“My heroes, somewhat like Don Quixote, think of themselves as characters in a novel, but perhaps there isn’t any novel.” – Eric Rohmer
Not sure how far this will go, but since Eric Rohmer’s death I’ve started rewatching his films, and I will try to post something about all or many of them here, as I watch them. Initially I was just going in random order, because I have most of the films on variously assorted video tapes that I’ve dubbed from library videos, and often I might have a single tape containing both a ‘conte moral’ from the sixties and a ‘comédie ou proverbe’ from the eighties. But right now I’m going through the Criterion set of the six Contes moraux, and so effectively am going in chronological order, for the time being anyway. So, I’ll begin these posts with the first of them, La Boulangère de Monceau.
Of course, chronology is a funny thing when dealing with the Contes moraux, and with Rohmer’s work in general. When lack of studio interest prevented him from making the film of the third of the moral tales he had written, Ma nuit chez Maud, in 1966, he went ahead and made number four, La Collectioneuse; when he was finally able to make Maud in 1969, he continued to regard it as the third film in the series, listing it as Number 3 in the opening credits, despite the order in which the films were actually made and released. The return to black-and-white photography for Maud further linked it to the first two films in the series, establishing a distinction between them and numbers four, five and six – La Collectioneuse, Le Genou de Claire and L’Amour l’après-midi – all of which were filmed in colour. Many would no doubt identify this single-mindedness and allegiance to a pre-ordained order as indicative of Rohmer’s “conservatism” (“conservative” is one of those descriptors of Rohmer – whose personal identity and artistic vision are presumed to be one and the same, this despite the intensity with which Rohmer kept his personal and professional lives separate throughout his filmmaking career – that have popped up incessantly in the obituaries and other ‘tributes’ to Rohmer following his death, along with “realist,” “moralist,” “Catholic,” “humanist”: descriptors that sit alongside other, equally predictable if somewhat less useless adjectives used to illustrate the particular qualities of his films, such as “talky,” “sophisticated,” “subtle”), but I think that, as always with Rohmer, there’s something more interesting going on in the odd dynamic between ‘real time’ (the dates when each text was written and each film was made; the material realities of money and resources that affected when each film could be made, how much time was taken between them and what was done with that time) and time as it exists for and in the films – for the overall series shaped by Rohmer, moving from one through six; for his male heroes, occupying as they do an odd, transitional yet (for them) frustratingly prolonged time, caught between the clarity of a past romantic moment (of falling in love with the ‘true’ object of their desire, a moment that in some of the films – La Boulangère, Maud – occurs in the early scenes, while in others – Le genou de Claire, L’Amour l’après-midi – it has happened some time before the beginning of the story) and the security of the future, when he will marry that original woman; and also time as it is experienced by those objects of temporary fascination, those women and girls (let us name them: Jacqueline, Suzanne, Maud, Haydée, Claire, Chloe) who find themselves occupying this transitional, apparently fleeting and frivolous moment in the lives of Rohmer’s heroes.
Which brings us to La Boulangère de Monceau, the film that is perhaps the most curiously placed in terms of chronology in the whole series. Rohmer has commented that the original text of La Boulangère was one of the last to be written, and was conceived only after he consciously noticed the thematic and narrative commonality between the different ‘tales’ in his series: namely, the transfer of the male narrator’s affections from one, ‘suitable’ woman, to another, ‘unsuitable’ one, and then finally back to the original woman. La Boulangère, Rohmer suggests, was written with the intention of cementing this consistency between the six tales, even as a kind of distillation of the Rohmer-ian structure. If this is true, it is unclear why exactly Rohmer decided to make it the first tale in the series – perhaps it was to establish this thematic consistency from the outset; perhaps because he knew at this time that he was going to make the moral tales into films, and he wanted the first one to be something short, quick to shoot and with few characters; probably it was for some combination of these and other reasons. In any case, the film’s odd position at both the beginning and the end of the series is intriguing, because it makes it hard for us to naively utilize the usual clichés about an auteur’s early work prefiguring or anticipating the ‘style’ he will later develop. It would be easy to make such a claim about La Boulangère de Monceau, but knowing what we do about the history of its composition, one is tempted to suggest that what looks like anticipation could just as easily be distillation – the distillation of a ‘style’ (though I am suspicious of this term as it is commonly used in regard to Rohmer, and am inclined to agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetskey’s proposition that ”the Rohmer style, supposedly unwavering in its consistency, never existed. What existed was the Rohmer scrutiny and the Rohmer intelligence, which could be applied to any approach”) before it had ever been elaborated, before there was yet any evidence of its existence.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the story of La Boulangère is linked to that of the final film in the series, L’Amour l’après-midi, in two crucial aspects. Firstly, in these two films far more than any of the others, the separation between the suitability of one woman and the unsuitability of the other for our hero is figured largely in terms of class – while the suitable women are both solidly haute-bourgeoises, Jacqueline is a lowly, naïve shop assistant, while Chloe is a once-successful but currently struggling bohemian of sorts; the adventure that each of them represents for the narrator/protagonist of each film is not so definitively erotic as in the other films, but has more to do with ‘slumming it’ (particularly in La Boulangère) and the idea of entering an unknown, largely prohibited social world through romantic entanglement with one of its members. Secondly, and relatedly, the two films are united by the blunt cruelty with which the men drop their ‘unsuitable’ women in the end, rushing back to the right woman and the bourgeois propriety inscribed by their union. In La Boulangère, our hero bumps into Sylvie in the street, moments after leaving Jacqueline’s boulangerie, where they have arranged a date for that evening by means of a “romanesque” wordless game involving the cakes at Jacqueline’s shop. Immediately upon seeing her, he asks Sylvie out to dinner with him, and they walk off together, as he tries to avoid being seen by Jacqueline from inside the shop. In L’Amour l’après-midi, Chloe is naked in bed, waiting for Frédéric to join her, when he has his revelation and rushes back to his wife and child, without a word to Chloe. This unity between the first and last films in the series does suggest that a kind of distillation of the essential structure of the series is occurring in each, and that these two elements – the blunt disregard for the feelings and identity of the second woman, as soon as she loses her allure; and the figuration of that second woman’s (fleeting) erotic appeal in terms of her social ‘otherness’ – are crucial to Rohmer’s form across the moral tales, even in the films where these elements are not so explicit.
But let’s return to those climactic scenes in La Boulangère de Monceau. The Romanesque game – the first case of what will become a recurrent motif in Rohmer’s films, the creation by his characters of a kind of game of communication according to a set of mutually agreed-upon rules – is quite simple: our hero (let’s call him Schroeder, after Barbet Schroeder, who plays him) tells Jacqueline that he will come into the shop later and ask for a biscuit; if she gives him two, this means their date is set for that evening. The elaboration of these rules take up considerably more screen-time than the performance of the game, which happens very quickly: in an exquisitely brief, one-shot scene, Schroeder’s character is heard off-screen asking for a biscuit in the voice of feigned disinterest that he uses in all the boulangerie scenes; Jacqueline takes one, then turns to look off-camera, effectively at Schroeder, and with a slight flourish quickly picks up another, looking back at him at some length before turning away (this will be her final appearance in the film). There’s enough in this tiny scene, this repeated gesture of picking up the biscuits, to suggest Jacqueline’s unstated excitement at the prospect of a rendez-vous with this young man from a different world to her own; but one also has the feeling that her excitement stems more from the illicit performance of the game itself, the sense that she is embarking on a Romanesque (a word she doesn’t recognise when Schroeder first uses it, requiring him to repeat it slowly) adventure, and that the world of romance consists of these mutually enacted secret codes, that that is what it’s all really about (and, indeed, who’s to say she’s wrong?).
Schroeder walks out of the boulangerie, and within moments bumps into Sylvie. After some initial conversation, his narration tells us that, upon seeing her, he made his “decision” “in an instant”. We then see this decision in action, as he asks her to dinner with him. Rather than putting off Sylvie for another night and keeping his date with Jacqueline, he makes what he calls a moral choice (“mon choix était, avant tout, moral” – a clear example of a line Rohmer included for the purpose of clarifying the overall structure of the moral tales, even as it is a line perfectly suited to this particular moment in this particular film). What Schroeder means by “moral” (which is not, of course, entirely the same as what moral action will be for the men of the other films) is definitive, principled, and, most importantly, in league with ‘truth’ – “L’une était ma vérité, l’autre l’erreur,” he remarks in voiceover. The error must be effaced by the blinding light of truth, not merely hidden away in a dark corner, and so Schroeder makes a total, an absolute decision, replacing one dinner date with another at the exact same time, replacing Jacqueline with Sylvie, the error with the truth (or “my truth,” as he calls her with perhaps less affection than solipsism).
Decision made, truth reclaimed, Schroeder waits for Sylvie to fetch her things and come downstairs (he and the viewer have just discovered that Sylvie lives directly across the street from Jacqueline’s boulangerie). Then, rather irritatingly, “to complicate the situation,” it starts to rain. “Yet,” he adds, “that is what saved me” (C’est cela pourtant qui me sauva). What does he mean by this? It seems, though it is never explicitly stated in the film (it is in the written text), that Jacqueline is staying inside the boulangerie because of the rain, and so won’t spot him with Sylvie, won’t be able to make a scene – this is what he means by being “saved” by the rain. The rain prolongs his torment, prolongs his position both physically and romantically between these two women – Sylvie takes even longer to get ready for dinner because now she has to get a raincoat as well – and yet it saves him, saves him from their confrontation with each other, from their mutual acknowledgement of his cowardice. And this rainfall alters time as it exists for the film and for its three characters – for Schroeder, who must stand there, trying not to get wet, prolonging his awkward position between the two women, but at the same time prolonging the moment of decision, and thus prolonging the smug feeling that he has performed a moral act; for Sylvie, as she slowly gets ready for dinner, paying little heed to Schroeder’s pathetic waiting; and for the unseen Jacqueline, who may be standing at the door of the boulangerie, waiting for the rain to let up, witnessing everything that is happening across the street – or who may after all have gone home unnoticed, deciding that the Romanesque game of communication was the only thrill to be had between her and Schroeder, and that anything more would have been only a disappointment.
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I’ve watched two oddly similar films in the past two days – Delmer Daves’ noir Dark Passage, and Raoul Walsh’s western Pursued, both from 1947. Walsh is of course most famous for his gangster films, while Daves was certainly known to make some fine westerns, most notably 3:10 to Yuma – so it’s interesting to see the two directors working, in effect, in reverse on these two films. Both films are quite genre-ambiguous, to be sure – Martin Scorsese, who was partly responsible for the recent restoration of Pursued, calls it a “noir western,” which is not a bad description; Dark Passage is in many ways a straight noir (in its photography, its presentation of a social milieu, its dialogue), but its basic narrative thrust, concerning an outcast trying to redress the evils of a backward society that has passed unfair judgement on him and to claim a piece of the social for himself, could easily be that of a western. A noir western and a western noir, then; but what, more precisely, can we learn about how the two films are functioning, having made this observation?
At the most basic narrative level, Dark Passage and Pursued are united by the plight of their protagonists: in Dark Passage, Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) has escaped from San Quentin, and spends the film trying to stay one step ahead of the police chasing him while at the same time trying to figure out who really killed his wife, for whose murder he has been wrongly imprisoned (as this description suggests, Dark Passage is an obvious inspiration for Andrew Davis’ overrated The Fugitive ). In Pursued, Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) spends most of the film trying to avoid being killed by Grant Callum, a mysterious relative of the family Jeb grew up with after he was orphaned as a child. In trying to escape Grant and the various others Grant seduces into helping him act out his bloodlust, Jeb must search in his past to learn why Grant is after him and how he can be stopped.
When we say that both films contain elements of the western and the noir, then (or, more accurately, that Dark Passage is an ostensible film noir with a [perhaps unacknowledged] western underpinning, Pursued an ostensible western with a noir underpinning), what we more precisely mean is that both narratives are structured in terms of simultaneous processes of forward movement (the western) and backward movement (the film noir). Ultimately, both films will attempt to bring these complementary trajectories together in a climactic ending, the revelation of past trauma immediately motivating a conclusive act in the present that will bring emancipation and the achievement of sociality as represented by the female love interest (Lauren Bacall for Bogie, Teresa Wright for Mitchum – neither of whom figures much as an object of sexual desire, but in both cases as a stand-in for the achievement of the social world, an admittance for our protagonist). In both cases this attempt is rather forced and perhaps unconvincing – there are too few characters and too little plot contrivance for the identity of Dark Passage’s murderer to be much of a mystery, or its final revelation to be nearly as compelling as the other part of the story, the run from the authorities; Mitchum’s final revelation (of a forbidden love between his dead father and Wright’s mother) is too disappointingly bourgeois to satisfy the fascination the film has attempted to build through an hour and a half of interweaving flashbacks.
Though it would be easy (and not entirely wrong) to simply chalk this up to flawed screenwriting (from Daves on his film, Niven Busch on Walsh’s), we might also say that these unsuccessfully converging endings mark a fissure between the twin generic logics the two films are formed upon. That is, the ‘flaw’ in the endings is constituted by that which makes the films’ very existence possible – the pairing of the two genres, the dovetailing of the narrative that moves forwards with that which moves backwards. The point of this argument is of course not to suggest that these two films are failures, or that any attempt to bend or combine or complicate genre in a film is destined to result in an unsatisfactory ending; what it does show, I hope, is something of how the workings of genre can take over from or interrupt the ‘personal vision’ of the writer or director (not at all in the pejorative sense of genre as an uncreative, repetitive purveyor of the same impersonal stories over and over; rather in the sense that film genres, like all human acts of classification and delineation, define and delimit and make possible our capacity to see the world and its inhabitants, in ways that cannot but supersede the individuality of the author [of a film] or subject [of the social/institutional world]). I think also what we learn from the workings of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued is something of how classical Hollywood cinema constitutes human psychology, affirming a certain ideologically dominant version of ‘the human,’ while also responding to and incorporating elements of more subversive theories of subjectivity – namely, psychoanalysis.
Hollywood was of course curious about psychoanalysis during the forties – these two films came two years after Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a film that has a lot in common with Dark Passage, and two years before Preminger’s Whirlpool. In these as in other – less explicitly ‘psychoanalytic’ – films of the time, an effort was made to incorporate certain aspects of psychoanalytic discourse into Hollywood cinema, which essentially meant to redefine psychoanalytic discourse within Hollywood cinema’s own terms. Freud’s investigations of fetishistic and symptomatic manifestations of trauma are incorporated into these films, but always (or nearly always, for there are exceptions, or at least partial ones) moulded to accommodate to an aggressively teleological narrative which necessitates a successful unification of the human subject with the social world by the film’s ending (the hero gets married, goes to jail, dies and is mourned, etc). As with our discussion of genre-ambiguity above, what we see here is an attempt to combine or interweave two discourses for the purpose of achieving a kind of totalizing knowledge – here, instead of the combination of two Hollywood film genres, we have the combination of psychoanalytic discourse with the discourse of classical Hollywood cinema (which we could, perhaps naively or perhaps not entirely accurately, more broadly define as the discourse of US liberal-capitalist hegemony). As was true of the combining of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued, this pairing does produce fissures, points where the incorporation is not perfect and where those less congenial aspects of psychoanalytic discourse rear their heads, interrupting the inevitable teleology of the Hollywood narrative (psychoanalytic theory itself here functions as an enactment of one of its own concepts, the ‘return of the repressed’).
Any incorporation, then, any attempt to legitimize and totalize a dominant position through incorporating contradictory or subversive discourses into this position, contains the risk – if this incorporated discourse is sufficiently sophisticated and sufficiently ‘real,’ if its inherent logic produces revelations concerning the world and the human that are not easily dismissed (true enough of the film noir, the western, and psychoanalysis) – that the incorporation will be incomplete, that what is incorporated will act upon its host in unanticipated ways (many a science-fiction film has been inspired by this idea). In Dark Passage and Pursued, we have discussed how this incorporation functions in one case – the incorporation of the noir into the western, and the western into the noir – but not yet in the other: the impregnation of a certain external theory of human psychology (psychoanalysis) into Hollywood cinema and its pre-existing ideological conception (in all senses of the word) of the human. For, like any good film noir – and any good western – ‘psychoanalysis,’ whether in its ‘legitimate’ or its ‘incorporated’ version, has an undoubtable presence in these two films.
In Pursued, we have a character (Jeb Rand) and a situation (a flight from assassins that can only be finally achieved through the unearthing of a buried childhood memory) that have been to a large extent produced by (pop-)psychoanalysis. Jeb’s two homes (the Callum home where he is raised and falls in love with his adopted sister, Thor [Wright] – and which, in a brilliant move by Walsh and Busch, he buys back for himself and Wright when they are married; and his own, massacred family’s farmhouse at Bear Paw Butte, where the final showdown takes place) potently represent Jeb’s differing psychological states, while the erotic interplay between Jeb, Thor and her brother Adam produces a kind of Freudian ‘family romance’: details like this make Pursued readily identifiable as a ‘psychological’ film, a noirish western. Psychoanalytic discourse is present in this film, and not merely as a by-product of the incorporation of the (more psychologically ‘complex’) genre of the film noir into the western; even if the second incorporation was initially triggered by the first (even if psychoanalysis was not asked to enter, but entered quietly, innocently, in the tame, popularized form given it by the noir genre), in effect, once it is there, it cannot fail to do its work, even if surreptitiously and inconclusively.
Jeb’s psychological maturation – ultimately enacted by the conscious recall of his childhood trauma, which allows him to right the wrongs of the past and to establish a healthy marriage with Thor – is intended to bring together not only the film noir and the western (making peace with the past; achieving a certain social stability in the present) but also the psychoanalytic and the Hollywood ‘psychologies’: respectively, the subject as a bundle of libidinal drives, produced and perennially undermined by its attempts to sublimate and order them; Versus the subject as a more-or-less successfully produced whole, dogged by external malevolencies, in pursuit of a harmonious erotic/social unification so as to reaffirm its wholeness. The film remains compelling because it cannot (it does not ‘want to,’ despite what it professes to want) entirely manage this incorporation, and the attempt produces all kinds of dispersals that cannot be contained in this conclusive act – the psychological damage the unfolding of the narrative has had on Thor (in a fantastic portrayal by the underrated Wright, giving as interesting and ambiguous [if less erotically charged] a performance here as in Shadow of a Doubt); the uncontainable depths of hate, vengeance and rapacious bloodlust that have motivated Grant, but always been something less clean and ordered than a mere motivation, acting rather as a kind of compulsion. These and other dispersals of psychic trauma and libidinal energy point to this incompleteness of incorporation, but they also suggest that this is not simply a failure of Pursued, rather that such acts of incorporation resulting in the manifestation of the buried/pacified elements of the incorporated other can occur all over the place, are inherent not only to films that combine genre but to each individual genre itself (which is of course always a combination and adaptation of a multiplicity of pre-existing mythic and generic traits); Pursued is the rare film that allows its contradictory impulses to develop, resulting in this tremendous dispersal of energies that its ending inevitably does not, cannot, will not contain.
Dark Passage, as I mentioned above, has a lot in common with Spellbound, in the relationship between the couple, the formulation of Woman-as-cure, etc. But it can also be seen as a precursor to that greatest masterpiece of ‘psychological’ Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Pursued, on the other hand, is Marnie all over) – a precursor not only for its remarkable use of the San Francisco setting, but also in regard to how it deals with this simultaneous backwards-and-forwards trajectory, the movement towards future emancipation necessitating a simultaneous move back into past trauma. As in Pursued, the attempt to bring these twin movements together – as enacted through the generic combination of the noir and the western – results in an uncontainable dispersal of energy, the attempt to ‘tidy up’ and have these combined discursive effects dovetail neatly resulting in abrupt summation and dismissal of elements that will not be put away so easily. What Dark Passage manages momentarily is to have these two events, the act of summation and aggressive, dismissive conclusion and the event of the dispersal of exactly that which this summation wishes to contain, occur simultaneously: here it is the sudden death (accident/suicide?) falling out of a window of the murderess, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), in a scene that anticipates Madeleine/Judy’s death(s) in Hitchcock’s film.
At once completely necessary and completely crazy, Madge’s death is haunting precisely because it is both highly motivated (by the machinations of the narrative which require it in order to bring the interweaving temporal and spatial movements and the interweaving generic forms into a conclusive unity) and largely unmotivated (at the level of what we are given to be her character, the jealous obsessive). The act that brings about the narrative summation, the reconciliation of the different generic discursive registers, is itself a dispersal, a manifestation of all that will not be contained by this totalizing reconciliation-by-incorporation. Moorehead (brilliant as always) understands that the power of her death scene must come from this odd incongruity, and so she ups the ‘psychology’ of Madge, the use of her voice moving from manipulative and controlling to aggressive and terrified, the (simultaneously anxious and sexually charged) tautness of her body giving way, finally, to looseness as it falls to its destruction on the pavement below (“You need something concrete,” she has said to Vincent moments earlier, and he is about to get it); but in so doing she in a sense gives us too much, presenting a psychological complexity which seems to motivate her death and yet overruns this motivation, continuing to haunt us, as we move swiftly towards Bogart and Bacall’s final reunion, with the knowledge that the (social/sexual) desire we see fulfilled here also produces subjects (like Madge – but also, really, all subjects, even Bogart and Bacall) swallowed whole by desire in its isolating, ravenous, murderous forms.
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I’ll be joining Brad Nguyen in writing about the Melbourne International Film Festival as it goes on over the next couple of weeks, at his blog, Screener. Once it’s all over I’ll probably post a general essay of my thoughts about the festival here, but for now, get reading Screener.
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I’ve been thinking for a while of writing something to be offered as a kind of statement of intent for this blog, a pronouncement of and reflection upon what I guess my aims are for it. To some extent, this is kind of redundant – it’s a film blog, where I write about films I’ve watched recently. Pretty self-evident, and rather like a lot of other websites. But then what are ‘film blogs’ or ‘film review websites,’ particularly personal ones, written by one individual, nonprofessional writer, typically ‘like’? How might my own be like or unlike them in their generality?
In my experience, they can by and large be placed in one of two general categories: first, there are those that review new releases, films that are currently playing at cinemas. These sites tend to imitate the style of professional, journalistic film criticism (which isn’t to say that some aren’t better than the writings of many a professional film critic), perhaps with the occasional diversion into personal anecdote or subjective emotional response that the freedom of this nonprofessional medium allows. Then there are those that discuss old films, and it is to this group that Catabloguing evidently belongs. There are a few different variations within this group: some, like the ‘new film’ blogs, consciously attempt to replicate journalistic film writing, only here their models are more likely to be the kinds of capsule reviews found in Leonard Maltin or David Thompson than the longer, more opinionated style of the weekly film reviewer; they strive for an air of authority through brevity and quick, evaluative judgements that tend to try to avoid personal reflection. Then there are those web-based writings on old movies that are explicitly theorized in terms of the writer’s personal concerns, or some kind of personal filmic journey – for instance, someone starts a blog wherein they attempt to watch and write something about every film released by the Criterion Collection, or every film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list or another similar canon. Others might have more subjective or whimsical reasons for choosing to write about what they write about – a particular intellectual concern, a preference for a particular genre, or whatever, and as a result they will likely be written in a more personal vein, valourizing the subjective experience of viewing, emphasizing marginality, the small thing, the aspect of a film or of a film experience that matters to this individual writer, that particularly touches this person as they view it.
This blog is an example of the last of these types. I’ve chosen to write mostly about films I’ve taped off television and films I’ve happened to pick up on DVD or borrow from the library, so as to limit the range of things I can write about, mainly because I want to avoid the trappings of ‘relevance’ (writing about new releases in an instructive manner – ‘you should/shouldn’t see this movie’) and of ‘authority’ (writing about films that can be understood as part of either a personal or institutional canon, and hence making an argument about the worthiness of the films in question). Neither of these approaches really interests me, and so I’ve chosen this quite personal, idiosyncratic manner of selecting films to write about, because I want the idiosyncrasies of the personal viewing experience to be central to these writings.
But I’ve always felt that there are both good and bad ways to do this, to perform an analysis of an art object in terms of one’s own experience, emphasizing the individual’s own prejudices and pet concerns, over any attempt at objectivity or generalized reflections on the object’s canonical value. I’ve long wanted to try and theorize this problem, to talk about why so much discourse in this vein, whether it be in the press or in the way people tend to talk when they come out of a movie, a gallery, or a lecture, seems to me a profound misapplication of the lessons of people like Barthes and Sontag, who so brilliantly and importantly rallied against false notions of critical objectivity and the fetishistic, untheorized concept of ‘aesthetic value.’ I’d never really known where to start articulating my thoughts on this topic, even to myself, until, a short while ago, I came upon an essay Adrian Martin wrote in the wake of the 2008 death of film critic Manny Farber. The final section of this essay, concerning what Martin sees as Farber’s legacy in contemporary film discourse, immediately struck a cord with me:
Isn’t there a degraded form of the Farberian legacy all around us in the media and film culture these days? I would like to believe that Farber is inimitable for so many reasons intrinsic to his work – chiefly, as Raymond Bellour said in a beautiful homage to Gilles Deleuze, because ‘one is attracted and held, even on the conceptual plane, by the demanding complicity of a singularity much more than by the distant truth of an affirmation’ – but I fear that the opposite may be the case.
In magazines devoted to an amalgam of movies, pop culture and lifestyle, a kind of pugilistic, hip fluency prevails among several generations of hard-nosed film fans. Their capsule reviews – or sound bytes if they’re working for the audio-visual media – have become the norm of cinema comment that pretends to be all at once contemporary, populist and knowing. Suddenly, those special, idiosyncratic things that Manny Farber liked are being recycled as sure-fire, razor-sharp, quick-as-a-wink evaluative tools. The tendency of reviewers to assume they can instantly separate what ‘works’ in a movie from what doesn’t – explicitly opposed by Farber – now comes supplemented by a value system that sounds suspiciously like [Farber’s] termite-elephant distinction.
We see evidence everywhere today of cinephiles attempting to propagate Farber’s taste for incidental moments, highly local and specific true-to-life bits of the real at the termite heart of hopelessly junky, pulpy plots. Logically, it is elephantine, ‘upper-case vision’ that must be abhorred or at least approached with dire suspicion by these acolytes: all the strained, preachy, pompous elements in a movie, the overarching themes, vaulting artistic ambitions and mythologising social posturings. But the rigid application of this distinction usually ends up exposing the utterly arbitrary nature of the judgements offered. In such a quagmire, film criticism has come to resemble, more than anything, rock journalism in its NME or Rolling Stone idioms, with its wildly fickle but assertively pronounced discoveries of pure magic and savage dross in every second CD track.
I’ll leave readers who wish to better understand what Martin is specifically saying about Farber to read the full article here, but suffice it to say that Farber is a critic known for privileging the small, the marginal, the fragmentary, those aspects or qualities of a film text that speak to and disturb the complacency of a viewer, and that tend to be left out of grand discourses concerning the greatness and canonical value of a work. This approach is worthwhile, is necessary, because it assaults the idea that aesthetic value has any kind of necessary ontology, any existence prior to or outside of what culture, for its own ideological purposes, claims it to be. In this sense, this is a criticism that is Marxist at its roots.
But this kind of criticism (and at this point I am diverging from a particular focus on Farber’s work, which to be honest I don’t know that well, towards a more general theorization of a style of criticism, I guess implicitly using Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag as my exemplary figures, with Jacques Derrida and the school of deconstruction lurking somewhere in the background) is not only Marxist: it is also, equally importantly, informed by psychoanalytic theory, I guess particularly by Jacques Lacan. That is, it depends upon the idea of the human subject as decentred, sees ‘personality’ and identity not as simply given but as the necessary fictions of the human individual’s development into the space of culture and language. By talking about the particular, individual experience of seeing a movie or viewing an art object, and talking about those characteristics of the object which, for inexplicable reasons, hold this individual critic’s attention and trouble his or her sense of their own authority, their own ability to comprehend and fully know this object, these critics emphasized those things that disturb the subject’s conception of its own centredness, of its assured place in the world and its assured knowledge of itself. The minor, the marginal, the fragmentary, the inassimilable – these things are interesting because they disturb the critic’s own sense of mastery, because they address her as an unstable, decentred subject who can make neither herself nor the text under analysis into a totality, into a fully knowable object with a designated value.
What I see in many contemporary inheritors of this mode of critical inquiry, and what I think Martin is identifying in what he calls the “degraded form of the Farberian legacy,” is criticism that makes free use of this ‘personal’ approach, emphasizing the subjectivity of the individual’s experience and placing value in ‘the things I like’ about a text, and attacking perceived notions of objective greatness and canonical importance; such criticism does all this, and it often will either implicitly or explicitly call upon figures like Barthes or Sontag or Farber in its own defence, but is ultimately a betrayal of what was radical and important about the intervention of those earlier critics. For what this kind of popular celebration of the ‘personal experience’ above the objectivity of the text constitutes is really the valourization, even the reification, of the human ego, a positing of what I understand to be my subjectivity, my being, as innately valuable and hence as total, true and self-comprehending. The text, on the other hand, is not given the same treatment: indeed the idea that a text has any kind of existence prior to my engagement with it, my arbitrary, utterly self-assured decision as to what is and is not worthwhile about, what matters and what doesn’t matter about it, is treated with profound suspicion.
“The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” wrote Barthes, but this newborn reader was to be a deeply self-critical one, who would see in the fragmented, self-contradicting, impossible, unstable text a reflection of his own decentred subjectivity, and would be thrilled by those elements of a text that disturb his self-knowledge and his impression that he is master of all he surveys, including himself. The contemporary, popular descendants of Barthes’ imagined reader have come to place greater value in the subjective experience of reception (reading, hearing or viewing a text) than in any idea of the text’s inherent value, but they do this for the purpose of reclaiming the superiority of the ego – over its unconscious, over the world, over the text – so that the emphasis on the personal, the marginal, the fragmentary, becomes not a disturbance of the centred self but a proud affirmation of it.
This, finally, is where we return to the question of what I am hoping to achieve with this blog: to talk about films in a manner that emphasizes my subjective experience, not just of initial reception but also of the more drawn-out process of remembering and interpreting what my senses have received. The dramatic freedom of the web allows for the opportunity to follow small points of interest and extrapolate upon them as much as one wants, and in posts like my reflections on a brief moment of a couple of seconds in The Terminator, or upon a few short scenes from Ride Lonesome, I have taken advantage of this freedom. I’ve also tried, most notably in the Abel Ferrara post, to narrate the development of a certain awareness on my part during the course of a couple of weeks when I watched these two films.
In all this, I guess basically I’m hoping to find a way of adopting the lessons of critics like those I’ve discussed above for the context of the blogosphere, a radically open medium that provides more opportunity than ever for the publication of personal reflection, for (film) canons and (film) histories and (film) theories that are particular to an individual viewer rather than broad and objective and absolute. But in this I want to follow the important lesson of these earlier critics seriously, and to focus on my own personal experiences with and memories of films not for the purpose of claiming any kind of victory, announcing my experience as more valuable than the film texts themselves, but to pay attention to the ways in which films, whether in their grand, explicit thematic content or in their most marginal, ‘termite’ details, disturb me as a viewer and as a subject, and disturb their own totality, their own meaning, forcing me to re-evaluate how both the text and my own critical gaze are functioning. So let’s see how that goes.
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For this post, I want to take quite a different approach to my ‘Notes on The Terminator.’ With those notes I focused minutely upon a single brief moment in one film, lasting all of maybe ten seconds; here I wish to make some quick, fairly broad observations about two Abel Ferrara films I watched around the same time as The Terminator. Ferrara’s is a name I’d heard plenty about, indeed I even have a copy of the book on Ferrara by Nicole Brenez which my dad gave me, and have read a little of it, as much as I could make much sense of without having seen any of the films (now, when I’d love to be able to read it, the book is in storage on the other side of the world). I’d not seen any of the films until last month, when I got access to a copy of King of New York (1991). I watched it, I mostly enjoyed it, I downloaded the Schoolly D album afterwards. I didn’t entirely know what to think. Ferrara had previously been presented to me in my reading as a great, iconoclastic artist working within the world of “B-grade,” violent genre cinema, and any aspect of the film that made me scratch my head – in particular, the hilariously stupid portrayal of the police – I consciously set aside, decided that there must no doubt be some way to explain, to recuperate these absurdities within the Ferrara aura to which I, a Ferrara novice, as yet lacked access.
I didn’t know when I’d be likely to have a chance to see another Ferrara movie, but by chance, a couple of weeks later, somebody happened to lend my brother a DVD of Bad Lieutenant, the film Ferrara made immediately after King of New York, in 1991, and we watched it. What most immediately stands out in seeing these two films alongside one another is the great difference between them. Where the earlier film is all about the moving camera, the frenetic pace, the gaudy cinematography, Bad Lieutenant is mostly structured around a series of intense and discomforting unmoving long takes – if the menace of King of New York is largely in the editing and the disorientation and flashy excitement it offers, the menace of the latter film comes in the very lack of editing, the camera’s refusal to do anything but record the ever-increasing ugliness of its title character (Harvey Keitel) and his surroundings. The sound track is vitally important to both films, but in very different ways: King of New York is all about the late 80s NYC hip hop tracks, the gunshots, the squealing of tyres, all of which are in the service of creating the hazy, intoxicating atmosphere of Frank’s demented world; Bad Lieutenant, in contrast, makes crucial use of ambient sound (indeed, what little plot the film has is advanced through this use of ambient sound, as the radio broadcasts the results of the baseball games our lieutenant has placed bets on) and of the banal sounds of everyday life, within the home, within the car, within a dive bar.
These formal differences were striking, yet they coincided with a basic similarity at the level of character that forced me to re-evaluate how I saw these two films as the work of one artist. Both films have at their centre a portrayal of an extremely violent, sexually depraved, sadistic man who wishes to do good: the gangster in King of New York wants to fund the building of a hospital in his depressed neighbourhood; and Keitel’s bad lieutenant, when he isn’t too busy stealing cocaine from crime scenes and sexually assaulting teenage girls, is determined to catch two men who have committed an appalling rape. Both men are utterly earnest in their desire to do these good deeds, and the films seem to take this earnestness perfectly seriously. There is no Sopranos-like ironising of the stupidity and stunted moral sense of these men. This was one of the things about King of New York that I found hardest to accept – the expectation that I take seriously a character whose psychology seemed so poorly, simplistically drawn. When I got to Bad Lieutenant and found a very similar character in the midst of a film with such striking formal differences, it became apparent that there was something going on in the depiction of these characters that wasn’t simply ‘unrealistic’ human psychology.
These characters, I began to feel, shouldn’t really be viewed as ‘real’ individuals with ‘real’ individual psychologies, but more as types, types that Ferrara uses to explore questions of violence, depravity and sexuality in the contemporary world. In order to perform these explorations, Ferrara externalizes everything, gets rid of the whole idea of private emotions, the distinction between the individual’s private self and their public self-presentation, etc. These characters do not have any being underneath what they do and what they say; rather, they act themselves, in ways that are both strikingly similar and strikingly different. What makes both films such formally singular works is that, with each of these characters, Ferrara precisely follows their self-depiction, their self-presentation, so that all the formal qualities I’ve already talked about aid in this performance, this production of character: King of New York gives us a character who moves frantically, who creates his own being through this movement, through his ‘style of living,’ and so we get a movie that is all ‘style over substance,’ all about momentum and visual flashiness. Bad Lieutenant also gives us a drug-addled character who moves frantically, but his movements are so demented and hopeless that it is apparent that his real problem is stasis, his inability to move, to escape addiction, etc.; and so the camera movement and the editing and the sound all enforce this sense of stasis. What I think is most important about all this is that, because these are not psychologically ‘true’ portraits of individuals, the formal characteristics I’ve been discussing do not simply emphasize already-existent attributes of their characters; rather, these characters are created as much through the form of the films that carry their names as through their behaviour, their ‘humanity’.
These, then, are just some notes on how my sense of Ferrara as an artist developed through watching these two films. It’s a while since I watched them now, and my insights are not as clear as they would have been had I written this a month ago, but there you are. A new post is coming in a couple of days, which will outline more precisely what it is I hope to achieve with this blog.
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