Sunday, August 20, 2017

Terrible art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

In the wake of September 11, as a consensus settled in, a few people took heavy criticism for straying off-message. Bill Maher and Susan Sontag – both questioning the prevailing notion of “cowardice” – were the most prominent examples. A lesser-known but more truly subversive statement came from the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. At a press conference for a series of concerts in Hamburg, he said: “That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. Against that, we composers are nothing.”

Crafted by Lucifer

This produced a storm of protest, against which Stockhausen tried to back off, explaining that the “work of art” in question was crafted by Lucifer, and thus loathsome. But it was too late, and scheduled concerts of his music were cancelled both in London and in New York. I suppose Stockhausen’s subsequent explanation of what he meant is plausible if you interpret “greatest work of art for the whole cosmos” as a value-neutral term. But who would have read it that way?

Among the movies that were canceled or postponed around that time, some raised concern because of a similarity of subject-matter (plots featuring terrorists or aircraft hijackings); others because of a more general nervousness about abrasive material. For example, Training Day, which has no discernible connection, was pushed back a few weeks. But no one, to my knowledge, ever had much concern over releasing John Dahl’s Joy Ride. To be sure, there’s nothing in this film either that explicitly evokes September 11. But starting from Stockhausen’s weird take on events and the antipathy it aroused, it seemed to me that if there’s been a case for holding back any film at all, then Joy Ride should maybe have been the one.

The film depicts two easy-going brothers and a female sidekick on a cross-country road trip, who use a CB radio to play a trick on a trucker who strikes them as having a dumb handle (Rusty Nail) and a dumb voice. Things backfire, horrendously, when the prank results in Rusty Nail beating a man to within an inch of his life. They scoot out of town, but the trucker has discovered their identity and is out for revenge. From then it’s an extended game of cat and mouse, as the huge truck perpetually bears down on them.

Pure sadism

But if the cat is driven mainly, as cats are, just by the instinct to kill the mouse, he also seems to have some major advantages. We, like the characters, never see the trucker. But he sure sees them. He unobtrusively spies on them and gathers information, yet at key moments always contrives to be safely behind the wheel of his far-from-unobtrusive megaton vehicle. He takes steps that would have required a vastly implausible degree of foresight. Numerous reviews pointed this out, normally with some amused affection – the film received decidedly positive reviews overall. The New York Times for example: “The sight of his vehicle slicing through the night and the sound of his phlegmy growl on the radio are sufficiently chilling to keep some nagging questions at bay. How does he learn so much about Lewis, Fuller and Venna, and how is he able to be both in front of them, leaving messages and setting traps, and hot on their tails? Precisely because he’s an invisible, inexplicably malignant presence, with no motive other than pure sadism, those questions seem irrelevant. All you need to know is that those kids need to get away from him, and fast.”

The Times didn’t make any reference in this review to September 11, although it’s been doing so regularly for movies that seem problematic in one way or another. But think about that second to last line – the notion of inexplicable malignancy. Joy Ride has most often been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. But we’ve all seen any number of movies in which the villains are implausibly well-equipped, or unfeasibly quick in staying ahead of the hero, or have an absurdly grandiose motive, or make too many escapes from the edge of death. The trucker hero is merely an extension of so many gravity-defying supervillains. And it’s always been a given that anonymous people perish along the way.

Time to end

But this abstracted attitude, more than brutal events in themselves, is at the heart of the movies’ troublesome romanticizing of violence. It’s a way of evading the real implications of such acts; creativity crowds out culpability. Right after September 11, commentators predicted the end of irony, the end of filmed violence, the end of reality TV – reality had become so real that nothing short of extreme scrupulousness could ever measure up. But they were wrong – for now there’s still a place for hard-edged escapism. But really, if you think about it for a second, should it be fun to watch “pure sadism”? After all, that’s how most of us have chosen to label the terrorists. We know they have motives and a worldview, but the consequences for the West are so horrific that we can barely accept them as such. So, effectively, as far as we’re concerned, they’re pure sadists. And there’s nothing that’s “fun” about them, or what they might yet do, or what the pursuit of them might do to us.

In the thirty years since Duel, dozens of films functioned by positing such sadism – in our homes, our institutions, our trains and planes and buses. But now we know it exists, and what the consequences are. Surely it’s time for such gleeful choreographing of violence to end. Joy Ride is negligible as a character piece, or as something meaningful, so it’s the style and pace and orchestration that critics are responding to. But Rusty Nail is actually exactly the kind of “artist” that Stockhausen was pilloried for evoking.

The irony is that we’ve been awed by stunts and special effects for so long, they’ve become routine. Even if you pursued Stockhausen’s line of thinking, I doubt the terrorists would qualify as great artists – they’re not original enough for that. They’d merely be echoing the cold-minded commerce that underlies such movies. Stockhausen’s statement was almost as barren as a commentary on art as on politics. But the antipathy he aroused ought to be the death knell for a certain type of cinema.

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