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When "I get it!" means "I don't get it!" -- and vice-versa

While reading Dwight Macdonald's famous essay, "Masscult & Midcult," the first version of which was published in 1944, I want to interject a "Yes, but --" or "No, and --" or "Bad example because --" or "But that's not the point!" after almost every sentence. Still, it's endlessly fascinating and, as they say, provocative. In the preface to the later version republished in his 1962 collection, "Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture," Macdonald stated, "If serious and ambitious works of quality are now less likely to be overlooked, serious and ambitious works of no quality are more likely to be praised."

You see what I mean? I appreciate, even partially sympathize with, what I think he's saying (especially since it goes against the grain, or the Conventional Wisdom, these days), but... it's basically an emotional response to anecdotal evidence, selectively interpreted and expressed in the form of generalizations so vague that they can't possibly be confirmed or disputed. Yeah, I think that sums it up.

Also, there are loads of fogey-isms, like: "But now we have pianos playing Rock 'n Roll and le sanglots longs des violons accompanying torch singers." Horrors.

But, still, there's substance here (and, my instincts tell me, some truth, too -- even if Macdonald can't prove it and neither can I). And Macdonald is as funny as he his trenchant. Here's another passage from the preface that precedes the pronouncement above, regarding "the recent change of line by Mr. Bosley Crowther, the film critic of the New York Times" (and a favorite milquetoast reactionary target of Pauline Kael's -- and virtually every New York critic of the day):

He could once have been counted on to denounce as willfully obscure, perverse, etc., any film of originality, but he has now begun to praise just the kind of thing he used to find absurd before the little-cinema audience grew to its present impressive size -- I am thinking of his reviews of Antonioni's "La Notte" and of Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad." These are interesting and admirable films and Mr. Crowther's conversion is welcome, but one suspects it has more to do with fashion than with criticism.

Macdonald's point seems to be that Crowther was tailoring his reviews to his (real or imagined) audience. And Macdonald himself insists that art and mass-market consumerism are not only incompatible but antithetical:

Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for those demand effort. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is "totally subjected to the spectator." And it gives nothing.

More about that later, but I looked up Crowther's review of "La Notte" (February 20, 1962) and, you know, it's actually one of his better ones, with interpretations rooted in the particulars of the film. Following a simple plot synopsis, he writes:

That is the line of the drama, and we state it in order to reveal the simplicity of the progression and the complexity of the tensions implied. For here, as in "L'Avventura," it is not the situation so much as the intimations of personal feelings, doubts and moods that are the substance of the film.

And these Signor Antonioni has implanted and developed with a skill that is excitingly fertile, subtle and awesomely intuitive. Upon a crisply graphic background of real buildings and places in Milan that would lead one to expect the exposition of a virtually objective document, he has superimposed and intruded a completely subjective account of the interior loneliness, boredom and emotional exhaustion of a woman and a man.

That's not bad for the notorious fuddy-duddy¹ (Times-ese aside), and it compares well with most newspaper movie criticism today. There's not a lot of room for actual criticism in the topical journalistic review, but it can sometimes be accomplished. (The Times itself is fortunate today to publish by far the best critics in the paper's history, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis.)

In the current issue of n + 1 founding editor and author Benjamin Kunkel ("Indecision") has a perceptive piece about Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman" (one of the most exciting movie experiences of last year for me) called "Headless in Salta." In it, he also captures a major weakness in what passes for film criticism, amateur and professional, today: generalizations and grand pronouncements made without paying more than superficial attention to the movie itself:

"The Headless Woman" was released in the States last year to what they call mixed reviews. The mixture in this case was interesting. It's not every movie about which the people who don't like it complain not only I get it! I get it! and I don't get it! but lodge both of these complaints at the same time, as several critics and many website commenters have done.

The charge of obviousness has to do with the stark class relationships on display. White and well-to-do Véronica fears she may have killed a dark-skinned poor person, and when the discovery of the boy's body lends a new plausibility to the notion, her male relatives are in a position--a social position--to eliminate any potentially corroborating evidence. Thus, according to the New York Times, Véro's "greater crime is being bourgeois." Naturally the Times doesn't consider this a very serious offense.

The charge of obscurity stems from Martel's extremely economical story-telling. The close framing and shallow focus, the absence of expository dialogue of the usual kind, and of course the music-lessness all deprive the viewer of context, and together mimic the situation of a dazed, maybe concussed protagonist emerging into a world as thoroughly familiar to its other inhabitants as it's become unfamiliar to her. Miss a clue, and you'll lose some vital piece of information about the exact economic, familial, and sexual complexion of Véro's intimate relationships. So that's her niece, the teenage girl who has an intense lesbian crush on her? And she's in practice, as a dentist, with her brother? But she is also clearly related, by blood, to her cousin's (and/or brother in law's) wife, since it seems to be their aunt who is dying and has lost her mind, no? The tangle of connections is all very incestuous, not for the first time in Martel's work. But if Martel is confusing, it is out of precision rather than vagueness. Richard Brody's complaint in the New Yorker that "the characters evaporate into symbols almost upon their appearance" suggests he could figure out the class relationships in the film, but not the private ones. For him, "The Headless Woman" was at once "heavy-handed" and "thinly realized."

Any appreciation of the film in a way has to say the same thing. "The Headless Woman" does fuse the schematic and the intricate. But once you've granted Martel her brilliantly established premise and her fastidious approach, both the crude social schema and the delicate filigree of private relationships come to seem like features of the observable, inevitable world rather than impositions by the director.

It has been my experience that the critics who are the first to insist "I get it! I get it!" are indeed the ones who are "getting" some aspect of the film -- usually a fairly obvious surface theme or pattern -- and think that's all there is to see. In other words, they get the little bit they get, but they don't get most of what's going on in the movie, moment by moment. We all do it, because we're human. But not all of us try not to.

Once again, I call your attention to the quotation from Martin Scorsese at the top right of this page: "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." That's true of all films, but few films have explored it as a subject more thoroughly than "The Headless Woman"...

UPDATE: At least one commenter has indicated that the above post was, perhaps, a little too free-associative and rambly. (I know that's not a word, but I like it.) The theme is pretty much stated in the first paragraph: Think of it as offering several examples of critics offering insights that are both accurate and insufficient, that may seem paradoxical or not, depending on how you look at them -- and whether or not you agree with them. That is my (gulp) PowerPoint summary.

Part 2: More about "Midcult & Masscult" and the relationship between movies and criticism: Products of mass distraction (or, Hooray for elitism!)

jim's favorite movies of 2009 in conversation from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

- - - - -

¹ Then, in the last paragraph, Crowther has to offer his consumer guide news:

There is a lot of Italian conversation that is complicated and hard to get from the heavy English subtitles. This adds further to the difficulty of fathoming this film, which already demands a large measure of sophistication and sensitivity in its audience. Whether one finds it stimulating or a redundant bore will depend, we suspect, in large measure upon the subtle attunement of one's mood.

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