Saturday, March 10, 2018

Richard Brody on the Oscars as Hollywood veneer is sort of the pot calling the kettle black

 
Richard Brody can tut about the brazen self celebration of Hollywood as much as he likes.  If the Oscars developed, as he has said, as a dog and pony show to distract from the scandals in Hollywood on the subject of how rapine and predatory its power brokers were then, yes, we can readily grant nothing's changing in Hollywood if that's what he's getting at.  #metoo will be a regime change without a policy change.  Exploitation being the nature of the film industry the question could only be who gets exploited and why.  That's if Richard Brody's arguing in good faith.
 
But then we could argue that a film critic isn't capable of making such an argument in good faith by dint of being a paid film critic 
 
And in the case of Richard Brody there is, so to speak, the Clinton question.  To let him pose the nature of the question himself, Brody described what it was like for him, as a loyal Democrat, to consider the fundamental problem with contemporary liberal cinema.  
 

The independent filmmaker Ira Sachs’s drama “Keep the Lights On,” which opened on Friday, is neither an especially good movie nor an especially bad one, but it is an exemplary one. The way that Sachs tells the story—of a thirty-something Danish independent filmmaker in New York and his many years of rocky romance with a publishing executive, another young man of about the same age, who slides into drug addiction—exemplifies, with a remarkable clarity, a mode of filmmaking that pervades the industry these days, particularly among a certain kind of filmmakers. It is the prevailing arthouse way of making films, one that’s seen in such recent films (just a few of many) as Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Goodbye, First Love,” Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Olivier Assayas’s “Carlos,” Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” Dee Rees’s “Pariah,” and Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else.”
 
These films collect facts in a way that’s reminiscent of documentaries—in many ways their unadorned storytelling shades over into documentary, or, rather, to a narrow view of documentary that represents a diminution and misinterpretation of so-called cinéma vérité—meaning, with an emphasis on the observable, with the camera serving (as it does not in many of the actual documentaries of the movement) as the proverbial fly on the wall, and stripped of inner experience and fantasies, whether with images or sounds. Yet these films are not lacking in psychology—on the contrary, the collection of outer attributes and actions pin the characters to the screen with a clear set of motives.
 
The facts—whether ones that have been lived by the director or historical ones, whether told in poised images or kinetic ones, whether dealing with controversies or uncontroversial intimacies—have no mereness about them, no weighty physical opacity, no sense of the haphazard or the contingent. The movies’ factuality has been filtered through sensibilities as dramatic as they are reticent, and that reticence regarding the display of directorial intervention in the assemblage of incidents that tell the story has consequences that are both aesthetic and political.
 
With the emphasis on the external and the physical reality (little inner life or mental revelations—no fantasies, voice-overs, or hallucinatory interpolations), the filmmakers both tell a story and assert its truth, but, rather than doing so with the moral forthrightness of a foregrounded speaker bearing witness, they do so with the foreclosed self-evidence of the true believer in silent devotion. The ring of truth belongs less to the facts than to the attitudes that the filmmaker brings to them, and what these movies share is an ostensibly progressive or liberal outlook.
 
The filmmakers mistake imagination and fantasy for willful obfuscations of something called, with a quasi-religious intonation, “reality”—and in these films, the ostensible “reality” is rendered doubly “real” because of their basis in the filmmakers’ experience or in history. Their movies are not a window on the external world but a mirror—a distorting mirror that reflects back to the viewer or the critic only his or her good feelings or intentions.
 
The greatest political filmmakers, from Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Luc Godard, are masters of the imaginary. The uninhibited inner life and the power of art to delve into fantastic elements that grant characters dimensions possibly unsuited to a constructive political program are themselves aspects of a higher politics. That’s why there are so few good political films these days, and why such comedies as “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Norbit,” with their messy (even chaotic) boundary-blurring, are superior to the films listed above as approaches to hot-button issues. And, in an entirely different and grander and finer register, Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” faces the deep unpleasantness that can mark characters who are, in many ways, admirable; revels in their extravagant expressivity, whether to ecstasy or to self-destruction; and dramatizes the warping and self-warping force of the will to document the supposed facts.
 
The facts do not speak for themselves, and there’s a remarkable and disheartening correlation between those who film as if they do and those who, imbuing these facts with a built-in point of view, are unwilling to stand in front of those facts and state that point of view. The underlying question is why movies made by many filmmakers whose point of view is, by and large, so sympathetic, tolerant, and liberal (and whose point of view I tend to share, by the way) are built on such a painful narrowing of experience and a surreptitious attitudinizing—why they’re films of personal commitment that remain, nonetheless, impersonal. It’s as if filmmakers (and, for that matter, critics, playing a surreptitious role as op-ed columnists) were protecting viewers from the potential effect of nasty or regressive or hateful thoughts; their own cultivated selves are are immune from them even if angered by them, but the poor bewildered viewer needs some protection from loose ends of imagination that could potentially lead in the wrong direction.
 
The Stakhanovite values of socialist realism have given way to the mild and sentimental ones of liberal realism; but the brazen hysteria of overt propaganda is a truer framework for political art—for the representation of will, faith, and power that political action depends on—than the tacitly closed circle of self-approving sympathies. The problem is not with liberalism in cinema as such (Wes Anderson’s post-scriptural “Moonrise Kingdom” is, after all, a masterwork, and Nanni Moretti’s ferociously anticlerical “We Have a Pope” borrows its furious ending from “The Great Dictator”) but with the liberal cinema as a genre. The arena of practical politics is the place for constructive and responsible approaches to identified problems; the realm of art is the place of dangerous imagination and the vision of terrifying, or even merely uncomfortable, possibilities. And nothing undermines the actual quest for political progress like the sense that it would imply the denial or the repudiation of primal, atavistic, or impulsively unwelcome feelings.
 
Like many other Democrats and many liberals, I revelled in Bill Clinton’s speech the other night, and endorse my colleague Ben Greenman’s tweeted proposal to name him the Secretary of Explaining Things. But I haven’t forgotten the Bill Clinton of lust and shame; they’re the same great man, and putting them into the same movie together, as one, unstintingly, is the first liberal paradox—and the essential liberal principle. The rest is campaign rhetoric.
 
The same great man isn't a statement about Bill Clinton I could really agree with.  It's a little tough to forget that axiom attributed to Lord Acton about how great men are rarely ever good men. 
 
But Brody's worry is relatively simple to translate, a fear that mainstream liberal cinema had devolved to a level of self-congratulating and  cloying moralism of a sort that someone like Brody might expect of a Veggie Tales episode if he ever watched those.  The trouble with any outrage about what the current president seems to have gotten away with is what Clinton seems to have gotten away with twenty years ago.  In this respect the left seems to have had a point about the liberal mainstream as to having a lack of moral capital from which to condemn a Trump for simply being for the right what Clinton was for the Clinton-defined liberal center. 
 
Conservatives have been saying in the last few years there is a crisis inherent in liberalism itself, a trajectory within any given se tof convictions or bedrocks of a culture that is parasitically dependent upon but unable to transcend or break free from whatever the bedrock of a society is.  Conservatives in an Anglo-American or European West will tend to say ethnicity or religion are the bedrock from which a liberal tendency cannot stray too far without betraying its own capacity to give liberty to social and political subjects. 
 
A mainstream liberal film critic like Richard Brody at some point has to explain what the basis may be for consecrating consumption.  In this respect even someone like Francis Schaeffer could grant that in some ways a conservative Protestant and a Marxist could agree that truth content matters.  I don't merely joke in saying that a postmillennialist theonomist and a Marxist are more or less the same to me in terms of their respectively teleological historicisms.  I reject both on eschatological and apocalyptic grounds but you don't want to read about that.  No,  I'm suggesting that the trouble with a Brody is that the arts critic has to consecrate the kind of cultural consumption that at some point is inimical to a liberal cause in the sense that the class divide becomes too insuperable.  Only someone who writes for The New Yorker cares enough about The Oscars to care about its self-justifying ceremony ... but only a vocational film critic would think that watching movies makes you an actually better person or even constitutes a plausible defense of the Western liberal tradition.  In that sense a religious conservative like Rod Dreher might be more committed to a defense of stabilizing Western liberal traditions by dint of emphasizing what the liberal trajectory has historically operated within from a Western standpoint than a Richard Brody who has just gotten tired of reviewing movie after movie.    
 
My own ad hoc approach to film criticism and film viewing is that if at any point I feel all the movies seem to be the same that is not necessarily a sign that there are too many movies that are all the same or that there are too many movies; it's more a signal to me that I'm watching too many movies and that making stuff is also an option.  The bifurcation between critic and creative artist seems to be a problem in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  One of the ways those problems can emerge is by way of a film critic at The New Yorker complaining about the self-justifying ways of Hollywood as if being a film critic conferred some kind of lack of complicity in the empire of cinema.  There's nothing about the nature of cinema as an art form that requires it to be liberal in any way about anything.  It's not that Brody has no reason to worry that liberal cinema as a genre has become preening and pedantic, it's that I am simply suggesting that maybe the guy has watched too many movies already if he's in a position to notice such a worrisome trend.  I am just not sure what it is about Americans watching movies that makes the world a better place and I'm not sure anyone can convince me there's a way that that proposal can ever make any sense.  It's not that I don't love watching movies now and then, or watching TV, it's just that I have been relatively outspoken about my doubts about the legitimacy and viability of Western art religion of the sort that was promoted by Richard Wagner and that is at some level or another some kind of article of faith at publications like The New Yorker.  The arts might have more actual power and influence if we imputed quite a bit less power to them in principle.
 
I would propose there's another way to clarify the crisis of liberal art religion which I distilled down into a little poem, conveniently enough, for the sake of those who do love the arts but do not regard art religion in the Western liberal tradition as something to be taken at face value
 
Every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft.
 
 

No comments: