Monthly Archives: July 2010

Aritist and Critic

Well, there is some energy in this exchange.

There can be no final, absolute canon of great art, but that doesn’t mean the value of a work of art is relative. There always is a canon, to be more precise, but that canon is always shifting and changing. A new work of art, if it’s any good, forces a re-evaluation of all the art that has gone before. Actually, this is the sign of a great work of art – that it forces this kind of re-evaluation. Many great works of art survive this kind of re-evaluation, but that can always change.

And what is true about the history of art is also true of history in general—history is alive and what happens today changes the meaning of the past. Which is hopeful or not, depending on your point of view.

It feels to me as if you would like to arrive at an absolute canon and this is making you overly harsh in your take on certain vulnerable outliers. I may be wrong about your intention, but a film like Fat City has some real virtues to it… and I may be remembering incorrectly but I do recall you singing its praises in the past. Ditto Peckinpah. Obviously you are free to change your opinion and it’s inevitable, actually…but that’s also kind of my point.

To say that all critics are motivated by hostility would be a stupid statement and it’s not what I am saying. I exempt artists who write criticism and I’m prepared, on a case by case basis, to accept other critics to be benign in their attitude to art in general. But it’s a strong tendency and one that must always be considered. And I also would say we need to distinguish between art history and criticism and also aesthetic theory (Adorno) and criticism and I would never view Norman O. Brown as a critic.

In any event, the real juice seems to be in the issues I bring up in the first paragraph.

CURE, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Despite being diverted into a single focus on Kubrick it seems to me something crucial is being considered here about the relationship between critic and artist. When an artist is writing criticism – be it Pound or Francis Bacon – it goes without saying an agenda is being served…but it’s an artistic agenda. Of course all communication is about agendas, so you could say this is a banal point. But I think it needs to be underscored even while I also accept that non-artists can write from a place of good will toward the artistic enterprise. Mostly, though, what motivates a writer to become a critic is a covert aggression toward art, a hidden envy that masquerades as erudition and equanimity. Call it love-hate, if you want, but these people are useful to the culture because the culture wants always to shield itself from the transformative effects of art. Change comes hard. Continue reading


Assorted Film and Theater


Recently I have seen two movies, each with dancing. I say dancing instead of dance. The movies are KILLER OF SHEEP and THE EXILES.

In the first, KILLER OF SHEEP, a couple, terribly separated emotionally by their difficult circumstance, barely moves in a slow dance. The woman wants her man and he is unable to respond. The sequence is long, the length of a song. The dancing has no beginning. Our attention is not grabbed. There are no steps. There is no finale.

Even as a dancer I have always preferred the non-dance. Dance is positions and choreography. I must note here that Nureyev, Graham, Cunningham and the like, do not finish in poses. A great dancer moves through a dance. Even when Nureyev struck an ending you still felt his reach.
Dancing is luscious and emergent.
In THE EXILES, Rico shows off in the bar for the woman he wants. He is humorous and subtle. He makes the occasional flourish. He has no plan. And in another section, the Indians escape from the bar to Hill X where tribal sounds and movements start to leak out of them. Their stifled release is disturbing and magnificent.

Dance is all around us. Sadly, the striking of positions pleases and blinds the crowd. Adulation of posers is a celebration of exhibitionism.
But in KILLER OF SHEEP and THE EXILES dancing mesmerizes us with absolute truth. You cannot pinpoint a beginning or an end to dancing.

—Sissy Boyd

Film Criticism

I’ve had some disparate thoughts bouncing around my head as regards film and especially film criticism. Maybe this started as I began to re read chunks of The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris.

Now this is a book from, I believe, 1968. The latter Sarris came a bit unglued—and seemed to have lost all the rigor and uncompromising aesthetic he once displayed. The most fascinating aspect here is to see whom he champions and whom he dismisses. With the Sarris of this era, however, there is always a reason for his choices, and it pays to delve deeper into his aesthetic arguments before rejecting them.

CABIRIA, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, 1914, Italy.

His categories, the famed “pantheon”, followed by “the far side of paradise”, and then “expressive esoterica”, through to “less than meets the eye”, are full of surprises and unexpected insights. That he would stick Kubrick into “strained seriousness” is at first glance, rather absurd—and yet—lets remember this is the early Kubrick (the last film Sarris examines is 2001) and a perspective from this era is most illuminating.

“…it is more likley that he has chosen to exploit the giddiness of middle brow audiences on the satiric level of Mad Magazine.”

Something suggests to me that this more right than I might have thought. Kubrick “is” middle brow, often, and he does probably announce more than he ever has delivered. Later films such as The Shining tend to deliver less and less on each viewing, while supplying iconic pop images and catch phrases (Here’s Johnny,. etc). Sarris is, in the same section, quite hard on Sidney Lumet,too, and as I re-read it I must say I found myself simply disagreeing.  Thirty some years on, films such as The Hill and The Fugitive Kind look far better than they did in ’68. Lumet’s humorlessness (per Sarris) now seems a decided virtue. His leathery lack of emotional release—(humorless again)—serves his films in the 21st century in a way I doubt any critic could have prophesied.

The “pantheon” is filled with directors almost nobody would argue with: Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, and Lubitsch. But he also adds Max Ophuls, a choice I would agree with, and Renoir, a choice I would not. But two I simply think dont belong, are Flaherty and Griffith. That is perhaps a topic for later—but lets give a quick think on Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. From the view of 2010, how do these directors hold up? I’ve never entirely ‘got’ Hawks, I have to say. Reading the Sarris again, I found myself aware that I had been, maybe (!) myopic in how I looked at Hawks. There is no single film that one can point to, and call a masterpiece. One might suggest Red River, or even Rio Bravo, or Only Angels Have Wings, or His Girl Friday…but none of them quite stands by itself. Hawks comedies, in fact, require an entire chapter all for themselves. From Bringing up Baby to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the very vocabulary of film comedy was formed under Hawks — and reacted to by everyone from Capra to Lubitsch to Tashlin, and maybe most significantly Leo McCarey. Of course, no doubt Hawks reacted to them as well…or at least to Lubitsch. The point being that Hawks for all his great variety, made only one film, and made it over and over and over.  Red River the same as His Girl Friday? Well, yeah, in a way. For Hawks was always thinking “film”, and his clean headed angular way with actors and with shots never varied. Ive always loved his penultimate film, Red Line 7000, an odd race car melodrama with James Caan. Maybe I love the sheer emptiness of the script, but find something reassuring in that emptiness being served to me through a Hawksian mise en scene. The eye level camera that both brings intimacy, but a kind of odd propriety as well—after decades of use, becomes as classic (and oddly subversive) as Ozu and his seat on the tatami. So, does Hawks belong in rarified air of the all time film masters? Ahead of Sirk and Ray, lets say?  I don’t know. I do think Hawks was among the most consistent creators of a film logic as has ever existed. In that sense he is a lot like Hitchcock. Do I think Ray made a couple films that were maybe better than any of Hawks? Yeah, probably. And Sirk, how to talk about Sirk?  Forty years on, to reflect on Sirk is a all by itself a major undertaking. The issue of Cahier that included the famous article “The Blind Man and The Mirror, or The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk” can be looked at now, still, as the quintessential take on Sirk.

KISS ME DEADLY, directed by Robert Aldrich.

So, Fritz Lang, then. Has the Langian ouevre held up?  I would say yes, and then in a hushed tone, as I turn away, I might say, well, and maybe not. But Lang was making films before they had a word for ‘director’. He ‘is’ film, and his direction is so deeply embedded in our unconscious that its a bit like trying to talk about the Tyndale translation of the Bible…was it really any good or not?  Lang is simply beyond this level of critique.

So why go on this way about rating directors? Continue reading

Winter’s Bone and the Tragic

“Knowledge reveals, names, and consequently classifies. Speech addresses itself to a face.”

For Levinas the face offers an absolute resistance to possession.

Debra Granik’s new film, Winter’s Bone, as was touched upon in an earlier thread, is a film that’s currency is that of the opacity of the face. Shot for two million in digital (with a RED camera) the film delves into language as it existed before it became descriptive. In a realm of pre-rational tribal/Biblical retributions. In a sense, it made me think again of Audiard’s Un Prophet. If Malik crosses into the holy through a prison and violent sacrifices, young Ree Dolly, and especially her crack addict Uncle Teardrop, also cross into realms of existential choice and near religious insight. These choices are carried out in the landscape of rural Appalachia (the far western end in Missouri) whose poverty is so systemic as to be taken for granted. When a neighbor girl answers Ree’s remark about some men cooking up meth, the girl says, ‘they all do, dont really need to even mention it’. The plague of meth is just an extension of poverty. Its the virus sent out from the total hegemony of capitalist exploitation. The Biblical sense of familial responsibility and the insular defended back woods culture, now all but destroyed, are presented without a trace of sentimentality or voyeuristic fetishizing.

Scottsdale meth lab

This is also a film made by a woman. While Teardrop is the actual moral center of the film, the bulk of the narrative is carried by the hard bitten women of this closed world, and by the young 17 year old daughter of a missing (meth dealing) father. Teardrop is the character with the awakening, however fatalistic his final decisions and awareness. We leave Teardrop (in an astonishing performance by John Hawkes) much as we left Malik at the end of Un Prophet. The barely audible utterance of Teardrop at the end, “I know. I know who.” is stunning and chilling and transcends all that came before in a sense. It is coupled to the comment Ree makes, (which Harvey quoted, “I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back”) shortly after this. This is filmic poetry and it achieves the level of tragedy because of its awareness of the fatalistic nature of life, of its fragility and of how ephemeral are our ties to conventions of family and parenthood and especially to responsibility. It is not, however, the bourgeois notion of responsibility, as trotted out almost compulsively (and daily, if not hourly) in mainstream storytelling and news and advertising. It is much more Old Testament, more Jobian in a sense, and certainly more unforgiving and hard edged. Forgiveness is almost unaffordable, a luxury, and outside this bare landscape. There are verdicts and there is always punishment, and there is often duty (even if forced), but there are no hurt feelings or narcissism here. As winter decends on the countryside, the choices are even more tempered with a controlled desperation—from hunger and the potential, as Ree says, that she and her younger siblings just go to the field and die like dogs. The scene on the lake is chilling, certainly, but is more about the pragmatism of all involved. It is, very much like the final scene of Gary Oldman’s great Nil By Mouth. One must get on with one’s life, with eating and breathing.

What I found most remarkable about this film was the absence of any intellectual slumming. Granik respects these people and even the most crack addled and physically emaciated character is presented as not just human, but divine. We are all god’s children, and all lost in the wilderness.

—John Steppling

Interesting you bring up Levinas here, John. “The face is always naked,” is another quote that comes to mind. And I was thinking about Levinas when I wrote Great Things and Jimmy asks Chimi to look into his face and she tells him it says “do not hurt me.” Not to compare that short play to what Granik has pulled off. Levinas’ devoted himself to redeeming Heidegger and bridging the gap between ontology and ethics, which sounds much more high falutin’ than it is. Stephen Batchelor is always citing Levinas as the Western thinker who comes closest to a Buddhist view of how Self and Other relate to each other. But maybe that’s a different conversation.

Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanon Cty., VA 1970.

One of my favorite scenes in Winter’s Bone is when she goes and talks to the Marine Corps recruiter. There’s no condescension anywhere in the performances or in the film making and it truly is a staggering look at how different that Red State mindset can be. Mostly Scots-Irish, the Appalachian people arrived last in the four great waves of immigration from Britain. Studies show their values remain remarkably consistent with those that dominated the war ground that separates England and Scotland. They went to Ireland first and picked up the “Irish” in Scots-Irish. They are the product of centuries of war back and forth from North to South as Britain formed, and their values are in-bred, suspicious of outsiders, clan-like and given to violence. They settled down across the Appalachians and into Kansas and Texas…and then many of them moved to So-Cal and some of them ran for Mayor of Los Angeles and got elected, etc.

The specter of intra-clan violence, the blood-feud, hovers above the story in Winter’s Bone. The compassion the women around Thump show Ree breaches the silence that kept Teardrop at bay. The sense we have at the close is that now the fur will fly and it won’t be pretty. Teardrop will now have to avenge Jessup and the tit-for-tat will start up. Ree’s younger brother might well need those shooting skills down the road. It’s a Biblical world, in a way, yes. These people have managed to hold on to a kind of vitality the world around them has been civilized out of. Consequence surrounds them, comes with the terrain. But while I’m rhapsodizing I can’t stop wishing these people made it a little harder for the minions of the very wealthy to manipulate and control them. Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheny and Rush Limbaugh have them dancing on a string…though maybe that won’t last.

Ree kept reminding me Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I went looking for this quote where she’s described as having a ferocious strength that stays close always to the ground. Pretty remarkable performance and, yeah, a great film.

I want to add that one of the many great things about Hawkes’ performance is how much Teardrop knows. He knows his brother fucked up—he did right year after year and then one day he fucked up. He knows it’s much better he never learn who killed Jessup too, because he knows he’ll be forced to act by big forces in the world that he respects. Hawkes conveys all that and all he has to say is that his brother played banjo so well and we know the primal blood connection has been sealed. This is the thing about violence, blood. The self arises in response to the other and in social connection that artificial boundary begins to go away…compassion becomes possible, a communal presence… But blood seals the reification, making self and other fixed entities in perpetual conflict. This is the nightmare threat that’s never far enough away…

—Guy Zimmerman

Winter’s Bone/Goddess of Being

“I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back.”

That line, the purest and most poetic I can remember in either film or theater in ages comes from Winter’s Bone and all of you should make sure you see it before it disappears. It is truly great, a work of art, all that shit, beautifully acted and so real and true it’s hard to believe they are actors at all, but it’s the pain of it, the hardship, the honest ways in which human decency comes into play. And, like Wendy and Lucy and Frozen River, it’s a woman director who dared to go into such real places. It is unlike any other American film you’ve ever seen. I read the other day that Fritz Lang once said that when people talk about film, they never talk about dialogue, they only talk about images and Lang suggested that film hadn’t yet found its Shakespeare. Of course images are the poetry of film, and you won’t forget any of the images in this film, but I purposely started this note with a line from the film, because, maybe, in Winter’s Bone, film has found its Shakespeare. The director/co-writer is Debra Granik. Dark, sometimes ugly, its the backwoods, the heartland, it’s where the world has failed its people but its also about the way people survive. And it has in it all the best elements of noir, except its not walking down dark urban streets. It’s in the yards strewn with all the things we’ve thrown away, in the swamps where dead men lie, men who are never found, it’s the country.

—Harvey Perr

I would stop short of calling Winter’s Bone something equivalent to Shakespeare.  Aside from the line you quoted, none of the rest of the dialogue in the film jumps out as poetic.

But it is an excellent portrait of modern rural life in the age where the image of innocent country living has firmly been replaced by a world of meth labs and the walking ghosts that crank turns men into.  It also, somewhat indirectly, illustrates why middle America is so obsessed with the Second Amendment.  Although I don’t recall a shot actually being fired, the presence of guns as a way of life, for protection and survival, is definitely felt, like we’re living in some kind of gunfighter nation.

It’s extremely well made and definitely worth seeing.

On a completely different track, and with a huge dollop of reservation, the Tilda Swinton film I Am Love (Io Sono L’amore) is, if nothing else, unique.  It’s arguably all style and no substance, but definitely worth discussing.

—John Topping

I obviously liked Winter’s Bone more than you did although time will tell how it holds up; it was just such a breath of fresh (or should I say rancid?) air and so strong and centered, I fell under its spell. And everything you said is absolutely right on.

I also agree with what you said about I Am Love.  Special. Unique. Worth seeing. Worth talking about. It’s just that films about the way the rich live—if there is a minimum of ironic detachment or critical objectivity—drive me up the wall. It ain’t The Leopard. It ain’t even Cluny Brown. And certainly not The Rules of the Game.

—Harvey Perr

Films about how the rich live that lack any ironic distance invite the worst kind of projection. Buying into the complete delusion that the wealthy experience any more happiness than the poor. This is one of the things that makes Killer of Sheep so remarkable—the dignity it gives to the economically oppressed. This is why Berlusconi is mostly so insufferable. And it’s one of the things Rosselini gets so right in Voyage to Italy—the wild, inner desperation of those well-heeled characters.

Anyhow, just to concur with Mr. Perr….

—Guy Zimmerman

William Shakespeare, The Sanders Portrait.

K a couple quick thoughts.
The trailers for winter’s bone look very promising. I will see it. Let me clarify a couple things…Shakespearean is not a synonim for poetic. There might be a silent film i would call Shakespearean. It’s about a tragic sense of life, and about a sensibility that carries moral weight.

The loss of a tragic vision has been much discussed…all the way back to the German Romantics. It’s a complex discussion and perhaps i will open a thread on it vis a vis Un Prophet and a couple other potentially neo-tragic films of recent date.

Much as i dislike Harold Bloom, bloated old reactionary, he wrote a pretty decent book on WS…called Invention of the Human. Its worth a look, as are Empson’s essays on Shakes, and Berryman and of course Ted Hughes’ opus—which is a sort of almost Jungian critique of Shakespearean themes and tropes. But one of the basic notions of the Bloom book has to do with man reflecting upon himself out loud and in public (in a theatre, on stage). Dante was antiquity…Shakespeare the cusp of modernity. Note the change of how character is presented.

The potential for Shakespeare in Winters Bone I suspect is high. Only from a pov wedded to poverty and degredation, and a de-romaticized notion of labor, can that moral weight be carried.

One of the virtues of Brokeback Mountain was its examination of working class life in the American West. That was actually what upset Americans…not gay kissing, but honest assesment of alienated labor.

Alienation is worth a discussion as well…since it might be a worthy venture to look at the precursors of the modern alienation as it appears in Shakes.

Ok, thats all….oh, and lets keep in mind the difference between a fan and a critic. Between a film enthusiast and a critic……or a reviewer and critic. Fans simply envoke agreement…and reviewers tend to want to keep contained that which, in real art, is not containable. Critics traffic in that which exceeds itself.

Reviewing will want to push things outside….off the canvas and to keep them in a domesticated sort of definition. A critic wants to seek out what has escaped. Calasso is a great one for that.

Ok, well, more soon.

—John Steppling