Sunday, June 19, 2005

BUILDING A MYSTERY. Reader Chris V pointed out to me this article at the Liberty Film Festival site Libertas , and it's a pleasant surprise. I've had fun with these guys before, but fair is fair and I have to commend Jason Apuzzo for chiding fellow-travellers for "evaluating films exclusively on the basis of their ideological content, or ideological implications." Hear, hear, buy that man a beer!

In fact Apuzzo goes further than I would:
So when my conservative friends know or care to know more about film, or when they know more about the arts in general, then I’ll accept their opining about Star Wars more than I do now. When my conservative friends can tell me who Tyrone Power is, or something about Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, or Wagner’s Ring-cycle, or maybe what the difference is between motion-control and motion-capture … then maybe I’ll be more patient when they fulminate about Jar Jar Binks...
Now I think this is in the right direction but a little too narrow. More knowledge of whatever one is talking about is always a good thing. But do you really have to know Final Cut Pro to judge films?

Well, like the guy in the old joke said, it couldn't hoit. Some critics have learned enough about the process to go out and make their own movies, and the criticism of Fielding and Nabokov is at least as much fun to read as their novels.

But a lot of very fine critics never played the game at all, and have still had useful things to say. So what do they have in common with the critic/creators?

This reminds me of the bit in The Bad and the Beautiful where Kirk Douglas' mogul decides to take over as director of a film from a difficult old von Sternberg type. The old director wonders: does the mogul have the humility to make a film?

That's an interesting word: what kind of humility? The easiest call would be a simple lack of hubris, which the Douglas character has in spades, but given that a lot of fine artists are monsters of ego themselves (so was von Sternberg, come to think of it), I believe the writers might have been thinking of something else. Or maybe only I'm thinking it. Well, here goes in any case:

Anything worth looking at or listening to carries some sort of mystery. Skills get that mystery from a creator's brain to the audience, ideally in decent enough shape to be recognized. But ten tons of skill and a platoon of genii may be employed in a waste of time -- that happens a lot. When Martin Scorsese and the cream of Hollywood make a crap film, what was missing or betrayed? The obscure object, to borrow a phrase.

The thing that makes a piece of work worthwhile is the mystery, but that's doesn't mean an inspired fauve who doesn't know what he's doing can put it over without skills. (Usually.) The talented, trained people who get that thing on the stage or the page or the screen must be good with their tools, but they must also be working to realize the mystery, whether they would think to say so or, as with some hard-bitten old magicians, would rather portray themselves as clock-punchers trying to keep up their pay grade. You see the total absorption of great craftsmen at work: is it all for the money, do you think? Anyone who has worked on a production of any kind knows what it feels like when magic is being made -- or failing to be made. Audiences know it too.

And so do critics. The best of these try to trace the evidence of what is put before them back to the places where it went right, or wrong. To do this, they have to learn about what they're watching or listening to. Some of them get very technical about it -- others, less so. But they all know what they're looking for and will dig through a ton of information to get as close as they can to it, and try like hell to do it justice in the review.

So it's kind of a self-sharpening process. You try to get better at whatever technique you've got in order to give shape to something that is otherwise insubstantial.

This is where humility comes in. When I look at a work of art, I am always hoping for something more than a pleasing agglomeration of whatever materials were used. A pleasing agglomeration would be nice, of course, and often I consider myself lucky to get even that -- and wander the gallery or squint balefully at the screen, grumbling to myself about the decline of standards and so forth.

But sometimes I get much more, enough to lift me out of myself. Whatever garbage I brought with me into the experience gets pushed aside. Suddenly I'm not looking at paint or film or words -- though I might go back later and try to figure out how the hell the guy did it. The mystery has been realized. Whether it was Michael Moore or Jason Apuzzo who had made it, I would happily -- and, I would hope, eloquently if I chose to do it in writing -- doff my hat to him. And if you know me, you know that's humility, baby.

This is where ideologically-minded critics go wrong. They aren't at all interested in the mystery. When I read their poli-sci reviews, I can see that they're trying to assess the impact of the work in question -- as if it were a social program or an economic stimulus package -- on something they are pleased to call The Culture. In that sense, their work is indeed technical, and they often know their own grim metrics very well. But it has nothing to do with humility, or mystery, or art.

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