Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cinephile Notes

















Revisiting Citizen Kane recently (on 35mm!), I felt once again - and for the first time with this film - a tremendous freedom.  A sense of liberation can flood over you when, at a certain point, you are "over" a canonical text, I think.  But "canonical" is not quite the right word here, it's not precisely what I mean.  Perhaps my referent is better described as an object which bears some authority - real because imagined - over oneself. The dissipation of this particular kind of authoritarian aura all of the sudden makes the heavy light; that which has before shackled, now frees.  In recent years, and each for particular reasons, I have also had similarly liberating experiences with The Searchers and In the Mood for Love - films I first went into feeling the urge to love, films I wanted to love but for some reason couldn't, films by directors whose other works I cherished, and films whose sheer stature thus only made my failure seem more difficult ... films that took several re-viewings over the years to find peace with.  One leaves behind any idea of what one should like - and this "should" operates on a lot of different registers, some intensely personal, some purely social. 

Rare is the aficionado of "cinema art" who isn't also a certain kind of performer, enunciating taste in the proper way.  (But at the same time, rare too is the person who is aware of this performance - pointing it out - who isn't himself just a bad, reductive imitator of some ideas found in Bourdieu.)  A performer of good taste in cinema, for instance, will likely hail Citizen Kane but then usually take the slightest opportunity to point out that Welles' later work is even better, richer, or more fascinating.

I should repeat, for clarity's sake, that I am not referring strictly to the mere opinion that Welles' late work is great, but to the practiced enunciation upon proper cues to inform others about this opinion you hold.  I'm hardly suggesting that only "elitist film snobs" do this, either - in fact, anyone invested in film is going to do this in her own way.  It's a way for people who love films to connect, and to find other people who love films in compatible ways.  Some people are jerks about it, regardless of their brow height, whereas some people are really amiable, regardless of theirs.

How can we talk about the fact of this performative dimension of cinephilia without just flattening it into joke about bad faith and film snobbery?  In terms of scholarship and the field of film & media studies, which I'm aware is not where a large number of my readers reside (or have any sympathy for), I would say that I want to see the discussion of art cinema, and of "elite" cinephilia, given the same respectful and nuanced treatment that other subcultures and fan cultures have sometimes been given.  For while a love of austere art cinema & experimental work (Straub-Huillet, or Phil Solomon, or Bela Tarr) may have a certain claim to high status in its objecthood, this work neither confers much real status on devotees, if any, nor does it correspond to the taste cultures of a political economic ruling class.  Being highbrow, rigorous, or visibly "discriminating" in your tastes won't get you much at all in the way of dates, employment, respect, or party invitations.  In the academic world, 'art cinema' and its followers could be well-served by a good faith investigation by (gasp) cultural studies folks.  I think there are some indications of the trend already.

In any event.  Citizen Kane is so ubiquitously celebrated that it's almost a latent, potentially underappreciated film again ... not in general, but amongst the cognoscenti.  (It served as a whipping boy, for instance, for Joel David's wonderful Sight & Sound list.)  The temptation to attack, disrupt, subvert, or ignore "the canon" is sometimes so powerful that it gives greater structuring power to the canon than it might realize.  Kane stands in for all that is "yes, but..." about filmic greatness - "yes, it's great, but..."

The key, I suppose, is to find a way to respect what follows that but... while also remaining radically open to that which we are conditioned (by our own individual taste cultures) to respond to as stale.  It's in continually also interrogating our implicit and explicit distastes that our tastes will find some robustness ...

13 comments:

JeanRZEJ said...

On the one hand I can see where you're coming from, although on the other hand I think this is really just a long exorcism of your demons. Some people, when they discuss Citizen Kane, say that they love it. That's all you need to say! Say you love it. "I love it like I love puppies! I love litters of puppies! Puppies! This puppy's name is Citizen Kane, but my favorite is..."

Oh, I think I did it.

No, but, really, I really only find myself doing this 'performance' when it comes to Zulawski's Possession. Give someone one film in English and it makes the rest somehow inferior. It's painful. It's painful for all of us. Let's all get together, give each other a big hug, and get over ourselves.

Zach Campbell said...

Yes, it is obviously prompted by, and in expression shaped by, my own personal experience with Citizen Kane and a few other films - but I do think it is an evident (if taboo) truth, that cinephilia is a culture, too, and as such has its protocols and opportunities for pettiness or oneupmanship.

We could all "get over ourselves," and perhaps it would be for the best, though I think that the topic I was trying to address has in fact not been dealt with very much at all ... only demonstrated.

Jon Hastings said...
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Jon Hastings said...

Zach -

Very interesting post (as usual).

To clarify - you are suggesting we should: (a) study the "yes, but..." and other such moves, (b) respect the "yes, but.." and not dismiss it as a form of snobbery, and (c) become aware of our own "yes, but..."-type moments.

I had a similar experience with Citizen Kan a few years ago. I've never had problems liking it, but I would always say that I thought it was shallower than Welles' later works. Then, watching it again, something shifted in my relationship to the movie (or at least my perception of that relationship) and (1) it didn't seem shallow at all and (2) I felt, like you, at peace with its greatness and with my enjoyment of its greatness.

But even though I've been aware of this kind of thing for a while now (I wrote about it in a post on my old blog - now lost in the ether - about how it was hard to say I preferred Mervyn Peake to Tolkien without sounding like I was being elitist-for-the-sake-of-elitism), I still catch myself falling into it. For example, if I'm honest with myself, I not only think "the greatness of Stagecoach" is equal to that of any of Ford's movies but I also really love it. However, when the subject of favorite Ford movies comes up with my cinephile friends, I don't think I ever mention it (I'll say Wagon Master, usually). Along with the status game (or maybe as part of the status game), there are a couple of other things going on here: (1) the belief that an answer of "Wagon Master" will lead to a more interesting conversation, (2) the fear that everything about Stagecoach has already been said - that it's fixed in place. Actually watching Stagecoach (which I've been doing on a monthly basis since the Blu-Ray came out), suggests that, no, it isn't fixed in place - it's still a living, vital work of art and not a "museum piece" (<-- a telling phrase?).

I'd guess that a lot of this is generational, too. The big canon wars over the American cinema were well over by the time I first started getting into film: to what extent does the anxiety of inheriting an older generation's canon play into this?

best,
Jon

Jon Hastings said...
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Jon Hastings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zach Campbell said...

Really interesting comments, Jon.

To clarify - you are suggesting we should: (a) study the "yes, but..." and other such moves, (b) respect the "yes, but.." and not dismiss it as a form of snobbery, and (c) become aware of our own "yes, but..."-type moments.

Would it be a cop-out to say that I think going down all three paths are worthwhile? (That is, to try to be sensitive to each - not to always attend fully to each contingency ... which would be maddening.) With respect to (b), I think we shouldn't assume it's snobbery, plain snobbery, and from there extend the assumption to say that we've already said the final word on the topic.

You're definitely right to point out that other factors figure into this 'performance,' though. It needn't be about oneupmanship. I myself love shooting the breeze with other cinephiles about intricacies of titles, networks of preference & personal meaning as filtered through the imputed meanings of bodies of work. But this activity itself may often look suspiciously indiscernible from the activity of boys-club oneupmanship though, to one who by choice or upbringing isn't a cinephile, even though I'd argue that it's not - or at least not necessarily so.

In this sense my post is about two things, not one - it's about coming to terms with a film that appears "heavy" to us in some respect (say, one that we feel expected to like, or one that we oppressively might expect ourselves to like), and finally achieving levity in the relationship. But it's also a post about broader social practices with regard to taste and talking about preferences, hierarchies, and classifications and the performative dimensions of doing this amongst "peers" and not-quite-peers.

JeanRZEJ said...

I posit that, instead of turning every discussion into a single film into an infinite contingency of 'yeah, but...'s, we should simply stay on topic. When talking of Citizen Kane, talk of Citizen Kane. When talking of Welles' work as a whole, talk of Welles' work. No more buts, just pure, unadulterated honesty. I disagree with the notion of discovering absurd sociological tendencies and then simply accepting them as a ball and chain. I think such deficiencies are best understood in order to be overcome, in order to realize the possibility of authentic, non-contingent discussions. I have no idea how you were interpreting my post as some 'demonstration' of that you wished to address, but if the alternative to overcoming the trappings of certain sociological constructs is to keep track of an infinite number of contingencies such that the following statement seems to both make sense and be grounded in anything other than unadulterated speculation, then I don't want any part of it: 'Citizen Kane is so ubiquitously celebrated that it's almost a latent, potentially underappreciated film again ... not in general, but amongst the cognoscenti.'

Zach Campbell said...

JeanRZEJ, if my talk about sociological contexts is so tiresome, please feel free to leave behind this blogger's coil for the land of authentic discussion - and please send a postcard from this realm when you get there. Staying on topic, sticking to the point - yes, sure, definitely, absolutely. Except that a great deal of the time, even most of the time, this task is inevitably derailed or mutated. Not by me, as though goshdarnit I am so stubbornly insistent upon contingencies and can't "get over" myself, and my awareness of this derailment were somehow the issue ... but as it happens on an everyday basis.

I have no idea how you were interpreting my post as some 'demonstration' of that you wished to address

This is because I didn't interpret your post this way, and you've misunderstood me.

tray said...

All I can say is that my oft-expressed preference for The Magnificent Ambersons over Kane isn't performative in the least bit. To me Ambersons is twice the film that Kane is. I find Kane tendentious, moralizing, somewhat simpleminded, and at times needlessly baroque and showy. (It's also responsible for more terrible films, and parts of otherwise good films, than virtually anything else ever made.) Ambersons takes all the formal technique of Kane, improves on it to a degree, and marries it to something that's genuinely felt and understanding.

Zach Campbell said...

Hey, though it's been a while since I've seen Ambersons, I'm inclined to say I like it better than Kane as well. (And Ambersons has its own performative meme attached, sometimes, that I'm not crazy about: the omnipresent "haunting" of the film by the film-that-could-have-been, as though what we have regardless is not in fact a treasure... do you agree?) Indeed I am not trying to say that anyone who prefers post-Kane Welles to Kane is being disingenuous - I would probably count F for Fake as my own favorite, on most days. I don't doubt that most people who say as much are fairly sincere. It's more just the commonality of a particular rhetorical flourish, that often talking about Kane brings up the (oft-exercised) opportunity to indicate that one knows & appreciates more than just this Film Canon 101 title ...

gcgiles said...

Zach: You wrote:
"For while a love of austere art cinema & experimental work (Straub-Huillet, or Phil Solomon, or Bela Tarr) may have a certain claim to high status in its objecthood, this work neither confers much real status on devotees, if any, nor does it correspond to the taste cultures of a political economic ruling class."
While I agree that having a taste for Bela Tarr does not precipitate a high salary, I do think there is an elite status among cinephiles, especially those who attend expensive festivals or live in pricey urban centers where they are more likely to encounter relatively obscure cinema. And of course, there is a vast time commitment that requires discretionary time best enabled by a white collar job that doesn't exhaust the worker. The performance of taste is often enacted at festivals, one of the few environments where cinephiles can meet face to face. Ipso facto, you do tend to have a taste culture rooted in a higher class, even if the members of that class cannot use taste as a means of entrenching their power.
None of this concerns Citizen Kane per se, but I think it is important to make this distinction.
Thanks for the great post!
Cheers, Greg Giles

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