These are thoughts inspired, in part, by Shya’s recent post about ambition, but mostly by a question Maureen asked me last night: does nothing delight you any more?
My immediate thought was: yes, of course, I really like … and I really like …
But then I stopped myself, because there is a world of difference between “I really like X” and “X delights me”. So I am trying to think back and remember what was the last thing I read that really delighted me. And what actually do I mean by “delight”, what does it imply?
I know I can be a grumpy old curmudgeon when I feel like it. I also know that as a critic the one thing I have learned is that any novel is, by definition, a flawed work of prose. The more I practice my craft as a critic, the more I find myself honing in on the flaws above everything else. So when I write about books, when I talk about books, there is inevitably an air of negativity inherent in what I am doing.
And yet I believe, firmly, implacably, that the first and (perhaps) only job of the critic is to convey the delights of literature, to be excited about books and to excite other people about them.
There is a contradiction in there, I know. And I know that somehow I must negotiate that contradiction, square that circle, every time I write a review, or I wouldn’t be doing the job properly. (Or do I? One review of my book, What it is we do when we read science fiction, complained that it was too academic to really get excited about science fiction. Yet that book includes an essay that begins: “This is a love story.” Perhaps everyone has a different understanding of excitement or delight?)
Part of the problem is that I am an ambitious reader. I prefer to encounter works that stretch or challenge me. I want a serious conversation, not smalltalk. So a light trashy novel, a TV soap opera, that might delight someone else won’t work for me. And the serious conversations are few and far between. Maybe I am not frequently delighted because of rarety value?
Or maybe the serious conversations, the challenging works, are more flawed? Or the flaws are more obvious? Or the very nature of the beast gets my critical faculties going so that lesser flaws become more noticeable?
And yet I do take delight from what I read. I’m not sure there would be any point continuing as a critic if literature didn’t delight me. I am not, after all, a masochist; I do what I do for pleasure not for pain. Am I less able than I once was to show that delight? Perhaps? Or perhaps I take my delights in different ways.
But, I insist, I do take delight. Perhaps not in the whole work, since nothing is perfect and I am a critic and I do notice flaws, but in parts of works. I delight in The West Wing (I must do, I watch it over and over again) despite the fact that it can be precious, sentimental, and inclined (especially in the early series) to slapstick. I delight in the ideas behind The City And The City much as I think the novel as a whole is let down by the crime story format. I delight in My Family And Other Animals, even though every time I read it I find myself wishing he’d get over the colourful description of the new villa and get back to the family comedy. I keep being delighted by things, it’s just that it’s a partial delight, and maybe I’m not so good at showing how delighted I am.
So, what delights you? And why?
31 thoughts on “The fate of being a critic”
It’s so encouraging to hear you say that the critic’s duty is “to convey the delights of literature, to be excited about books and to excite other people about them,” but to also acknowledge the instinct that “hones in on the flaws.” Thanks for this wonderful post.
Witold Gombrowicz insists that critics are only allowed to write about themselves. “Simply describe your reactions,” he says. “Do not write as a pseudoscientist but as an artist. Criticism must be as tense and vibrant as that which it touches. Otherwise it becomes gas escaping from a balloon, a sloppy butchering with a dull knife, decay, an anatomy, a grave.”
So, be led along by your delight? (Or by your frustrated lack of delight?)
To me, delight is in *immersion*. Not total opium-den escapism, but a kind of occasionally conscious immersion– to sink into a work, but to know (sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously), that you’re sinking into that work and that what is happening is awesome.
It’s like what Mike Young says so gracefully in his most recent blog entry: that he likes to “forget I’m reading, but…to remember that I’m forgetting.” Delight.
I wonder if this is what most people are actually seeking from reading? There’s all kinds of ways to achieve this– engaging the work’s THOUGHT elements; engaging the work’s FELT elements; engaging one first, and then the other; vice versa; engaging both as simultaneously as possible– but maybe the preferred end goal is always an inherently delightful state of immersion?
This reminds me of that phrase, ‘sitting down with a good book.’ Perhaps we read to fall in love. There are words, story, sensory delights, the ghost of us in the book, the characters… We can be inside other people and not worry about ramifications. Film seems too eye-heavy, too orgiastic with sound and cuts, but in books we go at our own pace, we can go back.
Some books that stopped me in my tracks with wonder:
SALT ROADS by Nalo Hopkinson
CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen McHugh
THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones
Oh, and I’ve read some gorgeous shorts for this anthology I’m putting together… Matt Kressel’s “The History within Us,” and some others I don’t feel I can easily share because we’re still working on contents.
“Knapsack Poems” by Eleanor Arnason, “Christmas Wedding” by Vylar Kaftan, “Little Faces” by Vonda McIntyre, “This, My Body” by Jeremiah Tolbert…
The delight comes, I think, from a sense that even if I can enumerate the book or story’s flaws (and I usually can, and there are always flaws), I don’t care… I marvel in the language and the experience and it transcends the flaws.
I read the Known World and HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson back to back. Robinson wrote the ultimate spell for me, especially the trip with the Sylvie and Ruth with these amazing sentences:
“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than than, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do your senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild stawberries.”
‘Wyoming’ by Barry Gifford. 100-something pages of dialogue between a mother and her young son while driving, with one strange twist toward the end. There’s no narrative. Just the dialogue. This seemed radical to me when I read it, and the conversation wasn’t boring at all. I read it probably five years ago, and it’s stuck with me.
Is delight the right word in all cases?
A lot of things entertain me – I’m a shallow man, and I know that I and can find entertainment in light novels or bad puns, but clever entertainment is a form of art in itself, and I don’t necessarily think something needs to be “challenging” in order to be deep.
Since Rachel mentions Eleanor Arnason,her story
The Grammarian’s Five Daughters never fails to make me smile everytime I read it.
There are many things that I variously like, find delight in, maybe even love, or that impress me, astonish me, make me think. (including many of Rachel’s stories).
This experience is always individual because each mind assigns different weights to perceived flaws and merits in creating a gelstalt effect.
That’s why I can be conscious of flaws and yet thoroughly enjoy the experience, or be left cold by things I can find no major fault in or rationally think I “should” like.
Finally, there are things that “stop me in my tracks with wonder”. This is a powerful experience, it reminds me of the concept of the Sublime, and therefore I do not associate it with pleasure or delight alone. In the Arnason story I’ve linked above, after all, sublime comes forth as last, after grim, gruesome and terrific, not after nice, delicate ,beautiful. (read it).
The last time I’ve felt this way?
Either it does the same to you or it doesn’t.
I’ve always liked this approach: I try to share the things I like, and I pass over the other stuff in silence. I’d rather draw attention to what I love rather than spend my time harping on what I dislike.
I also like to call attention to worthy things that others are busy ignoring, or missing. There’s more value in that than in praising the already-praised. So, for example, I’m quick to call attention to Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death, as in my last post, because it’s a magnificent book that I know very few have read. Hélas. Another example: Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky is a great, great novel, and I love it. But I tend to praise Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, because it’s so consistently overshadowed/overlooked. (I also happen to like it better than Sky, but that’s purely preference. They’re both incredible novels.)
Which doesn’t mean one can’t be critical. I also like doing more formal criticism at times, simply trying to observe what’s out there. To describe the lay of the land, as it were.
And what’s wrong with preciousness, sentimentality, and an inclination toward slapstick? Or crime novels? All can be high art. Chaplin is precious, sentimental, and slapsticky, and yet he’s surely one of the greatest film directors (I personally prefer Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but Chaplin was really great).
Crime novels can also be high art. I think Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels are the equal of Kafka; I rank her among the greatest writers of the 20th Century.
Genre is not necessarily low art.
Comedy is not necessarily low art.
Physical comedy is not necessarily low art.
Sentiment is not necessarily low art.
And the opposites of these things are not necessarily high art.
We live in a time when the the restrained and the cerebral is valued above the relaxed and the physical, and the dramatic is valued above the comedic. (We’re Apollonian, not Dionysian.) But those values aren’t absolutes.
Indeed, I think we need much more Dionysian art. Apollonian stuff, in general, I’d argue, does little to stretch or challenge us, as per your desires. Postmodernist literature, for instance, was once a necessary thing, a real challenge to society. But today it’s commonplace. It no longer has any teeth (in general). Metatextuality and fragmentation and collage and worlds within worlds etc. no longer possess the disruptive power they once did. Although many contemporary postmodernists continue to insist that they do. But they’re wrong, the same way that the late late modernists of the 1960s and 70s were wrong (in their arguments that what they were doing was transgressive).
Although of course people should always do what they want to do. But when I hear words like “fragmentation” and “juxtaposition” and “deconstruction,” I reach for my toboggan.
(OK, so there’s some negative criticism for you.)
One contemporary artist who really knows how to marry the physical and the intellectual is Jacques Rivette:
Come now, you’ve seen Hollywood grosses. What movies make the most money? Slapstick, silliness and action. So while those things might be valued by ‘intellectuals’ they aren’t VALUED by the general population, in that many, many people will pay hard cash money to see it. Same in the book business. You know what sells.
IRON MAN 2 has value. The receipts are the lifeline for the producers, the studio, the McDonald’s tie-in.
FANNY & ALEXANDER has a different value. It has little or nothing to do with money. Hearts and minds.
But old IRON MAN 2 can overawe and work on a few levels. So maybe it is the greater work of art because it makes mountains of money and people get a sensory, transitory pleasure. And maybe it continues for their lifetime and I’m full of shit. But I’d bet my ass that some guy sitting on log twenty years from now will not be wondering how they did such and such a stunt in IRON MAN 2 as he will why the priest (a ghost?) knocks down Alexander at the end and tells him he can’t escape him.
The beginning of the 5-hour original version:
I think we’re talking around one another, Greg. It’s precisely because comedy and slapstick sell tickets that intellectuals tend to discount them as art. We all know they’re commonly thought of as low forms. And I’m not saying that anything comedic and physical is good, or great, but that’s it’s wrong to knee-jerk discount them as mere entertainment.
I haven’t seen Iron Man 2 yet. I might get around to it a few weeks from now. Despite my love of genre and comics, in general, I haven’t thought much of the past ten years of Hollywood superhero movies.
I did like Ang Lee’s Hulk. I think I was the only one.
And Fanny and Alexander has everything to do with money! It ran for over seven months in the US, earning nearly $7 million (and in early 80s dollars). It was a huge arthouse success, and was nominated for half-dozen Academy Awards (winning four). Which is why it’s one of Bergman’s best-known films.
Good thing for Bergman, too: Autumn Sonata (1978) and The Serpent’s Egg (1977) were not big hits for him.
Bergman was a truly great artist and director, but he was also a commercially successful one. After a while, he became his own brand. By 1982, he needed to prove to producers and distributors that his brand was still viable.
Jacques Rivette’s a great director, too—I probably prefer him to Bergman—but why do you think no one’s ever heard of him? Or why his films don’t play here? Simple: they don’t make any money in the US. His biggest US hit to-date might be La Belle Noiseuse. It grossed $400,000 US. Va Savoir was also something of a hit: $900,000.
And I have little interest in weighing the respective artistic merits of Fanny and Alexander and Iron Man 2. Talk about a loaded example!
Let’s instead compare, say, Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies’ Man and Bergman’s All These Women.
…Or Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby:
Why not compare dissimilar things?
The issue with these two trailers…I mean we could compare the movies, but let’s talk about the trailers (and very comparable films, same year, one made a ton of money, one didn’t, covens in both…). I wonder if either director really approved them. Maybe… But Paramount would probably have had control at that time and Bergman’s overseas distributor probably did what they wanted-to make some money. Both trailers show the most sensational scenes (as I suppose most trailers do, though I love trailers, see the original Shining one, posted a little while back, where footage not used in the movie is used) and bill the films as this razzmatazz of sex (for Rose) and violence/sex (for Hour). Both films employ great amounts of stillness and when the sex and violence comes, it really stands out. But the stillness is needed for it’s effect.
But to go to the films, Rosemary’s Baby straddles the line, like almost all of Kubrick, wherein it is very commercial and cerebral at the same time. Maybe Oliver! from 1968 would be a better thing to compare. I think the Jerry Lewis is more apt. But I haven’t seen the other Bergman, but then again the French would argue auteur. I don’t know, how about Smokey and the Bandit versus Shoah?
Sure, compare unlike things all you want. But in my original comment, I wasn’t talking about Iron Man 2. I wasn’t talking about whether stuff like that is commercially successful. (Of course it is.) The context is clearly high art. I was talking about whether sentimental, comedic, slapstick works are considered high art. In particular, I was replying to this line in Paul’s post:
…Because I see there the typical intellectual dismissal of the precious, the sentimental, , the slapstick etc. as high art. As in, “They’re pleasant enough entertainment, but they aren’t and can’t be serious art.” I think that’s totally wrong, and yet it’s a common opinion among intellectuals. My question is: Why? I think it has a lot to do with the time we live in (a very Apollonian time).
Hell, even Marvel superhero movies are more Apollonian than Dionysian: all witty one-liners and restrained action.
Anyway, I don’t see how Iron Man 2, or how it stacks up against Fanny and Alexander—which strikes me as entirely random—has to do with this.
Although who knows? Maybe Iron Man 2 is great? Have you actually seen it yet, or are you dismissing it out of hand? And if you are dismissing it out of hand—then why? Why can’t a superhero action film be great art? I’d argue that Ang Lee’s Hulk is art. Not great art, but art. I’d argue—I have been arguing—that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is art, even great art. (I think it’s one of the best novels of the 20th century—a rather long list, but TDKR deserves a place on it. Yes, right alongside Ulysses! And Two Serious Ladies!
“Seven Samurai, it’s an action film, must not be any good.”
As for Mr. Bergman, I vastly prefer his wilder, 1960s work to his more placid 1980s work. His 80s work is good, often great, but he was much more adventurous in the 1960s, much more willing to explore genre and the lines between convention and experimentation—and I think he made better films. (And I’ll take Scenes from a Marriage over Fanny and Alexander any day.) Speaking very honestly, I’ve always thought of F&B as being the closest Bergman ever came to directing Oscar-bait—and he did it precisely because his 70s career stalled out. Is what I think. It’s in the 1980s that he became something of a cliché of himself. And that cliché persists to this day: “What kind of films did Bergman make?” “Oh, you know, talky relationship stuff.”
Never mind the fact that he started out making things like this:
Why not include high art? (and I can’t respond thoroughly to your comment right now, I’m being whisked away) I know you weren’t talking high, but why, why not? High art vs. High Art is just too easy.
It probably took people roughly the same amount of time to make Caddyshack as it took people to make Rosemary’s Baby. Roughly the same amount of people. Those in 68 slaved over painting a Sistine Chapel, those in 80 slaved over making a suitable gopher.
Why can’t Caddyshack be high art as well? It drives laughs out of my throat. It has characters who I care about, who are in trouble. Danny’s girlfriend could be pregnant – that’s serious business, right Rosemary? And Bill Murray is shooting at a poor, defenseless gopher – that’s an eco-outrage. And how about two men bonding while getting high? It’s a touching moment. And Bill asks Chevy about maybe using his pool to swim in and warm Chevy responding that he actually has a pond too, and that the pond would probably be good for Bill, seeing as how unsanitary he is because why would he want him in a pool (though he has sex in his pool – and then there is the doubling of the other pool scene wherein Bill eats a piece of Baby Poop)? Doubling, mirrors – great art, no?
And yes, I do see your points, but I was talking about Value – money – and maybe that was the wrong angle, but clearly the general population VALUES action movies and comedies more than other films. But who are the intellectuals we talk about? Me? You? The 400 people who check Big Other?
It seems we are both a little off. You talk about high and low art and then ask why can’t superhero movies be high art. I committed a cardinal sin by comparing a big movie to an ART movie.
Art can be all things to all people, whoever wants a part of whatever they want, it is there. No one can take it away from them. So I’m shifting, I did load up the previous example with knee-jerk dung, but I see how narrow minded that is.
Greg, I don’t think we disagree with one another. I’m not saying anything at all like Caddyshack or Iron Man 2 can’t be art, or high art. Quite the opposite! Indeed, I’m criticizing (very specifically) a tendency among intellectuals to discount comedy, sentimental works, precious works, slapstick, etc. as being unable to be art.
I haven’t seen Iron Man 2 yet. And I haven’t seen Caddyshack in over a decade, although I remember it fondly. Or at least parts of it.
(Hell, I’ve been known to promote Billy Madison as a great film, and an artistic one. Not so much for the way it’s shot and edited, but for the ingeniousness behind its writing and performances.)
As to whether any actual work is art or high art, that’s another thing entirely. I offered two comedies (Ladies’ Man, All These Women) and two horror films (Hour of the Wolf, Rosemary’s Baby) that I think are great films, then a few more genre films I think are great (Scarface, Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, Wizard of Oz).
I don’t think it’s a cardinal sin to compare a big movie to an art movie; Lord forbid! It just isn’t what I was talking about. I don’t have any interest at the moment in comparing a film I haven’t yet seen with a Bergman film I saw a decade ago (and which was never one of my favorites); forgive me.
Or, as they say so often in Bergman’s films: “Filote me.”
“I’ve always thought of F&B as being the closest Bergman ever came to directing Oscar-bait—and he did it precisely because his 70s career stalled out.”
This is pretty insulting. What would he gain with an Oscar? he already had a few of them. Plus the film was made for Swedish TV. It’s originally 5 1/2 hours long for all those keeping score. And to lump him with films that are genuinely Oscar-bait, those that Weinstein starts beating the drum for before production starts, or Aronofsky telling Rourke he’ll win an Oscar if he does what he says (he did, but he didn’t win) – this is a disservice.
And do you think he (or any great artist) gives a shit about their career stalling? Maybe they aren’t pleased, but his art was never about his audience, he did what he wanted. I don’t think artists consciously say to themselves, “Oh, the new stuff isn’t working. Let me go back to what I’ve done countless times, because I want to be liked.” Of course it may seem that way to the critics, but it’s just not the case. And FANNY is really NOT like early Bergman. It’s a summation, but it’s more mystical. It’s a blending of themes onto a larger, longer canvas.
And if the cliche is in use, I haven’t heard it – that’s wrong too. Watch The Silence, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Winter Light – those films contain many scenes of pure Motion Picture making. The images speak, as they always should. Scenes from a Marriage must have been pigeonholed (again made for TV) – and yes there are long scenes of dialogue in his other films, but they are balanced with long interludes of no speaking – think of Shame, Through a Glass Darkly, Seventh Seal, even Fanny, the opening prologue I posted. No dialogue – images only.
Insulting to whom? Bergman? I’m not saying anything he never said himself! The man was an extremely commercial director! He actively courted awards and fame (and women!!!). He was a monstrous egomaniac! Reread Bergman on Bergman.
Anyone can benefit from an Oscar, and from commercial success. You don’t direct 50+ features without having either. Especially if you want to do so with artistic freedom.
A disservice? Again, to whom? Bergman? A dead man don’t care about a comment on the Big Other message boards. I’m not saying the man wasn’t an artist, or a great artist. Hell, I’ve been passionately defending Bergman for the past ten years, even as his critical career has been in decline (which it has).
And how on earth am I lumping him in with the Weinsteins? I never said anything like that. The Weisteins are soulless businessmen who accidentally occasionally enable art (and who often oppose it). Bergman was nothing like that.
But it isn’t just the Weinsteins who court awards, or who occasionally resort to more commercial prospects, rather than constantly pushing forward projects they know there will be little-to-no audience for. You’re being silly if you think “Oscar bait” or “awards bait” “the Weinsteins”. (There was awards bait long before those two guys showed up.)
There is very much so a commercial aspect to art cinema, and Bergman of all people knew it. He managed to spend 50+ years making pretty much whatever movie he wanted to make—by balancing more commercial films with more esoteric ones. (Look at those Bris commercials, look at Bergman on Bergman. From the very start, he was always extremely aware of what he needed to do, commercially, to get away with his pet projects.) After a few critical and commercial misses in the mid-to-late 70s, he returned to some of his more familiar themes and made one of his most crowd-pleasing (and critic-pleasing) films. This is hardly a controversial statement; it’s been pointed out ever since he made the damn film. Indeed, he turned to TV because that’s where the available funding was! This is all a matter of record.
And it’s no real surprise he didn’t wildly experiment with that F&S—he didn’t make, say, Riten. And the massive success of F&S had great benefits for Bergman’s career—it allowed him to go into his prolonged retirement, directing when and where he wanted. I’m not saying the film wasn’t also “great art.” Bergman was a great artist partly because he didn’t allow the commercial obligations of what he did get in the way of his artistry! Which is part of what great artists do!
And if the cliche is in use, I haven’t heard it – that’s wrong too.
Greg, I don’t agree with this cliché. I think it’s wrong, too. And it’s put forward by people who haven’t seen the films you mention. Or Bergman’s lesser known, wilder genre pictures like The Magician, All These Women, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Magic Flute, … I run into this misguided view of Bergman all the time, and I’m always critical of it.
I’m a huge Bergman fan!
Above, that should be … “Oscar bait” or “awards bait” EQUAL “the Weinsteins”… I put an equal sign but it got eated.
This essay is interesting. An excerpt:
(There’s much more.)
Let’s also not forget Bergman’s exile in the late 70s, due to tax evasion charges. F&S was what he made upon his return to Sweden, after his eight years in Berlin.
This review is interesting, too. See the last graf:
Again, I admire Bergman’s ability to have managed so successful a career, and to have made such great films while doing so. Very few filmmakers ever manage to do both.
I wasn’t trying to compare the trailers, but the films. I just reached for the trailers because they were handy.
My point was that they’re all genre films—with plenty of sex and comedy and slapstick and horror and sentiment, etc.—and they’re all great films. (I like all four of them and don’t think one is necessarily better than the others. Although Rosemary’s Baby might be my personal favorite.)
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson often write about this—how everyone loves genre movies, and enjoys them, then tend to overlook them as art. But then they look back 20 years later and go, “You know what? Rosemary’s Baby is actually a pretty great film!” And they’re surprised that a horror film can actually be, you know, good.
(What the hell did they think Nosferatu was? Or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?)
Scarface is a gangster film.
Bringing Up Baby is a slapstick romantic comedy.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a romantic adventure.
The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy.
All four of them are very sentimental.
And they’re four of the greatest films of the 1930s, four of the greatest films ever made.
I dislike ‘genre.’ I like novels and movies. I don’t care what genre they are in, you know. But I know what you are saying, I think. Well, I know a little bit of what is in your head because I’ve read your fiction. Do I know more about you from that than all these comments? That’s an interesting question.
I was talking with M.J. last night about high art. Who decides what it is? He said we were the gatekeepers. Maybe M.J. can expand on this here. Not that I disagree, but I want to hear more.
Well, Lord knows it isn’t me. Nor would I want to be one.
My fiction is all fiction.
I like genre when it’s useful. When it gets in the way—bah. Discard it.
What I really mean here, though, or what I’m trying to say (and probably not saying) is that people often have a way of dismissing artworks because they’re “genre” works. What movie did Polanski win the Oscar for? The Pianist. (Talk about Oscar bait!) (And Polanski is one of my all-time favorite directors, and I’m not saying it wasn’t a heartfelt, earnest project for him.)
But does anyone really consider The Pianist Polanski’s best film? I think we all agree that it’s either Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown. (Well, Chinatown at least got nominated for a bunch of stuff, even if it didn’t win much.)
Granted, the Oscars make a shitty metric. They’ve never been about artistic worth, except accidentally. But I think my point is clear.
The Ghost Writer is a great film. Best new film I’ve seen all year (although admittedly I haven’t seen much). And, you know, it’s “just a political thriller.” But wait and see. Twenty years from now, people will look back and see how great a film it is, and it will suddenly be taken seriously. “Oh, it transcends it’s genre,” they’ll say. Funny how often so many artworks do that.
Never mind the fact that The Pianist is itself a genre film. The Oscar-winning Holocaust movie is a genre all its own…
But what isn’t a work of genre? I have never met such a strange beast, which is why I’m always so confused when people dismiss genre works… It’s just that some genres are vetted, some beyond the pale…
I have no problem with sentiment. I have a great deal of difficulty with sentimentality, which to me is the manufacture of an artificial emotional response rather than something genuinely earned by the work.
And while we are on the subject, Keaton was a genius (The General is one of the very best films ever made, and Steamboat Bill Jr isn’t far behind. Harold Lloyd is unfailingly funny. But Chaplin? As a performer, I don’t recall a single thing I’ve seen that I enjoyed, and as a director I always felt he was straining for effect.
In 1950, Chaplin was widely considered the greatest of the silent filmmakers, whereas Keaton and Lloyd had basically been forgotten.
By 2000, Chaplin’s reputation was in decline, and he was often used (and abused) by critics as a whipping boy to valorize Keaton and Lloyd.
I’m happy to see Keaton and Lloyd get their just due, and I personally prefer both of them to Chaplin. (Well, to Chaplin’s silent work. We all know that his later sound pictures are really his best ones.) Although I think I’m also a product of my times, predisposed to favor Keaton’s eternal irony over Chaplin’s eternal sentiment. Meanwhile, I’m eternally curious as to why one has to be set against the other.
I think that sentimentality can at times be what you describe, but I think you also have to admit that’s a pretty personal, and idiosyncratic, definition. All sentimentality means is
This has nothing to do with, for one thing, whether the audience even has an emotional response. Jerry Lewis is excessively sentimental, but I don’t know if we as viewers ever come close to sharing in that sentiment. (Although I do find it touching—very sadly touching—that all of his films basically end with him wanting to be liked by the other characters. (See, for instance, The Ladies Man, a simply magnificent motion picture.) After a while, it can’t help but seem autobiographical. And Lewis, whom I think a great artist, becomes much more interesting when you read his work autobiographically!)
…And what does it mean for a work to earn anything? All art is manufactured, and manufacturing. It’s all artifice. And I cry at the end of tons of films that don’t “deserve” it. But I’m a sentimental guy. (And forgive me for playing so harsh a devil’s advocate here. I’m also a cranky contrarian—apologies.)
Let me say it this way: I remain curious as to why sentimentality is so out of favor these days, and why excessive intellectualism, say, is acceptable. I find this to be a common…sentiment. Even those filmmakers who claim to be returning to it—e.g., Guy Maddin, Wes Anderson—often do so only guardedly, and ironically (although I think both of them can be emotionally affecting filmmakers, and I’m not criticizing them here for being what they are).
I think Jane Campion’s a pretty magnificent contemporary filmmaker, and one who’s routinely criticized for being too sentimental. (You know: she’s interested in those…female things.) Personally, I adore the sentimentality of movies like The Piano and Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star. (Portrait is my favorite of her films, and no surprise that it was roundly criticized for not being “Jamesian” enough—too sentimental! Not cerebral enough! “Pish-posh,” I say. It’s a brilliant James adaptation. James could be wondrously sentimental.) Sure, Campion dares sympathize with Isabel Archer. But didn’t James?
Tsai Ming-Liang. Agnes Varda. Jacques Rivette. Three other unabashedly sentimental filmmakers. All of whom I adore.
But I’m secretly a Romantic myself. I want to be overwhelmed by the artwork. I like excess, especially emotional excess.
Most of this is Chauncey Gardner’s first foray into the real world. He’s lived in a house all his life, working in a garden, watching TV.
Well, Chance was a great art critic. And Being There is a sadly underrated film. Ashby’s work in general is very sadly underrated. (Talk about someone who was criticized for not making stereotypical art films!)
My fave is probably The Last Detail. “Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, Indiana dog, …”)