Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cinephile Ramblings

(For Andy Horbal.)

This clip of Tarantino talking about Hong Kong cinema and the French New Wave was really galvanizing for me when I was about 16. This was the age when I started to "get serious" about film, tried to stop just mimicking what the entertainment press and awards shows told me was important about movies. I started the long trip, one I'm still on ...

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Tarantino's invocation of the French New Wave, about movie love bypassing the rules of filmmaking, is in one sense, of course, good and celebratory; but just as likely it is part and parcel with a justification of the consumerist ethos in cinema. The standard line about the French film critics in the 1950s and '60s (and their followers) was that they looked at genre cinema and realized some of it was great, contra some moldier bourgeois notions of high (film) art. True enough as a historical summary, assuming we all accept the crudeness of the formulation. But I feel like, in my generation, what this means is essentially now a carte blanche to always defend Hollywood against any attack. "There's no high and low anymore--I reject your false binaries!" Is it just me, or do invocations of nobrow, high-low-boundary-transgressing more often than not come from quarters that wish to defend Hollywood or otherwise corporate product, and almost never in defense of the stuff that doesn't have millions of dollars backing it up? As though stuffy highbrows are/were the real problem with society. (Someone like the great Jahsonic would prove an exception to this rule of course.) Where are the waves of attacks on hi-lo misconceptions that seek to defend the truly marginal works in our industry or in our larger culture, instead of only the movie-with-a-$50-million-marketing-budget? I want to see more cinephiles (this includes myself) write a few words also about some schlocky videofilm maestro, or an avant-garde horror filmmaker causing a stir among locals in the Cleveland area. Renew or re-engage cinema as something that has local clout (rather than being a product of international marketing & distribution schemes), that has to do with people more than the market, something that is wrested just a bit more out of the fingers of profit seekers. (I mean, I think this is more important film cultural and political goal than trying to explain how The Matrix and V for Vendetta are subversive.)

Otherwise, I just feel like the through-line ("Hey, those French guys saw that Hollywood entertainment could also be great art") has become this kind of platonic catch-all, brutally extracted from its historical development and nuances and applied with zeal to any number of for-profit entertainments, so that the origins of the auteurist polemic (which involved standards, erudition, and even a political dimension that was in some cases quite laudable) are appropriated entirely on the basis of their most reactionary-romantic elements to act as mass apologia for all the sanctioned-and-sold Hollywood "auteurs" of today--whether Michael Bay on the disreputable end or Steven Soderbergh on the respectable one.

But an impulse to have faith in the deliberately mass-consumed (whether "low" or "mainstream") in our current age is, if it is indeed to be held as a cardinal rule of cultural connoisseurship, best tempered by a dialectical impulse toward skepticism and mistrust of a spartan/maoist variety, a healthy unwillingness to never take capital or the state on its own terms, to never accept their products, to always read a cultural product in terms of its function in the economy (in this case, generally, as part of culture industry) and as an ideological operation in the interests of its moneyed patrons if not always its authors and craftspersons.


David Lowery said...

I remember being as excited as you by those Rolling Thunder introductions; oh, the possibilities they opened up to me! My entire introduction to Godard was through Tarantino's production company name (A Band Apart).

Joel said...

Speaking of The Matrix. Just picked up (well, ordered and received) Jonathan Beller's new book and was struck by the image from The Matrix on the cover. I've only just begun reading, but I wonder if the use of this pretty striking image on the front cover of a book of this nature is in some ways hypocritical. I realize how this image applies to the arguments in the book, but it also sells it. This seems very similar to how most academic film depts. use movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones (because they're popular) to illustrate film theory.

David Lowery said...

I meant to write more earlier, but had to abbreviate my post.

Do you think that, in this post-critical, globalized age, the quote-unquote lowbrow and generic pictures that were loved and recapitulated by the French New Wave truly have an equal? True, every now and then an 'outsider artist' might show up on the straight-to-DVD rack at the local video store, but more often than not, those more talented fringe filmmakers are already fully aware of the high/low bifurcation implicit in their work. Take the Sundance hit Teeth, for example; twenty, maybe thirty years ago, that'd have been a Roger Corman movie and the artistry behind it would have to be excavated by hardcore devotees over the course of years of drive-in screenings and double features. Now, it goes from Sundance to getting a major spot in Berlin, and when it hits theaters later this year, those festival spots will probably have as much to do with the marketing campaign as the fact that it's a horror-comedy about a girl with teeth in her vagina.

Jaime said...

Zach, I agree with what I take to be your core "complaint," i.e. we should look closer - and widen our search radius - but when people ask for changes as you're doing, I would like the writer to name the perpetrator(s). Are these bloggers? Professors? Journalists? Other?

That which drove you to write this: is it closer in spirit to conclusions based on like-scientific observation or impressions drawn from recent (or longer term) experience? I'm not saying either way is "correct." What drove you to write this? The QT clip?

What do you think of what the Criterion Collection has been doing lately? The mark of "sanctioned" (by Cannes, by box office, by director chic, etc) is less apparent in many of their releases. Their bastard-stepson line, Eclipse, is releasing two films by Raymond Bernard. Who is Raymond Bernard???? (And how wonderful it is to be introduced to a stranger!!)

Zach Campbell said...

David--yeah, those introductions, and the Rolling Thunder series, played a good role for my teenage self. Even when I hate Tarantino for this or that aspect of his influence or some opinion he has that I might disagree with ... I always recall that, at a certaint point in time, his suggestions were incredibly important to me as a budding cinephile. (For the record, I like Pulp Fiction and I really like Jackie Brown.) As for brow-heights today, and festival distribution, etc. ... I'll have to get back to you.

Joel--you're 100% correct on the Beller book cover. The book won't sell well at all, I imagine; the Matrix image is probably a market-optimistic concession that Beller probably agreed to (or deliberately chose?) ...

Jaime, the Tarantino clip sort of helped galvanize me into writing down my thoughts, but really it was an expression of very generalized sentiments, from sources too numerous and sometimes vague to fully recollect. I'll try to be more specific about complaints on this line in the future.

As for Criterion (and Eclipse), I have mixed feelings about it. Showing interesting and sometimes impossible-to-see films to people in good video copies (especially if it involves film presrevation or restoration) is mostly a good thing. But I'm against a lot of the consumerist impulses that Criterion, as this boutique "art" DVD label, encourages and, as a business, necessarily thrives upon. For instance, these upcoming Makavejev discs--I'm glad they're coming, I'll probably buy 'em myself eventually, and I know they'll make more fans of the director. But I know a lot of people who will get psyched about these films and buy them because of the Criterion imprint wouldn't necessarily give a fuck about Makavejev or his historical and aesthetic importance if it weren't for the Criterion (or some other) imprimatur. So I guess I'm against a canon-formation that, especially, veils simple market movements and actively encourages people to think cinema history in terms of DVD releases. This is purely personal, even visceral, reflection of course, I am not making a strong case, which would require empirical evidence, careful examination of facts & figures as well as people's opinions on films & film culture ... but if I'm being honest, this is how I feel ...

Jaime said...

Canon-formation is always an interesting topic! It sounds like you are concerned that canons are being decided by lazy, reactive consumers (and the market forces that hold their hands) rather than explorers and other restless souls. I would say you are right to be concerned. Explorers are few and far between.

On the other hand, I'm very much okay with DVD driving film culture. You can get seven extra-canon Renoirs for twenty bucks from Lions Gate. There's just been a recent run of Chinese silents, including the classic SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN, from a company called Cinema Epoch. The way things are now, Zach, you - anyone - could scrape together some capital and release just about any hitherto unheralded film or video imaginable. I'd buy your fuckin' DVD if you put one out. (Or not buy it, put it on my Netflix queue.)

Alex said...

"Tarantino's invocation of the French New Wave, about movie love bypassing the rules of filmmaking, is in one sense, of course, good and celebratory; but just as likely it is part and parcel with a justification of the consumerist ethos in cinema."

No, Tarantino is not good and celebratory. Tarantino's purpose is actually diametrically opposite to that of the French New Wave. More importantly, Spielburg and Lucas' constant invocations of earlier American cinema (and, occasionally, other world cinemas) is also diametrically opposed to that of the New Wave, as well.

The basic ground of this debate is interpreting the central question of what cinema can do. Let's take the example of classic gangster cinema. Classic gangster cinema just can't be the same in France of the 1950s versus the US of the time. The French New Wave critics were instaneously aware that all noir fiction and film is an inherently Left genre. It's immediately obvious when you live in a country with a wide and deep experience of Left dialogue as France (notably, the French, Italians and Germans immediately recognized the political orientation of noir; while the Americans and British were usually quite oblivious).

Americans' understanding of such films must (except for a small number of intellectuals) be completely different. There is much less room in America for a coherent and deep criticism of the ruling ideologies - beyond that much criticism, beyond either quite mild or coded expressions of criticism, were outright banned for good portions of the past century. Thus, continuing in our example, the crime movie: the French properly see the dark noirs as expressions of the futility of modern existance. Thus, the criminal's death at the finale is part of that futility. Americans, since they're much less attuned to Left-derived art, saw the criminal's death at the finale as a conservative one: the criminal is punished, and American law & order is restored. (The French also had the distancing advantage of not having to deal with the invariably corrupt, extremely racist and hyperconservative American police of the time).

Tarantino, Spielberg and Lucas are searching within older cinema primarily techniques to administer visceral emotions (thrills and chills). That's why they portray world cinema largely in terms of those things that present exemplary techniques of thrills and chills: martial arts, action, samurai, yakuza, horror, blaxsploitation, etc.

The French New Wave was instead searching film history for political / aesthetic purposes (initially, various forms of political radicalism in the late Fifties and Sixties) that Tarantino explicitly rejects. The reason their promotion of noir was so relevatory was that it inverted the conservative prior scale of values. When Tarantino promotes martial arts, he's not inverting an aesthetic, he's just getting additional technical tricks. I.E. he doesn't believe that martial arts movies contain any real groundbreaking additional truth about life, in direct opposition to the French New Wave's use of American noir. That's why Tarantino does not seem to gain much from Godard except, again, for a few obvious technical tricks.

Jaime said...
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Anonymous said...

I'm reading an opinion of The Matrix Trilogy as one of the most expensive arthouse experimental films ever made that was unfairly criticized and unappreciated for its contributions to cinema history. It's this contention that I wrestle with, because I feel that I have somehow been indoctrinated or maybe trained by my inner snobby cinephile to reject movies like The Matrix that trade on their so-called meanings for action suspense and science fictional goodiness. But so much has been written about the films that it's hard to see how it does not rank up, and suddenly I find myself having to appreciate these commercial movies on their own terms.

Actually, I have no bias against science fiction, but maybe I have a bias against action films, especially of the American, Hollywood variety, and maybe that prevents me from truly comprehending on what's on the screen. Should I really criticize The Matrix on a dramatic level because it doesn't compare to Fassbinder or Cassavates? Or that its intellectual content doesn't rack up to Godard? Or it pulls the same symbolic tricks as Jodorworsky? In fact, I don't know much about any of this crap at all. Am I not seeing the conceits are fully justified in their presentation? I don't know. And I never thought that maybe the films were good because they brought hitherto unseen concepts and ideas to a mass audience around the globe, but I always felt that came with the price of watering down and trying to package the concepts and ideas as much as you can to make it holistic. But maybe I was wrong. This nobrow distinction is kind of scary for me. Donna Summer could be the Bach of disco music; could very well be a better contributer to music history than Bach with the right rhetoric.

Maybe The Matrix films are, while flawed, the greatest set of films in modern cinema, bar none. But I don't like to think in "is this masterpiece or not" because there is a hell of a lot I don't know, about the past and especially the future.

Mrmemgh.... I remain confused.