Saturday, June 30, 2018

It's Not Even Past #22 - The Crisis of What is Art #5 - Orson Welles and the Grandiose - Prologue

So your faithful podcaster has been rather behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but having read somewhere around a good dozen-and-a-half short stories and been in the middle of two other novels, everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love. That was a good ten days right there....

He then saw Late Spring by Yasijiro Ozu at the revival series of his local cherished artfilm theater - The Charles, and had a plan to do a podcast on it and explain how Ozu is, in so many different ways, if not necessarily the greatest then still perhaps the most moving, cosmic, deepest in inquiry moviemaker there has ever been. But that required a long elaboration of this now too little remembered moviemaker's place in the history of movies, of Japan, and of the world. So in order to talk about Ozu and the grand line of Japanese filmmakers, I had to talk about the parallel grand lines of the great American and French filmmakers, so I got as far as talking about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane and it's place in American history rather than anything related to Ozu. That was another good ten days right there...

So 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 three principal figures at the summit upon which the history of the movies are based, and then perhaps a destructive emperor above all three whose achievement has to be viewed with a slight asterisk. 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 the lives 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 life matters at all, let alone human dignity, 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, living in an era which asked if life meant anything at all if quality of life could not be guaranteed, and therefore suffused 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, generally believed in itself - that so long as we were still alive and death was not all around us, life could be a lot worse than it is. The problems of life could be changed with proper application, and that since the world was no longer at war, there was little enough which needed to change that even if it wasn't, everything would ultimately turn out alright. This approach obviously involves an infinite amount of delayed gratification and doesn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but this belief in not asking too much from life except life itself 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. Such is the way of the world. 

And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. As I've said before, I think a number of times, decadence does not mean moral degeneration, it means a lack of agreement on what is moral. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had, at least in a sense, broken free of the old constraints; only to realize that the biggest constraint of all was ourselves. Our freedoms, in comparison to previous generations, are stunning. The birth control pill gave us freedoms of sex, and as sex became untethered from the issue of pregnancy we soon thereafter had new levels of political freedom for sexuality and gender never before encountered in world history. New weapons technologies gave us both the freedom to carry arms on a level never before seen and the freedom to be exempt from military service. Easier access to information made education easier than ever, and therefore we have greater freedom to become educated than ever before, and education has become so cheapened that the freedom to have an uneducated opinion taken seriously is greater than ever before because it's quite often that even an uninformed person has a college degree. The amount of money in our society is so great that citizens have both the freedom to be helped by social programs whose cost is in the hundreds of billions and the freedom to make billions while finding ways to be barely taxed for it. The internet gave us greater freedom to express our opinions on internet communities with an exponentially greater alacrity than ever before seen in human history yet also the freedom for lurkers to collect information on all our opinions and exploit us with it, birth control and humane abortion gave us greater freedom to have control over one's body and also greater freedom to dictate how one's body should be controlled, the internet and cable television gave us the freedom to write and read news that tells levels of truths about government mistakes and malfeasance that governments of previous eras would never sanction if they had a choice, but it also creates the freedom to distribute and consume news that manipulates the public with alternative versions of facts. 

There are all sorts of news stories that have happened in this past month while this podcast has gone dark, which Todd Gitlin called the worst month for liberals since the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. This podcast is hopefully taking the long view of history and current events, so even if I don't comment on it much yet, there will be plenty of time as we begin to see how these events unfold over time - and no doubt, they will unfold quite dramatically, perhaps even badly. I'd just like to comment for a moment on an interesting column by David Brooks, yes, he tends to write one once a year, that elaborated exactly what was wrong with the now departing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's worldview, which of course Brooks does with a maximum lack of self-awareness because his own worldview is so close to Kennedy's, and both are, in so many ways, indicative of the worldview of the mainstream of America. 

As a whole, the column has some incorrect assumptions, but there is one part of it that strikes me as being extremely perceptive. I quote: 
Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t invent the shift from community to autonomy, but in 1992 he articulated it more crisply than anyone else: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In this sentence, which became famous as the “mystery of life” passage, there is no sense that individuals are embedded in a social order. There is no acknowledgment of the parts of ourselves that we don’t choose but inherit — family, race, social roles, historical legacies of oppression, our bodies, the habits that are handed down to us by our common culture.
There’s no we. We are all monads who walk around with our own individual opinions about existence, meaning and the universe. Each person is a self-created choosing individual, pursuing individual desires. There is no sense that we are part of a common flow connecting the past, present and future; instead, each of us creates our own worldview anew.
The first problem with this definition of freedom is that it pushes society toward a tepid relativism. There are no truths, only “concepts.” You define your concept of the meaning of the universe, and I define mine, and who are any of us to judge, let alone impinge upon, that of another? Furthermore, it’s a short road from getting to define your own truth to getting to define your own facts.
(end quote)

Almost all Americans believe in some version of this relativism in which we each get to define our own version of values and truth. For some, this truth is economic, for some that truth is religious, for some it is sexual. But the proof that a belief in individual values too great does not result in happiness is the utter paranoia with which so many Americans view other Americans with different worldviews. Whether or not the way they live their lives is truly under threat, and of course some are truly under threat - particularly now that Kennedy is leaving, every American currently seems to think their own way of living their life is precisely that. Live and let live is probably the ultimate simple American creed, but the more we live our truth, the more trouble we seem to have believing that others will let us live them, and therefore the more trouble we have letting others live their's. The American Dream has never come true for more people, even if as a percentage of the American population it's lower than thirty years ago, even if far more millions of people feel the squeeze than fifty years ago, in raw numbers, the umbrella of American prosperity is still growing even now.

We picture ourselves as a young country, a young democracy, with our future yet to be written. And yet our government is two-hundred-thirty-two years old - the second oldest republic in the world next to Britain, and our system of government has reformed far less and far more slowly over time than Britain has. We have to face it, our country's self-image is delusional. We are now one of the world's oldest countries, utterly weighed down by the baggage of our history.

So after decadence almost inevitably comes repression as one side triumphs over the other. We have become so free that we have become slaves to freedom. In this sense, whichever side's argument seems more like freedom, whatever side of whatever issue is the side of morality, almost does not matter, each new freedom divides opinion in half, with seemingly half the developed world celebrating the advancement as something that was always necessary, and half the developed world inveighing against the new development as something that helps to ruin a good thing. This is what decadence means, and few places have ever been as decadent as contemporary America. 

There will be plenty more time to consider what this means politically, morally, philosophically, psychologically, and aesthetically. But for the moment, let's just consider what this means in the most American of all artforms, the movies. In this era of freedom abetted by technology, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier, and since we insist on so much more from our lives than simply life itself, the mere recording of life as it's lived is not enough to interest most viewers. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like, and they do. Who were the most critically acclaimed directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, Sophia Coppola, the Andersons PT and Wes, Charlie Kaufmann, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. There are a couple shining exceptions that make movies about people that are full of affection for them even as they don't let their characters off the hook for their great flaws: Alexander Payne, Richard Linklater, Jason Reitman, and a little bit older, John Sayles... But nearly all of the most acclaimed moviemakers by and large make movies of demonstrable misanthropy, movies chock full of violence and contempt for the entirety of human nature, moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies and directors. The ones who aren't demonstrably saturated with misanthropy, like Wes Anderson or Spike Jonze or Sophia Coppola, seem only interested in particularly eccentric people - people who merit interest because they're so different than the average person.

And then you have the popular moviemakers, the genre moviemakers who generally make rain more money than awards. 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, same goes for Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or Paul Greengrass, 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 an exception to the rule, a shining exception in the eyes of many - perhaps too many who don't see Pixar's flaws, which make human nature into something adorable; but even if that's not true, and certainly there are very dark moments in Pixar movies, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human motivations 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 a different way to live. 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. There are many ways in which all 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 the technological advancements we foisted on them and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and world views 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 in 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 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 - like old Europe and traditional Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. 

And since finding a way to perceive the world that isn't Americanized, is so difficult, who can be then surprised 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 are suspect of democracy, dramatically more than either conservatives or liberals. 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 and resurrection of thinkers who seem reasonable to moderates yet flirt with authoritarianism while keeping a thin veneer of moderation like Jordan Peterson, Camille Paglia, Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Summers, Charles Murray, 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 that these are exactly concentration camps... and now, as I'm writing this, we hear of Anthony Kennedy's retirement and brace ourselves for abortion being illegal in 18 states in a year's time - so maybe the Republicans have now declared war on democracy itself, and you realize that the American divorce from reality is so epidemic that it affects every flank of American life - most especially right, but also left, and even 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, the most demonstrably false belief was obviously 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, nine percent. The top one percent of America's income earners hold twenty-three percent of our wealth, while between 1950 and 1970, they held ten percent. If wealth in America were as evenly distributed as in 1979, the bottom eighty percent would be earning an average of seven-thousand dollars more.

At bottom, we are as irrational as any animal, and in every era when it looks to many as though we've finally solved humanity's problems - whether the solutions are liberal, or monarchical, or religious, or military, or dictatorial, and it looks like all we need to do is apply the proscribed solutions with enough greasepaint, the urge to rebellion kicks in, and 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.

Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, but this is hopefully still 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 archetypal mode of thinking that says that people act the way they act because of their identities:  ethnic, religious, racial, financial, economic, national, and sexual - 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 it 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 yet claim that we have to treat every individual with the full measure of their uniqueness, and yet simultaneously, many of them insist on the primacy of identity, that the groups to which they belong define their experience, and act in their particular ways because of the victimhood or predatoryness of their ethnic, religious, racial, financial, economic, national, and sexual identities. So how then do they expect for people to let go of archetypes and stereotypes? When leftists are really honest with themselves, do they really think they'll ever be able to 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 lives, 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 to arrive at points closer to our various ideals and better angels; 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. We have a moral obligation to make infinities of exceptions to better fit the world within whatever conceptual framework we believe, but we still can only process the world using archetypes of how the world works and how 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 brain's right side.' 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 (...if you know the equation to disprove it). But you cannot apply scientific rigor to humanistic concepts. It is only through the right side of the brain that we process those infinite number of happenstances over the course of a lifetime which we cannot explain - and rather than existence growing more explicable, the more advanced we become in science, the more processes there are in existence 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 are all trapped within a prison of our resentments, unable to compel humans to act in generous ways toward one another - let alone ourselves. 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 accept 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 American mid-century was so much more complicated than the generally accepted picture of an 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: Urges to alternate gender and sexuality were repressed by societal pressure in manners that were more strenuous 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 excessively boring like so many of my lists, but I'm listing all of these to demonstrate the extent of the problem, which only became still exponentially worse with Nixon and Kissinger in the '70s, 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 finished 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 bright future. Perhaps now that we're living in this future, we realize that however prosperous, perhaps it was not worth its price tag. And as a truly great work of art must take into account all sides of its story, the great works of art portray these men and women of a new era, and demonstrate their good and their bad and allow us to take the whole of them as they are. 

So what the hell does all that have to do with cinema? 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 a kind of 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, because we think so hard about how much better life should be. Compare the most iconic movies of the 30's, 40's, 50's, to now. It's not a question of how fast-paced these movies are, few movies move at Citizen Kane's light speed. It's a question of attitude toward the audience - is the end goal sensory delight, or is it sensory assault? 

A generation of people who'd seen far more blood than most of us ever have was given movies that are ultimately a kind of party. They deal with primary human emotions that make the audience directly laugh or cry - often in the same movie, and sometimes even simultaneously, and rarely ever extravagantly so. Part of this was due to the production code, which banned explicit sex, and any violence that showed the true blood and guts of its human cost. Human predicaments were pretty much all that was left to portray. But once Hitchcock tapped into our unconscious urges, once the production code was lifted, once violence and sex became part of our diet of movies, movies became a primal sensory experience rather than an emotional one, appealing to lower parts of our brain that we share with animals. There are always exceptions along the way, but what's the difference in spirit between Citizen Kane to The Godfather, the two most iconic critical movies of their generations, let alone Pulp Fiction? What's the difference between Casablanca and Star Wars, the two most iconic popular movies of their generations, let alone The Dark Knight? You can make all kinds of thematic metaphors between movies: Gone With the Wind and Twelve Years a Slave, The Searchers and Taxi Driver, Duck Soup and The Producers, To Be or Not to Be and Schindler's List. Whichever movie is objectively better, there is so much more effort in these latter day classics to make a visceral impact upon the viewer. Before there is appeal to emotion, there must be appeal to the senses. 

The old arts were at the point of this sensory assault a hundred years before, and during this whole period became in thrall to all manner of 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, if not a newfound optimism, then at least a newfound confidence. This art may no longer seem popular to us, but it certainly was considered popular by the intelligentsia of its time. 

What are these works? Well, it would seem to me that most of the critical movie polls have four works at the top that therefore seem to be regarded by consensus as the absolute center of the canon. Citizen Kane of course, also La Regle du Jeu, or The Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir, Tokyo Monogatori - or Tokyo Story, directed by Yasijiro Ozu, and Vertigo. There are a couple others that usually seem to break into or near that level of prestige: The Godfather of course, and Apocalypse Now, 2001, 8 1/2, The Searchers, Bicycle Thieves, a late 40's Italian realist movie about poverty, Sunrise, F.W. Murnau's silent movie about marriage that shared the first Oscar for Best Picture, a few other silent movies like The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Battleship Potemkin, which is a Soviet movie about a ship mutiny that was one of the events of the 1905, unsuccessful, first draft Russian Revolution, Ugetsu Monogatori by Kenji Mizoguchi - a movie about the ravages of Japanese war in the Samurai era, and usually a middle-period Kurosawa movie is somewhere in there: most often either Rashamon or Seven Samurai. 

Perhaps in another few years, we'll see more recent movies crack this list of the top films, Apocalypse Now is the latest of all of them just mentioned, and it's been nearly 40 years. There's no Scorsese in them or Spielberg, let alone Tarantino or PT Anderson. One has to figure that could change soon for the films of all four; maybe a large-scale American epic could join them like Do The Right Thing or Nashville or The Right Stuff. Perhaps something by Almodovar will crack the top of the list like All About My Mother, or something by Werner Herzog, or perhaps something mammothly epic like Krzystopf Kieslowski's Dekalog, or Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, or Claude Landesmann's Shoah,  or something from a director working in Chinese like Xiang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern or Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood for Love, or something from a Mexican director like Pan's Labyrinth or Children of Men, or something Iranian like A Separation or Taste of Cherry, or a one-off by a director who never again amounted to much like City of God or The Lives of Others, or something technologically experimental like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Boyhood, or hell, even something by Miyazaki who seems now more beloved to the intelligentsia of our generation than Pixar or even Disney in it own time? 

But fundamentally, is the lack of recent films because it takes critics a generation or two to catch up with the trends of the moment, or is because the movies that are consistently ranked were made in an era that was a lot more crazy for movies than we are today, when television has supplanted movies in prestige, and the internet has supplanted both as a time waster? Popular entertainments are, in many ways, far more ambitious than today's artistic counterparts. I'm sure it was just as difficult to make the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies as it was to make Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now. But the fundamental difference between them is that one kind of movie aspires to say something about human beings, and the other aspires to say something about inhuman matters - like technology or magic. It's perfectly valid to believe that other things than humans are more interesting, but don't be too surprised if an age which responds more to technology than human beings leaves the human race worse than they were found. 

Furthermore, except for 8 1/2 and Bicycle Thieves, which are Italian, all of these movies which top the lists are made in either America, France, or Japan. It's obviously impossible to say for sure whether or not the quality of these movies is related to the fact that these are the three great unbroken cinematic traditions in which moviemakers of the highest caliber operated from the very beginning of moviemaking until right now, but I would imagine it's related. There were lots of precedents from which each moviemaker could build their achievements, and lots of directors and critics afterward could see how the achievements of these allegedly greatest movies can be built upon. 

But why those four? Why Kane, Vertigo, Tokyo Story and Rules of the Game? 

That's obviously a very elusive question. But three of the four movies seem to dramatize in different ways the triumph of this new worldview against the old - and perhaps above Welles, Renoir, and Ozu, a fourth director, from an international tradition, obviously Hitchcock, who with his unmatched technique often seems to define the ultimate reach of what cinema everywhere is capable of expressing. But in each of the other three directors, 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, born to the lower class, can sweep all before it when you see how the figures from the older world born to the upper class 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 somehow reacting against it.

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 the maximum possible relish, that unprecedented feast of feast of freedom 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, possessions, and the absolute freedom they bring, can only cause 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 Donald 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 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 condition, and by portraying a larger than life figure, it magnifies each facet of this character to life size, and thereby conveys an individual human personality in all its contradictions.

Welles has come up so often in this podcast in seemingly unrelated topics that I figure I should probably rename this podcast 'The Orson Welles Worship Hour.' I figure I must have enough to say about him that I should probably try to get him out of my system.

So that's what we will have to do next week or else this podcast will be nearly an hour-and-a-half.

No comments:

Post a Comment