Thursday, April 29, 2010

A brief note in favor of glamour

These are difficult times for glamour. But perhaps the difficulty can be traced back to the ‘60s when, in a spirit of radical egalitarianism, the boomers revolted against anything associated with glamour and at times, even beauty itself, usually on the grounds that such qualities are but side effects of injustice or mere illusions to distract people from their oppression as in advertising and mass media. The case against glamor has a long and at times venerable pedigree. The chief problem with cases against it is that they proceed from an assumption of functionalism. That is, they assume that there is no quality of intrinsic value to a thing, only what interest, use, or function a thing has. This theory has the unfortunate effect of diminishing the quality of how we understand our lives because, in fact, a good deal of human life is intrinsically valuable in a way that is not quantifiable.

Let John Berger’s glib definition of glamor stand in for all the rest of the denunciations. Marxist and/or anarchist art critic Berger states the ultimate functionalist account of glamor in his classic bit of radical rhetoric, Ways Of Seeing. “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.”

Of course this move on Berger’s part is to reduce glamour to its social function, which is to be at best a semiotic code for inequality and power over others and at worst an actual waste of money, the spending of which must surely be causing some poverty or hunger either near or far. (Interestingly, Berger’s scripts for Alain Tanner’s films have a certain glamour in their depictions of certain social milieu in Swiss life and even the stubborn refusal of glamour of, say, the sort of hippie communards and radicals Berger and Tanner depicts, nevertheless has a kind of glamour in their very refusal of consumer society).

The resistance to glamour reminds me of an unfortunate experience I had walking through one of the grand old luxury hotels of New York around twenty years ago. The hotel was not unfortunate; it was most marvelous. What was unfortunate was the company accompanying my walk, namely, the computer scientist boyfriend (and soon to be husband) of my female acquaintance. He launched into a loud and angry fury of sentences, all of which added up to a contempt for the human race and its evil and ruinous love of finery “and shiny, gaudy things” and its destiny to drown in its own excesses and waste due to such depraved love.

Doubtless, from a certain point of view my friend was correct. Humans have problems with using up their resources. Humans do tend to overdo things.

But let us put off to one side THAT problem. The only trouble with this man’s invective is that he hadn’t actually SEEN the hotel. He hadn’t seen its paint colors, its moldings, its Colefax and Fowler upholstery, its antique carpeting, its ornamentation, its sensual high ceilings, its cozy use of space, and above all that great chandelier than brought everything together. Other people might be blind to the hotel for different reasons: usually because its STYLE was the wrong one, might have associations with the out of date or the anachronistic.

What I didn’t know at the time was that his kind would be taking over the world very soon - (this was before the dotcom revolution) - the world would soon be run by engineers whose functionalist relationship to life would make any expression of style inconceivable. These are people, (and alas and alack they are not always or only men) who are blind to style in the same way that the color blind cannot see a Rembrandt or a Pollock.

Glamour is connected with an ancient human instinct for ornamentation and decoration. Glamour is one of the ways we remind ourselves that human life in not functional but rather gratuitous. Gratuitous is not only a pejorative word but also connotative of a certain freedom from that which is quantifiable and instrumental.

Even in our often downgraded popular art there is a hunger for glamour. A large part of the appeal of Lady Gaga and Madonna before her is this value of glamour. Both artists at times excel at the art. Many decades before highbrow intellectuals would write about the mystery of Greta Garbo. People always say of certain old movies and movie stars that they are glamourous. I think glamour is connected to Aphrodite and her claims on us. I think I might very well believe in the existence of Aphrodite in the way born again Christians believe in the present existence of Jesus. If we ignore Aphrodite we do so at our own peril. If we reduce life to utility, even in the interest of a kind of justice and fairness we cut off a good part of our humanity - the part that needs to be in awe of a gesture or creation and have our attention focused in such a way that we are literally taken out of more prosaic and practical considerations. As Crispin Sartwell comments pithily in his book Six Names Of Beauty, “The claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is false because beauty is a feature of the situation that includes the beholder and the object, the situation in which longing is made that in turn makes us move or cry or love or come.”

In our refusal of glamour we live in a social situation in which most civilized and well off adults go around in clothes that seem to be practically rags (as Tom Wolfe remarks, “the dress of people today looks as if they are fleeing an invading army.”) And the awfulness of much of the architecture of the last century and the bare, punishing bleakness of our endless highways and graceless suburbs is a sign too of the costs of banishing glamour.

Perhaps there should be a crash course in glamour. A good start would be an MGM musical circa 1936. We could study it for the wisdom of its art directors and wardrobe and costume departments. We could do a lot worse.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why the 1970s?

People never tire of asking me, doubtless with the implication, perhaps if only unconsciously, that they are concerned for my mental state, "what is it about the 1970s?" Why does that time fascinate rather than others? And if that time was so outrageous or unusual is it not a sure sign of unwelcome decadence to be so engrossed in it? And, last but not least, isn't it the case that we must live for the future anyhow?

Firstly the future is not here yet, to quote The Firesign Theater. And, secondly the future doesn't look too good, given the current developments.

But what about those 1970s? Bruce Schulman and similar revisionist historians with whom I am most sympathetic refer to a long 1970s, lasting from roughly 1968 to 1982, give or take a year. Indeed, they are so revisionist that they try to lump two decades, classically regarded as antithetical opposites, the fifties and sixties together into one time period. I welcome such a periodization; it suits my "obsessions" just fine.

I must begin with an abstraction. The seventies, unlike any other time in the modern period, actually attempted to break the law of contradiction. That in itself creates a weirdness worthy of the highest works of art and the most complex human personalities.

Let us list them, at least in part.

The seventies was scrappy, ugly, financially compromised.
Yet they were excessive, exhibitionistic and beautiful in their daring.

Variety shows are as good an example as any. They went all out in them with stars and jokes and acts yet the quality of the decor and costumes so cheap and terrible looking and the simplemindedness of the skits so astonishing as to make the variety show a moot point even as it was entertained and delivered. If you look at a 1970s variety show today you see things that are impossible in their garishness and gaudiness. You see a complete lack of self consciousness. That kind of lack of embarrassment, that sense of having nothing to lose and everything to express and an urgency in getting it off your chest is a most 1970s mode.

How different today. The generation Y and millennials are so consumed with how they are doing and how they are getting over. They are constantly watching themselves and each other. A more prefab age could not be imagined that the 2000's. Part of Obama's appeal is that he seemed a figure from the 1970s in his directness and candor, only with a more trim afro.

The millennials are seen as the most sexually conservative generation in decades. In the 1970s sex was something you simply did as part of expression.

The 1970s did not believe in appropriateness. It may have believed in good and evil and conspiracies of all sorts. But it did not believe in boundaries. The fifties and sixties were very psychological, informed by Freud and so on. The 1970s tried to go back and become almost pre-psychological, or at least develop their own psychology movements like EST or Esalen. In the 1970s self expression was more important than the intent or meaning behind it. It is little wonder that Cassavetes flourished in the 1970s because he tried (and succeeded) to make movies based not in psychological motive but pure feeling or "behavior" as he called it. In the 1970s feelings and psychology were different matters. In Dog Day Afternoon, the hero played by Al Pacino says at one point "I speak what I feel."

The 1970s made earnestness into such an art form that earnestness became the most cool and coded kind sophistication. The naive was turned into its other, became the worldly.

One major trope in the 1970s, usually exhibited in 1970s comedies, was the applause. Doubtless influenced by the ever present seminar or motivational training, or one of the newer religions, people would erupt into unified applause about practically anything. Someone would announce they were new to a town or that their kid got a new dog at the PTA and everyone would clap with exuberance.

Yet in the 1970s it was every man and woman for themselves and the image of the loner was ubiquitous as in Taxi Driver.

The movies of the 1970s have the most innovative, radically dedramatized sense of acting and scene construction in all of cinema. Actors go on about anything for hours, scenes follow them around without any clear narrative motive. A 1970s movie is never boring because you never know what is going to happen next.

Yet those same films are so under lit and scrappy. The camera choices seem just as wild and unpredictable. The 1970s, from a NARRATIVE point of view have some of the most simple minded conflicts between good guys and bad guys ever seen, so simplistic they make B movies from the forties look like Chekhov. In the 1970s the bad guy was always the capitalist businessman (as in Klute). He was chubby and always had jowls and ill fitting suits. He was always The Man. The good guy was usually sweet and easily likeable. There are many moments in 1970s dramatic art where characters announce the plot or theme openly in a most unironic and didactic fashion, usually of a political nature. This is in direct violation of one of the first principles of good writing.

And yet the 1970s had Frnch director Jacques Rivette where nobody tells you anything. The audience is on their own with him.

Yet it is in the 1970s when new commercial filmmaking took over and all of the ills of today's studio system were first hatched, notably in Star Wars and Jaws.

A typical narrative 1970s movie will feature a lot of soft core porno imagery of attractive women, followed by those women more or less complaining about the male gaze. Then they will be shown in a most unglamorous light, say, picking their toenails or sitting on the toilet, only to be followed by some odd political activism that has little to do with all of the preceding sexual titillation. Indeed one John Sayles film opens with a woman cleaning a toilet in an extreme close up. One of the reasons I love mumblecore movies is they at least dare to keep that spirit alive. Otherwise it would not exist in our culture.

The 1970s was an episodic time. Todays world is about the climax rather than episode. Today we are always being led somewhere. In the 1970s it was the journey that mattered.

The Godfather, which everyone credits as an art film, is the most conventional film ever made. It is so relatively simple, almost as if the radical nature of Gordon Willis' camera and the bravura performances made people lose sight of its tedious treatment of the family and crime.

And yet the era saw an explosion of the most incomprehensible and dense avant-garde since the fifties and sixties. Sometimes you saw both modes at work in one and the same movie. Robert Altman is an example. Odd and weird camera angles, inaudible dialogue exist alongside heavy handed villains (usually a rich white guy).

The 1970s were a matter of fact age. Everything was very direct. There was a virtue made of craft and pluck.

But the results were so deafening and blinding in their excess. Those colors and textures have a most aggressive quality. Those are modes usually associated not with thrift but baroque excess and flush times. How did the 1970s do both? Or was it that all of the ugliness was a result of the economic deprivation? We can never know.

Carlo Ginzburg says that the historian must destroy our sense of proximity to the past because the minds there were very different than our own. I will always love the 1970s because I am seeing almost a different race though it is close enough to the humanity we recognize today. In other times people seem exotic yet simple, as in, say, the fifties or the forties. But in the 1970s people were both simpleminded and simplistic yet unpredictable and wild, and filled with inner layers. This is another example of the oxymoron that is the 1970s.

I am also haunted by the specter of a childhood filled with my mother's pastel dacron slacks, odd deep shag rugs, oppressive brown wood panelling everywhere and men with so much facial hair it felt as if in daily life most males resembled The Wolfman.

The 1970s was the most American of decades. It was a decade where people sought to make their own religions and clubs and their own meaning. They said fuck you to the past and everything else.

And yet they sought comfort in traditional peasant skirts, and ancient mysticism and were consumed with a search for family roots.

But enough about the 70s.

Against Rock

The Case Against Rock Part One

“To be against means to be opposed: resistant or defiant. It also means next to: beside or near.” Laura Kipnis

“Elvis started to strum on the guitar, and I caught a glimpse of James and Buddy Rich looking at each other. Rich made a square sign with his fingers and pointed at Elvis”. (Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, Levinson, Oxford University Press 1999)

Buddy Rich and Harry James knew things: they had special and specialized knowledge of a musical nature. This is knowledge that continues to elude audiences or indeed anyone who listens to music but who is nevertheless not in possession of at least a partial understanding and comprehension of, say, jazz. But of what does this knowledge consist?

To be against rock in any serious sense is as absurd as being against death and taxes. Rock we will always have with us as long as we are a civilization. Rock literally writes the songs that make the whole world sing. This however does not mean we have to like it and be obsequious and genuflect before it. Though gravity may be an eternal law we might continue to dream of falling upwards. In any case art itself is a grand experiment in the supposition of alternate realities, of counterfactuals, whether these go by Coleridge’s phrase of “suspension of disbelief” or not. Lastly there was a world of popular music BEFORE rock and we can ask legitimate historical questions about whether we are worse or better off after rock's takeover and continued rule.

Before we proceed allow me to distance myself most widely and severely from those opponents of rock until the present. They have been the worst philistines. They are against sexuality and have attacked one of the few elements to have had potential in rock which is its sexual power: fashionable accounts of the evils of rock doubtless traffic in neologisms from feminism and other theories like “sexualization”. Those opposed to rock have been Born Again Christians and rigid Catholics who, when they should have been criticizing rock and roll, were more concerned to criticize youth and their sexual freedoms and feelings. What is wrong with rock is not it’s sex; what is wrong with rock is how little else it has to offer. The old tired cliched joke about the three chord progressions has more than an element of truth in it. Surely rock needs better enemies than these. We need an aesthetic criticism again; let us leave the moralism to the preachers and politicians.

Even worse are those critics, many of whom continue to perform on our concert stages and instruct in our music schools, who feel as if nothing that comes after Bach or Schoenberg could ever measure up to those two superstars of the classical world. Here we do have something of an ethnocentric approach to music as if everything good in the world comes to us from dead white males.

The truth in the example above of Buddy Rich and Harry James and their immediate reaction to the specter and spectacle of Elvis lies not in notions of squareness or hipness, still less does it lie in coolness. Rather, it lies above all in what used to go by the name of craft. It lies in something that has much to do with music and less to do with the music scene. By craft here I mean a kind of excellence or quality in creation, sometimes involving the relations of master and apprentice but always involving the achievement of a skill. These are preconditions for issues of artistic style and political relevance.

“What and which rock do you have in mind in your attack? Like feminisms there are many rocks. There is glam rock and indie rock and riot girl rock and pop rock and punk rock etc. Rock is many traditions.” This is how I would imagine my interlocutor to retort.

But my answer would be: I am interested in that part of art that is not contextual, which is not part of any particular community, tradition or a scene. When we forget about the scene, what is is left over and behind such specificity? What is transcendent in art’s purpose?

Rock and roll is always already only about scenes and traditions. That is the one thing very wrong with it. “I remember when we hung out and listened to Zeppelin and Rush and that really influenced us.” “Boy that song brings back memories of those times.”

Of course all the arts have their traditions and scenes. Popular art thrives upon them. Modern bebop would be nothing without the legendary jam sessions. Isn't rock a matter of the same thing?

But centuries and epochs later we have only the art work and little trace and no living memory of any of those scenes. (Anyone care to say how Elizabethan England felt and for which class?) But with most popular musics, with which rock can be safely compared, there was something in the music of more significance than merely cultural associations, matters not reducible to youth and adolescence. There was melodic phrasing not bound by the limitations of folk melody, and the melody did not have the irritating habit of circling back upon itself, something which rock melody almost always does. There was the tonal and coloristic virtue of the Blues from which rock stole and borrowed but with which rock did very little except for the excellent guitar solo by this or that decent guitarist and a soulful singer here and there. In popular music before Rock there was the knowledge and awareness of European classical music too. And much else. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers had more musical education than most of the rock composers who followed. They had backgrounds in music schools and had relatives who were prized cantors in synagogue. (Harold Arlen for example).

Rock is most often reducible to and sufficiently explained by the scene alone, however defined. In that sense rock's older detractors were correct, (in spite of their moralism and religiosity), to sense in rock an excess of youthfulness and an anxious defense against the virtues of maturity.

My interlocutor will of course bring up the issue of soul and feeling when I mention education and craft, as if these were an either/or proposition. The rock and roller wants to know what's going on in the streets and scorns what is perceived as the elitism of music education.

But the rock musician feels as if raw feeling were a kind of virtue in itself, as if the act of being human conferred upon one a kind of greatness merely for being on the scene and telling a moving story. One wants to know too, though, what form the story will take, of how feeling can be shaped through form. Works of art are not their stories, if they indeed have them. One wants to know more.

American Idol and the like represent a case of too much democracy. Let me not be misunderstood. Let the Left stand as correct in their complaint that economically we are little better than a Feudal regime in our inequalities. In that sense of course we still have too little democracy.

However, culturally, matters look quite otherwise. If the past was woefully exclusive, the present is indiscriminately inclusive, so much so that we think the singing of a song is a behavior that we should be forced to hear, no matter the circumstance of the song or the tenor and tone of the singer. It is as if, so attached we are to the scene, we hear not the song but only the fine and sincere sentiment behind the song and that makes the song ipso facto always already good. Thus, the end result in daily urban living today is that one cannot pass from one block to the next in our city streets without being bombarded by yet another poor soul expressing themselves with their guitar in tow.

The villainous female principal played by Mary Woronuv was actually correct when she commented on the demeanor of The Ramones in the 1970s movie Rock and Roll High School. They DID look emaciated and weird. Something has gone very wrong with a society indeed when that society's representation of a male popular singer slides from Frank Sinatra to Joey Ramone. This comparison alone could stand as a condemnation of rock itself. Now, to be fair, I can listen to The Ramones with a minor amount of minimal enjoyment. Their use of the triad is original the speed of their rhythm is fun, and their unique contribution to rock's "square", "straight up and down" mode of drumming is to be noted. But look at how we must suffer under their legions of followers. And hear how little else there is there when we bother to really listen.

Imagine what Buddy Rich and Harry James had experienced in their musical lives. They had been acquainted with the Broadway scores, they had some familiarity with classical or, as they would have called it, "long haired" music. They had lived around shows and vaudeville and theaters. They had played among instruments other than the now ubiquitous electric guitar: all sorts of wind and brass instruments. Above all, they had known the contributions of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, to say nothing of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. When Rich and James heard and saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show how could they not be more than a little disappointed? Given their skills as musicians and their experience of life, Elvis must have appeared to them a very square man indeed.

Duke Ellington and others in his time came into music to express something of greatest elegance and beauty. They wanted the audience to experience something of elevation so that the listener could come away inspired. Their swinging music was about movement and momentum whereas rock keeps repeating the same thing over and over like an autistic child. Rock doesn’t swing because its sense of rhythm is most rigid. Rhythmically rock is an unfortunate cheapening of earlier rhythm and blues rhythms. It was fortunate when Steve Reich came on the scene in the classical world because Reich actually succeeds at what so many rockers attempt but fail to do.

If we think about the nature of rock rhythm we are faced with the squarest of rhythmic functions in music. More often that not rock is what I call, straight up and down. There are no curves in rock; rock is all straight and hard edges. Looked at in this way the designation "cock rock" is a tautology. I am not so convinced that the presence of Joan Jett or any other woman changes very much.

All you need to do to understand the problem with rock is to compare the the original Beatles recording of “Got to Get You Into My Life” with the much better cover by Earth Wind and Fire. The Beatles version is fine enough but there is something stiff in its execution. The Earth Wind and Fire version is overproduced but it grooves like nothing else in popular music. It is on fire indeed! It is as if the dogma of authenticity makes us unable to read the latter version because rock has taught us to be suspicious of that which is popular as in “pop” and be too ready to embrace whatever FEELS most immediately rebellious and hand crafted. The Earth Wind and Fire version even has a big band arrangement as part of it.

Arrangements were a marvelous part of popular music that rock abandoned in rock's insistence upon mining folk music for its modes and in its fetishism of a kind of austerity and emotional immediacy. I understand Glam and art and prog rock to be the answer to those problems. But let us listen to these latter forms indeed. I can't help but come away feeling how much more could have been done with the material MUSICALLY.

But rock is chiefly not very much about the music, as I have said, but the scene.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What is Comedy?

This will be the first of several installments on comedy. Comedy is the greatest of the art forms, indeed it is far greater than the serious forms like tragedy or melodrama. How can I make what appears to be an invidious comparison? Is it not the case, so goes an automatic and classic retort, that one cannot equate different styles and purposes? Is it not apples and oranges?

To proceed we must face some perennial truths about comedy. Firstly, its association with relaxation and a certain kind of entertainment, with escape from one's troubles, and above all modes and tones of levity rather than brevity, and its being the opposite to the serious all make comedy victim to a kind of superficial regard and a crude treatment in the culture. Yes it is true that Annie Hall won the Oscar in the late 1970s, and one of the greatest film comedies of all times swept the oscars in 1959, Some LIke It Hot. But when one considers the utterly simple minded and sentimental mediocrities that continue to win awards year after year, precisely by virtue of their surface seriousness and relevance - (Schindler's List is a favorite pet peeve of mine), and when one considers that a subject being weighty and treated as such is often sufficient grounds for universal praise when the aesthetic and even ethical qualities of the tragic or melodramatic work in question are often so low, a picture comes into view of an implied disrespect for the art of comedy.

To make matters worse, when people write on comedy, it does little service to the art. Indeed, one of the classic texts on comedy, written by no less of a luminary than Sigmund Freud - Wit and it's Relation to the Unconscious - in its sheer humorless rigor and its pseudo-scientific and proto-structuralist graphs and maps of rudimentary jokes and in its vivisection of comedy from the heart and feeling of comedy helps to perpetuate the error of thinking that it is only by getting away from the initial spirit and feeling of a genre or work, only by turing it into a dry bit of science, free from being seduced by the charms of the jokester and the clown, that only then will we in any sense understand comedy.

But comedy is actually a deeply philosophic set of propositions about the world and our place in it. Actually all the arts are that. But there are philosophies and then there are philosophies. The immediate physical reactions comedy produces are because a part of us instinctively entertains those propositions and those propositions have a large part to deal with life as it is actually lived and felt.

There is an additional benefit of comedy and that is in its contrast to the serious modes.

It is the serious modes, as magnificent and as ennobling as they are, that are often so false about life. The serious mode is the mode of "do or die" or your "money or your life", It is implicitly apocalyptic. (When comedy does deal with a trope of apocalypse it is in order to show how unimportant such an end would be, if only because our stupidity in creating that end is itself laughable. This last example is what makes Dr. Strangelove so successful a comedy).

In its very seriousness, the serious mode ends up all too often feeding and flattering our egos of achievement. And though the serious mode does not make fun of others and entertains a basic dignity about selfhood, it ironically sustains a kind of self importance and cosmic significance about our lives that ends up perpetuating the very problems that seriousness and gravitas hopes to heal.

Comedy tells us to get out of ourselves. The stakes aren't quite as high because, sustained in laughter, we are released from a sense of urgency and the need for closure. Comedy doesn't do closure. Comedy wants a way out.

A definition of comedy: comedy is a paradox: a way of judging ourselves so that we may be nevertheless freed from judgment. It says we are all in this human project together and in our laughter, what is traditionally called "shock of recognition", we can observe life from a certain evenhanded detachment. We know we are foolish and we can entertain our foolishness as something we share. Comedy lets us bear witness but prevents us from being selfish about the position of being witness.

Above all comedy relishes the confusion, the mixups of life. It makes of chaos a pleasure, (The Marx Brothers specialized in this ) and makes that which is absurd into the beautiful. It is no accident that comedy so often traffics in mistaken identity and double entendre - all of these are methods of getting unstuck, and of course, laughing.

The film director Howard Hawks said that whenever he heard of a plot or story his very first impulse, really a compulsion was to try to do the movie first as a comedy and only as a last result as drama. I don't believe Hawks's reason was monetary or practical. Nor was it because he felt he was better at comedy. Rather, he felt there was something in comedy that expressed a philosophy of life somehow more true to life and less burdened by convention and self importance and self aggrandizement.

When Richard Pryor does his routine on having a heart attack, in part induced by his own struggles with substance abuse, what is his genius? Merely the fact that he comments on the whole situation - the craziness of hospitals and doctors, the emotional urgency of bargaining and pleading for life, all of the emotional humility and humiliation of his state. But he suspends the all- -or- nothing, do- or- die part of it. He uses noises and sounds to make a burlesque of the most dire situation any of us could face.

What Pryor asks, in essence, (like the Buddha in his questioning), is, what are we doing here? What is it all about? And isn't this world we are in the damned craziest ride we can have. (As an equally great comic Bill Hicks reminded us: "IT'S JUST A RIDE".) He makes matters of life and death an object of reflection and we laugh and say to ourselves, that was really horrible but that was so interesting. It is precisely this slight remove from reality, this critical spirit that is of the essence of comedy and we laugh at the follies and horrors of Pryor's experience and we realize that something like love can make us laugh and not be suffocated or reduced by an excess of earnestness. Pryor frees us and for a moment we are no longer stuck where we are but can, rather, SEE where we are, not unlike a good physician who can survey and see the whole profile of a patient rather than be stuck in worry and panic about that patient. Indeed, in comedy we laugh at the man or woman who worries excessively because we recognize as was said in The Bible that "all is vanity", and we are all united in the follies of our vanities.

It is also worth considering that the greatest of dramas usually have regular moments of folly, where mutual misunderstanding makes us amused and smiling rather than tense or nervous about the misunderstanding.

There are of course as many kinds of comedy as there are cans of soup in the supermarket. Don RIckles is not Bill Cosby. But I would argue that all comedy shares the philosophic commitment I have attempted to summarize - one of enlightened detachment from excessive and claustrophobic earnestness.

When pundits and critics argue about what subjects are appropriate to make jokes and laugh about it is always a clear sign that were are stuck in some way. That we lack enough perspective. There are times in life when we have to simply be in this life somewhere one object among others, and then there are times when we must be released from this life so that we may laugh at it. "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Freedom is never easy.

More to follow.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Life in the Senses: being me

From time to time I will be most personal in my remarks. I will dig into my innards, as shallow as these sometimes appear to me, and reveal what is of use therein.

I do not live a life of the mind or the heart but of the senses. I do not mean I am a hedonist or live for pleasures. I do not mean that I don't think in ideas or read five books at a time (which I do). What I mean, and I scarcely have the proper or even casual language with which to adequately portray or represent it, is that I navigate through the world by inner vibrations (or vibes as they would say in the 70s). I get feelings about what is around me without those feelings being translated into either discursive thoughts, concrete sentences or clear emotions like happiness or sadness. I do not know what to make of this cognitive style. I do not know if it is good or bad in any objective or absolute sense. I do know that it relies heavily upon what people have always called intuition, though I tend to have great detachment from things. I see the whys and wherefores of things before I pass judgement upon them. I can easily see things from points of view opposite of my own, though I always know in my gut, heart, and brain what my stance really is, however much I can entertain "the other side."

I get great feelings from things that are not immediately important: from the shape of buildings, the layout of our cities, and the size and depth of our crowds. I am sensitive to sounds of course, being a musician, but as equally sensitive to the tones in people's voices rather than their content or literal meaning.

It can be a tiring way to live, but it can be equally rewarding as this is the source of how I create and work. Often I will spend an hour or more on a phrase or a chord, to make sure it is the right one. And it is never a matter of purely intellectual or systematic concerns but again of their vibration.

I feel that every day I have been alive I have learned something new. It might be a piece of the trivial or an ephemera; just as often it has been something that for a time feels momentous or life changing. I am by nature a skeptic, but I am equally Romantic in that I feel values are real and not mere conventions we decide upon. I do feel indebted to the enlightenment and the age of Reason but feel just as strongly that their displacement of spirit and soul to be sadly mistaken. At the same time I dislike the specificity with which followers practice the world's religions, but when I read those religions with an ear towards their language and their stories the faiths seem to me among the most beautiful and truthful things ever created, whether divined or not. But it all too often seems as if my reading of them is in marked contrast to how those that call themselves believers read them, the latter seems closer to a laundry list of what sex acts to perform or from which to refrain and when to eat fish, or pork or not, and whether God means for the home team to win or not in that particular season.

That is all I can reveal of myself for now. I hope it hasn't been too vague, nor too exhibitionistic. It is in an attempt to understand.

Wisdom From Nabokov

In the realm of aesthetics, Vladimir Nabakov got most things right. Like Susan Sontag after him, he understood that the aesthetic was its own universe with its own values, its own importance, its own meaning and its own claims upon us.

Here are some gems from his great lectures on literature to Cornell undergraduates:

"We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge." And this: "I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written. And this: "The notion of symbol itself has always been abhorrent to me, and I never tire of retelling how I once failed a student-- the dupe, alas, of an earlier teacher-- for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as "green" because Fanny is hopeful, and "green" is the color of hope. The symbolism racket in schools attracts computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense. It bleaches the soul. It numbs all capacity to enjoy the fun and enchantment of art. "

"Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. 'To take upon us the mystery of things'—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol's "The Greatcoat," or more correctly "The Carrick"); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to "so what." We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.Hwew he is on Robert Louis Stevenson: I want to discuss fantasy and reality, and their mutual relationship. If we consider the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" story as an allegory—the struggle between Good and Evil within every man—then this allegory is tasteless and childish. To the type of mind that would see an allegory here, its shadow play would also postulate physical happenings which common sense knows to be impossible; but actually in the setting of the story, as viewed by a commonsensical mind, nothing at first sight seems to run counter to general human experience. I want to suggest, however, that a second look shows that the setting of the story does run counter to general human experience, and that Utterson and the other men around Jekyll are, in a sense, as fantastic as Mr. Hyde. Unless we see them in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company."

What are we to make of these statements? In light of the overwhelming barrage of readings of art utterly drenched in symbolic and moral criticism - all things Nabokov denies in a spirit at times hyperbolic - how should we regard Nabokov? Is he guilty of aestheticism of denying use to art and moral instruction. Is he indulging in mere wordplay and formal cleverness? Well no. He is onto something. He is trying to teach us that what matters in art begins precisely where ideas and morals and points leave off, and after we don't look there with what are we left? Well I shall leave you dear reader, with what the remainders look like: the very things with which Nabokov is most concerned might very well be what we have been most deeply concerned with all along.

What are your values?

People often take values to be simple goods or commandments as in the ancient category of virtue. Therefore there is supposed to exist a certain class of people, usually regarded as the "bad guys", who lack values. To be sure, there are bad guys in the world, but none of them lack values. The most abject, degraded soul, say, a Ted Bundy, or Charie Manson
has certain values. But their values are rather chilling and disturbing ones involving
controlling or harming others, or seeking thrills at the expense of others. But it would
be a great mistake to say these lowest of examples are examples of meaninglessness or nihilism.
Those two criminals were extremely motivated people in their milieu. Had they followed
Pascal and stayed in their room - if solitude were their highest value - much suffering
would have been spared. In their own way they were as motivated as was Obama in his fight
for the White House but motivated to destroy the soul of girls and women.

I am saying that we need to retain a more neutral understanding of the word values, whereby the name refers to qualities or conditions of the soul, or attractions and repulsions of various kinds.

Now every epoch puts forth certain character or biography as the best or most desirable.
Since the presidency of Clinton, the most desirable traits are those of extreme giftedness in social
relations, of a kind of extraversion of a kind of uncanny excellence at being able to give
pleasure to others in some way or "feel their pain." Exceptions are made for those
tinkerers and inventors who create things we value which is why allowances are made for
socially impaired computer guys for example. But in general the Clintonian type (Obama is
the newest example) is most admired. The love for this particular personality type has been
bemoaned by those enamored with older, more "masculinist" types, but society has surely
benefited from individuals like Obama and Clinton.

In earlier times other types were put forth as a model: maybe it was stubborn adherence to a set of ideas, or the
ability to solve technical problems that was more admired. That had its virtues as well.
(An example would be LBJ forcing integration in the South rather than listening to the Southern point of view in a spirit of diplomacy).

I feel Marxism in particular and sociology in general to be utterly wrong in placing impersonal classes and social
structures at the helm, unless those classes can be said to share psychological traits in common that are emulated by the masses. But large groupings have too much internal diversity for any one
characteristic to be emblematic.

That is what Emerson means when he says that "there is no history only biography".

I think the renewed interest in virtue ethics confuses the issue and blinds people to just how powerfully the individual character shapes global affairs. Virtue ethics takes certain traits as
simply the best traits but fails to notice how many other traits historically embraced but just as soon discarded have had as much salutary results; indeed some values might become vices in a given moment: obsession with technicalities, the ability to focus on one thing at a time, (“single-tasking”) sensual
indulgence, stubborness at holding values that are unpopular (this last to be distinguished from courage). Virtue ethics blinds people to the many varieties
of the good and collapses genuine variety under rather unspecified categories like "courage" or
preserverence. Buddhism, (otherwise relatively unimpeacheable) makes this mistake as did
Aristotle and Aristotelianism.

Now human acts and habits may have a good or evil character in something like an absolute sense. But more often, the verdict is a matter of bias or historical convenience. I take value to mean whenever any human being responds
negatively or affirmatively to an external stimuli. Indeed, such initial responses, our
likes and dislikes, is a precondition for the possibility of human choice. That is, each of us RESPONDS, and in responding creates a self and, with all others, makes a world. Lance Armstrong, or Billie Jean King at first responded to a pleasure in
certain physical exertion, and achievement and recognition at that athletic endeavor. But before such figures become who they are as far as the media or admiring public is concerned, they
must first have some kind of initial liking for a certain bodily activity. To complicate matters, this kinaesthetic agility may be
mixed with an initial positive response to fame or reward (and punishment). For Lance Armstrong or King certain practices matter - cycling and tennis- and maybe
other things matter too - like status recognition, and in Billie Jean King's case, a need to
identify with her fellow females and represent them. Whatever the specifics, these leaves of
likes and dislikes shoots through all of life and any inquiry that starts from unconscious motivation or departs from people’s stated or acted desires is bound to miss something crucial.

The main conflict in human life is that there are so many human ends and aims and for every Lance Armstrong there is a sedentary scientist or thinker in their book lined room making another kind of contribution. And all of these types of people go through life evaluating the world around them and the people they meet from their own biases. This is what Thomas Nagel calls “mutual imaginative incomprehension” and an earlier philosopher named George Ramsey called “self-hugging” (as researched by Steven Reiss at Ohio State). We seem to have a natural narcissism wherein we truly want to see ourselves in others, or want others to be very much like ourselves and cover over this truth with slogans like "live and let live" and "different strokes."

I am saying everything involving human affairs has this value question at the root. There
is a great deal of debate about value in philosophy these days, all of it in fact valuable
- about internalism and externalism and cognitivism and realism. But before we come to these questions we must first come to terms with our values and our diversity.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Philistinism

New Philistinism

In an older period, roughly in the mid to late 20th century, philistinism was rather easy to recognize. The caricature of someone with narrowly provincial habits and who was fearful of ambiguity, lack of closure, or even basic adventures was the reality of an uncomprehending businessman or Rotarian standing in front of a Pollack or Rothko and exclaiming in anger and fury that his ten year old child could draw the same thing or even better. Later on it was the person outraged by Chris Burden shooting himself in the foot, or a notice that his child's college tuition money had gone to a screening of Carolee Schneeman's FUSES. The philistine took the existence of LOLITA to be tantamount to an advocacy of its hero's behaviors or the philisitine might agree with Olivier's inept summary of HAMLET as a play about a man who couldn't make up his mind and proceed to watch Olivier's production with that single guide in mind, looking for confirmations of the statement in every monologue, narrative development or moment of dialogue throughout.

Today there is more philistinism than ever - if only because there are more people; also there are more bad artistic productions than ever for people to praise, and finally there are more gems and even works of genius to be dismissed because the works do not initially appeal to the basest human desires for pleasures organized around dramatic conflict and flattering heroes for whom an audience is practically coerced to root.

But there are no individual philistines (if there ever were). Philistinism refers not to a type of human being at all but, rather, to both a general condition of the soul and an abstract tendency of the culture that waxes and wanes and that is more or less dominant in this or that age.

Philistinism is chiefly about two propositions. Firstly, the reader wants to know if it feels good or not and if it doesn't feel good, the reader wants to be rid of it as quickly and urgently as possible as if it were the reader's own bowel movement.

Conversely, a philistine might fail to recognize greatness in something precisely BECAUSE it is so deeply pleasurable in a most immediate sense. Pleasure in itself is neither suspect nor the last word. The two responses- condemnation of the pleasurable and celebration of the difficult and vice versa, though opposite in motive and outward appearance, are united in being rooted in an inability to read. There is an illiteracy of the soul where people cannot read texts, whether the text is a television show or a dance or a painting or anything else made. They cannot read the landscapes in their environment and cannot read architecture and many other things in direct experience. It is a blindness related to what psychologists talk about when they work with couples who cannot listen to and comprehend each other. One can enjoy something without being able to actually read it.

But to make a virtue of illiteracy or ignorance leads us to the second proposition.

If the first proposition is, if it feels good it must be correct - (my own impulses and pleasure principles are correct by virtue of their being immediate responses) - then the second proposition states that there is a kind of authority in this response that is immune to objective evaluation. This is a kind of "sophomoric relativism" in the phrase of the late philosopher Rick Roderick of Duke University. Sophomoric relativism says that we have to respect a speaker chiefly because the speaker grounds an assertion in the authority of personal opinion and then ties that authority to some overreaching doctrine of individual rights or democracy itself.

In its worst cases the newer Philistinism refuses to take seriously the distinction between value in the world and personal history, story, and temperament. Truth becomes a majoritarian proposition. Thus if AVATAR has in it sound or noble political goals and messages then it is elitist or rude to argue that AVATAR is an ugly film. But in face AVATAR IS ugly: it takes its visuals from the worst of 1970s popular and commercial album cover and custom van art. (To call attention to AVATAR's ugliness is especially hard when nearly every critic and reviewer in America remarks on the film's surface "beauty"). Those political goals are too noble and useful and inspiring for them to be "ignored" by treating Avatar as an aesthetic object. To ask serious questions then about AVATAR, to ask if a propaganda of the Left (which is what AVATAR is) can be as simple and single-minded as propaganda of the Right (and just as dangerously one-sided), is seen as the grossest impertinence.

I have encountered the most brilliant, learned minds who nevertheless fail to be moved by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films because in them Fred Astaire sometimes takes the lead, thus condemning an entire epoch of dance traditions under the criteria of some kind of correct politics. That is the philistinism that cannot recognize certain immediate pleasures. They are unable to read all of the myriad details that constitute the dances - the rhythm, the movement of the bodies, the dramatic details of flirtation, chase, play - because rather than see what is in front of them they have consulted some guide as a checklist.

If philistinism can be unable to read immediate pleasures, at other times it may regard immediate pleasure as sufficient for evaluation.

The older philistinism that continues to complain of book that don't have certain plots in them or visual media that lack beautiful "models", that complains that this or that book is "depressing" is actually just as much as a problem, but perhaps it is more of a problem today because of its vindication by sophomoric relativism, a doctrine that tells us that our feelings are noble for the tautological reason that they are felt.

The filmmaker Anna Biller makes original, expressive narrative films. They have many elements that yield immediate pleasures, though there is much more at work in her films. But every one of her film production practices reads like a deliberate violation of the Dogma 95 manifesto. Whereas Dogma95 says to film everything using only found locations and no design whatsoever other than what is originally present, and only natural light and non professional actors and so on, Biller uses elaborate costumes that she often makes herself, consciously films with heavy older lighting, creates environments from scratch, and uses actors who project a persona.

I have nothing but the deepest respect for Dogma 95 and a few of the films coming from that tributary. But Lars Von Trier and company are wrong if they feel that the problem of Hollywood studio filmmaking can be solved by deliberately violating its procedures in a mechanistic way. (This leaves aside the question of the Dogma group's literal veracity in its statements - shades of the Factory here). The problem of Hollywood is not that it is storyboarded and designed with intricacy. The problem with Hollywood rests in what fills the storyboard, in its simplistic procedures and assumptions about a whole host of things from storytelling, to selfhood, to agency and what counts as socially relevant. Anna Biller, in her own fashion, overturns all of these things in her work in the most radical of ways, and yet it is entertaining in the way, say, Billy Wilder was, and is entertaining.

But anyone who says that Dogma practice is the only or best way to make a movie, because of some mystification about "reality" or "authenticity", is afflicted with a philistinism of the soul and as such would be utterly blind to a whole universe of cinematic possibility. Biller has not had the wide distribution that other independent filmmakers have enjoyed. One wonders if this difficulty is due to the fact that certain purveyors of taste "decided" in advance that certain cinematic styles were over and dead, were but only commercial detritus from a very old Hollywood, and have lost their relevance. Thus if a movie shows a certain attitude towards craft, seems highly produced, then it is, ipso facto, a commercial mediocrity unworthy of serious attention. Thus a film with a great deal of certain kinds of production gets misread as being exactly the same as any other film with similar production practices. But what of an artist that want to make a movie that has lots of production and preparation because that is the only way to express what the artist is trying to express? In the end there is no such thing as under or over production. There is whatever is needed for the effect to be achieved and the procedures and answers will necessarily vary.

Lydia Davis is a master at ellipsis and indirection in her short fiction. But what if someone decided that that was the only or correct way to write fiction today? What would be the fate of an older and, in my view, greater master like Alice Munro, who continues to write stories in a way that is far from minimalist, treating subjects in less experimental a fashion, and filled with the fullest expression of emotional entanglements. Though both hold to the principle of what "lies between the lines", Munro simply includes more whereas Davis leaves out as much as possible. Both are masters but, luckily, in literary culture, there seems to be a great deal more room for artistic variety in the politics and distribution of the work.

All of these examples go to show that, for all of the cultural talk of the decline of master narratives and our newfound suspicion of progressive utopia we are still captive to a most ruthless historicism and progessivism. This is the belief that there is a single correct artistic practice that best suits the current age. This is the obsession with "relevance" and context. It is not so far apart from Isaiah Berlin's quip about those that felt Ibsen to be a more updated Shakespeare.

We tell ourselves we are post or hypermodern, that we have left behind the assumptions of earlier modern societies. But we still believe in progress in the most naive sense. We believe that there is a list of artistic practices and styles we have to consult to know what is the most appropriate style at any time, something like a New York Times Style book. This is often little better than consulting our initial sense of plain and pleasure in reception.

In the end it is no different, in the most ironical of ways, than the older resistance to the avant-garde because it didn't feel entertaining. We retain the old errors of the avant-garde (which WAS historicist and progressivist) but we are neither able to read the work of the avant-garde very well, though we agree with the pronouncements of their creators (we would do well to always remember D.H. Lawrence when he reminded us to "trust the tale not the teller") nor are we able to read work that is classical or of some older vintage. But we also hold to the errors of the entertainment industry which asks only that we consult our basic drives to consider whether something is of any value or not.

Styles and works that are extremely popular satisfy certain needs of the soul in certain ways. Styles and works that are doomed to marginality also satisfy certain needs of the soul, and not just the needs of the marginal. Much resistance to certain kinds of culture is a LEARNED disability. Contra the evolutionists, it has nothing to do with an innate need for storytelling or surface prettiness. There are too many examples in history of individuals cut off from all privilege and advantage who yet created things that are extraordinarily difficult and discomforting, and their legacy has been critical for the history of civilization.

We must become better readers: to read what is in front of and all around us, in life as in art. And, though there many interpretations, surely there are better and worse readings just as there are better and worse texts.