Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Two-Part Project

I get the same basic complaint about my writing from two different kinds of people. Regular folks and academics alike want to know why I spend so much time “complaining” about movies that “don't like.” I have been talking to some friends at work (I have a blue collar job) about composing my list of the decade's worst films, to be based largely on the various lists of the best films of the decade I have come across. I have a friend there who is really into movies, and he is immediately skeptical of the project. “Okay,” he says, “but can you talk about the ones you think are good too, and maybe explain what makes them good.” My scholarly friends and a lot of my professors over the years have said the same thing: “Do you have to spend so much time knocking down other filmmakers in an essay that is ostensibly about a great filmmaker. Aren't you setting up a straw man?”

I admit there's some truth to the observation, some validity to the request for more positive and less negative analysis. Yet, I would say that both parties may be missing the point. Would you ask Noam Chomsky to shut up already about what's wrong with the current power structure and get to describing his utopia? To do so would betray that you misunderstand his project, yes? Would you suggest to Karl Marx that he desist going on and on about the evils of capitalism and spend a bit more time describing what is so great about communism? I do not mean to inflate the importance my project by making these comparisons. But I do suggest that it is more accurate to look at it in terms of hard analysis instead of in terms of taste. I often write about good movies, but my project has two distinct parts: analysis of high culture/good art and analysis of mainstream culture/mediocre art.

I do not complain, and I do not discuss taste. I analyze the artistic and ideological limitations of mainstream culture. The other component of the project (not the second, because neither is more important than the other; they are both crucial) is to investigate the complexities of great art. Why must I discuss both at once? They are intertwined. Because I only know the good in contrast to the bad, to put it in rudimentary language. I believe that many of my friends in academia find a work of art that addresses most of their ideological concerns and then extrapolate from it an aesthetics. All subsequent works are judged according to the degree to which the measure up to the penultimate work. I hope it is clear that my aesthetics do not work this way. At least in part, my aesthetics moves from the opposite end of the spectrum. For me, I filmmaker is less interesting the closer his films are to the mainstream. I cannot tell you what makes a good film. Tarkovsky is not a paragon of excellence. He is unique. I can describe the attributes of a good film and these attributes will differ from Ozu to Dreyer, Tarkovsky to Kiarostami, Brakhage to Akerman. I can produce a grocery list of what makes a mainstream film and I can check items off one by one as I watch James Cameron or Lynch, Michael Bay or Hitchcock, Jurassic Park Spielberg or Schindler's List Spielberg.

My critique of Hollywood film does not stand or fall based on comparison to art cinema. It is an independent assessment. Mediocre movies are not mediocre because there are good movies in the world; the are mediocre because the espouse mediocre values and operate within mediocre ideologies. I understand the demand to show me something better. I sympathize with where that comes from. But it is equally important to understand the analysis of mediocrity. I am tempted to say that it is necessary to understand that first, because I know from experience with students that I can show someone all the art films I can think of, but he or she will never get it, because they have not yet internalized the need for them in the first place. It is quite easy to reject examples of high art, even after their qualities have been explained, when one fails to understand the critique of mediocrity.

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