Saturday, April 11, 2015

False & Infuriating

As any reasonably clear-eyed observer can tell you, movies turn into franchises when their titles (in English) become easily recognizable even to non-English speakers. Since foreign ticket sales often outscale domestic sales, producers have come to rely on filmgoers in countries where a different alphabet is used recognizing the words "X-Men," "Spiderman," and "Ice Age." 

Another such franchise is The Fast and the Furious, the 7th installment of which has just been released. Since I haven't seen any of the previous six, it's unlikely I will see number seven. It's probably no better or worse than the others. The only reason I'm mentioning this one is because I happened to read Richard Brody's curious review of it in The New Yorker.

In his essay "The Simple Joy and Sincere Wonder of 'Furious 7'", Brody argues that the film, while "baldly commercial," has "artistic merit." 

"It exhibits simple joy in its intricate cleverness, and sincere wonder in physical action, the primal heat of family bonds, and hearty humor under pressure."(1) 

This is just the kind of review I would've expected from the late Roger Ebert - the kind of praise for an item that was not at all his cup of tea, but that surprised him when it turned out to be not quite as mind-numbing as he expected.

It's almost impossible to pin Brody down. Just when you think he's grading the film a D Minus, with lines like "it's a brazen caricature of passions and virtues" or "At its best, it's like a song that's meant for driving; at its worst, it's like one that belongs in a car commercial," he comes back with "Yet its virtues are brought out by contrast with certain etiolated art-house productions that mistake ambiguity for complexity, gentility for virtue, solemnity for honesty, and plainness for authenticity." I don't know what "art-house productions" he's referring to, or even what he means by "art-house." Near the end of the essay, he can't resist looking back to "Classic-era Hollywood" with tremulous nostalgia. There's something to be said, I think he is saying, for films that don't presume above their station. But what about films that presume to be art? And why such hostility toward them?

I am a slow reader. It takes me a few days to get through even a moderate-length novel. Fortunately, the long history of literature, and the wide variety of literary works being written in several languages, means that I can never keep up with everything worth reading. In my forty years' experience as a filmgoer, however, I have often found it necessary to go slumming. As long as I recognize it as such, and avoid slumming habitually, it's nothing more serious than a waste of an hour or two. As I grow older, however, I am growing less willing to part with that hour or two that I could've spent enriching myself with my family and friends or revisiting a favorite piece of music or seeking out online a far better film that I never had the chance to see - like the forgotten Bandits of Orgosolo or the virtually unknown Two Half-Times in Hell.

Movie reviewers of the sort that Ebert embodied for the Chicago Sun-Times have no such options. They attend specially-arranged press-screenings of films whose box-office life can sometimes be made or broken by what he writes about them. If he is honest (and Ebert was at least that), he will face the fact that most of the films he is called on to review are trash, but that the ten percent or so that he singles out for praise (anything higher than that, in my opinion, makes the reviewer unworthy of serious consideration) is the sole reason he writes about film in the first place. Everything else is beneath comment.

There are some critics, however, who refuse to write a movie off if it has even a single virtue - a scene, a piece of dialogue that somehow (don't ask me) redeems the whole ridiculous show. Henri Langlois was famous for teaching his protegees this technique for film-watching. It's the only possible explanation for the Cahiers du Cinema critics, most of whom worshipped Langlois, discovering merit in literally hundreds of films made in Hollywood, and dozens of workaday directors who never in their wildest dreams believed they were artists.(2)

Cahiers created a "Politique des Auteurs" that insisted that people like Howard Hawks weren't simply craftsmen who employed the rudimentary language of film in productions that would otherwise have been numbered instead of titled, like "20th Century Fox production #17 for 1952." Langlois wasn't just the first person to suggest that some films, as works of art, should be preserved - he insisted that all films, the vast majority of which served no other purpose than to make as much money in wide release as possible and then be destroyed, should be saved for posterity. This is how The Cinematheque Francaise, under Langlois, wound up with a collection exceeding fifty thousand titles.  

The Cahiers message spread to England and then to the U.S. The American practitioner of what he called the "auteur theory" was Andrew Sarris. While the majority of American critics balked at applying a theory to their approach to every film, Sarris used it exclusively, and wrote extensively about films to which mainstream critics paid little or no attention. Pauline Kael wrote a vociferous, and rather effective, deconstruction of Sarris's theory, called "Circles and Squares" in 1963:

"These critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products - the kind of action movies that the restless men who wander on Forty-Second Street and in the Tenderloin of all our big cities have always preferred just because they could respond to them without thought. These movies soak up your time. . . Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence - that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?"(3)

The Kael-Sarris battle was, for a time, great theater. For some reason, possibly because it was true, Sarris took Kael's words personally and never forgave her, not even when she was dead. In his obituary of her, "Pauline and Me: Farewell My Lovely," he wrote:

"Long ago, Pauline and I were once a virtual figure of speech, like Cain and Abel, as our critical feuding began back in 1963 and never really ended - if not between the two of us personally, then between the people who supported her and those who supported me. Yet truth to tell, we never much liked each other, though we managed to co-exist in the embarrassingly voyeuristic world of movie-reviewing."(4)

Richard Brody is an acolyte, if you will, of Sarris and his Auteur Theory. He confirmed this in his review of a biography of Kael and in his own obituary of Sarris, which opens with a statement about as bold (and as insupoportable) as anything Sarris wrote:    

"Andrew Sarris is the one indispensable American film critic. He brought to American film criticism its crucial idea, its crucial word ("auteur"), and the crucial taste that its signifies: the recognition that the best of Hollywood directors are the equals of great directors anywhere in the world, and that they are the equals of painters, writers, and composers of genius."(5)

Never mind the hyperbole (Howard Hawks is the equal of Fellini, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and Schubert), and Kael's attacks on Sarris, but I have always found the kind of reasoning in this very old argument anti-intellectual in the finest American tradition. It comes from a deep dislike of everything that makes demands, that requires concentration and discernment - that is, to use the hated "E"-word, elitist. In the great levelling process that auteurism attempted, trash isn't elevated so much as art is degraded; John Ford isn't hoisted to the level of Ingmar Bergman, Smiles of a Summer Night and Persona are dragged down to the level of Fort Apache and The Searchers. In a Freudian sense, weren't the Cahiers critics - Rohmer, Truffait, Rivette,and Godard - merely killing the father, personified by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Rene Clement, so that they could one day supplant him? And didn't most of them come to resemble the very established French directors that they sought to depose?

When I was a kid, I cheered the cavalry charges in John Ford's Westerns, just as I loved homeruns hit by Hank Aaron, touchdowns thrown by Fran Tarkenton, and dunks by Wilt Chamberlain. I loved Superman and Fantastic Four comic books. I will always cherish my memories of them. But I am happy I grew up and learned to distinguish between now and then, good and bad, high and low, true and false. Sometimes I can't avoid the bad, the low and the false, but at least I know what they are. The best argument in the world can't redefine art by accommodating trash. 

The truly sad thing about Richard Brody's wasted words isn't so much that Furious 7 doesn't deserve them, but that, after already earning more than $300M, it doesn't need them.

(1) Richard Brody, "The Simple Joy and Sincere Wonder of 'Furious 7' The New Yorker, April 4, 2015.
(2) I had my say about Langlois in "The Ghost of Henri Langlois."
(3) Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares," Film Quarterly 16, no.3 (Spring 1963).
(4) Andrew Sarris, "Pauline and Me: Farewell, My Lovely," New York Observer, September 17, 2001.
(5) Richard Brody, "Andrew Sarris and the 'A' Word," The New Yorker, June 20,2012. 

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