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Saturday, May 06, 2006

mediawatch

And the Loser Is…

Part 2


The most important risk we run by treating the men and women who lived in the past as…continuous with ourselves is that they might force us, in the course of an argument, to change our own minds.
—Christopher Lasch, “History as Social Criticism,” paper presented at the Organization of American Historians convention, April 1989

Part 1 of this essay (see greekworks, March 22) ended by noting that even the strictest critic of Hollywood’s past would consider the seven-year run of Best Pictures from Rebecca to Gentleman’s Agreement as an impressive validation of “the genius of the system.” That famous phrase belongs to André Bazin, of course, whose formulation has been cited, and appropriated, endlessly since he first coined what is not so much a term as a hermeneutical method. Unfortunately, it’s been mostly grossly misconstrued.

From Pericles and the Medici to Warner Bros.
New York Times (but, for the first time ever in the newspaper’s history, LA-based) co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis, for example, used it as follows in the article cited in the first part of my commentary: “The genius of the system, to borrow André Bazin’s phrase, was that this heavily standardized, technologically dependent industry still fostered creative freedom and produced individual works of art” (“Hollywood’s Crowd Control Problem,” New York Times, March 5, 2006). Actually, no. Ms. Dargis mangles Bazin’s lucid dissection of the institutional, which is to say social, nature of cultural production and, in fact, turns him on his head. Bazin was, after all, a Catholic intellectual of remarkable coherence and consistency. Here is what he really wrote, half a century ago: “The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements” (“On the politique des auteurs”).

What Bazin was saying, in other words, was that being a classical art, the American cinema’s genius—beyond and inclusive of “the talent of this or that filmmaker”—was the system itself. Which is why he began with what he considered a self-evident statement—“The American cinema is a classical art…”—and immediately followed it with that dependent interrogative: “…why not then….” Why not, indeed? In fact, how not to? Especially considering “the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements.” Part of the problem with most of Bazin’s American admirers has always been that they’re…Americans. Bazin, however, was looking at the American studio system through the eyes—infinitely clearer, as it turned out—of a European, of someone, that is, who felt himself to be the direct heir of a system of cultural accretion that began with the Greeks, continued through the early and medieval Church, was magnified during the Renaissance, saw its institutional (now “nationalized”) apogee in the post-Westphalian settlement exemplified by Le Roi Soleil, and became the most conspicuous inheritance of the bourgeois states that ensued from the French Revolution. Consequently, while American intellectuals—especially on the left—from the Thirties to the Fifties ceaselessly decried the “mass culture” of studio “philistines,” Bazin accurately discerned a system that created “a classical art.”

He knew, in other words, that Louis B. Mayer’s openly Republican, anti-New Deal sympathies were mostly irrelevant to the esthetic integrity (and even ideological harmony) of a mechanism to which he was, in any fundamental sense, mostly extraneous. (Actually, even worse, as Mayer paid the bills for an apparat that not only mostly ignored him but tried, as often as possible, to publicly ridicule his own view of the world.) In any modern sense of the word, the Medici were tyrants, but who would argue with the Florence they left behind? In fact, for Bazin, that is—or was—precisely the “genius” of the American system of moviemaking: not that it “still”—still?—“fostered creative freedom and…individual works of art,” but that it could only do so precisely because it was a “heavily standardized, technologically dependent” industry, above all. (It’s amazing how many of Bazin’s admirers forget that his defense of the systemic context to American film authorship was written to contest the ideological rigidities, expressed by his ostensible acolytes, of the politique des auteurs.)

The American intellectual left’s criticism of Hollywood was that it made movies the way Henry Ford made Model Ts: straight off an assembly-line. Mayakovsky or Dziga Vertov would have considered that a compliment. This “industrial” nature (“rich” in an “ever-vigorous tradition,” “fertile” in “contact with new elements”) is what made Gone With the Wind such a resonant film: once upon a time in America, before multiculturalism, there were no niche markets, cultural or otherwise. While the nation to which adults and children pledged allegiance did not fall “under God” until 1954, it was always indivisible. While the left’s intellectuals might have thought Hollywood to be a poor vessel of proletarian culture, the actual proles themselves couldn’t keep away from the moviehouses. John Ford might have been as Republican as Louis B. Mayer, but the road from Young Mr. Lincoln to The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley (and, later on, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that’s another story) was straight and true, and utterly coherent, traveled by millions upon millions of Ford’s fellow citizens, although most of them, pace the filmmaker, were voting, loyally and unreservedly, for FDR: truly, the genius of the system.

But entropy awaits even the most brilliantly structured schema. As American society splintered in the late Sixties into discrete, often competing, constituencies of identity, culture fractured as well. Meanwhile, the American left as a whole shriveled intellectually as it was taken hostage by a virtual cult of self-reproducing, academic culturati whose self-segregation and -separation from the real world of actually existing working men and women was as thorough as was their embrace—on first view, paradoxical, but, on second thought, an inevitable extension of their fundamental contempt for any notion of absolute value(s), or esthetic and moral purpose—of the worst kind of lumpen dreck. Suddenly, inane academic exegeses were (and continue to be) devoted to everything from reality shows to Desperate Housewives to Britney Spears. And so, as the very notion of the humanities became deconstructed and semiotized and subalterned and post-colonialized and colored and gendered and queered, we went from cultural history to something called “cultural studies” and, not at all coincidentally, from Chaplin’s Tramp to gangsta Hollywood and Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (although not all that hard, apparently).

Let me be clear (again): my own intellectual background is firmly rooted in the study of popular culture (and greekworks.com has, of course, published essays on Madonna and editorials on Bruce Springsteen). What we see today, however, is very different from the established anthropological definition of culture as whatever human beings create. What we see today, primarily (perhaps exclusively) in the “developed” world, is the wholesale adoption of the toxic belief that culture is whatever human beings accept.

Which is really in the end what the “culture wars” have been about, and why the right has exploited them so deftly (mostly in the US, but, more and more so recently, in Europe as well). This is not the place to discuss either civilizational discontents or any possible clashes resulting therefrom, although it is prudent to keep in mind always, even if only as metaphor, Freud’s exceedingly wise understanding of culture as sublimation. Suffice it to say here that any “multiculturalism” that is both deeply disconnected from cultural practice per se (of other cultures especially) and also (and much worse) actively rejects the continual revaluation of values through which culture articulates itself is worse than ignorant. It is malicious and, ultimately, destructive.

And so, as the movies became phatter than thou—culturally idiotic (in the original Greek sense of hermetic) tales signifying absolutely nothing beyond their hip-hop sound and fly fury—they systematically (and naturally) lost their larger audiences. What is baffling, however, is that people are actually shocked by that fact.

***

…In the late 60s I called myself a socialist….Marx was very important to me.
Q: Why…?
A:…[T]he main thing was the critique of mass culture, his insights into what Gramsci called the devastated realm of the spirit. The theme that began to preoccupy me was the powerlessness of individuals in a mass society of large agglomerations. That is why I was much more impressed by Eisenhower’s farewell speech warning about the military-industrial complex than I was by Kennedy’s inaugural address about getting the nation moving again. I feared the motion would be entirely in the direction of what Eisenhower warned against. It became increasingly evident to me that mass society no longer required the informed consent of citizens and was not in fact governed by a moral consensus.
Q: I take it that you would not now call yourself a Marxist or even a socialist.
A: No. My faith in the explanatory power of the old ideologies began to waver in the mid 70s when my study of the family led me to question the left’s program of sexual liberation, careers for women and professional child care. I saw a new form of socialization taking place as children were less subject to parental authority and more subject to the tutelage of the mass media and the so-called helping professions. I saw this inducing important changes in our understanding of personality and character, especially the decreased capacity for independent judgment, initiative and self-discipline upon which democracy had always been understood to depend. It was, broadly speaking, a crisis of authority but it included the degradation of work and the substitution of careerism for vocation, addiction for commitment and training for education….
Q: Have you then become a man of the right?
A: People sometimes say I have. And there are obviously some forms of conservatism I espouse. But if I have to be labeled I would prefer to be called a populist….I use the term primarily to recapture a moral vision that has been largely lost in modern society…a useful way of criticizing the pretensions of progress and also…of setting in relief certain values I cherish: a sense of limits, a respect for the accomplishments and aspirations of ordinary people, a realistic appraisal of life’s possibilities, genuine hope without utopianisrn which trusts life without denying its tragic character. Populism…asks the right questions. And it comes closest to answering the question about civic virtue. Above all, it is connected to a moral tradition….
On The Moral Vision Of Democracy: A Conversation With Christopher Lasch, interviewed by Bernard Murchland. The Civil Arts Review, Volume 4, Number 4, Fall 1991

At a time when politic cultural intercourse labors hard under the self-imposed regime, not so much of correctness as of intellectual withering and moral self-satisfaction, it’s not easy to question certain bases of the current dictatorship of diversity without seeming to be a loutish yob at best or a fascist sociopath at worst. Regrettably, Christopher Lasch left no intellectual heirs to continue his scrutiny of a left that went so severely awry (betraying itself to a fundamental degree) by substituting the socially resonant concept of citizenship with the self-restricting, -isolating, -centered, and, above all, -aggrandizing notion of “identity.” We are truly all multiculturalists now, as Nathan Glazer very reluctantly admitted a few years back. The problem is, it’s even less clear today if the ensuing concoction is a cosmopolitan cocktail or a witches’ brew.

Brokeback movies
One night a couple of months ago, my wife and I turned on the TV after dinner and, zapping through, came upon The Apartment; it was toward the end of the film, when C. C. Baxter thinks he’s finally lost “Miss” Kubelik to Sheldrake. Although we’ve seen the movie any number of times, we were glued to the tube within seconds, following the deeply humane resolution of what is arguably the most acid depiction—Brecht could easily have written this script—ever put on film of the predatory male nature of the American corporation (and the society for which it stands). The Apartment won the Best Picture Oscar of 1960. (It also got Billy Wilder the first hat trick in Oscar history, since, as producer, he was the rightful recipient of the Best Picture statuette, was named Best Director, and shared the Best Screenwriter award as well.) What is most astounding about this movie written by a couple of unusually successful white men, and directed by the older one who was well into his fifties at the time, is that it makes the so-called “feminist cinema” that came decades later—from My Brilliant Career to Thelma and Louise to Boys Don’t Cry to any of Jane Campion’s ponderously anthropological guignols du jour—seem purposely evasive (with the exception of Gillian Armstrong’s film but particularly true of Campion’s exasperating set pieces). With Wilder, though (and his co-screenwriter, I. A. L. Diamond), it is obvious from the outset what the movie is about: money and sex, and their interagency—or, more accurately, how this interagency is so embedded in the “modern” world that it fucks up everybody, but especially the women and men who are, in fact (or could be, if they just stopped for a second to realize what they are doing), decent and honest human beings.

But that was the pre-postmodernist then and this is the post-postmodernist now, when we scoff at the very notion of a common ethical basis (let alone purpose) to social reality. The truth is that our sociopathic insistence on our “diversity”—although we all dress alike and talk alike (in the same mediatic clichés) and accumulate alike and, increasingly, vote alike and, most important, invest alike—precludes any common foundation to social existence. The primary point to ideological multiculturalism is, of course, applied difference, what was once upon a time decried as Balkanization but is now heralded as recognition of the innate individuality of each “autonomous” human being, a perverse kind of cultural Benthamism in which Goth is as good as Goethe and the burka as culturally unassailable as Baudelaire. If we are all multiculturalists now, we have also all been (self-) niched into social negation. It was inevitable, of course, as social secession—and the “identity politics” from which it springs—is a slippery slope (see Yugoslavia): Jane Austen leads to chick lit leads to black chick lit leads to black-lesbian chick lit leads…far away from Jane Austen—not to mention, say, Nadine Gordimer, Elsa Morante, Lady Murasaki, Dawn Powell, Madame de Staël, Christina Stead, Christa Wolf, or Virginia Woolf.

“It is intolerable to be tolerated,” Pasolini observed bitterly. As one of the most lucid gay men—and one of the most courageous men, gay or straight—of his or any generation, he knew from whence he spoke. He came to despise the social-technocratic settlement in the West that followed upon the end of the Second World War, denouncing it as “the brutal, totalitarian leveling of the world” and a “degrading order of the horde.” He foresaw how the liberal West’s political correctness would subvert the notion of community and debase it into a seemingly planetary consumismo. “They have always condemned not so much the homosexual as such,” Pasolini warned of the sociocultural powers-that-be, “but the writer whose homosexuality has not been cowed, not driven into conformism.”

It is difficult to imagine a more “cowed,” more conformist film than the movie that quickly became the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture this year. It is also hard to conceive of one about which Pasolini’s accusation of intolerant tolerance is truer. This is not the place for a review, even assuming that I cared to provide one. It is enough to point to what I think is obvious: Brokeback Mountain is destined to enter Hollywood history more as cartoon than canon. And yet, as predictable, conventional, and excruciatingly conformist (and over-hyped) as this film is, it still brought in only a little over $75 million at the box office in its first three months, about $300 million less than Star Wars: Episode III. Moreover, calculating (a rough estimate of) number of tickets sold on the basis of that box office, we get about 12 million, or roughly four percent of the US population—hardly a catholic, or unifying, experience bringing the country together in a common cultural or moral dialogue.

There is nothing unusual in this, of course, as the problem with America today is not merely its degeneration from what was once a society that debated public policy to an enormous, continent-wide therapy session indulging in “national conversations” about sharing each other’s pain. The problem today is that we’ve become a nation of deaf-mutes. Our current, psychotic insularity—whose deadly consequences we daily witness, not only within the country but on a global span, from Mesopotamia to the Andes and from Baffin Bay to the Southern Ocean—makes nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century isolationism look downright altruistic. From the flight to exurbia (and a “social” vision oxymoronically founded on self-segregation) to home-schooling (and the premeditated murder of the public education that was, for Jefferson, the bedrock of American republicanism) to SUVs the size of small living rooms (and comparably equipped) to “middle-class” monster houses that would have embarrassed an estanciero on the Pampas a hundred years ago to, worst of all and defining everything else, a new, truly solipsistic definition of “family” in which parents are children’s “best friends” (is any more dysfunctional description of family possible?) and the children themselves are invested (more accurately, in most cases, burdened) inter spem et metum with an almost-genetic (and quite literally medieval) mission: not simply to succeed (this is America, after all, so what else is new), but somehow to emblazon, in the most heraldic sense of the term, the family’s presence on humanity’s future.

It is yet another irony of the present unwinding of the great American experiment that what began as a “wilderness” to which people ran away to escape kith and kin has now become well over (according to the US census bureau) 100 million hearths offering their familial “haven in a heartless world”—at least to those of us who are welcome in them. In the event, we are all monoculturalists now, circling our respective wagons of kinship/confession/ethnicity/race/gender/sexual preference/class (this latter above all) to ward off attacks (real and imagined) from all the heathen whose identities are not identical to ours in every way. (As stupidity is never bound by ideology, kneejerk feminists missed the undisguised irony in the title of Lasch’s famous book and took it, instead, as his presumptive prescription. Despite “feminist readings” of his text, however, Lasch’s point was that capitalism, and nineteenth-century bourgeois “propriety,” manufactured—literally, as part of the industrialization of social experience—the myth of the family as sanctuary and, in so doing, disoriented both the family and any wider social coherence, while, not at all coincidentally, incarcerating women inside a newly gilded prison.)

And so, compelled to contend with this vast social desert of infinitely enclaved identities, “popular culture” just ain’t what it used to be. Most obviously, to anyone who’s followed it closely over the last few decades, it’s no longer popular. It has been said repeatedly over the last many years (although primarily, which is emblematic in itself, by the culture warriors of the right) that Americans no longer possess a common cultural inheritance: once it was widely accepted that allegiance need not be pledged to any cultural heritage “defined” by Dead White Males, it was a short haul to cultural disintegration. (No one bothered to object, of course, that the dead can’t define anything; quite the opposite, as the epigraph from Christopher Lasch at the top of this article makes clear, the point to historiography since the Greeks is that the living continually define—that is, redefine—the dead.) Which is finally why Brokeback Mountain is the most recent example of the arbitrary and artificial imposition of diversity leading not to cultural democracy but, rather, to cultural disarticulation: the semantic solecism at the core of this “gay cowboy movie,” of course, is not that it’s about gay men, but that they aren’t cowboys.

To be continued

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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