics. Those who make big films do not consider primarily the nature of the medium and what they want to do with it, they try to keep ahead of the mass audience.
As the mass media developed, the fine points of democratic theory were discarded, and a parody of democracy became public dogma. The film critic no longer considers that his function is the formation and reformation of public taste (that would be an undemocratic presumption); the old independent critic who would trumpet the good, blast the bad, and tell his readers they were boobs if they wasted money on garbage, gives way to the amiable fellow who feels responsible not to his subject matter but to the tastes of the stratum of his public. Newspaper critics are, in many cases, not free to attack big films (too much is at stake), but they are usually free to praise what they wish; yet they seem too unsure of themselves, too fearful of causing a breach with their readers, to praise what may be unpopular. It is astonishing how often they attack the finest European productions and the most imaginative American ones—safe targets. Attitudes become more important than judgments. The critic need not make any definite adverse comments; his descriptive tone is enough to warn his readers off. Praise which includes such terms as "subtle," "low-keyed" or "somber" is damnation; the critic saves his face but helps kill the movie.
There are people, lots of them, who take big pictures seriously. What is one to say to the neo-Aristotelianism of the salesgirl who reports "I saw The Student Prince last night—it was so wonderful and so sad. I cried and cried, and when it was over, why, I just felt all cleaned out." Only snobs howl at Duel in the Sun ($11.3 million gross), and if you crawled out on Quo Vadis ($10.5 million gross) you not only showed your disrespect for heavy labor, you implied contempt for those who were awed by it. Hollywood productions are official parts of American life, proofs of technological progress; derision is subversive. You will be reproved with "What right have you to say Samson and Delilah is no good when millions of people like it?" and you will be subjected to the final devastation of "It's all a matter of taste and one person's taste is as good as another's." One does not make friends by replying that although it is all a matter of taste (and education and intelligence and sensibility) one person's taste is not as good as another's.
—Pauline Kael, "Movies, the Desperate Art," The Berkley Book of Modern Writing No. 3, 1956, revised for Film: An Anthology, 1959, reprinted in The Age of Movies, Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz, The Library of America, 2011
Some rock and roll bands can get by on sheer bloody attitude, but it's worth noting in the case of Max Frost and the Troopers, seen above in the 1968 Wild in the Streets, a sheaf of Mann/Weill tunes also helps. In the case of a more recent attitude-heavy combo, The Strokes, well, for my money the attitude is merely poor, not charismatic. And the songs ain't so great either. Over at MSN Music, I take that "anti" position in a "Fight Club" feature on the Strokes' new long-player, Angles, with the insouciant (I won't say "credulous") Jonathan Zwickel standing up for that schmuck Casablancas and his lame cohorts. The debate starts here.
One of the many nice things about the new Blu-ray disc of the restoration of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is that the supplements restore to us the very first audio commentary on the film, featuring the film's screenwriter Paul Schrader as well as its director. Recorded in 1986 for the Criterion Collection laser disc of the film, it's a commentary in the Criterion style—serious, frank, in-depth, not the sort of self-congratulatory "I love this shot" stuff that audio commentaries became associated with in the height of the DVD boom. In any event, when Criterion's license on the film went out, Sony began overseeing the DVD editions, and the exemplary laser disc commentary went by the wayside; somebody at Sony was on the ball enough to acquire the material from Criterion and include it here. It's still a bracing listen. From the hindsight of ten years past, and having endured any number of personal and artistic crucibles since the making of Taxi Driver, Schrader and Scorsese are in reflective frames of mind, fully cognizant of the fact that Taxi Driver was in a sense an extraordinary occurrence. Scorsese: "It was a beautiful script. There’s only two scripts that I’ve gotten that were completely there, that we hardly had to do any work on…Taxi Driver was the first one, later on it was King of Comedy by Paul Zimmerman[...] Bob and myself felt as if it had been written for us in a funny way." Schrader: "[It was v]ery much a serendipity. Three people coming together at a certain point in their lives all needing to say the same thing. You know, occasionally in art you get lucky, and you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people."
It is particularly interesting to listen to them talk about what they were feeling, about what they were doing, in conjunction with exploring what a couple of first-rate critics, Manny Farber and his partner Patricia Patterson, saw them doing in the film. The Farber/Patterson essay, "The Power And The Gory," was first published in the May/June 1976 issue of Film Comment. (Taxi Driver premiered in February of that year.) It can now be read in the Library of America's indispensible volume, Farber on Film. An extremely detailed and vivid piece of prose, it alternates so vehemently between admiration for the film and grave offense at it that it can almost be considered as a piece of Writing Against Itself. The arguments against the film are not, as it happens, as easy to dismiss outright as Pauline Kael's hideously smug and classist "What am I doing here watching these two dumb f--ks?" whinge on Raging Bull. Farber and Patterson characterize as "diversionary" the "pounding, illustrative music that grinds you," and "the spike words which stud the [...] soundtrack."'Pussy' and 'fuck' have never been harvested so often; the black race is mauled by verbal inventions spoken with elaborate pizzazz styling[...]" The picture winds up Farber and Patterson to the extent that it turns them into "plausibles," to use Alfred Hitchcock's coinage for his least favorite kind of movie viewer, and they make a list of "plot impossibles." They inveigh against the use of the DeNiro: "the intense DeNiro is sold as a misfit psychotic, and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot[...]" To some, that paradox might seem key to the film's glory, but Farber and Patterson are clearly quite irritated by this. They cannot, however, disguise their delight at the bravura filmmaking: "The amount of twisting questions that are thrown at the spectator highlights its director's boldness in intricate visuals." Still, one senses that Farber and Patterson can't enjoy their enjoyment. They deeply distrust the film. A key to reading the essay: they frequently use variations on the verb "sell," and when they do, that's a signal that they're gonna bitch about something. They even take the filmmakers to task on the marketing of the picture: "The movie's ad campaign (the poster of DeNiro as a looming presence, the interviews with crew members almost before the final mixing, the terrible schlock novel now sold in every supermarket which takes [Arthur] Bremer's diary and Schrader's script to an unbelievably trashy depth) is revelatory of what the filmmakers feel it takes to move, score, and hold your territory in a competitive U.S.A. society."
This contrasts quite a bit to Schrader's pronouncement (I'm paraphrasing here) that the Taxi Driver script leapt out of him like an animal, or Scorsese's various proclamations concerning his own identification with Travis Bickle's sense of isolation and anger. On the commentary track cited above, Scorsese's remark about feeling the script had been written for him and DeNiro comes after he recounts a clash with studio execs over matching shots in the lunch-with-Betsy scene, recollecting in tranquility that it was a "serious" clash and leaving it to the listener's imagination just how serious it was, given the personal volatility that was much more a part of the Scorsese forefront than it was in 1986, or than it is today.
Almost forty minutes into the film, there's the shot of Travis on a pay phone after his disastrous porn-theater date with Betsy, hunching over a little, trying to make out what's gone wrong. The camera slowly tracks to the right, and into a view of an empty hallway leading to the front door of the building. Here's Scorsese talking about the shot on the commentary, as he looks at it: "We’re holding on him, and he’s just getting refused and rejected and rejected, then the camera starts to move, to the hall. As if it’s about to reveal something. And it doesn’t. The idea is meant that the revelation comes much later, when he explodes. I think this is one of the last things we shot, one of the last days of shooting…and then he enters the frame and leaves. And when I thought of that shot…it presented to me how the style of the picture would be…where the moves would be…the camera moves would seem…uh, if I could really put it in words I wouldn’t have had to put it on film." At this point Scorsese pauses and seems to gather himself. "The idea is that…theres a sense again of anxiety, a sense of uneasiness, of the camera tracking to an empty hall. Is that his soul?...Is that…the emptiness he’s feeling in his heart? Or are we about to reveal something, is there about to be an explosion, is something terrible about to happen in the hall? It was the idea of keeping the audience off balance all the time, and that was the piece…all the other shots came from that concept that’s in that shot right now. It just turned out to be one of the last shots we took, but it was the first shot I thought of."
One is reminded of Vladimir Nabokov's essay "On A Book Entitled Lolita," and the passage wherein he evokes "Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying 'waterproof,'" and then pronounces, "These are the nerves of the novel." Many an English lit major no doubt said "Really? Charlotte saying 'waterproof'?" and then paged back through the book to find the passage and see if it resonated any differently as a result. It's worth noting that the shot thus doted on by Scorsese isn't even mentioned in the Farber/Patterson essay.
I don't know if Scorsese or Schrader ever went on record with their reaction to the Farber/Patterson essay, but the two were/are admirers of Farber, and I recall one of them describing a visit the two made to Farber's studio, where they took in his wonderful paintings, as a "pilgrimage." Also, I wonder what Farber would have made of Scorsese's recent Shine A Light, which to my mind is, among other things, very much a film about what it takes to move, score, and hold one's territory in a competitive worldwide market.
For a moment I thought of titling this post "I Got Yer 'Expressive' RIGHT HERE, Pal," but, as Frank Zappa once said (I believe it was on "The Duke Regains His Chops"), "...I just...I don't know."
The recently released Mondo Macabro DVD of this, erm, seminal work is mighty delightful. My Poor Wife asked me to turn it off the other night sight unseen, because its droney Eurorock-cheese score, which she was able to hear all too clearly from the living room, was driving her nuts.
UPDATE: Make that four. Megan Fox? Kate Beckinsale? What's wrong with you philistines? Don't you know there is but one Lina Romay (seen in the top image)?
The actress in the second frame is Jacqueline Laurent.
The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them; it may be the story of their first love, or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation...and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new...The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.
—Francois Truffaut, "The Film of Tomorrow WIll Be An Act Of Love," Arts, May 15, 1957, as excerpted in Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana, translated by Catherine Temerson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
F.T. Are you in favor of the teaching of cinema in universities?
A.H. Only on the condition that they teach cinema since the era of Mélies and that the students learn to make silent films, because there is no better form of training. Talking pictures often served merely to introduce the theater into the studios. The danger is that young people, and even adults, all too often believe that one can become a director without knowing how to sketch a decor, or how to edit.
—Alfred Hitchcock, interviewed by Truffaut, May, 1972; featured in Hitchcock/Truffaut,revised edition, SImon and Schuster, 1984
Hat tip: Tim Lucas