Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Workers, Potters (Part II)

One thing we should want to take away from the quagmire of cultural politics is that we're doomed if we look to the textual qualities of objects themselves to defeat their placement in cultural commerce.  Context can make films politically radical in some sense - I'm thinking of the profligacy of a work like Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, or the anti-colonialist "missiles" by the likes of Rene Vautier (pace Nicole Brenez), or Debord's famous Howls in Favor of Sade screening (or Isou's Venom and Eternity), or even the solid and principled liberalism of a filmmaker like Bertrand Tavernier.  There are a number of ways that cultural objects are political - often these ways overlap, and can even contradict each other.  And often an "activist" version of cinema - a la Michael Moore (or, let's say, the Kony 2012 folks) - presumes that a political cinema is one that causes its audience to leave the theater and act in some way.  Indeed this is what Eisenstein sought when he tried to devise a cinema which could play upon the spectator's sensorium in such a way as to help foment revolution.  (On this, see Jonathan Beller's terrific book The Cinematic Mode of Production, whose praises I've sung many times here over the years.)  But I do admire political gestures that aren't simply the instrumentalist consequences of "effective" political filmmaking.  I harbor a certain romanticized liking for big, expensive movies that fail to turn a profit - and this regardless of whether I think the film is secretly good or not.  I admire the Straubs and Pedro Costa, and in his own way Pasolini, whose films' very production have often sought a political and economic order alien to the hostile, dominant paradigm: i.e., matters of payment, and of closeness to the working class, the underclass, and their environments.

But films can't opt out of the money economy simply by virtue of their message.  The domain of art is neither divorced from politics, nor does it - can it - offer a satisfactory trump card before politics.  There are aesthetes who simply ignore politics; there are aesthetes who hope against hope that aesthetics will overcome politics.  (I suppose what I'd strive for is to have the qualities of an aesthete who follows neither path.)

At the same time, we first world commentators on movies, books, and the like, risk irrelevance - at least in some circumstances - if we adopt what we might characterize as the "Adorno approach."  Like with Pierre Bourdieu, Theodor Adorno's massive body of work is now relegated to a placeholder status for the puritanical position that "culture industries are always bad, no matter how revolutionary they appear."  And the implied shorthand addendum to this position is that Adorno was wrong, because he "didn't like jazz," and as we know, jazz is the great American artform.  Ergo, one must at all costs avoid being an Adorno - this can be a serious offense in the high court of internet intelligentsia.  It causes more vitriol, at times, than the aerial bombing of hospitals and civilian neighborhoods...

Let me impress, once more, that my quarrel is not with mass culture but with a certain way of characterizing and defending it.

Quoting the great AvW/LCC (I've already in fact quoted this exact post of hers once on this blog):

"Realism (and its children in 'literary fiction') was and is largely a formal and political reaction to the vigour of the 'genre' (avant la lettre) habits/tropes/imaginative power of the long 18th century - their revolutionary verve and critical capacity - rather than, as it advertises itself, and as it has been assumed by the major theorists and historians of the novel, from Auerbach to Watt, the result of a direct adaptation of and attention to social and individual reality, naturally arising in the context of the bourgeois individual emancipation narrative."

...the blogger then writing as Alphonse van Worden characterizes a tension between mimesis and metaphor in literature that comes to a head in 1848 ...

"To 1848 the proletarian challenge, to expropriate the bourgeois revolution and universalize it, make it look both backward to commoning and forward to civil liberties, is building, as it adapts certain ideas generated in the course of bourgeois emancipation. 

"To 1848 the 'fantastic' and what later becomes 'genre' generally is gaining force and intensity as it adapts certain techniques of realism and mimesis.

"After 1848, realism - the canon - and genre are separated and hierarchised.  Realism takes power and achieves hegemony and legitimacy; genre is degraded, becomes the formal prison in which the radically imaginative is both 'confined' and 'reformed' under the surveillance and despotism of bourgeois liberalism."


"The history of the mimetic in the bourgeois novel can be written as the history of two tropes for property, that is, the love story of I and Mine: The Umbrella and The Camera.  (The seamstress/sewing machine is important too.)

"(Genres on the other hand whirl around the vehicle and the weapon.)"

In other words, we might trace what NYTimes-style discourse characterizes in terms of split between a serious (artistic, adult) and a frivolous (mass, juvenile) approach to cultural production.  In the former category, keep an eye out for how often critics feel obliged to justify the play & whimsy that can sometimes creep into these works.  'Such-and-such isn't a genre film, but rather a meditation on genre.'  'The author simply uses genre tropes.'  Characterizations like these may often be true.  But it is the fact of the separation that intrigues me.  Defenders make great claims about the likes of Harry Potter or Lost, sometimes quite extravagant claims - but rare is the recourse to realist or modernist justification.  Nobody (or almost nobody) says that the oeuvres of Rowling, J.J. Abrams, the entire Batman franchise, or Joss Whedon are really something other than genre.  Instead, the achievements of mass culture are surplus to genre, or built off it.  In a sense, then, what serious culture performs, when it uses genre, is in fact a representation of it - a mimesis of or toward metaphor, if you will.

I haven't gotten to sentiment today, but that will come ...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Workers, Potters (Part I)

A familiar cultural script, perennially contested by two "wings" of the 21st century NYTimes-style hegemon.  Exhibit A: Joel Stein's less-than-thoughtful defense of Adult Culture, contra Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, Pixar, etc., etc., a few weeks ago.  Exhibit B, following script: Julian Sanchez in a more thoughtful response to Stein, nevertheless bringing out a tired, tiresome trope: "It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading."  You see, because when people read things that are difficult, they do so primarily for reasons of social climbing. 

(But in a world where the proverbial everyone reads and secretly prefers stuff like The Hunger Games, who is the pretentious undergrad actually likely to impress?  Poor hypothetical fellow.)

The ease of this trope stems from the fact that cultural discourse in or around The New York Times tends to assume at least a faint familiarity with the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a major theorist of taste whose many, many pages of work tend to get reduced to the principle that people's economic privilege determines or at least conditions their cultural tastes.  Bourdieu comes to stand in as a shorthand argument stored in the backs of everybody's minds who has the cultural capital to have at least a general sense of what Bourdieu argued when it came to having cultural capital.  (You see a circular, or at least spiraling, structure forming here?)  Thus, the mere invocation of Bourdieu - even when he's not actually named, but stands phantasmatic over "his" argument - is a ready weapon for when the cultural conservators attack, muggle-like, the fortresses of YA lit, cartoons, etc.  Another way of tracing through Script B: enjoying Harry Potter (for example) is a function of its ease and its fun, and who are you to insist we read serious literature when the dirty secret is that we only like it in small doses - or not at all?  (And people who like the really serious literature are clearly pompous, full of youthful hubris ready to be deflated - "the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis" for everyone to see.)

The problems I have with these scripts are somewhat oblique to the back-and-forth shape they take on in such venues as the Times or popular literary blogs.  One reservation I'll venture is with the idea that these low and/or youthful forms are always compulsively easy to digest because they're just so enjoyable.  For everyone.  Neutrally and equally. 

I'm not so sure.  Though the prose may go fast, "keeping up" with one of these mega-franchises often requires a significant investment of time, money, and mental energy (both cognitive and emotional).  And if one really keeps up with the gossip, the behind-the-scenes production of film adaptations, the peripheral merchandising, etc., this actually involves a great deal of effort.  It is work that may be enjoyable, but it is still work.  And if one doesn't like Harry Potter to begin with, having to read through all of Rowling's titles would absolutely be equivalent to, errr, what Dan Kois unfortunately discussed as "cultural vegetables."  This "good for you" logic can work in multiple directions though; it needn't refer only to Gaddis or Jafar Panahi.  Easy, leisurely cultural objects - if indeed they are leisure - should not require effort unless that effort is fun for people.  Yet a real coup for the makers of Harry Potter, Lost, Hunger Games, comic book movie franchises, and so on, is to capture that labor of looking amongst a willing audience.  The scholarly field of fan studies, especially when it is industry-centric, might celebrate this win-win synergy but I think a healthy infusion of Marxist political economy is always called for when considering the overdetermined cultural life of such objects.

Think, very quickly, about dancing (popular, folk, or street forms of dancing).  This is a leisure activity that also requires a substantial measure of effort and time.  In some circumstances, it can be highly politicized.  But it can also be commodified, or not commodofied.  I'll be seeing Step Up: Revolution when it comes out - a dance film harnessing a "protest" message which, however sincere or sophisticated it might even turn out be, nevertheless also serves to sell tickets to mass youth audiences in order to make money for companies that would otherwise be occupied.  (Adorno's rolling over in his grave...)

What I would want to add to this scripted, recurrent debate is a reconsideration of the merits of the low, the mass, or the popular.  The script on both sides presumes that serious or adult culture entails work and that the low, the mass, or the popular doesn't.  The Joel Steins of the NYTimes-world presume this work to be ultimately beneficial, while the Dan Koises undermine such self-improvement framings to celebrate the pleasures of unstressed, unforced leisure.  A capitalist work ethic underlies this entire conceptualization.  The Stein approach wants to build cultural capital (and a path of self-improvement) which tends to rely upon a foundation of economic privilege - leisure produces not things but the minds and practices that could be devoted to higher ideals.  This, Aristotle saw as a goal to which to aspire, and which the likes of Marx and Gramsci pointed out was the material basis for ruling class ideology before communism was to overthrow it.  The Kois approach inverts this logic, however, snickering a bit like Paul Lafargue about the right to be lazy, maybe even arguing (like Steven Johnson) that it's counter-intuitively "good for us," and yet also (often mindlessly) volunteering labor for the attention economy - so that one doesn't think about Harry Potter as "cultural vegetables" (its social utility designated mainly as fodder for chit-chat), and yet one's spectatorial investment in Harry Potter, etc., produces a great deal of profit for the companies that put out these "leisure" products.  We're toiling in the fields and factories of the attention economy.

Seen this way, might you not agree with me about the distinct lack of appeal these options present?  Official culture fails us.  In the next part of this post - coming in the near future - I'll try to talk about genre and sentiment, among other things, and see what useful through-lines we can find when it comes to talking about the high and the low, the serious and the frivolous, in culture ...

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Quote of the Day

“I was out to show that there are more meanings in ordinary meanings — of the shallow type required for entertainment — than usually spotted by critics, who imagine that only important art can involve people and make poetic and ideological points. I’m looking at movies which are run-of-the-mill yet saturated with something too shallow really to be myth (in the full sense), but too ambivalent to be merely cliché. I’m trying a kind of micro-criticism, more concerned with the molecules of a film’s meaning than the implications of its meaning.” (Raymond Durgnat, talking about his work on This Island Earth)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


Les Dragueurs
(1962, above) inaugurates my informal, long-term project to explore Jean-Pierre Mocky's comic-thriller universe.  Yes, J-P Mocky, "whose giant oeuvre has yet to really be discovered in English-speaking territories" (says Craig Keller, rightly so).  Existing tonally somewhere between the poles of sweet nonchalance and winking Weltschmerz, this strikes me as the work of a "man of cinema," though perhaps not quite on the same level as the Nouvelle Vague's brighter lights.

Here's another JP: that is, Donleavy.  I recently read the classic cult novel The Ginger Man and can't for the life of me figure out how it would be turned into a film (starring ... Johnny Depp?), without it being a wry, slow-paced, darkly lit vignette-construction of hunger, mildew, and lechery.  Actually.  Come to think of it, that doesn't sound all that bad.  Cross between Withnail & I and certain scenes from Bela Tarr.  I wonder if the teleplay from 1962 still exists in any available form.

Darezhan Omirbayev's Kairat (1959) is full of clean images, a lot of sequences and sameness (open fields punctuated by railroad tracks like in Saless' Still Life); there are queued lines, beds, tables, compartments, etc.  The same would appear to be true for time - a procession of days, interactions, trips to the cinema.  Omirbayev had his day in the (slightly overcast) sun a little while ago - why does it seem nobody talks about him anymore?  Is it only because he hasn't made a film for a few years apparently?  Film culture, sooner or later, will have to get over its fascination with novelty.  (This refers to both the level of aesthetics and the level of circulation.)  Give me a very good film from 1992, like Kairat, over a merely "talked about" film from 2012, six days of the week.

Very gradually I realize one part of the (submerged) rubric by which I judge a lot of recent American microbudget cinema is how it seems to deal with the class privilege supporting so many of its characters.  The smirking nonchalance with which certain mumblecore figures, on-screen, abandon jobs to do things like "live in my own head" (to paraphrase what Kentucker Audley's character says in his slightly annoying, yet charming, Team Picture) seems panic-inducingly cavalier to a person like myself, who lives paycheck to paycheck. One can live, parentally subsidized, in a nice East Village apartment.  Or one can occupy very modestly a communal house in Memphis, paying only subsistence fees.  Either way - but as a character points out in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, the mere expectation of financial security serves an important role in suturing the identity of the bourgeois individual.  Yet I am not lodging a one-sided complaint.  The tensions are part of what makes the films interesting.  There is also this problem of sour grapes, and of envy.  One can be envious that a person has the means to opt, partway, out of the money economy.  One can be, simply, jealous that another person has the opportunity to live without the pressures of an inane job, and has found a measure of contentment just hanging around, eating coleslaw (Quiet City), watching Bela Tarr DVDs (Marriage Material - an excellent film), strumming guitars (everything), as unfocused as an artsy middle-class 20-year-old when you're 40 (Uncle Kent).  And all of this is what makes this loose confluence of filmmakers (Swanberg, Bujalski, Audley, etc.) difficult to be indifferent toward.  There are number of so-called "mumblecore" movies that aggravate me to no end, but this is nevertheless work that has hooks.  If some of the films suffer from class-based myopia, it is nevertheless to their credit that they strive to engage with lived experience as it is not presumed to be entirely filtered through the simulacra of other media objects.

I missed the print of Lancelot du Lac when the traveling Bresson retrospective came to town, but I watched the film again on DVD recently and thought it holds up incredibly well on fourth (?) viewing.