Monday, March 25, 2013

Film History, Bro 2: Historicize Harder

A well-meaning Netflix user offered this measured defense of an "old" movie: "One cannot review a 26 years old movie using today's standards." (The movie was Clint Eastwood's quite entertaining Eiger Sanction; guess it was written when Netflix was new.) Reviewing old art through contemporary standards? There are a few ways we can think our way through this question. In one sense, we are required to encounter old or culturally remote objects through the resistance of this timespace distance. But liking something (a painting, a movie) is never a "natural" thing either, as if innate and unalloyed, because people themselves are fundamentally always social and cultural. So yes: if you're a kid who's grown up with the media of the past 10-20 years, you might need to be initiated into the codes of a studio-era Hollywood movie or old TV or old books. (Sometimes you might not; as a child I needed little prompting to enjoy I Love Lucy or The Three Stooges.) It's fine sometimes to say: "We mustn't judge these other, new-old things by the same standards we are used to. There are other standards, and you might want to approach these things less judgmentally than you are at first inclined."

But then again one balks at this awful posture of charity. The appreciation of Welles, Ford, Renoir, Ozu, M, The Thin Man, Mae West, or Chaplin should take no qualifications - should it? We shouldn't be straitjacketed into saying, "Well it was good for its time," should we?

For its time ...

Perhaps it's best to avoid quasi-historicist special pleading where everything is judged by some standard of its time (the standard itself being always at least partly a presentist fiction). For one thing, it takes a fair bit of knowledge about another time or place even to intelligently address the issue of an object's achievement within that context. Instead, these qualifications are perhaps best as an ongoing heuristic operation. In the face of something we simply don't understand, we might posit a negative force - say to ourselves, "This is different, this pinches, ruffles, and crunches against my prior convictions. The actor does not move his body in a way consonant with filmic conventions I'm used to; the staging of these actors is artificial; the dialogue is too obvious or it takes too long for me to figure out what the damn point is; there isn't even any dialogue in this stupid art movie, why not?; and so on." We can say, "for its time" as a kind of place-holder for our own ignorance. Far be it from me to sound too much like an evangelical, but really many of us could do with a vow of intellectual humility on occasion.

To do this, of course, the spectator in question has to be open-minded, inquisitive, and curious.* This is what bothers me about the recent spate of presentist philistinism about old movies that we see on display here, here, and in parts here. It isn't, I don't think, because I worship the past at the expense of what's ahead. I even believe philistinism has its uses in politics and in rhetoric. But there's something uncritical about this criticality sometimes - bisecting two different senses of the word. Anyone can "be critical," dismiss an object, say it's not impressive, and write negative things. However, it's taxing to analyze, trace out some thoughts, and share what you've found.

(*This pokes at another issue, of course, The Spectator. The Spectator doesn't exist. There are only spectators and instances of spectatorship.)

Let's remember a dialogue exchange in Metropolitan. Tom denigrates Mansfield Park without having read it: "The context of the novel, and nearly everything that Jane Austen wrote looks ridiculous from today’s perspective."

Audrey's famous rejoinder: "Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?" 

Because of Metropolitan's politics, this argument can be easily enlisted as a traditionalist backhand. Not wrongly, either. But things can be taken all manner of ways. I'd like to step back a pace and situate the comment as a matter of missing the forest and the trees. Myopia involving one's own comfort zone can be a crippling bias; under these circumstances people can think of objects from other times & places as intrusions. To put it another way, rebelling against classics can potentially miss the corporate-hegemony forest for cultural-vegetable trees. The operative word is potentially. Sometimes it's great to shake the canon up, to disregard it, to take aim at it in its institutionalized forms. But I don't always see this justified in every snarky, "emancipatory" dismissal of a canonical object. Sometimes it's one's own nostalgia that one is blindly advocating against a merely older and recognized nostalgia.

And I get it. I understand moods that might dissuade one from an art film, or from particular conventions in older movies. I also identify with certain Gen X/Y modes of consumption and discussion of movies. But at the same time, these are moods and modes - not permanent, not absolute, not universal. They're embodied in me, and have resulted from a lifetime of behaviors, as they are with everyone else. But isn't this a huge part of why culture is interesting? The argument isn't that everyone needs to copy my taste profile of nobrow eclecticism. The point is that all of us, if we're curious and honest people, forge more complex mental landscapes of something like "cinema" than any one picture of cinema can account for. Our criticism should try to respect that fact, and attend to it, and push us still out of all manners of complacency.


Joel Bocko said...

Bingo. What's dispiriting about many instances of contrarianism is that, in their self-congratulatory celebration of independent thinking, they are often demonstrating another quality: intellectual laziness.

The essay on Vertigo at least lacked the snarky bite of some of the other dismissals, although it was very wrongheaded: I can't relate (revealing my own blinkers here?) to an interpretation of Vertigo that sees Scottie as lacking complexity or being "unintentionally" dark and unsympathetic. In fact, one of the fascinating gambits of the film is how our identification subtly shifts from him to her in the second half of the movie, and after she reveals that she's fooled him, to boot!

Also annoyed Senses of Cinema doesn't allow comments on the post.

Also, I liked Glenn Kenny's response to the Criticwire question.

Joel Bocko said...

Actually, I should say emotional laziness since it's not so much removed, cerebral "respect" for the revered object that's egregiously lacking, but the empathy/curiosity that allows a way in.

That said, I'm too remain baffled by the immense acclaim of Rules of the Game after many viewings. We all have our blind spots, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

There is a nice quote from Stiegler that sort of addresses the systemic issues that underlie this epidemic of short-termist myopia, which has a sort of inevitable "fascist aesthetic" that goes with it. In a perverse way, it only makes sense that people should be deeply alienated (and even aggressively repulsed) by cultural items that SHOULD be part of their cultural immune system; that make some sort of DEMAND on them, and would have once been incorporated, but instead are attacked and dismissed as temporally Other.

"Consumption becomes, therefore, both an expedient and an outlet -- a pharmakon -- aggravating frustration by displacing it on a very short term basis towards the newest object of consumption produced by this "permanent innovation". Novelty is thus systematically valorized at the expense of durability, and this organization of detachment, that is, of unfaithfulness or infidelity (equally called flexibility) contributes to the decomposition of the libidinal economy, to the spread of drive-based behaviors, and to the liquidation of social systems."

Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy p. 83.

Yusef Sayed said...


I've enjoyed these recent Film Histories posts a lot, still mulling over it all, so I'll spare you any ranting for now but I think your remark that 'some people are quite insistent about the terms on which they're willing to let themselves be surprised' articulates exactly an attitude I seem to be come across relentlessly and just cannot understand.

Moving beyond the specifics of these recent web articles and the vapid remarks about key works of cinema (the critical laziness is all that really gets to me, not the expressions of individual taste) there's a Tony Conrad quote that I found quite dazzling when I first read it, which I think about A LOT and have been meaning to write something about for a long time now (be warned) that I think feeds into this conversation nicely:

"It had always, since my earliest encounters with contemporary art, been my experience that the greatest pleasures and the most profound surprises that came from art were those that flowed from a wholesale change of outlook. Finding that the thing one most despised became revalued as the most cherished, that the thing least understood became transparent, that the thing most easily enjoyed was revealed as maudlin, that the thing most fervently believed was upended - these were the most exhilarating moments that cultural engagements could provide."

Now, I think you'd be hard pressed to find many people who share this mentality, since people seem to cling to there opinions so passionately, as if any change would signal a 'weakness'.

It seems to be an alternative to Glenn Kenny's Sontag reference, where opinion is considered to be an unwanted thing. But I'm not against fiery rhetoric, or harsh pronouncements. Just idiotic writing.

Yusef, again said...

Sorry, 'their opinions'

ZC said...

Thanks for the Stiegler quote, anonymous - I haven't read that work yet.

Yusef, thanks for your comments. That Conrad quote is illuminating; easy to use it as lip service but I find it is indeed very difficult to let ourselves be surprised, to allow our minds be changed. There's a Durgnat quote, too - I think it was in the piece he did with Ehrenstein & Rosenbaum - where he says that the stuff that takes us the longest to come around to are the ideas that affect most profoundly. (Something along those lines.) I can appreciate that. There are many new thinkers or new aesthetics to which I'm largely resistant at first; but the journey ends up taking me somewhere new. Perhaps there's a dialectical explanation ...

Marilyn Ferdinand said...

In my experience, people who cannot tolerate innovation have been made to feel profoundly stupid in their lives. Their deep embarrassment puts them on the lookout to avoid other circumstances in which they might feel similarly discomfited. I knew an attorney who absolutely hated Stanley Kubrick, particularly 2001 because she could not tolerate the open-endedness of the film, actually believing the Kubrick was trying to make her feel stupid. She was deeply committed to Jesus Christ who, after all, provides a framework with answers to everything.

I find as I get older, I realize how vast the world is and how little I can know it. Therefore, I count on wisdom that has stood the test of time but feel that new forms are inevitable and even desirable, but only if they can become wisdom at some point in the future. It is not obvious what will endure, but as you point out, ideas that must be wrestled with for a long time are good candidates.

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