Things Done Changed

Ten years ago Armond White surveyed the state of “the movies” and film criticism in his “First of the Month” piece, “Things Done Changed: The McDonald’s Theory of Moviegoing.” White began with a quote from Pauline Kael’s classic 1968 essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies” – “Can one demonstrate that trash desensitizes us, that it prevents people from enjoying something better, that it limits our range of aesthetic response?” – and he came back to Kael’s essay in the body of his article, explaining how her premises had been “undermined.”


Kael memorably ended her piece with the line. “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” She stood on a solid foundation of traditional Liberal Arts education while rebelling against stodginess. But in the 30 years since – in the wake of “Star Wars,” “Flashdance,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Titanic” – it’s apparent that trash increasingly gives movie audiences a taste for more trash. And film producers as well as film critics and their editors have responded accordingly – praising top grossers, steadily tallying weekend box office results, championing hits, not artists; gimmicks not vision. “Is it a blockbuster or a dog?” asked a late-night NBC movie maven.

“Arts and Letters Daily,” the popular internet cache of contemporary cultural criticism, recently linked to a piece that re-upped on White’s line on Kael’s legacy []. A decade after “Things Done Changed” it was striking to read Robert Fulford’s “sad and rueful” (and otherwise unremarkable) attempt to connect Kael to “the spirit of the Age” – “the dynamic that turned most of the slick magazines into abject publicity sheets…the same mysterious impulse that drove university professors to write books about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“Arts and Letters Daily’s” link to Fulford’s take on the Zietgeist serves as a reminder that Armond White is often years ahead of his peers. The following excerpt from “Things Done Changed” remains right on time.

Cinephilia has been replaced by hysteria: the quiet hysteria of those who defend personal passions against the loud, inexorable drive of the marketplace. Hysteria that is the result of the triumph of capitalism and the changes it has wrought in the ways people use film to ease their anxieties. The dialectic between the idea of cinema and commercial convention (what Pauline Kael prefers to call “the movies”) is inoperative. That’s the reason, in the 80’s, Jean-Luc Godard resorted to making video auto-critiques to explain his own features Sauve Qui Peut/La Vie and Passion. Since there was no longer a community he could address by making new films, he wound up talking to himself, as serious critics must.

But most criticism these days simply does the bidding of the film industry. It’s advertisement. Not the work of the thinker, the scholar or even the discriminating fan. “Liking” movies (a diminishing of cinephilia) is now the approved pop impulse and the adolescent McDonald’s response – unconnected to adult intelligence – rules. Contemporary audiences don’t have a vision of art or a high ideal to which they can aspire. The “entertainment” rubric has superseded the expression of concepts and feelings that past generations of filmgoers – weaned on Griffith as well as Renoir and Welles and Godard and Truffaut – once appreciated. Critics have forsaken films’ humanist tradition in the service of a new sensation-hungry audience – generations who only know thrill rides and big grosses at the object of film-making.

The old idea of film as a great democratizing art is a bludgeoned faith. La Scala once honored Visconti for “the cultural maturity he encouraged in audiences.” But after years of seeing “popular” decline into “gross” – years when pop art devolved into inept formula – we can only despair for the movies (and for the prospect of Jim Carrey’s audience) rising above the mythicizing lies of The Truman Show to commune at the best as at a fountain of paradise. Now the best is no longer popular but seems beyond people’s reach, beyond their ken. We who see disjuncture between movies and audiences long for the connection between art and people, the bond of understanding that once transformed kitsch into art. It made Boyz N the Hood credible but not Menace II Society, Bulworth pertinent but not Rosewood. Audiences that only want their own reflections – or Hollywood’s funhouse distortions – have lost the link to others taught by the Humanities. We once learned that Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury matter because of the richness and guidance to be found there. And it was the blessings of cinema to bring such richness and guidance out of the Academy and into the air. Movies used to be American Studies 101. THINGS DONE CHANGED.

It all comes down to the prevailing aesthetic of triviality. The rejection of Amistad and Bulworth may indeed demonstrate that trash desensitizes us to something better, limiting our range of moral and aesthetic response. So how does a critic address that popular audience that matters most initially – the youthful one that must fuse tradition and taste with currency? I think the first priority is for critics to stand up for the idea that movies are not simply entertainment – better yet, that entertainment need not be simplistic. The 60’s pop notion that trivial/disposable culture ought to be celebrated is indefensible now. Critics should train their readers to expect complexity and daring in art; to disengage from Hollywood and tv equations of film-watching with escapism. Right now, intellectuals seem committed to diversion – especially those disingenuous film critics who celebrated last year’s film release of Star Wars but not The Godfather, who recently cheered the trailer for the next Star Wars installment rather than confound the market by explicating the subtleties of Saving Private Ryan and Beloved.

Above all, practicing film critics, as well as scholars, should recall the movies’ cultural heritage, underlining film’s relation to other arts. In doing so, though, it will be necessary to insist on – and celebrate – the transformations in cultural tone reflected in Amistad, Bulworth, and [Ira] Sach’s The Delta. These culturally radical movies make conventional films like L.A. Confidential or The Truman Show unacceptable. Truffaut famously lamented: “Once you are able to make movies, you can no longer make the movies that made you want to make them.” Something similar has occurred along the way as film culture has sped up from buffdom to cinephilia to our current hip-savvy. It’s tragic that all our sophistication about movies and genre and popular culture has alienated filmgoers from the values of humanist cinema and the importance of human continuity. It could be related to the growth of home viewing via video cassettes and dvds – which encourages isolation while reducing the medium’s visual and spatial dimension. As movies shrink, so does their popular effect.


History in the Making

Witness – Whittaker Chambers’ account of the Hiss case and its back story – is the fount of modern Movement Conservatism. (Ronald Reagan credited it with converting him from New Deal Democrat to conservative Republican.) Ideologues on today’s Right are still playing changes on the persona – “a solitary man in a gregarious land” – Chambers perfected in his great American autobiography cum anti-communist moral tract. But torture-mongers and Tea Partiers on the Right will find it hard to assimilate certain implications in Chambers’ thought. Meanwhile, leftists who instinctively avoid Chambers – ally of Nixon and the man who shaped Reagan’s brain – are missing out on a 20th Century mind whose testimony seems especially pertinent now.

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Jesse Jackson and Black People (Redux)

We’re honored to reprint Amiri Baraka’s reflections on Jesse Jackson, Dukakis and the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, which he composed in 1988-1989 (and which we originally posted at First near the start of the Obama era). This is an essay for the Ages but the history Baraka witnessed in 1988 has a special resonance in our time. Baraka’s meditation begins (artfully) in medias res…

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The Ground We Stand On

I had studied social movements most of my academic life, so when some kind of rhythmic popular mobilization put in an appearance in American presidential politics in 2008, I paid attention. By February, when it arrived in my neck of the woods, the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the pundits were calling it “the Obama ground game.” I signed up so I could get a close look.

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Guilt & Grace

A defender of Israel’s Gaza incursion emailed anti-Islamists the following excerpt from a front page story, “Fighter Sees His Paradise in Gaza’s Pain,” in the January 9 New York Times:

21 year old militant with Islamic Jihad awaits treatment for shrapnel wounds:

“Hurry, I must get back so I can keep fighting…We are fighting the Israelis…When we fire we run, but they hit back so fast. We run into the houses to get away.”

He continued smiling. “Why are you so happy?,” the reporter asked.
“Look around you. Don’t you see that these people are hurting?”

“But I am from the people too.” he said with his smile incandescent.
“They lost their loved ones as martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.”

I’d seen the original story in the Times where that bright, shining smile lit up the madness of Jihadis. But there was something vital missing from the e-mailer’s excerpt. Right after Times reporter Taghreed El-Khodary entered her own story to address the happy militant – “Look around you.” – she brought readers inside the hospital’s emergency room:

A girl who looked about 18 screamed as a surgeon removed shrapnel from her leg. An elderly man was soaked in blood. A baby a few weeks old and slightly wounded looked around helplessly. A man lay with parts of his brain coming out. His family wailed at his side.

Only then did El-Khodary turn back to ask the militant: “Don’t you see that these people are hurting?”

Her story of the smiley Jihadi stuck with me in part because she nailed the pain the wannabe martyr refused to take in. But it seems the Jihadi wasn’t the only imperfect witness. I suspect the “pro-Israeli” e-mailer cut El-Khodary’s passage on the victims in that hospital because it brings home the excruciating consequences of the Gaza incursion. Jihadists who provoke Israel bear much responsibility for causing the suffering of Palestinian civilians but so do Israeli politicians and the population who overwhelmingly support the operation in Gaza.

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Unwritten Rules

Excerpted from First of the Year: 2008 Copyright Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

It’s been an elegiac time for our crew lately. In the past year, we lost (among others) Hans Koning, Ellen Willis, George Trow, Kurt Vonnegut and, a year before that, Benjamin DeMott. They were First readers as well as writers for our tab. You could count on them to give it to you straight and there were occasions when one of their opinions could outweigh all others due to its cogency. There are no substitutes for irreplaceable elders but we’ll try to sustain what they valued in First by finding new originals to help carry us into the future. Which, sorry to repeat myself, remains unwritten (despite the chorus of that slack Natasha Bedingfield song).

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