Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quote of the Day

Stop me if I've posted this one before. Actually, don't. It's worth re-reading!

"What, however, can possibly link these two other facts: that on the one hand in the 1960s a handful of middle-class connoisseurs successfully combatted headache and eyestrain to achieve, no doubt, an "expanded vision," an attentiveness to the marginal functionings of their own optic system under stimulation and that, on the other, the large plebeian audience of the first ten years of motion pictures put up with a flicker that their social "betters" regarded as such intolerable discomfort that it contributed to their staying away in droves from the places where films were shown ... those smoke-filled, rowdy places frequented exclusively in those days by a class of people for whom motion pictures were cheaper than an evening at the gin mill and no doubt somewhat less uncomfortable than a day spent in the racket and stench of the factory of sweatshop?

"In any but a purely contingent sense, there would seem to be no link at all here, and in fact any attempt to establish one might seem at best ahistoric, at worst grotesque. Yet I have come to regard this encounter as emblem of the contradictory relationships between the cinema of the Primitive Era and the avant-gardes of later periods. For the elimination of flicker and the trembling image, fairly complete after 1909 it seems, was a crucial moment in the realization of the conditions for the emergence of a system of representation complying with the norms of an audience which would include various strata of the bourgeoisie. When the successive modernist movements set about extending, pragmatically or systematically, their "deconstructive" critiques of those representational norms to the realm of film, it was inevitable that sooner or later the flicker should reappear, valued now for both its synthetic and its "self-reflexive" potentials."

--Noel Burch, "Primitivism and the Avant-Gardes: A Dialectical Approach"


Anonymous said...

Hi Zach, I hope you don't mind me commenting here for your counter-canon, but your quote of the day does still makes it appropriate here (I hope) :) I'd just like to say thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment.

Yes, I do see your point regarding brow heights (if you don't mind me stealing your term), though I would argue that the Tex Avery/Bob Clampett Looney Tunes aren't at all lowbrow (with regards to formalistic rigor). I think that would be more appropriate for Herman and Katnip. And the Shaw Brothers did have King Hu in their stable.

I guess my discomfort with the terms themselves has to do with the long history behind them. Living in a society that is severely class-structured (I live in the developing world in Asia), I'm especially sensitive to their ties with class consciousness. I have not read as much Bourdieu as I want to, but I do share his disdain for the "ivory tower". I personally believe that the pleasures of art are free and equal for all people, be they academics or the knowledgeable or not, rich or middle class or not. Maybe I'm being too idealistic. But I don't like it when "highbrow" seems to imply art that is superior and only accessible to few, and "middlebrow" and "lowbrow" are somehow lesser forms. It leaves a bit of an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

I should confess to a like for Dancer in the Dark, though :) But to get back to Schrader's canon, I wouldn't label the films as such what is said to be "middlebrow". Its the composition of the list itself that is middle-of-the-road. Still, I do prefer calling it "fossilized", to pilfer a term from a wonderful Senses of Cinema article about canons:

I really believe that if Paul Schrader had proposed his as a personal canon instead of THE canon, he wouldn't be getting so much flak. Anyway, aren't the long dead the only ones supposed to be canonized? Surely just over a century in the lifespan of film isn't enough to call the mortician.

Andy Rector said...

sorry to post here a question for you unrelated to the Burch quote but I wonder what your thoughts are on Noel Burch's changes over the years, particularly his current "populist" postmodernist (?) phase (lets hope its a phase)??
I realize this is the subject for a whole post, even a whole book (I'm positive that someone will write that book in the distant future) but, do you have any thoughts, revelations, or even defenses of his current practice? I really only know his current position from his essay "The Sadean Aesthetic" in the book THE PHILISTINE CONTROVERSY. It appalled me and I wonder if it does you?

ZC said...

With regards to formalistic rigor, I wouldn't argue that a lot of the Looney Toons are lowbrow, either, Cole!

I try not to use the terms ending in "-brow," whether I refer to their supposed difficulty or their cultural status, with a prejudicial judgment of their place ... though I admit that middlebrow is, sometimes, a damning word. (And I have my reasons--mayb good, maybe bad--for this, but no need to get into them at this point.) So while I understand, and try to be sensitive to your and others' criticisms of the uses of "brow" words, I hope that my writing at least indicates flexibility and openness on my part, that when I call something "lowbrow" or "highbrow" I'm doing so as descriptive shorthand, that I usually intend no value judgment with these labels. That's what I aspire to project. But I'll also try to be more mindful of the way I use these words in the future.

ZC said...

Andy, I haven't read "The Sadeian Aesthetic," and my library doesn't have a copy of the book, but I'll try to look it up somewhere. The only really recent Burch I've encountered is a pretty short piece called "Complicity" where, if I recall, he attacks the U$ [sic] and its culture. I've printed it out and will read it again shortly.

From what I could glean from a few comments on the web on "Sadeian Aesthetic," it looks like it's an interesting topic handled imperfectly. I think Burch's hardcore progressivism is a good development in his work, I like the fact that he's paying attention to class developments & production in art (i.e., in cinema), but from my limited understanding of the specific nature of his rejection of younger "formalist" works, I feel he's not quite on the ball. Mainstream narrative cinema may be the bulk of what people see, but it's not a mass artform: it's an elite artform given to (and making money from) the masses. My admittedly secondhand impression is that his later critiques of modernist art film in favor of mainstream potentiality does not address this problem.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about Burch's "The Sadean Aesthetic," so many thanks for mentioning it, Andy.

Bordwell's chapter on Burch in ON THE HISTORY OF FILM STYLE is the most synoptic attempt to place (and launch a sustained critique of) Burch's entire career from the 60s (in Film Quarterly and his 1967 Cahiers pieces) to the mid 90s (when Bordwell was writing). It seems like the best starting point, since Bordwell does perform the welcome service of offering a broad overview. I, for one, have yet to explore Burch's post-LUCARNE A L'INFINI work.

And it's worth noting that today many academic early cinema scholars dismiss (they no longer feel the need to mount a sustained counter-argumentative attack) Burch's formalist theses with quite a bit of glee and then happily invoke his self-critiques.

Because Burch was so important to my budding interest in cinema, and because those who criticize him are often such less exiciting writers and thinkers, I'm always irked by this contemporary relegation of his writings to the fringes of the cinema studies discipline, as if he were some kooky uncle out of the past who let his avant-garde affiliations with "political modernism" run roughshod over his historical scholarship.

ZC said...

FWIW, I'm trying in my humble way to resurrect Burch--he's a central theoretical figure in the piece for which I'm applying to grad school ...