Category Archives: Aesthetics

True Grit, Social Network, and the Failure of Mythic Narrative

There is always something in the Coen Bros. movies that doesn’t congeal. Not even in No Country for Old Men, where they had the great advantage of working from a seminal text. With True Grit, they are remaking an originally bad film that only warrants notice for John Wayne’s Oscar performance (which was a belated Oscar for his majestic performance in Ford’s The Searchers, some fifteen years earlier.)

The examination of the American myth, as seen (almost entirely) from the perspective of the west (and western) remains a fascinating subject, and a durable one, and perhaps, even, today a highly resonant one. True Grit however is an overblown self important exercise in only filmic self reference. If Wayne came to embody several sides of the American character (simultaneously) then Jeff Bridges only serves as a single side — and that is best captured in the Coen Bros. best film, The Big Lebowski.

He hasn’t the basic mean spiritedness of Ethan Edwards — nor can he approach an Ahab like madness, nor anything proto — he  finally does not have that kind of gravitas. The fault in True Grit however, is not Bridges,  it is the basic lack of real artistic vision in the Coens.

Wayne was scary. Even at his most sentimental, one sensed a dark side. For True Grit to deliver us the ‘journey’ of young Maddie Rose, there needed to be a genuine fear of Rooster Cogburn. And Cogburn, because of exactly his darkness and ruthlessness, would be the man to take her across the river to the underworld that presages adulthood. The Coens seem not to have given any thought to this. Despite a good amount of dialogue about the “wildness” of the Indian territory they are crossing — one never feels a bit of unease. Matt Damon is the perfect wrong choice…..exactly the wrong actor to play the stalwart young Texas Ranger who has come for the killer of Maddie’s father, along with Rooster and Maddie. Damon continues to get cast in parts he is ill suited for….but none has been as egregiously wrong as this one.

The story itself has built in anti climaxes — and the Coens do nothing to counter this by way of delving more deeply into Cogburn and Maddie and the Ranger. There is only one brief moment…….when Damon suggests he contemplated stealing a kiss from the sleeping 14-year old Maddie, but chose against it because “she wasn’t attractive”, where one sits up and hopes we are about to go further into a dangerous place. Alas, we do not.

This is the first time Josh Brolin has bored me. And the final framing device is ill executed. The adult Maddie simply is not who we think the 14-year old would grow into. Its an odd coda to a very trite film.

Now, I link this film to The Social Network — a film I saw a month ago but have been unable to write about. I’m not sure why, but there is something slippery in the Fincher film that stops me from feeling I have any idea of exactly how good or bad it is, or even if this is quite a film in the ordinary sense. That alone might be enough to give it praise. “Might” be enough, but isn’t. The story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should contain enough political content — enough for even a rudimentary critique of everything from the institution of Harvard, to a culture of money that is linked to global finance and the remnants of Imperial conquest. Fincher seems to have chosen to steer clear of critique. A number of reviewers see this otherwise. And I won’t argue, because as I say, I don’t quite know what my emotional response was, let alone my intellectual one.

Harvard is a bastion of privilege, and the iconic University for the U.S. It is short hand for the best and brightest. Fincher does provide a creepy glimpse of education (institutional anyway) in hyper dysfunction — and his focus on odd details of daily life at the dorms is the best part of the film. The film has a taut neurotic quality, and the camera is placed in odd places, enough times anyway, to suggest Fincher was after something of a vertiginous quality. Maybe its the basic banality of the Facebook story that makes the narrative sort of evaporate. The fact that Zuckerberg is alive and still quite young may also be a contributing factor to the lack of depth — the lack of something — in the ‘story”. If we speak again of journey’s, we simply don’t have one. In 30 more years, the saga of Facebook will, no doubt, provide ample material. Right now it does not.

In both films, for different reasons, narrative is adumbrated and unable to carry its audience along to a place where inner questioning should take place. True Grit simply never thought about this, and the Coen Bros. are consistent in not caring about such things. They are facile and clever, but never visionary. The Fincher film is hard to evaluate in these terms. His best work — Zodiac, or his turn with the Alien franchise, are always smart and while emotionally distant somehow, they do create a sense of the American experience at bedrock level. The daily emptiness of lives buffeted by the culture of distraction and propaganda. The overworked and confused characters have been consistent. This seems not so in The Social Network. Now, I never saw Benjamin Button — I mean why? I assumed Zodiac made little money and Fincher needed a mainstream film to sustain his A-list status. In any event, it’s exactly the sort of film I avoid. This brings us back to narrative itself. The ever more porous storytelling of studio films. One could probably track the erosion of character in Hollywood film, from the 70s until now without a lot of effort. What we are left with is Bridges as Cogburn. Or the empty prestige films like Black Swan and The King’s Speech.

A Prophet

Still, it’s a year or two that saw films like A Prophet, Animal Kingdom and Winter’s Bone, so there is a response to this void. The mythic qualities of films like A Prophet or Animal Kingdom are there because, firstly, the stories have clear sociological and political underpinnings. That sense of fable comes only after a genuine positing of a world where the contradictions are not ignored. It’s probably, therefore, not an accident that the three films I just mentioned all deal with crime and social transgression. It is only from such recognition that a mythic dimension will find oxygen.

John Steppling

(Who owns) Aesthetics

Pasolini. Gospel According to St Matthew

“By crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as “socially useful,” it [art] criticizes society by merely existing, for which puritans of all stripes condemn it.”
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

I recently returned in my thinking, to a topic I have felt rather astoundingly ignored over the last twenty some years. Really, maybe longer than that.  It is, to put it as succinctly as possible, the question of what role art plays in society, and more, what society expects of art today in our early 21st century.

As I’ve spent no small amount of time recently, looking for employment, I’ve come across a number of examples of how confused this whole topic seems to have become. I was going to apply for work as a teacher of writing at the Red Sea Film School, in Jordan. I had never heard of this place, but it sounded sort of more interesting than other recent applications I had sent off to places like Texas A&M University, or Citrus College, or Junior Colleges in Nebraska and the Dakotas. I was, no doubt, guilty of exoticizing this foreign destination — but I have always been fascinated by Arab culture and loved my time traveling through North Africa, and I thought well, even further into the Muslim world would be a terrific place to work for a while.  What I discovered was that a PhD was required. Never mind the school is bankrolled in part by the USC Film School, but this requirement got me to thinking.

I taught for almost five years at the Polish National Film School, and I often raised this question of purpose to the rector and various professors there … usually to be met with a sullen silence. What is the role of these institutions? What do ‘they’ think their role is?

A PhD might prove a useful requirement for engineering departments (maybe) but for art schools? But this takes us directly back to the basic question. What does art do? What do artists do in a society?

The answer(s) are complex, needless to say. But art, for Adorno anyway, was a means to create a small space of freedom in a great ocean of unfreedom and domination.  One of his greatest pronouncements was that a purely aesthetic appreciation of art was pure philistinism. It was ‘pretty’ and nothing more. One can substitute entertaining for pretty, and arrive at the same conclusion. One of the interesting aspects to today’s cultural landscape is the insistence on popularity. Interestingly, Adorno felt Beethoven was too popular and that much of his work had been deadened for us by the endless adoration applied to him (along with, as is usually the case, a simplistic kitsch biography of the artist…and one could add Van Gogh or a host of others to this list). The society we live in has an enormous capacity for neutralizing art (and political thought for that matter). Art-works don’t exist in a vacuum, and a work of real value is often subsequently overburdened with praise and exposure, and this process can, and usually does, affect later readings of the work. One might argue that a litmus test for the very best work is how well it withstands the system of co-option. From Melville to Beckett, one can see those works and artists who inherently remain outside the system they (among other things) critique. This of course raises other questions. The attractiveness of certain works, their surface seductiveness, often suggests a soft and mushy core. Not always, of course. Conversely, there are works who establish their relevance through a complicated distancing in presentation. Brecht obviously thought about this a lot. So did Pasolini and Fassbinder. It’s an interesting thought experiment to examine a Akira Kurosawa, and oppose him to a Pasolini (or Fassbinder or a Godard, say). Pasolini made any number of films that are difficult to sit through. They are tedious in a sense. They are aesthetically disharmonious. Kurosawa never is, and therein lies his problem. Kurosawa may, or may not, have had something to say, but the lack of dissonance in his presentation sometimes seems to rob him of the virtues that lurk within his work.

This has a political dimension to be sure, but that’s not really the primary issue, I don’t think.  Adorno spoke of bad popular art as being an art of consolation. This runs alongside today’s belief in art as therapy, and in turn this brings us up against art as simply distraction. The best distraction being one that , you know, sort of calms you down. In the end we see a system bent on control. Social domination. An obedience factor weighs in heavily here. The desire among the bourgeois critics for ‘novelty’ and ‘the new’ seems to be a paradox. In fact, it’s not at all. Even a cursory look at what is meant by “new” will yield a fetish for the cosmetic surface of work. The culture industry (per Adorno and Horkheimer) is best at constantly recycling the surfaces of its products. Alongside this runs yet another theme of appreciation, and that is “enduring’.

I would suggest that great art needn’t have to last for ever to be meaningful. And that which does  is often junk. Its durability a sign of its complicity in the reinforcement of values of the ruling class dominating society.

So, back to The Red Sea Film School. I have no idea what goes on at this place, except I’m pretty certain the tuition is beyond the reach of most young citizens of Jordan, or neighboring countries. Whatever the case, I would ask them, as I asked in Poland; what is purpose of this school? I did get one answer to this while in Lodz, Poland, at the venerable old school, and that from a second tier administrative teacher. He said; “We want to produce film professionals, who will be comfortable on any film set in the world”.

Interesting that there was no mention of art or of artists, at what is, in theory, an art school. Then again, these institutions are no longer art schools. Maybe institutions can’t be art schools. I suspect not. I think art is antithetical to institutions of this sort. Clearly, teaching is vital, and as Adorno would say, there is no art without criticism. For him, the aesthetic experience was incomplete until it became philosophy. By which he meant, the experience was fragile and required a solid philosophical foundation from which to shore up — on a continuing basis — its potential for transcendence. Today we have little genuine criticism. And what we have is routinely derided in the mainstream media. The anti-intellectualism of this country is jaw-dropping, and it exists as part of the infantilizing of the entire culture. A society that is bombarded with Rush Limbaugh or George Will, FOX News or a threadbare academic cabal determined to, mostly, secure their tenure, is one allowing for little in the way of radically dissonant thought. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is more true today than I suspect he would ever have imagined. Loud, large, colorful and empty — these are the pre-requisites for artistic success. We produce few Strindbergs or Genets, and perhaps only in some isolated independent arenas does film seem to suggest such artistic integrity. Films such as A Prophet, or Flanders, are exceptions that, alas, prove the rule.

Art is to be taught as if artists were only useful tools for the producers of culture. And producers, whether curators or artistic directors or CEOs, all think alike. They all think like Hollywood Studio heads. With the economic crisis upon us, the use value of art is seen as almost non-existent. And questions about how art is meant to function, its purpose even, are questions usually met with hostility and anger.

The only alternative to this is to be found in a deeper understanding of the social dimension of art. Its lodged in thinkers like Adorno, or Heidegger or Ricouer. In Norman O.Brown and even in Derrida or back to Marcuse and further back to Nietzche and Kierkegaard. The basic formations of genuine Buddhist thought or Hindu, or aspects of Islam. Its not to be found in ubiquitious ad copy of Madison Avenue proles. It has to be searched for and that search means a good deal of refusal on the part of each individual embarking on this journey. The most brain deadening refrain I hear is that of “ you don’t like anything”.

No, not much, its true. But not everything. The culture of consensus is insidious and the first step to a liberation of the colonized mind is stop feeling you have to like so many things.

John Steppling

Yucca Valley