Monday, September 25, 2006

Genre, et cetera

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

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 ...


Theo said...

Thoughtful post as ever, Zach, but I'm slightly disturbed by the thought that there's a level of genre film above which you "couldn't bear" to see Vienet's treatment applied but below which (presumably) you wouldn't mind. I haven't seen "Girls of Kamare" (though I've heard a lot about it) but I've seen similar-sounding exercises, from found-footage shorts to "What's Up Tiger Lily" - and there often seems to be a temptation to downgrade the original as 'mere' genre in order to justify one's own presence, also implicit in your notion of complicating an "under-complex" original by "shoehorning a reading" onto it. Seems to me this kind of assault on a text should always be taken as sad and/or cannibalistic on one level, even when I welcome the resulting meta-text.

Sorry if this sounds harsher than it's meant - I'm just a bit impatient with artists "grafting" themselves on "pre-existing product, making it new in the process", esp. in the music industry where it seems to happen all the time now. And what's so bad about being "seduced" by genre? I have great respect for genre films (maybe because I can't write one).

ZC said...

Not harsh at all, Theo--you've raised perfectly legitimate questions as I see it. When I imply a level above or below tolerance for 'the Vienet treatment,' I'm not trying to zero in on (and kill) pleasure itself, not even generic pleasure. (Please, let the seductions carry on!) It's more about meaning. A Western by a no-name, or a no-name that I like (e.g. Charles Marquis Warren), or a minor work by a recognized "auteur" (e.g. Lewis' 7th Cavalry) would be more bearable for me to undergo this treatment than, say, My Darling Clementine. It's not because genre is bad and that I want to see some low-grade or run-of-the-mill genre films attacked or dismissed simply for being what they are. But insofar as we can pull out referential, metaphorical, or allegorical meanings, to hold these generic works in our heads as things which refer to reality or produce meanings for reality, I wonder if there is a certain rough line to which the generic pleasures fail to generate their own truly robust meanings in this field, and therefore can be fruitfully (not to say necessarily) substituted and toyed with by way of Vienet-esque social criticism or something like that. It's not that I'm trying to celebrate making something new out of something old, per se--it's that I'm applauding the recognition that certain "grafting" activities can be fruitful despite their crudity--or, as you say, their sadness or cannibalism.

I alluded to generic seduction only because I wasn't certain of myself--how do I convince myself that I know, for instance, that My Darling Clementine isn't simply a slight upgrade from Tension at Table Rock? That is, can I simply rely on my own taste? (Sure, when I'm only answering to myself, I can--but in communicating with others, I mean ...)

Does this make any more sense?