plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Monday, May 02, 2005

Viva Cinema Stupido...Somewhat

By now I'm sure that most folks have read the article by Ron Rosenbaum that Tom Spurgeon linked to over the weekend and had a chance to react in their own ways. If not, go ahead and take the time now. I'll wait.

Done? Good. Now, by this time you're probably confused, enraged, or elated by what you've read (or who am I kidding, you don't care one way or the other), and you're eagerly awaiting a screed in which I lay out my wholesale endorsement or dismissal of the article like some others are providing (in fairness to Tom, all he did was put up one line of the thing as his quote of the week, and didn't really say much else about it. Hardly a wholesale endorsement,I suppose). Well, I'm not going to do that. What I'm going to do is wade in and engage the piece in what I hope is an interesting dialogue, as there are parts of it that I agree with and parts that I don't.

This whole article really seems to amount to a taste issue for the most part, but with some extra barbed comments thrown in just because a discussion of taste apparently can't be had wihout those. I don't want to provoke anyone, or bust anyone's chops, but really...relax. The fate of cinema as we know it is not at stake, nor is the position of the nerd in lay society.

Now, having never seen the Kill Bill films myself, I can't really comment directly on them. What I'm picking up from Rosenbaum's reaction is that they are immature and stupid, but fairly stylish (which is what I suspected, which is why I haven't seen them. I am not the demo, here), which bores him, and he resents that there are people who enjoy them and provide critical responses to that effect. To such a thing I would say, again, relax. There is no last word on the subject of critical taste in films. Constructive dialogue, therefore, is always possible. And besides, I love a number of things that people find boring and am bored by a number of things that some people love. As a matter of fact, I may be boring someone right now. So what? Am I ruining it for anybody? Please, speak out now!

I give Rosenbaum points for disliking pseudo-mythic stuff in these films, but only because I also dislike anything in fiction being taken to the level of the mythic (I know that the mythic is already fictional, but what I specifically hate is trying to tie a given narrative into some bigger master narrative that has supposedly existed throughout the ages and cultures and reveals allegedly universal themes and experiences), and I have no way of knowing whether or not Kill Bill actually does incorporate the pseudo-mythic. Generally I find that the existence of such themes is more a product of the critical response than of the art itself (but isn't everything?). What I don't understand is how this relates to comic books specifically. To clarify: in the article, one of Rosenbaum's themes is how awful the
"graphic novel sensibility" is when applied to cinema. But it seems to me that the
particular mythologizing transgression was committed by painting, poetry, incidental music, novels and probably cinema itself prior to ever having been done in comics. I may be misunderstanding. What exactly is the superhero graphic novel sensibility, anyway? All of the things that I dislike about contemporary superhero narratives, or any narrative of any kind, really, existed before superheroes.

I imagine that the later parts of the article will bring me back around to that, but for a moment I'd like to focus on another of my troubles with the article, that being this:

Still, it’s too bad if you missed it, because it was the perfect epitome of and metaphor for what I would like to call "The Cinema of Pretentious Stupidity." The eyeball-squishing represented the crushing of vision by lead-footed pretension, the blinding of creativity by referentiality. The idea that ceaseless tedious references to obscure martial-arts movies known mainly by video-store geeks adds up to art.

I’ve heard so many defenses of Kill Bill that depend on the apparently marvelous and unheard-of-before wonder of its referentiality. Dude, just because you make a reference—or many references—doesn’t make it meaningful or worth four hours of our time.

Repeat after me, Kill Bill fans: Referentiality itself is not an intrinsic aesthetic value. Empty referentiality, going through the motions, doesn’t make a motion picture, give cinema the gift of sight—or insight.

References are probably not, in and of themselves, art--no. But they can be a language or a tool for use in the creation of art (something that Sean also points out). And references, as tools, have the benefit of being infused with residual meanings from their previous contexts as well as whatever new context that they are brought into. Now, are these reviled fimmakers taking these references and using them to create things that are new and meaningful themselves? Maybe, maybe not. But isn't that for those critically responding individuals to decide? I mean, as an abstract painter, I often use this thing here and that thing over there, for no other reason than to see what happens, what it looks like, what it makes me think about. Poets do it, songwriters do it. I imagine filmmakers do it to. Does the presence of story elements place some media beyond the reach of experimentation with tools (a good question for comic readers too, by the way)? So a collection of references doesn't necessarily add up to art? Well, who's making art? For all anyone knows, these guys are shooting movies. Or maybe just constructing an ode to their idea of coolness. Where does the presumption that all cinema (or any cinema, or anything for that matter) is or should aspire to be art come in? Allow me to let you folks in on a secret that shouldn't be a secret: art is not made by artists. It's made by critical response.

Then there's this:

Sin City: One certain tip-off that a movie is too dumb to defend is the praise that’s lavished on its "look," on its stylishly fab "art direction." Same with the moronic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Many film critics, usually more verbal than visual, tend to be suckers for heavily art-directed films, because it’s a way they can show they deeply understand "the visual aspect of the medium." Remember how the profoundly worthless Madonna–Warren Beatty Dick Tracy was wildly overpraised because of, um, well, his bright yellow raincoat was really, really bright? And, like, the colors were really, really "super-saturated" (sounds cinematically knowledgeable). As if that alone made it art.

Again, I agree that stylishness itself does not necessarily make something good. What I'm not sure of is why it's so bad to praise someone, in this case the art directors and designers, etc., for doing a good job. If something about an otherwise not very good movie turns out to be great, isn't a critic justified in pointing that out? I think that to say that critics who praise the visual aspect of a film are just trying to look smart is, to put it charitably, disingenuous (I also happen to think that to say a critic who decries a film he thinks is dumb does so because has an axe to grind against middle class white nerds is also a bit disingenuous, though.). Why does anyone feel the need to speculate on what any critic's "true motivations" are? Isn't it enough to address the content of the text as-is? The problem with playing "Uncover the Hidden Agenda" is that there's usually not much available in the text itself to support such assertions, except through the subjective reading of the very person making that assertion. Which is fine, I suppose, but does little to illuminate the discussion of the works at hand. Pick any thread with more than 100 posts on the Comics Journal message board for an illustration of what I'm getting at.

Now, onto the comic-superhero-mythology-is-the-new-avant-garde business. What? What does that even mean? It's dropped into the article with little or no context, and then the article goes on using the idea as the central point to explain something else. Tell me, Rosenbaum: what does "bourgeois avant-garde" mean? Avant-garde itself has become a completely meaningless term. Sure, it may have at one time stood for something transgressive and shocking and different. But after a while, doing something transgressive in artistic endeavors became something of a minimum requirement, which meant that nothing could be truly transgressive. The astonishment is gone. What good is it as a descriptor? Or let's look at it another way, playing off the quote from elewhere in the article. Does anyone really ask themselves (or their peers or favorite critics), "but is it...superhero graphic novel stupid?" I mean, wouldn't someone who embraced the Stupid, as described by such phrases as
"Stupidity with Attitude" and "Stupidity as Aesthetic Statement," be asking that very thing? Put another way, does anyone really believe that the people who love these films think that they're stupid, and take pride in that fact? I'm inclined to doubt that. At most, at most, I think that they may say "it's stupid and immature and so what," more than "it's stupid and immature and that's the way everything should be." But even then, though I may personally think of the films as immature and stupid, someone else may not, and may, in fact, get loads of enjoyment from them.

To tell the truth, I would have loved this stuff (and in the case of Sin City, did love it) when I was in my late teens and early 20's. I'm not interested in it now that I'm in my late 20's, but I didn't think of myself as having had bad taste at the time, and I still don't. I was just at a place in life where I'm not now. As I said above, I'm not the audience. I'll be frank: I see these things as constructions of violent and sexual fantasies calculated to make teenage boys really excited. I don't think there's anything particularly mature or sophisticated about them, and I don't care whether there is or not. There's also nothing wrong with them. The world is complex and out of people's control. These fictions are simple in their themes and can provide some satisfying release of the frustrations resulting from living in a world where you can't just walk up to others and make their hearts explode. If they don't shine the light on the human condition, they at least shine it on something approximating what some humans occasionally wish their condition could be. In fact, the less people believe that these films have something artistic and meaningful to say to them, the better as far as I'm concerned. "Sometimes standing up for your friends means killing a whole lot of people?" Yeah, the fantasy worlds of teenagers can have that. Really.

Those of you who are still with me (and God bless you) will now see what I'm bringing all of this around to. The point of the article, after all of the yammering and bluster aboutavant-this or that, seems to be this:

I was thinking about how sad it is that the success of Sin City and the coming hegemony of the Cinema of Stupidity could blot out any remaining originality in American cinema.

What is this guy, stupid? Has the success of any type, formula, genre, or technique in cinema ever stopped original films from being made? Did the success of Star Wars, often accused of ruining American Cinema back in the seventies, truly stop inspiring,
thought-provoking, emotionally resonant films from being made here in the US? Of course not. Rosenbaum himself goes on to name drop several of them (but in this I think he's being genuine--they are all fine films). Does anyone really believe that the existence of films that they don't like threatens films that they do like? Cinema Stupido is not going to destroy Cinema Snootio. Relax.

Well, I was going to get into my thoughts on the Sin City books and how they relate to all this, but my second reading of Rosenbaum's article ruined that for me. I thank everyone for sticking with me though the post is long. If I have any other thoughts related to this topic, I'll post them. And then apologize. Profusely.

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