. . . Godard

. . .

100 Super Movies au maximum: Actress

Hsiao-yu tugged at me Director Stanley Kwan's film is a masterpiece, maybe the most intelligently self-aware historical melodrama ever made.

The Hong Kong producers' version, going under the title Centre Stage, thirty minutes shorter and completely restructured, is a Star-Is-Born-and-Then-Dies biopic with pretty cinematography and great acting.

Among the producers' cuts is the central scene of the movie:

After the protagonist's suicide, everyone is standing around her corpse, crying (or not). That's where Centre Stage ends.
Actress draws that shot out, and then interrupts it with Stanley Kwan's voice calling for a retake because he saw Maggie Cheung's chest move.
The scene is then played again, this time with the viewer aware of how much physical strain the perfectly still Cheung must be undergoing beneath and past the moving camera.
"Cut!", and Cheung comes surging up from her deathbed taking great racking gulps of air....

It's an extraordinarily moving collapse of film-as-documentation and film-as-artifice and film-as-immortality -- star as slain and resurrected sacrifice, perpetually reproducing the same....

Auntie Li, why don't you cry? A few prints of Actress have played a lot of film festivals over the years without ever finding a distributor. Despite Kwan's having produced the best entry in BFI's "Century of Cinema" series (going against the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard), his early ghost story Rouge remains pretty much the only work available to American audiences.

At this point Actress bids well to become the first great lost film of the 1990s.

. . .

(Continuing with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "that gentle degradation requisite in order to produce the effect of a whole"....)

Legs The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Married Woman

One of the nice things about works of art, and vacations and drugs, is that they give us delimited events to point to and say, "This -- this was the turning point. This was where my life changed," as opposed to the usual waking up to find yourself in a strange bedroom thousands of miles away with a resculpted nose and no left leg and the phone off the hook and the cops hammering on the door.

For example, I used to be pretty normal about movies. I liked them and so forth. I'd say things like "Wanna see a movie?" and then later on say things like "That was pretty good."

Then, twenty-three years ago, I went to the Temple University Cinematheque (which I guess is closed down now) and saw Jean-Luc Godard's movie from thirteen years earlier, The Married Woman. And by the time it was over, I had turned into me.

An essential aspect of turning into someone is that other people don't simultaneously turn into the same person. Even while I sat there head ringing and sparkle-eyed, comments like "Did you get that?" and "Weird!" began to worm their way through my protective daze. On my shamble out, I stopped to thank the wizened Anglophile who ran the place. "I hate Godard myself," he said, "but someone has to show him."

Yeah. Nowadays I'm just embarrassed when I see those 1960s Godard movies, but I wouldn't blame the old guy for that any more than I would blame my mom for how embarrassing it is to think about toilet training. The only one I enjoy all the way through is his comedy noir, Bande à part, which reminds me of the Coen Bros., who, like Godard, seem to have been raised in some sort of white plastic box from which they take random stabs at what real life might be like -- there's a very thin crust of experience sagging under the weight of all these violent gesticulations, a bouncing on the plywood mood that seems to work best with dimwit comedy. Of Godard's work from the 1970s, I like the TV interviews with "real people" where he sounds like Charles Kuralt from Mars; from the 1980s and 1990s, his crazy old coot self-typecasting in Prénom Carmen. The only serious Godard moments that still work are the ones where he finds himself back in that white plastic box trying to figure out why everyone looks at him funny: for example, staring into a coffee cup while taking a break from trying to show off those supposed Two or Three Things I Know About Her that, nowadays, it seems obvious to me that he never knew at all.

How to Strip Not that anyone called him on it. There's no safer way for an uncool nerd to show off than by bragging about his up close and personal knowledge of women (or, safer yet, "Woman"). All those nouvelle vague guys leaned on that tactic big time; Godard, being Godard, just did so most explicitly. (As French censors realized, the title's "The" is an important part of The Married Woman's ambition.)

And, to Godard's credit as a forever uncool nerd, he was the only one of the nouvelle vague guys to try to engage equally explicitly with feminism. Unfortunately, he's also forever unable to approach female characters without interposing the clearest (and most brain-dead) demonstration of "inside knowledge": nude photography.

At the time, of course, I was more than willing to fall for such demonstrations; as an eighteen-year-old sex-crazed uncool nerd, they seemed like a darn fine idea.

And at the time, all such considerations seemed completely unrelated to what was most important about the experience, which, the next day, I inadequately described as the realization that "movies can do anything."

At the present time, my inadequate description would be that "movies can combine the discursive and the narrative."

I don't feel as comfortable with either account as I feel with explaining why they differ: It's natural for the individual who's gone through an ecstatic revelation to assume that there must be some relevance to the individual's life.

What's changed in my life is what seems relevant.

Twenty-three years ago, I probably thought of myself as someone who "could do anything," so that's how I was predisposed to understand the experience. Right now, I think of myself as someone who has to drag the discursive into every experience, so I think that the movie just happened to strike a natural-born critic.

You see, even though I promised a couple paragraphs back that I wouldn't bring blame into it, I couldn't just leave the question alone; I felt like I had to try to figure out what happened. For us natural-born critics, it's not enough to say, "My taste changed," or "Can you believe we used to like that stuff?" When we like something, it's a public statement, like pledging our troth.

Not that marriages really do last till the death-do-us part. What marriage means is that, having made a public statement of allegiance, you have to make some correspondingly public statement of divorce.

And then you get to make jokes about your ex for the rest of your life.

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .

A letter excerpt that I don't mind you guys seeing, about audiences mocking older movies

It's not like the struggle of quivering sensitivity against heartless philistines can be called new -- in 19th century fiction, for example, I remember accounts of the (slow but eventually successful) boosting of "primitive" Renaissance painting over "high" Renaissance painting -- but there does seem something extreme about the case of movies. Or maybe it's just that we love movies special?

There's the usual problem with any "popular genre" that postdates the creation of a "high mainstream," where the "popular" work is somehow supposed to speak immediately and directly to us, cooperating with all our current preconceptions like a perfect little gentleman's gentleman, or be dismissed as a laughable (or worse, dull) failure. We're familiar with that from science fiction, comics, and thrillers, and there are plenty of people who treat all of film the same way.

And there's the way that any photograph or film, no matter how staged, eventually becomes "documentary." For those who are more used to thinking art-historically, I guess the same is true of other forms. But it seems so clear with movies that these are images of real people (or at least made by real people) from a different time, and so there seems something even more heartbreaking about the refusal to enter into the world uniquely documented by that movie -- as if lifetimes were being thrown away instead of just a few weeks or months of work.

Not that any of this suffering seems called for when I don't like the movie myself.

You know the scene of Anna Karina watching The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre Sa Vie? I remember it with a long shot of all the people around her laughing, like a reverse of that Charles Addams cartoon. I guess that's more likely to happen to Godard's own films, though.

. . .

The Underground Press Cartel

EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY   On the sidewalk outside some theater a while back, Juliet and I found a leftover from the last Syco Fantic Int'l Film Festival: an expensively produced perfect-bound 48-page (plus translucent inset sheet) booklet promoting CQ, a "quality" studio film written and directed by some guy whose previous experience seems to have been as a second unit director on Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Virgin Suicides.

Although probably inspired by having seen Irma Vep on DVD, the film presents itself as a we-kid-because-we-love tribute to those fab 1960s Europop productions that were accomplished at about, what, one-tenth the budget?

The swag's cover informs us that EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY.

Following groovalicious Jean-Luc Godard's lead, let's see what story is told by the swag:

1. Underground Press Cartel
2. Dolby Gital
3. Allrights Reserved
My old pal Matt disapproves of my obsession with the Coppolas. After all, they haven't gone out of their way to do me any harm personally, and it's papa's right to throw his money at whatever he wants (minus taxes, please), and besides, Roman was a wealthy and enthusiastic and godawful poker player, which helped finance Matt's way through college.

I'm happy about that last one anyway. But, when attacked, obsessive resentment will, to save itself, even go so far as to try to find rational reasons.

There's this standard way of putting down self-publishing (and non-publishing) as easy-ride self-indulgence, and this standard way of assuming that anything that gets officially stamped as high art has been inspected for quality. Whereas even a glancing acquaintance with the actual workings of cultural institutions discloses vanity publishing, nepotism, and self-aggrandizement, albeit on a larger scale. We get doctorates by supporting our advisor's research; we get good reviews by giving good reviews; we get publicity by having a name. And then we're supposed to forget everything we learned about our meat suppliers while we're dishing out the sausage.

This after-the-fact idealism reminds me of the fights I used to get into back when affirmative action was still something to fight for, as opposed to reminiscing about. "Everyone should get hired strictly on the basis of merit." Like anyone ever has been.

Yeah, I know: Grow up.

But see, that's exactly where I get all prissy-lipped. I don't mind a rich guy buying lights to put his name in (after taxes), and I can understand how rich kids are naturally better set up to do things that don't bring in any income but are highly regarded and get lots of life-style propaganda because they don't bring in any income. ("For few people are really interested in anyone else's description of himself except as it makes them feel upper-class." - Laura Riding)

I just don't see why, on top of all that, I should be the one who has to grow up.

. . .

Movie Comment: Eric Rohmer: With Supporting Evidence

"Every possible decision entails some sacrifice, paradox or irony. But irony doesn't subvert morality; morality is about choosing the lesser of two ironies."
      -- Raymond Durgnat on Eric Rohmer
Godard was louder and funnier, but the best criticism in Cahiers du cinéma was written by Eric Rohmer, and it used to seem sad to me that he didn't, like Godard, keep it going as an occasional thing.

One of the rewards of sitting through this two-part TV interview-with-dumbass-arty-touches is that instead of sad it now seems inevitable, and louder, and funnier. Unlike Godard's too-cool-for-school improvs, Rohmer's criticism was labored over; it was never "occasional" prose. Even if it had been, there's no room for any occasion outside movie-making in Rohmer's post-Cahiers life: every strand, scrap, and moment of his existence is replete with movie-making, and the tools and souvenirs of movie-making threaten to bury him as we watch, cassettes, notebooks, videos, photos, lights, filters (colored tracing paper), reflectors (made in 1959 from tin foil and a portfolio), projectors, photos, and props piling on the desk like from Harpo's inexhaustible trench coat....

I've always been against destruction. I think that in order to build, we mustn't destroy.

In still photos, Rohmer always looks dignified and aristocratic. In action, he's an enthusiastic (if still very polite) goofball, fondly mimicked by Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's and by Hugues Quester in Tale of Springtime, more like a monomaniacal Roland Young than like cold-blue-blooded Antonioni.

Maybe most like Joseph H. Lewis: happy as a pig in low-budget slops.

I believe more and more what I wrote in my last article, that is, that cinema has more to fear from its own clichés than from those of the other arts. Right now, I despise, I hate, cinephile madness, cinephile culture. In "Le Celluloid et le marbre" I said that it was very good to be a pure cinephile, to have no culture, to be cultivated only by the cinema. Unfortunately, it has happened: There now are people whose culture is limited to the world of film, who think only through film, and when they make films, their films contain beings who exist only through film, whether the reminiscence of old films or the people in the profession. The number of short films by novices who in one way or another show only filmmakers is terrifying! I think that there are other things in the world besides film and, conversely, that film feeds on things that exist outside it. I would even say that film is the art that can feed on itself the least. It is certainly less dangerous for the other arts.

If movies are your entire life, life can't enter your movies except through the knotholes and the rust-streaking leaks and the breezy gaps between the amateurish joins. Hollywood can pay to seal itself in; Rohmer can't, and that's exactly what he enjoys about the process.

So nice to think that this is what can happen to a fine analytical critic. Loving the pre-decadent days of cinema, Rohmer, almost uniquely, understands and follows its percepts, that is, its precepts -- that is, its restrictions, which is to say its freedoms. As the man says, it's better to have fifty films made by crews of ten than to have one film made by a crew of five hundred. You can't have a healthy art form without excess production.

It is also because that when you see a "movie" being shot in the streets you usually see 5 production trucks, and an army of assistants running around or standing around, and bright lamps in the middle of a sunny day, and traffic being blocked off, etc etc etc. So nobody takes notice of a professor-looking-type with his young women holding small cameras/equipment (and Pascal, big burley guy who looks like an eternal student), even if some of Rendezvous in Paris was actually shot with Diane Baratier (the camerawoman) sitting in a wheelchair (our idea of a dolly) with Rohmer pushing it.

Rohmer not only takes inspiration around him but is deeply affected by the lives of his immediate entourage. It is not by accident that Winter's Tale told the story of a young woman raising a child single-handedly while sorting out her sentimental webs, it was around that time that Rohmer's immediate entourage turned from young carefree girls into young women freshly divorced or separated with a young child.

Taking the responsibility of adaptation as seriously as any other responsibility, Rohmer didn't go through the same improvisational process with the three movies he's based on existing texts. Instead, as if to fill up any time gained by starting with a finished script, all three laboriously emphasized technical demands and formal experimentation -- and stumbled (sometimes with a triumphant lurching leap) over anti-realistic (or stiff, or inappropriate) acting, or even (in the latest, anyway) horrendous structural problems in the script.

Rohmer is a great moviemaker, and so his experiments are interesting. But one reason he's a great moviemaker is that his rote way of making movies works reliably.

His latest 100-super-movie-au-maximum, Tale of Springtime, I figured was planned from the start as a wiser and more gynocentric answer to My Night at Maud's. It turns out the philosophical discussions that connect the two films were only constructed after long negotiations with the actress who had been cast as the lead. She was a philosophy scholar, the sketchy teacher of Rohmer's original plan was, at her request, realized as a philo prof, and the bare branch blossomed from there.

That's the routine that works, like the seasons. Rohmer quietly worries for decades at vague ideas, suspending their resolution until they can opportunistically latch onto the particulars of setting and collaborator. He films in vacation spots because that's where his friends' empty houses are; he picks amateur actors because they're unyielding enough to propagate story and grateful enough to do it again and because he can afford them; his shots are dictated by his cheap bundle of equipment, and he loves it like a muse. New life is born of abundant wish and a lack of choice.

. . .

Movie Comment: My Brother's Wedding

Forget hanging off a cliff. Even with the aid of rear projection or CGI, you can only hang so long -- and then pfffbt! to suspense.

But a decent person trying to live a decent life? Now that's suspenseful. Soon as they get 'round one obstacle, there's another. Sometimes success is the next obstacle. Even giving up doesn't necessarily stanch the adventure.

All the expensively engineered, rehearsed, and (if we're lucky) edited thrill-rides on which we accompany our movie heroes and clowns merely approximate the tension of a decades-long struggle against becoming a worthless creep. That pinball-POV story's such a surefire grabber, the only explanation I can find for its scarcity onscreen is that Hollywood writers don't want to do the research.

In life, if not in movies, the premise of Charles Burnett's second feature, My Brother's Wedding, is familiar edge-of-the-seat stuff: A young man's hard-working church-going lower-middle-class family is as well off as anyone in their neighborhood can expect to be. A lateral move -- from the family laundry business and into a garage, for example -- seems pointless to him. The only ways up -- higher education and a white-collar career, for example -- would take him out of the community1 (and apparently into atrociously robotic acting). All other roads lead downhill with exhilarating speed.

Given choices like that, he's understandably decided not to choose. As the movie starts, his life has gone stagnant, and, over two hours, we watch his further attempts to avoid an irrevocable decision slowly, discursively, drive him into an irrevocable stunning pen.

The slowness and discursiveness are necessary, I think, if one is to feel both the warmth and the claustrophobia of the over-extended homebody: the small and redundant defeats, the victories whose pettiness nags like humiliation. One sequence -- a confrontation between the protagonist's mother and two would-be thieves -- beautifully conveys by structure alone how a "miraculous escape" can also feel like a traumatic demonstration of one's own disposability. Filmic structure and rhythm are the saving graces of Burnett's movie, and they're good graces to depend on.

The post-synch-dubbed acting and sound are less gracious. For most parts, Sunday-best stiffness seems appropriate to the dignity of the occasion. For the remaining parts -- the upperly-mobile caricatures -- the best I can say is what Earl Jackson Jr. said: that Jean-Luc Godard manages to get similar performances even out of big stars.

In a way, Burnett is telling a shaggy dog story; by definition, then, some might see it as overblown and overextended. I understand that makes it not for everyone, and tomorrow I'll present evidence to that ineffect. But for those of us who fully expect the last words we hear, as blooming buzzing confusion drowns all, as we rush toward and are turned away from the light, to be, in patrician saintly tones, "When we said shaggy, we didn't mean that shaggy" -- it's probably fine for us.

+ + +

1[For more on this subject, see Social Class in America, from the collection of Mr. Rick Prelinger.]

. . .

The Saddest Music in the World: Two Possibilities

  1. Combining the raw intensity of Vincent Price and the aristocratic flair of Rowan Atkinson, Ross McMillan provides the truest embodiment of an Edgar Allen Poe hero ever captured on film.

    Oh, the other stars "play it straight," but for them it remains play. Such distance is far from fatal to Guy Maddin's films, any more than it is to the work of John Waters or Jean-Luc Godard, or the non-series diversions of Eric Rohmer. But only with McMillan does acting become this film's life; only there do we see cinematography document the mechanics of the soul. The sincerity of his melancholy seems bottomless completely depthless, in fact, yet as inarguable as the black matte circle a Warner Brothers character slaps onto a mountainside.

    Oscars™ all round! All round Ross McMillan, that is, closing in while he shrinks, shuddering, transfixed in anticipation of their chill, hairless, gentle but unyielding press against his fleshy calf!

  2. One of the creators of Lady Port-Huntly has been acquainted with the creator of Lady Port-Huntlady.

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

"Pleasure is no fun."
- Jean-Luc Godard, Vivre sa vie

Even with all my caveats, have I oversimplified? A bit, maybe, for correction's sake, remembering that occasional attention to a corrective is all I hope for. Only a saint makes career of conscience. I'm grateful to saints as a limit point, but when I conscientiously notice where I get most pleasure, I prefer the criticism of fellow sinners, unable to either deny or dwell in the light. Beatific extended verges on soporific, with blessed exceptions.

Which reminds me that I neglected attention when I listed the cognitive science topics most germane to aesthetics. To exercise one's attentiveness is a pleasure in itself, a significant reward-and-goal in all mammalian play, human art included. (That's why they're called "novels.")

Not all pleasure is interesting. Are all interests pleasurable?

Aversive interests we tend to call "compulsions." Some remain unwelcomely productive across a lifetime my waspish temper, across my own. Others can be resolved by admitting to their pleasure, as in the archetypal narrative of discovering one's sexuality. A focal shift effects hey-presto! as quickly as a cat turns on the soothing hand.

Pleasure and pain are "opposites" like bitter and sweet, rather than like acid and base: additive, not contradictory. On goes the Tabasco sauce; on goes the hair shirt. We feel conflicted; we feel like a conflict.

For myself, few pains seem more aversive than boredom. While such sensitivity's common among critics, it's not true of everyone. Artists of my acquaintance demonstrate a much higher tolerance for tedium. Sometimes even an appetite.

A good thing, too. Chefs may be guided primarily by their knowledge of pleasure, but the operation of cooking's rarely pleasurable in the same way. And chefs have other obligations: to not kill anyone, and, for some cooks, to not leave the diners feeling ill for weeks on end.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film
by Torben Grodal, Oxford, 2009

I've been a season-ticket-holding fan of the cognitive sciences since 1993, but it's no secret that I've been disappointed by their aesthetic and critical applications. And I suppose no surprise, given how disappointed I was by applications of close reading, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, evolutionary biology, and so forth. (Lacanian criticism had the great advantage of being disappointment-proof.) All these approaches snapped off their points while scribbling across a professionally sustainable territory, all in the same way: Mysteries do not survive levels of indirection.

Mortality is a mystery. Why Roger Ackroyd died is a different sort of mystery. Once we've assumed mortality, however, why Agatha Christie died is no sort of mystery at all: she died because people are mortal. Too often writers like Grodal and Kay Young inform us that Agatha Christie died because species propagation does not require individuals to survive long past childrearing age! And also Roger Ackroyd died! And also Henry VIII!

As if to underline the over-specification, much of what Grodal says about his chosen films apply equally well to their adapted sources:

Although love often leads to integration in the prevailing social order, just as often it leads to a conflict with the existing social order, as in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet....

What can be gained by explaining Forrest Gump or Mansfield Park with what lies beneath human culture and history? At such removes, "mirror neurons" add nothing to the already biologically-marked "monkey-see-monkey-do." At any remove, "lizard brains" add nothing to anything besides lizards. Why not read David Bordwell straight? Grodal answers by pitting his truisms against the falsehoods of ad-absurdum Derrida, ad-absurdum Focault, ad-absurdum Mulvey, and ad-absurdum Barthes, just as earlier critical fads attacked an ad-absurdum T. S. Eliot. We could call these strawmen arguments, except that the strawmen demonstratively were made and sent out onto the field. Let's call it a battle of scarecrows.

Grodal, to his credit, is no scarecrow. He cites Ramachandran's discovery that the universal standard of feminine beauty is an anorexic with a boob job but immediately points out why it's false. He's noticed that genres are ambiguous and that evolution is not a particularly useful concept to apply to them. He doesn't insist that narratives need a narrator other than the audience. He doesn't always remember that a significant number of human beings are not heterosexually paired and reproducing, but he remembers it at least once.

Sadly for the cause of sanity, banishing arrant nonsense from his shop leaves Grodal without novelties to peddle and leaves the book's first half undermotivated. A professional scarecrow like David Brooks strews fallacy wherever he flails, but he achieves a recognizable goal: to grab attention.

The second half of Grodal's book is less Movie-Goers Guide to Consciousness and far more compelling. Now here, for example, is a first-order mystery: How can generic signals such as by-the-negative-numbers continuity flips, an unlikely proliferation of masochists, and long takes with nothin'-happenin'-at-all reliably induce sensations of depth and uncanniness and individuality among film-festival audiences when it's obvious that the auteur's just slapping Bresson patties and Godard cheese on the grill? (I should emphasize that this is my problem statement rather than Grodal's.)

Periods of temps mort evoke a sense of higher meaning for two intertwined reasons. The first is that streams of perceptions are disembodied, insofar as they are isolated from any pragmatic concerns that might link them to action. Temps mort thus serves expressive and lyrical functions that give a feeling of permanence. The second reason is a special case of the first: since the viewer is unable to detect any narrative motivation for a given temps mort a given salient and expressive perceptual experience he or she may look for such motivation in his or her concept of the addresser, the filmmaker.... The perceptual present is ultimately transformed into the permanent perceptual past of the auteur's experience.
These excess features therefore activate particularly marked attention, switching on feelings and emotions which suggest that these features contain a meaning that the viewer cannot fully conceptualize. The viewer is therefore left with the sense that there must be some deep meaning embedded in these stylistic features, because the emotional motivation for making meaning out of salient features cannot be switched off. Style thus serves as an additional guarantee for some higher or deeper meaning, while at the same time giving rise to a feeling of permanence, since the perceptual, stylistic cues continue to trigger meaning-producing processes without reaching any final result.
...aspects of a film that are easily linked to the actions of one of the main characters are experienced as objective, but if there are no protagonists, or the characters' or viewers' action tendencies are blocked or impeded, this will lend a subjective toning to our experience of the film. This subjective toning expresses intuitive feelings of the action affordances of what we see: subjective experiences may be more intense and saturated but at the same time felt as being less real, because the feeling as to whether a given phenomenon is real depends on whether it offers the potential for action.
Subjectivity by default is much more obvious when it is cued in films than in real life. In real life, our attention is controlled mainly by our current interests. If we have exhausted our interest in one aspect of our surroundings, we turn our attention to something else. But when we watch a film, we are no longer able to focus our attention on the basis of our own interests because the camera prefocuses our attention. Provided that the film catches our attention by presenting us with a focused narrative or salient audiovisual information, this lack of control of our attention does not disturb us. Potential conflict over control of the viewer's attention surfaces only when the filmmaker confronts the viewer with images that do not cue focused propositions or that have no links to the protagonists' concerns. Most ordinary filmgoers shun such films, labeling them dull because they do not have the motivation or the skills necessary to enjoy what they see. More sophisticated viewers switch into a subjective-lyrical mode, seeking at the same time to unravel parts of the associative network to which the film gives rise.

Reviewing these sketches of frustrated drives, congested animal spirits, and spiritual afflatus, I'm not sure Grodal needs a scientific vocabulary younger than Nietzsche or William James. But if his solutions aren't quite as first-order as his mystery, they at least let me dismiss it for a while. Lunchtime!


fine thing, needling the haystack

Josh Lukin:

Reminds me of the election in the Buffalo English dept ten or twelve years ago, wherein there were something like eighteen votes for Professor Conte, twenty for Professor Bono, fifteen for Professor Dauber, and five for lunch.

The afore-and-oft-cited David Bordwell sketches how some individual quirks became genre markers.

. . .

The Death & Rebirth of Criticism out of the Spirit of Improv

Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text
by Ian Lancashire, Toronto, 2010

Fearing another polemic, I flinched at the opening Barthes joke. No need; the point is that Barthes and Foucault helped make room for scholarship like Lancashire's own.

Barthes's target was a particular sort of Critic (James Wood or Jonathan Franzen or Allen Tate, say) who allows only a particular sort of Work (a well-wrought urn full of well-burned ash), the titular "Author" being the Critic's implausible prop. With Critic and Author removed, Franco Moretti recently went on to elbow Reader, Theorist, and Work out of the Howard-Roark-ish Researcher's spotlight.

More generous, Lancashire instead invites another figure onto the stage: the Writer Writing. His book directs the tourist's attention to the distance between conscious intent and the actuality of creation, both as living process and in posthumous analysis in two words, muse and style.

Comfortably switching between the roles of researcher and reader, Lancashire can treat the "General Prologue" as Chaucerian Work or as bundle of characteristic tics; he can study Shakespeare as Author and as tic-bundler; he can turn Agatha Christie's pageturners and then winnow them for symptoms. To show his peaceful intent, he goes so far as to intersperse goofy monologues from his own first-draft stream-of-consciousness, who proves as insulting towards his fister as any other vent dummy. And again I marvel at how free discourse flows to bicker.

Even more more again I marvel at how, gathered at the Author Function, we collectively manage such both-ands. When Lancashire uncorks his inner Jerry Mahoney, by what magic do the undergrads believe that communication has occurred?

The accuracy of that belief is questionable, yes, but not its transient certainty. I still recall the shudder with which Henry James's overstuffed suspension settled into clear solution, counterpane into windowpane. And farther back in adolescent memory how the fraudulent assemblages of T. S. Eliot and cheesy pop musicians gathered warmth and depth and breath. And, more near and less pleasantly, watching in embarrassment Jean-Luc Godard's miraculous constructs scurf, slough, and collapse into scrap. How do the imprecise and formulaic grunts of Homer or Dan Brown transform, in the susceptible listener, into vividly imprecise and formulaic experience?

A question which may animate a less particular sort of Critic.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.