Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Stand Up Guy

In 1944 W. H  Auden wrote to the editors of the magazine The Nation praising the weekly column by James Agee, calling it "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today," and that he "looked forward all week to reading him again." Agee was the film critic for The Nation, and Auden praised the "astonishing excellence" of his writing, regardless of the fact that, he found it necessary to point out, it "transcends its ostensible subject." For him, the film medium was "rather unimportant."

Seventy years ago, such an opinion of film as Auden was showing off was unfortunately all too common among artists and intellectuals. No one today, or indeed for the past fifty years, would be so obtuse as to question the artistic legitimacy of the film medium. You can disparage the sorry condition of the medium or the concentration of its resources and popular attention on trash, but no one would dream of being as dismissive as Auden was in 1944.

Last January, in the (London) Times Literary Supplement, Adam Mars-Jones reviewed Martin Scorsese's latest film, Silence. Scorsese found the review significant enough to respond in a letter to the TLS editors:

"Sir, – I wanted to write a brief letter to address a couple of points raised in Adam Mars-Jones’s review of my film adaptation of Shùsaku Endò’s Silence (January 6)."

After correcting a few factual errors made by Mars-Jones, Scorsese gets to the point:

"Near the end of his review, Mr Mars-Jones contends that 'even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration', and that the 'transposition' from novel to film 'can only amount to a distortion'. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form.

New York 10019."(1)

The Times Literary Supplement, doubtless intent on attracting readers who weren't necessarily interested in purely literary matters, asked Scorsese if he might wish to expand on his short remark about "the cinema as an art form," and Scorsese complied with an essay remarkable both for its passion and its insight into the mechanical process behind a film's ability to implant ideas in the heads of viewers and the similarities, not the differences, between the reader of a book and the viewer of a film. 

In an essay titled "Standing Up for Cinema," the examples Scorsese chooses to illustrate his thesis may be questionable (The Shining?), but his points are made neatly and effectively. He quite rightly expresses his distaste for the singling out of single images from a film, like we do with melodies from a symphony or an operatic aria, because that image alone, isolated from the images that preceded it and that follow it, is a misleading indication of the film's ultimate meaning. He explains how the language of film works:

"One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone . . .  This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making."(2)

Scorsese quotes from the otherwise "thoughtful" review of Silence by Mars-Jones some points that I've heard before and that represent what a quite disingenuous novelist might think of a film:

"'In a book', writes Mr Mars-Jones, 'reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.' I disagree. The greatest filmmakers, like the greatest novelists and poets, are trying to create a sense of communion with the viewer. They’re not trying to seduce them or overtake them, but, I think, to engage with them on as intimate a level as possible. The viewer also “collaborates” with the filmmaker, or the painter. No two viewings of Raphael’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints” will be the same: every new viewing will be different. The same is true of readings of The Divine Comedy or Middlemarch, or viewings of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or 2001: A Space Odyssey. We return at different moments in our lives and we see things differently."

Scorsese's valiant defense of his art is heartfelt. I'm not sure that Mars-Jones' views are accurately represented by Scorsese, but if they are, Mars-Jones is being just as obtuse as Auden was seventy years ago. Scorsese makes an admission that I find a little hard to believe:

"Over the years, I’ve grown used to seeing the cinema dismissed as an art form for a whole range of reasons: it’s tainted by commercial considerations; it can’t possibly be an art because there are too many people involved in its creation; it’s inferior to other art forms because it “leaves nothing to the imagination” and simply casts a temporary spell over the viewer (the same is never said of theatre or dance or opera, each of which require the viewer to experience the work within a given span of time). Oddly enough, I’ve found myself in many situations where these beliefs are taken for granted, and where it’s assumed that even I, in my heart of hearts, must agree."

Avoiding, for the moment, the thorny subject of literary adaptation to film, film as art has come to us in many forms and from many sources. To name the titles alone is as much a pleasure as it is an absolute refutation of every insinuation of the medium's ephemerality or its unimportance. Though repugnant, Auden's comments about film are somewhat defensible when they are seen from a historical perspective. I think that what Auden was trying to say makes perfect sense in the context of 1940s American cinema: that James Agee's writing was too often far superior to the films that inspired it. I have often noticed that America has been far luckier in the quality of its film critics than in the quality of its films. 

Martin Scorsese is, I think, in a unique position as an American filmmaker. Ever since the appearance of his first messy, edgy films (Mean Streets being the best example) he has struggled to achieve and to maintain his creative independence. His struggle involved some compromises. If you look at his filmography, these compromises stick out like the sore thumbs that they are (Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, Shutter Island, q.v.). And it became clear to critics whenever Scorsese made a film to satisfy producers, and when he followed it with a long-cherished project like The Last Temptation of ChristGangs of New York or, lately, Silence. Stanley Kauffmann wrote what I think is the most accurate portrayal of Scorsese in 2003: "Patently his films are the work of a man who lives in cinema as a bird lives in the sky. He has invested himself with the history of the art in a way that empowers him without making him an imitator."(3) But Kauffmann also believed that Scorsese's reach was a little in excess of his grasp. In more than forty years of filmmaking, he has failed to make the one film that one could accurately call a masterpiece. 

And there is the larger context of American film that probably accounts for Scorsese's experience of prejudice against film as an art form. The vast majority of examples of American film art that I can name with great pride also give me a proprietary feeling. This is because there simply aren't that many American films since The Birth of a Nation that I regard as works of art. Notably, Scorsese is a student of Andrew Sarris, who is largely responsible for the elevation of dozens of American films (and their heretofore nameless makers) to a status comparable to the best films from abroad. Thanks to Sarris (and Manny Farber), Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman became filmmakers - or auteurs - as great as Renoir and De Sica. When I read somewhere that filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was "the Japanese John Ford," I realized that Sarris's influence - however odious - had come full circle. It's no wonder to me that so many of the people involved in American film production reportedly have such a low opinion of the medium. If they had their way, it wouldn't have become an art at all.

Since Scorsese answered Sight & Sound's request to supply them with his list of Top Ten Films in 2012, he has gone on a listing spree. I will comment on the content of Scorsese's lists and about how they are contradictory of one another in my next post.

Stay tuned.

(1) "Silence," Letters to the Editor, Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 2017. 
(2) "Standing Up for Cinema," Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 2017. 
(3) "Meaner Streets," The New Republic, January 20, 2003.

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