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.


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.


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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ideas. It's quite an ambitious project. Good luck with your book!