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.
It would be interesting to see how this relationship would hold true when the artist is both completely authentic and also on the right wing—Pound, a good example, but also Eliot and Celine. The culture shields itself in exactly the same way, would be my guess. Either by canonizing or destroying or dismissing the artist. The solidarity of artists crosses ideological boundaries for these reasons. Sartre supports Genet; Mailer goes to bat for Abbot (and what went wrong there is something else again.)

Again, the gauge is really whether or not the critic is writing from a place of good will toward the artistic enterprise and appearances here can be deceptive.

Sarris’ list is intriguing. I could move people around from one category to another. Good to see Boeticher up there. And I wonder if Val Lewton comes with Tourneur. To me Nick Ray doesn’t age well. Neither really does Losey. I hear you about Eisenstein but I never actively enjoy his films despite the visual splendor. The fringe category is much more central to me and would need to include Godard, Bresson, Dreyer, etc. And where are the Japanese, etc. I guess the focus is American here?

The less than meets the eye category is interesting. I used to find Huston kind of clunky or something but his films hold up in an interesting way to me. Fat City? Sierra Madre? Lean also would be hard to defend on some level but his films haven’t aged too badly. He’s middle brow, definitely, but just in terms of film artistry something is going on there. Where the hell is Peckinpah on this list? An interesting corrective to Lean.

One last note about Kubrick is that I really do view him as an outlier to film history and not central at all. His films were popular despite their, to me, very radical content. There’s no lyricism there, and the emotional content is always conditional in an odd way…he’s all shell, no mollusk, as I said. I won’t defend him to those who dislike the work but at the risk of driving everyone crazy I do have to question an easy dismissal of him as middle brow as it feels inaccurate to me.

Just to underscore how this works with reference to new art we’re familiar with as a group. I go hear Phantom Luck being read and it forces me to subtly re-evaulate Pinter’s legacy, to choose just one example. It’s not that the play is Pinteresque really…but just that the direct address John uses to such good effect suggests to me that I’ve given Pinter a little too much credit for forging the path out of the cul-de-sac Beckett’s work lead us into. Just a little too much credit, perhaps, but the point is how Phantom Luck has revised the position of Pinter’s work.

—Guy Zimmerman

Im not sure I accept the idea of agendas and so forth…or rather, I suppose we could say everyone has an agenda and leave it at that. But i reject the idea that critics are motived by covert aggression toward art.

Adorno wrote of aesthetic theory, and he also wrote a good deal of criticism (primarily about modern music) and I would hesitate to say he harbored aggression toward art since he spent most his adult life defending art and debating its cultural and political importance. For Adorno, a degraded culture led to the barbarism of national socialism. Benjamin too wrote a lot of criticism. We are inching into a semantic argument here. Defining these terms. Now, reviewers are another story. Corporate lackey hacks—resentful and without talent—YES, they are aggressive toward art.
But the best of critics, from Mathew Arnold to William Empson, to Pound or back to Carlyse,  Kermode, or Pope. Or a Norman O. Brown—a theorist, but in the end a critic as well; none exhibit to my mind a hostility to art.  I worry a good deal about the post modern moment in terms of criticism. That whatever one wants to define as post modernism (and does it even exist? or is it just warmed over late modernism?) the rise of a certain kind of hostility to art came with the ascension of relativism and destruction of the idea of canons and meta-narratives of historical progress. So in that sense, there is a hostility to art, but I dont think it need reside in all critics as a pre-condition for wanting to write criticism. Also, that po mo hostility came mostly from tenured academia…both in France and the US.

That theoretical turn is something I want to write a good deal more about.

But for now, let me add a couple Sarris thoughts. Joseph Losey is an odd director. I think his Pinter films (Accident, The Servant, and The Go Between) hold up fine, in fact look better than ever. The rest of his work I’m not so sure about. He was not a strong willed talent—he was a sophisticated man of taste and an internationalist—a guy who moved about without a burning need to create film. But he did have taste and intelligence.Nick Ray, man, I dont know.  In A Lonely Place is a masterpiece. A nearly perfect film and my favorite Bogart performance. The rest of Ray, im unsure about. Some are outright bad at this point—but like Wind Across the Everglades and King of Kings, there were mitigating circumstances. Ray was an artist though, I think. Im just not sure he ever really solved his predisposition toward melodrama. Not the way a Sirk (or Fassbinder) did. Not even how an Antonioni did. (And yes Sarris’ book is about American Film).

Peckinpah has always seemed overrated to me. Sarris gives him a footnote. Not that I dont enjoy some of his work, but in the end he fails himself, fails his own ambitions. As for John Huston; I would say he has aged very badly, with the exception of Maltese Falcon and Treasure of Sierra Madre and in both those cases Huston had nearly perfect casts and good scripts. Look at Wise Blood or even Fat City today and you see the problem I think.  Good work, a temperament for art but maybe not the intelligence. He is a bit like Oliver Stone that way (who at least had the brains to do positive documentaries about Chavez and Castro). Huston cannot be totally dismissed, but I cant think of any but those two films I first mentioned as being of lasting value.

The Sarris is on American film, and even where he includes a Bunuel, its his american work (meaning essentially Robinson Crusoe, a film i happen to quite like). So no Dryer or Ozu et al. This was a gloss on the Cahiers critics embracing of American genre film, mostly. And cashier was important in a sense as a companion to Frankfurt School thinking on culture. Cahiers knew Young Mr Lincoln was reactionary, but they saw deeper values hidden in there. They knew Capra was reactionary—but they wanted to tweeze apart his mise en scene as it relates to representations of character in film. Fascists can be great artists; as you pointed to with a mention of Celine. And thats a very intriguing topic as well. But the film noir made by emigre German jews (mostly, though Lang wasnt strictly speaking jewish) brought with it a paranoia and distrust of the state one doesnt see in hawks noirs or even in Aldrich, or Ray. Its why I think they hold up better. But that is part of why criticism matters—to clarify and point out those connections. How German jews escaping Hitler worked with Black Mask dime novelists like Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis and Jim Thompson. That near nihilism you find in Thompson found its perfect expression in directors like Lang. There is a new version of The Killer Inside Me coming out this year.  It will be fascinating to watch it and think back to the late forties and the best work being done by Lang, Siodmak, Wilder and Tourneur.  Thats the role of critics I think, and I dont see any hostility in it per se.

—John Steppling

No, Norman O. Brown is not a critic, but, in the world of cinema, where we are presently residing, how about Norman Bates?

He neatly destroyed in a few minutes (that are known to more people today than they know the history of the world in the 20th century) what had gone before in cinema. Hitler? Oh, they know the name but, clearly, lack knowledge of what his role was. But Hitchcock? Everyone knows something about Hitchcock.They may get wrong what the essence of Hitchcock is, but they’ll be more right about what he did than, when asked, what Hitler did. Hitchcock made movies. He could be a poet (Vertigo, as the most self-conscious example) but he could change the course of cinema by slaying in a shower the so-called star of the film a mere third of the way through. I don’t know the answer as to whether Vertigo or Psycho is the better film, but my guess is that, while Vertigo represents Hitchcock better as a visionary and poet, Psycho destroys, for a minute, film criticism and is, anyway, part of the body of work of a genuine film artist.
The Sarris book was my bible for a long time, but I think I have changed far more than Sarris has in the past twenty years. I like him now almost more for his funny takes on the likes of such directors as Mervyn LeRoy than for his assessment of the virtues of his personal (and, with time, more and more impersonal) pantheon. Remember, above all, that it is THE AMERICAN CINEMA and the greatest artists in cinema add up to Fringe Benefits in Sarris’s view, or disappear completely if they never worked on an American film. Sarris has altered his views on Kubrick and Wilder and I think that if he were to write the book today, they would be in his Pantheon. But his taste in recent years indicate that some other names might appear who one might seriously question. Does he like Wilder and Kubrick more because he has learned to appreciate them or is it because their stature as artists has been universally accepted?
Remember too that the book is a response to the Cahierists, but he doesn’t get nearly as radical as Chabrol or Rohmer or Godard (closer I think to Truffaut if one is to make comparisons). He was also writing for Film Culture and was, along with Bogdanovich (of all people), one of the few, guided I’m sure by the likes of Jonas Mekas and the Cinema 16 crowd, to praise the films of Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford when their major films of the period were dismissed by the critical establishment (and that includes The Searchers, Vertigo, Rio Bravo to name just a few). Sarris was also the editor of the short-lived but exceptional English-language version of Cahiers du Cinema. And I personally admired Sarris for being the only reviewer to hate Shop on Main Street, naturally enough because I hated the film too at the time (I think less unkindly of it today but it still doesn’t mean so much). But he understood only indirectly what was at the heart of Manny Farber’s criticism: a genuine feeling for termite art, a protest against the bloated projects which America was more and more calling Cinema when indeed it was mostly junk.

BARRY LYNDON, directed by Stanley Kurbrick, with Ryan O'Neal

A final word on Kubrick. If he made no other film than Barry Lyndon. he would be in my pantheon of great film artists. I have never sat through that film without having a brand new epiphany. I am in a constant state of surprise. And yet what do you say about a director when, if you just list the titles of his films. there would seem to be no consistency of vision? That he is the quirkiest of all film directors. That the vision was on the screen, not in his head. The problem most people seem to have with Barry Lyndon is Ryan O’Neal in the same way that Martine Carol puzzles people who try to like Lola Montes but can’t stand her. I actually understand the objections (I shared those points of view myself), but I have now seen both films enough times to feel that O’Neal and Carol are intrinsic parts of what it is Kubrick and Ophuls are after. They’d be different films without them and I’m not sure they would be better films. If Lolita isn’t the great film it should have been, I think it’s because the novel is about America and its influence of sex and stupidity over European tastes, and England can never be a substitute for the road life of the US with all its motels and chains etc etc, so, unless you consider that a minor quibble, Lolita is pretty damned extraordinary and it seems to get better with time. Again, most of Kubrick’s films were severely underappreciated when first released which may be the real reason they are now considered revolutionary. Now they are all considered masterpieces and at the same time they remain, to a film, not very likable. I remember defending Eyes Wide Shut for hours; I no longer remember the discussions or arguments and, worse, I don’t remember the film very much (except that I liked his soundstage New York better than the real thing, the opposite of what I feel watching the fake America of Lolita).

When you talk about your classes not responding to Preminger, it might be noted that when Sarris showed Preston Sturges’s films to his classes, they yawned at all the same things Sarris and his audiences laughed at hysterically in the 40s. We no longer understand verbal wit (it’s almost like Shakespeare to contemporary audiences), let alone visual wit. So the likes of Lubitsch, Wilder, Sturges, McCarey don’t (and probably can’t) exist today. Too bad.


—Harvey Perr

Well, let me begin with Harvey’s post and then backtrack to Guy’s response.

Sarris, as I stated a couple of times at the start of all this, has lost his mind. He has little of his not insignificant insights left…and I think the less said about his late work the better. I also said he cribbed from Cahiers du Cinema. Rather a lot, in fact. So…there seems to be this confusion about lists and canons (no Guy I don’t want a hard and definite canon…where did that idea come from?). Sarris used them for his purposes. The book was written before 1970…so obviously it would be different today. The point is what he saw then. His take on Kubrick was for me his most pleasing insight…and was unpopular even then.  Kubrick (and boy am I tired of writing about Kubrick) has perfected (had, I guess) the sort of Rorschach film (though Lynch comes close in a different way). I’ve liked, in a tepid sort of way, fragments from Kubrick films, but in the end I’m not sure they add up to much. I mean Gunn’s take on The Shining was quite good. Kubrick really sort of just did King’s book and King’s narrative tropes. I’ve never understood why anyone liked Barry Lyndon. But clearly people I respect do, All I can say is that Kubrick for me is master of tricking out shallowness as if it were deep…and in a sense the audience supplies their own second tier narrative. Maybe that’s a sign of genius, I don’t know.

Preston Sturgis I didn’t even try to show to my class. I know the limits. One of the things I noticed most over five years there was how hard it was for most of them, the students, to follow complex narrative. So a film like The Big Sleep, or a film like Out of the Past, even, are experienced as very difficult to track. I spoke with an editor for French TV…who said she had no problems editing films made after 1980 …editing for TV…because it didn’t much matter what you cut out. But a film from the late forties or even early fifties took three times as long. The story and character were so much detailed and dense.

So how does one evaluate these shifts? I’m sure S loves Sam Mendes these days…that would be my guess. So now he likes Kubrick,? well mores the pity. But the point is that some shifts…students not having the verbal skills to laugh along at Sullivan’s Travels, is one thing, but students liking stuff like Donnie Darko is quite something else. Or Sin City. This is why I still maintain Sarris is highly valuable But I think this book runs into, or slams into, certain agreements this culture of 2010 has adopted as received wisdom—and hence its easier to call him dated or something. His take on Force of Evil is dead on. Same with Boorman’s Point Blank (and not many people were talking about Point Blank in this way in 1969). As for Fringe Benefits…this was his book on AMERICAN cinema…and since Antonioni and Buneul didn’t make many english language films, he put them in that category. Whats wrong with that?
I feel like this Sarris apologist (the S of the late sixties)…but honestly, maybe people really need to re-read whats in this book. And as I say I defy you to find inconsistencies. He has his take…and in my mind its worth understanding it.
Now—Norman O. Brown IS a critic in my mind and I’m going to defend that one.  But he’s not a reviewer. Adorno actually wrote reviews of music for a long while. These categories overlap. What is Pound doing in ABC of Reading? We all agree Pauline Kael is a critic…right?  Is Geoffrey O’ Brien? Is Updike a critic? Or Gass?  I would say yes to all of them. Everyone needs to lose this idea of reviewing as any sort of defining characteristic of criticism. Was David Foster Wallace a critic? Yeah, often.

Anyway, O. Brown wrote the deepest critique of Freud ever written probably—and in Love’s Body he essentially is critiquing the place that should be occupied by a number of classics (as he continues on doing a good many other things as well). Anything that dissects seriously a cultural work—is probably a critic or engaging in criticism.
As for being overly harsh—au contraire—I would say hardly harsh enough.  I mean Fat City has ONE good scene. The old Mexican boxer pissing blood and then walking alone down the corridor to the exit, and before he reaches the door they turns the lights out on him. Great. Poetic. Painful. The film over all suffers from a lack of knowledge about boxing, first off, and second it is again, as with most Huston,  amiss in the balance of the narrative—its hard to articulate.  Wise Blood, while entertaining and with great performances from Harry Dean Stanton and Brad Douriff, is a pretty bad film. It’s certainly a film that fails to grasp what is going on in the O’ Conner novella. No, I think harsh is fine. Fuck me, I wish people were more and more harsh.

Here are some directors (since we are talking film) that I think are useless and simply without ANY value. Sam Mendes, Atom Egoyan, Robert Redford.

Ok, back to Huston. He has his place in cinema history. He made Maltese Falcon and he did Treasure of Sierra Madre. He also made the following: The Barbarian and the Geisha, The List of Adrien Messenger, Casino Royale, Freud, and Moby Dick.  All utterly awful. Well, ok, he did The Misfits, which is of interest primarily due to casting, and he did Night of the Iguana…which holds up ok, but again had casting coups, and he did Reflections in a Golden Eye—a genuine oddity, but in the end a rather interesting film, and with a highly interesting Brando and a great Brian Keith performance. But one might take issue, in the end, with a certain filmic clumsiness. I always feel Huston is somehow given a pass for often terrible work.  Same as Clint Eastwood seems to have permanent pass.

Now, I think Sarris is wrong about Wilder, and certainly about Robert Rossen, and is overly harsh on Richard Brooks (though his points are well taken) and I think undervalues Mankiewicz. He overrates Borzage and LaCava…..but I dig that he promoted them in a sense.  In 1969 this kind of discussion was totally new to american film addicts. Sarris has decided limitations. Even circa ’69. That is clear. He can be bitchy and a bit too effete for his own good, but he provides a lot of insights. I’m curious who one might read today?

And taste is obviously a relative shifting thing. Harvey likes Lolita and I think it’s just awful. I mean, perhaps I’m too much a fan of Nabokov. I don’t know.But again, maybe we need to define critic. I’ve listed people I consider critics. I stand by those names. Aesthetic Theory was not all Adorno wrote—and Benjamin’s essays on photography amount to works of criticism. I think it’s just that we live in an age of sound bite consumer advocacy —if you like lemon tarts you will LOVE the Bourne Cornflake. Whatever. I think its very hard to say who is a critic and who is not…for then we better really try to define criticism. I think the attention Sarris brought to directors like Hawks and Lubitsch, and to Hitchcock, and odd balls like Byron Haskin—and his insistence of certain defining qualities, is something profoundly missing today. It’s not about ‘great art’ or canons or any of that…its about learning to read films. I think Curtis White’s writings on film the only stuff out there right now…and sometimes O’ Brien. Sarris gives younger cinefiles more tools to see why Atom Egoyon sucks, why Mendes can’t handle actual narrative , and why Redford is just totally wasting good celluloid.

If people come to cinematheques to learn about film—then a Sarris is highly valuable.

So I agree with Guy, that new art—that which will have lasting value—tends to disrupt the canon…tends to make you see something you have seen before in a new way. And one learns a good deal from that. Why is the British new wave aging so poorly?  I’m not sure, but I’m sure it is. Why did so few of those Brazilian new wave films ever stick in western brains (How Tasty was My Little Frenchman is a masterpiece…but try to find it). An age where “art” (meaning entertainment and corporate product) is encouraged if its reinforces the values of the ruling class and by extension the system, is going to have a hard time with films like Who’ll Stop the Rain or even with a minor, but excellent Viet era noir, Cutter’s Way. Or with Fassbinder or with a Dumont. Something happened to petit bourgeois taste — it shifted to academia for one thing……getting a reinforcement from the critical acumen of the tenured class. That group certainly didn’t want Fassbinder, and they did want the more formal exercises in form that a Greenway or a Sokurov bring to things. Greenway at least has some consistent vision at work, but the point is that a too blood filled and/or operatic style—especially if sincere and not laden with irony—is going to be resisted. There are paradoxes aplenty here. That Sirk spawned a Todd Haynes for example, can’t be blamed on Sirk (can it?)/ Can we blame Ray Carver for two generations of Iowa Writers Lab copies? I don’t know exactly.

STREET OF SHAME directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

There is a japanese genre director I quite like , Kenji Kurosawa. Part of what I like about him is his awareness of Mizoguichi and of american comic books. But he brought something else to these influences—and the result is quite original and quite different from a Tarrentino—a director who shared a lot of the same influences. THAT would be a great double bill. Kill Bill and Cure.
I leave it there for now.

—John Steppling

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