Friday, February 02, 2018

Jeet Heer and Josephine Livingstone at The New Republic discuss A. O. Scott's turn on Wood Allen and, also, Barthes

Being so underwhelmed by A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism I never finished it, I haven't read Scott much since.

A. O. Scott published an essay on Wednesday on “My Woody Allen Problem,” in which the New York Times film critic wrestled with his past defenses of the director, who is accused of sexually molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow long ago. Amid the #MeToo moment, Scott wrote, “The old defenses are being trotted out again. Like much else that used to sound like common sense, they have a tinny, clueless ring in present circumstances. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed—rather desperately, it seems to me—as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma.” Though he finds Allen’s work “ethically troubling,” Scott argued that it cannot be scrubbed from the canon because it’s “a part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people.”

My impression of A. O. Scott's overall argument is that immersing yourself in the arts or in Art makes you a better person and since criticism is the Art of interacting with Art it is a higher and more metaphysical and more righteous form of art religion.  Woody Allen's films cannot and should not be scrubbed from the cinematic canon because ... well ... I suppose we could say that once something is canonized the known character flaws of the author have to be just overlooked enough to preclude the person's work from being shorn from whatever canon his or her work has been canonized into.

I've been playing with the idea here at this blog that arts criticism is a meta level amplification of an already existing tradition of art religion in the West.  Let's demonstrate that possibility by having a meta-critical riff on critics discussing another critic who has lately discussed a film-maker.

Jeet Heer: Since you’re a cultural critic, I’m wondering what you thought about Scott’s piece on Allen and the problem of separating the artist from the art. This is an ancient dilemma, but one that has particular salience in our #MeToo moment.

Scott is making the case against an old-fashioned academic formalism (best exemplified, I think, by the New Critics who dominated literary theory in mid-twentieth century America) that holds that the biography should have no bearing on how we view a work of art. It seems like Scott might have once held that formalist position, but not anymore. Artists like Allen (and not him alone) aren’t experienced in states of pure contemplation (the way, in certain science fiction stories, an alien robot might observe human society), Scott argues. Art is part of life and we experience it as such, especially with works done by our contemporaries, who are like friends who let us inside their minds.

Scott does a good job, I think, of evoking what it felt like to grow up with Woody Allen, to have enjoyed his movies in the 1970s and 1980s when he was a cultural hero (especially, of course, if you were a nerdy boy with cultural aspirations). Allen was, Scott says, “A mentor. A culture hero. A masculine ideal.” We would now have to add: Allen was also a monster. Even if we leave aside the unproven but disturbing allegation that he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow, there is the undisputed fact that he has a sexual fixation on teenage girls (an obsession that features in many of his films) and that he had an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of his then-partner, Mia Farrow.

At the end of his essay, Scott does something really clever—perhaps too clever. He concludes that Allen’s odious behavior shouldn’t make us abandon his work but rather gives us an occasion to revisit it: “Reassessment is part of the ordinary work of culture, and in an extraordinary time, the work is especially vital and especially challenging. I will not blame you if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies. But I also think that some of us have to start all over again.”

Part of me really likes this argument because I absolutely agree that challenging art that has aesthetic merit (which I think is true of some, though by no means all, of Allen’s movies) should not be abandoned. But part of me also thinks that ending on this note really just bolsters the status quo. Allen remains at the center of the film canon, this time not because he’s a “mentor” or “cultural hero” or “masculine ideal,” but because he’s a monster. [emphases added]

Were you also bothered by the final twist of Scott’s argument?

Since this is a back and forth in The New Republic that the status quo is always, and can only be, a bad thing has to be taken for granted despite the fact that it's often more or less directly and indirectly indicated.  Were the editors and authors of The New Republic to get everything they wanted we'd live in a world in which what they wanted would be the status quo and that would be the new oppressive norm. 

But even with that jocular observation here the concern is still serious, it does seem that once something in the arts is canonized you're stuck with everything to do with the people or person who created that canonical work, whether in terms of what is actually in the work; what is read into the work that is not defensibly in the work; or what is read into the work that is defensibly readable into the work.  This has been an issue that, to be blatantly obvious about all this, Christians have had to consider for millennia.  What is and isn't extractable or implied within the canonical texts?  What do we accept or reject in terms of plausible or implausible views that could be said to be held by the authors of scriptural documents?

In a sense what all these critics talking about critics talking about Woody Allen are getting at is a problem that will inhere in the art religion of art itself and arts criticism. 
So we get to Livingston:

Josephine Livingstone: I was a little bothered by it, but not for quite the same reasons. I feel great ambivalence around this Times article. Scott deserves praise as a human being for trying to own his flaws as a critic and his struggles as a man. But I think he really wobbles on his pedestal here, for two reasons.

First, I think that he misconstrues why the formalists and the reader-response folks wanted to separate the artist from the art: They wanted to undo the artist’s monopoly over the way we talk about their art. Not hand them a carte blanche to be monsters! It’s about power, not behavior. Second, I think that Scott misses something big, which is that he—and other critics who are letting the artist’s life dictate the meaning of their works—are, in every public “reassessment,” bolstering that contested artist’s monopoly over interpretation. Again, it’s about power (as Miriam Bale has wisely been tweeting). Their power to abuse, their power to dictate the terms of the conversation, their power to define what a field like moviemaking even is.

A misconception abounds that feminists who want to bring abusers to account don’t accept Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” principle. This is not really true, at least for me. I consider Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s movies gifts, to me and to the culture—even when they’re bad—and I’m never giving them back. I don’t want Allen and Polanski to have control over their own legacies or even over their own works. If they don’t get to dictate how I interpret their films, then they don’t get to control anything about the film industry. We, the viewers, do.

It’s at this moment that Scott really loses the thread of the Barthes argument: “Part of the job of a critic—meaning anyone with a serious interest in movies, professional or otherwise—is judgment, and no judgment is ever without a moral dimension.” I think that Barthes would disagree that a critic’s assessment of a work of art has any moral dimension that touches on the author himself, because the critic is simply not concerned with the author of the work. Let’s go back and look at Barthes’s article, which is really very readable and helpful in these problems.

We haven't yet got to the point Livingston made that I thought was ... well ... actually interesting. Here we're looking at what I consider an important but, all the same, prosaic point, that artists and arts criticism tend to favor a monopoly in which the artist and the artist's work dictate the norms of reception ... assuming (which I'm not sure we even should) that the artist's work has somehow attained a canonic capacity.

So the idea that Allen and Polanski should not have control over the own legacies is, at one level, moot.  They only have legacies because people decided, by dint of giving their films attention and description and judgment via literature, legacies.   No one can really control what his or her legacy may turn out to be.

So ...

Let’s say that a filmmaker makes a film. “[Once] an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality—that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol—this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins.” (Intransitive here means that the artwork exists only in its own universe, not to deliberately produce some result in the world.) Once the artwork has entered the world, then the only way for us to really understand all its manifold meanings is to see that it “consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author ... but the reader.”

This makes perfect sense. Swap out author and reader for filmmaker and viewer. Only the viewer of a Woody Allen film can see how all the things that have come since Manhattan was made are now a part of the movie. Allen couldn’t. The viewer is the only person who can see all those messy and multiple and wonderfully infinite versions of the film. Of course Woody Allen has had intentions, but those intentions cannot be “personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.” That’s us, that’s me, that’s you.

This is not what Scott is saying at all. Not only does criticism have a moral dimension, he thinks—thereby absolutely drawing a philosophical line which runs from critic through artwork to artist—he writes that criticism is never “without a personal interest.” The thing that he finds “most ethically troubling about Mr. Allen’s work at present is the extent to which [Scott] and so many of my colleagues have ignored or minimized its uglier aspects.” I think in focusing so much on the “personal interest” side of things, specifically the way that Allen was a role model for him while growing up, he falls into a trap that Allen and many authors throughout history have set for readers/viewers.
Generally underwhelmed or annoyed as I often am by A. O. Scott let's throw Scott a bone, it's possible to argue that an arts critic, who ideally never stops being a journalist, can feel a moral obligation to grasp that there's a moral dimension to all arts criticism as an applied field of journalism because you can't altogether separate your ethical ideals and norms from what you do as an arts critic, whether as a journalist or as an academic.

I'm going to skip the Barthes-quoting stuff and get to ... :
The problem with the way we talk about Woody Allen is not in accidentally saying he is good when he is bad, or bad when he is good—either as a man or as a filmmaker. No, the problem is in giving him the keys to the kingdom of moviemaking. The problem with Allen is his power. The same power that enables him to make artistic choices, and to remain the be-all-and-end-all of “what his movies mean,” also empowers him to do whatever he likes, including abuse vulnerable people. Does that make sense? It’s all the same power. And only recognizing that Woody Allen doesn’t get to control what Woody Allen movies mean can really take that power away. 
And Scott has power too. When he reviews a new Woody Allen movie he shores Allen’s power up. So the question he poses himself seems, while important to him, the wrong one to be talking through in public. and I'm going to skip ahead to something Heer wrote that is given a response by Livingston:


I agree that part of the problem is that Woody Allen has been allowed to control the meaning of his movies. To put it another way, some critics have been complicit in Allen’s work because they’ve watched the movies the way Allen wanted them to, without sufficient distance. I should add, though, that this doesn’t apply to all critics. Female film critics were early in spotting the dubious aspects of Allen’s work. In 1979, Joan Didion described Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan as “another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.” In a devastating review of Stardust Memories for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked, “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” [emphasis added] The review destroyed the friendship Kael and Allen had enjoyed. But perhaps that’s a lesson, too: Dethroning male abusers means being willing to talk back to them.
I’m wondering, though, whether there isn’t a further question of what type of art gets made. Allen is generally a comedic filmmaker (despite his forays into Bergman-esque angst). Comedy is built on complicity: We share a laugh. So when a comedian turns out to be a monster, there’s a real impulse to question the work. The same applies to Bill Cosby and Louis CK, among others. But isn’t the situation different if we’re talking about an artist who deals with horror—say, a Lovecraft or a Polanski? In their case, being a horrible person doesn’t seem to damage the work in quite the same way, does it? [emphasis added]

Josephine: Diane Keaton is an artist, and so was Pauline Kael, and so is Mariel Hemingway. You hit upon an interesting genre issue here, the intersection of Allen as an auteur, which is what—a genre of celebrity? A type of artist that critics think is good? And then Allen as a comedic auteur, which is a genre of moviemaking. How do those bounce off one another in the culture?

Perhaps that’s the thing that Scott was trying to get at in his piece, the way that funny and non-good-looking men get to harness a type of social power denied them by their physical appearance. Think of the funniest boys you knew in high school. They all had a “victim” to their jokes, right? And then the question becomes, who is the butt of the joke? With Allen, a lot of his humor was subversive in that it made super-masculine guys look stupid, which was well-deserved (I’m thinking of Crimes and Misdemeanors). He also made himself look neurotic and foolish, but in a lothario-ish way that in the end placed the joke on whatever woman was willing to be with him. And because of the lack of distinction between Allen the person, the filmmaker, and the performer, he has infected the very identities of so many American men that his power spreads.
As I've written on the subject of why I think it can be best for pastors to refrain from employing humor in sermons, the reason for my concern about a proliferation of humor in preaching and teaching is simply that there are ultimately only two modes of humor: laughing with, and laughing at.  If it be suggested that some old Puritan with no sense of humor was the problem with America I'm going to respond to a bromide such as that with another bromide, which is to suggest that in the era of microaggressions it would seem that humorless Puritans should be granted at least this point, that if being a humorless moralist means you never make a mockery of anyone out of regard for the image of God within every human then maybe we need more of that and not less.

Often humor takes the form of "laugh with me as I laugh at myself" or some version of myself.  But there is also "laugh with me as I laugh at those people."  That particular mode of humor only works in a carefully calibrated set of contexts and circumstances.  There's a sense in which Christians should be grateful to be so bad at a kind of humor that involves "us" laughing at "them", because when you're good at the kind of humor could that make you a scoffer?  Alternately, if you try for that kind of humor as a form of satire then you get ... well ... I've never managed to find any of the would-be satires of Doug Wilson funny, and haven't been particularly awestruck by attempts at satire at Mere Orthodoxy.  Christian satire has had a very limited field of actual success, mainly confined to The Wittenburg Door, some Landover Baptist, and more recently The Babylon Bee. It's a niche but I digress. 

It's not surprising that if we were to scour the memories we have had of pastors telling jokes from the pulpit this former category is far more prevalent.  Humor is more disarming from the pulpit if the preacher is able to have a laugh at their own expense whereas if a preacher is laughing at the epese of someone else how does the preacher not fail to live by the admonition against "coarse jesting" that is within the scriptures themselves? 

In what's now known as the post-Weinstein moment it's turning out that Hollywood has had plenty of predation against men, women and children ... and it may turn out that as the film industry has made films about the evils hidden by the Roman Catholic Church there has yet to be a Spotlight made about the film industry itself.  It's turning out that even public radio and television isn't immune to scandals about the behavior of elder statesmen and power brokers, and that these scandals are in some sense stranger because of how egalitarian public radio tends to be in its aims and because women are more prominent as power brokers within that scene than inside Hollywood, or the music industry.
The Sandunsky/Paterno scandal has come and gone and more recently there has been a legal case involving gymnastics and systemic abuses.

So we're living in an era in which a whole lot of bad men are being seen as the bad men that, were we more thoroughly attentive to the things they were known for, we wouldn't have missed about them.  I don't really regard the films of Allen or Polanski as gifts and wouldn't really feel the world is worse off if we had none of those films, even if it's possible (or even likely) that filmmakers whose work I do enjoy could cite an Allen or a Polanski as an influence. 

What these cumulative moments of scandal and introspection seem to suggest is that we have a cultural moment of trying to grapple with the reality that many of those artists and entertainers who "we" thought of as having confronted the bad moralisms of "those people" were in some sense at least as bad as, if not even worse than, the dismissed moralizers of yore considered the scandalizing artists or entertainers to be.  It may be easier for critics to do some soul-searching than to grant that there might have been anyone against the artists in scandal from the beginning who could, at this moment, have anything close to being able to say "I told you so". 

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