Monday, December 17, 2007

Shibboleths


There's a real, honest-to-goodness discussion occuring at Dave Kehr's blog about No Country For Old Men lately, and it's worth checking out. I know, I know: "Cinephile, people have been talking about this film for weeks!," you say, but the debates going on in Kehr's comments section are interesting precisely because they are debates. The Coens' new movie has been a constant refrain from my students: "Have you seen it?," they keep asking me, and I have to sadly shake my head and admit that, no, I haven't yet (damn grading and stuff!). My students come to the movie with the passion and belief of ten-and-twenty-something cinephiles, which is great, but the vibe I get from those comments in Kehr's blog is something quesier and slightly more sinister, less advocacy than enforcement of belief. It's cinema-as-religion, with your taste marking you as either a believer or an apostate (the excellent Roger Ebert pulled this stunt with Crash a couple of years ago, not only surprised but genuinely outraged that someone might accurately call that film a piece of overwrought, sanctimonious claptrap).

The Coens' movies often invite this sense of hipster/square division (most annoyingly in Barton Fink and The Ladykillers, films which dare you not to laugh, even though the humor of each is roughly on the level of the Scary Movies, which are at least honest about their nihilistic tackiness). Kehr was witty enough to slip his own critique of No Country into a post which also discussed Twin Peaks, perhaps intuiting the link between the Coens and David Lynch as figures of deadpan style who inspire cultish devotion.

I have no dog in this hunt: as I said, I haven't had the opportunity to see the film yet, and its dramatic structure (which generally works better for the Coens than outright comedy) and the opinions of critics I like make me think it might indeed be brilliant. But I am struck by Kehr's response in the comments: "There’s been a lot of anger expressed here over one very small dissent from majority opinion". Exactly, and it's that anger that fascinates. There's a long and honorable history of cinematic proselytizing, from Bazin and Truffaut to Kael v. Sarris to Ebert and Siskel's promotion of films like My Dinner With Andre and Hoop Dreams. And that proselytizing often starts from a position of difference, a demarcation with what's come before: "realism v. plastics," or "auteurism v. metteurs-en-scene," or "indie v. mainstream." So why do I feel drawn to those earlier forms of advocacy, and so put off by this one? Maybe because those earlier pieces felt like invitations to discussion, rather than the shutting down of it, or perhaps because those critics and theorists were advocating for that minority opinion or obscure film, rather than using their advocacy to reinforce conventional wisdom. They felt like attempts to open critical spaces for new, personal sensibilites, instead of groupthink.

What's the line between taste and belief, between advocacy and enforcement, and why the strange desire for closing off the discussion, shutting down the polls, that emanates from some of Kehr's critics? Perhaps Brecht (via Walter Benjamin's remembrances of him) predicted some of this when he spoke of his own nightmare:

‘I often imagine being interrogated by a tribunal. “Now, tell us Mr. Brecht, are you really in earnest?” I would have to admit that no, I’m not completely in earnest. I think too much about artistic problems, you know, about what is good for the theatre, to be completely in earnest. But having said “no” to that important question, I would add something still more important: namely, that my attitude is permissible.”

3 comments:

Bob said...

Cinephile --

It may be my Ebert fandom speaking...actually, I don't think it is...but I think you're partially misreading his piece about the critical reaction to "Crash." He was clearly disappointed and puzzled that so many critics (younger and therefore theoretically less "square" than him) didn't share his love for the film and, in fact, hated it with a passion, but I don't think that's what made him angry. (Though it's always disconcerting when people hate, hate, hate something you love, love, love.)

What I think angered him was the snide, even vicious, tone of some of the "Crash" attackers. Personally, I think Scott Foundas's remark, "Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, 'A lot of my best friends are black'" is way, way over the line. It imputes poor moral character, in this case closet racism, to anyone who dares like the film. To me, this is absolutely the lowest form of criticism. Also, considering that Ebert is married to an African-American woman, it's easy to see why a remark like this might really get under his skin. Regardless, I think it's deeply unfair to speak for why others like or dislike a given film and to me it is often the mark of a lazy and nasty critic. We should speak for ourselves, always.

Just so you know, as it happens, I'm a rare "Crash" moderate, I guess. I liked "Crash" just fine, but was kind of stunned at the level of what I thought was out of proportion love from Ebert and some others and out of proportion hate -- largely from the alternative papers -- that it generated. I thought it was an entertaining, over schematic, kind of interesting movie with a few very strong moments that got race relations in Los Angeles completely wrong. (I might have been higher on the film if I was from some other place, like, say, Chicago, and didn't know any better. Jim Emerson, interestingly, has spent a great deal of time out here.)

"Crash", to me, is sort of the Hillary Clinton of movies. I'd never vote for it unless all other reasonable options were off the table, but I'll never fully understand the hatred she/it generates.

Cinephile said...

Bob,
I am a big Ebert fan, too-- he was one of the first critics I ever read whose name I got to know (as opposed to a faceless person in the local paper or whatever), and I have great respect for his perceptions and his gifts as a writer (he really deserves that Pulitzer), even as I increasingly disagree with his opinions (on Crash, for instance). And of course, I have tremendous admiration for the way he's dealt with his recent difficulties with grace and strength, and I hope that all continues to go well.

What I wrote, probably too flippantly, was not meant as an attack on Ebert, but as a criticism of a specific moment when I think he did become a little too histrionic over the film and its critics. I think you can forcefully disagree with someone without making the disagreement personal (as I think he does with Foundas, a critic who'd just praised him as a role model a few months before, when Ebert got a star on the walk of fame), and without making strange political allusions to dismiss others' feelings (as a few months later, at the oscars, when he compared anti-Crash partisans to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). I agree with you that the Foundas line he pulls is over-the-top, although I'd add it was also framed in a larger, back-and-forth discussion about stereotypes, modes of "realism" (literary and cinematic) and depictions of L.A., which gets lost out of context. In response to Foundas, I'd add that Ebert's response strikes me as no less morally judgmental (he wrote in numerous pieces around this period that Crash was a film "that worked through emotions," and that people who didn't like the film were scared of that kind of experience, which is just as over-the-top and discussion-ending a mode of address as Foundas' comments. (To Ebert's and Jim Emerson's credit, they also ran a lot of letters from readers on the website that were pretty fairly balanced between like and dislike, of both the film and Ebert's column).

I don't know what kind of personal feelings or experiences were bound up with his feelings for the film. And I certainly defend his right to advocate, and Paul Haggis couldn't ask for a better defender (even if he doesn't deserve it (:). That said, I think it was an awkward bump in an otherwise exemplary career, and I cited it because it felt similar, to me at least, to the discussions on Kehr's blog-- everyone so passionately partisan that it becomes a dialogue where neither side can hear each other, but just holds to their own sense of moral righteousness. And I also like a lot of the folks (Glenn Kenny, Ty Burr) who are disagreeing so vehemently with Kehr over the Coen film.

Bob said...

Good points -- I was going pretty strictly from Ebert's piece there and I don't remember the other stuff. I know he can occasionally get as prickly as any of us when disagreed with. (I don't remember the specifics now, but Gene Siskel told a very funny story once about him criticizing something on an airplane.) And I could imagine him floating the idea that people who didn't like "Crash" had some kind of over-hip emotional stunting going on in response to some of the withering things said by many critics about fans of "Crash."

But I agree with you that Ebert's opinions are not reliable gauges if you're looking to avoid bad movies.
Ebert's liked an ENORMOUS number of movies for years. The man...just...likes...movies. Kind of sweet, in a way.

Still, that comment from Foundas -- not my favorite critic, though not the worst -- jibes with other things he's written from time to time, at least that's how I remember it. Still, I hope they eventually settled things a bit.

As for the "No Country" thing. I'm a moderately big Coen Brothers fan, but I'm already overexposed to it (I read the book and was somewhat underwhelmed by aspects of it, annoyed by others), so I think I'll sit this controversy out, at least until I finally get to see it. (I'm way behind myself.)