Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
The inimitable @Astrophilia wrote a good post about Joss Whedon ages ago, and I decided to repost it here, because it turns out there are still people unaware of these basic facts. Also because it’s a great post, check this out:
Firefly has been a point of contention for Internet Feminists™ ever since Alecto first wrote about it in her usual inflammatory style. Unfortunately people were unwilling or unable to look past her accusatory remarks and occasional grasping to see some of the really spot-on points she had made: the problematic nature of having a black woman constantly call a white man sir long after they have both left the military; the ‘happy hooker’ myth being perpetuated repeatedly; the constant objectification of Zoe by her own husband; the troubling remarks by Mal towards Kaylee. It goes on.
You really ought to read The Maltese Falcon. Not because it’s well-written and a blast to read, or interesting as a prototype of the detective thriller genre. You ought to read it because of the fascinating knot of meanings represented by the novel’s eponymous macguffin.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously, if you care for such things.)
What is the Maltese Falcon? Let me quote at length:
‘[The Knights Hospitaller] were rolling in wealth, sir. You’ve no idea. None of us has any idea. For years they had preyed on the Saracens, had taken nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivories — the cream of the cream of the East. That is history, sir. We all know that the Holy Wars to them, as to the Templars, were largely a matter of loot.
‘Well, now, the Emperor Charles has given them Malta, and all the rent he asks is one insignificant bird per annum, just as a matter of form. What could be more natural than for these immeasurably wealthy knights to look around for some way of expressing their gratitude? Well, sir, that’s exactly what they did, and they hit on the happy thought of sending Charles for the first year’s tribute, not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers. And — remember, sir — they had fine ones, the finest out of Asia.’
This is really extremely transparent, isn’t it? The falcon stands for the spoils of the Crusades, extracted from the Muslim world by fire and sword.
Initially, the book is “about” early 20th-century San Francisco’s seedy underside, where you can’t tell a lawyer from a fence, or a crime lord from the District Attorney. Everyone implicitly understands the rules of the genre: it transports us to a city bled dry of colour, shrouded in perpetual fog, populated by cynical men and treacherous women. Perhaps Dashiell Hammett’s contemporaries could have read it as taking place in the actual, real-world San Francisco; in the year 2011, that reading is no longer possible. All other things being equal, it might as well have been set in a galaxy far, far away.
The falcon, however, swoops into that self-contained little world, bringing with it something unthinkable: history. We are forcefully yanked out of our escapist fantasy about the handsome, ruthless, pleasantly Satanic detective and find ourselves in a completely different story. We’re still watching cops and gangsters, but their petty squabbling is recontextualized as a result of, at the very least, 500 years of human history: warfare and pillage and trade and theft and colonisation. The falcon makes visible the unseen forces driving the conflict.
What’s so exciting about this is the specificity. The statuette isn’t just some vaguely precious thing; it quite explicitly represents vast, inconceivable amounts of blood money. What an absolutely capital notion.
But the best part? When the bird finally appears, so to speak, in the flesh, it isn’t even the real one. Casper Gutman has stolen a fake; the real priceless falcon remains in the hands of Kemidov, the Russian general. The petty crooks have chased it relentlessly for years, pinned all their hopes on it, patted themselves on the back for outsmarting the “stupid soldier” — all for nothing. And even confronted with this failure, Gutman vows to continue his pursuit! (Presumably it doesn’t matter, as Sam Spade immediately hands him over to the cops. Nominally for murder, but that’s incidental; the text makes it clear enough that his actual crime was against the general’s property.)
I’m sure I don’t have to belabour this point. The golden bird remains elsewhere, in Constantinople, in a rich man’s mansion, and those who dared imagine it could ever be theirs are well and proper fucked.
There are two more big things to talk about in the novel — the significance of “The East/Asia/Orient/the Levant” and the gender politics — and I might come back to that in another post. Or not, who knows.
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.