Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tryin' to Make Ends Meet

(a) media culture places far too much emphasis on endorsement, as though all opinion were ultimately nothing but polemics, and in service of polemics.

(b) though there are certainly "divisive" films or filmmakers I'll "take a stand" on, only a thoughtless person would allow the received imposition of the property of "divisiveness" to force a public all-or-nothing stance on any and every purportedly divisive entity.

(c) which is not to say that contradictions and oppositions don't exist and are not sometimes of exceptional importance, naturally.

(d) as if one person's public stance, in more than a minuscule percentage of instances, has any bearing on anything of importance at all - outside, perhaps, that person's own sphere of acquaintance and intimacy, in which case, "public" isn't always the right word, is it?

(e) in Jackie Brown the face of Pam Grier is a beloved ghost, the haunting of a screen idol, but the film (and her image in it) is not a direct homage but, if anything, an indirect one - an echo, a detachment -

(f) because Jackie Brown (like much of Tarantino, who is not "just" an upgraded video store clerk, though that he is too) is a filmic translation or expression of a particular kind of genre fiction, a Leonard-Willeford realm of writing that is itself a take and a twist on older forms of pulp knowledge.

(g) a dimestore author-psychology observation, to be thrown out but not necessarily accepted: Tarantino likes leisurely long shots, holding the frame (like the final two shots of Jackie Brown) because he is constantly revisiting totemic, imaginary constellations of images and moods from his own experiential, audiovisual past; his work is a form of yearning, which is why title cards and musical accompaniment seem to elicit just as much as care & attention as, say, plot mechanics. If not more. The character of this yearning may be immature, underdeveloped, pointless, or any number of things wanting - and yet, a problem of film culture is that, I fear, some reader too snarkily intelligent for her own good may read that I have even ascribed so noble and counter-intuitive a property as that of yearning to a guy like Tarantino. Because one must "endorse" or "reject."

(h) in the current issue of CinemaScope, Olaf Möller summarizes shortcomings in the scholarship on German filmmaker Veit Harlan by insisting that, of course, not only were his allegedly "apolitical" melodramas hardly apolitical, but his greatest work is often absolutely also the worst, politically and ideologically.

(i) Serge Daney warned of the dogmatism of a question of film critical intervention, in one case, where "the aesthetic criterion and the political criterion are given equal status. We assume that 'if there is something missing on the formal level there must also be something missing on the political level.' We remind those inclined to forget it that 'forms are not neutral,' but this is just an excuse for not investigating their very real content, for not spelling out this content in political terms - we leave that to others." (from "The Critical Function," 1973-1974) Daney, in this piece, also points to the problematic importance of discerning, apparently, what is being said by a film, and how. But in trying to go to the roots to find the strongest and most powerfully effective answers, criticism may paralyze the critic, so that they are "bound to have nothing to say when called upon to make a concrete 'intervention' in respect of particular films."

(j) the abandonment of polemics is not even possible as far as I can speculate, but I do think that to subordinate all thought to polemics is the death of thought, and the death of culture.

(k) it's the small detail, like e.g., Irving Lerner, in whose two great late '50s Vince Edwards vehicles, Murder by Contract and City of Fear, we see some of the through-lines from real filmic "noir" to this later oblique-homage "pulp" almost imperceptibly ... accomplishing the latter by the accumulation of small offbeat details and characterizations, characters noted for their character-ness.


Guillermo Krain said...

I know I'm slipping past the point of your generosity of thought to rejection -- but isn't the "problem" with Tarantino that he has no personal engagement with his own film history -- he has a "personal engagement" with the film histories of people like Leone and in a very limited way, early Godard. It's a REFRACTION of an already existing sensibility.

You've made a similar point before about filmmakers addressing and re-creating a lost classicism from the point of view of their 12 year old selves. It's a good one. I wonder if the 12 year old self "the soul of wonder" is as important to someone like Rivette. This may be a weird American thing.

Trevor said...

The whole question of "endorsement" is an interesting one. I see the recent emphasis placed on it as reflecting the rise and influence of identity politics. It's almost accessible as second nature for many today to go through a mental checklist when viewing a film that reads something like "Condemns racism, check; features non-stereotypical people of color in significant roles, check; does not feature stock male villains who are characterized by being excessively 'feminine' or gay, check."

There was this piece of music created a while back by some people who gathered together all the things people like to hear most in music. It was called "The Most Wanted Song" (there was also a companion "The Most Unwanted Song"). It seems to me that this culture of "endorsement" would seem to want a movie that features all the most agreeable, "progressive" views and attitudes, a movie that no one can can criticize for its politics.

But as silly as it is to imagine that, I don't feel like we can completely separate a work of art from its politics. It's definitely not a matter of a work of art "scoring points" for every political stance it seems to have that we might find agreeable. But when I think of films that I value the most, I do tend to think not just about their forms and aesthetic elements but also "what they say" (not to be separated from "how they say it," though).

Most often, I fall back on the idea that if a work of art can be "honest," meaning that the creator(s) express his/her/their views (not just through content but also through its form) without trying to "score points," it's of interest on some fundamental level. The work of art can even express something that I don't agree with, but it allows me to meet another person or group of people, and that "meeting" is valuable because it doesn't need resolution in polemics, opinions, or endorsements.

I also think that there's a whole other discussion to be had if you take into consideration the view of many (most?) in our culture of history as both linear and progressive. Works of art that "take a step back" instead of "moving forwards" would then seem to provoke even more criticism for the views that they supposedly endorse.

ZC said...

Guillermo, it may indeed be a weird American thing. I don't know. How "personal" does Tarantino's engagement with film history need to be? I think it's very personal - his adoration of the trappings & iconography of certain features of film history (and pulp history) is evident. At the same time, while I liked something like Inglourious Basterds, I do quite agree with his detractors who charge that his project is also (i.e. for me, at the same time) myopic, unstable, puerile, flawed, even potentially retrogressive or harmful.

Trevor, I would offer no argument that we can separate (let alone completely separate!) art from its politics. The two are identical in at least some facet, or various facets. At the same time, the ways in which this property of identity inheres in cultural debates is founded upon what I think is a severe misunderstanding. It is as if all films, or at least all 'divisive' films, are primarily referenda upon which one's vote is apparently crucial and contributes visibly to one's citizenship status in any given cultural public. I.e., if you "endorse" Inglourious Basterds your citizenship looks slightly better as a result to the QT fanboy estate, less so to the Straub-Huillet crowd.

Clearly the latter represents a nobler and better political position than the former, but I deeply resent the wider, and widespread, implication that our participation in culture amounts to mock-ochlocratic illusion of democracy, as though we should invite our own debasement through such participation in 'the spectacle' time and again, thoughtlessly.

Why is this the case? I think, Trevor, that you've hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph - we imagine these "public" judgments and pronouncements, endorse or reject, as being weighed in the court of posterity, on charges of patriotism or treason, where patria is Progress. I don't believe in the myth of progress, however, not as a philosophy of history, even though I have tried and sometimes been more accepting. This doesn't, or shouldn't, expel me from the political left - but you won't necessarily find me singing (and believing in) "We Shall Overcome."

Guillermo Krain said...


Maybe it's just me, but it seems that QT is completely "impersonal". I thought the whole point of him as a cultural figure was always his EVERYMAN status, i.e. he's the collective sacrificial victim to the volcano of pop culture, pointing out the wonders and delights in the hellish fire, or on a parallel track the Stakhanov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexey_Stakhanov) of producing-consuming the spectacle. Even taking him more seriously (and more generously) as a critic, I never feel that he's saying anything but ain't it cool...? Give me JT (Johnnie To) any day. If Tarantino was working in silks, we'd call him a fashion victim, no?

Taking up the other issue raised in Trevor's post -- Identity Politics if they exist as anything but a myth, seem like a natural application of consumerist values to the Anxious Subject. Where once your politics flowed naturally outward from your income status, or your class or even, God Forbid, your actions and your character, now one's politics change (and are expected to change for harmony's sake) with the wind. And this is a side effect, perhaps, of the progressive ethos, which is, of course, extremely convenient to Capitalism.

Here's an old post where I handily dispense with the progressive ethos:


The money quotes:

Looking at the past involves a sort of intellectual honesty that may be incompatible with an ideological belief that things are better than they were before. There is a perpetual delusion that travels bundled with bourgeois culture, particularly if such culture is nominally progressive.

The mild cancer in the "progressive" ethos is that, insofar as it wants to caricature and play the tedious  'gotcha' game with the past, and wallow in the warm mud of moral self congratulation, it winds up obscuring, in its absurd dogmatic faith that things are any better now, the current inflection of very real, often the exact same, hypocrisies and repressions inherent in our day-to-day existence.

Despite what Brody disingenuously suggests, our "game face" is actually more mercurial, anxious and situational than it ever was. Why? Because the Subject understands that she must frantically produce her authenticity, a burden that we would not normally wish on any person.

Culture is always in its' essence "reactionary". For better or worse, it says let's keep this stuff that WE say WORKS. The cultural position is always conservative -- falsely nostalgic for something that was lost/never was. The progressive ethos looks at the society in terms of problems -- it's a technocrat's dream. Problems obviously require a managerial class to render, address (and create) them. It's a Monarchy not based on tradition, but on flux. The advantage of this system is that "progress" in a relative and fluxing frame can't ever be measured, only theorized or expected.

ZC said...

But the spectacular-consuming stakhanovite of capitalism is coded expressly through his individualism, isn't? A long stone's throw between Tarantino and, say, Tom Hanks. (Consider the video geek in Scream played by Jamie Kennedy - it was him, right? - the expert who exerted a kind of everyman influence in terms of recognizing, delineating, and following the 'rules' of pop culture ... but in so doing, as a priest of the religion, definitely a character, as are most pop culture geeks as portrayed in/by pop culture.)

But I think I mostly agree with you, especially w/r/t your excerpted points ... (and on Johnnie To!) ... though if the cultural position deals in 'false nostalgia,' what would true nostalgia then be, I wonder?

Jon Hastings said...

"Real nostalgia" is too fragile to survive in most mass culture productions, but you can find it, say, in the mini-comics of John Porcellino.

I think Quentin Tarantino is "our" Oscar Wilde. His subject, which seems to me to be personal and unique to him, is how our relationship to the movies we love can act as a way of being in the world - a way of coming to a greater sense of self-understanding. I think his critics are often upset that he doesn't explicitly deal with the limits of this kind of understanding, but I don't look to poets for balanced position papers.

Guillermo Krain said...

if the analogy between Tarantinov and Stakhanov is precise enough -- then Stakhanov is valued because he is the most in service (in the harness) of the state. This is indeed a paradoxical and dangerous "individuality", because setting someone out and above a mass is always fraught with consequence. It is an individuality of effacement. And it is not much of a jump to see Stakhanov as the ultimate state victim, the perfect state victim, insofar as he offers no resistance to the demands of production.

For me, "true nostalgia" I can only get to by analogy: it's the way culture resonates with itself to increase meaning, like one's progress through a John Ford movie, where by the end meaning rises to reverberant density; and the artwork makes the very world hum.

Jon Hastings: "which seems to me to be personal and unique to him, is how our relationship to the movies we love can act as a way of being in the world..."

Ever since Edwin Porter filmmakers have been re-cycling their "love" of specific images into the textures of their films. It's part of the mimetic power of film -- what's "real" in film only comes from a certification of a prior artifice. Nothing unique about that.

With Tarantino, I always feel he's at the mercy of whatever William Witney film he watched last week. and there is a taste problem too. The guy just saw a freaking Sternberg movie, like, six months ago, and declared it good. That's not Oscar Wilde, it's touching illiteracy.