Monday, June 11, 2018

1970s Cinema: my introduction to a screening of BLUME IN LOVE

Mazursky calls his film Blume In Love and it must be said at the outset that 1970s cinema, and artistic production most generally, was preoccupied with questions of human emotion in all of its guises. If you are going to watch a 1970s movie you are going to have to, as the saying went then, "get in touch with your feelings". And further, really feel those feelings. You are never asked to actually do anything about them. That would be to create, say, "the" revolution, which, as Fassbinder famously said, "doesn't even belong on the screen".

What is important is that you know your feelings:  the feelings of both your own and others, and that these feelings be allowed to "hang out." 1970s movies are like one really long consciousness raising session.  A lot of stuff comes up and of course it isn't always pretty. Some of tonight's movie won't be pretty - it's surface beauty and sophisticated charm, of which there is also plenty, notwithstanding. The attitudes of the titular character towards women certainly can be as far from pretty as is imagined. But the important thing is he is trying. And he of course will get as good as he gives. But the bare expression of all is the end in and for itself.

It's more in the spirit of Lenny Bruce's plea to reflect on the truth of "what is" rather than "what should be."  This is one of the reasons why movies that otherwise seem to have a quite diverse or opposite surface, or come in different genres, nevertheless will immerse you in a scene, or many scenes, where a sense of real time plays out, that are, in a word, durational.

This will happen in any kind of picture, even action ones. And this happens as much in, say, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, as it does in a Jacque Rivette picture. You see it Andrei Tarkovsky as much as you do in Sidney Lumet. And not only in scenes with more than one character: this arresting of action (or, as I refer to it in my book, immersion in the moment) happens when it lets us sit with Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in Klute when she is by herself, or sit with Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe as he is waking up in bed in Long Goodbye, realizing that he must feed his cat, or sit with Walter Matthau as Coach Buttermaker  in a car, possibly inebriated, in the opening of Bad News Bears.

Bertolt Brecht (and later Augusto Boal) had a chart where he said that in the classical or "Aristotelian"  theater every scene happens to serve other scenes, a subsequent or following scene, but that in the epic theatre the scene plays for or serves itself. Or, as Sherman Alexie put it in another context, "Aristotle was not an Indian." And by immersion to which I oppose what I call classical condensation, I do not mean that what we are witnessing is necessarily more naturally absorbing; plenty of the highest edited acton pictures, which are the very essence of "condensation",  could be called immersive in the sense of being riveting. I simply mean this quality of staying with the characters as they play out their lives in a present minded sense.

The reason for this in depth playing out of a scene, refusing cutting to a new one, is the conceit that in so doing the actors in the scene will reveal something of themselves and in turn reveal something of ourselves to ourselves.  1970s filmmaking is an aporetic art: it has many more questions than it has answers to, and the questions are some of the best ones you could ask. As in a Socratic dialogue these are the sort of questions that don't admit of easy definition. As in "what is justice"? Or, in tonight's case, "What is Love?" The search for the right question is always central, not any correct answer. 1970s cinema is as much an actors' cinema as it is a naturalistic photographer's cinema.

Of all the emotions, it is the nature of love that was the 1970s' great theme. What is love? When does it go right, and when does it go wrong? What is love for? It connects tonight's movie with others close in time period in particular Cassavetes' Minnie And Moskowitz, certainly Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman, only four years later from Blume, again another Cassavetes in Woman Under The Influence, Frank and Eleanor Perry's Diary Of A Mad Housewife, Lovers And Other Strangers, Sidney Furie's Sheila Levine is Dead And Living In New York. Of course in Jean Eustache's La Maman et La Putain where all of the characters never stop talking about love for all three plus hours. It haunts Kaufman's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers too: for an urgent fear of not having a genuine emotion, of losing your humanity, is a common theme in these pictures. For Cassavetes it reaches its ultimate expression in his Love Streams, a 1970s movie that simply happened to have physically a 1980s production/release date but is, as they say, stone 1970s spiritually. More recently, if you count the early 1980s as recent, Joan Micklin Silver (with help from Anne Beattie) tackles quite similar terrain as tonight's film in her Chilly Scenes Of Winter. And most recently, I can't help but feel that some of that spirit is carried on in Lena Dunham's Girls.

Blume In Love in Mazursky's oeuvre could be seen as a spiritual sequel to his Bob Carol Ted And Alice, that earlier film also being all about love. Blume's philosophic, essayistic opening continues in a different vein the popular psychological therapy discourses and concerns of that earlier film. Notice in particular the snatches of people seemingly plucked from daily, real life in the opening, the interest in documenting and commentating on life as it is lived and found and in the locations one would have found in daily life. This is the strategy of using documentary techniques in a fictional context.

Getting more specific to Blume, all of Mazursky's considerable gifts are in fullest flower: the usage of a diverse range of colorful characters for maximum emotional effect, (Just putting together George Segal, Kris Kristofferson, Susan Anspach, and Paul Mazursky in an acting role is exhibit A), a constant sense of humor about life, no matter how bad things can get, a love for all human creatures wherever they find themselves, an unapologetic almost Capraesque, commitment to affective sentiment, (and not far off from the Renoir films they have been playing here). I

In short, a point of view that could only be called humanistic if that word can be freed from any ideological, spiritual or partisan specificity. I know of no filmmakers that can get to the heart of genuine human emotion between two people (Harry And Tonto is master class in that) any better than Mazursky and he has few peers in this regard. He made his pictures for people in the audience, not an imagined ideal audience, nor a great unwashed audience that he can preach to, but potentially, well, anybody. The photographer Vilmos Zsigmond, when asked what made pictures of the 1970s special, the context being a discussion of Mark Rydell's Cinderella Liberty, said they they tried to make movies by and for people, as if people actually mattered. I sincerely hope you experience at least some of that spirit tonight since that was certainly what they set out to do.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sociology versus Aesthetics, or, the Fallacy of Consensus

In all of my blog posts over the years my sole concern has been aesthetics, especially as distinct from sociology. I should also add that when I use the word aesthetic I contend for it to include what ordinarily  is considered "spiritual". Humans make works of art but they do not do so as they please and they do not simply get hit with so many objects that fall from the sky ready made. Such objects have to be built and it is often the most arduous job in the world. It is possible for humans to create essentially artificial objects set apart from what we ordinarily call the real world itself. The very fact that such an object is set apart - bracketed from reality - means that we should never treat it as the same as we would our daily life. A painting of the family next door is still never identical to the family next door. Neither is a photograph. For one thing it is an inanimate object. For another, the very act of making an object for the purposes of reflection should tell us that we are meant to reflect and not directly act.

The trouble of course is that art objects emerge from scenes comprised of a particular sociology. Though the sociology is essential to their creation it is always the least important part of that creation. To think otherwise is to commit to the fallacy of consensus. The assumption is that there is a single or singular reality to which a work must conform or pay allegiance. This is one of the ways we are in the grip of  the myth of consensus (actually fallacy is the better term since there is some deepest truth in all myth - along, of course, with some falsehood).

Consensus says that we have to somehow come together on a set of issues and if we fail to come together then we are doomed to some kind of tragic societal or existential death. One can be forgiven for buying into this fallacy in the case of climate change where how we act, or not act, in the world might involve that kind of destruction.

But it is sheer madness to have this desire for consensus in all  or even many areas of life. Humans are not chiefly consensual creatures for we happen to come in the form of singular embodied individuals.  We do cooperate in the interest of survival, but our cooperative impulses are (thankfully!) thwarted at every turn by the force of individual personalities, the presence of which is regretted by mystics suspicious of the human ego, but the absence of which would mean a dehumanization that would spell a death in life, even if sold as some kind of transcendence. In speaking against cooperation in this way I don't mean to sound terrible. And I realize the force of some individual personalities can be a force for evil. But I am saying we should at least honor that fact that we have individual personalities and are not as of yet simply carbon copies of one another.  Our choices are not between cooperation and competition. Our choices are between choosing a life in which our individuality is honored (which doesn't have to require competition) or a life in which only our identify as part of some larger group is what is honored.

Consensus is very bad for the arts. Every time a consensus has been enforced in the history of art, aside from the fact that the majority of the work in a single period has a sameness about it when viewed by future audiences, the result has been that superior work that doesn't exactly match the consensual style always gets ignored, if it is not destroyed outright. If it does survive, the formerly rejected work, upon reexamination many years later, now always seems to be reassigned the highest value. Upon such reconsideration people wonder aloud with an apparently sincere tone of regret how they could have been so wrong in the first place. The reason this happens is that in the sociological milieu of the work's original debut all anybody cared about was the work's correspondence to the consensus of the time. They did not care about more eternal values like curiosity, pleasure, or emotional and intellectual interest. The need for consensus will cause people to pan work that should have been praised and vice versa.  (The same phenomenon can also cause work to be praised merely because it is in the dominant style of a period, when, upon disinterested examination, the work can be found to be not particularly valuable).

This is the only explanation for why Friedkin's masterpiece Cruising, to name but one of a great many examples - Is is another, as is Zabriskie Point - could have suffered it's original fate.

What happened in the reception of Cruising is that the consensus that held sway was whatever the male gay community at the time felt about that particular movie, and they imposed this consensus not only on their own viewing of the picture, (if they bothered to view it), but ultimately on how the rest of the world had to view it. Worst of all, they attempted to disrupt the film production itself by protesting the shoot and creating loud noises intending to destroy takes, in hopes that it would never have the opportunity to become a final film. Before a proper evaluation was even possible the very idea of the thing was an affront to their consensus; proof or evidence was quite beside the point. Thus, a highly intelligent investigation into the nature of sex and violence and, yes, gender in the narrative, cinematic form of a police procedural was mistakenly viewed as some kind of homophobic, horror/slasher picture.

This can happen in any art medium. In my own field of music a good example of an oppressive consensus was the wholesale rejection of certain kinds of tonal harmony in composition. For music to be considered relevant and therefore good, it had to use non-tonal elements or at the very least elements sufficiently dissonant so that they defied any associations with tonal implications. The plethora of bad serial or row music was but one result of that consensus. Bust as you can see here in this moment from a Leonard Bernstein lecture, not all of the leading figures in an artistic "scene" will be certain to agree as Bernstein here makes a case for a a certain tonal sense. 

In a very real sense when it comes to how we evaluate any new work, we have all become like the detractors of Cruising when it originally came out. We are always vigilant and mindful of the threat that an artwork might challenge a consensus. We praise works that flatter the consensus in our heads and condemn works that inconvenience it, or even contradict it. What this means is, among other things, however exciting and relevant a work of art may be for us for today, it might lose such excitement and relevance for people in a certain future. This is a far greater sense of discontinuity than for a thing to be merely "dated." The reason for this is that we interpret aesthetic objects - that which is intended for aesthetic meaning and purposes - in moral/sociological ways. But to do this is to abandon the aesthetic sense altogether, an abandonment we will be the poorer for, whether we are consciously aware of this loss or not.