Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2005  



The Art And Politics Of Film
A Conversation at the Swans Café...


John Steppling & David Walsh


Part I




(Swans - March 28, 2005)  I initiated this discussion with David Walsh, as I have felt for a long time that film art (more even than other mediums and forms) is rarely talked about seriously. I asked David, with whom I have corresponded from time to time via the World Socialist Web Site where he is the arts editor, to participate because he is one of the few serious critics out there. His work consistently reflects his love of the medium and his knowledge of its history.

The dialogue had no real pre-arranged topics, except that I took a remark David made about the crisis in filmmaking as a starting point.

John Steppling
Krakow, Poland, March 18, 2005



I wanted to start with a remark you made about the crisis in film -- or maybe it was American film -- but either way it speaks to something I've thought about of late, which is just how terrible movies are these days. I want to add that I think we can range a bit historically and try and fit in some of the current situation with film-art of the past, directors and writers, and the dynamic between economics and personal expression in this most mediated of mediums.





I will try to sum up my attitude as succinctly as I can, in shorthand, so to speak, but these are complex questions, and, in my view, take us outside the realm of film and art and into questions of history and social life.

I think it's fairly indisputable that there is a crisis in American filmmaking, and filmmaking (and art) in general. Of course there are honorable exceptions, but the studio products at this point are largely execrable -- shallow, pointless, trivial, aimed at some imaginary demographic. I don't feel that cinema audiences are particularly satisfied by what they experience. They go out of habit, dutifully, but present-day films don't provide much -- in some cases, a few violent shocks to the nervous system, in others, mild titillation, etc. I don't think one would get much of an argument about the deplorable state of the American film industry, even from many within that industry.

The picture, however, is not much brighter elsewhere. First of all, American "independent" cinema is created by and, apparently for, self-involved 28-year-olds with degrees in film studies and not much else. I don't see any indication of anyone having lived a substantial life, having lines on his or her face or in general, many signs of thought or depth.

European "art" film is not in much better shape. Dreadful, self-serious (unintentionally farcical) sex films from France; nothing whatsoever in Italy; a few signs of life in Germany. The Japanese specialize in imitating serious films, which have all the proper ingredients, except one -- anything of importance to say. One would not derive from any Japanese film I've seen recently the remotest hint about the crisis in Japanese life, its more profound issues.

The Taiwanese and Iranians produced interesting work in the 1990s, for a variety of specific historical reasons, and there are some talented Chinese directors, but the overall situation is not a happy one.

What is the source of this painful state of affairs? Some argue that it comes down to the financial imperatives of the film industry, the massive budgets, the impossibility of genuinely creative work emerging under such conditions. No doubt there's an element of truth to this. The domination of Hollywood over the world's cinema screens is a real, objective problem. It has created a type of de facto censorship. The economics of the film industry demand larger and larger blockbusters, which can only be blander and blander, more and more bombastic.

However, as I suggested, there are a great many "independent" filmmakers at work, requiring little or no financing, and their work is not one whit superior.

Is it that the "spark of human genius" has been extinguished? I think that argument is too stupid to consider seriously. One only has to take into account the extraordinary advances that have been made in technology, medical science, etc., or closer to home, the remarkable advances in film and video technique, special effects, and so forth. Hollywood and the film industry generally are not devoid of talent, even genius of a sort.

The problem, in my view, lies outside filmmaking, in social and historical problems, in a crisis of artistic and social perspective.

What inspires the artist? From the late 19th century onward, the fate of modern art and the social movement against capitalism were inextricably linked. In the broadest sense, there was an anticipation that society was moving to a higher principle, however that might have been defined. The convergence of high art and high politics, of course always contradictory and uneven, reached its apogee in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

Paris, Berlin, Moscow in the 1920s -- art flourished in anticipation of a social revolution that never occurred. Stalinism delivered the most ferocious blows to the socialist-political-intellectual culture that had emerged over decades. The most important artists were silenced, demoralized or disillusioned. We still operate in the general context of this great, historic "disappointment."

(For example, John lives in a country, the birthplace of one of the towering figures of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg, where the name of "socialism" has been terribly discredited by the crimes of Stalinism. But what has been the result of capitalist restoration in Russia and Eastern Europe? A new golden age? Not quite. Economic disaster, moral dissolution, the dominance of bourgeois-mafia cliques.)

The greatest stagnation and decline have taken place in the spheres of politics and art. Humanity's understanding of its own social organization and social relationships has suffered enormous blows, suffered a real regression. We have lived through a tsunami of stupidity around the virtues of the market, greed, individualism. What has been the result for culture? A sharp decline.

The New Wave/New Left of the 1960s-early 1970s was something of a counter-movement, but I think there was less there than met the eye. Neither the Nouvelle Vagueists nor the New Leftists ever confronted the thorniest issues, particularly the character of the Soviet Union, Stalinism, etc. Now that generation, for the most part, has moved sharply to the right, enriched itself, become part of the establishment. Or, like Godard, embraced self-pity and cheap despair.

What inspires the artist? The cruise missile, the stock market boom, the "global war on terror"? Hardly. Art and film need a new perspective. It will not be discovered in the advanced decay of American capitalism, in its drive for world domination. Or in the moral sweatings of self-absorbed social layers who have sealed themselves off from every authentically pressing human issue.

It will have to be found, in my opinion, in a revival of opposition, revolutionary-critical, socialistic opposition. Not the creation of pat, schematic works, but the genuine cognition of life in all its contradictoriness. Modern filmmaking hardly treats life; it brushes by it, on the way to the production meeting, the award ceremony or the bank. Life is being shamefully cheated by art at present.

Any artistically truthful work contains the element of protest. We live on the eve of a new period of upheavals. Economic and social conditions are untenable. Political life in America in particular has an almost entirely unreal character.

Of course, the superficial take the lack of conscious opposition within wide layers of the population to mean that all "that" has disappeared forever. When the self-satisfied intellectuals pronounce the end of history and the end of the working class, it's a sure sign -- hold on to your hats.

These are a few preliminary thoughts, which, I realize, may appear to have taken me a little far a field.





You're remarks touch on so much I've been thinking about recently. Herman Broch wrote an essay titled "Evil and the Value System of Art" in the 1930s (I've mentioned this before, elsewhere), and in it he attacks those who make kitsch. He says kitsch aspires to the beautiful rather than the good. Because he sees art as a moral force he also sees this as evil. Adorno said much the same thing later, in Aesthetic Theory. What would a Broch think of today's cultural output? All of it (or almost) is designed for effect rather than to question or create a frame for oppositional thinking or feeling.

If one looks at, say, a Fassbinder film today one sees something revolutionary. If one looks at, say, some post-Vietnam noir; Cutter's Way or Who'll Stop the Rain (neither "great" films) one sees serious questions being raised, and more importantly, one sees characters within specific classes and within historical contexts. Dan and I showed Jacques Becker's Le Trou the other day here in Krakow and I was amazed at how people reacted. They loved it, were moved, and rather stunned. This film is a great example of several things. The notion of character is based on existential foundations rather than superficial "quirks" of character or behaviour. I think this is significant and difficult to talk about. We learn no back story about the men in that cell. We only see them working to escape and how their sense of honor is preserved and how betrayal happens and why. They are complete characters, and yet you never learn about their personal histories. In a sense what you get is "history" rather than personal stories. They exist in History, and today characters seem to have histories, but exist outside of History. Perhaps our culture has, in many respects, altered its notion of identity? I suspect so. So I might argue this change....from Le Trou to today's prison films (pick any... Shawshank Redemption, let's say) demonstrates a paradigm shift in consciousness. As I say, a lot of people reacted very positively to this film....but where I teach this is often not the case. Fassbinder was seen as boring and pointless, and "too depressing."

But back to the paradigm shift. I suspect it is partly the ascendancy of marketing and TV and electronic media coupled to corporate consolidation of power. This generation doesn't see humanity in the same way. Characters like those in Le Trou would not be characters these kids could create, even if some of them respond to that film. The notion of character is so mediated by the uber-culture...which says you are what you consume, that characters without the signposts of consumption are hardly recognizable. Characters are seen with their possessions and gadgets. They tend to love their cars more than other people, and certainly they tend to love their guns. Perhaps it is even more than this, however. The very notion of identity and of the social is transformed, and we seem to have a people so cut off from the reality of daily life and from the sense of traditions and rituals that they seem to float in a cul-de-sac of self referential repetition and narcissism. The unconscious is relegated to some remote province of the mind and all creating is done in lock-step with the super-ego. This is what you talk about with humanities' understanding of its own social organization and social relations. I think humans have largely forgotten how to talk to each other, and how to express anything interior. Much of today's film exists in a world without class and without oppression....unless it is a "message" film, a piece of propaganda; and these films tend to deliver the message that the system will rescue you, will provide, eventually, a solution. There are no tragedies allowed. Such films use a single character to demonstrate the "universal" family of man that lies under the surface. The truth is that what lies beneath the surface is history, but that is never explored. If a character exists in poverty, this is seen as an anomaly, something that needs to be corrected, and usually is. Poverty is portrayed as a mistake, not as the daily endless suffering of a majority of the world's population. This poverty is never shown to be the result of political history -- of material forces. There are exceptions of course...or were. A film like Weatherby, by David Hare is a good critique of Thatcher and those post Nam noir's all had a political component to them. I can't think of much today that does. A film like Battle of Algiers would be astounding today. Compare the faux-working class of Mystic River with the real working class of Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman's much neglected film) and compare Sean Penn's faux working class character with Ray Winstone's real working class character. One is a facsimile, and one is the truth. Which film did bigger box office? Which did the "critics" embrace?

I think something else is touched on here as well, when you talk of what inspires the artist. I wonder this all the time when dealing with today's students. What do they think they are doing, being in film school? What does art mean to this society? What does it mean to them? I rarely, if ever, get answers. They don't know, and largely the schools don't know. When films like Million Dollar Baby or American Beauty are canonized, then it's difficult to imagine anything coming from the studio system anymore. Compare 1940s film noir with today's films. Those films were made, or a great majority of them, by German émigrés to the U.S. The sense of dread and suspicion was palpable as was the distrust of authority. There was a near metaphysical menace that pervaded and transcended the narrative. Not today. Now we have police state advertisements. Authority is romanticized and the state takes care of its population. Enemies are those who distrust the patriotism of the protagonists. This is obvious in Tom Clancy's junk, but it exists just as much in so-called liberal films. Very little is really questioned, and the message is that reform is possible and good people do good things and bad people do bad things...and occasionally an error happens, and it will get resolved. Today's students may criticize Sideways, but then they embrace an Almodavar as if he represented something significantly different -- all the while preparing themselves to make, they hope, their version of a studio film. Career supersedes all else.

I wonder, though, if new technologies in film making....DVD and what not, might not assist a real renaissance in filmmaking. The problem will be distribution, of course. I do see certain signs of protest in art -- in film art -- not much, but some; and it is always in places far outside Hollywood. Today's growing police state mentality doesn't bode well for any of this, however. In the U.S. it seems a tacit censorship is, indeed, underway. So-called independent filmmakers tow the line, and crank out vacuous sentimental pablum, inoffensive and apolitical. There is a real place in all this for an almost ontological critique of how the world is perceived. This takes me back to identity and character and Le Trou. The German films of Fassbinder, Herzog and Syberborg are perhaps the last moment of something interesting. I don't see a movement today. I see no American film makers worth mentioning. There are some in France perhaps (Claire Denis for one, perhaps), and Europe, in Russia maybe...but very few.

I return to the critiques of Adorno and Horkheimer at this point, what they said about the culture industry. Marcuse too. The neutralization of opposition is very efficient these days, and to overcome it will require real rigour and attention by artists. Is this possible in film making? I don't know. There is also in the CGI fashion a symptom of the de-aestheticizing of art in general. Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey and you still feel the aura of the infinite -- because space was hand painted. Look at today's CGI films, The Matrix for example, and it feels like digital mush. To not be able to distinguish is very significant. Film is not an isolated medium in these respects, but it seems the most obvious example.

Finally I will mention film criticism. I agree with you about the French new wave (though I would still go to the mat defending Godard) but Cahier du Cinema was a hugely important publication. Andrew Sarris, at one time anyway, was an important critic. Who do we have today? In the mainstream press we have almost nobody. There exist only reviews, not criticism. I wanted to invite you to this discussion because you are one of the very few critics left out there -- one of the few who look at film art. I think it's a mistake to underestimate the importance of this. I suspect it's not just film, but rather all critical thinking that is devalued and ignored...discouraged in general. Is the post-modern influence in philosophy a reflection of this or a cause? Whichever, it serves to discourage real critiques of art.





There are a great many subjects to discuss. In fact, this is one of the first things that occurs to me: whatever we do or do not agree upon, it is crucial that these matters be discussed in public. And I appreciate this opportunity for that reason. I attend film festivals, have dealings with film magazines, film critics and there is hardly any serious talk of any kind. And certainly not in public. No one suggests organizing a panel at any film festival I've attended on the state of cinema, much less the state of the world. Following the invasion of Iraq, I proposed that to one film festival director. "Yes, of course," was the answer. "We already had that in mind!" Nothing was done.

I doubt that this was some purposeful, political act of omission. No, no, it probably slipped his mind -- which is far worse! Because film is not oriented at present toward life, but toward career, image and the rest.

If film and film criticism were truly oriented toward grappling with life, the fact that cinema is in deep crisis would be evident in less than five minutes. People would not have a difficult time acknowledging that cinema was doing a wretched job of coming to terms with contemporary life if that's what they thought it should be doing. Instead it's a career path. I'm sorry, but I hardly know a more impoverishing experience than sitting through a press screening at a major film festival.

At least the obviously commercially-minded critics are transparent about their mercenary interests. But the so-called art critics, by and large, are entirely lost. They have no means by which to gauge the success or failure of a film. It's entirely hit or miss. So-and-so is convinced that the New Portuguese Cinema is the coming thing, X and Y are equally certain that the latest 6-hour Hungarian suicide film is positively ground-breaking. It goes on. No one has a clue. People are convinced if they see enough films, or at least enough of the "right" films, it will all work out in the end. But it doesn't, because they lack the slightest objective means by which to judge what they see. So their heads are crammed with images, very few of which are subjected to a serious critique.

How does one arrive at such an "objective means"? Of course, this notion will be rejected out of hand by the vast majority of contemporary critics or academics. Everyone, as we know, has his or her narrative, equally valid or invalid. One simply plays at art or film or criticism. The dreadful unseriousness of contemporary intellectual life!

Breton suggests that one proceeds with two sets of facts: the history of the particular art form (what Hegel calls the "empirical body of knowledge") and the history of society. I think these are reasonable starting-points. Does a work take up some of the most advanced work in the field and develop it, and does it take a penetrating look at the world?

To answer these questions, of course, one has to know something about the history of the medium and the history of society. More generally, "You must be something to do something," as Goethe remarked. I return to the unlined faces and the empty heads of the vast majority of film directors and writers.

The relationship between art and social life is extremely complex. One of the central points I'm attempting to make is that the historical, cultural and intellectual "climate" is of critical importance in the creation of art work. One can berate the individuals involved for a multitude of sins, but the difficulties today are not the result of personal failings, even on a mass scale. What is the artist or critic breathing in? What are his or her conscious and unconscious minds feeding on?

What did the artists of 1925, whether surrealists or constructivists or Bauhaus advocates or social realists, take for granted, more or less? A hatred of king, country, priests, police, flags, war, authority. The art work took off from that point. An oppositional viewpoint was more or less "built in," as something presupposed, it was present in the conscious and unconscious. Why? Because of the great events and the presence of a mass socialist labor movement.

Of course the artists were not all in agreement with a struggle against capitalism or any such thing. But the "labor question," the "social question" was a part of late 19th and early 20th century intellectual life, even for the partisans of "art for art's sake," and such. Consider Wilde, a remarkable socialist theoretician, after all. Or Mallarmé, who subscribed to an anarchist magazine. The list goes on. Proust commented (unfavorably) on the prospects of the socialist movement. These issues were in the foreground for anyone serious about modern life. They were in the air.

I don't like to quote myself, but I'm a little tired, so here goes:

"Marxism represented a current of immense intellectual breadth and depth. It contained within itself quite consciously the greatest achievements of bourgeois philosophy, political economy, historiography and, I would maintain, at least implicitly artistic production. Marxism provided the only rational and coherent explanation of the contradictions and growing crisis of bourgeois society and offered the only progressive way out of that crisis. The reverberations set off by the idea of socialism, with its vision of a world free of exploitation and misery, whether or not they were met with sympathy, were felt in every sphere of intellectual life."

This was dealt severe blows in the 1930s and 1940s. I think the period of the Moscow Trials and Spanish Civil War, when the more sensitive began to realize that something horribly wrong was taking place in the Soviet Union and the various Communist Parties, was a turning point. The best elements opposed the bureaucracy; Trotsky was their greatest embodiment, in my opinion, but the conditions were very unfavorable for decades.

Terrible blows have been dealt the confidence of masses of people, including intellectuals, in the possibility of an alternative to the present social order. I think that proposition holds the essential key to the crisis of art in our time.

(I think even the greatest filmmakers of the postwar period -- Visconti, Pasolini, Fassbinder and others...some of Godard, Contempt, for example -- were already damaged artists. Chaplin and Welles are perhaps the two greatest figures, in my view, because of their artistry and wide audiences. And where do we place the great commercial American directors? But we can discuss all that.)

Restoring that confidence is complex. But, first of all, and this is essential as far as I'm concerned, there is an objective basis for that confidence, despite all the painful difficulties we face at present. Has capitalism resolved its contradictions? Has it created a new equilibrium to replace the postwar set-up? Has it entered an age of peace and prosperity? To ask the question is to answer it.

The Bush administration, the flowering of the political and corporate underworld, does not come from the blue. American capitalism, in crisis, is attempting to overcome its loss of economic hegemony through exercising its military might. The US government is the most destabilizing factor in world politics today. It is setting processes in motion about whose consequences it has little or no understanding. Meanwhile the social tensions at home seethe just underneath the surface.

Artistic and intellectual life will be shaken up too. The dreadful stagnation will come to an end, one way or another. One doesn't have a crystal ball, but events will have an inevitably radicalizing effect. Social conditions and intellectual conditions alike are untenable.

There has been a great shift to the right by the liberal intelligentsia in the U.S., or what passes for an intelligentsia. So be it. A new audience and new sources of creativity will emerge, from unexpected places in some cases. It will be one of our responsibilities to bring to bear what we know about film and film history. Perhaps your students feel Fassbinder is boring and pointless. So much the worse for them. But under certain conditions, his work will have meaning to a new group of students, and perhaps some of the present ones will be revived -- and not only Fassbinder's work.

You mention the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse, etc.) Although they were capable of insights, I reject this trend and its deep, historical pessimism. Humanity has not been reduced to one dimension, and it is not hopelessly dominated by the media, culture industry and so on. The Frankfurt School adherents took the temporary difficulties stemming from the dominance of bureaucracy over the working class as permanent facts of modern life. In fact, the old bureaucracies (Stalinist, Labour, trade union), based on the national economy, are breaking up.

In my view, we don't live in an age of goose-stepping reaction, although one should not be complacent about the great dangers, but in one of enormous confusion. Masses of people, including artists, are at sea. The old allegiances -- parties, unions and so forth -- have been loosened or shattered, but no new perspective has yet been adopted by millions and millions of people. The world has underdone vast change and consciousness has not yet caught up with it. But it will. Social being determines social consciousness, although of course dialectically, not automatically.

I know I'm still speaking more about politics than film, but I find that inescapable at first. The level of political and historical knowledge is so low today, dangerously low. Perspective, including artistic perspective, is dependent on a considerable layer of the population assimilating the experiences, often bitter, of the 20th century. One of the reasons the filmmakers at present have almost nothing to say is that they have so little understanding of the processes that have produced the present world. So I deliberately place emphasis on that. How have we arrived at our present socio-economic, artistic and psychological moment and how do we emerge from it?





A lot to discuss, indeed.

First, I think the question of critical thinking is hugely important. This is an age in which culture and art are given scant attention or respect. Art is not seen as having any importance to society -- except perhaps as a means of distraction. I want to try and trace this back in a minute, but first I want to address the critical thinking question. I find almost no critics any more who seriously ask questions, nor does one find many filmmakers who can talk about what they do in any coherent way -- nor do they seem in possession of any real passion or commitment. I think you're right about not being able to discriminate -- to say this is just bad; objectively bad. The post modern position regarding these topics often finds one accused of "privileging" or some other PoMo jargon, which is a way of ending the discourse. I think Adorno saw, in his late work, the importance of historical linkage. We have none of that now in any of the arts. Film is a 20th century art form, and the one most mediated by commerce. It has always existed within a strange tension that grew from the simple fact of cost and accessibility. Today's critics and film artists are utterly ahistorical. They have no vocabulary for critical thinking and no encouragement to develop one. So, given the medium's unique history, it finds itself the most alienated from history and from itself. Marx said the values of a given society always reflect the values of the ruling class, and this has never been more true than today. Artists just want to be plugged into the system and seem to not even entertain the idea of overthrowing the system.

I don't think the Frankfurt thinkers were pessimistic (though they are often accused of that) -- and I think they were the first to see certain trends in the commodification of almost everything. Once the marketing apparatus has eclipsed all real thought, one ends up with as, you put it, a very unserious intellectual climate. Today's filmmakers are careerists and driven by ideas of producing a hit. They exist within a system they don't question. This system is entrusted by artists with determining the goals of art and creativity in general, and those goals have become quite mercantile and mercenary. The corporate studio system now is more about product placement than personal expression. This tacit domestication of creativity has served to establish a fake neutrality in artists, a sort of false humanity or reasoned discourse (with itself, if nothing else). It has created (or helped create) the blandness you speak of in even "independent" cinema. One almost never sees really subversive films, or even subversive moments in American film, now. Of course the co-opting of the subversive is quite strong too, and that's a whole other question. Funding for "experimental" film (or theatre, or dance, or whatever) tends to render the experiment harmless and marginalized, officially. It also rewards "innovation" at the expense of content (i.e., politics). Thus technicians are rewarded in film, and that is what we see marching out of film schools now. Innovation replaces vision or passion, and this is what is most easily and conveniently analyzed in film culture as we have it today. The fetishizing of "newness" and "technique" just seems part of the general infantilizing of the culture in total. I think it's not simply technique, which one might discuss in terms of a Nick Ray, a great stylist at the least, and ergo, a great technician. No, it's more a celebration of pure technology -- the "new" technology put to whatever use, doesn't matter.

A film like Bad Boys 2 has Will Smith running after "Castro's drug dealers" -- which is just state department propaganda. Oliver Stone actually shot a more or less flattering documentary on Castro and HBO wouldn't air it. The tacit censorship is almost absolute. We purchase and consume culture like we do soda pop. The official lies of the Empire are agreed to and we walk in lock step with the Imperialist unreality. If something is going to offend the established version of life, then it must get squashed. So in a sense I disagree a bit about not goose-stepping -- because I think that is happening more and more.

Where are the pivotal points in what we're talking about? I think you're partly right about the 1920s and 1930s...but I suspect there is more. Artistic impulse comes from a realm of the near mythic -- or religious in a sense. All cultures have had artistic expression of some sort. Today's culture has had its mythic underpinnings eviscerated -- the trivializing of social rituals and the numbing of thought. Art is both an escape from magic and the irrational, and an internalizing of it (dialectically speaking). Today we have artists with almost no inner life. This is what alienation is all about. In this kind of atmosphere it's no wonder we get the garbage we get. If Tolstoy and Dickens were doing one thing -- trying for some kind of totality, then Joyce and the rest of the late modernists were extending that, and simultaneously undermining it...and Beckett, too, as they returned -- each in his fashion -- to a former myth. After Kafka we enter a realm where the question of the individual is opened up again. What kind of individual? This takes me back to Le Trou and how our culture looks at itself. People have started to behave in accordance with these pre-digested and pre-packaged ad copy versions of a human. Characters in film are more and more robotic and indistinguishable from one another. People are the same.

Who writes today that has importance? Pinter certainly, and Handke, and maybe James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy -- maybe -- but they are all (except Pinter) reconstituting an older mythology. Thomas Bernhard has importance, I think, but I can come up with few others. However, when you mention Welles and Chaplin and the fact they had a wide audience, I would argue this is well beside the point. I don't think Bresson or Pasolini should ever have a wide audience. They can't, that isn't what they do, nor is it what art does. This sounds very elitist of me, but it's a real question. The democratization of culture and art has had a lot of very negative effects and I wonder if the idiocy of most post modern thought isn't a reflection of this? Lots of people watched The Love Boat -- why? It was amusing and, mostly, it was comforting. Look at most studio product and one will see a fantasy version of the middle class...a middle class that doesn't exist... but which people want to believe does exist -- comfortable homes and happy married lives... The plot is usually a disruption of this perfect world and then the story must work it out, resolving it with a return to the equilibrium of the beginning of the film.

Real situations are very hard for the current westerner to deal with. I remember seeing Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (too bad Burnett has gone on to become a Hollywood hack) and I remember the discomfort of the audience watching it. This wasn't the liberals' notion of the inner city. This was stark and unsentimental and unsensational. There were none of the convenient urban pseudo-myths going on. Could an audience be educated to appreciate Bresson? Sure, I suppose, but that leads us into the question of what education is supposed to be about. I don't know if a mass audience is really possible for Kurosawa or Bunuel. In theory I think it is, but if you push me I would say it's very unlikely.

There is almost no hard "looking" at the world coming from young filmmakers. Popularity is confused with quality. So much modern film has an anodyne quality, a feeling of deadening familiarity. This brings us back to the "objectively bad" question. Is Mystic River a bad film? Yes, of course it is. It announces itself as serious, the mise-en-scène is branded (as it were) as serious and the acting is hyper serious. The seriousness is all an illusion, however. What is this film about? Answer: very little, except its own self importance as a studio "art film." Whatever questions lurked around the edges of that narrative were quickly gotten rid of and the focus returned to the cheaply psychological. Not just cheap but highly reductive; it was just bad melodrama. It was also a psychological explanation (in terms of character motivation) that served the assumptions of the authority structure. It's just a bad film.

So, again, back to the twenties and thirties and forties... I agree with the observation about oppositional thinking, but it was oppositional thinking coupled to a mythic awareness and (as all good art has, I believe) an almost ontological questioning of the world. Look at the films of Dryer or Murnau. Look at the silent German cinema. This was both social critique and a deep inward looking self-analysis, but a self-analysis that included the material conditions of the world. Lang's M is a masterpiece because it was both socially aware and metaphysically aware. There is a curious quality to a lot of liberal and even leftist discourse these days, and it's the strange refusal to critique art and artists. I know a lot of left leaning types who will suspend judgment and watch (religiously) things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or they will bet on the Academy Awards. Why? Because art is not to be taken seriously. Even hard core politicos will obsessively go to the movies, and never make a single judgment about what they see. Culture is not seen as important. That "Buffy" is deeply reactionary, if one bothers to analyze it, seems irrelevant. I'm not sure how this works, except that one of the flaws of the left is often to see art as "only" instructional. If there isn't an obvious message then there is little interest. It is, I think, what Horkheimer called "instrumental reason." They don't see a Beckett as a revolutionary, or a Fassbinder. They might accept some of Godard, or Brecht, but usually for the wrong reasons. Liberals just want to believe the system can be fixed, and so Buffy reinforces that. It's a part of the "professionalizing" of consciousness, I sort of think. Compartmentalizing experience. Buffy is amusing, not to be taken seriously, and so don't get all excited and start to analyze it like serious art. Well, no, but one can and should analyze it as a symptom of the modern spiritual malaise that has infected the entire Western world.

OK, I am rambling all over the place. I wanted to go back to the historical again. This culture is one of total forgetting. People are trained to forget. School teaches them to forget. TV enforces amnesia. The media is all about forgetting. The news is now not "news" but a PR firm's publicity presentation for its sponsor, the US government. That so few artists have a long view is not surprising, and I would suggest that to climb out of this situation (or hole) is going to require a pretty total collective meltdown -- some kind of psychic and emotional collapse, which is partly already occurring. Artists must abandon the assigned roles the corporate backers give them, and must have the courage to work in new small genuinely independent ways. Most importantly they must learn to think of a world different from the one they live in. This isn't easy, of course. We have a generation...maybe about the third...raised on marketing and a form of capitalism that is about consumption and not production. Reification is absolute (here is where I know I start to sound a lot like the Frankfurters!). People expect something very different from film and art than they once did. New filmmakers must find something like a new vocabulary for themselves, because the old ones seem totally exhausted. If I try to think of the best American films of the last twenty years I might think Taxi Driver...but then I realize that's more like thirty years ago... So, I might think ....what? Honestly, one of the better films I saw in the last three years was John Dahls' genre piece Joy Ride. A piece of modern paranoia -- clean and elegant in its way, and actually, quite political too. I can think of little else. As you rightly put it, the independents are simply execrable. Egoyan, or guys like Hartley...just junk, trivial petit bourgeoisie self parody. Compare them to Monte Hellman in the seventies, or even Peckinpah.

So, yes, the climate is one of faux-experience. Real experience, as Benjamin said, is something we have lost. This is part of the paradigm shift I alluded to earlier, and is related to your thoughts on how the world has changed and consciousness not caught up with it. I think I am a bit less sure it will catch up -- or at least am worried about how catastrophic things must become first. We, as a society, are alienated from ourselves. We feel nothing about torture or dead children. We crave the symbolic sacrifice of capital punishment and we experience the frisson of war pornography -- literally, these days -- and we haven't (not even the most educated) the capacity to sit and really watch a Tarkovsky or a Pasolini or a Ford.

If you think of it, John Ford is an interesting example. When a society can't really experience the expansiveness and grandeur of a Ford (and I don't think we can), then what can we expect from that society? A John Wayne western has come to seem too difficult.





I have to keep this portion relatively short.

I want to clarify a few things, so if I'm not disagreed with, at least I'm not misunderstood.

You write:

Artistic impulse comes from a realm of the near mythic -- or religious in a sense. All cultures have had artistic expression of some sort. ... Look at the silent German cinema. This was both social critique and a deep inward looking self-analysis, but a self-analysis that included the material conditions of the world. Lang's M is a masterpiece because it was both socially aware and metaphysically aware. ... I'm not sure how this works, except that one of the flaws of the left is often to see art as "only" instructional. If there isn't an obvious message then there is little interest. It is, I think, what Horkheimer called "instrumental reason." They don't see a Beckett as a revolutionary, or a Fassbinder. They might accept some of Godard, or Brecht, but usually for the wrong reasons.

This seems a little confused to me, but I will interpret it in my own fashion, and you can correct me. It seems to me you are concerned that I might be, or that others might be undervaluing the spiritual element in art.

The "left" view you describe -- accurately enough, unfortunately -- has nothing in common, in my estimation, with the view of classical Marxism, to which we subscribe at the World Socialist Web Site. After all, as Paul Lafargue wrote,

He [Marx] knew Heine and Goethe by heart and often quoted them in his conversations; he was an assiduous reader of poets in all European languages. Every year he read Aeschylus in the Greek original. He considered him and Shakespeare as the greatest dramatic geniuses humanity ever gave birth to. His respect for Shakespeare was boundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters He ranked Cervantes and Balzac above all other novelists. He had an incomparably fertile imagination: his first literary works were poems.

The Marxist view is not a utilitarian view. Art is not a means to an end; it contains its own ends. It is one of the principal means, in our view, by which human beings gain their bearings in the world. It has an objective, truthful content. Profound artistic images reflect the world, in their own manner, just as accurately as scientific axioms. Art grasps the world in the form of images. The present-day postmodernist or left academic dismisses this objective, "universal" element in favor of a cheap, flabby relativism.

The "utilitarian" view, the flip side of such views (and often found to be allied with them), is the standpoint of national-populism or vulgar, petty bourgeois radicalism. Stalinism fed off these traditions and turned them, at gunpoint, into something quite monstrous.

What is "spiritual" life? Is it an emanation from the immortal soul, the refraction, ultimately, of God's divine light? I doubt you feel that way, or we would probably not be holding this "conversation." I'm an atheist and a materialist.

There is a realm that lies outside the immediate power of science, much less "common sense," to perceive. Humanity has a vast psychological experience. All of the experiences with love, fear, death, the continual interaction of human beings and nature, the almost infinitely complex relations of human beings to one another, the building up of the "inner life," the "soul," and all of these under changing social conditions. Serious art crystallizes this vast experience.

In a piece on Wilde, I once wrote:

Art, it seems to me, navigates freely between the inner and the outer worlds, between the world dominated by the striving, in Trotsky's phrase, for 'a harmonious and complete life' and the world of immediate reality. In my view art is very much bound up with the struggle, as old as human consciousness, to shape the world, including human relations, in accordance with beauty and the requirements of freedom, with life as it ought to be. This naturally leads the serious artist to reject the oppressive, antihuman conditions of class society, to 'the total negation of that reality,' in Breton's words (Marvelous versus Mystery).

I'm not certain I know what you mean by the "mythic." There are those who use the word in a manner I oppose. If you mean the age-old, enduring elements in life, elements that are "trans-historical," so to speak, I don't think there's any need to use a word that mostly causes confusion. In any case, there is much more to be said on this, but I have to pass on.

Art needs to examine everything, without restrictions, and without a recipe book. But art also, in my view, needs a perspective. You suggest that the Frankfurt School was not saturated with pessimism, but then you proceed to comment:

If something is going to offend the established version of life, then it must get squashed. So in a sense I disagree a bit about not goose-stepping -- because I think that is happening more and more.


This is part of the paradigm shift I alluded to earlier...and is related to your thoughts on how the world has changed and consciousness not caught up with it. I think I am a bit less sure it will catch up -- or at least am worried about how catastrophic things must become first. We, as a society, are alienated from ourselves. We feel nothing about torture or dead children. We crave the symbolic sacrifice of capital punishment and we experience the frisson of war pornography -- literally, these days -- and we haven't (not even the most educated) the capacity to sit and really watch a Tarkovsky or a Pasolini or a Ford.

Who's this "we"? I feel something about torture and dead children and I know you do too. I don't crave the sacrifice of capital -- do you? I doubt it very much. Since we don't feel this way, we must recognize that others are not obliged to either, and if they do, it's for definite reasons bound up with political and ideological problems that need to be fought with all our strength. The American population has made two revolutions, and demonstrated in the Civil War in particular, the most remarkable qualities of nobility and self-sacrifice. The Russian people made three revolutions in the 20th century. The Polish socialist movement was a mass movement that produced a Luxemburg. Has the bottom dropped out? Has a new species replaced the old one? I don't think so; it doesn't make sense. I'm not convinced that the introduction of modern means of communication and what have you has changed the fundamental picture. People are held back by the conceptions they have. Changed circumstances will change those conceptions.

I apologize in advance, but if what I quoted above is not "pessimistic," then I must be misreading you. I'm not raising this because I think pessimism is a crime. Old Spinoza said not to laugh, not to cry, but to understand. Pessimism is not a crime; I simply think it's deeply mistaken. I'm trying to argue that there is a prehistory to our present moment, including our artistic and psychological moment. That the present predicaments stem from quite definite political and social defeats in the 20th century, which have had spiritual, aesthetic and emotional consequences. The first task would then be to determine the cause of these defeats and see to it that these experiences are not repeated.

The decade of the 1990s was the most quiescent in the U.S. from the point of view of social struggle in the 20th century. Have the social interests of oppressed and oppressor been reconciled? Have we indeed reached the end of history, a new Golden Age? Or is it that the mechanisms through which the social struggle has been prosecuted (traditional parties, unions, etc.) and their outlook (national reformism and opportunism) have proved worthless. My view is the second one.

I think taking a dim view of humanity is a serious error. The path from prehistoric life to a harmonious, rational social organization does not take place according to a plan worked out in advanced. The process has many detours and even big steps backward. The first light bulb failed, Edison didn't give up on the idea. The first social revolution in Russia ultimately was defeated, by the isolation of the country, by its terrible backwardness, by the delay in the world revolution. The Soviet regime ended up betraying every principle upon which the revolution was made. This is not an argument, in my book, for giving up on the project. It would be, as I said before, if capitalism had resolved its contradictions. It has not, and it threatens humankind today with the most horrifying future if it is not done away with.

You write:

However, when you mention Welles and Chaplin and the fact they had a wide audience, I would argue this is well beside the point. I don't think Bresson or Pasolini should ever have a wide audience. They can't, that isn't what they do, nor is it what art does. This sounds very elitist of me, but it's a real question. The democratization of culture and art has had a lot of very negative effects and I wonder if the idiocy of most post modern thought isn't a reflection of this?

What do you mean by the "democratization" of culture and art? Genuine democratization in the late part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th produced, to my mind, the most extraordinary artistic work, in painting, in drama, in the novel...in cinema. Consider the directors who were born in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and other such centers, where the influence of the "democratic" workers movement was the strongest. Modern culture is impossible without the influence of socialism. Look at the present culture when the influence of socialism is at a low point! Again, it's not a matter of the artists agreeing with the political struggle, but the presence of a movement and a theory that criticized society to its core had an indelible impact.

The socialist movement, at its best, fought to raise the cultural level of the working class. The Freie Volksbühne, in Germany, "united the leaders of the Berlin avant-garde with the leaders of Social-Democracy in a common endeavor that brought a series of meetings where writers and industrial workers joined in literary discussions." The arts department of the Belgian Workers Party in 1891-92 organized for workers the study of modern Russian literature, Ibsen, Wagner, folk music, Shakespeare, Flemish painting, William Morris and the poetry of Paul Verlaine. This history is full of contradictions, but it is a real phenomenon. The Stalinists, the Social Democrats and the trade union bureaucrats later conspired to destroy that culture. It has to be restored.

I stand by my point about Chaplin and Welles, but I don't have the time at the moment to expand on it as I would like. The greatest cinema is that which combines the highest artistic standards with a determination to sensitize, humanize, enlighten of masses of people. Do I think Bresson and Pasolini could have a mass audience? Their best work, absolutely.

I agree with Wilde. "Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic." That is in part our task, not to adapt art to existing consciousness, but to adapt consciousness to serious artistic work. Wordsworth commented that a great artist must create the audience that can appreciate his or her efforts. That is our responsibility today, in my view -- taking into account also that there is an objective basis for a new audience coming into existence, that both the new work and the new audience are necessary if humanity is to advance.

There's nothing democratic about the present culture. America is a plutocracy; the debased culture is bound up with that reality.

Intellectuals tend to begin with ideas. Marxists begin with objective social and economic conditions, insisting that those conditions, sooner or later, will change ideas. Let me conclude with a comment from a letter by Rosa Luxemburg, while in prison during World War I.

There is nothing more changeable than human psychology. Especially since the psyche of the masses always harbors -- like Thalatta, the eternal sea -- all sorts of latent possibilities: deathly calm and raging storm, the basest cowardliness and the wildest heroism. The masses are always what they must be, what the given historical conditions make of them, and they are always on the brink of becoming something totally different from what they seem to be. It's a fine ship's captain, indeed, who would steer a course according to the momentary appearance of the water's surface and wouldn't know how to deduce from the signs in the sky and on the sea whether or not a storm was brewing! My dear little girl, "disappointment in the masses" is always the most disgraceful attitude a political leader could have. A truly great leader adjusts his tactic not in accordance with the momentary mood of the masses, but in accordance with the iron laws of historical development. He sticks to his tactic despite all disappointments and, for the rest, allows history to bring its work to maturity.

This is all rather sketchy and a little hurried, but I hope it raises certain issues.





Let me address this in some sort of order, so we aren't talking at cross purposes.

First, as to the spiritual element in art: I wasn't accusing of you of not appreciating it, but observing that a lot of both the left and right suffer from similar strands of "instrumental reason" (again, to cite Horkheimer). I certainly agree that Marx appreciated the spiritual (and if one reads William Morris on aesthetics and socialism one sees a deep valuing of all of creative life).

That said, what you describe as vulgar Marxism, or radicalism, is indeed a problem, historically.

OK, as to what might be confusing, you'll have to tell me. The use of the word "spiritual" should be clarified. I don't know if what I am is atheist or not, but what I am has nothing, certainly, to do with organized religion. That said, I don't object out of hand to the use of the word god. I can look back at writers like Spinoza, or Augustine, or early Christian mystics and find nothing at all regressive in their religiosity. A Bresson seems a good filmic example of a religious artist who shouldn't be discounted. René Girard and Paul Ricour are among my favorite 20th century thinkers, and both staunch Catholics. Anyway, I use "mythic" to describe that pre-rational intuitive dimension of cultural life -- those forms of thought that underlie much of later rationalist thought.

I think more important though is this question about pessimism. I still don't see what is pessimistic here. I think what I describe as "we" is a convenient generalization about the state of American society. I say that in fact...we as a "society." So, of course, the conceptions people have are what influences them, and I would argue that those conceptions at present, as shaped by the marketing apparatus and consumer culture (both owned by corporations), are rather pervasive. And again, of course, it has a pre-history. That pre-history is shaped by material forces and the psychological consequences of those forces -- and the shifts and advances in technology have created drastic alterations in perception and behavior. Now, I haven't said it was irreversible, but I certainly find it hard not to see the current state as distressing. The changes brought about by technology include the effects of TV and electronic media in general. Mailer recently made the observation, for instance, that commercials on TV are helping to alter how children experience narrative, to the point where they anticipate interruptions in narrative. I find this hard to argue with. Can it be changed? Sure...but not until commercials are gone. Jerry Mander's old book against the medium itself (TV) is still pretty persuasive. This is a more and more sedentary society, and more dependent on its technology -- people in general seem more narrowly specialized and uncreative. This is linked to the instruments of control, so I would argue. Technology is part of the evolution of material forces -- it has created new conditions, maybe over-valued and maybe not, that are shaping consciousness.

The question of the democratization of culture is also important. Never before have so many people consumed so much "cultural" products -- never, not even close. When I wrote for a network and had my first episode aired (of a bad TV drama) millions of people watched it. Several million, and this was the LOWEST rated show on TV. This is the crucial point I think, that this new mass audience is influenced by corporate media; they aren't encouraged to read Melville or Reich, but to watch Friends and American Idol. It's intellectual whore-housing. It's narcotizing, mentally. It has also, so my argument goes, had the unfortunate effect of influencing the critics and thinkers and curators of cultural institutions, and that effect has been a process of dumbing down. Where once Adorno critiqued TV as a symptom, now there are classes at Harvard analyzing The Love Boat or the lyrics of Madonna -- without the understanding of them as simply popular distraction. Madonna is treated the same way as Brecht. Why have these critics been so influenced? Well, mostly because mass media is so important commercially. The monies needed to run a museum or cultural institution have to come from somewhere; so there is a constant pandering to that, which is simply popular. And that, which is simply popular...that, which reinforces the biases of the ruling class and supports the interests of same, is going to be sold by the corporate creators of this system.

Now, I would agree that using the word democratizing can be confusing -- in the way I did -- but I hope I am clarifying. I think creating an audience is hugely important. The dissolution of public education has ended all art appreciation courses, such as they were. Couple to this the increasing need to control the populace and you have the obvious de-culturing of the people. An educated and liberated population couldn't be sold the bullshit this government sells them. Instead you have less literacy and more knee-jerk repressive religiosity -- all mechanisms of control. I would love for the creation of a mass audience for Pasolini -- but my doubts have more to do with the nature of Pasolini than with the people. Maybe I should address it this way: in a more humane and non-repressive society we probably wouldn't have Pasolini. He is (was) a response to these conditions, as most artists are.

Democracy is a pretty abused word. The foundations for a democratic ideal have been compromised and now exist at the behest of naked economic interests. The idea that the majority principle, under such ruthless exploitation and propaganda, can retain its philosophical rationality seems absurd. The people are manipulated and so, in I admit complex ways, come to determine cultural life in accordance with the interests of the ruling elite. Marx said electoral politics under a class-based system was pointless.

Creating an audience, a sophisticated and appreciative audience, is important -- but by so creating it, one alters the conditions under which artistic product or process exist. Fassbinder wouldn't make what he made under less oppressive and repressive conditions. Art, I know you agree, doesn't exist in a vacuum. My point, which I just don't see as pessimistic, is that the current state of domination is more efficient than it's ever been. More total. If the conditions of society change, what artists do will change. A return to natural beauty is probably one thing that would change. Today's film culture is more compromised than ever before, I think you'll agree. Why is that? I think for the reasons I have tried to list above.

Art is dialectical. Artists both create and respond to the world around them. I think there is another issue, which we might talk about -- and that has to do with the Enlightenment notion of progress. I am not so sure, for example, that electric lights end up being such a big advance. I know fluorescent lights are quite harmful and the world would be better off without them. There are a great many assumptions about progress we need to question. I am always fearful of sounding like some ludite anarchist when I delve into this stuff, but notions of our march toward utopia need to be questioned. This is why I value investigations of the mythic (that word again) -- the trans-historical and the pre-rational. This is dangerous theoretical territory for so much sophistry has accompanied the real discussion of it.

Directors like Tarkovsky, for instance, seem to be returning to questions of natural beauty and rhythm. Bresson, who we keep mentioning, was interested in pace, and in how we "look" at things (in his case, with a religious lens) Others, like Bunuel were more obviously social critics -- though in Bunuel's case with a strange additional psychoanalytic dimension. They all exhibit something spiritual, as we've been discussing it. Mizoguchi was a mystic, as well as the most class conscious of Asian directors. A painter like Francis Bacon is expressing the almost nihilistic -- and yet there is hope in his work by virtue of its truth content. Fassbinder was hardly an optimist, but one comes away from viewing his films transformed and not at all pessimistic. There must be something dialectical, I think. Directors today -- take Paul Thomas Anderson, who made Magnolia -- are strangely one dimensional. I often have a hard time describing what it is that so bothers me about their work. There is a sense of film history in a Tarrentino, and in the Cohen Brothers, and yet it's in the service of what? It is empty pastiche. It is simply a parroting of convention and image. There is no genuine questioning in their work. I find such work deeply pessimistic, deeply depressing. American romantic comedies are the most depressing films one can find. This is, I suppose, why I have difficulty with notions of pessimism and optimism. I think it's appropriate to feel a degree of pessimism, and to be angry. That feeling doesn't translate into apathy.

If we look back to the 1970s, we see in films like Cutter's Way or Night Moves (Arthur Penn) what almost would seem like "art" films today. Even Peter Yates's Bullit couldn't get made today. Boorman's Point Blank is clearly, by today's standards, an art film. I don't think a lot of the auteurs (as defined by Cahiers du Cinema) have all stood the test of time. Some were good technicians (Minelli, Byron Haskin, Penn, Lumet) and others more stylists (this is how Sarris once described the catagories) like Nick Ray (who probably is more) and Douglas Sirk (also, who might be more) and Raoul Walsh, Ophuls, Mann, Losey, or Siodmak. A John Ford or a Hawks were certainly more, however you think of them. An Otto Preminger can be seen as a high grade stylist, though if you look at his early noir cycle you see something that suggests an artist lurking. After the 1970s I find few directors with a clear signature, a clear vision. Not in American cinema anyway. I often wonder at Ford -- a director who made a lot of mediocre films...even though they are all interesting, but who at his best is majestic. An Anthony Mann could be said to be more consistent...but just not as powerful for some reason. Or a Budd Boetticher, a rather forgotten director of real skill, who exhibited a strange vision of masculinity and sexuality.

The pantheon (again, a Sarris word for this category) would include Dryer, Murnau, Welles, Bresson, Bunuel, Fassbinder, Chaplin, Keaton, and Ford. It might include Godard, Lang, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Ozu, and Visconti. It might, on a lower tier, include Antonioni and Pasolini, and probably Herzog and Syberborg. Others, perhaps, fall just short, but are important; Kubrick and Bergman, and Kurosawa. Such listings change all the time in one's mind. Where to put Bertolucci now? At time, one is seemed significant, and now, after one's later work, one seems somewhat superficial. A Robert Rosen, made only two great films (The Hustler and Lilith); so it's hard to know how to talk about him... Those two films seem better than ever, however. David Hare has made one great film, Weatherby, much like Charles Laughton with Night of the Hunter (his only film). A director like John Sturges might be seen as only a perfunctory studio hack...except that his visual style in retrospect is rather convincing, even if harnessed to no particular content (watch Bad Day at Black Rock). I mention all this because I think where we started this dialogue was with the crises in film. There is little made now that compares with any of the directors listed. Jacques Tourneur made one masterpiece (Out of the Past) and several interesting genre films (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and Leopard Man) but as times goes on his oeuvre seems better and better. How does one view Von Stroheim today? Hard to say. It's my personal belief that what we have to call (after the Cahier critics again) mise-en-scène is a very tough thing to pin down. I often feel there is, in great directors, an ineffible and illusive quality, a mise-en-scène-itude (apologies to Dan Polsby for stealing that term). It is a particularly visual way of dealing with narrative, as well as, maybe more importantly, a way of "looking." This looking is (back to...) spiritual. A Bunuel had it from the start...it's there, simple and clear. For me a Kubrick never had it, despite a lot of worthy work. Visconti had it, but it got better, and for Bergman and Fellini it faded. Welles always had it. Fassbinder, too. I see very little of this quality anymore. It is born of some tension between all the dynamics that belong to film art -- economic, and personal, and historical. The mise-en-scène expresses it, almost mystically. Adorno spoke of a process of de-aestheticizing in modern art -- in later 20th century art, in music, film, theatre, all of it. If one looks at Lord of the Rings, for example, one sees a very ugly film -- visually ugly. Part of the problem is CGI. It looks like a computer game. Compare it to Metropolis or even a minor film such as The Wizard of Oz. Compare today's musicals to Singin' in the Rain, or Mankowicz's Guys and Dolls (speaking of a weird pessimism). A film like Pennies From Heaven was totally ignored -- a deeply class conscious film and a terrifically visual film. Why was it so ignored? I think the answer lies in educating the audience, and I think we agree on this.

You mention Chaplin. I think another topic worth looking at is comedy. The Marx Brothers or even Burns and Allen now seem genuine surrealists (if we think that's actually a good thing...and I'm not sure) when you examine an Adam Sandler or an Eddie Murphy. What has happened? The humanity of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, their humility, too, seems something from a vanished time.

Finally, let me note that this question of objective reason will probably require further discussion. It's tricky and I think we should be clear...if that's possible. The short version of what I mean is a philosophical thought process that has ends in mind, rather than means. It was in Greek thought a force in the physical world. This was true of German Idealism, too, where there was a sense of trying to grasp the objective form of reality, of the world. This has changed into (I am being simplistic) a kind of subjective inner-thinking, or really, just opinion-making process. Objective reason is linked to the logos, to the concrete world (and history) as one experiences it, as well as to the notion of "the good," or of harmony. One might say, at one time, that reason was supposed to be a moral or spiritual force that guided behavior. For our purposes, I want to only say that if we talk about The Magnificient Ambersons, and call it a great film, and someone wants to argue that The Usual Suspects is a greater film, I don't want to cede authority, I want to express the objective system of values (and historical insights) that will demand Welles is simply, well, better. For me he is objectively better, though I know this is a loaded term these days.

That's enough for now. I look forward to hearing from you.





I recognize you may be anxious, legitimately enough, to plunge into a discussion of particular filmmakers, but I am a little reluctant to abandon quite yet a consideration of some of the broader issues. In any event, making sense of individual artists and trends is difficult for me without arriving at an overall picture, if only in outline form, of artistic and cultural problems and their relation to social evolution.

[Read the second part of this conversation.]

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About the Authors

David Walsh is arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, and the author of many incisive and critical essays on contemporary art and culture from a Marxist standpoint. You can read his film reviews at http://www.wsws.org/sections/category/arts/walsh.shtml - You can also read a lecture, "The Aesthetic Component of Socialism," David delivered on January 9, 1998 to the International Summer School on Marxism and the Fundamental Problems of the 20th Century, organized by the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) in Sydney from January 3-10, 1998.

John Steppling on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © David Walsh & John Steppling 2005. All rights reserved.


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The ANWR Sing-Along - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Context And Accuracy, George F. Kennan's Famous "Quotation" - by Gilles d'Aymery

The Unlearned Lesson Of Joseph K. - by Anna Kuros

Puzzlement (Walter Laqueur Four) - by Milo Clark

A Marine Son's Story - by Nicholas DeVincenzo

Scores for Wars: Where Have Wars Taken The U.S.? - by Philip Greenspan

Spring In Mind - by Milo Clark

Spreading Democracy Instead Of Gonorrhea: It's Infectious! - by Richard Oxman

Blips #15 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/jsdw01.html
Published March 28, 2005