“And now, it’s boner time!”

IMG_0095

Boners in this case being “errors of fact, not of judgment.”

Jack Green was the sole producer of an avantgarde literary newspaper in the early sixties. It was there that “Fire the Bastards!” appeared in three parts. He mounts a well-sourced and thorough counterblast to the book review establishment and its disgraceful treatment of Gaddis’s THE RECOGNITIONS when it first came out, back in the day when $7.50 for a hardback was outrageous. In doing so he also ends up contributing one of the first serious bits of criticism on the novel, as he explores why the unconventional techniques and encyclopedic details are necessary and serve the storytelling. Beyond an incapacity or even refusal to recognize great art when it comes around, Green exposes lazy acts of plagiarism between reviewers and the publisher blurb, embarrassing lapses in reading comprehension, and line after line of well-worn reviewing cliches which melt the mind. Steven Moore has reprinted the entire essay in book form bc in his view nothing has really changed.

i admit, this sort of smug philistinism from the crowd that’s supposed to refine our own tastes gets stuck in my gullet too. So this post will also be an excuse to launch my own shitrant (and itll be the first time ive written on film in this blog).

Green’s essay almost anticipates longform blog posts. He quotes and backtalks thoroughly, sometimes does line-by-line counterattacks through snide remarks. This book’s design approximates its vintage appearance typed and printed by Green himself — a small sans-serif type; the book is tall and thin like broadside sheets in miniature; there is no punctuation or caps (except for commas and semicolons and if a sentence ends on the far right margin), sentences distinguished by four spaces (dots in my quotes since wp doesnt want to keep the spaces); and paragraphs are separated by a line and not indented, just like on the web.

(i have a weakness for this sort of disarming style. And there are written languages that actually work like this. We can totally get by without punctuation.)

this time its the “constructive solution” cliche….a dirty one, perfected in the days when communists dominated reviewing in the u s & england….the perfect meeting of moscow & hollywood…..give me happy endings! im so miserable!….what cowardice….what if there is no “way out” except to die….for 10000s of years countless ways out have been peddled & we’re no better off than before — the hydrogen bomb proves that

but according to berger [critic and current target] its easy!….any good novelist gropes around, but somehow he cant locate it….of course berger means a fake way out….he wants a writer to be a professional liar, not an artist

It’s worse than not giving an important work the attention it deserves. Critics are also aesthetic conservatives who cant stomach any innovation or rebellion against status quo values. Modernist narratives that sustain ambiguity, that dont condescend to give easy answers or neat endings, that show us that reality is never what it seems — all not worth their time. Green argues that the ironic result is that critics are more eager to praise middling novels that “show potential” rather than challenging masterpieces. “It did what it set out to do!”

The abysmal reception of Gaddis’s work depressed him a great deal. And sure, it’s a bummer when genius goes unrecognized, especially when it’s the real deal as TR was. But even when an experimental work isn’t at the level of TR or ULYSSES (the constant point of reference), it’s really sad when you can tell that the person hired to form a well-considered opinion and evaluation of a work has refused to grapple or engage with the text in any fundamental way — it’s too different, it wont behave itself so its not worth my or your attention. Save your energy for friendly books that merely wish to divert your consciousness rather than expand it (granted, this value given to literature is a very modernist kind of sensibility and pretty old hat these days).

i remember Jonathan Rosenbaum in an interview mentioning with dismay how so many film critics refused on principle to watch Tarr’s SATANTANGO when he programmed it for a festival, one of them saying to him that they’d rather see five lousy films than one Tarr. Why the fear? Because critics who hate their job (Green’s suggestion) stop looking for great art and start looking for texts that can fit the theoretical molds they read in college.

There were reviews that were merely baffled, but others that are outright hostile and contemptuous.

but dead reviews are more dangerous to a great novel than vicious ones….you used to be able to find the best books by reading the reviews….the more hated books were the best….now its harder. sometimes you can sense the critic working against his own resistance to convince you….especially by what he tacitly assumes….that a novel is really quite ordinary tho a bit eccentric….of medium interest, nothing to get excited about….thats the book to read!

This reprint book came out in 2012, with Moore in his introduction telling us that review media has become more resistant to promoting the vandgarde of literary production, and focusing on the sugar, the Daniel Steeles and Stephen Kings. i cant help but find a parallel in another medium, namely the critical discourse around what they call “slow cinema,” aggressively minimalist films that have been appearing in the festival circuit since the 70s but sort entered a new phase in the last decade.

Harry Tuttle’s blog Unspoken Cinema is a great resource for those curious by this contemplative cinematic practice. Tuttle is himself something like a Jack Green, calling out the sophistry from writers who should know better, but seem to think that a seven minute take of cows in the field is license for spurious rejection. (The blog’s been quite for a while; i hope Tuttle is still writing somewhere.)

In 2010 there was a miniature explosion of discourse around contemplative films, and Harry’s counterblast is here. And he’s right. It’s amazing that the highest profile curators and promoters of art will take such perverse glee is shouting that the emperor has no clothes rather than actually make a try at what these films are doing. Is it not interesting that these works are trying to offer experiences that no other film, mainstream or “art house”, will give you — the kind of meditative diurnal rhythm of UNCLE BOONME, its envelopes of jungle ambience, watching a guy relaxing on a hammock as the sun sets — peace.

Is it not cool that some filmmakers are willing to see how far they can depart from narrative thrust, which doesn’t deflate the work of any intrigue, but on the contrary makes the plot more exciting? SATANTANGO‘s first two hours out of seven is like a caper: we watch the characters, greedy, rude, miserable, plotting to steal the farm’s collective wages and escape, and then the camera pauses to watch rain beat against window behind a doily curtain. It’s a nice little moment, one that suspends the thriller plot line — suspense, that’s what movies are supposed to have, yes?

If you’re fascinated by these minimalist films but haven’t seen any yet, i’d recommend ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA as a starting point. You could bill it as a police procedural, a search for a missing body. There’s a moment however when the camera tracks an apple that falls into a stream, floats down a ways, and gets caught on some rocks. Then we see wind rustling the pines at night. And the editing and the screenplay’s rhythm makes it work (the dialogs between the doctor and the prosecutor are terrific). Where else do you find films that give you this kind of breathing space? Conventional narrative is aggressive. It forces you to surrender. Contemplative or “slow” cinema encourages you to stay with the moment, which, yeah, in hyper accelerated modernity feels like a discipline, but it’s so rewarding. Meditation is a discipline even though you are doing nothing. In fact, you find a kind of richness in the formlessness; and it’s the ready-made, predigested story “content” of superhero origins and heteromantic sub-plots that are “boring.”

“These movies are too easy to make!” Saying that a film makes the craft look easy is praise in any other context. Not slow cinema, when it’s deliberately purging itself of tired, arbitrary narrative signals.  Is it easy to create dense audio mixing that rivals the big swingers in production value but is actually helping to tell the story with deliberate sound placements (a rustling in the bushes offscreen) and ambiance rather than a wall of noise (which is also cool, dont get me wrong).

And there is still nothing easy about crafting performances. Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Apichatpong Weeresethakul, Lav Diaz, all use nonprofessional actors, who lend verisimilitude by their appearance but also turn in great acting (Uncle Boonme is a character who i still remember, and the doctor in SATANTANGO is my role model). It takes so much talent and good judgement to have a eye for who can play well on camera, and how to help nonprofessionals use the space and create their character. It’s a craft that is totally invisible, especially when it works, and i barely hear anyone talking about this aspect.

“But Atonioni, Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Angelopoulos made slow contemplative films that were still saturated with symbolism and modern psychology and existentialism. The new wave of slow films are just ultra long takes with nothing happening in them and no dialog and characters who have no emotions.” Once again the critics lament what they have lost rather than trying to find what the films are doing now.

In Tsai Ming-Liang’s THE HOLE, we see his leading man Lee Kang-Sheng wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys, sticking his arms and then his legs through the titular hole in the floor of his apartment. He has a cigarette in his hand (as he often does) and he grunts with discomfort occasionally, lending a casual air to this weirdness. Why is he fooling around like this? What’s his motivation?

Isn’t it interesting when a film shows us just how weird our behavior can get when we’re alone? Isn’t it cool to just take a moment to appreciate the form and texture of a human body moving in space? (And what a hot bod Lee Kang-Sheng has! i could look at his ass forever, and Tsai obliges.) Yeah, the intellectual baggage of high modernism has been shorn off, the better to explore new realms of abstractness — which is also extremely concrete in these films, as they often explore dire poverty like in Pedro Costa or Wang Bing.

“It’s reductive to convey the mundane nature of everyday life through a mundane style. It’s misery for misery’s sake!” i find this commonly heard complaint to be the only reduction going on. Who says these films are portraying reality? Bazin thought long takes augment the “truth” of the shot, but that theory is confounded by these films. That infamous two minute tracking shot of walking figures in SATANTANGO is almost hilarious in all the debris and detritus blowing around them. The story world in this scene is expressionist, even monstrous. We watch them walking and listen to the howling wind — this is the moment the film shows us and invites us to sink into for a little bit. Asking in frustration why we can’t see where they are going misses the point; that is the A to B narrative mode, you gotta switch gears.

“But these films don’t say anything about the world today!” An odd charge to level at work that’s largely coming from the nations most heavily impacted by globalization and neocolonialism. These are countries with traumatic histories as a direct result of Western capitalist destruction — the wounds are still open. Nadin Mai blew my mind when she suggested that the slowness of these films might also convey the weight of history: how do these people move forward?

But it’s true, it’s hard to get around what exactly contemplative films are up to. They aren’t mounting a resistance to “intensified continuity,” or the speed of commercial media — slow movies were around before movies in general became fast. They dont accommodate the theories i dosed on in college by Laura Mulvey or Noel Carrol or the rest; Deleuze comes close maybe. But as a result multiple disciplines have come to fill in the gap. Trauma theorists are pointing out the potential therapeutic effects of the peaceful nature of some contemplative films, others look at their historical representations, or their mathematical structuring. Perhaps the production of slow films is also transcending discipline, bringing in painting, concept art, poetry, who knows what else; just as classical narrative cribbed from theater and 19th century novels.

Or maybe they’re pretentious and all surface and no depth and demand too much of our precious time and they are too easy to make and everybody who says they like them is either duped or just posing to get art snob cred. How could anyone be fascinated by them and in my case emotionally moved to a degree i have never gotten from conventional narrative. i swear it’s like some of these commentators revert to high school when confronted by this movement. Anyway, that’s my shitrant.

To bring it back to “Fire the Bastards!” Green and Tuttle land on a similar point. Philistinism is indeed to be expected from the masses on internet forums or column hacks who need fodder for their puff pieces. But it’s distressing to see it coming from reputable places, places trusted to find and promote challenging and innovative work, who instead of crafting a response complain about having to review challenging and innovative work when it means watching long takes with nothing apparently happening, when reviewing contemporary work to find the cream of the crop is what they are paid to do.

recognizing masterpieces is the job of the critic — not writing competent reviews of the unimportant….poor hicks, having a masterpiece sneak up on him with no warning, no previous “body of criticism” to tip him off!

The reviewing establishment Green presents reminds me of opera patrons, at least in Portland. Christopher Alden staged an avantgarde, brechtian version of Don Giovanni: the stage was austere, the period details were vague, the staging was weird, and the sex was starkly portrayed and thus really disturbing. It was my first time at the opera. i was amazed.

Portland hated it. They wanted the flashy colors and costumes and fun, and not have to worry about the title character being a lech. While railing against the “elitism” of challenging productions, they were appallingly condescending online to younger audiences who were interested by the show — “you’ll learn to appreciate real opera when you’re older.” Ben Marcus was right: the real elitists are the people who hate radical departure. The opera patrons want to jealously guard their little cultural corner while bemoaning their marginalization as they attack the very practices that will keep classical music relevant.

(yes, i know youve heard all about conformity madisonavenue & individuality & you dont want to read another word about topics stale usedup & newly unfashionale….which means: youve been conned again!….when an idea starts to look dangerous to Them they destroy it with the novelty trick….they grab onto it themselves & write it up everywhere & everyphonyway….until you get sick of it, the novelty wears off, the ideas not dangerous but passe & meantime the right people have made money out of it….especially compared to what theyd make if they wrote about their own ideas….but ideas arent like hats….1 fashions not replaceale by another except among the fashionable timekillers….”conformism”s just as important before during & after the henry luce boys get the hots for it)

Another thing that makes book reviews so inadequate is the lack of time (and this might also go for video game reviews). The writers read it too fast (if they read it at all; Green uses a two-column format to show how some reviews do nothing but plagiarize the book jacket).

the critics….”rejecting the shell without looking for the pear”….envision the tooserious reader but they have the opposite flaw….their ideals to race thru once carelessly, taking fast notes & faking a review without ever having made contact with the book….have you ever read a novel much too fast?….the scenes skim by like a spedup movie & you get a weird sensation of total contactlessness, of not knowing the characters in the book, not knowing anything, not knowing yourself….

What i like about novels is that we need to slow down our lives to read them. To hell with nine to five careers and schedules and order: spend 10 hours reading about stuff that does not exist. i might even start thinking of it as a form of resistance against utility and productivity. Regarding “slow cinema,” we should recognize that the “resisting current trends” narrative is ahistorical. But it’s cool when films invite us to slow down, when such downtempo experiences are becoming increasingly devalued.

The cliche is that democracy is a poor way to judge art. But it’s true. There was that experimental art exhibit that let patrons vote in the pieces — but the patrons were racist, excluded pretty much everything from black and brown artists, excluded contemporary sculpture and abstract painting, and made a room full of white girls. We need curators to prevent this erasure from happening. Now book critics have conflated what is good art with what sells because the print industry is dead. The funny result is that people bemoan the irrelevancy of literature in current society, but go along with treating books as commodities and readers as consumers, which can only perpetuate this lamentable situation.

POPULISM AND DEMOCRACY WILL END SNOBBERY

put on the They Live glasses and you read:

SUCCUMB TO THE MARKET

i have no idea where the good cutting edge literature is, and even less about contemporary poetry. Alt lit is dead, and i am clearly not the target audience for the essays in Arts & Letters daily. Where is the discourse for new radical work — am i not looking hard enough? i will feel very worthy indeed if as a writer i could promote Evan Dara’s THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, give it more eyes, get it stocked in more libraries. But lord knows there are writers even further marginalized. Where are they? How can we find them?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s