Monday, June 04, 2012

A General Note on Legitimacy

Certain filmmakers, say Nicolas Winding Refn or Quentin Tarantino, interest me for a number of reasons - but not necessarily because I think they offer complex investigations of ethics - or, in cases where the ethics might be more complex, because they point to ethically sound conclusions to problems of violence, vengeance, social dysfunction, or representation.

The purely formalist critic can bracket off messier cultural, social, and/or ethical questions to one side; it can be easy then to presume that the thorny questions of non-formal meaning an object offers are containable and possible - even preferable - to ignore.  (Even if one's personal political opinions might "happen" to veer toward Straub-Huillet rather than Riefenstahl).  But for the critic who is interested in form but also in the world of this form, the world this form must always inhabit, an array of problems come into focus. 

One of the major problems, for the critic, is the question of legitimacy.  What counts as a proper object of analysis - do we legitimate harmful culture when we give it our attention, and when cultural intellectuals expend verbiage on such products?  To an extent, this is true.  But if this is the only strategy, the single overall strategy, then the cultural critic has hamstrung herself with the efficacy of the merely personal boycott - i.e., a pointless project whose usefulness is solely inward.  To me this suggests something of the "aestheticization of politics" (pace Benjamin) which projects aesthetics onto the final domain of all other human endeavors.  It would be better to push outward, instead, and to remind ourselves that the serious investigation of aesthetics need not lead to its supersession over all other domains (ethical, moral, social, and so on).


Anonymous said...

Hey Zach,

Could you please elaborate on the first paragraph?

I'm having trouble figuring out what you mean when you say they 'point to ethically sound conclusions to problems of violence, vengeance, social dysfunction, or representation.' Or perhaps just having trouble figuring out how you'd argue this point.

Zach Campbell said...

OK, I'm writing this very quickly and I hope my verbosity clarifies rather than obfuscates ...

To keep with examples of NWR or QT, I didn't want to completely cede the interpretation that both of their filmographies are amoral or politically unsavory - I think, at the very least, that Jackie Brown and Valhalla Rising are worth excluding from hasty damnation here. Just as one example - I think that Jackie Brown, like a lot of QT, uses various stock racial stereotypes for purposes of narrative shorthand and pleasure. (Some may be inherited from Leonard's novel too, I dunno.) But I think that the film also expresses an intriguing & sympathetic portrait of a mature black woman via Pam Grier (both her excellent performance and Tarantino's thoughtful utilization of her star persona). Let me know if you were curious about me elaborating specific examples at length here ...

My main point though is that even in cases where artworks advance or symptomatize a cultural logic we oppose, it would be better for us not to fall into a certain binarism where the imperative is always always always to settle upon a sleek, final judgment of "good" or "bad." Often when this happens, the commentator is stuck with a reductive separation between aesthetics and politics where the former is elevated & bracketed off as the proper domain of criticism, or it's subordinated and treated as merely epiphenomenal. I think aesthetics and politics, despite being different concepts, are pretty much always intertwined in practice - so what I'm looking for is a way to attend to both without always succumbing to a simplistic valorization of one over the other ...

Either way, and I'm thinking about leftist cinephiles more specifically than just generalized cultural consumers, there are some obstacles that emerge. (Serge Daney writes very well about these sorts of problems in the wake of militancy...)

One, we don't want to perpetuate the common presumption (even among "leftists") that leftist politics is ultimately about destroying or debasing good things to find "truth" (and thus e.g. good leftists should never wear couture, drink good liquor, or rhapsodize about high art). But while negation certainly has its role in leftist politics, ultimately for me the goal is fullness - a positive expression, good things for more people, for the mass of humanity rather than for its tiny elite exploitative class.

Two, it leaves the taste & perspective of the cinephile himself unexamined, "natural." Cinephilia could do with a lot more scrutiny about itself, its myriad forms, and its political and historical substance.

What it comes down to is that I'd stress that aesthetics should not be thought of as redemptive - which is not the same thing as saying that aesthetics are simply excluded from politics (or history), or that we could or should even aspire to putting them in their own happy bracket away from the muck of human affairs.

Anonymous said...

I like you!

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

You reminded of a screening of Colossal Youth I went to, where during the Q&A a student who was visibly shaken made it a point of mentioning Portugal's history of brutal imperialism and more importantly the similarities between Costa's retrospective tour and act of the explorers presenting their findings. Pedro Costa feigned ignorance and the kid stormed out. But his comment always stuck with me. Perhaps you could take that and give your take? I'm curious what you'd think about that, and also how it might apply, or not apply to QT and his filmography. (I'm not that familiar with NWR, and honestly, I am not really inclined to look further after seeing Drive)

I think Costa's reaction, whether he truly knew what the kid was talking about or not, is the reaction I have to a lot of your writing. (Which is why I'll go ahead and say I might be your most loyal reader! You're feed is on my desktop.) I'm naturally more drawn to something more along the lines of Bordwell's 'Ozu' (long studies of mise en scene, or of the duration of shots etc), if I remember correctly, you aren't that fond of Bordwell...I might be mistaken.

You tend to attack cinephilia from an angle i rarely think about on my own, and so it always takes me a while to unpack your points and think about them.

Is it not possible to speak about films themselves, generally speaking, on purely aesthetic terms, without negating the importance of the political...and without thinking that aesthetics alone could be redemptive? Or do we miss far too much by doing so, making the discussion ultimately pointless? I agree that one cannot separate the aesthetic and the political, but is it not, in your opinion, okay to, at times speak
about them separately. I feel like speaking of both at once can become unwieldy and lead ultimately to confusion.

I'm sorry if this all seems beneath you, but this isn't exactly my forte.

jim emerson said...

Hi Zach -- I just found this when I came here to look up your post on "diffuse cinema" for something I'm writing about "Prometheus." I've been disgusted by the lazy ways so many critics have projected political or social metaphors onto movies, offering readings based on unexamined speculation (talk about "diffuse criticism"!), without actually citing specific evidence from the movies themselves. Sometimes that kind of thing drives me to shoot for pure formalism/aestheticism as an alternative to this laziness that all but disregards the reality of a movie. But attempts to synthesize approaches into a more multi-faceted view are needed, and welcomed.

Zach Campbell said...

Sorry for the late responses -

Anonymous, thanks for your kind words. I can't necessarily speak for what Costa or that viewer might have been thinking, and I do think of Costa as a pretty "engaged" filmmaker. (More so than some directors often grouped with him...) But it can be a tough question, and . It's easy to be a philistine against the aestheticism of something upper-middlebrow, very visible and very awarded. Less easy to position such a crucial "philistinism" against - say - Costa, Grandrieux, the Straubs. (And when I say "less easy," I mean that you run the risks of social rudeness among the audience that these left wing art films often draw. Also, when I say this, I don't mean to cast aspersions on these filmmakers. It's just a "for instance" - or an acknowledgment that no artist is ever somehow above the question's asking.)

To answer another question you raise: my cinephile-self roughly ten years ago was much more in line with the Bordwellian position than I am today. This doesn't mean I think all the questions and empirical-formal work Bordwell does is "bad." I simply think his position hinders insight and harms analysis rather than helping them - I feel a lot of film scholarly formalism indeed stresses too boldly the separation between . Or it relegates the relationship to a totally untheorized, unexplained relationship between "the film itself" [what do we mean when we say this in any given instance!?] and the "context." I'm not trying to obscure or peddle sophistry; I simply think it's demonstrable - over and over again - how even after we might conceptually separate "context" and "text," we see the distinctions always blurring, for context is always conditioning the text and the ways we are even able to perceive (of) the text.

Whether or not it's really OK to set aside aesthetics is something I certainly have no authority to decide upon. Surely a lot of comments I've made, here and elsewhere, have a predominantly or solely "aesthetic" purpose. But I guess it's a question of how open the analysis is to the problem I describe in the paragraph above.

And Jim - I look forward to reading your Prometheus piece ... once I get around to actually seeing the movie. Don't know when that will be.

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