Notes toward non-appreciation of Takashi Miike's Detective Story (2007) ...
I had the opportunity recently to look at a film I didn't much like, by a director (with a cult following) that I do much like, and wanted to clarify a few things for myself and in the process maybe some of you can also extract something of use. The source of the problem or schematic I'm working through here is in my own personal history of being once a romantic-formalist but also (I think?) expanding well beyond these strictures. But it's also a matter of tackling a problem with some practical utility, at least for the cinephile, like myself, who nerdishly logs what he sees and tries to at least vaguely have some mental placement of its overall worth. In the past, for reasons of temperament, I adhered to a very "humble" approach to seeing films by filmmakers I liked. If I didn't appreciate the film, I consciously considered that the problem might reside in myself. (This has something to do, I think, with the Catholicism attached to a lot of early auteurist criticism, and my own Catholic history - playing the devotional role of the penitent viewer is an important part of this, and something that is really crucial for understanding a lot of this thing, "auteurism." It's also why I balk violently at a lot of snap judgment-style criticism, and never warmed to Pauline Kael.) This spectatorial humility on my part was not total - I was not afraid to dislike films, even films I felt I was supposed to like. I was simply caught in a trap of my own making: how to trust myself when I found numerous kinds of pleasure in giving - or feeling as though I gave - trust in the object before me, the film of the other, an(other) film of the auteur? To me it was a profoundly ethical matter, even if it wasn't a profoundly well-thought one. And of course it required a prior, and sometimes implicit, judgment beforehand as to which films really deserved this humility and which films didn't.
But lost in all of this is the richness and importance of the gray area. The middle grounds - which can be middlebrow, or middling achievements, or compromises, or contradictions, or any number of things. The ability to see on multiple registers, to see how a film's aesthetic and its politics operate on several levels (not always distinct), and in countless contexts. Sometimes when one thinks one is seeing clearly, it's not the big or true picture one is glimpsing - but the isolated image of a parlor game.
So a few sketchy comments, which are ultimately for myself, but which I share in case you feel they can be for you, as well.
... the connoisseur's eye frequently doesn't care about "genre" and in fact has perfect contempt for a genre project, though sometimes this is dressed up as faux-proletarian respect for a job of work. Who cares that Phil Karlson made B-movies, Kansas City Confidential is wonderful and evinces an aesthetic sense that goes far beyond - and will exceed - all such pesky questions as material, industrial context. It is nice to know that a B-movie is (was) a B-movie, that a cathedral is (was) a product of oppressive religious collusion with state and money, that a Renaissance painting existed in an art market and had patrons ... but these don't tell us anything about the inner meaning of the work.
... though discussing the inner meaning of the work is often a way of drawing facile boundaries in order not to do the more intellectually and (yes, perhaps) aesthetically strenuous job of dealing with the outer life of the work as well.
... and in the vacuum of an auteur's career, or a film movement, justifications come easily when one limits all possible connections down to a few registers (those of the author's own work, or a particular stratification of film culture, or - possibly - something vague called "Zeigeist").
... if one is a romantic-formalist and an auteurist, can one draw the line - practically speaking - between the auteur's consideration of his or her industrial context, and make distinctions as to those who did what they had to do in bad conditions, and those who simply let themselves go to seed, having already felt the acclaim - or given up the ghost? (If yes: If not through "auteurism," then how does the auteurist evaluate the conditions in which the auteur works?) To me, Carloss James Chamberlin's article in Senses of Cinema on Nicholas Ray and Bitter Victory is a superb example of a film that considers the performative - and this is also to say the industrial and political - dimensions of a filmmaker's authorship.
... the sleekness of some later Miike may pose the question (and I haven't considered the work diligently enough to have a real answer, myself) that he himself is simply festering in a gussied-up version of his prior, perhaps grittier work. In such a context, even if one is only partly sympathetic to such a judgment of the work, it's sometimes more difficult to be "won over" by formal patterns or stylistic signatures, flourishes. For instance, in Detective Story, the palette of gore and the wardrobe connection to Kazuya Nakayama's red-white shirt. In this kind of context the execution - i.e. the performance of authorship - seems more rote than risked. This is also why, during the middle of the past decade, I found myself dissatisfied watching certain art films by directors I loved, because I was no longer struck by their invention or their freshness, but instead was impressed by their sense of aesthetic safety. Elliptical art films on the festival circuit (whether good, bad, or in-between) tend to simply deliver to their viewers precisely what they want, whereas E. Elias Merhige's Suspect Zero is at least taking a few chances, even if it's not a great film ...
... innovation is, of course, highly overrated. I'm happy to let the next buzzword in aesthetics be something like "sustainability," borrowed from Whole Foods style Green politics. It's also bad but at least it would bring some new questions to the table that would push aside shopworn modernism (i.e., oftentimes, Enlightenment-Fordism) or fan-centered pleasure-center target practice ... which seem to be the two dominant ways of talking about such things.
... at a certain point I asked myself how small the proportion of "successes" Miike makes would have to be in order for me to no longer consider myself an admirer of his work in general. I imagine, though, that it could get pretty low. I was converted from a skeptical position with regard to Miike, and so it's hard to de-evangelize oneself.