Target Practice 1: On Sundry Topics

Posted by Charles Reece, March 1, 2008 09:09pm | Post a Comment
This is my trial run at blogging on my new laptop.  I switched to a Mac, which is a bit like what those really young kids must've felt in Piaget's experiments on object constancy where they hadn't yet developed the proper conceptual framework to understand that when a doll goes behind an obscuring object it doesn't cease to exist.  My perspective is all out-of-whack -- no right-clicking, can't figure out how to easily shift between programs, there's a bunch of little objects at the bottom of my screen that have no meaning for me -- forms without functions -- and I have no idea if files still exist once I've saved them.  It was definitely time for a change, however.  My other laptop looks like it was dug up on a excavation in New Guinea, a talisman from some forgotten arcane ritual.  Now, everything on the Web works the way it's supposed to (well, once I downloaded Firefox) and I don't have to wait for the grinding gears to stop before my next action, so I'll get used to it.  Baby steps.  The agony of living in the First World.

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On my conversion to Macatholicism, I'm reminded, of course, of this piece from Umberto Eco, written way back in 1994:
The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: when it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.
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One of my favorite film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has retired from his position at The Chicago Reader.  He's opening up his own website, so I'm not too sorry to see him go.  A biography, a selection of his personal favorite online critiques, and a YouTube-based analysis of a scene from Orson Welles' Don Juan can be found with a click on the link.  Also, you'll find a two-part interview with him, the second of which I'm putting up here:

You'd think an interview with a critic so knowledgeable about the formal qualities of cinema could have the camera placed better, but alas ....
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Speaking of criticism, it's interesting that for all his braggadocio Quentin Tarantino has one of the more enlightened views on the function of the art I've read coming from a popular filmmaker (yeah, that's right, it's a form of art):
I love subtextual film criticism, especially when it's fun, when a guy knows how to write in a readable, charming way. What I love the most about it is that it doesn't have a fucking thing to do with what the writer or the actor or the filmmakers intended. It just has to work. And if you can make your case with as few exceptions as possible, then that's great.

In a weird way this goes back to Death Proof, because one of the biggest inspirations for the film, especially the first half of the movie - the more slasher-oriented section - was Carol Clover's book Men, Women, And Chainsaws. I really truly think that her chapter on the 'final girl', the role that gender plays in the slasher film, pins down the best piece of film criticism I've ever read. It gave me a new love for slasher films and one of the things that I was doing when I was watching that movie was applying her lessons.

A few notable points here: Firstly, Tarantino properly separates the act of criticism from its subject.  As opposed to the flippant "those who can't, teach" rejection of criticism, he recognizes that any art object which might serve as the preliminary reason for a critical essay isn't what ultimately justifies its reason for being.  Like any art, a critical essay achieves its value to the degree that it's capable of altering the perspective of its audience via its internal coherence, style and originality of thought.  To say art criticism is dependent on the creation of others is no more an argument for its parasitism than noting landscape paintings depend on landscapes or modernist literature depends on preexisting literary rules.  A meaningful achievement from any artform depends on what it says about its subject, not whether the subject itself already existed or whatever value the subject had in of itself.  To disregard all criticism as parasitic is to reduce it to the mere act of reviewing (an instrument of consumerism) and, by logical extension, all aesthetic value to a degenerate variant of mimesis, where the relevance of the work itself is secondary to the novelty of what's depicted (sorry, Claude, we have enough paintings of sunrises).

Secondly, Tarantino is hardly the nostalgia-pandering fanboy of junk cinema his most derisive critics take him to be.  As his comment on Clover's excellent analysis of the slasher genre suggests, his celebration of the less respected film genres isn't merely reducible to a throwback from his childhood, but rather, as with any other subject, if one regards them with enough thought, one might discover virtues outside of the more respected constraints of received wisdom.  Like the slasher film, Tarantino's work rarely comes to mind when thinking of feminist filmmaking, but you'd be hardpressed to find more intelligent women determining their own courses of action in contemporary cinema than in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction or Death Proof.  (I might add that their overt sexuality doesn't diminish their agency in this regard, but rather enriches it.) 

Finally, despite the indulgent scenes of dialog, I thought Death Proof was a pretty good film in large part for the reason Tarantino discusses above.  He provides a good example of how borrowing from the insights of a critic can lead to something different -- perhaps even novel -- within a well-worn genre.   (Even if you don't like the film, it's hard to argue that it's merely reducible to what's come before.)  It's an hypothesis of mine that the more generic and dull a film is, the more likely its creator doesn't read much and, consequently, doesn't think much about his or her métier.  That is, it's not the T.S. Elliots of the world who tend to bemoan the very idea of criticism, but the most base of artists.  Being narcissistic enough to not consider the rails before constructing the train isn't going to get you very far.  And even if you're lucky enough to be successful at finding a fit, you're just going to be riding along the path others have laid.  Sure, that approach can lead to financial solvency, but only the critically minded will know it for the illusory journey it actually is.  Making art for an uncritical audience might be good for business, but it rarely makes for good art.  Just look at the proliferating fungi on the genre shelves at the local bookstore to see where having no need for criticism leads.

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I'm a bit late on this, but I just noticed that Kon Ichikawa died on February 13th.  He was one of the last of the Japanese studio greats.  Contrary to the Variety article, I say "one of the last," because Seijun Suzuki is still alive and kicking and continuing to make some of the greatest films of his career (Pistol Opera being the culmination of his stylistic and thematic development).  To be fair to Variety, Ichikawa was far more successful within the studio system than Suzuki ever was. plus his career goes back further.  There's a good overview of Ichikawa's career at Senses of Cinema and there's an interview with Suzuki over at Midnight Eye.

I recommend starting with the three Criterion releases of Ichikawa's films (albeit Tokyo Olympiad is out of print):

As well as these three from Suzuki (along with the aforementioned Pistol Opera):


I hope I look this cool when I'm 84.

Relevant Tags

Seijun Suzuki (1), Quentin Tarantino (16), Criticism (2), Jonathan Rosenbaum (4), Macatholicism (1), Umberto Eco (1), Kon Ichikawa (1)