Monday, November 14, 2016

Despair and control

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

An entertaining rant recently from the eloquent Rick Salutin in his Globe and Mail column, where he called film “surely the most over-hyped, self-congratulatory cultural form ever.” He threw his sharpest arrows at the whole notion of a “communal experience” of movie-watching, calling it “a pathetic substitute for community (compared to) the real community that can develop in live theatre or music, where the performers react to the reactions of the audience.” He went on: “Movie watching…isolates people, de-communalizes them, like the guy on the plane guffawing bizarrely at the in-flight plane you aren’t watching…That is why films are essentially a demobilizing, anti-political force, no matter how earnestly they take ‘political’ positions. In their experiental effect, they separate people, make them feel passive and acted on, or acted at, and subject to despair, control and manipulation.:

A certain community

I’m quoting this at too much length, but it’s so delightfully giddy. Salutin ultimately pays a tribute to watching films on video, valorizing “the chance to talk about what you see (which) thus creates a certain community. You can also review the tape dozens or hundreds of times, focusing on its details and nuance, as one did in the oral tradition, where the epics were retold, often in tune with the seasons, so that cultural sensitivities got built up not by adding to the quantity of products but by gaining depth in a limited few.”

Gee, so I guess those extended versions of Alien might not be such a waste of money after all (especially if watched in tune with the seasons). OK, enough from me already. I didn’t quote Salutin to take a shot at him, but because I was genuinely taken by the passion of his antipathy. And I could come up with material to help his case. The recent documentary Cinemania featured five New Yorkers whose brains have been comprehensively addled by too much time at the movies. I’ve often written myself about my mixed feelings about spending so much time on this stuff. It’s an experience too close for comfort to voyeurism; it’s passive and uninvolved.

But that much would be true of anything, taken beyond civilized bounds. I doubt very much whether someone who went to the theatre fifteen or twenty times a week would be in much better shape than the Cinemania geeks, real community or not. And while some of my favourite artistic experiences have come in the theatre, I’ve almost as often had the sense of being surrounded by a brain-dead throng who would applaud the phone book if it helped to justify the ticket price.

Actually, that’s the straw man in Salutin’s argument – he contrasts a lowbrow conception of cinema with a highbrow one of the theatre. He’s largely right about the likes of S.W.A.T. and Lara Croft – the movies are such seamless constructions, so coldly devoid of any of the loose ends of real life, that their supposed mastery as entertainment machines edges depression. The new digital technology, with its cold metallic feel, only accentuates this looming alienation. And it does seem to me that even people who primarily watch that kind of film, citing the need to escape and unwind, often don’t really seem convinced by their own arguments, as if realizing how this embrace of passivity imperils as much as it liberates.

Talking during movies

But that has nothing to do with Bresson or Rivette or Renoir or Welles or Godard or a hundred other directors I could mention. Only by not even trying could a viewer of those films feel “passive and acted on.” And frankly, whether a “certain community” attends one’s viewing of them is neither here nor there. Like anything else, your experience of the film deepens in discussing it afterwards, in reading informed community on it, and viewing it again with those counterpoints in mind. But it’s a little weird how Salutin almost seems spooked by the idea of a spectator sitting alone, engrossed in the screen. It’s as if his commendable distrust of authoritarianism, of political high-handedness, of creeping imperialism, had led him to challenge art’s basic premise – to conclude that identifiable creators are inherently suspect, and that only something formed through a collective process can be trusted. It’s an interesting argument, but I guess my experience doesn’t lead me there. I don’t see anything wrong with giving yourself to a good film – with a questioning mind, of course, but not necessarily a rebellious one.

Salutin’s rant leads him to some weird positions – he approvingly cites a semi-retired teacher from Jamaica who “tells how surprised she was that Canadian audiences don’t talk to each other during movies.” Well, I haven’t seen any movies in Jamaica, but I’ve seen hundreds of them in Bermuda, and very few people would seriously defend the hubbub that accompanies the average film there as any sort of positive community experience. But as long as it just affects dumb movies (which is mostly what got screened in Bermuda when I lived there) it doesn’t really matter. So here’s the basic wrong-headedness of Salutin’s article. He brandishes his sword against the cinema, but he should have been making a much simpler and more useful argument – that people should go to see better films.

Werner Herzog

When Werner Herzog’s latest film Invincible here a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about Herzog in which I mentioned how, somewhat to my own surprise, I found I’ve often cited him in my notes on other directors’ films. I went on: “But I find it much easier to recognize something as ‘Herzog-like’ than to actually summarize the man’s career. At his most superficial, he’s an adventurer – making films all over the world, insisting on a feeling of authenticity. He’s drawn to characters on the edge of society, whether because of mad ambition (like the conqueror in Aguirre: Wrath of God) or inherent “difference.” For example, in the 70s he cast former mental patient Bruno S in several films, and his movies feature a disproportionate number of dwarfs and eccentrics.

Herzog’s in my mind again because of reading the extended interview book Herzog on Herzog. It reveals the director as a one-of-a-kind iconoclast who disclaims any aesthetic theories about himself, thinks the circus is a greater art than the cinema, denies the perpetual rumours that he’s insane while providing one anecdote after another that comes as close as dammit to proving the point, and at every turn comes out with weird and wonderful stuff. A pretty much random example – his anti-chickenism (to coin a noun): “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in this world.”

In a strange way, the book diminishes Herzog’s films as art, but it elevates them hugely as events. I recommend the films (many of which are available on DVD) and the book. You may watch, and read, with no thought of despair.

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