Archive for April 2010
Many Internet nerds have expressed their impotent, sweaty rage and disgust at something Roger Ebert said about videogames recently. Not so I! Gamers are convinced Ebert is arguing disingenuously, from untenable premises, or goes too far — but in fact, his mistake is that he doesn’t go far enough. If he’d only had the courage of his beautiful, unshaking convictions, he would no doubt have arrived at the point I’m about to propose: that cinematography cannot possibly be considered “art”.
It is necessary to establish our terms before we go any further. We could squabble about definitions and criteria all day — perhaps learning something about the history of art and artists in the process, or touching upon how inclusion in the realm of “art” has always been so contingent on the question of authorship — but why bother? Roger Ebert has already proposed a qualification for art with which I wholeheartedly agree: it is, he says, a matter of taste. Not just any taste, mind. It must necessarily be a taste capable of recognizing that Cormac McCarthy is literature, while Nicholas Sparks is toilet paper. This, again, is unquestionable. We must accept this formulation, lest we be bogged down in nonsensical postmodern — or, God forbid, Marxist — babble about critical establishments, priviledged high priests of interpretation, the politics of canon and sociologies of art.
Art — let us repeat Ebert’s formulation, so simple, and yet so true — is when I point at something and say, “This is art“.
This, however, is where Ebert stumbles. We can hardly fault him — his love for what he considers to be artistic cinema is profound, abiding and well-documented. Nevertheless, we cannot shirk the task of advancing his critique further than his prejudicial sentiment will permit him. It needs to be said: film is a third-rate form of communication, which deserves about as much regard from connoiseurs of culture as tightrope-walking or stage illusion.
Cinema, since its beginnings, has been a derivative and uninspired medium. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem — those famed early “masterpieces” of German Expressionism — are hopelessly indebted to the Gothic tradition of European fiction; scarcely anything about them can be said to be original. The tropes explored, the imagery, the narrative devices employed–all those are lifted wholesale from previous written works. No reasonable person could doubt that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with its richness of possible interpretations and literary allusions, is vastly superior to any one of those.
Metropolis will no doubt be trotted out as a counterexample. Unfortunately, everything that has been said about the rest of German Expressionism applies to Metropolis tenfold: it is derivative of the Gothic genre, the dystopian science fiction that was emerging at the time — H. G. Wells comes to mind — and a grand example of the pernicious tendency of priviledging form over content that grips film to this day. From Metropolis to Avatar, the main selling point of movies has been their spectacular grandeur, a grandeur that — in both those cases, and most others in between — draws the stupefied viewer’s attention away from either a paucity of content or, more often, objectionable ideological work being done by the narrative. Avatar is a late colonialist story; Metropolis is a National Socialist story.
Whenever cinema has taken a swipe at proper artistic expression, it has always been through imitation and borrowing. The acclaim accorded to Ingmar Bergman has a very good reason: he was a stage director first and foremost, and the appeal of his movies is due solely to their unmistakably theatrical qualities. Stanley Kubrick relied heavily on the novel, but could not attain a satisfactory imitation of it; nothing in Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket can stand up to the depth, relentlessness, wit and imagination of Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five. Not even Rutger Hauer and Harrison Ford working together could ruin Blade Runner, because to do so would require that every trace of Philip K. Dick’s insane, drug-fueled genius be erased from the story and imagery. Lars von Trier’s Dogville is essentially a stage production recorded on film, as is Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth. Spike Lee‘s excellent Do the Right Thing could easily pass for a documentary, and documentary movies, as Ebert notes, are hardly deserving of being called art. Wajda‘s The Sewer is just national hagiography, heavily inspired by the Romantic poetry of Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Norwid.
There are further, more uncomfortable questions that we must ask. What of authorship? Who gets to take credit for The Matrix, heap of steaming shit and overwrought symbolism that it is? The directors, or the CGI people? Is Casablanca a Michael Curtiz movie, or a Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman movie? Who even remembers the directors and scriptwriters of Fred Astaire musicals?
And what about the near-insurmountable barriers that independent filmmakers have faced ever since Hollywood’s dominance on the market was established? What of the cost of making a movie — surely only architecture can surpass cinematography in terms of budget — and the cost of marketing and distribution? What about the fact that before the advent of the digital camera, independent filmmaking was all but impossible? What about the profit motive hanging over the heads of writers and directors; how can artistic expression possibly flourish in an industry so strictly constrained by market research and current trends?
All of the films I mention above are interesting; none of them are art. How do I know this? Well, I just do, because I have the kind of taste that Ebert speaks of, but himself sadly lacks. It is not entirely his fault that his literary education has consisted of the worst sort of 1950s science fiction drivel, and on these grounds he must be forgiven for his errors of discernment. How can one expect this kind of hapless boor to know that Apocalypse Now is equal parts Eliot and Conrad, and the work Coppola performs upon their texts is just an afterthought to their fascinating modernist edifice? We can rest assured, however, that had he the means to overcome his unfortunate handicaps, he would not have hesitated one second to subscribe to this view.
It is sad that a man of considerable gravity, with a hefty sense of his own importance, has wasted his life in the service of a Muse that he is unable to recognize as false. Let us all think fondly of Ebert. There, but for the grace of God, go we.
You’d think that the title is a setup for a particularly macabre and irreverent joke, but no*. This is the question that has, apparently, divided Poland in the last few days. The idea is that Kaczyński is going to be buried in the crypts under the Wawel Cathedral, the traditional place of internment for the earthly remains of kings and national icons, notably including Piłsudski, Kościuszko, Sobieski and other bigwigs. Many people were quick to oppose this idea, an impromptu protest was staged, I can’t hardly go anywhere without overhearing some people arguing about the proper manner of getting rid of the body.
It’s all very confusing, especially since the usual pros and cons that get brought up time and again are so interchangeable. Don’t, he’s not enough of a national hero. Do, we need to get over petty rivalries in a time of national mourning. Don’t, he was a longtime resident of Warsaw. Do, he is now symbolically a martyr of Katyń. Don’t, this is politically motivated. Do, the opponents are politically motivated.
How do you make sense of all this? Well, you don’t, without some broader frame of reference, and that frame is Polish nationalism.
It’s a simple enough thing to grasp once you think about it: to argue about whether this particular corpse has the right to be enshrined in the vaults of the national imagination, both sides of the discussion need to share an assumption that some corpses do deserve that honour, and others don’t. The conversation then boils down to the question: which nationalism is the right one? The one that admits Kaczyński to the halls of national fame, or the one that bars him?
This, again, is a futile conversation, because nationalism is a tremendous, chimerical beast that contradicts itself. It can easily accomodate both Kościuszko, the proto-abolitionist and classical liberal in the best sense of the term, and Piłsudski, the authoritarian dictator. It can include, without being immediately torn apart by sheer historical irony, both the vile racist Dmowski and the vaguely liberal, nerdy Narutowicz. As long as enough people can agree on the “greatness” of a particular figure, regardless of what that figure stands for, nationalist mythology will welcome it with open arms.
Nationalism has its uses. Throughout the world, especially in Africa and India, it has proven itself to be extremely effective in anticolonial struggles. It’s only when decolonization and sovereignty are achieved that the ugly underside of nationalism becomes painfully apparent–through the mythologization of incompetent and corrupt leaders as Fathers of the Nation, the ethnocentrism, the quasi-mystical legitimation for any and all state-perpetrated violence, the militarism, the cult of triumphant masculinity.
To some degree, these tendencies are curbed or obscured in the so-called “mature democracies” of the West, but they are always present, ready to erupt from underneath the surface of polite and civilized debate at times of tension and crisis. There isn’t a single nation-state in the world that hasn’t seen this happen, in one form or another, and as long as there are nation-states, such outbursts are inevitable. And whatever your opinion on the usefulness or justifiability of nation-states might be, they’ll be around for a long, long time yet.
It makes sense to get angry and exasperated about nationalist myth-making. I certainly can’t handle The News right now; the onslaught of vicious bullshit, overinflated sentiment and self-important grandstanding is simply overwhelming, as is the hypocrisy. The anti-Kaczyński website Spieprzaj, dziadu (“Get the fuck out, you old shit” in loose translation, named after something the late president said to a detractor after a campaign meeting in 2002), is closing up shop, not with a vitriolic bang of “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”, as you might expect from the name, but with a whimper of acknowledgement of “the greatest tragedy of post-WWII Poland.” Not a lot of people are missing Anna Walentynowicz, either.
What’s more useful than getting pissed, however, is trying to understand the situation. There’s a lot of third-rate analysis being churned out by all sorts of news outlets–bombastic sounds are being made about Polish-Russian reconciliation, for instance, without putting the (admittedly groundbreaking) symbolic gestures in the context of Russian economic and political interests in Europe. It’s business as usual, of course, but anyone at all interested in politics would do well to take a much closer look at this entire clusterfuck.
*) It would have been, actually, but I can’t think of a good enough punchline.