Sunday, December 23, 2012

Philosophic Reflections at the Close of 2012


I have often praised the prosaic and the quotidian in these pages. I feel our preference for and privilege of the Tragic and dramatic is a kind of sin at times, a defect in how we perceive stories (or that we perceive in stories) and understand our lives. We may think we need the large revelatory moment and the heroic moment but it is extraordinary how much we distort and what great beauty we miss in the process.

Yet the world's events increasingly appear to demand such an outlook in extremis. (Though a part of me thinks we actually cause these events in order to fulfill this preference!) I can't nor won't write on the seemingly daily horrors that have been hitting our "so-called civilization" (in Gandhi's formulation). I shall leave the writing on that truly evil event in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (and President Obama was so wise to invoke the conception of Evil, though it is a risky and at times misused formulation, especially as we live in an age so glib and assured in an empty and easy type of secularism) in the hands of those close to it, those professionals more knowledgeable than I, and others who have a gift or strength of empathy that I believe to surpass my own powers. And I don't want to contribute anymore to the sensationalism that may engulf it.  Even if it is statistically rare in some dimwitted and overtly quantified Utilitarian sense, if we are at all alive to its horror, we surely feel an outrage such that one Event like this is always one too many. It is too common for many of  us to bear with any sense of basic or decent humanity.

My standpoint  on my blog has always been one of reflection and embrace of infinite and eternal mystery.



One good thing to do when the world seems to be falling apart, and it can only be done when you and the people in your immediate environment are not being killed or attacked, is to take time and reflect or meditate: apart from reading spiritual wisdom like Yeats or great religious meditations and teachings as in the Sermon On The Mount, it might be good to stop action and dwell upon ultimate matters. I want to discuss some ultimate things, hopefully in a way that preserves their mystery. We need to explain when challenged by unfathomable violence for example, but we also need to dwell in mystery too and deal with the most important questions of all: the APORETIC ones that are designed not to be answered but to express inquiry, to churn around, and ultimately lead to deeper or better questions.


It goes without saying that, with the media attention on crises, wars, crimes, storms, and the like, coupled with a relentless celebrity culture, we are encourages to further and deepen our attention to such drama, especially drama that does not directly affect our immediate environment.

Rather than ask why this tendency might be the case, and I will simply assume it is a negative tendency for the moment, it is better to ask questions of a more ontological nature. Especially during a holiday season. Jesus Christ and the religion He is said to have founded is completely predicated on such questions. All of Christ's teachings are rather like one great question, much more than specific prescriptions.

Rather than dwell on the evils of the past week or year or be desperate for salvation and answers I think it is best to ask what and who it is we are.

What is the human being?

Now of course Socrates would go around and ask what Justice and Love are and other ultimate matters. But all of us should take time to ask those questions. For one thing, when we ask such questions we are put into a certain relation with ourselves and others which is objectively superior to many of the alternative kinds of relations. We aren't trying to sell something and our very question implies that we aren't experts and might be uncertain or wrong.

If you ask such a question you will find that you will always already be brought to a less than violent place. You will become aware that as people we have a certain self regard. Conversely, to go through life and to never ask the question, or, worst of all, to come with readymade answers to the question even if the answers are ethically unimpeachable or pure is insufficient at best and wrong at worst. There is the risk that you will not see who is in front of you when you meet someone new for the first time, but also the risk that you will be very busy evaluating, ranking, and possibly discarding some people according to your prior blueprint. If you do have such a blueprint, that is perfectly alright, but at the very least be honest about your blueprint and that it is a blueprint and know what you are doing. Don't mistake your blueprint for a universal Law unless you are absolutely sure it is a universal Law. Be cautious about making your claims objective for all times, places, and all people.

One of the virtues of young children is that they are always asking questions like these. Even better, because they have not developed shame, defenses or ideas about what is cool or uncool about certain questions they often ask some real good ones as demonstrated in a crude and simple way in this television show: The Courtship Of Eddie's Father, starring the late, great Bill Bixby.


When I was in college, specifically at the New England Conservatory Of Music, people often teased me about my insatiable curiosity; moreover they seemed amused that I would ask childlike or even childish questions. As a response I wrote a jazz composition titled Why Is That? to capture my inquisitive nature, in an act of self deprecatory defense. It is at once the simplest two part writing piece possible, quarter and half notes, but I snuck in some harmonic complexity nevertheless.
All of which is to say that one is never too old to ask questions, good or bad, and that curiosity should never die with the dullness and even jadedness of age. And that the kind of Aporetic questioning I defend might just very well be another form of what is normally called Love.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Birthday Meditations


“Even if we distance ourselves from some of our thoughts and impulses, and regard them from outside, the process of trying to place ourselves in the world leads eventually to thoughts that we cannot think of as merely “ours”. If we think at all, we must think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it.” Thomas Nagel, The Last Word

Each of us has an internal state that has gone by many different names and been addressed in radically disparate ways. Some will speak of the soul or spirit, others simply talk of consciousness, possibly the dimmest among us will speak merely of a self-organizing organism, or even only neural circuitry. This interiority is a sacred bedrock. It is inviolable.  It is not only that this state is supremely individual unique - being full of colors, shades, tones, subtleties, nuances, indirection - but it is an opaque one. No amount of quantification or measurement will ever capture the limits of this state, so full and deep is its mysteries, so vast is its contents and horizon, to paraphrase the great Heraclitus ("the obscure").

Yet as we face the world, in and with our interiority, we face what is, in part, a profoundly external world, a world at times so external as to be quite alien and apart, however unified we might feel or claim to be with this external reality. There is a real separation here. A great deal of this external world consist of plethora of stimuli - literally "coming at us", of course in the form of solid objects as well as more fluid colors and lights, but above all in separate life forms, from humble vegetation, to complex animals, and, above all, other fellow humans who are as akin to us as they are opposite to us.

I must say that my chief problem as a human being, for my first forty years on this marvelous planet, has been in the negotiation and relationship between the inner and outer worlds. It is not a question of boundaries but rather of feelings. Simply put, I rarely match the external world in terms of likes, dislikes, or what I feel to be important on the inside. Moreover, the sheer density of stimulation from this external world can at times be most overwhelming. One solution I came across was my discovery of the truth of pluralism. I realized, upon leaving my thirties, that others can achieve the deepest pleasures from things with which I have had only negative experiences and, of course, in reverse. That is, my own internal states, though important and sacred to me, are of little or no use in terms of other's values. I began to read the world around me in the terms that others created. I began to step outside of myself and try and see others as having equal, sometimes greater, yet very different claims. This is not quite the same as sympathy or empathy; it is a "meta" belief wherein my awareness of other's values allows me to put aside my own values and essentially ask others where their happiness comes from. I cannot live there, for that would be to lose myself, but I certainly must visit and visit regularly.

A large measure of human culture and art, and I should include practical philosophy as well as politics and economics, is concerned with how we are to negotiate the boundary of the inner and the outer, how we are to understand it, if and when we are to fight or love it, if we are to transform it, overturn it or defend the status quo and on what grounds and so on.

Sometime during the past decade I became familiar with the thought and scholarship of one George Kateb. He is really one of the few philosopher/academics who, as odd as it is to say in what is essentially an aporetic tradition, seems to give more correct answers to some important questions. He works in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau and thus could be called a kind of individualist, and yet - and this is most important - he rejects all appeals to conservatism and tradition. Kateb's individualism is of a most responsible kind. He is sui generis: he rejects communitarian and utilitarian infringements upon individual conscience and liberty, while at the same time he upholds the strongest sense of social responsibility. It is the rare thinker or intellectual who can do both and moreover offer a theory of both.



His most recent book is called Human Dignity and it is a beautiful work of prose, easily one of the best works of non-fiction in the past decade. I should like to use my forty-fifth birthday to do briefly review it. However, I am not sure review is quite the word since I really only have time, space, and, more importantly, energies to summarize in a brief note and offer examples from this work.

George Kateb's aim in the entire book is to defend and define what it is in us or about us that makes us human - in the spiritual and non-reductive sense of that label - and to describe, if only in part, what about our humanity makes us special on this planet. This last project will doubtless not always endear Kateb to anti-"speciesist" egalitarians, yet I feel that Kateb is onto something most important when I think of that fact that no other living creature composes a Beethoven's Ninth, enters couples' counseling, or negotiates at Camp David. One lengthy passage reveals the quality and character of Kateb's prose:

"A uniquely human trait, self-consciousness is potentially but not actually possessed by all human beings, whereas consciousness is actually possessed by all the living who function. To be a self-conscious person is to be conscious of oneself as a self, as a person who can think about many things, but also about himself or herself. A person can arrive at a self-conception. But the process is not automatic, and cultural conditions - say, tribal life or village life - may discourage it or be so rigorous in in suppression of the sense of self that many people would find it strange to imagine what it means to have a self-conception. They know themselves through a group, and the group knows itself through its differences from other groups. Without a self-conception, we are tends to take the place of I am, in most of the transactions of life. Some choices might be left free, and particular members of a group might stand out because they perform exceptional deeds. In larger hierarchical societies where human rights are not recognized, self-consciousness is actually consciousness of oneself as a member of this class or caste rather than that one. Such consciousness is quite compatible with individual egotism, but the ego is defined by reference to membership. One cannot imagine oneself separately from membership. But in a society in which people have a sense of individual human rights and the state recognizes and respects those rights, a particular self-consciousness will develop; the ego will grow in a certain direction. One feels special not because one has what others lack, or has a rank higher than others, but because one has has what everyone is entitled to have, just by being human." 
Readers should note that this is an argument reminiscent of Kateb in his Patriotism and Other Mistakes, in which he regards patriotism itself as immoral, in part for its violation of the individual in the name of group pride and identity. It is this part of Kateb that places him at odds with both the Left and Right on our current political spectrum. His belief in unearned human dignity makes him automatically opposed to all conservatism and libertarianism because if we have innate unearned human dignity then we are entitled to certain things without having to appeal for them at best or beg for them at worst as in, say, health care or food (to say nothing of nutrition). His remarks about group identity might put him at odds with a Left that wants to speak on behalf of suppressed or repressed group identities as groups rather than as lone individuals. But Kateb is ultimately making an ontological argument as is clear from this passage:

"Human life at any time and all through time is ultimately incomprehensible. this incomprehensibility is testimony to human stature, perverse as that may sound. Human stature is not so great as to have the capacity to take the measure of human stature. Humanity is too much to be encompassed; it is indefinitely large in its actuality, past and present, and unpredictable in the future. In contrast objective knowledge of nature, which has no inwardness is easier on the talented mind despite formidable obstacles, than understanding human life which is governed by human inwardness."

Starting from the tradition of Emerson, with its respect for infinite mystery and finite intellect  it comes as no surprise that Kateb is skeptical and at times hostile to attempts to make scientific explanations of who we are as the only acceptable explanations. Kateb is not hostile to science as such, but rather to all forms of tyranny: an attitude of regarding us as mere matter or, however more noble, as just a natural object or life form among others on this planet - in a word, anti-humanism - is an attitude that has similar problems in intellectual life as tyranny does in social and political life. Kateb is a critic of evolutionary biological accounts of the human being that aim to replace other accounts. Like Thomas Nagel, he manages to maintain a strictly secular even agnostic foundation while still insisting upon a spiritualistic definition of our humanity. He agrees with the scientific conclusions of evolution but also agrees with the worries of those religionists who feel that those conclusions are insufficient and are partly bereft:

"Against evolutionary psychology in particular, we can say that it is a category mistake, indeed a serious blunder, to say that on any given occasion, a person't motive, mediated as it is by mind, is unconsciously determined by evolutionary inheritance. No human motive is reducible to a natural cause. Human self-description is not a superstructure of superstition."

"Against neuroscience I want to say that when a section of the brain lights up on a scanning device, as, say, the person is listening to music, we learn nothing interesting about the person's experience of the music or the music itself."

Kateb might be seen as going too far here in the eyes of many, especially with the popularity of bestselling non-fiction books concerning our brains on music, yet I would still maintain that Kateb's old fashioned argument might be more properly thought of as an argument on behalf of the humanities itself as an equal though separate companion to the sciences. And Kateb has much to say in the latter chapters of the book on what art is and how best to evaluate it.

Throughout the book Kateb wrestles with the tension between fairness and justice on the one hand and excellence and reward for unique effort on the other. Kateb also makes the rather unfashionable claim in this age of Nature awareness, that we are not wholly natural beings, but in part artificial, subject to cultural innovation and diversity. George Kateb is unafraid to take commonsensical intuitions (say, our sense of being somehow free in making choices, as not merely beholden to nature or tradition alone, our sense that we can trust at least some of our senses) seriously as having objective truth. He is not hypnotized into a skepticism about our perceptions by the apparent success of scientific assaults upon those perceptions. In this sense George Kateb is, as he admits on other occasions, trying to take a democratic approach to life in the wider sense of the word democratic than the political sense. Though he is labelled a political philosopher, Kateb wants to restore the value of that which resides outside of our roles as citizens, the value of that which is separate from roles as such.

I cannot recommend Human Dignity highly enough. Though it is ostensibly a work of non-fiction philosophy it reads as beautifully as poetry or prose. Its subject is nothing less that the state and status of our humanity itself.

Human Dignity by George Kateb The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2011




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Memoirs From Youth, Part Fourteen: School Trip to D.C.




In the year of 1979, at the age of twelve, I found myself stuck in one of those various "free" schools with which my parents were always experimenting. (The word free here is not a reference to the tuition). This particular one was called an Academy which belied the free-wheeling lack of pedagogy, if not outright incoherence of the actual content of the school. The headmaster was an obscenely obese man with a pungent, acrid body odor, given to a fondness for the therapy and life motivational teaching of one Leo Buscaglia.  We called him Principal Bob. I forget his last name.

Principal Bob would wear these Levis bell bottomed denim leisure suits and talk a lot about his parents and how much he loved them, and, well, the importance of sharing your feelings. If you were a kid who didn't "feel" like doing math or didn't "feel" like reading a book, then Principal Bob was a dream of a principal.

Though he drew the line at actually hugging his students in the Buscaglia manner, he loved to talk about love a lot in particular and the expression of the emotions in general, and noted that most of the volunteers for hugging at Buscaglia's seminars were men approaching women for hugs. Yet he reminded us "it was not about that". Then he mentioned that the Phil Donahue Show had Leo Buscaglia as a guest and made an observation that the audience was mostly female and hugged one another much more than they did Leo. At the time I did not understand the point of his observations.
One of his and other teachers' criticisms of me is that I didn't talk about my feelings enough. Indeed, every school I went to, whether Christian or secular, public or private or "free" or independent, would make the same remark. I would usually tell them that I didn't seem to have that many feelings or as many as did other people. In the milieu of these type of schools this was the equivalent of getting an F.

"If you look deep down inside you will find them," they would always say.

"I'm looking. I'm looking," was my usual reply.

One of the academy's ideas was to essentially stick a lot kids from all grades in the same classes or classrooms since the headmaster did not want us to get "hung up about life stages or ages." I had fifteen and sixteen year olds in my class. Then there was me. I think I was the youngest.

We voted for a destination for the annual school bus trip. I insisted that we visit Washington D.C. My real reason for this choice being that I wanted to see the Watergate Hotel where the Watergate scandal occurred and above all to listen those famous Nixon White House Tapes. I also said that I wanted to hear John Birks Dizzy Gillespie sing "Salt Peanuts" with then president Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn. After my peppy speech, the rest of the student body was stunned into silence and seemed to accept my idea, since any other place desired would have been too far and too expensive to visit anyway like, say, New York or Vegas.


"I am not sure we can accomodate all of your wishes Mitch. I don't know who that man you mentioned is. Dizzy? Is that the man's real name? Is he a rock musician? I do know Jimmy Carter is our president but he is a very busy man and hard to get a hold of. How do you know he is any good as a singer? I mean surely you might want to look at nice and important places like the White House or the Washington monument... but you want to look at..the Watergate Hotel, It's just a boring building. The Lincoln monument is so beautiful, why I'll never forget when my mom took us to first see the..."

"Watergate hotel." I kept repeating as if in a chant.

"Well Mitch D.C. it is. I'll see what we can do."

The school was broke so in order to raise money for a humble greyhound bus tour to D.C from Tampa was to hold a car wash for a week, every day, thus suspending reading, writing and arithmetic for that week. Thus we proceeded into a suburban used car lot with water, buckets and sponges and waited for any Gremlin, Buick, or Pontiac that happened to drive into this lot. I didn't pay much attention to the cars since, as I said earlier, most of the students were older than me and female, and in halter tops and cutoff denims. I really enjoyed that week in the sun, trying to get these folks' cars as clean as possible. I also wondered why you could talk about some feelings out loud and not others and I always seemed to have the sort of feelings nobody else talked about. Feelings, indeed.

Now day after day, up until about Thursday, I had to put up with the other students' musical selections on the 8 Track. After about fifty hours of Foghat, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Kiss, ACDC, Foreigner, Queen and heaven knows what else, I had to eventually put my water logged foot down. "Why aren't we playing appropriate music for our car wash?" I pleaded. "you know what I mean! Don't pretend you don't know because they had a movie named just like what we all are doing right now! You mean you haven't seen the movie? You know," I said with a wink.

"No Mitch. No! No disco! Haven't we told you before?" other kids yelled, as if in unison. They had complained before about my predominantly African-American taste in popular music.

"Well business has been slow and the song is about car washes. Maybe Mitch is right," Principal Bob finally said.

Into the stereo went the 8 Track of Rose Royce's Car Wash. I can tell you we were jammed all of Thursday and Friday. And we got a good groove going to our wash too.


Indeed we did so well that we upgraded to an Amtrak train trip!

One memorable event on that train trip, other than the taste of the pancakes that seemed to me so delicious, was that an older girl that I used to have big crush on when I was ten or eleven had decided, inexplicably, to make "sexual" advances on me late at night. She must have been fourteen or fifteen at this time. Now you understand this was just kissing and fondling of course. And it felt very good. But I had other concerns. Not only had I lost interest in her - as a person or potential "friend" - after her rebuff  to my initiative two years earlier, but given that we were in public and on a train I felt it was too risky. I felt exposed. I  rudely knocked her hand away from my lap and pushed her whole body away from mine when she started to hug and kiss me. I insisted that this was not the time or place.

"It is a private manner among adults. I mean Principal Bob is right in the row behind us. You are doing this now on purpose because you don't really want to be alone with me. Why can't you wait till we are home and our parents are at the Winn Dixie or something?" She got up and left without a word, moving to the another car in the train altogether,

Boy was she mad. The whole rest of the trip, and, come to think of it, decades hence, she has not been the warmest soul. I understand she now has four kids and is an aesthetician in Palm Springs.

Nothing prepared me for the sensual joy of landing in D.C. The very first sensations I experienced were aural. This being D.C. and a largely African-American population, for the first time in my entire life I heard the music I loved most played openly and loudly. It was like a reverse of the natural order of things.  Wafting from cars or transistor radios, or record shops I heard simultaneously Earth Wind and Fire, The O'Jays, Sister Sledge, The Ohio Players: that kind of stuff. What joy for me! What kind of magical place was this?

Then it got even better. Not only did I hear all of this great popular music but louder than anything else was something that I thought I would never hear in public. I heard a distinctive tenor saxophone solo, no vocals, not a song but an instrumental. Wait a minute. Was that Dexter Gordon on tenor? Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin? "The Blues Up and Down?" I had that record. I had to immediately find where that record was being played.


Following my ears led me to this record store. I fled towards the sound of Dexter Gordon's tenor as if the sound was the elixir of everlasting life.  All thoughts of luggage, my class, our hotel, even the Watergate Hotel and the Nixon tapes were but meaningless inconveniences. Dexter's tenor led me to this tiny record store in the heart of downtown D.C. just two blocks from the station. Behind the counter this middle aged man with an enormous afro asked me, "what can I do for you son?"

"Hello. You are playing Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin! Do you like Dexter Gordon too? That's the Blues Up and Down".

"Do I like Dexter Gordon?" He laughed. "Best thing that happened in this country is him coming back to the States. That's very unusual that you recognize that. Well of course we are playing that. This is a jazz store, mainly. My name is Sam and this is my place. I decided to call it Sam's records. This is like a home to me. Maybe someday you can get a place of your own when you get older too."

I kept asking all sorts of questions. Did he personally know any of these musicians?

"Well I'll be happy to tell you that Miles Davis is a family friend. His parents were friends of mine in Illinois. But I'm not that close. Sometimes we do promotional things with musicians. Like Dexter was here last week. I got this record signed by him!"

"When is Miles Davis going to record again?"

"That is a very good question. I think he's getting more health conscious now. He is gonna come back. You'll see. Let me show you something. Look the cover of this record and look at the inside. You ever see a record like that? Now this music is really different. Unusual. The last time he put a horn to his mouth this is what it sounded like. Tell me what you think. Now remember: some people approve, others don't. I'd like to know your opinion." And then he went over and put this record on. "You know," he continued, "I've always said, and I don't care what anybody will tell you but you remember this, that there's good music and bad music not this, that, or the other label of music,  electric or natural music etc. You ever hear a wah-wah trumpet before?"

"What's a wah-wah trumpet?"



I had never seen any drawing like this in my life. It captivated me.

 The spell of this vivid artwork and the hypnotic music was broken when suddenly the record store was invaded by cops and a screaming Principal Bob. I wondered if I was going to be arrested and felt momentary terror.

"Mitch," Bob yelled, "We've been looking all over this damn city for you. How many times have I told you to stay with the group? You stay with the team! With the group! Over and over! You always like to wander everywhere. You just wander. Not everybody is nice in this world or good you know. I'm going to talk to your mother about this and tell her you don't know how to stay with others and that you are selfish, very selfish.  When you took off just now you were telling all of us that you don't love us and don't care about us. Do you realize that? A record store? You have record stores in Tampa! Why do you need to come to a record store? What is so special about a record store?" He stopped and met Sam's eyes in awkward silence.

"It's okay," Sam said, his eyes not leaving mine. "I was just teaching Mitch something about our musical heritage. You can't get much more American than that. That is about as important as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington if you ask me." Sam said.

I don't remember much about the rest of that trip except a bunch of monumental architecture. (Some of this was quite monumental).  I never did get to hear those White House tapes after all. The tour guide talked a lot about them but said they were intended for adult ears only. I spent most of the rest of trip looking at Lisa in her halter tops and cut off shorts and wondering what I would do with my life when I got back home. I knew I was in for some harsh punishment by the school, a punishment which included staying at home and writing some report on responsibility towards others, or something like that. I was to be allowed to return to the school only when I was "in touch enough with my feelings" enough to hand in the report.

Yet what I remember most about that whole trip was Sam. The record store, like so many staples and cultural foundations of our collective past and youth, seems to recede now. I do miss it so.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Towards an Aesthetics of 1970s Cinema and Culture, Part Two: Behind the Intensity





As artists, filmmakers have to make committed and unalterable decisions about the look, feeling, and ultimate meaning of their films. The choices are rather finite in number, but they are much vaster than people of narrow tastes or imagination would imagine. They will have to decide if the focus is one conversation among people and if it will be in groups of two or more. They will have to above all decide in what tone human relations will take place. They will have to decide how crowded the environment will be, what the angle on the environment will be, whether objective or subjective - the latter through point of view editing and shooting. They may even decide for the film to be about environment or landscape more than about people. Or conversely, the focus will be on the people or actors almost exclusively.

One of the many things that gets talked about in 1970s films is the intensity, or so-called shock effect of its depiction of sexual or violent content. As we shall see, however, the issue is not so much of the content of sex or violence but rather of an attitude towards a certain form of dramatic representation. The style of presentation was used for any sort of content and of course sex and violence are natural attention grabbers in human life. The important thing though is to interpret an aesthetics of a certain mode of presentation. The same kind of attention given such shocking and suspenseful scenes was also given to discussions around a kitchen table and as we shall see for rather similar philosophic and aesthetic reasons.

 My first example is the truly horrifying torture of the children on a schoolbus by the psychopathic villain played by Andy Robinson in the climax of Dirty Harry (1972, Don Siegel). It seems as if director Don Seigel and the screenwriters relish in showing the hurt of the children and the merciless glee of the psychotic kidnapper, all the more to cause the audience to root for  the hero Harry when Harry confronts and finally vanquishes this villain. As if this violence weren't enough, the filmmakers have the bus driver talk of the vulnerable innocence of the children and how wrong it is to treat them that way, as a kind of reaction shot to confirm the moral center during the horror. 

Yet showing her reaction shots only makes the pain more unbearable for us in the audience. This is a one of those cases of a filmmaker "going too far". 


For decades we have been subjected to reductive readings of this rather complex film, where it has been called a mere thriller or action film and even fascist - the last label from the pen of the never subtle, often tone deaf Pauline Kael. In truth Dirty Harry is a meditation on the nature of justice, ethics and security in a modern America, as complex as any 1970s western by Sam Peckinpah.


Even directors working in a highbrow or artistic style were concerned to explore violence in all of its ugliness and fullness. Italian art film director Pasolini made an entire film, Salo, devoted to a philosophic inquiry into violence. Yet we would be remiss if we understood the goal or intent as being one of mere manipulation of emotion or commercial goals. Both in a Hollywood film and an art film, something else is at work here in addition to emotion or commerce.



A related moment comes to us from a made for t.v. movie "about" the issue of domestic violence called Intimate Strangers, with Dennis Weaver and Sally Struthers. As can be gleamed from my choices of films, I will travel from one category to another, from a so-called art or auteur film, to an action film, to a made for t.v. utilitarian or "relevant" film. (Relevant in the sense of made for social causes or purposes). It is my contention that family features of resemblance trump, in every consideration, questions of genre hierarchies (without forgetting the importance of the psychology of creators). When we experience a film or any other object we are having feelings and undergoing an experience, we don't think to concern ourselves with authorial or commercial intent. What if seemingly disparate kinds of films have a remarkable amount of features in common: a commonality that crosses otherwise divergent styles like tragedy and slapstick, features other than the merely technical ones of tools that were available at the time of creation or production?


In Intimate Strangers (1977 John Llewellyn Moxey), not only have we established, for about the first half hour or so, an ordinary presentation of Dennis Weaver and Sally Struthers in the round, as it were,  not all neatly summarized as a villain and victim, but when the husband's violence does first appear and is ratcheted up, it is in marked contrast to all that proceeds, even given the cues and hints in Weaver's behavior. It makes a certain amount of sense but is nevertheless shocking. In one astonishing scene that could not or would not be conceived or shot in today's climate, Weaver throws his wife around the room in the most brutal fashion.  It is so horrific it makes Stanley Kubrick's The Shining appear a tame Disney ghost story in comparison. And this was made for network television! Even worse, we are forced to watch the children watch him attack his wife.  There is little use of the children as people in their own right throughout the film; they are almost ciphers to create shock and drama. In the flow of the film Weaver goes from a sort of dense and tense jerk to the worst sort of monster. The sound design in this scene of violence is noteworthy in that it has the screams and cries of Sally Struthers pitched at the highest frequency, coupled with the merciless savagery of the sound of Weaver's voice. (As Robert Bresson noted, the auditory imagination might be the most important element in film).


(I will allow the reader time to recover from my mention of Robert Bresson in the context of a made for t.v. drama, though it is not, at least in this one instance, that unlike Au Hasard Balthazar in terms of sound. The question of The Shining in comparison with a made for t.v. drama meant to raise awareness about domestic violence is, well, complicated.)


 In the same film we see Weaver and a male coworker, played by Larry Hagman, go and pick up some single women for a one night stand outside of their marriages. While I cannot say that the film exactly approves of this action, it depicts it as a part of married life and in no way tries to tie such action to the awful male behavior inside the home. One of the hallmarks of 1970s filmmaking is its absolute refusal to guide an audience's point of view or to command authorial normativity. In editing and in camera placement, and even in presentation of certain acting styles, an ethic often approaching documentary styled, so-called objectivity is pursued. This is even the case even in non-naturalistic and highly stylized work like Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1975).  Indeed, the Larry Hagman character strongly condemns wife battering and is shown as the better husband for having internalized an ethical norm. Yet were it not for Hagman's pushing Weaver so hard, Weaver would have never taken the strange woman to a motel to begin with.  Yet, after all of this, at the end, Weaver's humanity shines through alongside his villainy when he cries while looking at his former wife in court. 


(I find the whole notion of the exploitation film deeply problematic for reasons I cannot get into there. Suffice to say that it assumes a priority of intent in distribution and marketing which I think rather irrelevant in terms of the finished aesthetic result - the work of art at the end. For another reason, even if a film is partly made to create basic and primitive emotions in the viewer or to raise awareness about a political cause, the style in which such goals were accomplished in 1970s film sets them apart from the films of other eras. In this way the power of an epoch and its imagination, to say nothing of an individual author can be more decisive and powerful than notions of genre or function can allow.)


I should note the extraordinary complexity of representation of "character" in 1970s visual representation more generally. 1970s movies, more than any before, problematize the notion of a stable or unified presentation of selfhood, and features this complexity even in "lighter" fare like The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976).

I should note the extraordinary complexity of representation of "character" in 1970s visual representation more generally. 1970s movies, more than any before, problematize the notion of a stable or unified presentation of selfhood, and features this complexity even in "lighter" fare like The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976)The film is so casual and offhanded in its treatment of Walter Matthau's alcoholism: Coach Buttermaker is never corrected, treated or asked to change and his mean, curmudgeonly grumpiness is even played for laughs - like something out of W. C. Fields or Red Skelton. There is a narrative of triumph of sorts, there is good versus evil (and Vic Morrow's villain, like all 70s villains is most evil).  But the film just as equally fights against such narrative inevitabilities, all in the interest of getting at the  unglamorous truth of someone like Coach Buttermaker. The film is not interested in solving the alcoholism but in getting Matthau and the kids to express certain energies for effect. It is about their performance for us in physical environments.  This, in fact, is a form of (comic) stylization, not realism.

One of the consistent aesthetic strategies or stylistic effects in movies like Bad News Bears is to traffic in a kind of celebration of ordinariness; the speech is often harsh and guileless, the attitude toward life is resigned and wised-up,  carried as far as is possible in mainstream studio production. What undergirds the effect though, is far from nihilism or cynicism: it is the view that truth and love are reconcilable rather than oppositional (love as necessary illusion or fantasy, for example). There is a respect for human beings - both on screen and in the audience - such that they can take any harsh truth that is thrown at them and be bent towards a love that is truly unconditional.  

This gives the films their embarrassing or excessive quality to viewers in a more recent era.  One reason for this is the 1970s films are not naturalistic or realistic but a form of stylized excess. It is a mode of presenting passing states of feeling free from the constraints of classical narratological and psychological foundations. The flow of feeling (say, crude, or rude one liners) is prioritized over solid narration.  They aim to dramatize or stylize what we'd like to repress or forget. Post 1980s or 90s cinema, on the other hand, has the surface effect of "reality" but a complete lack of stylization.  A profound coyness is established that people have come to understand as a kind of "sophistication" or cleverness. All 70s films agree with the Peter Falk character's verdict (which in itself comes more or less directly from John Cassavetes, as well as a reference to a Lenny Bruce bit) in Husbands that "the truth will never kill you but lies will, lies will kill you before cancer in the heart". And this is, finally, the real motivation for the particular representation of children in Bad News Bears, as foul mouthed, argumentative, and insensitive: it not to shock an otherwise naive or square audience but to try and capture what one might actually hear on a little league field in life. Bill Lancaster and Michael Ritchie would have considered it disrespectful towards the audience to pull back on honesty for the sake of preconceived ideals of either narrative or character. Or, in another context, as Hal Ashby pleaded with censorious producers concerning the language in his The Last Detail, "hey, what do you want me to do? That's how these guys talk." But we can't take Ashby at his word, since it is not a question of what is real or actual, but how we in the audience feel as it is represented in the way it is for us  on the screen. 


In "heavier" fare, like Diary Of A Mad Housewife (1970, Frank and Eleanor Perry), the man played by Frank Langella, with whom the titular figure (Carrie Snodgress) has an affair is not initially sinister, but in turns, seductive, and charming, and an intellect. He is not a mere heavy. (Any more than is the husband a mere chauvinist pig, a complexity also helped by Richard Benjamin's choice of acting style. In playing the husband, he does what he is best known for - an acting style influenced by comedy and farce. Indeed his style and Carrie Snodgress' style work against each other in ways that would be impossible if both actors acted with matched tones. Richard Benjamin's timing is no different than his timing in, say, a slapstick farce like Love At First Bite (Stan Dragoti, 1979). (Compare Benjamin in both films, and this must be done, profitably, back-to-back and you will see what I mean). It is a genius on the Perrys' part to use this contrast in acting precisely in order to make a profound Feminist argument about domestic inequality. Benjamin's broadness of tone makes his overbearing sense of entitlement and self centeredness an alien way to be, and slightly ridiculous. Richard Benjamin's loud and broad singsong lists of requests to his wife creates an alienation effect. We see there is something wrong with a marriage like this. This is only exacerbated by the decision to then immediately switch to Snodgress' interior consciousness. And what does she say to herself? They are the very concerns that motivated the art of this period: a desire that her husband be more authentic, intimate and "real" and come out from under his clothes and character armor. 

And Diary Of A Mad Housewife  depicts children in a decidedly unsentimental way, as slightly alien, irritating burdens upon Carrie Snodgress, rather than as cute and as always, already symbols of unspoiled virtue. I don't need to fully analyze just how radical the depiction of childhood is in The Bad News Bears. What is ostensibly a mere kid's sports movie has as its project as can be seen in the trailer above, a view of kids as rude, limited, and mean in the way kids can be. Their idiosyncracies are presented directly. No apologies. No moralizing.



I want to offer a brief suggestion of what is going on in all of this. In the culture of the 1970s, in the world of curious and searching middle class people, there was an ethic of thoroughness, of intense exploration. This was not only in psychology therapies but all aspects of daily life. This thoroughness created a crack in formerly unified, seamless notions of the self. It also created an interest in intense emotional expression as a value in and of itself, a kind of extension of 19th century Romanticism into a world that was 20th century and Modern. It would be impossible for such concerns not to be reflected in the dramatic art of the period. Indeed the art of the 1970s in general is the result. One of the usual ways directors or screenwriters talk about this issue when pressed about it, is to talk of being "Real", or believeable. Both Hal Ashby (director of Shampoo, Harold and Maude, Being There, and The Last Detail, and William Friedkin, (director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer), spoke of this idea of being as real as possible as the highest aesthetic goal. They had no fear of being thought pretentious or naive: this was a sincere belief for them, certainly as much as (if not more than) box office grosses. 


I want to use slightly different formulations here. Instead of Ashby's or Friedkin's formulation I would say that what we have in 1970s cinema is a cinema of immersion, rather than a cinema of  condensation. In condensation, one of the hallmarks of a classical style, all of the energies and efforts of scenes or characters are utilized in such a way that the sense of whole and forward momentum are the highest priorities. In immersion, by contrast, the feeling or sense of falling into a moment is given priority, often at the expense of structural wholeness. It just so happens that when the subjects are sex and violence, this is noteworthy because of human emotion in response to these primitive attention grabbers. But 1970s filmmakers would give as much care and attention to a scene of a conversation around the breakfast table as they would a more dramatically riveting scene of violence. (Woman Under The Influence Cassavetes 1974) The effect is to be concerned with the presence of the audience towards or in a moment rather than getting an audience to a particular conclusion or closure. The overriding ethic is one that values revelation as a virtue in its own sake, an ethic that revels in explicit and graphic showing rather than hiding in the interests of good taste or classical decorum.

 You might call this a principle of contradiction to otherwise routine perceptions. Serious matters normally given high stakes are here casually observed (one's sex life). Conversely, matters formerly taken for granted are given serious and critical examination (justice and fairness in domestic life). This is the aesthetics of the moment. Moments are like that; they are not arranged to serve a hierarchical telos. They only capture our attention for a time. Sometimes all we can do is follow along and respond and get our meaning from our response.  

Discussion of sexuality in 1970s film and art deserves a book onto itself. The films of that time are nothing less than a document of the Sexual Revolution itself as it was unfolding. And I do mean something rather close to an actual document. What is gotten at is not how things as we would like them but rather, as in Lenny Bruce's famous quote, an observation of what is. Suffice to say that, in the dialogue wherein sex is discussed among characters in films of the 1970s, frankness and attention to reality and objectivity is always given priority over good taste, or moral objectivity, to say nothing of contemporary 2000's ethical sensibilities. Hal Ashby's biggest fight with the studio in making The Last Detail (1973) was in defending the language of his sailor characters. They constantly talk of "pussy" as a metonym of women, for example. Ashby's defense was  the need to show machismo as it really was, without defending or condemning it outright. "That's how these guys talk," he said. I should note that unlike contemporary fare like The Sopranos, where I believe the cursing is more for show and to stoke up the drama or color, in a film like The Last Detail it is a genuine attempt at a kind of documentation, almost as a color in the overall palette.



In the 1970s the same ethic that lead couples and groups to explore their feelings in communes and newer therapies was the same ethic that believed that a work of art or a film be a document of the times in some way, however small. In this sense the usual contrast between documentation or sociology on the one hand or representation or artistry, on  the other, becomes obliterated. Made for t.v. docudramas of the time have the same style and feeling as stylized period pieces! This also accounts for the intense left-wing politics of 1970s films. It is not so much that the films were trying to create revolution or reform but that by immersion in the figures represented on screen, certain political issues necessarily had to be foregrounded.


There certainly was a wildness and, from today's perspective, an irresponsibility in the era's treatment of sexual matters.

The opening of Pretty Maids All In A Row (Roger Vadim, 1971) approaches that of soft-core pornography in its depiction of how the ("typical" straight male) mind can view women. It is important to note that Roger Vadim tries to have it both ways: obviously to create arousal in some of the audience, but also to show that this is also the inner fantasy life of a male adult teenager. The following scene from later in the film would usually be read as a standard male oriented fantasy about a sexy "older" woman. Angie Dickinson is wonderful in this (as is her co-star). The tone here dances among painful and poignant awkwardness, simple eroticism and humor. (The thriller portion of Pretty Maids All In A Row is a different matter altogether).


 In the underrated Lifeguard (1976, Daniel Petrie), a group of teenaged boys express interest in a female model's breasts (after openly admitting earlier in the film to masturbating while thinking about the girls at the beach in a frank talk with Sam Elliot's lifeguard) and proceed to sneak behind her to tear off her swimsuit top while she is posing for a photo shoot. Even worse, the boys' invasion is with the apparent encouragement of the lifeguard, who watches with binoculars, enjoying the view and not putting a stop to the boys' attack. Though the boys are relatively "innocent" and harmless, it is still an outrageous scene. Of course such a scenario, especially with such a tone, would be unthinkable in a film today and probably for some good reasons. 

At the same time, Sam Elliott's character is one of the great character studies in narrative cinema. He shows great maturity and vulnerability in scenes when he pursues an old high school flame, (Anne Archer), a woman whose intelligence and independence is foregrounded in the film. She too is shown in great complexity. At once a loving mother, and comfortable with her sexuality, highly engaging, very attractive, she nevertheless has more conformist and practical values than does Elliott in spite of her many strengths. Yet the film, in a turn of narrative almost never depicted on screen in a studio film, even in the anti- establishment 1970s, celebrates Rick's decision to abandon an opportunity to sell Porsches to instead continue to work as a lifeguard.  The film never condemns the Anne Archer character for being more sympathetic with the lucrative and safe choice of a job as a Porsche dealer. (Indeed, practically everybody in the film wants Rick to have a "grown-up job"). And, except for the flawed scene mentioned above, he is a genuinely classical hero in many respects, a hard worker who manages to be a laid back Californian while at the same time diligent and disciplined, saving lives and soothing egos. Thus, the allegedly immature job that pays little but is just enough for Sam Elliott is the very job that demands greatest emotional intelligence and work.

There is a clear point of view here: the film does celebrate lifeguard Rick's integrity with regard to life choices. Yet nevertheless, the film just as consistently maintains an observational approach, utilizing every opportunity to show us an open view of life on the beach and in this milieu. It presents us lots of stimuli, especially in the styles and wardrobes of the garish high school reunion, and we have to do some work with what we are presented.

More notoriously, however,  lifeguard Rick has one night of lovemaking with a sixteen year old girl, a night that the girl initiates against the initially quite strong objections by Sam Elliott. Of course it goes very bad: having taken her virginity she falls, in her own way, in love with him. Interestingly, he confides about the troubled girl's suicide attempt and her obsession with him to Anne Archer. Archer seems to take it in stride as part of life or growing up. The teenage girl, played by Kathleen Quinlan, is depicted with great respect and shown to be lost, alienated, but capable of great progress and promise. The whole situation is dealt with as sensitively as is possible. When such a situation is depicted today it is nearly always depicted as a good and evil melodramatic reality play.

This narration of having a girl who is a fling rather than the main partner becoming needy, clinging or worse and consequently showing the male protagonist's girlfriend to be "understanding" of the crisis is, aside from the age difference, structurally similar to Play Misty For Me (Clint Eastwood/Jo Heims 1971). In both cases what would normally be an issue of jealousy or cheating, is instead treated as an opportunity for mutual understanding or support among the primary couple. Even though one would think this sympathy natural because the third party is mentally impaired in some way, thus making her a threat to the real or primary relationship (the threat being the more essential issue) there are numerous ways this could play out - ways that would vary in social acceptability across time. 

 Lifeguard has one brief scene consisting of a single conversation between the lifeguard and a flight attendant in bed: the whole scene has a matter of fact frankness about sexuality and life choices that is rare even in today's independent film world.  (Lena Dunham's superb Girls on HBO in 2012 is a notable and exemplary exception). In general, films purporting to be about mature and adult themes today are haunted by a fear of and an anxiety about adulthood itself, coupled with a nostalgic attachment to childhood, the latest and most blatant example being Wes Anderson's overrated Moonrise Kingdom (2012).







If you will recall I am something of a phenomenologist in that I think the decisive criteria in interpreting a work of art and in assessing its value is how it feels to experience it in linear time. I believe this experience trumps even the reconstruction or analysis of it at a later date. The experience is the most important part of its design and structure; otherwise we would be content not to have the work of art at all but only a summary or Cliff Notes of it. Todd Berliner captures this sense of a how an audience feels as opposed to the overall deep design or underlying structure of a film in his discussion of Nashville:

"Nashville (1976 Robert Altman) offers another exemplary instance of a seventies narrative intent  upon frustrating linear narration through convolution, ambiguity, and disorientation. Many people have told me that they hated the movie until they saw it twice. Indeed much of the time the narrative proceeds as though the audience has already seen the movie. For instance, before we meet Timothy Brown (played by actor Timothy Brown) or hear him sing-that is, before we learn he's a black singer of white-sounding country music - a scene in which Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) mistakes his African-American wife for a member of his entourage makes little sense. Similarly, a joke made by Bill (Allan Nicholls) at the beginning of the movie that politician Hal Phillip Walker 'looks exactly like Connie White' (Bill sees a poster of White, who is a country singer, with a Walker sticker posted on it) will not make full sense until we understand who Connie White is; the movie introduces us to her fifty minutes later. The uncommunicativeness of the film's narration does not function as a classical retardation device, which, in conventional instances, would delay story resolution in order to retain viewers' interes. On the contrary, the narration's uncommunicativeness threatens to alienate viewers by treating their information needs indifferently."


Todd Berliner has undoubtedly written the major book - the most intelligent - on 1970s cinema. He is accurate in following the texts as closely as he does. Yet, after wrestling with his great book for at least a couple of years, I must nevertheless part company with his use of incoherence as a primary way of understanding the texts.


Looked at through the lens of immersion as an opposition to condensation there is nothing incoherent about any of these films. They are both weirder than incoherent and much more ordinary than incoherent. They would only be incoherent if one started from classical presuppositions about linearity in events and stability in selfhood. Yet such notions had been long gone by this time from most of the other arts for at least over half a century, if not more, when counting Proust, James, and Woolf. It was time for movies and other electronic mass media to play catch-up.  

Rather, what one can say is that these films operate through an aesthetics that I would call meta-experiential. They take as their very subject the nature of human response to situations rather than assume a natural and universal response as an unquestioned foundation. The conceptual power to make or shape the world and achieve some sort of mastery over it is at the heart of  the more classical mode of condensation, best exemplified, perhaps, by a classical master like Alfred Hitchcock. (Interestingly when Hitchcock works in the 1970s, in Frenzy and Family Plot (1976), even he begins to experiment, or more accurately, play with the mode I am describing. The sheer outrageous eccentricity of the family in Family Plot is always threatening to take the film away from its preordained narration. The energies of Bruce Dern, William Devane, Barbara Harris, and Karen Black are 1970s energies of intensity and extremity, to say nothing of the art direction).


1970s films deal with the nature of what it is to experience life as it unfolds, as opposed to life as a classically "tight" craft or construction. They were rather similar to what was happening in the fiction and other arts of the time: all were interested in observing the process of experience whether it be the stream of a mind at work in prose form or a durational performance art work on stage.  It is actually in the nature of daily experience to be rather like watching Nashville. This is not because Nashville is more realistic than other films but because Altman is interested in an immersion in a moment or moments. He is simply not interested in summarizing those moments. 

This is why it is not a question of reality per se. One can be in the world in an organized or summarized fashion and have it be as real as an immersive fashion: that is what montage is all about, after all. It all depends on how much uncertainty one wants to experience or can tolerate.

 It is also inevitable that an interest in immersion will create a certain frankness about sensitive aspects of life like sex. The potential for conflict is greater in immersion. If you place an emphasis on condensation you must filter or edit out things which call attention to themselves. 

One of the most talked about aspects of Nashville is the tightness and soundness of its script by Joan Tewksbury. Everyone remarks how all twenty four characters are fully explained in their connections and meaning over the course of the movie, in the sense of a deep structure. But Tewksbury designed her script in a certain linear progression of events and this felt experience is what we come away most remembering about the film. That is, she designed it as Berliner describes it. She knew what she was doing. Thus the film depends as much on its sense of moments as it does on the "reality" that everything is tightly contrived in the end. But we don't really experience an "in the end". Robert Altman even decided to kill off one his main characters at the hands of a lone assassin during the course of production, causing at least one other member of his team to resign in offense and protest. This assassination at the end is one of the most discussed scenes in the film, especially in light of concerns over mass media, celebrity, and random crimes like shooting. But I will not post that ending here, but, given that we are discussing the 1970s, the Keith Carradine song, "I'm easy"!

 It takes enormous skill and artistry to create this effect of there not being a construction. If it goes wrong there can be nothing worse. If it goes right, as in John Cassavetes or Robert Altman (as different as these two are from one another) there is nothing more sublime. In this sense, Altman's film is anything but "uncommunicative" or "indifferent".  As a work of art,  by definition it is designed a certain way to create engaged emotions in the viewer. 

You can never get outside of meaning and values. Thus stylistic effects are anything but effects added on, after the fact of the matter. They are meaning itself. And meaning is not primarily an issue of symbolism - in truth it is more a matter of metaphor. Meaning is created in the very process of perceptual relations which are at the heart of all of the arts. 

Only at the very end of this great period, when conceptual modes of analysis take over, threatening the perceptual aesthetics I have begun to discuss here, when psychology becomes ossified into a conceptual science, does this immersive mode become less tenable or understandable. If the 1970s were about the limits of explanation; the following decades since have been about the limits of pure experience and the hunger for answers. We have gone from the encounter session to the so-called Reality Show.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Notes Towards an Aesthetics of 1970s Cinema and Culture: Quarrelling with the Law Of NonContradiction


Art and ideas are not one: my immodest reply to John Russell.

This opening of Dog Day Afternoon is not an establishing scene. It relates little to anything that follows in the film. Oh I will grant you that it ends with an establishing shot of the bank that will occupy the action and drama of the film and I grant you that it moves from the outer world of New York towards the more intimate focus of the site of the robbery. Yet while we are watching it we are continuously distracted by all of these disparate and various street and beach scenes. We aren't thinking about action or banks; we are busy watching humanity going about its business. It is this feeling that makes this not an ordinary establishing scene. We are in the moment; it doesn't just serve the story. It is scenes like this that are salient.
 It is in the mode of Robert Frank or Gary Winogrand's documentation. The scenes are rough; they might depress some viewers. Yet there is such a rich attention to our humanity in it. Indeed, I would argue it is as humanistic as Italian Renaissance painting. It is filled with loving attentions. What does it mean? Why is so much time taken to show urban life in this sense? And what do you make of the choice of a loud Elton John song rather than a composed score? (The song is also unrelated to what we see and it is important to note that the melody and harmony offer a very sharp and heartfelt mood, with its quasi Gospel and bluesy chords and direct manner). (Hal Ashby made the loud rock song his trademark in sound design. In him it was a color in his palette. Later Hollywood used it to sell songs or push bands. Here, as in Ashby, it is pure aesthetic accompaniment to create a mood. Here Sidney Lumet is doing something rare in Lumet's oeuvre). What does Lumet's decision to open a film this way make us feel about life or art? How does it affect us?

Critics ask questions such as these far too little. If they did ask them they might start a much needed revolution in criticism.

There are a great many misconceptions concerning the meaning of what it is for we humans to make things that are expressive or more or less representational, things yet nevertheless not of direct or immediate reality and safely classified as "make-believe."

This is an introductory note for what promises to be a full length book that inquires into two related matters in aesthetics; one is a special "window" of opportunity, indeed a golden age of the cinema arts coinciding roughly with the period of what certain revisionist historians have called "The Long 1970s': I ask exactly what made it innovative and special and opposed to the classical and older modern period that came before this long 1970s. The second matter concerns with why this age or short window was destroyed and, notwithstanding vestiges that  are scattered all throughout our current moment, why the conditions are more or less permanently impossible for any continuation or return of that wild and weirdly wonderful and innovative project.

The two questions are most intimately connected because it is a truth that artists and entertainers who make things have beliefs and assumptions and that, if they happen to live in an age like ours, in which things that were previously a matter of partial mystery or naive innocence have become thoroughly picked over and overanalyzed, the newer set of beliefs and assumptions that such (usually scientific) mastery comprises might make impossible artistic quality of certain style or quality. Indeed, as I will argue by the end of the book it might even insure that all of the arts suffer in something like an objective way. Note that  I am not making the sociological statement that works of art are merely written by their culture or can never be timeless. Rather, I am saying that habits and assumptions that artists have or are encouraged to have cause certain works to be possible or impossible and the issue has little if anything to do with finances or budgets, or even political ideologies - the ways this issue normally gets discussed. In focusing on these we have missed something very important indeed.

Yet the paradox of art, and this will be my main thesis, is that, though these ideas and beliefs form the beginning of an artwork, art by its very nature being always, already a perceptual thing must eventually leave behind fixed ideas in its process. (If it is to be anything other than a news report, say.) This means that so-called conceptual art will succeed or fail by the sensory qualities of the work rather than the concept the artist wants to press upon us.  You might say that an artwork, regardless of style or time, communicates ideas in a way rather opposed to discursive or ideational thinking: through our perceptions and the feelings and wisdom that our perceptions, and only our perceptions, can bring.

Indeed I am constantly astonished at how some of the most important matters in visual arts, in this case, cinema or film, are ignored or passed over. In my account I restore certain matters of feeling, mood, texture, even duration, to their rightful place in afield all too long dominated by considerations of classical and modern psychology and narration. I must immediately thank Todd Berliner for starting the discussion of stylistic matters concerning the 1970s. I aim to continue his project and add further considerations.

I will look at works that are high art and rather low. My emphasis is to catalog styles and themes rather than specific authors. I still think there is a truth to authorship in terms of scripts and direction, but I am interested firstly in the aesthetics of an age, because the age with which I am dealing is an aesthetic one, an age as an art work, you might say.

STYLISTIC EFFECTS:

Effects are not trivial in my view. Rather than see them as an alternative to meaning as do the critics Bordwell, Scott Thompson, and Berliner, effect is meaning itself. I am not opposed to meaning - to narration, and psychology per se.  I just don't think it is always the most important matter.

I return constantly to the question of style. More than in any other period of cinema, filmmakers in the 1970s seemed to relish in the sights and sounds of the found and observed environment in which the world actually lived. This is not just because location shooting became equal to and at times largely replaced sets. For my purposes, it matters to me not a whit whether it was dressed or undressed, by the way. At times the design and architecture of the environment was as important an element as the observation of the manners and mores of the time. In this sense the films could be said to be naturalistic or real in their nature; the style of documentary was used all of the time, no matter however constructed the film may have been in other respects. Yet this was a radical realism, so radical that it departs from all earlier realism in assumptions, points of view, etc. Yet it wears the mask of "nitty-gritty" and "rough" realism to trick us in the audience. In no way could any of these films be considered the same in intent or purpose as earlier pictorial or written realism. This is not Zola, Dreiser, or Courbet. Still less is it the committed work of filmmaker John Grierson. Rather, the interest was in finding a poetry out of the ordinary, rather than saving the world the aim is to fully represent it.

It is no accident that John Cassavetes, Jacques Rivette have their scenes go on for as long as they do, it is in part a project of their times and much as themselves. They need to have the scenes go on so a slip or contradiction occurs in the character, thus destabilizing our fix on them. This is either done simultaneously, by the density of the mise en scene or serially by observing human conversation and interaction over long periods. There was an unabashed love for and fascination with the world that was "found." This is even more extraordinary and astonishing given the heavy ugliness of some of the 1970s. I am convinced that the filmmakers were hell bent on preserving the oddness and specialness of the time for future generations and that such interest in documentation is part of their ostensibly fictional project. Some of what was represented would be the last thing over which any camera would normally linger. Yet linger it does, longer and with more attention than at anytime before. It is as if the filmmakers were trying to test their own boundaries of compassion or perceptual attention. It is the point of view of somebody who has just arrived to planet earth and is excited by it.

Rather than objective realism these effects were joined with a kind of Romanticism and at other times a colder structuralism. If there is any word that best describes this style it is the word contradiction. The art, as much as the life of the 1970s aimed to defy the logic of the law of contradiction. Opposing things were always attempted. This single fact accounts for why the films have been so misread by ideological critics who, like the late Robin Wood, can never decide whether the films are Liberal or Conservative. A world fully explored is a world that will eventually resist all labels, types, categories and ideologies. It is not more truthful that other styles; it is simply more full, often exhaustingly so.

Uniquely in the history of art, the films of the 1970s aim to celebrate, mock, attack, satirize, and romanticize and empathize all at once. Most viewers miss one of these characteristics and see only one half. This is the fault of the viewer, because most of the films actually succeed in voicing fully the contradictions. Consider this ending of the film Stay Hungry (Bob Rafelson 1976)

Now it is part of my purpose in this book to try and free us from notions of causality, whether behavioral or emotional, so let us put aside the context or function of this ending. Free your mind of ideas about "spoilers". Note the feeling of this scene.

It appears as if all of these bodybuilders take over the city. They then meet up with a group of colorful and excited African American people in a crowd and trade notes and simply hang out. This is one of the most important moments in 1970s aesthetics: the moment where we are faced with a particular scene full of energy and have to somehow deal with it as an audience. Words like populist don't do it justice. There is a feeling of joy but it is not for any message in particular. The feeling is more important than the function.  The identities of the people they meet are completely irrelevant. What is important is the utterly excessive exuberance. The Southern fiddle music plays in the background. The whole proceeding has a cheap and humble quality: this is working class city. Yet the energy in the scene seems to raise everybody and everything out of their humble budget. or rather it celebrates the polyester bodyshirts and ugly cars. The modesty of budget becomes its own exalted beauty.

Usually critics will analyze this as a nod to Preston Sturges or Capra; they will note the sociology of bodybuilding and fitness in the 1970s. They will talk about how classic Hollywood movies would end with a parade. But they will forget how different this parade is. This scene is not about any of that! It uses that stuff to create certain liberatory energies. What after all was the streaking fad of the period to which this alludes? Why would anybody want to run nude into a crowded public space?

We are not sure where the frame begins or ends. This is, to use a classic critical category, an Open cinema. It has loose boundaries and loose focus. The main point of the plot (prize money, a contest, the survival of a workout gym) is constantly under threat by other stylistic distractions and forces.

 Note that it is having fun with this culture. There is some gentle satire in here, as much as celebration. Does the filmmaker want to endorse fitness or bodybuilding? Does he want to satirize it as another fad of the times? Really it is neither. Any critic committed to single reading of this will commit a misreading.

A VISION OF COMMUNITY:

Over and over again in 1970s cinema we are faced with crowds of ordinary, dowdy, homely, and average people clapping their hands at festivals, at Rotary clubs, at PTA meetings, at marches. A friend of mine says this is but political satire at the emptiness of American life. Wrong. If that were the case it would be an Elia Kazan Face in The Crowd: expressionistic, with key lighting and so on. Even Altman, who is one of the meanest satirists who ever took to the screen is undeniably in love with his crowd scenes. This is not a Marxist vision of emptiness and conformity. This is also ecstatic wonderment at the exuberance and comedy of America. In the 1970s there was the representation of the fullness of American life, not its emptiness. In the 1970s we leave behind the alienation and earnestness of the 1960s. We are in something else entirely. It is my humble project to try and interpret what this something else is.

Director Michael Ritchie was the master at this mode.


Look at the still above when it is not playing. This ugly, brown conference room, the way it is lit, the demeanor of the people and how the viewer is placed slightly outside of it gives you an idea of the aesthetic with which this book is concerned. (Almost no close or reaction shots in the whole scene by the way. No point of view or subjectivity angles.) We are in a deep 70s mode here. But what does it mean?

As soon as you think it couldn't be more radical, more Feminist in its aims, an aim at exposing the Beauty racket, the misuse of girls etc. it will then turn to broad comedy, the kind of comedy that indulges in the sort of Benny Hill politically incorrect sexuality that we were just told is problematic and then after the comedy, it will remind us of the unfairness of it all. It is merciless in criticizing (and accurately cataloguing) the self help and motivational ideologies of America but endears us to the people who hold such beliefs.  It will mock mercilessly, then it will swerve back to compassionate regard. It attacks small narrow businessmen like Bruce Dern, and it shows the girls being somewhat oppressed by their supervisors.

Bruce Dern's Big Bob Freelander, the used car salesman, can be a jerk and an asshole; he is dim and philistine; the film mocks his anti-Arab stance over oil and yet it gives Dern one of the most poignant and affecting of monologues spoken by a man on screen. Yet he is so relentlessly positive and optimistic that some goodness and caring has to come out!

The culture of the 1970s inherited from the 1960s an obsession with the question of Love in all of its forms. Love was a kind of quest, a religion of sorts. Where did it go wrong and why; how could it be repaired? Film after film engaged with this. Think of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage. Cassavette's Woman Under The Influence and Love Streams. Ed Pincus made a film called Diaries that is about four hours long and for those four hours he and his friends and family discuss what love is and little else. In La Maman et La Putain by Eustache love is endlessly discussed. If for earlier films Love was a given or a backdrop or taken for granted, here Love was a puzzle, a hoot, something wild, a rebellion, a lark, both heavy and light.

They felt obligated to love and understand the figures in their movies no matter how flawed.

Like other films in the decade, the film Smile both satirizes and celebrates. It loves all of it so much, partly as a grand human comedy. This fact enrages committed leftists about films like these. Where they want definite stands, Ritchie and writer Jerry Belson are too fascinated with the humanity of it all to want to have a revolution or destruction.  Without once letting us forget that they are flawed he loves their flaws; it is much endearing as it is horrible. It is this contradiction that insures films like Smile into the pantheon of some of the most slippery, tricky and emotionally complex works to be placed on screen. (Wait till we get to the outright dramas of the period and it gets even more complex).  This is partly accomplished through the fullness of presentation. It is photographed in the harshest and coldest utilitarian lighting possible. Scenes are shot leaving us in the audience outside and detached. Yet it will undo this and go in on some human drama. We spend as much  time with horny teenaged boys, dim middle aged businessman as much as we do the beauty contestants. There is even a depiction of a horrific marriage; yet no labels are trotted out. There are no clear victims or heros. This is a view of the world that could only be created before artists and intellectuals decided how they felt about everything.

It is no accident that current director Karyn Kusama, in speaking of Smile as one of her all time favorite films, notes that it would be an impossible film to make today since today's climate demands clarity and simplicity of emotion and meaning. As the director of Jennifer's Body she is all too aware of the pressures of working in the current studio system. In this sense we return to the possibility with which I opened this introduction: that there is a finite and historical nature to what are can or cannot do at any given time.

In  this note for what will eventually be a book, I have dealt with contradiction. Later on I will deal with style more generally and offer a theory of spectatorship and style that I think will focus light on previously unexamined areas of film aesthetics and art more generally.