The other day I watched René Vienet's amazing example of Situationist détournement, Les Filles de Kamaré (1974), which takes two 1970s Japanese cult films (by Teruo Ishii and Norifumi Suzuki), mashes them up with a little bit of hardcore footage shot by Vienet himself, and subtitles the films with lines like "Your signifier is equal to your signified." Eventually the dogmatic capitalists are overrun by oppressed schoolgirls who long for liberation! The film brings to the surface any number of thoughts we might have when we watch a genre film or a cult film and think of them as "subversive." Andrew Grossman writes,
"Undercomplexity is more challenging than overcomplexity. One can always play with symbols and close-read a complex text into comfortable ideology. But undercomplexity is the absence of a text to move against — it is a mirror in which one flounders for semiotics where none exist."
This isn't an anti-intellectual jab: it's couched within a very long (and not easily summarized) piece about the nature of our engagement with genericism and meaning, our very investment in cinema and its roles in the world at large. (The title is: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ho Meng-hua.") Vienet's film (I haven't yet seen Can Dialectics Break Bricks?) shoehorns a 'reading' onto a generic undercomplexity--unconcerned with what the film "really" means or "subversively" suggests (by some way readable through theory or form). Vienet simply recognizes a structural isomorphism with his ideological product and grafts himself onto the pre-existing product, making it new in the process.
I keep thinking of Sympathy for the Underdog (Kinji Fukasaku, 1971), a terrific film, and very beautiful.
It's beautiful largely because its deep, saturated colors, the rhythm of the lines in its frames, are sad and tentative. The (anti-)hero is regurgitated back into a life of crime despite all his best wishes--like innumerable gangster films!--and Fukasaku turns this conceit (cliché?) into poetry. It's beautiful because it can't last: it doesn't make thuggish capitalist-criminalism attractive so much as it dramatizes & poeticizes the generic inevitability of these gangsters' demise. (Like the oh-so-Japanese proverbial falling rose petals, etc.)
One may love the bottom rungs of generic art, one may appreciate them, learn their ins and outs, love the mediocrities as much as the stand-outs and all-stars. A proposition I'm considering: that we realize a genre film truly flexes its muscles, goes to a proper level of complexity or pungency or robustness, when we couldn't bear to have Vienet's treatment repeated to it.
An obstacle: how then do we ever know we're not simply being "seduced," so to speak, by generic charms? (After all, the Situationist-style treatment works best when it agitates and unsettles the most.) The answer for now is: vigilance, constant vigilance, and a lot of open discussion with cinephilic comrades ...