Thursday, October 28, 2010
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 ...