In light of this experience, I'd do well to remember that we should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.
So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:
There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.
But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.
But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.
And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is a shining exception to the rule, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.
This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. All of these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them,;and nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking our technological advancements and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.
So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find me meaningfully different ways of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and traditional Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So since finding a way to perceive the world that isn't Americanized is so difficult, who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch? Even many from the American center now seem to be taken in by the idea that American society needs to be changed in a dramatic, and not particularly democratic, way. A number of leftists I know have been crowing lately about a poll which shows that centrists, dramatically more than either conservatives or liberals, are suspect of democracy. I didn't think much of the poll's methodology, which seemed only to offer very simplistic definitions of democracy, and I think one poll doesn't tell you very much, but still, it should give everyone pause. And when you see that Trump still has an approval rating of 42%, and you see the rise of thinkers who flirt with authoritarianism while keeping a thin veneer of moderation like Jordan Peterson, or you see the traction which the supposedly bipartisan 'No Labels' movement gets which alleges that the problems of America are evenly balanced between both sides of American discourse and not the result of one party declaring war on lower-case d democratic process - even after in the last generation we've seen Gingrich's government shutdowns, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the Iraq invasion, the Katina response, the Party of No, the holdup of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination, the response to Hurricaine Maria in Puerto Rico, and now, concentration camps for children - and we shouldn't sugarcoat exactly that these are concentration camps... so maybe the Republicans have now declared war on democracy itself - you realize that the American divorce from reality is so epidemic that it affects every flank of American life - right, left, and center.
This is what it means to be a decadent society in its actual meaning. Decadence's proper meaning is not that we're somehow spoiled or degenerate, it means that a society no longer has the commonly shared consensus that binds it together. These commonly held assumptions don't have to be true, many of them are demonstrably false. Here in America, that demonstrably false belief so obviously was the American dream. It was a commonly held belief for pretty much the duration of our history that if we work hard we can create an individuated life with prosperity and dignity. All through our history, there were so many obvious contrary forces to that notion, and no doubt, there was and perhaps still is a better chance to create this identity in America over any other place in the world, but that still doesn't mean that the American Dream is ultimately true, and the fact that it isn't largely true has occurred to a particularly large swath of Americans recently. Since 1999, US median income has gone down in real terms, meaning general purchasing power, 9%. The top 1% of America's income earners hold 23% of our wealth, between 1950 and 1970, they held 10%. If wealth in America were as evenly distributed as in 1979, the bottom 80% would be earning an average of 7,000 dollars more.
So what the hell does all that have to do with cinema? Or Ozu for that matter. The answer, insofar obviously as there is one, is that when we look at the most praised works of all time in cinema, clearly the dominant artform of the 20th century, we see a way of looking at life so completely different from ours that the only way to process it is to realize that it was created by a generation who had a completely different outlook - who were in the middle of, or just emerging, from an era of death, yet realized that at the end of that road was something that was at least relatively much better than their current harrowing experiences, and that, contrary to filling them with dread, filled them with an optimism that we, in this era of relative peace when solving problems should at least be much easier than in an era of World War, do not have.
At bottom, we are as irrational as any animal, and in every era when it looks like we've finally solved humanity's problems - whether the solutions are liberal, or monarchical, or religious, or dictatorial, and it looks like all we need to do is apply the proscribed solutions with enough greasepaint, people become in thrall to explanations which tell us that our current society is rotten at its core. It's almost as though mother nature has a homing device to make sure humanity doesn't get too powerful, and let's mass death clean out a significant part of the human population in the same manner that rain washes away toxins into the ocean where they can be diluted.
The old arts became in thrall to various avant gardes, the ultimate decadence, and again, I mean decadence in the sense of unshared consensus, not as a description of its quality either aesthetic or moral. But the popular art of that era, the art that defined that era, the movies, the popular music, the comic books, the television, perhaps even the organized sports, represent the new beginning of this now cleansed world, ready to look toward the future with a newfound optimism.
And in each of the three great cinematic traditions, there is a figure who seems to dramatize in different ways the triumph of this new world against the old - and perhaps above all three of them, a fourth figure, an international figure, who often seems to define the ultimate reach of cinema everywhere the way that Michelangelo defines art. In each of them, there's a large, perhaps huge, element of mournfulness for the old world, and ambivalence just as big about the new; but the triumph, the energy, the confidence of the new, the young, the lower class, can sweep all before it when you see how exhausted the figures from the older world are inevitably exhausted, vitiated, made completely aware of their obsolescence. And from this emergence of a new world, every moviemaker since them had to develop their discoveries, their aesthetic, either taking their discoveries still further, or reacting against it.
Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, but this is a weekly podcast and if I didn't feed you a load of shit I would never have enough intellectual authority to keep it going; and yet, while we live in an era in which the intelligensia completely dispenses with archetypes particularly because of their vituperative cousin, stereotypes, the recent resistence, the unwillingness of so many to dispense with this mode of thinking, to the point that they'll elect men like Donald Trump and vote for Brexit and support Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen, has to give one pause. Archetypal thinking is so completely embedded in the human psyche that even if we wanted to get rid of them and treat every individual on a case by case basis, we wouldn't know how. Today's people of the left argue so vociferously against any kind of archetypal grouping of people, that we have to treat every individual with the full measure of their uniqueness, and yet simultaneously, so many of them insist on the primacy of identity, that the groups to which they belong define their experience, how then do they expect for people to let go of archetypes and stereotypes? When they're honest with themselves, do they really think they'll ever be able to educate the public to the point that they can ever educate the better angels of people's nature to the point that they can surround themselves with other people's cultures without also fearing them?
So just as we archetype various groups of people, we also archetype time and space. As Arthur Schlesinger put it in Cycles of American History, I forget exactly how the quote goes: the earth and the moon go in cycles, the tides and the sun, why wouldn't we be cyclical as well? After all, our lives themselves are cyclical - we're born, we have inescapable stages of our life, and eventually we die. It should be obvious that there is danger in thinking of the world in cyclical terms, with all the pessimism that implies, just as there is in an idealism that says we can cheat such a life cycle. But as with all concepts, one can see a synthesis between the two. So long as we accept the terms of our cyclical limitations - that there is a season for everything under the sun - we can achieve a kind of limited mastery over our destinies; perhaps steer the direction of our elliptical orbit, as it were.
So in that sense, a certain level of archetypal thinking is inevitable, and perhaps beneficial to how we think of the world. So long as we're willing to make an infinity of exceptions to better fit the world within whatever conceptual framework we believe, we still can only process the world using archetypes of how the world works and humans behave, and relate each new situation we're in to the millions of situations in which we've already found ourselves, using that close cousin to archetypes, the metaphor - 'this is to that as that is to this.' I believe Oswald Spengler put it like this: 'metaphors are the algebra of the right side of the brain.' I would further add that because metaphors are conceptual, the right side of the brain can only come up with metaphors and analogies that are messy and easily disproven quantitatively. But you cannot apply scientific rigor to humanistic concepts. It is only through the right side of the brain that we can process those infinite number of happenstances over the course of a lifetime that we cannot explain - and rather than existence growing more explicable, the more advanced we become in science, the more processes there are in existence which we discover that cannot be explained. Artificial intelligence can now perform simple quantitative tasks better than we ever can, but still seems an infinite distance away from thinking in the conceptual manner that we do. We've scanned the human brain, but we have little understanding still of how our neurological wiring thinks. We've mapped the human genome, but we have no idea what it is within the coding of DNA that creates us the way it does. We've long since discovered that reason and compassion is the best way to ensure we all live good lives, yet we have no idea why we can't compel humans to act that way toward one another. We conquer disease after disease, and yet new diseases always present themselves to show that we are ultimately as powerless against death as we have ever been, and in the infinite framework of time, our lives are but the blink of an eye. The human mind cannot process all this except through generalizing, settling for approximate concepts that except that there are many irrationalities that so transcend our understanding that we can only accept that life itself defies explanation.
So in that sense, let's just think of recent American history for a moment. Obviously, the mid-century was so much more complicated than this idyllic era, used today by the American Right for propaganda that sounds uncannily like the enforcement of white supremacy. And who can deny that we are now living with the discontents of the midcentury pastoral; which wasn't all that much of a pastoral period really? Repressed urges to alternate gender and sexuality that were worse in fact than earlier in the century, minorities and women that were only beginning to lift their oppression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the US support of dictators like Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Montt in Guatemala, Jimenez in Venezuela, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Khan in Pakistan, al-Za'im in Syria, the Shah in Iran, the House of Saud, Diem in South Vietnam, Chiang Kai-Shek in China and then Taiwan, a whole series of them in Thailand, at times even communist dictators like Tito in Yugoslavia, and let's not forget Stalin... I know this list is excessive like so many of my lists, but I'm listing all of these to demonstrate the extent of the problem, which only got still exponentially worse with Nixon and Kissinger in the '70s, to try to give a sense about why so many tens if not hundreds of millions, abroad and increasingly here, feel that American liberalism is a sham.
But the mid-century was, relatively speaking, a prosperous, hopeful time, and the evidence of that is how much more peaceful the world became after 1945. It was a time of renewal after a period of death, and the renewal happens precisely because one realizes the fragility of life. It does not guarantee any good life except in relative terms, after all, in many ways, the real rewards of spring only come with the autumn harvest. But so done was the world with old monarchical Europe, with Imperial Japan and dynastic China, even with pioneer America, that works of art had an amazing opportunity to announce a new type of living, a new type of person, to the world. People whom, in a previous era, did not have the future they would have in this new created world, have a future. Perhaps this future, however prosperous, was not worth its price tag. In some ways, that is the message of Citizen Kane - a boarding house operator in pioneer Colorado realizes she's sitting on one of the biggest gold mines in America, so like the Puritans from which she's probably descended, she foregoes it all and instead makes her son one of the richest men in the world, abandoning him to literally be raised by a bank. The son then engorges himself on the American carnival with relish, that feast of life in which every sensual appetite can be satiated at a moment's notice, and learns over the course of a lifetime that money, power, pleasure, and possessions bring only existential emptiness. In 1941, the absolute springtime of the mightiest American power, it predicted that the entire American enterprise, the entire American worldview which believes in absolute liberty, not just the freedom to create yourself in the world, but the freedom to create the world in an image of yourself, is as empty in the face of existence's transcendent problems as any other worldview yet conceived. All the seasons of America's sense of self are predicted in the life cycle of Charles Foster Kane, and Trump is Citizen Kane's predictive fulfillment, the elderly Kane having emerged from his Xanadu and in his senile dotage, grasping the reins of power so that he can reappear on the balcony as an equal head of state to Mussolini and god knows who else. and in the wake of Trump, I don't know how any other work could ever be suggested as the greatest work of artistic creation this country this country ever bequeathed. It is a total work of art, not just in how it synthesizes visuals and words and sound, but in how it expresses every human emotion, and how it conveys an individual human personality in all its contradictions.
Just a few years earlier in France, a genius at very least equal to Orson Welles was creating two other works of art that are just as significant in the face of the world's tectonic shifts. Both Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin celebrated Jean Renoir as the world's greatest director. If Orson Welles was the self-created wunderkind who seemed to emerge from the ether, then Jean Renoir was the inheritor of all the great artistic traditions of Belle Epoque and Annee Folles Paris, and perhaps even the transmitter of the great artistic traditions of old Europe itself to the new artform of Cinema (pronounce it) as the French would say it. Yes, Jean Renoir was the son of the Renoir whom today is still more famous if not more significant to the world - Pierre-Auguste, but Auguste was a painter of joy, plump women and rosy cheeked girls, sensitive men, all of whom are always smiling. If it weren't so brilliantly painted it would be kitschy: flowers of infinite hues, trees in every shade of green, you would never guess from Renoir paintings that anything had ever intruded on this utopia into which his son Jean was born. Growing up in the old Renoir's household, and Auguste only sired Jean in his mid-fifties when he was already long since world famous, it was simply a fact of his early life that Monet, and Zola, and Maupassant, and Cezanne were simply sitting around the house of this painter whom earlier in his life had painted Wagner and been good friends with Flaubert. And yet the intrusion is precisely Jean Renoir's great subject from which he created two movies in the late 30s just as transcendently great as Citizen Kane would be. In the fifty-three years between father and son, a whole host of French creation was harvested that took the idyllic notions of early Belle Epoque and created something far more morbid and decadent from it. The whole life and death of an era had elapsed between these two distant generations of genius. So if Renoir pere depicts the birth of the Belle Epoque, then Jean Renoir depicts the moment between the death and rebirth.
In both The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, we see an . Perhaps Welles's realism with all its baroque, blau reiter-influenced visuals, can be called 'Expressionist Realism.' Perhaps Renoir's then can obviously be called 'Impressionist Realism.' But this is not the impressionism of the canvas, this is the impressionism of the camera.
As David Thomson said about The Rules of the Game, it is
'...the first great realization that the opennes of cinema lends itself to the chaos of experience. The "rule" is that there are no rules. La Regle is still the most dynamic juxtaposition of moods and feelings that cinema has achieved. Thus the shoot is a slaughter in which we do not lose sympathy for the killers. All of the leading characters are felt from moment to moment as being possessed of nobility and foolishness. And as the chateau is filmed in such depth, with so many briefly revealed perspectives, we see how helplessly people try to hold on to their own nature, almost urging on tragedy as a way of imposing a solution from the outside. Renoir is a master at suggesting the frightening flux in a man's mind as he has to decide between one course and another, and at showing how action is sometimes taken haphazardly simply to evade that abyss.'
Over the course of less than two hours the camera moves so freely that we feel we know some four-dozen characters intimately by its end, some of them speaking only a half-dozen lines, and yet we understand everything about them: their backgrounds, their motives, their aspirations, their reasons. Every person has a story, their perspectives forever shifting, our sympathies forever changing, with the spectator evolving as quickly as the characters themselves.
It is all too easy to be seduced by these characters. Like in Mad Men, which will come up again when speaking of Ozu, we are supposed to love many of these people even as we know that there is something repulsive about them. The easy life of good manners and elaborate leisure is a way of charming us - as though to say ‘don’t you wish you could be a part of this life.’ And invariably, yes we do. These are people who view life as a non-stop party - no worries about money, servants to take care of practical matters, every meal a banquet and casual sex held up as a religion. Yet just as in Mad Men, the whiff of rot creeps in from just beneath the oriental rug. These are people so afraid of their inner selves that they must gorge themselves on pleasure so that they might forget the emptiness which so often fills their souls. Take the Marquis’s Austrian wife, Christine. She is the prize which nearly every man in the movie seems to seek. She is a blank slate onto which men assign all the qualities they desire in women. How can they do this? Because Christine seems no better to know what she wants than the men who hound her, and she seems only able to define herself by the men who desire her. By the end of the movie, she has declared her love to three different men in the span of a day and tries to have sex with a fourth. Just as we are being seduced by these aristocrats, her whole life is seduction carried to its logical end - that life is nothing more than a series of beautiful moments, and the agonizing emptiness that awaits us in between them.
And to fill all this emptiness requires unmitigated cruelty. One of the most celebrated scenes in the movie is the hunting scene. We watch dozens of servants hit the trees of the forest with wooden blocks to scare rabbits out of their holes. We then watch these aristocrats pick off the rabbits and squirrels with all the same ease which we shoot soldiers in video games. But this is not a video game, this is a real hunt, and we are watching living animals served up for a massacre. Perhaps the most famous shot in the movie is a camera following a rabbit as he darts about until he’s shot. For five seconds, the rabbit tenses up in every muscle, and then exhales as though going to sleep. This is not the cartoon violence of horror movies, this is the real thing. And just as these people are thoughtlessly cruel to animals, they’re thoughtlessly cruel to one another. Near the beginning of the movie, the famous pilot, Andre Jurieu, is lovesick for Christine. After being the first man since Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic, he realizes that Christine was not there to greet him. He is so heartbroken that - in a scene played for laughs - he tries to kill himself by driving his car into a tree. Of course, killing himself is his right, but his friend Octave is in the car with him.
And yet, the end of the movie, spoiler alert, is the murder of Andre, two lower class characters who were in fact trying to kill his friend Octave. It is the metaphorical assassination of the upper class and all of its notions of heroism by the lower class.
And who are these lower class characters but the people who destroyed and recreated Europe from the inside? From the moment we meet Eduard, the Marquis’s gamekeeper, we are clearly supposed to hate him. He seems like a caricature of a Teutonic authoritarian who repeatedly declares that game poachers should always be shot when caught. His logic proves less dubious than it first seems. The poacher in question turns out to be Marceau, an archetype of a French lower class rogue, exactly the kind of lower class European who had a chance of remaking himself after the two World Wars. Marceau so charms the Marquis that the Marquis immediately makes him a member of his staff - whereupon Marceau sets himself upon the task of poaching Eduard’s wife, Lisette. Towards the end of the movie, Marceau and Eduard are both fired for having caused a disruption in the party because Eduard, understandably if excessively, wants to kill Marceau. Eduard also learns that Lisette never loved him. So Marceau, having fled Eduard’s gun only ten minutes earlier, comes outside to find Eduard openly weeping, and consoles him. Within the span of ten minutes, the bitterest of enemies become close friends. And still later, when they both think they’ve spotted Lisette with another man, and they become co-conspirators who both want to kill whom they think is a third rival for Lisette. And from their machinations comes a terrible tragedy - all the more devastating for having been so unexpected.
The dissolution of the upper class to make way for a new class of people is even more pronounced in La Grande Illusion.