Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A commentary on Hollywood that regurgitates every Hollywood cliché is not a commentary.

It drives me nuts when people I love and trust recommend shlock to me. “What do you mean Tropic Thunder is good?” I ask, “I’ve seen the trailers.” To me it looked like another stupid, Hollywood being self-conscious and ironic about its own excess. I was told this is not that case. I was told that the social commentary was incisive and accurate. “This ain’t Zoolander,” they told me, so I dove in. Now here is my question: Where is the commentary? Is it a commentary to be ironic about all the clichés used in the movie? Is that really all it takes? One can recycle every hackneyed device in popular cinema, provided one makes it clear that all recycling is done tongue-in-cheek. All the clichés are there to draw attention to themselves as clichés, and thus be undercut. Well, does drawing attention to itself actually undercut it? Does irony make the cliché less of a cliché?
Let me put it a different way. What did you learn from this movie? Social commentary teaches, correct? – It shows you something in society you had not noticed before? It diagnoses a new problem, sheds light on an old problem, and perhaps offers solutions? This is my understanding of how social commentary works, so again I ask of Tropic Thunder: Is there a fresh or unique point of view in there somewhere? Is there some information that is being revealed for the first time? Also, it is a comedy, yes? Are there some jokes in there that make you laugh in unexpected situations? Is it even funny? I would forgive the first couple offenses if it was funny. I find that Hollywood movies rarely have anything to say that is important, interesting or the least bit truthful, but sometimes they are clever; sometimes they can turn a phrase. Big Lebowski is about nothing. It expresses nothing the least bit important, but at least it has funny jokes. Bob Roberts, to give an example of ostensible social commentary, is far from the most eye-opening, earth-shattering revelation of truth I ever saw on film, but at least the jokes are funny.
The question seems to be: “Who is the audience for this social commentary?” As I understand social commentary, it should be for those who are either ignorant of the problem commented upon or those on the opposite side of the fence from the filmmaker or writer who addresses that problem. It is bad, ineffective, superfluous social commentary that addresses a like-minded audience to apt them on the back for “getting it,” and this is what Tropic Thunder does. One nods ones head with satisfaction and then silently thinks of (or unconsciously senses) that the movie is a nice intellectual multivitamin for the rest of the idiots in the world that Ben Stiller crushed up and stuck in a teaspoon of honey so they wouldn’t know they were taking in something healthy.
I would argue this movie does not teach the average moviegoer anything more than it teaches the savvy one. The person who goes to the movie to hear a litany of clichés and see a hundred of explosions gets another heap of clichés and explosions, while the person who listens to the reviews on NPR gets a pat on the back for being able to read the ironic tone and thus pick up all the subtext.
The movie is really the opposite of everything it appears to be! How long do we (I’m talking to the people who should know better, not the people who want to see shit blow up, but the self-professed “critical thinkers”) continue to buy this? How long are we going to continue to accept ironic self-consciousness and self-reference as deep thought? Ben Stiller is a guy who has parlayed the critique of his own celebrity into fairly massive celebrity status. Can we not at some point soon call a goddamn duck a duck and move on to someone who might have something to say that we don’t already know? Yes, Ben Stiller, we get it. We have seen you in Zoolander and Reality Bites (just substitute “celebrity” for what it means: “mainstream/successful”). We have seen you parody yourself in Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Is it not more than a little cloying, more than a little disingenuous?
Such is Tropic Thunder from beginning to end. It is Hollywood sending up itself. It is the White House correspondents dinner hosted by Frank Caliendo, Dana Carvey or Rich Little. Sure there is a little political content to the jokes, but ultimately they are benign and everybody goes home mildly amused and totally unscathed. In the Hollywood version everyone makes a million dollars, they pat themselves on the back for the doing the right thing and Tom Cruise’s name starts getting dropped for awards! Put a bald cap on a crappy actor and ask him to yell, and you have instant genius. But this is our culture. This is our country. Doing the right thing can be as simple as pointing out a problem as long as you layer your observation with cliché, present it as entertainment and make another million dollars off it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We are Diseased Part 1

There is a sickness that is not necessarily called “middle-class,” but one must be middle-class to suffer from it, and in fact almost all middle-class people do indeed suffer from it. It is not just laziness, though laziness is an attribute of it. It is a kind of resignation – a desperation so quiet that even the desperate one does not hear it. Maybe this desperation is not at all new, but just the thing about which Thoreau tried to warn us.
We middle-class folk can do nothing for the rest of our lives and not really care. Yes, we are unsatisfied deep down, but it is incredibly easy to push that feeling beneath the façade of satisfaction. One can absolutely refuse to deal with it as long as the television tunes in a few dozen channels, as long as one can afford alcohol, drugs and whatever meaningless hobby he or she fancies.
Maybe the secret to life is to make one’s hobby have meaning. What would happen if everyone decided to devote their lives to the thing each does in his or her spare time? (I am Assuming one’s hobby is something more creative than putting together jigsaw puzzles or collecting figurines.)
Is it fear and only fear? Is this fear the cornerstone of our social structure? I want to answer: “Of course!” It seems correct. This is why people in this country are so mad for celebrity. Actors, musicians, athletes and, to lesser extent, politicians earned their money and fame doing what they want to do. It is not admiration at all, but envy.

Nobody Wants to Be Mature Anymore

In the early nineties Bill Hicks said this in response to an audience member who seemed unconvinced by his assertion that, as a nation, we are emotionally immature (I am quoting from memory): “Really? You don’t think so? Go watch Who’s the Boss and then get back to me.” I believe his point was that entertainment that is ostensibly aimed at adults is quite beneath what a grown man or woman should expect. Our entertainment demeans us intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This point is still worth making as entertainment marketed toward adults nowadays has retarded and regressed even further in the scant fifteen years since Hick’s observation. But something else has happened since then as well. There is a new tweak in the mediocrity. Adults now watch television shows and movies that are clearly made for children. It began perhaps with college kids watching shows like Saved by the Bell as a goof, or smoking pot and ironically laughing at old cartoons from one’s childhood like The Super Friends and Johnny Quest. Somehow this phenomenon has transfigured into people my age (I’m thirty-three at the time of writing this), many of whom have no children, are watching movies like Shrek, Shark Tale and Ratatouille and then discussing the movies with each other as if this is perfectly normal behavior for adult humans. (Miyasaki, on the other hand, is genuinely child-like. The difference is that his movies show innocence rather than immaturity. There is no irony in them.)

This is related directly to the way every man and woman cherishes the right to unabashedly love the juvenile crap he or she was into in Jr. High School. How many adults do you know who spend their free time reading comic books, watching pro wrestling or old Saturday morning cartoons, renting Disney and Pixar movies or listening to tweener pop and hair metal? How many of them are your friends? How many of them think they are being ironic about it when they do it? The fact that one is supposed to mature beyond this junk is not as valid as it once was, because we look at guys like Kevin Smith and figure if he likes comic books it’s okay for us to like them too, because he’s famous. As if he is famous for liking comic books!

Thoughts on Film Canon While Re-Reading Some Books by Rosenbaum

While much of what Rosenbaum says in Movie Wars is clear to anyone who goes to the movies or who reads about them, my experience as a college student, as one who has taken film courses in three different universities over the past decade, gives me a perspective that a self-taught critic does not have. I have been taught the canon of schlock, and if not for sheer luck of the draw, I may have never known better. Even with Ray Carney directing the graduate program in film studies, Boston University was hardly a challenge to the status quo. During my two years I took courses in both the Horror and Gangster genres. I was enrolled in a course called American Masterworks once and a teaching assistant another time. In both classes we watched one film by Spike Lee, John Ford, Spielberg, Coppola, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Altman and Oliver Stone. Both courses screened The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Rebel without a Cause and Citizen Kane. Do the Right Thing and Dr. Strangelove are the only two films from either course that were made outside of Hollywood. I watched three Spielberg films in classes at BU: The Color Purple, Jaws and Poltergeist. I saw Godfather II twice and Godfather three times (Gangster course and both American Masterworks courses)! At Ohio University I saw more Hitchcock and more Hollywood schlock. The school of film offers, or has offered, courses that address science fiction film, teen film, cult film and Marxism in film. Once there was even a course called “White Male Masculinity in the Action Film.”

As Rosenbaum says, if the critics and academics do not build a film canon, the academy of motion pictures and the box office receipts will do it for us.

Rosenbaum also argues that academics are making a canon anyway, but a canon of essential theoretical texts rather than essential films. (pgs. 84-85) “In English and literature departments a mistrust of canons devoted mainly to the works of ‘dead white males’ has clearly diminished the possibility of teaching literature from a literary standpoint; the social sciences have taken over the study of fiction and poetry to a crippling degree, and in a way this has only completed the damage often done in grammar school and high school by neglecting to enforce grammar for related ideological reasons. Some perceptive remarks by Michael Chaouli, assistant professor of German and of Comparative Literature at Harvard, in the Times Literary Supplement, are telling:

The wider the range of objects of study, the more specific and specifically policed the style of presentation becomes. This may be one reason why in our graduate curriculum the literary canon is being inexorably displaced by a rather narrow theoretical canon. If during the reign of the literary canon one lived in fear of having one’s work labeled ‘trivial’ today’s dreaded word must be ‘untheorized.’

In its intelligent versions, cultural studies urges literature departments no to promulgate a canon indebted to the notion of the romantic genius, but rather to devote themselves to studying the ordinary without abandoning the value of value. But given the workings of our field, a democracy of objects of study may easily be vitiated by an aristocracy of subjects. The trade-off is quite clear: the more ordinary the object of inquiry, the more extraordinary the critic; all the cultural capital that is given up in choice of object flows back in the breathtaking creativity with which meaning can be made to appear anywhere. The romantic genius returns, this time not as poet, but as critic.

A couple problems I find with Rosenbaum’s arguments are worth noting. First, his faith in people strikes me as flat-out utopian. His belief that people will make smart choices if they were presented with better choices is just naïve. He fails to acknowledge that there already is a niche market for art film made up in large part of people who have heard the buzz about a particular film, and consider it there cultural responsibility to see art movies just as they would go to the ballet or the opera. Sadly, the bulk of the market for films like Ordet or Au Hazad Balthazar consist of folks who would also line up to see Sideways and Closer. Of course without this market I would not be able to get Balthazar on DVD, but the matter of having or not having an audience is not a question of marketing.

I also disagree with Rosebaum’s suggestion that the commercial failure of art film is related to the PR they get. It is not an issue of coverage. People will not make smart choices if they do not first understand why they should, and advertising campaigns are not really designed to delve into that kind of aesthetic question. Marketing an indie movie or an art film is always an effort to make it look like something more recognizable. Look at the trailer for an indie like Junebug or a re-issued masterpiece like Grand Illusion. Junebug looks like Jerry McGuire and Grand Illusion looks like some Spielberg ode to his favorite war. Imagine how angry, confused and bored the viewer would be who was led to Junebug by such a preview! Of course it has to look like conformity because if the trailer looks like anything as weird as Junebug or as boring as Grand Illusion, the numbers (of seat filled, of copies sold) would diminish. It is a mistake to think that people want something different from what they are getting. They need it surely enough, but they do not want it.

Our culture needs to be overhauled. We need art programs on TV. We need to foster a population that reads books. We need to make culture a priority in primary school. None of that will ever happen. The average American might have accidentally watched a program on Van Gogh or a performance of some Balanchine piece on PBS when there where only four or five channels to choose from, but no one would have to resort to that now. Most basic cable and satellite packages come with about four channels each of sports and music. Who is going to watch Balanchine when there’s a game on? PBS knows the answer to that question as well as we do, so they do not show programs anymore. Programmers for public television can hardly be blamed; they have to compete with the other networks for ratings, because the jackass administration that oversees them insists on treating them as a business concern rather than a public service. This country is about to lose public TV and radio altogether because neither is popular enough, and in America if it isn’t popular, it must be excised.

The point of all this for us and for film canons is that art is not popular. It is extremely unpopular, in fact; hardly anybody wants anything to do with it. I make the students in my introduction to the arts course watch independent, experimental and foreign films every quarter, and almost all of them hate every movie I show. It is important that you understand that I do not use “hate” for some literary purpose. “Hate” is the exact word. The films I show make the students who manage to stay awake miserable. They rarely adjust over a ten week period. Amount of exposure doesn’t seem to be the problem. Many of my students have seen independent films before, and they come to class hating them already. When I tell them the movie we will watch is black and white, they groan, “This isn’t an independent film is it?” It is as if I promised them cake only to reveal, just before serving it up, that I made it from a mixture of road-kill. Suddenly no one wants any part of Dr. Jones’ fun-time movie class. How much exposure does it take? One summer I showed a class juniors and seniors fourteen films over an eight week period. Every movie was stylistically different from the last. Their papers and our class discussions made it clear: exposure and instruction is not enough.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On Being Contrary

Isn't a contrarian someone who merely wishes to get you to try something different? Is it human nature to resist this? Is it really? There are so many people who say, “I find what I like and I stick to it,” or the line I often here when I recommend a movie or a rock band, “It really isn't my thing.” I never understand this remark. Why on earth do you have a thing? Are you so rigid? So self-defined?

I have often called my generation “sloppy” and “lazy,” and I would argue that the contempt so many of my fellows have for “nay-sayers,” “killjoys,” and other contrarians speaks of their own inabilities and deficiencies. It is quite common for a person between the ages of forty-five and twenty-five to adopt an attitude of intellectual leze fair. Or perhaps It would be more accurate to phrase it this way: “Dude, I've got my own opinion, and I really don't need to hear yours.” My instinct in these situations, which I am learning to control, is to say: “Actually you do need to hear mine, because it isn't really an opinion. An opinion is what a person has about a subject in which he is not an expert. An opinion is something that one grabs out of the air, something that can be decided upon without any more thought than one would devote to choosing a belt to wear for the day. What I have to offer are carefully considered evaluations. I speak not from hasty decision but from years of watching, thinking, writing, teaching and arguing. Your request to be left alone assumes our “opinions” are equally valid, and they most certainly are not.”

I don't say this though, because it upsets people. All anyone wants is to be left alone. Even in my classes! Students think they are entitled to their opinions. This never ceases to astound me. I always end up thinking, but rarely saying, saying things like, “If you don't want me to tell you how to think, then why am I the teacher?” And this speaks to the heart of the matter. They don't really believe that the subjects I teach – literature, film, the arts – are subjects that can be taught, at least not the same way objectively verifiable subjects can be taught. The crucial division is between the cultural and social spheres of existence.

Almost everyone I know in this generation is not the least bit shy about arguing politics. Indeed they have a degree of respect for social nay-sayers, at least for the historical ones: the Abolitionists, Suffragists, Civil Rights activists and anti-war protesters. These people were involved in something real. I would argue that this position rather demeans culture, and any time I detect it in the words of people who work in the culture industry or academia I am led to wonder why they devote their lives to something they know is of lesser importance.

Culture is not something we take seriously. We let the market create it.

A Review of a Wildly Popular Movie!

Dark Knight

I feel the occasional need to watch the latest serious movie du jour in order to keep myself up to date on what passes for deep thinking in certain corners of culture. To this end I went to the movie theater to watch Christopher Nolan's latest comic book movie, Dark Knight. I should admit that I would have seen this movie regardless, because I find comic book movies entertaining. It's an adolescent weakness, but one I see no harm in occasionally indulging. The fact that the movie is being taken seriously by almost every critic that I have read and almost every person I know who has seen it only added another dimension to my overall assessment. I enjoyed the movie. I liked looking at it the way I liked looking at a video game, Metal Mania on VH-1 Classic, or something shiny. I recognize it as something generally bad for me that for some reason I want to have, and so I let myself have a little from time to time. Politics aside, there is nothing wrong with eating at McDonald's every now and then, provided that you eat reasonably healthy the rest of the time. The problem is that you can never put politics aside altogether, because our collective cultural values are so confused that many people have a hard time telling the difference between guilty pleasure and deep thought.

Does it sound like I'm overstating it a bit? Read the reviews for this movie. I'm not going to quote anybody, I'm just going to point you to metacritic.com and acknowledge that Dark Knight is the highest rated film currently in theaters. People are taking this movie seriously. I don't expect at this point that anyone will even be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar besides Heath Ledger. He's winning it; everyone knows it. Rather than bash apart critics on a case by case basis, I would like to refute the general arguments made in favor of this film. When you go to metacritic, note that every reviewer struggles to find a different way to say “It's action-packed and it makes you think!” Who says that talking points are strictly for political punditry? I take no issue with the “action-packed” label, but here are the reason that I don't believe it “makes me think” and more than whatever Jessica Alba or Ashton Kusher plan to unleash upon us in the Fall.

  1. It's dark. That's what they keep telling me. The psychological depth is surprising. It takes you places you wouldn't expect. I did not have this experience. It is darkly lit; I'll admit that. One of the actor's is trying his hardest to show you how depraved he is with every breath (more on this later) Is it some new depth of dark that hasn't been covered by Silence of the Lambs, Schindler's List, Pulp Fiction or a million other overrated entertainments? What is new about this darkness? The really good guy gets corrupted by the mental anguish of personal tragedy and becomes a really bad guy? The other really bad guy seems to sink into deeper evil every time he's on screen? No matter how hard the hero tries to do the right thing, and have it all work out perfect, people get hurt (even the people he loves!)? This is not new territory folks.

  1. Since I brought up the crazy character let me say some things about Heath Ledger's performance of the Joker. I'll do this by way of expanding upon previous examples: Like Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Travolta and Jackson (and Jack Nicholson's performance of the same character), Ledger's Joker is decisively and wholly one thing and one thing only. (I'll grant you that the aforementioned Travolta and Jackson a touch more nuanced in Pulp Fiction.) Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow from Batman Begins was far more interesting, because he was multi-dimensional. To be totally dominated by one personality trait has long been considered good acting. Everyone seems to love Slingblade, Rainman, Scent of a Woman, Tom Hanks and pretty much anything in which an actor lets a handicap, mental instability or sexual preference utterly define his character. Why this is considered good acting is beyond me, and anyone who watched Heath Ledger hoist upon his shoulders that sappy parade clichés that was Brokeback Mountain and turn into a watchable film through the sheer force of his performance, should be ashamed to praise him so highly for the Joker. You know why Ledger was great in Brokback? - because he was a real person. He was complex, confused, difficult to relate to and difficult to understand; he was everything in that movie that he was not in Dark Knight. It is not at all the same kind of acting. It is the difference between making yourself vulnerable and hiding behind a facade.

  1. While I am on the subject of acting, it seems a good time to point out that there is nothing new there either. Michael Caine is wistful, melancholy, British and prone to giving speeches in conversational situations. I think I have seen that before from him. Morgan Freeman is wizened, bemused and black and speaks mostly in pithy, folksy rejoinders. Again, a pretty familiar role for him. I trust I do not have to catalogue the performances to drive home the point. Actually I do not remember any acting in this film – no behavior, no communication, just a lot of people saying lines at each other at varying volumes. It is difficult to call it dialogue since what they are doing, rather than talking to one another, is telling the audience where they are at in story, where they are going next and how they should feel about it. There is certainly nothing new in that, the the level of speech-making achieved is a peculiar Nolan trait. In fact, I think Gary Oldman speaks exclusively in speech-making mode throughout the film. Certainly he provides us with the Nolan trademark at the end, when he summarizes everything that happened and explains why it happened. I don't know why Nolan thinks this is interesting. I find it to be insulting, and I wonder how it fails to cross Nolan's mind that we get it and got it a long time ago and there is no need to hammer the point home at the end of his inevitably overlong movie.

    4. What Oldman is ostensibly summarizing, like Bale and Liam Neeson before him in Batman Begins and like Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, are the film's deep thoughts. My argument against this would be that any time the movie needs a character to remind of what all the deep thoughts are, they probably aren't that deep. Art does not work that way. It does not make profound arguments and then summarize them for you. Art does not provide you with deep answers, it merely asks deep questions and leaves it to you to figure them out. There is nothing new and deep in Dark Night. It is just a repackaging of the cultural zeitgeist: “Sometimes the good guy has to be the bad guy. In order to help the people he has to be willing to let them treat him as an outcast.” How old are we? If Nolan had found a way to critique this, to comment upon, perhaps the film would approach some depth, but articulating it is not deep, not new and not interesting.


    Just a few other things that are exactly like ever other movie you have ever seen:

    1. Editing and score. I'm putting these together because they are so ingrained in our consciousness, that most viewers take both equally for granted, unable to imagine how different a movie would really be if the shots were longer and the music was done away with. If Dark Knight had an average shot duration of thirty seconds and couple shots that went on for several minutes and if it had no mood music, no orchestral swells to let you know how to feel, then we would have something new on our hands.

    2. Kids and dogs. Let me talk for a moment about suspension of disbelief. How old are you? Are you about the age of the people in Dark Knight? Are you somewhere between thirty and sixty? If you are younger let me tell you, people in that age range have children. The only person with children in this movie, (and I mean the entire movie; find me another kid!) is Gary Oldman's character. Unlikely, and actually a bit disgusting when you consider that the only reason these children are in the film is to pull at your heart strings in a moment of tension. They certainly aren't characters. Watch some Hollywood movies and pay attention to the way children are used. Unless it's a kid's film (a problem unto itself) children are used in this emotionally manipulative way as something for the adults, the characters who matter, to care about. For whatever reason, it is difficult to imagine a world in which people of all ages have personalities. Animals suffer the same fate as kids. Those readers who live cities know that there is a guy walking a pit bull or rottweiler around every corner. Surely you know some people who own pets? Maybe you even have some of your own. But animals don't exist in movie worlds unless they are guarding or attacking something. The reason why is simple enough, but it reveals a great truth about mainstream movies that is that even the smallest dose of reality will unhinge the fake world the movies create. Cats just cannot act. They wander about when you are trying to shoot a scene, distracting the would-be viewer from the plot, the actor's face or the carefully constructed mise en scene. I do not want to get into this too much here, but this is a fundamental problem with our culture. We regard our art only in terms very basic, material wish fulfillment. The fantasy must be maintained and anything that threatens it is excised.

    Extra Bonus:

    Even if you accept it for what it is, you have to hate the turning of Two-Face. Let me get this straight: You want to take revenge. Your girlfriend has been murdered and you are willing to kill the person or persons responsible. So the guy who killed her comes to you, puts a gun in your hand and holds it to his head, but you don't kill him, and you do go on to kill a bunch of other people who played really, really minor roles in her death, because the murderer gives you a speech about embracing the chaos. That is some slick narrative right there. That's a leap of faith that would make Kierkegaard blush.

We Don't Need Another Hero

I don’t watch a lot of television. Actually I do watch a lot of TV; I watch entirely too much, but I watch comparatively less TV than most people I know. The list of things on television which I tolerate is very short, but there’s no need to get into it here. For the purpose of introducing this piece, all you need to know is that I watch the VH-1 Classic channel quite a bit. I tell myself that I watch this channel because it is the only place to see long lost videos I haven’t seen since college, but that isn’t really true now that we have youtube. I tell myself that I watch this channel so that I can see great live performances, and indeed they do show some of this. But mostly I watch VH-1 Classic for the documentaries. It isn’t that I like the documentaries or that I think they have anything interesting to say, quite the contrary, I watch like a rubber-necker at a traffic accident. I scream at the TV for giving me such bad information and presenting it melodramatically, until my wife has to leave the room annoyed with me. It’s getting so bad that whenever there’s a new one I already know everything they’re going to say. I don’t think this makes me especially perceptive. Unfortunately I think these shows are made with precisely that goal in mind: to confirm once more some cultural “fact” that we already know.

VH-1 is running this thing called the Seven Ages of Rock, inexplicably narrated by Dennis Hopper, and supposedly meant to cover the seven great movements in the history of rock and roll from Chuck Berry to something they call “British Indy Rock” which apparently has a lot to do with Oasis. Now I know that this idea is absurd, but I watch wondering if there’s any chance that something new will find its way into the narrative. To make a long introduction short, there’s nothing new here and I am particularly interested in the nothing new-ness of an episode called “American Alternative.” This is the installment where we rehash how Nirvana changed the world. The way they set it up is excruciating. Every segment between commercials relates to Nirvana in some way until we reach the final segment that details their rise and fall. It’s a story that’s been told so many times that it’s actually emerging as one of the master narratives of our culture. There was college rock; the REM got big; then there was Seattle; then Kurt Cobain killed himself; and no one has made music in America since.

I am trying to understand why the people in my generation need to be reminded again and again that Nirvana changed the world. Never mind that they really didn’t. One of the most cloying things Hopper says in the episode is that with the success of Nirvana, the “outsiders” won. What does that even mean? It’s such a shallow way to understand cultural events. No outsider won. Rather the insiders found a way to market the outsider to the mass market. Is that a victory? Do you think Kurt Cobain felt the satisfaction of victory that comes with the knowledge that jocks and date rapists dig his song “Polly?” Does In Utero sound like music that people make when they’re satisfied with a job well done? It is insane to say that Nirvana or Pearl Jam or REM or U2 ever changed anything about the culture at large. The same view that conceives of such misconception also leaves one helpless to understand why someone with so much success would kill himself.

But I should finish up with the subject at hand. I think it is more than simple nostalgia that keeps us coming back to the Nirvana story and clinging to it like a relic. Apparently we need to feel that something important culturally happened in our lifetime. And why Nirvana? Why something that happened when we were in High School? Because we have no patience. And since we lack patience we are without the context and perspective fostered by a reflective attitude. Look, here’s what has happened in American music that has been really, really, earth shatteringly important: Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry and maybe Bob Dylan. If you want to talk about significant cultural change, in terms of popular music, those three are the beginning and the end of the conversation. After them you have to go into crazy areas like poetry, painting, theater, dance and performance art, architecture and independent film. But that would mean you have to dig. You have to look for culture that isn’t sold to you. It seems that my generation is no different than the others at finding our own way.

The Career I have Chosen Part Two

For a group of people who are supposed to be liberal, it seems to me than academics do an awful lot of things simply because they are supposed to. I won’t rattle off the entire list here; I want to summarize a conversation I had with my advisor about the two requirements that I find the most insane, and open the question to readers, who may or may not be professors: Can you tell me why these things matter?

1. Do you belong to any professional organizations?

No I do not. Last year I paid $30 to be a member of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Since it did not seem to help me get a paper accepted to their annual conference or get a publication in Cinema Journal, I have trouble understanding why I gave them money. My advisor told me I should pick a professional organization and pay my dues, so that I can put it on my vita. Why? Because it shows that you are serious about your scholarship. From him I accepted that, or at least I let the conversation end, but I do not see how membership in something is a measure of my academic seriousness. Am I really expected to pay $30 a year for a line on my vita? It makes no sense to me. My vita is three pages long, and I can explain everything on it. I can tell you much more than the lines as written, and I know why every line is important. If I join some professional film studies club and someone asks me about it in an interview, shouldn’t I have something better to say than: “My advisor told me that membership is a professional organization would show people like you that I’m serious. Apparently the stack of degrees, the teaching experience and the publications don’t do that already.” I am sorry, but I don’t get it.

2. Have you thought about applying for any post doc research grants?

No. I’m not an art historian. I don’t need to go to a cloister somewhere and read a manuscript that is only located there. I don’t need to go to the location of specific bits of architecture to study them. I write about films. My research is watching movies, reading books, thinking about them and taking notes. Why is every corner of academia expected to be a research discipline? My advisor tells me just to come up with some reason to go to Russia. He tells me essentially to appease what he calls the “pedants” in charge of distributing money, so that I can have a trip to Moscow. I know this is something academics often do, but I find it really difficult to play that game. If I can’t think of reason to go to a place and research, I have no knack for bullshitting appeasements for pedants. Just look at this:

My opinion is that, in academia, rather too much emphasis is put upon what is typically called “research.” My goals as a scholar revolve around what seems to me more accurately referred to as “practice.” My scholarship is based on reading, watching, thinking and writing. Those four activities are most important. Only my obsession with particular artists, Tarkovsky for instance, would take me into traditional research areas. I would appreciate the opportunity to travel to film archives to look at different edits or to search out notes for projects and set designs for various films. This kind of research is useful toward understanding the artistic process; it affords one the perspective to consider Tarkovsky’s poetic choices. But I must maintain that such investigative work is secondary to the business of reading, watching, thinking and writing. Therefore, while I would certainly not dismiss the chance to research, I find that the best film scholarship results from repeatedly watching films and puzzling over them.

That is what I sent to Bard College when they asked for a “Research Statement” as part of my application for a film studies position. No, I haven’t heard from them yet.

Has It Always Been This Way?

From time to time over at www.cassavetes.com, Ray Carney invites mailbag reader to weigh in on various topics. I’m starting to think that I weigh in too often, particularly as I have my own stupid blog. Therefore instead of continuing to inundate Dr. Carney with more of my rants, I bestow them upon the two, and possibly as many as four people, who read this site. The questions concern his usual theme: Why is art film in America, in such dire straits, commercially speaking? My answer relates specifically to his uncertainty as to whether or not things have always been this way.

It depends on what one means by, “this way.” I could recite a litany of painters, composers, poets and rock bands to suggest that artists rarely receive respect, reward or even attention in their lifetimes. This cannot be very surprising. Art is not for everyone and it never has been. A recent letter writer to Carney’s site suggested that we need our Shakespeare – a Shakespeare of film and a Shakespeare for our times. He implied that the world would be a better place, and that society would change, if only this artist would emerge. It seems to me a strange suggestion. I only know some of the plays, and not much of the social history of England, but I am reasonably certain that Shakespeare’s plays did not promote social change of any measurable sort.

How could they have? Art changes a person, not people. People, as such, do not change. To paraphrase Tarkovsky, art does not help humanity progress. We have had great art for thousands of years, yet we still have not figured out how to stop killing one another. And surely there is no other lesson art could have to teach us. If the question, then, is whether or not people have ever been more receptive to art than they are in this country in this day and age, I lean toward, “no.”

Our times are different, and the problem is particularly acute in the US, in that the general attitude about art fostered and promoted both socially and culturally, is contemptuous. In this country sensitivity to art, like all true wisdom, is a quality to be mocked by conservative types and to be regarded as illusory, as a pretension to an actual quality, by so-called liberals and progressives. Our society and culture have been bought and sold by a marketing ethos which instructs us that the best thing a person can do with his or her life is have fun. Fun as the meaning of life is, I believe, uniquely American (though from what I gather the Japanese and the South Koreans would like to give us a run for our money).

This base desire underscores every other cultural problem in this country. Why are we fascinated by beauty and celebrity? Why do pay attention to famous people? Because they seem to be having fun and we have be taught to believe that if we could be pretty and famous too, we could also have fun. Money works the same way. People kill themselves to make as much money as they can as fast as possible so that they can retire young and start having fun.

To have fun is the meaning of life, and if you are not having any fun, people may feel sorry for you and they may be suspicious of you. It is one thing to disagree with someone’s politics or their religion, people can understand that. But to spend your free time taking life seriously, watching serious movies that try to teach you something, going to museums and standing in front of a painting with a notebook when you aren’t even enrolled in an art history class, spending money on classical music CDs and making time in your day to sit a really devote attention to them – to most people these activities make no sense. You could be skiing, or relaxing in front of the TV or reading the new Harry Potter book. It’s all escape. Escape from this horrible world in which we have no choice but to live and work.

And if you don’t participate in this system that they have sold us, you are an asshole. If someone calls you out for not being part of the next fun thing that your group of co-workers is doing, you try to explain that you have better things to do. No. You cannot say “better,” because then you are a snob. “More rewarding” things to do? Now you are pretentious. I am uncertain how deeply rooted these attitudes are. I tend to believe that most people live quietly and desperately, keeping everything bottled up. The fun ethos is very superficial and anyone willing to cast it off would not have to dig to deep to find the strength, except that our culture doesn’t really encourage soul digging.

You can find an egregious example almost anywhere. I was struck recently by a piece from New York Post columnist and right-wing dip-shit, John Podhoretz, who took the death of Ingmar Bergman as an opportunity chastise anyone who wants to think while watching a movie. We are so far gone in this country that the corpse of a great artist barely has time to cool before writers at major publications can begin pissing on it.

Yet, as bad as the conservatives are, the so-called progressives are often much worse. I have colleagues at this university who are earning the same piece of paper that I am – a document which will have printed upon it the words: Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts – who repeatedly tell me to stop praising art works and artists because the art object is moot and we no longer have to worry about what the creator of the work is trying to communicate to us (as if this is some shackle form which we have been liberated).

I don’t know how this came about, but my tendency is to blame the generation of university professors and public intellectuals who made art the focus of their academic interests because it was fun. Thus we arrived at the notion of “how to do things with texts” as opposed to “trying to understand good texts.” And film studies emerged in the middle of all that. We owe film studies as a discipline to people like Andrew Sarris whose primary interest in film is that he loves movies. There is no seriousness here, no sense of responsibility, just a way to fashion a career out of a past time.

This is why the academy is full of people who like to have fun with texts. It is why the texts don’t matter: you can play whatever deconstructive, psychoanalytic or semiotic game equally well with Harry Potter and Henry James. Ultimately, it is why people outside the academy thinks academics are full of shit. Playing these kinds of games is pretty rarified pleasure. What are we left with? – Academics have a different kind of fun than regular working folk.

Autonymous Art?

Over at Ray Carney's mailbag, he's having what I believe is an important conversation with a fellow named Michael Brotzman. Check it out at the top of this page: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/aboutrc/letters80.shtml; and at the bottom of this one:
http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/aboutrc/letters82.shtml. I would like to respond to Brotzman's comment in detail, but it would seem silly as he will likely never read them.

Instead I will post edited selections from a conversation I have been having with a close friend of mine, that seems to be moving along similar lines. The point where these two exchanges intersect most saliently is here: intelligent people, when asked, have ideas about art, even though they have no training at all in art appreciation. Since they are intelligent, it is difficult for them to believe that they would need any kind of special training to arrive at conclusions different from the ones they have already reached. Above all else, the thing I am trying to communicate to my friend is exactly what Dr. Carney is trying to show Mr. Brotzman: you can't think about art the way you think about everything else. Art teaches you new ways to think. It breaks down all the categories you brought to it that you thought would help you make sense of it. It's a process of deliberation and reconsideration that goes on and on. Being smart only gets you to the door, as it were. You have to be willing to unlearn a whole lot of what you think makes you smart in order to begin to understand great art.

This conversation begins with my friend's comment on a video of Michael Moore's recent appearance on CNN that I forwarded to him. It quickly moves into some fundamental questions about the function of art. My responses are in italics:

Interesting video. Like Moore, I'm amazed they let him on live TV. The problem is that because the time is so short and Moore has a lot of things to say, he comes across like a nut. My guess is that the average CNN watcher are not about to go to Moore's website to see the "facts". Most people agree with Giuliani that profits and the bottom line are the only way to fix any system; anything else is socialism. I admire Moore for what he does but I feel sorry for him because he's pissing in the wind. Americans as a whole are sheep. They do whatever they're told and anything outside the realm of their experience is by definition bad. If George Bush got on CNN tomorrow and said, " In the interest of protecting the United States and freedom, blah blah, blah,.... I've decided to implement that all of you must blow a goat every morning before work and if you don't blow a goat then the terrorists will win and the evil axis empire will take over the planet and that means no more cheap bananas and gas and hummers blah, blah blah," PEOPLE WOULD OBEY!

Also, does the following diatribe make any sense to you:

The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth."

Well, my attitude about Moore sounding crazy is pretty much the same attitude I have about myself sounding crazy every time I teach: Lots of people will tune you out, or judge you to be an idiot based on the fact that they already have everything figured out, but if you get to one person and change them a little... well you know the rest of the cliche. Progress? I don't know. We've been supposedly working on the same problems for over two thousand years of Western civilization and we haven't solved any of them. So probably not. You work on yourself and you reach out to others and hope that they are interested in your help. That's about it for life. Not so glamorous but I'll take it.

I'll also say that I understand what your quote is about, and I hope I'm not too tired to explain it. It's like hearing Chomsky or Moore on TV. What this guy is saying is so fucking out of step with the past forty years of your training, there's no way it would sound credible at first. I happen to disagree with his position at least in part because it is so extreme. The answer is always, as far as I can tell at age almost 33, in the middle. So in this case the God of No-Logic is just as bad as the God of Logic. But it is necessary first to understand that when he talks about logic and its shortcomings, he is talking about, at least I hope he is talking about, blind faith in pure reason. Total undaunted commitment to anything is dangerous.

But what's wrong with reason and logic? Well I'll give this example: Dick Cheney. To me he's a cold, calculating, shrewd utterly reasonable man. I don't think he believes anything he says. I don't think he believes IN anything beyond his own self-interest. And there's nothing illogical there. I guess I would say you can't have ethics if logic is the only standard. You certainly can't have creativity, which is the point the guy who you quoted seems to be making. I suppose it depends on where you rank creativity in your personal hierarchy of values and what you think creativity serves humanity for. Obviously, your guy thinks it’s very important, and he thinks that logic tries to neutralize its power or its function. I think this is true. I disagree with him because you need both. You have to have a brain and a soul, not one or the other.

I don't understand your explanation very well. I got that quote from some guy I never heard of who's the writer for the new HBO show John from Cincinnati. I've been watching the show since the pilot and in last Sunday's episode one for the characters gives a soliloquy that lasts about five minutes, most of which, makes no sense. So I read the blog of the writer on HBO's website where he said the quote I emailed to you. Oh well. Maybe I'll go watch one of the new Star Wars movies and dig on that dialogue- God knows its world class.

So where did I lose you?

I don't know. I guess its fun for the writers of the show to have a bunch of dialogue that doesn't really make sense. Here's another quote by the same guy:

The tactics of fictive persuasion have nothing to do with reasoned discourse. OK- What is that supposed to mean?

Well, for starters, I wouldn't put a whole lot of intellectual effort into a TV show. I mean, even the shows I like only stay at an entertainment level. I would be really suspicious of a TV show that purported to directly address aesthetic questions like the ones you've been throwing at me. Nonetheless, your new quote is pretty similar to the last one. Art is for emotions and science is for the brain. Like I said, that's a gross oversimplification. And I certainly don't like the phrase "fictive persuasion." Literature, narrative, poetry, art - whatever; it ain't a fucking argument. You aren't making it to prove something. You aren't looking at it or reading it or listening to it to be convinced of something.

For fun, let me try this quote out on you:

"The birth and development of thought are subject to laws of their own, and sometimes demand forms of expression which are quite different from the patterns of logical speculation. In my view poetic reasoning is closer to thelaws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself, than is the logic of traditional drama."

This is from Tarkovsky. Enjoy!

As a sort of hint to what I think it means, I will say this: Logic is not how you think. It is how you think about how you think. You have an experience, you think during that experience (because you are always thinking). Later, you sit down with reason and you try to figure out what the experience means. But the everyday stream of thought is not bound in by the orderliness of reason.

I understand, I think, what the quote is talking about. It’s why Curt Cobain blew his head off and why Axl Rose stopped making records. Axl said in an interview I read once that people just don't "get" his art. For the millions of people who bought his records it’s about rocking out. For him I guess, it’s about "his development being subject to laws of its own." Artists are interesting to me because they create something that they say comes from inside them and then complain that no one "gets it". How the fuck am I supposed to "get" something when you create rules that say art is not subject to any normal interpretations? I think art is all a game of who's scamming who. I go to the Getty with a bunch of fifth graders and all I hear all day is "this stuff is weird. I could make that. My little sister made something similar in second grade with crayons." Bottom line: If I stick a whip up my ass and email the photo of it to my friends- I'm some sort of freak, weirdo, etc. But if my last name is Mapplethorpe- I'm a brave, genius. If I take an old doll and pound nails into its head in my garage- I'll probably be recommended for therapy. If I do the same thing after WWI, I'm a dadaist who's expressing my outrage at the carnage, destruction, blah blah blah.

Why can't the writers of a TV show just say, "I wrote that script when I was high and frankly I'm not sure what it means. But the next day when I was straight, I read it again and thought- hey this shit is pretty cool. Hope you like it!" It seems like art and honesty are diametrically opposed when artists try to tell you that art and honesty are synonymous and possible that art is the ONLY thing left that is honest.

You have to remember that art has the same problems that the rest of the world has. Mapplethorpe may or may not be a douche, but even if he is, it doesn’t mean that you can piss in a cup and call it art. Just because there's alot of dumb shit at museums, that doesn't make everything at the museum a waste of time. There's art that you think is stupid that is worth your time to figure out, and there's art you think is stupid that isn't worth your time. And whether or not Axl is right about the spiritual profundity of Use Your Illusion One and Two, his point is perfectly valid. It's what burns out so many musicians, sends them to rehab and occasionally drives them to put shotguns in their mouths. You don't think these people want to fucking kill themselves when their record company sells their song for a fucking car commercial?

You can throw my name in camp with honesty and art. That's what it is fundamentally. But you can be an artist and not know that just as much as you can be a politician and not know that it’s your job to take care of the citizens you represent. The point here is that a great artist is rare, because it is easier to scam than to be honest. You say you agree with Bill Hicks on this issue? - well, he's an artist. If you’re pissed at painting or something, just think about stand-up as a microcosm. You've got Bill Hicks, Richard Prior, Lenny Bruce and I think David Cross and Margaret Cho are as good as we have these days, and to a lesser extent Carlin. Then there are a million Dane Cook's and Jerry Seinfeld's. That's how every art is, and the longer the history of the art the more the bad art outnumbers the good.

Anyway, stop listening to artists. They should be most articulate in their art. If they could tell you what it means they wouldn't have to paint or sing or write poetry or whatever. And really stop listening to whoever is telling you that all art is equal. There's good art and bad art. And there's argument about which is which. And there are idiots who will tell you it doesn't matter which is which. Man, just find something you like. If you don't like Mapplethorpe or Dada, fine; you'll live. There's much better stuff out there anyway. I'm not sure any of it is at the Getty, but it’s out there.

I don't have any feelings one way or the other about Mapplethorpe, or the Dadaists, or Picasso, etc. I was just making the point that to me, art is all a matter of perception and that sometimes that perception is skewed on purpose. I disagree with you. You could definitely piss in a cup and call it art. All you'd need to do is get some influential people to agree with you. For example, I read in the LA Times that ad companies actually pay attractive people i.e. hot chicks, to go to bars and order certain drinks or wear certain clothes etc. and then loudly talk about the booze or the clothes or whatever. And it works. Sales skyrocket. The more people hear that something is cool, the more it is. And artwork is no different.

I swear to Allah this is true: At the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC last year, I was standing in front of a framed canvas that in my estimation measured about 10 feet by 15 feet. And the canvas was simply painted white. That's it. Some people next to me were admiring it and saying how this piece of work really captured the essence of blah, blah, blah. See? Perception. Not good art, not bad art. Just human perception. To me the painting seemed like a joke, a put on, or like I was on Candid Camera. To other people, it was fucking brilliant.

For me, art is just something to look at. I keep looking at things that I find appealing and move on from things I don't. I just hate the pretense that goes on when people (like the writer of the quotes I sent you) try to use incomprehensible speech to sound like they're so gifted and that their work is so far above the common man. Whatever. Maybe Axl was upset that his "art" was being misused. Then don't sell it. Keep it to yourself and maintain your sense of integrity, Axl. But if you want to sell your "art" so you can keep up your smack habit don't get pissed off when the rest of us "don't get it".

I know what you are saying about perception. But let's save the "beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder" thing for another day.

Instead let me address public perception and it relation to quality of the art work. There is no relation. People are monkeys who will do what everyone else does. If you are a marketing person you figure out ways to appeal to the largest number of people in a given group. If you have 50 people and you convince, say, 15 of them that something is cool, all you have to do is watch as the 15 convert the other 35. And this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the thing in question which may or may not be cool! And if looking cool doesn't matter to you, then why not just pick up the thing and decide if its worth your while? Just look at U2. They are popular, then they are unpopular, they make good albums, they make bad albums, Bono tries to save the earth from AIDS, Bono makes fucking i-pod commercials, people think they're lame, people think they're the best band ever. Through it all, does the number of records sold have anything to do with how good the album is? Does the number of awards earned have anything to do with how much you like the album? No and no, because none of that shit is what the art is about.

And why would you care what someone tells you is art? Why would that play a factor in how you think about what a work means or what effect it has on you. I agree that all you need are influential people to say something is art to get people to believe that its art. But I also have to ask: why would you care what those influential people say. Who are they to you? Fuck them. They don't understand art, they only understand commerce. Those influential people you are talking about, the ones who get the public (by which I mean the college-educated public and only a tiny little minority even of them) to give a shit about art; they are the folks Bill Hicks advises to kill themselves and to stop putting a dollar sign on everything on this fucking planet. Absolute proof positive is that they can only market extremes. I notice you aren't complaining about Rembrandt self-portraits, the Sistine Chapel ceiling or even Picasso's cubist stuff. The examples you're giving me constitute a very small minority, but it’s the kind of thing people are familiar with because polarizing shit is the easiest stuff to market. Alot of people wouldn't even know they had any strong feelings about art until they overheard somebody talking about how he thought a canvas painted white was deep.

Art is like everything else in the world, in that people who are able and willing to tell the truth about it are rare. Most people who are critics, teachers, dealers and mediocre artists do what they do for the same reasons that anyone else does the job they do: they can stomach it, it makes them feel important, it makes them feel smart, it gives them a nice career, blah, blah, blah. 99 out of 100 people telling you some work of art is important give as much a fuck about you understanding that work as the guy who sold you your car cares about how that car works out for you. And all I'm saying is that the value of the art exists independently of what they tell you about it.

OK. If public perception does not relate to the quality of artwork- what does exactly? I can't fathom how anyone can be an art critic. What criteria can be used to judge a piece of artwork?

That's really the question? That’s pretty nebulous. Lets try this: for the sake of argument, don't think about the music or books that you like in terms of "I just like it for whatever reason." Instead, think about as: "I think it is good. I have placed a value on it. On U2 for instance. Why do I think U2 is good?" There are reasons beyond, "it sounds good to me." So let's start with your criteria. You have them, you just have to figure out what they are.

I'm not sure I can think of any reasons beyond "it sounds good to me". I used to like them in high school because no one else had ever heard of them so it was cool to actually listen to a group that wasn't Def Lepard. Then they got so popular and preachy and some of their music sucked so I don't know.

Anyway, I'm not talking about my criteria. I was just interested to know what a guy or gal writes about when they write an art critic book. Do they judge the works on their use of negative space? Or do they just make up a bunch of bullshit to make what they write sound intelligent? Like the guy I quoted you who writes for HBO.

Most of them do what you call “making up bullshit.” I would call it “repeating what they have been taught.” In university nowadays criticism is taught like an assembly line skill. You learn formulas and then you apply them with more or less proficiency to works of art you come across. Of course if you are a film reviewer, you don't even do that. You say whatever cartoon you watched that week was "sparkling" or a "tour de force" or "the most important movie of the year." Film is a good way into these questions, because the bullshit is so transparent. Film reviewers are obviously part of the promotion campaign for dumb shit and not at all critics of art.

Yes, they talk about negative space. A good critic should be able to explain why that's important, but since they are writing for each other they are usually content to demonstrate that they know jargon. Most of them do it for the reasons I mentioned in the previous e-mail. I do it, because I feel a sense of responsibility. Great art needs to be championed to those who don't care and explained to those who are interested. I see a movie and it confuses me. It makes me question things I took for granted. It says things i agree with and then it says they're all wrong. It keeps asking questions and it keeps giving me new things to think about, constantly re-orienting me to what is happening. I try to make sense of it. I go home and write about it. I go see the movie again. I try to make sense of it again. I read what other people say about it. All of them are wrong, but at least their wrong-ness helps me to eliminate certain trains of thought from my own study. I think about other art that seems to do similar things, say similar things, effect in similar ways. I compare them: maybe what I know about one can shed light on the other. I write an essay. I revise it. I watch the movie again and throw out half of what I said. I am trying to figure out what the artist is trying to communicate. I'm trying to communicate to my reader why the experience of watching the film and wrestling with it is valuable.

To return to my experiment with U2, if you can't think of a reason other than they sound good, perhaps you can define "sounding good"?

I like what you're saying about why you watch certain movies. I do the same thing sort of with books. I go to Barnes and Noble two or three times a month and find myself reading Ann Coulter or someone similar just so I can digest so to speak what they're saying. It turns out she's actually a complete lunatic. There's this new book out that's actually a rebuttal to a People's History of the United States. It’s written exactly the same way but its premise is that Zinn is full of shit.

I can't really define why U2 (or any other group/song) sounds good to me. I've noticed that I'm partial to the key of E but I don't know how that matters. My musician friend told me that we like certain kinds of music because its what we've been exposed to our entire lives so to truly expand your listening horizons you have to try to retrain your ear. Every song on the radio is three chords and away we go. I don't think I can explain why I like U2 anymore than I can explain why I like A1 steak sauce.

I read Klosterman's book called Fargo Rock City which is essentially a treatise designed to defend hair bands and heavy metal. The book is funny and in some places he gives info about some 80s bands that I didn't know so the book was enjoyable. But when I finished I thought, why? Either people like that kind of music or they don't. Why did Klosterman write a 250+ page book defending metal? Probably because that's what he does for a living, who knows. Regardless of what any critic or anybody else says, AC/DC kicks ass. I didn't need 250+ pages of Klosterman to convince me of that any more that I need 500+ pages of some art critic to convince me that the Mona Lisa is great. Regardless, I think the Mona Lisa is shit and possibly the most overrated piece of artwork of all time. But that's just my opinion.

So here's my question. How does an art critic get anybody to listen to them? Follow the assembly line method you described? What if they don't? Are they doomed to a life of obscurity?

Okay. Let me clarify. The movies that I watch repeatedly are the good ones. They are good because they shake up things I take for granted or they make me think about stuff I didn't thought I was done thinking about. That ain't the same thing as reading Anne Coulter. She's a bad movie. She's the movie I watch and I know it is dumb, and it has nothing to offer me, and I can dismiss it and move on to something else. Fuck her.

I'm not talking about being challenged by an ideology deliberate opposed to my own. I'm talking about style. You mention that part of what you like about U2 is that it was interesting to listen to something that didn't sound like Def Lepard. Well, I'm interested in movies that don't look like movies should look: Movies that hold shots longer than they need to require requisite information; Movies in which characters have conversations that don't move the plot along; Movies that point the camera at the back of somebody's head instead of their face; Movies that don't have any fucking musical score; Movies where you have to figure out what is going on with a character by studying their behavior instead of waiting for them to emote their pleasure or displeasure. These are all examples of possibility. They are not the requirements.

Your music friend is 155% correct about retraining your ear. That's how every art works. Maybe you already like Bach, maybe you already like van Gogh, maybe you already like Shakespeare. I promise you that whatever you like about them now is not what is really going on. You will not understand them, you will not have a sense of what they have to offer, until you retrain. Now, if you listen, study and read them all with regularity, and you do it attentively and dutifully then you are already in the re-training process. As far as I can tell, this process does not end, at least not with the greatest works. I can't ever comfortably listen to Bach. I cannot pass casually by a van Gogh, and I'll never understand every word of a Shakespeare play. Now I know there are people who believe that food is art. I myself have yet to develop my tongue to begin comparing truffles to Mozart, so for the time being, I would say that your relationship to the music of U2 is quite qualitatively different than your taste for A-1.

As to Klosterman's love of Metal: yeah, you are right. Klosterman is not an art critic. He's a quirky and clever cultural reporter - I hesitate to call him a critic. His flashes of genuine insight are few and far between. Mostly he's just trying to sound clever. And I doubt that he would disagree with my assessment. You don't say KISS is your favorite band if you have intellectual pretension of any kind, at least you shouldn't. As to the Mona Lisa, you have to retrain; you have to ignore the hype; you probably have to actually see it in the flesh and not pictures of it in books.

Notes on the Career I Have Chosen

A couple days ago I turned in my dissertation. My advisor happened to be in his office when I dropped it by, so we planned a date for my defense, and we talked about Tarkovsky, the subject of my work, Tarkovsky scholarship and the state of things in academia. I’m still a bit shaken by the way our conversation ended, because it was one of those moments you may have had with a teacher/mentor figure of your own, where everything is moving along pleasantly, and then he starts to give you advice that makes you want to scream, because you find it offensive, and you feel sick that someone you respect so much, someone that has been your teacher and helped you open our eyes to so many important things, is now advising you to do something you find morally reprehensible.

Basically he was advising me to engage in dialogue with mainstream film criticism in respectful terms, and this is something I find myself completely unable to do. Because I think it is irresponsible. I am supposed to be writing a review for an on-line journal for a book entitled: Frames of Evil: the Holocaust as Horror in American Film. 100% academic bullshit. I sent a letter to Ray Carney about it, and he posted it in his mailbag. Go read it: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/aboutrc/letters79.shtml. When your done with that, read some more stuff at his site. Particularly in the mailbag, Dr. Carney has been writing about something that he has only touched on from time to time in his books and essays, namely, the notion that art is a form of resistance. Real art is a form of reistance, not just the agit-prop that quasi-activist academics like to praise. Go read, The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions in Life and Art: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/carncult/emotions.shtml. It’s short but maybe the best primer for thinking about art I can think of.

If you read these two sections you have a good sense of the problem. Part of it is that academics are playing games with each other. They write crazy things about bad art and leave good art alone, because writing about good art is no way to build a career. The other ingredient is that the so-called liberals in academia have turned the revolutionary aspect of art into a single note populist maxim. They have dumbed it down and reduced it to its shallowest manifestation without no regard for how this action plays into the hands of power brokers. The hegemony wants academia to be about esoteric minutia that no one would understand but an academic. That way they get to call us elitist. All the cultural studies brand deconstruction in the world will not so much as make a dent in the façade of hegemony. If you are a film scholar and you write wacky things about how Spielberg uses horror frames more familiar in Hitchcock as a code for evil so that the audience can make some unconscious connection between real horror and their experience of horror in film, and you think that this is an act of resistance, you are fooling yourself in a most profound way.

This brings me back to my advisor’s suggestion that I give these people the benefit of the doubt. There is only so much doubt I can allow before I become morally irresponsible. My critique of their ideology already grants their purity of heart. I have been in college since 1992, and I know for a fact that it is widely considered professionally acceptable (and what’s worse, economically viable, when a scholar should never in a million years have to think about how much money he can make from his writing) to be the first to make a case for something. That is just insane. You don’t say something because no one else ever said it before; you say something because you believe in it. That this attitude is fostered and perpetuated tells us a lot about what is wrong with academia. We are more concerned about building careers than coming up with good ideas.

In short that’s why I have to disregard his advice. The people who want to talk about representations of gender or representations of blackness or representations of “the other” in movies and me – we aren’t writing about the same thing. Even if we both write about Tarkovsky, we aren’t writing about the same thing. I’m writing aesthetics, they are writing sociology. Why would I read them? Why would I engage in dialog with them? Besides there are plenty of folks writing about film as art that I can argue with. I’ll save my debate for the formalists, the amateur sociologists aren’t worth the time.

The Worst Scene from a Bad Movie I Just Watched

Perhaps this will become a regular segment. The worst scene this week comes from Bertolucci's The Dreamers, an amazingly pretentious film even by his standards that tries to weave together, and thereby equate somehow, film buffery, revolutionary politics, and taboo sexuality. Now there are numerous bad scenes from which to choose, but the clear-cut winner of worst scene is the one in which the American boy has sex with the French girl on the kitchen floor while her brother alternately watches them and makes breakfast. After they finish the brother comes over, kneels next to his sister and stick his hand in her crotch. He brings his hand up to see that it is covered in blood. Apparently the free-spirited French girl was a virgin! Heavens! I never saw it coming! Then the American boy does the same thing, sticking his hand between her legs then bringing it up to his face where he can see the blood. He holds his hand between their two faces as the both sort of marvel at the wonder of it all, then they kiss passionately as he carelessly smears the girl's blood all over her cheek.


This movie is very obnoxious. Does anyone think this is good? It's really little different from Brando's "I-want-you-to-suck-the-dying-fart-from-the-pig" speech in Last Tango. I mean it is no different in terms of why it's supposed to be interesting. At some point Bertolucci decided that transgression, audacity and sensationalism where somehow related to sincerity, courage and truth. Of course they are not, but it is amazing how people will continue to fall for it. Take Michael Haneke as another example. Cache is the most intellectually offensive film I have seen in years (and mind you I watched Children of Men a few weeks ago), and all the accolades showered upon the film basically amount to praise for it's outrageousness. Even Jonathan Rosenbaum accepts the conceit of its preposterous allegory because the message delivered is ultimately so important. Again, this is mistaking audacity for courage. Haneke and Bertolucci seem to think you have to touch on taboo to be interesting. To me it just seems like another form of dishonesty.

Stop the Fuss

Remember when IFC, Sundance, Bravo, AMC and TCM used to show good movies? I moved to Boston in 1997 and all of these channels were included in my basic cable. Since I had moved there to go to film school, it was pretty exciting. IFC would show movies that didn’t exist on video like Cassavetes' Husbands. AMC always had Capra, Wilder, Chaplin or Keaton any given night. Bravo used to run Fellini, Bergman, Godard and the like. The first month I lived in Boston TCM ran a Bergman retrospective. I must have taped two dozen movies out of that. It’s a little different story these days. AMC will show anything. “Classic” is apparently used to indicate that the movies they show are older than the ones in theaters. Today I have two chances to watch Guarding Tess, Scent of a Woman and Girl Interrupted. Later this week I can watch Moulin Rouge! Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and the timeless tale of Russians dropping out of the sky to occupy a small Midwestern town only to be thwarted by a scrappy pack of teens with bows and arrows, Red Dawn. Bravo!, which inexplicably still calls itself, “the film and arts network” has little time for movies these days, what with Top Chef, Shear Genius, Work Out, Project Runway, Top Design, Real Housewives, Queer Eye and edited versions of Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk. I just checked their schedule for the week. There are three movies on this week: Days of Thunder, Cold Mountain, and The Brady Bunch Movie. As for the arts, I guess that would be the marathon of Work Out.
As for IFC; they have become a haven of mediocre, faux-art for the pseudo-serious film buff. As if all that needed another safe haven. One of the best things about IFC is the way they inflate the value of the movies they show, by advertising them like sports announcers. For instance, last night I watched bits and pieces of what the folks at IFC believe to be one of the greatest American movies of the last 25 years by one of the country’s great living filmmakers, Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. I am not as excited about this film as IFC and indeed many other knowledgeable film viewers. In my view it isn’t so much a masterpiece as an extremely superficial character study, cliché-ridden story telling, oppressive style and terrible dialogue that is often saved to some degree by the quality of acting.
In fact the best thing about Anderson’s movies, at least this one and Magnolia, is that he allows his actors to act. Anderson is smart enough, or perhaps gracious enough, to trust his actors. He uses long takes which allow the performers to create beats. Instead of using shot-reverse-shot, Anderson uses a lot of mediums that show two or more characters on screen at once, so that the audience can experience real interaction. Both of these techniques make his films far more dynamic than the bulk of mainstream drivel with which they compete at the box office. The problem is that everything else about the movie is antithetical to this achievement. It is indeed a wonder that the actors can act at so well when they are given such one dimensional characters and such obvious dialogue. Every line Mark Wahlberg utters might as well be, “I’m a dumb guy with ridiculously high aspirations;” all of John C. Reilly’s lines amount to, “I’m a dumb guy who likes to be around other dumb guys;” Phillip Seymour Hoffman might as well say, “I’m the gay guy in this movie,” every time he opens his mouth, and so on with every character. Each of them is wrought so thin as to be mere caricature. And this is exactly what one would think the writer/director should try to avoid when dealing with “everyday,” “common” or “simple-minded” people. Why does Anderson have to show how dumb these guys are at every turn? Wahlberg, Reilly, Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham and Luis Guzmán play seven excruciatingly dumb people. Why do they have to be so dumb? Does Anderson think that regular people are dumb? The water works guys in Woman Under the Influence are not remotely this dumb. The fishermen in Short Cuts are not this dumb. The guy in Bell Diamond is not this dumb! Or rather, the characters I have mentioned in all three of these movies are as dumb as the ones in Boogie Nights, but their dumbness is not spoken in every line of dialogue.
This problem is indicative of the fundamental flaw in the movie: everything points in the same direction. In Cassavetes films, to lesser extent in Altman and certainly in Jost the character’s personalities are not determined by their profession. More than that, their concerns, their hope and their dreams are not dictated by the ostensible subject of the film. Nothing about Boogie Nights ever lets us forget that we are watching a movie about people who work in the porn industry in the 70’s and 80’s. The costumes, the sets, the music all add up to an idealized nostalgia – recreation of something that never existed so perfect and glossy. The movie isn’t what the 70’s porn industry looked like; it’s what someone who thinks that it was a cool time wants it to look like. The utter falseness of it is of course what makes it so irresistible. Actually, it ends up being very much like a Spielberg film because the authenticity it claims to posses is just a calculated and crafted edifice.
It is interesting that the gambit seems to be: if we can construct this edifice, and present it whole-heartedly as a monument to nostalgia, then no one will notice all the cliché. I do not want to dwell on this movie too much, but the last quarter is downright corny. Everything bad happens to every character at the same time. Then each one of them comes through his or her personal struggle wiser and/or happier i.e. better off financially. Just consider how ludicrous that is for a moment. When was the last time you said to your friend, “Just the other day I was involved in a coke-deal that went horribly wrong. Two people got killed and I barely made it out alive.” Then your friend responds, “That’s funny, because last night I was in a convenience store, and everyone in it somehow managed to shoot one another dead, but I made it out unscathed.” Preposterous – every bit of it.
In terms of narrative complexity, Boogie Nights is about on the level of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though mercifully shorter. I was helped to this conclusion by catching the last half hour of Return of the King after I stopped watching Boogie Nights about halfway through. Do you realize that there are people in the world who take this film seriously? There are people who tell me to look past the conventions and cull out the ideas which are supposedly interesting. I find that to be an awful lot to look past. Is the suggestion that I should look past the battle scenes, the insufferably melodramatic performances, the silly mood music, the ridiculous characterization and all the rest of blustery blockbuster qualities of this movie to find… what?... the great mythos of Western culture? I’m not buying. That movie is fun, because the battle scenes are entertaining. I’ve played numerous video games based on this trilogy. They are just as entertaining, and without the pretension to seriousness or the bloated morality.
Let me remind you what happens in the final battle. It’s the last stand against Sauron, the only evil in the world. The forces of good are outnumbered exponentially. Yet they fight on. Why? “For Frodo” – he actually says it, and then everyone yells and charges into the melee. It starts off well, but they are outnumbered. If only Frodo could get to the fires of Mordor in time! He’s getting there, slowly but surely. Meanwhile back at the battle the forces of good are starting to give way. The King is down for the first time in the entire series. Will Frodo make it in time? Yes; yes he will, but just barely, and he will end up hanging by one hand from a ledge, and being pulled to safety by his trustworthy companion. While I catch my breath, you can count the clichés in that fifteen-minute sequence. That, in a nutshell, is why I will not take these films seriously. People get really mad – fighting mad with me about this crap, and I have to back off to avoid violence. That’s insane. It’s the ethic that the film teaches, but it’s insane. This stuff was not made for adults. Hell the books weren’t made for adults! The movies are even dumber than the books, and I have had colleagues with PhD’s screaming at me that these are important movies.
Here’s the thing. There are no clichés in Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Kiarostami or Akerman. None is Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Sokurov, Tsai, Angelopoulos or Dreyer. Why are we so willing to forgive clichés? We should hate them. We should mistrust the people who foist them upon us. We should point them out when we see them and warn everyone else where they lurk.