Can't be repeated enough. The whole thing, in the essay " 'A Power Of Facing Unpleasant Facts' " in the collection Thank God For The Atom Bomb, is well worth reading, but below is what you might take as the gist. I should point out that none of this should be taken as an endorsement of the indignation that a reviewer who takes himself as having been wronged by the reviewed might express, though.
"An author places himself uncalled before the tribunal of criticism," says [Samuel] Johnson, "and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace." Or as E.M. Forster puts it: "Some reviews give pain. This is regrettable, but no author has the right to whine. He was not obliged to be an author. He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along." Serious writers of all kinds—classic, romantic, ironic, even sentimental—understand the principle, and they understand it because you can't be a serious writer without deep moral awareness, even if you never let it show. Here's some perhaps unexpected wisdom from Edna St. Vincent Millay: "A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down...If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him."
John Keats is exemplary because he cared more for his work than for his publcity. When an acquaintance defended him from some bad reviews, he argued that defense was unnecessary and told him, "Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works." Note the distinctly premodern ring to that. Today it is the fantasy of celebrity, hardly the love of beauty, that seems to propel most aspirant writers—a term now all but equivalent to "novelists." Thus, unfavorable notices of their work offend deeply because they seem to proclaim their ineptitude to a wide paying audience, and it's a rare second- or third-rate writer who can resist whipping off a letter to the review journal protesting the response his work has occasioned. Such a letter I have called an A.B.M., or Author's Big Mistake, since its effect is simply to reveal to an amused audience how deeply the author's feelings have been lacerated by the criticism he himself has so sedulously solicited. If the bad review has made him look like a ninny, his letter of outrage makes him look like an ass. What, then, is the author's appropriate recourse/ Silence. His appropriate action? Getting busy on the next book immediately, and resolving this time to be as little elated by public praise as downcast by public blame.
In his December 2012 interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Quentin Tarantino notes of Thomas Dixon's The Clansmen, that it "really can only stand next to Mein Kampf when it comes to just its ugly imagery." To which Gates replies, "It's pure evil." As they continue to chat, Tarantino and Gates conflate The Clansmen with The Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith's 1915 adaptation of Dixon's work, and Gates, after Tarantino avows that he doesn't use the word "evil" lightly, continues, apropos the film, "And a foundational moment in the history of cinema."
There indeed is the rub, and for as long as there is cinema, and cinephiles, and cinema historians, The Birth of a Nation will be maybe the greatest "problem picture" of all time, greater by far than The Triumph of the Will. While Riefenstahl's picture seems to us frozen in an unspeakable historical moment, its fascist aesthetics ever-ossifying into a species of malevolent kitsch, in the United States of America Griffith's vehemently racist vision is never not relevant, to use a word I'm not particularly fond of. A formulation I'm not particularly fond of either is the "what-we-talk-about-when" one; on the occasions it comes up, my reflexive response begins with "what do you mean 'we'?" Nevertheless, seeing how Gates and Tarantino talk about Nation reminds one that the movie's position as a film maudit is as singular as its position as a defining masterwork of epic American film. It is a film that literally cursed itself, by dint of the brutality of its racism; and the curse it put upon itself grows uglier year after year.
Chatting with Gates, Tarantino extrapolates Griffith, the Kentucky-born-and-raised son of a Confederate colonel, as a man obsessed, and paints his obsession as an entirely malevolent one. "[I]t's one thing for the grandson [sic] of a bloody Confederate officer to bemoan how times have changed -- some old racist Southern old-timer bemoaning how life has changed, complaining that there was a day when you never saw a n--ger [sic] on Main Street, and now you do. Well, if he's just going to sit on his porch and sit in his rocking chair and pop off lies, who cares? That's not making The Birth of a Nation every day for a year, and financing it yourself." As if the entirety of the labor put into Nation was in the service of black subjugation. Tarantino has a vivid imagination, and a lot of general stuff going on in his head, but one might expect that, being a a filmmaker himself he could conceive that the day to day making of this film might not have been entirely a case of getting up every morning and saying "Time to get to subjugating the Negro!"
That said, I also don't expect Tarantino to be able to simulate a frame of mind in which The Birth of a Nation was actually NOT an effort driven wholly by malevolent intent, and I'm not sure it would be socially, spiritually, or intellectually useful for anybody to try to do same. Anyway, fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, we have a historical record from which we can discover exactly what such a frame of mind was able to come up with in defense of Griffith's vision. As in:
"Today, Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; not can I be sure that the film won’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years."
I was thinking of doing an "anyone in class care to guess, put your hands down [names of critics X, Y, and Z]" joke here, but that would be too coy. Anyway: yes, that was James Agee, writing in The Nation, no less, in a 1948 obituary for Griffith. Too which one may respond, particularly if one has watched Birth of a Nation recently (I just did, on the splendid Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc presentation), define "fair." Because, man, oh man. Between the self-pitying resentment, the schizzy miscegenation paranoia, and all the other racial neuroses-to-psychoses filtered through overheated post-Victorian melodrmatic tropes (the building blocks from which Griffith constructed his new model of cinematic narrative), the prominent racial observation of The Birth of a Nation is "the only tolerable Negro is a subservient Negro," which, you know, doesn't strike me as "fair." And yet James Agee thought it was? How can this be? Note the care with which he chooses his words, and the note of ambiguity in the placement of one of them: that Griffith went to lengths to be fair "to the Negroes as he understood them" AND that Griffith understood them "as a good type of Southerner does." The ambiguous word for me there is "good." But inasmuch as these words offer us a window into not just Agee's head in 1948, but a sentiment that it was not entirely disagreeable to articulate in The Nation in 1948, so too do Tarantino's words offer a window into what "we" think, or may think, Griffith's attitude and intentions were. We see them only as hateful. We are literally incapable of extending the sympathy to observe that Griffith saw/understood blacks "as a good Southerner would." By the same token, as amazingly constructed as the Klan-to-the-rescue climax of Birth of a Nation is, we are all in a sense socially prohibited (scratch the: not "in a sense" or even "socially" prohibited; more like, prohibited by the strictures of human decency itself) from permitting it to manipulate our sympathies as it intends/demands. In his 1915 account of the movie, the poet and writer Vachel Lindsay says of Nation that is "a crowd picture in a triple sense." Discussing the climax, he rhapsodizes: "So, in Birth of a Nation, which could better be called The Overthrow of Negro Rule, the Ku Klux Klan dashes down the road as powerfully as Niagara pours over a cliff. Finallt the white girl Elsie Stoneman (impersonated by Lillian Gish) is rescued by the Ku Klux Klan from the mulatto politician, Silas Lynch (impersonated by George Seigmann). The lady is brought forward as a typically helpless white maiden. The white leader, Col. Ben Cameron (impersonated by Henry B. Walthall), enters not as an individual, but as representing the whole Anglo-Saxon Niagara. He has the mask of the Ku Klux Klan on his face till the crisis has passed. The wrath of the Southerner against the blacks and their Northern organizers has been piled up through many previous scenes. As a result this rescue is a real climax, something that photoplays that trace strictly personal hatreds cannot achieve."
Despite the eccentric undertones of his analysis, Lindsay, among other things, nailed why Nation was/is a "foundational moment in the history of cinema." "Real climax" is something greater than it sounds like, and it is not found even in the cinematic achievements one might be more comfortable with than Griffith's film. (As in, what if it was Feuillade's Fantomas? But it isn't/wasn't, and can't be.) Lindsay loves Griffith's storytelling, and his heart, so much that he seeks fo absolve him by trying to extract him from Dixon's vision: "Griffith is a chameleon in interpreting his authors. Wheeever the scenario shows traces of The Clansmen, the original book, by Thomas Dixon, it is bad. Wherever it is unadulterated Griffith, which is half the time, it is good. The Reverend Thomas Dixon is a rather stagy Simon Legree; in his avowed views a deal like the gentleman with the spiritual hydrophobia in the latter end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unconsciously Mr. Dixon has done his best to prove that Legree was not a fictitious character."
It's very kind of Lindsay, but one need only look at the film, an uncomfortable thing to do, to realize that every frame of Nation carries the same level of conviction. It is very sad. And often very peculiar. From the prologue with the title card saying "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion" to the odd formulation of Abraham Lincoln as the "great heart" who pardons future Klan founder Ben "The Little Colonel" Cameron when he's slated to be hanged for guerilla warfare and who, before heading to the theater to be shot by Raoul Walsh, promises to treat the South as if it had never seceded, the movie's first section has these little rueful sentimental touches, not to mention reasonably powerful pacifist pleading moments, to give one the impression of Griffith as a relatively gentle-souled epic maker. Then, an hour and a half into a three-hour-plus movie, up pops the title card "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstuction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” And then, if you'll pardon the phrase, it's off to the races, with a couple of ugly citations from future fan of the film Woodrow Wilson, about "men who knew nothing of the uses of authority, except it insolences" and of "a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South." (By the way, did you know that Larry the Cable Guy is actually from Nebraska?)
Here is what I wrote in my notes while watching it the other night: "Hey, remember that tile card about five minutes ago? The immediacy of the images and the broadness of the performances pretty much wipes out THAT disclaimer. There’s really no getting round it: whatver the narrative necessity of setting these characters up as villains might have been, the execution of this can only be characterized as VEHEMENT." The film's quiet, sincere depictions of the privations the South suffered during the war, mentions of meals of "parched corn and sweet potato coffee," the description of raw cotton's use as "Southern ermine;" these now seem setups to rationalize the unrelentingly hateful portrayals of the likes of Thadeus-Stevens-pastiche Stoneman, smugly strutting Silas Lynch, "mulatto leader of the blacks[...]traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people," and whoever that black soldier is who chases poor Flora Cameron off that cliff. The dignified smiles of the blacks in the rafters of the House at the climax of Spielberg's Lincoln can, on some level, be understood as an answer scene to the repellent burlesque of the celebration of the racial intermarriage legislation in Griffith's film. But this, as we'll see, is maybe to genteel a reparation to the contemporary audience. The founding inspiration for the Klan is presaged by a lyrical picture practically out of Wordsworth, and followed by the proud intertitle statement "Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed." Which may move an observant viewer to yell at the screen "Where the hell did you fucking crackers get the goddamn MATERIAL if you were so bad off?"
It's all terribly appalling, and yet you'd have to be an entire cinematic illiterate not to see and, yes, maybe feel the skill with which Griffith pulls off his to-the-rescue "real climax" with barely minutes to spare in the film's running time. A few years ago, the critic Terry Teachout wrote about Nation as a film that "has served its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently," and avowed, prior to making that pronouncment, that it was also pretty boring, which was one reason WHY it could be swept aside: "Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film—not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it—is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities."
This notion that the mean of "modern sensibility" as circumscribed by the critic is all that counts from said critical perspective is going to have to wait, and probably for a long time (see also Stephen Metcalf's immortal bit about The Searchers being "off-putting to the contemporary sensibility," oh dearie dear). But here's the thing: let's say that you are not Terry Teachout, and you do not process the film as bring "slow" but rather you apprehend both its pace and its overall cinematic language differently and as part of a continuum that continues to this day: in that case, whatever the fuck you think about early Renaissance music or what have you, the climax of The Birth of a Nation is going to "play" for you; that's the extent to which it is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rightly put it, a "foundational moment." But what, now, is its proper place in "our" construction of cinematic history/heritage. And while the fashion has it that Birth of a Nation is some form of evil, what is the place of Django Unchained as an "answer film" to Griffith? (Tarantino has talked of his ur-Klan comedic fillip in the film as his "fuck you" to the earlier director, who died a near-penniless alcoholic forgotten by the industry he helped create, so even if he were able to receive Quentin's flip-off, it is not likely he'd be overly impressed.) And also, why isn't anyone talking about the Klan as it's represented in Gone With The Wind? So many questions.
In any event, a film in which the protagonist dryly exults "I get to kill white people and get paid for it?" is pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office in these United States. Interesting payback for a nearly hundred-year-old insult, for sure. And a reminder that whoever "we" are talking about, "Give Peace A Chance" is not and never will be "our" new jam.
Adolf Hitler in Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), Leni Riefenstahl, 1934.
"Triumph of the Will and Olympia are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made) but they are not really important in the history of cinema as an art form. Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstachl, while many filmmakers (including myself) regard Dziga Vertov as an inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language. Yet it is arguable that Vertov—the most important figure in documentary films—never made a film as purely effective and thrilling as Triumph of the Will or Olympia. (Of course, Vertov never had the means at his disposal that Riefenstahl had. The Soviet government’s budget for propaganda films in the 1920s and early 1930s was less than lavish."—Susan Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism," 1974
"To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it—and would like to see it destroyed to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not—means walking dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war. But if what one demurely murmurs is but a mild pre-war truth, even with something old-fashioned about it, the abyss is perhaps avoidable. Thus, a hundred years ago, while civic-minded publiscists in St. Petersburg were mixing heady cocktails of Hegel and Schlegel (with a dash of Feurbach), Gogol, in a chance story he told, expressed the immortal spirit of poshulst pervading the German nation and expressed it with all the vigor of his genius.
"The conversation around him had turned upon the subject of Germany, and after listening awhile, Gogol said: 'Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasant than a German Lothario, a German who tries to be winsome...One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothers, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what these swans were supposed to symbolize, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady's heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married.'
"Here you have poshlust in its ideal form, and it is clear that the terms trivial, trashy, smug and so on do not cover the aspect it takes in this epic of the blond swimmer and the two swans he fondled."—Vladimir Nabokov, from Nikolai Gogol, 1944.
"Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetic is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp. Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed."—Sontag, 1974
There's nothing to win by
this sort of an outcry
Oh yeah we all know why
Cuz the world a person lives in
is his brain. Well mine just gives in...
—Richard Hell, "Who Says? (It's Good To Be Alive?)," from Blank Generation, Richard Hell And The Voidoids, SIre Records, 1977
Michel Piccoli, Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Mauvais sang, Leos Carax, 1986.
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, Leos Carax, 2012.
In a recent comment the reader calling himself "That Fuzzy Bastard" expressed surprise/curiosity that Holy Motors was ranked so highly on my best-of-the-year list given the skepticism I expressed about it on first seeing it. As I mentioned in my first writeup, some of that skepticism was fueled in a reactive mode relative to Carax's Cannes 2012 status as the Approved-Creative-Fireworks-Wackadoodle of the Know-Somethingish American contingent of the festival attendees. Also there was some subsequent annoyance at self-satisfied predictions concerning a shift in the film's reception.
A second viewing was, for me, more demonstrative of the movie's not just melancholy but its anger, its futile regret over a life badly lived because, in the immortal words of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, "I got no choice!" As the ultimately nameless (I believe) actor played by Denis Lavant, once more I think acting for/as both himself and his director, goes through a day of demands and insults and winds up having to spend the evening with (spoiler alert) a family of chimps, if I'm not mistaken, the movie drives any number of sad and pissed-off stakes through The Imaginative Life As It Is Lived In These Times, but avoids (to use David Thomas' phrase) "I'm a miserable artiste, pity me!" special pleading, in part via a genuine empathy expressed through certain of the roles Lavant enacts. The imaginative life is not so far removed from what's referred to a the life of the mind after all. Unlike That Fuzzy Bastard, I came out not seeing "light, context-less emotion-tweaking" so much as a melange of modes and of alienated reactions to those modes, those reactions not making much of a dent in "reality" along the way. Yes, the green-suited "Merde" monster does succeed in disrupting a fashion photo shoot, but aside from a hard-on and a cigarette, what does it get him?
Nick Tosches' latest novel, Me And The Devil, is a pretty problematic piece of work, but in the aggregate I have to say it left a mark, one that's not entirely segregated from the local anger that Tosches often expresses therein in a fashion many will take not unreasonable exception to. It's that kind of book, one where the acheivement seems in too-uncomfortable proximity to the things that make it objectionable. Where Holy Motors stumbles, it's in the realm of sentimentality (forgivable with respect to the movie's treatment of Edith Scob, less so in the It's A Wonderful Life-inspired talking-limos coda); Me And The Devil errs, as regular Tosches readers should not be surprised to learn, in the area of sort-of nihilist-tough-guy posturing. But it's not entirely purposeless. For instance:
Only an utter fool would rather express himself than simply be himself. To live was a beautiful thing. To write about it was a labor. And the pay had given way to pay cuts.
Writing was not an act of imagination or, may the Devil take me for even using the word, creativity. (How I cringed when people used the word 'creative" in referring to me in my presence. I knew then and there that they did not know what work was. I knew then and there that they lived in a dream world. Often they themselves were make-believe "artists," living the "creative" life under the shelter of trust funds, inheritances, or family money of some kind. Often they were trying to imply an intimacy that did not, could not exist with me or what I did.) There was nothing to be romanticized in what I did. If flower garlands of words and phantoms of imagery had come to me in visions, so had some of the stupidest ideas I have ever had: ideas that landed me in jail, emergency rooms, or hock.
While Carax's film is a fantasy depiction of the working life of the artist, it is relatively unsparing in its depiction not just of toil but of emotional deprivation and loss. If it is a work of "creative" "exuberance" that exuberance is in a certain sense a gob of spit from the bowels of hell.
When I was young, I thought it would get easier. But as it turned out, each novel got harder. Maybe this was because, with each one, I was flaying a further layer from inside me, exposing yet another, deeper layer. Maybe this was what made it harder. When I was young and thought it woudl get easier—the days when I was thrilled to see my name or my picture on a book—I hid. I did not even dare to write in the first person. Then all that changed, and when it did, it reminded me of that sixteenth-century anatomical engraving by Amusco something-or-other, or something-or-other Amusco, the one of a guy stripped to his inner anatomy holding a knife in one hand and the drooping entirety of his body's own freshly removed skin in the other.
The special knife, I thought as I recalled this: the special knife. Maybe I needed to write. Maybe, even with all the illness it brought, it was the least destructive, least dangerous alternative that I had. And I should be thankful that I had it.
Every gift a curse, every curse a gift.
My friend and much-missed former neighbor Andrew Grant called my attention today to a post at the blog Kinoslang by Ted Fendt, concerning a 1998 short by Jean-Luc Godard entitled Adieu au TNS. The piece examines the work and challenges the writings of Richard Brody about it, saying that Brody's description of it in his Godard biography Everything Is Cinema tries to implicate the work "in some kind of cryptic, but sympathetic engagement with anti-Semitism and/or Fascism that Brody feels runs throughout Godard's work."
The essay is in large part an effort to refute some of Richard's conclusions and claims, and convincingly cites a text from the short work which Fendt translated. This is essential material for the Godard enthusiast and scholar, but I bring it up here mostly because I am cited in a footnote, along with a post I put up in 2008 which was vigorously challenged at the time by critics Craig Keller and Miguel Marias.
Looking at the post now I am struck, albeit sadly not surprised, by the self-righteousness and belligerence of it. Having engaged, enthusiastically, in some cursory research on the subject of Robert Bresillach, I spun out an insistent quasi-indictment of Godard as a Suspect, if not out-and-out Bad, Agent with respect to the whole anti-Semitism and/or Fascism thing.
Not to indulge in backstairs rhetoric, but I've come to believe that I was even more wrong than Keller and Marias took me to task for being. My "eureka" moment came over last summer, when the film I used as my main springboard text, Godard's 2001 Eloge de l'amour screened as part of the Museum of the Moving Image's J. Hoberman-honoring installation/movie series based on his recent book Film After Film. Watching the film as a whole, rather than cherry-picking individual scenes and mining data that might shed light on the historical context of the figures invoked but in fact do nothing to illuminate how those figures are used in the film's context, what I saw was provocative, indeed, but hardly in any respect programmatic. Phillppe Loyrette's recitation of the "testament" of the collaborationist writer Robert Bressilach is many things, but it's also so tetchy and hobbled that it's almost poignant, but not in a way that could suggest that Godard believes either figure is to be followed, their philosophies to be embraced. Similarly, the reflections of Berthe, which I'm so cynical about in the post, play not as an attempt to cast a cold eye on the French Resistance but an expression of a striving to pacifism. It's worth remembering, too, that while it's apparent from the film's perspective that Berthe is an admirable character, she is in fact a character and not necessarily a mouthpiece for the director. I have been guilty, in examining other Godard works, of taking incidents from Godard's biography and applying them to his films in order to express skepticism over what the films are doing, most recently in a rather contentious consideration of his most recent feature Film socialisme. I don't renounce my writings on that film, but I do think I might have done better had I made the close reading that Andy Rector and others in that thread rightly accuse me of sloughing off on.
I will say I now think I was wholly wrong on Eloge. I don't think it endorses anti-Semitism or insults the Resistance. Rather, I see it as what the title says it is: an elegy, and a pained, messy one that is, in a seemingly contradictory fashion, spun out with a staggering formal assurance and elegance. The phrase that most often comes to mind when considering it is Adorno's subtitle to his Minima Moralia: "Reflections from damaged life."
I have made some remarks in social media concerning my critical objections to some writing by Glenn Greenwald concerning the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Much of the response to these sideline snipings has been along the lines of “put up or shut up.” My official review for MSN Movies has yet to be posted, and I would prefer to launch my arguments pertaining to Greenwald’s observations using that review as a platform, but it seems the die is cast. I cannot stress this enough: I have no expectation of changing Greenwald’s mind, earning his respect, or persuading his most loyal readers, what have you. But I have said that I think he’s lied about the movie. So what I’m going to address here, eventually, is why I think that. I ask any reader’s indulgence, as things are apt to get a little potentially laborious. It helps if you’ve already seen the film, is another thing I can’t stress enough.
Let me lay out how I look at Zero Dark Thirty. First of all, I see it entirely as a fiction. The great journalist Jane Mayer, in her New Yorker blog post objecting to the movie, cites its title card that says the story is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” She goes on to argue, “If there is an expectation of accuracy, it is set up by the filmmakers themselves.” Leaving aside for the moment the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty depicts events accurately (and even here it is arguable that the accounts of events from which Boal and Bigelow took off are entirely different from any number of official or unofficial constructions of the bin Laden pursuit narrative), when I’m watching a film in which actors are performing scripted actions in front of a very deliberately set-up camera, my takeaway from a title card such as the one Mayer cites is centered on “based on.” I am looking at a fiction, period. And it is from experiencing the work as a fiction that I draw my conclusions. (To tell you the truth, I personally never had much invested in the idea of bringing bin Laden to “justice” or not. Which is not to say that I did not take the 9/11 attacks somewhat personally, but I just never believed that bin Laden’s capture or death could do much to repair the damage of the attacks. Looked at another way, I didn’t believe that either bin Laden’s capture or death would have the effect of having made him “pay” for the 9/11 attacks.) So when a pundit tells me “Don’t Trust Zero Dark Thirty,” my response is, “Don’t worry, I don’t; at least not in the way that you are so kindly concerned about.” I’m not forming my impression of history around it, no. I deal with it as a discrete story and, when forming a critique of it, try to look at the way it’s told.
Second, when I’m looking at, and trying to figure out, a movie, that’s what I look at: the movie. Not interviews with the filmmakers. “It’s the singer, not the song,” the Rolling Stones once opined, and while in a specific way they might have been right what is missed is that the singer makes the song. Trust the tale, not the teller is a pretty hard and fast rule for me, and if Zero Dark Thirty cannot achieve its coherence and /or comprehensibility as a work entirely on its own, then it’s probably not even worth discussing. It would be disingenuous of me to claim that Greenwald and Mayer are playing “gotcha” in their citations of Boal and Bigelow and the varied inconsistencies that have emerged in their accounts of their methods and intentions. Those inconsistencies are there. But I didn’t go into the screening of the film carrying those with me.
And what I saw when I watched to movie was a very well-constructed narrative that, to my mind, was concerned with knowing and with the action taken as a result of knowing, or “knowing.” I saw a movie that subverted a lot of expectations concerning viewer identification and empathy, including the use of a lead character who in a conventional good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenario would raise objections to torture but who instead, a few queasy looks and pauses aside, rolls with it as an information gathering policy. In 1976 Robert Christgau wrote this about the first Ramones record: “I love this record--love it--even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially) in much the same way ‘Midnight Rambler’ flirts with rape. You couldn't say they condone any nasties, natch--they merely suggest that the power of their music has some fairly ominous sources and tap those sources even as they offer the suggestion. This makes me uneasy. But my theory has always been that good rock and roll should damn well make you uneasy.” I agree with Bob in all these particulars, and even more so if you substitute “good art” for “good rock and roll.” Zero Dark Thirty made me uneasy. Greenwald’s evocations of amorality are not entirely inapt. There’s a sense in which the film at least skirts outright amorality by refusing to assign any definite values to the various Xes and Ys in the equation that makes up its narrative. Its perspective, from where I sit, is sometimes flat to the point of affectlessness. There is an almost cynical mordancy in its depiction of events, and this to me is entirely clear from the film’s visual grammar (not to mention the entirely deliberate lack of ostensible multi-dimensionality in some of its characters, which moves Greenwald to make an unfavorable comparison of Jessica Chastain’s Maya to Claire Danes’ “let-me-show-you-my-tic-collection” Carrie on Homeland, which is pretty funny). But Greenwald sees none of this, and insists: “There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: that we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists."
I have neither the inclination or the mental space to expound on the sheer undifferentiated condescending shittiness behind the phrase “standard viewer.” What I would like to do, then, is make my own direct defense of what Greenwald dismisses as “the art excuse.” But I don’t think I can make a truly persuasive one, or at least not one that will persuade Greenwald or his most sympathetic readers, because it comes down to a fundamental disagreement on what Greenwald and myself actually saw in the movie. That is, he believes the movie ought to be held accountable for “political implications” (he calls them “implications” after devoting a considerable amount of verbiage on the insistence that the movie’s pro torture, C.I.A.-lionizing message is spelled out in neon). I believe that those implications as he describes them are not there. Sometimes they are not there as he describes them. (As one point, as an aside, he shows maybe more of his hand than is entirely prudent, writing, “Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the U.S.” The why-isn’t-this-movie-behaving-as-I-would-like-it-to whinge is the most reliable of philistine giveaways, but it has an extra dimension here.) And sometimes they are not there at all.
It’s tough to make this argument, or at least make it persuasively, without access to actual images from the film, or at least without my having made detailed notes on certain images, although having the images to display might be really useful. Then again, maybe not, because in his descriptions of the movie Greenwald does tend to shy away from specifics with respect to film grammar. Perhaps he’s doing visually literate people a favor, given how he handles other descriptions. I don’t consider him all that hot in terms of specifics regarding characterization. For instance, he writes, “Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network.” According to my notes and memory, there are not very many Muslim/Arab characters in the film, and almost all of them are detainees. Are they dark? Well, they are darkly complected. Are they seedy? They don’t look so great, but that’s because they’re locked in huts and cages and not given a lot of amenities. (There’s one guy who’s bribed with a Lamborghini, but I’d say he’s more tacky than seedy. You call something “seedy” and I think Akim Tamiroff in Alphaville.) Are they violent? As Greenwald actually points out elsewhere, mostly they have violence inflicted upon them, and it is not pleasant to watch. I myself thought the first detainee depicted to be a pretty sympathetic figure. Not necessarily admirable, but more human, or “human” than Jason Clarke’s swaggering, torturing character in that scene. Again, maybe it’s just me. Mayer cites a scene in the film in which “an elderly detainee explains that he wants to cooperate with the U.S. because he ‘doesn’t want to be tortured again.’” I am sorry that I do not have the name of the actor who played this character at hand, because I found him rather poignant.
I would be remiss though if I did not mention the notes of Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation, which Greenwald cites. Writing of the torture scenes Klawans says “the movie juices the audience on the adrenaline generated by these physical confrontations,” an assertion that’s arguable at best; then he goes on to state “and offers vicariously the sense of power enjoyed by the person holding the leash.” And I say that part is just plain wrong, and it’s here particularly that it would be useful to be able to do a shot-by-shot breakdown of the torture scenes. The first sequence begins with a shot from the back of the room, with the detainee hanging there by ropes. A door opens, three people, presumably men, enter noisily, and all wearing masks save the bearded one. The film grammar is such that the viewer flinches on entry; the sight of the detainee hanging there alone establishes his helplessness, the entry of the figures establishes threat. The torture scenes continue in this fashion and never ONCE do they invite the viewer to enjoy either holding or pulling the leash. I cannot speak to how Klawans, a seasoned and perceptive viewer, came to these conclusions, but I insist they are incorrect.
Whether or not the instances of torture actually happened, which for the purpose of assessing this fictional film does not concern me, or whether they “worked” and that their efficacy makes them right (a rather knottier question that I think the movie does want us to consider, but not with respect to forming a policy theory) I share my friend Tom Carson’s view about the function of the torture scenes: that rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it. A whole other can of worms. Where Jane Mayer complains that she “had trouble enjoying the movie,” I respectfully submit that perhaps the movie’s agenda is not entirely about enjoyment. “Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn,” she writes later. Implying that admirers of the film probably do not care enough. I submit, sadly, that if you think the only thing movies are useful for is enjoyable visual distraction while eating popcorn, maybe we don’t have too much to say to each other. But it’s easier to run this particular agenda if you only see Zero Dark Thirty as a product of “the entertainment industry.”
This ties in to the way that Greenwald lies about the movie. Here’s how. After laying out what he believes to be “the art excuse” and then laying out why it is wanting, which has something to do with his having gone on record as defended Homeland. He insists that any argument that the movie should not be “held accountable” for its politics is “pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral.” Give the man credit; he covers his bases, even if he declines to detail just how the movie ought to be “held accountable.”
Greenwald then, finally, avers that the art excuse doesn’t apply anyway because “to demand that this movie be treated as ‘art’ is to expand that term beyond any real recognition.” I give Greenwald credit: he stacks his rhetorical deck even more thickly than Bill O’Reilly does. (I was once on O’Reilly’s show, and he was laying in to Parker and Stone [this was before they came out as libertarians I guess] on account of them being “bad for the kids,” and he said to me “Come on, all these guys care about is making money, right?” which, you know, how are you supposed to answer that? You can’t say they’re NOT interested in making money, but once you step into that pile of shit that Bill’s placed in front of you there’s no way you’re going to get to any other, and actually salient, points.) I mean, start with the word “demand” which opens up a whole can of worms with respect to taking offensive action on the film’s behalf, and that as such is an affront to the obviously manifestly right-thinking Greenwald perspective. Well, as Robin Wood once said, a film is either a work of art or it is worthless. I don’t “demand” that the movie be treated as art; I just treat it as art, my own self. (I treat the first Ramones record as art, too.) I’m gonna leave the rest of that straw-man trap alone. Anyway, I’m really not concerned with what Glenn Greenwald thinks is art.
Greenwald continues: “This film is Hollywood schlock.” Again: not much to say to that, beyond “No it’s not,” and then, of course, and again, you’re already dead. Like, if I said “Glenn Greenwald’s writing isn’t ‘activist journalism,’ it’s whey-faced self-aggrandizing puling self-righteousness that holds everything and everybody save Greenwald and his claque to an impossible moral standard,” what could Greenwald propose in response, save “Says you, you moral monster?” Am I right?
But wait. Greenwald continues: “The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.” (I’m surprised he didn’t capitalize the “c” in “Crusaders:” his complaint goes back a LONG way.) And that is the lie. Of course his rhetoric is such that some may argue that I stretch in calling it a lie, but a lie is what I call it. The movie moment that his slaying-evil-villain-and-audience-cheering assertion conjures up for the “standard” viewer would be something like Hans Gruber’s fall from the near-top of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, or Aziz being blown up by his own missile at the climax of True Lies or Terry Molloy getting the shit kicked out of him at the end of On The Waterfront oh wait…scratch that last one. You get the idea. Now, those who have not seen the film may want to just stop reading around here if they’d like, but… I don’t believe that it represents a “spoiler” to reveal that the raid on the place where bin Laden is living, that is, the movie’s climax, represents anything even resembling a “evil villains slain” cinematic crescendo. Save for Alexander Desplat’s musical score, which is moody and ominous and very low-key rather than building-to-the-triumphalist moment, this is the scene in which the movie affects to purport its most “realistic” perspective. Much of it is depicted in forbiddingly lowlight, there’s a lot of stuff through night-vision goggles. The dominant sense is of organized activity that creates chaos that is then reigned in, so to speak, via slaughter. With the exception of one or two armed resisters, the “Evil Villains” who get shot down don’t even have a chance. Unless the viewer himself has a higher than average understanding of the details of how the raid unfolded, the viewer doesn’t even know which of the men shot down was bin Laden until the SEALS reconvene on the ground floor of the compound and put two and two together and fetch the body bag. In the meantime the viewer has been treated to depictions of fearful women and cowering children being herded about by shouting Americans. Where anyone can pull “everyone cheers” out of this mess is beyond me, but maybe if I see it with a paying audience I will find out. (I do not know what kind of audience Greenwald watched it with.)
So yes, I insist that in this specific instance Greenwald’s characterization of the movie is a lie. It is a purposeful lie, designed to get his reader to believe that people defending Zero Dark Thirty on artistic grounds are, at best, tired fools (“Perhaps film critics are forced to watch so many shoddy Hollywood films that their expectations are very low and they are easily pleased,” he muses with exemplary disinterest, before pulling the now standard “I’ve got a friend who works in the film industry who says I’m totally right” trick) and at worst, moral monsters. I suppose then that I can be forgiven for taking his puling whey-faced jibes a little personally. As for his incredibly ignorant and misleading summation of the critical controversy concerning Leni Riefenstahl, all I can say is that life is too short.
UPDATE: My review for MSN Movies, which I filed before even Frank Bruni's column appeared, is now up. I stand by it. Manohla Dargis makes some salient points beautifully, as she always does, in her NYT review. The great Larry Gross has some provocative perceptions at Film Comment's site. And Devin Faraci shows me more grace and kindness than I've ever shown him in commending my work in a piece about the film for Badass Digest, and I am grateful for his giving me a necessary lesson in humility, but more important, I think his perceptions on the film and his detailed descriptions combine for a wholly admirable piece of criticism. I thank him. Scott Tobias' AV Club review is valuable. Also, I am reminded that David Poland, commendably, got the ball rolling from our end with this piece.
As I've mentioned before, I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock, the kind-of quasi biopic concerning the late film director of the same name, starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins, written by John J. McLaughlin, and directed by Sacha Gervasi. I understand that in the dramatizing of real events that factual liberties are taken all the time, and have been since (I know, I know) the days of Shakespeare and before. So I understand then too that to complain about factual liberties taken here is to court accusations of,among other things, humorless literal-mindedness. But as I said in my review of the movie for MSN Movies, had the liberties taken with the facts resulted in a motion picture that was either illuminating or entertaining, or both (a lot to ask, I know) that would have gone a long way to forgiving those liberties. I got up early this morning to watch my friend Matt Singer of Criticwire talk Hitchcock, and Hitchcock, on the CBS This Morning program. The clip they showed from the new film features Hopkins and Mirren, as Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, going over footage of Psycho's shower scene in the editing room. Looking carefully at a single frame, Mirren's Reville coos "Ooh, you imp! You've got nudity in there!" to which Hopkins' Hitchcock replies with an exaggerated air of sang froid, "Well her breasts were rather large, it'd be a challenge not to show them." Most of the dialogue in the film is determined by the same juvenile notion of what constitutes breezy adult banter as that example. So, you know.
Sometimes you will read a review of a motion picture and wonder if the person writing actually saw the same film you did. In the case of my friend Richard Brody, I have no doubt that we saw the same Hitchcock, as we sat next to each other at the press screening. But he came to some vastly different conclusions than I did, which he lays out in a typically detailed, incisive, provocative, and, for me, exasperating post at his New Yorker blog. He covers a lot of ground in this post, and seems most particularly pleased with the way Hitchcock demonstrates "the personal significance of the story of Psycho." Now, as I understand it, Brody's baseline idea isn't hugely different from Andrew Sarris' definition of Pantheon Directors, that is, those who "have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." Brody sees an innovation in this biopic, born of his perception that "Gervasi rightly suggests that Hitchcock is no mere puppet master who seeks to provoke effects in his viewers." In discussing the technical aspects of his own films, Hitchcock took not-unjustifiable pride in the fact that with his effects he could, yes, traumatically "play" the audience, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, Hitchcock himself DID acknowledge, and publicly at that, that within that component of his art there was a strong element of self-expression, so it's not really as if Gervasi has stumbled on to anything particularly new. (Then, of course, there are the reams—more like libraries—of detailed critical studies of Hitchcock's work.) Brody continues: "[Hitchcock is] converting the world as he sees it, in its practical details and obsessively ugly corners, into his art, and he’s doing so precisely because those are the aspects of life that haunt his imagination." This is all unobjectionable. Where I think Richard goes a little off is in his praise for what he considers the "shaky but bold artistic limb" Gervasi goes out on by introducing the midwestern murderer Ed Gein into Hitchcock's consciousness, making him the stuff of daymares and imagined psychiatric consultations and even forays into marital jealousy that find Alfred crawling about the floor of his bathroom collecting grains of sand with which to confront Alma, who hasn't told him that her writing sessions of late have been taking place at a collaborator's beach house.
"I have no idea whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein, but it doesn't matter," Brody writes. "[I]f it wasn't Gein that obsessed him, it was surely much that was Gein-like." Leaving aside that perhaps overly-confident "surely," I would argue that whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein certainly does matter, or at least it matters within the context of this film, because the portrayal of Gein therein is almost by necessity a kind of burlesque. At the time that Robert Bloch wrote the novel upon which Psycho was based, Gein was not the kind of household world that he has since become. As awful and appalling as his crimes were, the singularity of his atrocities underwent a certain diminishment as he was transposed over the years into a kind of pop-culture "brand." The wild-eyed, Midwestern, possibly cannibalistic serial killer, after roosting as a kind of Chiller Theatre Expo hipster icon since some time well before G.G. Allin shuffled off this mortal coil, has since become a sort of post-modern kitsch object. The only way for such a figure to inspire anything resembling real terror in a cinematic context anymore is to stretch him beyond, and then further beyond, reason, as Lynch did with "BOB" in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me and certain episodes of the Twin Peaks television series. In any event, in Hitchcock, the way Gein, almost inescapably, comes off, Michael Wincott or no Michael Wincott, is as serial killer vaudeville.
In a comment to a prior blog post, the great critic and biographer Joseph McBride, before recounting his own late '50s Gein-tourism experience, chides me a bit: "How can anyone not like a movie in which Alfred Hitchcock hangs out with Ed Gein?" I understand what he's getting at, and had Hitchcock been conceived and executed thoughout as a kind of burlesque, in the style of what McBride's old pals Allan Arkush and Joe Dante often had a go at in the Corman days and beyond, Hitchcock could have been good disreputable/affectionate fun. But that's not what Hitchcock is up to. Brody states that Gervasi recognizes Psycho as a great artistic acheivement, but he doesn't, or rather the movie doesn't, not really; art never enters into this movie's argument, or algebra. Rather, Hitchcock recasts the making of Psycho through a tired Hollywood template: the story of a dreamer with a vision that everybody around him thinks he is—you'll excuse the term—crazy for entertaining, and how that dreamer proves the naysayers wrong...here, not by making a great work of art, but by concocting a motion picture commodity that slays them at the box office. And in the process of grinding out this particular narratvie sausage, Hitchcock also manages to be astonishingly patronizing to its principal characters. In her own clearly ticked-off New York Times review of the movie, another friend, Manohla Dargis, writes, "Hitchcock, you are meant to believe, was himself a little psycho and could only work from a place of madness." She continues: "The real Hitchcock's great flaw, apparently, was that he was at once a genius and a private man, a combination that has allowed some filmmakers to have their insultingly imaginative way with him." She goes on to dismiss "dim fantasies" that to her smack of "spiteful jealousy." I'd say that's pretty spot on. Except I don't even think that Sacha Gervasi understands enough about Hitchcock to know that he maybe should be jealous of him. (There are several interviews with the director that bear this notion out, I'll leave it to readers curious enough to seek them out to do just that.)
As for Hitchcock himself...like DeMille, whom he admired, he was something of a self-made showman, and pronouncements such as "some films are slices of life, my films were slices of cake" were a part of his presentation. As Dargis said, he was a private person, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he worked exclusively and consciously in a vacuum of his own unexamined fancies. As much of a front as he put up, one often doesn't need to read too far between certain lines to understand his own understanding of where his themes came from. In other words: he knew that cinema was the stuff of obsession. There's a droll and poignant passage in Luis Buñuel's autobiography in which the Spanish director recounts a Hollywood lunch in his honor, at which Hitchcock rhapsodized, practically in a swoon, over a particularly salient detail in Buñuel's Tristana: " 'Ah, that leg...that leg,' he sighed, more than once." In the final revised edition of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut, recalls watching Vertigo and seeing Jimmy Stewart's Scotty trying to remake Kim Novak's Judy Barton into "Madeline;" he writes of experiencing a certain sad frisson knowing that it was Vera Miles, not Novak, that Hitchcock had wanted for that crucial role, and Truffaut sees Hitchcock in Stewart with a kind of sad clarity. In other words, you don't need a bad cartoon—which, finally, I'm convinced Hitchcock is—in order to get it.
A few citations. Here's a pretty salient passage from the above-mentioned Truffaut study of Hitchcock:
FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT. Mr. Hitchcock, this morning you mentioned that you had had a bad night and indicated that you were probably disturbed by all of the memories that our talks have been stirring up these past several days. In the course of our conversations we've gone into the dreamlike qualities of many of your films, among them Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. I'd like to ask whether you dream a lot.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Not to much...sometimes...and my dreams are very reasonable.
In one of my dreams I was standing on Sunset Boulevard, where the trees are, and I was waiting for a Yellow Cab to take me to lunch. But no Yellow Cab came by; all the automobiles that drove by me were of a 1916 vintage. And I said to myself, "It's no good standing here waiting for a Yellow Cab because this is a 1916 dream!" So I walked to lunch instead.
F.T. Did you really dream this, or is it a joke?
A.H. No, it's not a gag; I really had a dream like that!
F.T. It's almost a period dream! But would you say that dreams have a bearing on your work?
A.H. Daydreams, probably.
F.T. It may be the expression of the unconscious, and that takes us back once more to fairy tales. By depicting the isolated man who's surrounded by all sorts of hostile elements, and perhaps without even meaning to, you enter the realm of the dream world, which is also a world of solitude and danger.
A.H. That's probably me, within myself.
F.T. It must bem because the logic of your puctures, which is sometimes decried by the critics, is rather like the logic of dreams. Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, for instance, are made up of a series of strange forms that follow the pattern of a nightmare.
A.H. This may be due to the fact that I'm never satisfied with the ordinary. I'm ill at ease with it.
F.T. That's very evident. A Hitchcock picture that doesn't involve death or the abnormal is practically inconceivable. I believe you film emotions you feel very deeply—fear, for instance.
A.H. Absolutely. I'm full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm. I don't want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of peace from a well-organized desk. When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place. You wouldn't even know I'd been in the bathroom. My passion for orderliness goes hand in hand with a strong revulsion toward complications.
F.T. That accounts for the way you protect yourself. Any eventual problem of direction is resolved beforehand by your minute predesigned sketches that lessen the risks and prevent trouble later on. Jacques Becker used to say, "Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly the director who gets the least surprises when he looks at rushes."
And here is Hitchcock describing his childhood to Truffaut: "I was what is known as a well-behaved child. At family gatherings I would sit quietly in a corner, saying nothing. I looked and I observed a good deal. I've always been that way and still am. I was anything but expansive. I was a loner—can't remember ever having had a playmate. I played by myself, inventing my own games [...] I was put into school very young. At St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit school in London. Ours was a Catholic family and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity. It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil. I always tried to avoid it. Why? Perhaps out of physical fear. I was terrified of physical punishment. In those days they used a cane made of very hard rubber. I believe the Jesuits still use it. It wasn't done casually, you know; it was rather like the execution of a sentence. They would tell you to step in to see the father when classes were over. He would then solemnly inscribe your name in the register, together with the indication of the punishment to be inflicted, and you spent the whole day waiting for the sentence to be carried out."
And perhaps we should give the last word, for now, to Robin Wood, and this passage from 1989's Hitchcock's Films Revisited. The film to which Wood refers is, of course, Psycho (which I think I might watch this afternoon): "No film conveys—to those not afraid to expose themselves fully to it—a greater sense of desolation, yet it does so from an exceptionally mature and secure emotional viewpoint. And an essential part of this viewpoint is the detached sardonic humor. It enables the film to contemplate the ultimate horrors without hysteria, with a poised, almost serene detachment. This is probably not what Hitchcock meant when he said that one cannot appreciate Psycho without a sense of humor, but it is what he should have meant. He himself—if his interviews are to be trusted—has not really faced up to what he was doing when he made the film. This, needless to say, must not affect one's estimate of the film itself. For the maker of Psycho to regard it as a 'fun' picture can be taken as a means of preserving his sanity; for the critic to do so—and to give it his approval on these grounds—is quite unpardonable. Hitchcock (again, if his interviews are to be trusted) is a much greater artist than he knows."
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:
While of course I deplore that disaffected readers should be making even ineffectual death threats against critics with whom they disagree, I cannot join in the outrage that some of my respected colleagues are feeling toward the circumstance that permits such things to occur. I'll put it bluntly and shortly, using the unforgettable phrase of Marcelle Clements: the dog is us. We took this tool, the Internet, and molded it to our own ends; we rejoiced at its democratizing properties; we panicked when it started costing us livelihoods; and now we wanna bitch when poorly socialized assholes hijack it with their increasingly bizarre presumptions and proclamations of entitlement.
We called Jeff Jarvis, the Dr. Pangloss of digital culture, a prophet for his cheerily glib "everyone's a critic" pseud philosophizing. Devin Faraci, who represents an outlet called "Badass Digest" and who recently changed the bio on his Twitter feed to "Just happy to be here" after having something rather more incendiary in its place for some time before, had quite a nice little run as a swaggering new media tough guy, as have a lot of bluff know-somethingish anti-highbrows who don't bother to proof their copy before they go on panels gloating about how print newspapers soon aren't even going to be good for birdcage lining. This is your world, fellas. You like it?
Jarvis hasn't weighed in that I can tell. But Faraci doesn't seem to like it much now. Now that "spammers" are calling him a "cunt" and so on. (UPDATE: See Mr. Faraci's comment below. Clearly I am not being entirely fair in my estimation here. I'm not gonna mess with the rest of the copy because I think my larger point kind of holds regardless.) I'm not saying that Faraci asked for this abuse, or deserves it, but the stance he now adopts, accompanied by possibly preemptive primers on how to make what we'll call for the purposes of this consideration "fan culture" a kinder, gentler realm, strikes me as just a touch disingenuous. But I imagine maybe he can't help it. In his rather amusingly condescending "Take Back The Nerd" piece, Faraci sketches the Geek Triumphant: "The nerds have had their revenge. They’ve won. They got laser surgery and discovered Steve Jobs’ fashion sense. Most important of all, they’ve totally taken over the culture." Right. And now, having taken over the culture, Faraci wants the culture to have its Reformation, or maybe its Enlightenment. I'm not sure which and I'm pretty sure he isn't either.
Only here's the thing: it can never happen, because this thing called "fan culture" or "nerd cuture" or whatever it is you want to call it is largely predicated on emotional immaturity combined with a variety of willed cultural illiteracy. Fan culture doesn't say "comic books can be high art," it says, "comic books are the only art." And, further, "the film of the comic book must provide an analogous heightened experience of the comic book, and YOU, the person on the outside of our purview who is now being gifted with this artifact of AWESOMENESS, must fall into line and PRAISE this artifact and confer upon it the legitimacy it has always deserved but which YOU have been too blinkered by your own pretentious prejudices to recognize." That's what fan culture wants. That's what it demands. "Nerd culture" is Peter Pan as a brain-eating zombie.
Don't get me wrong here. I like (and consume") comic books, comic strips, graphic novels, and all of that, and I think the form has as much of a claim to legitimacy and greatness as any other. Back in the 1980s, I was friendly with the writer Elaine Lee and her artistic partner, the illustrator and writer Michael Kaluta. Their project at the time was a comic-book limited series called Starstruck, an exuberant multi-tiered fantasy about feisty female space jockeys that frustrated/infuriated almost as many readers as it delighted. It was dense stuff, both verbally and graphically, not all that ingratiating as comic books go, and I remember Elaine and Michael expressing frustration at various times over its reception and over whether it actually had any future as a publication. But mostly I remember their sheer excitement in the creation of the series. Both Elaine and Michael were incredibly conversant with every other form of art, and Elaine had this very distinctive idea/ethos wherein she aspired to create comic feminist art with stresses and accents she had picked up from the likes of Vonnegut, Altman and Pynchon. While they never said it out loud, you could tell that Elaine and Michael were not-so-secret sharers of the perspective of the great filmmaker Michael Powell: "All art is one, man!" I don't see this reflected much in the fan culture that some value so highly.
THAT splintered culture says: "This is the one art." Another splintered culture, the bourgeois middlebrow chattering class exemplified by an organ such as Slate, says: "Relax, you don't have to watch long boring movies with subtitles; Breaking Bad is TOTALLY art." And so on it goes, and will continue to go. And unlike Howard The Duck, we don't even really have the excuse of being trapped in a world that we never made.
One last thing: In my dismissive account of Internet-tough-guy-ness, I have likely stepped into a giant messy heap of pot-calling-kettle-black. Yes, I understand that I myself have swaggered in an oft-ridiculous way on this blog, on Twitter, on message boards and comments threads and more. There is much that I am sorry for, and a bit that I am not. I can offer nothing really credible in the way of excuses, nor can I credibly promise that I shall go now and sin no more.