Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies: May 2005 Archives
Columbia University reported Monday that it is closing its well known National Arts Journalism Program. AJ helmsman Doug McLennan and fellow blogger Jan Herman have been posting insightful commentary about this, and the LA Times has published a long piece about the decline of traditional criticism.
I have a lot more than two cents riding on this debate, but for the moment, let me ante up the following:
The overriding problem is what linguist Deborah Tannen calls "the argument culture": the media’s habit of framing every topic as a highly polarized debate between two extremes, even when this is not appropriate. This has a distorting effect on many issues, including the arts. Just think about the quality of discussion, even among reputable critics, on issues like government funding of the arts; violence in entertainment; censorship and the Internet; and the "canon" in the humanities.
These powerful cross currents can be tricky for critics and other arts journalists to negotiate, especially they are operating in a culture that does not have any coherent, agreed-upon standards by which to make aesthetic judgments. Too often, critics and reviewers muddle along, using several competing standards, each inherited from a different phase in the history of Western art.
What critics have trouble doing is developing their own robust, well grounded taste. "Taste" is an antique concept but an irreplaceable one. Most people, even cultural theorists who would not grant the concept any credence in their academic work, exercise taste all the time in their non-academic life. Just ask them about the last movie they saw, or (even better) the music their kids are listening to.
But because taste is something of a taboo topic in academia, many well credentialed critics do not feel very confident of their own judgment, which makes them vulnerable to being swept up by one or the other side in the so-called culture war. Next thing the hapless critic knows, he or she has become a hack: someone who writes about the arts from an overly ideological perspective.
Hacks exist on both sides of the political fence. But hackdom is always a dead end.
On the left, the hack soon reaches an impasse: while making a principled case for total artistic freedom, he or she must accept ever greater excess from what I call the culture of transgression - art whose sole purpose is to “shock the bourgeois” (assuming this can still be done).
On the right, the hack faces a contradiction: on the one hand, a libertarian shrug that assigns all evaluative functions to the market; and on the other, a righteous crusade that looks askance at any work not didactically committed to religious and moral uplift.
Caught in this cross current, the unwary critic steers by his or her subjective judgment. Readers accept this, because it is typically assumed that aesthetic judgments are wholly subjective. But danger arises when the rudderless subjectivity of the journalist meets the blandishments of PR people in the arts, to say nothing of entertainment. Before you can say "flack,” the critic is repeating the latest press releases and dropping the hottest names.
These pressures can be resisted, but only if the budding critic takes the time to think through the essential questions of aesthetic standards: where they come from, how they have changed, what their truth claims are, and how they operate in a diverse, decentralized, pluralistic culture like ours. I don't know for sure, but I doubt whether the case for arts journalism programs is often made in these terms.
You can interpret the following however you like, but I am choosing to conclude from it that my recent postings have caught the eye of Robert Redford. (As you read this, Mr. R., don't forget about the latte.)
From the New York Times (May 23, 2005):
Compiled by BEN SISARIO
"Sundance to Open Theater Chain"
"The Sundance Group, owned by Robert Redford, will open a chain of theaters for independent, documentary and foreign-language films, as well as some studio projects, The Associated Press reported. The new chain, Sundance Cinemas, is to be operated by the theater management team of Paul Richardson and Bert Manzari, who have worked together since opening a theater in 1975. The number of new theaters was not announced, but Mr. Manzari said Sundance Cinemas is looking nationally for locations."
Colleen Schmoyer writes from Annville, PA:
"Take heart, for even in my one-horse town of Annville near Hershey,
Pennsylvania, we have a benevolent man that renovated a 30's-era theatre above and beyond its original glory, but kept the good parts (like the removable-type marquee) and added an adjoining, hip cafe. The Allen shows a mixture of first- and second-run mainstream and independent films, as well as playing host to some jazz and live theatre events. People increasingly come from Harrisburg (the capital of Pennsylvania) just to see this little piece of heaven. Maybe it will indeed catch on - Harrisburg itself has in recent years opened a now-successful art film house of its own."
Link to this theater and see what you think -- can it be franchised?
An article in today's Christian Science Monitor asks whether the new "Star Wars" prequel will reverse the overall decline in theater-going. Surely not! Long before we humble consumers figured out that we were not alone in preferring to watch DVDs at home, the industry had us pegged. For some years now, Hollywood has been happy to take its real profits from shiny little discs ("'Blood Out Tha Wazoo'! Own it now!") than from all those dreadful cineplexes with their icky decor, endless ads and previews, crummy projection and sound, and sticky floors.
Yet much as I dislike the cineplex, I regret the prospect of no more movie-going. Like railroads, movie theaters are so full of memories and meanings, it hurts to think of them as obsolete. At the moment such feelings attach mainly to those theaters that have a sense of place and history. Fortunately, many of these are now part of the Landmark chain, which does a pretty good business showing first-run independent and foreign films.
But Landmark theaters do not exist in many parts of the country, and that leaves millions stuck with the choice between cineplex and home. I wonder, then, why some smart entrepreneur doesn't enter this market with a new kind of cineplex.
Think Borders. Think Starbucks. Millions of people gravitate to these places, because while not historic or exclusively highbrow, they offer pleasant, interesting surroundings and fare suited to human beings over the age of 12. Why not do the same with a chain of small, classy movie theaters? They could even serve latte! And although this is probably too much to hope for, an audience built on such theaters might even stimulate the production of more midsize movies suited to human beings over the age of 12.
I regret to report that you, dear readers, have failed to send enough cash to get me to Cannes this year. No matter. My British colleague Clive Davis offers this report on the fulminations of Lars von Trier, the Danish director who specializes in showing the "dark underside" of America (although he's never been here, because he is afraid to fly). What can I say to a guy who complains that my country is occupying 60 percent of his brain?
There's something missing in "Kingdom of Heaven," Ridley Scott's latest eye-popper about the Second Crusade. But most of the reviews don't tell you what. Instead, they blame the star, Orlando Bloom, for lacking "true gravitas" (Austin Chronicle). Some express regret that Russell Crowe was not available to play Balian, the humble blacksmith who ends up defending Jerusalem against the Muslim general Saladin. Others bash Bloom for being a "pretty boy" barely able to swing a sword.
I will grant that Bloom is not the industrial-strength warrior type. But neither is Elijah Wood, who as Frodo in "The Fellowship of the Rings" did a pretty good job of battling Orcs. No, the problem is the script. Written by one-time novelist and first-time screenwriter William Monahan, it is painfully laconic and annoyingly noncommittal.
I know, I know. Hollywood is under a lot of pressure to eliminate human language from its product. Research has shown that popcorn-munching skateboarders don't like "talky" movies. Foreigners don't like subtitles. And DVD-watching couch potatoes don't like dialogue about stuff they didn't bother to learn about in school. But give me a break. This film wants to make a statement, and you can't do that without talking.
What is the statement Scott wants to make? In a world riven by religious fear and hatred, he seeks to dignify religious tolerance, past and present. To some extent, he succeeds: those who mock "Kingdom of Heaven" as politically correct and anachronistic are mistaken. Mercy and justice were not unknown in the 12th century. For example, Saladin (played magnificently by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) was an extremely devout Muslim who was nonetheless capable of compromising with Christians and Jews when it was in his interest to do so.
The main problem, according to historian Thomas F. Madden, is that in its effort to tout tolerance, "The Kingdom of Heaven" waters down the religiosity of all the characters. How much more timely and interesting this film would be if someone had dared to show deeply, even zealously religious people practicing tolerance!
After all, Dante was a medieval Christian, and he respected Saladin enough to put him in Limbo with the great pagan poets and philosophers. But then, Dante wasn't afraid to write about great themes in the vernacular...
The college freshmen I teach may be forgiven for having a shaky grasp of the Bible. Some have never read a page of it; others have absorbed it in highly diluted form. So naturally they say things like, "Oh, I thought the Ten Commandments were more like guidelines." But in my experience, they change their tune after actually reading the Bible (especially when translated by Robert Alter and Reynolds Price). Believers and non-believers alike are struck by its beauty, oddness, and intimidating severity.
The diluted form is still out there, though. In 2002 the newly launched (and unfortunately named) Crusader Entertainment, backed by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, released "Joshua," its first overtly "Christian" film, through a subsidiary called Epiphany Films. "Joshua" tackles a challenging topic: the arrival of Jesus in small town America. But it has nothing to say, either about Jesus or about small town America. Instead, it depicts Jesus as a nice fellow being nice to already nice folks who then become even nicer. The one person who is not so nice, a Catholic priest intent upon enforcing the Ten Guidelines, becomes much nicer at the end.
Skip the cross, cue the music, we're outta here.
"Joshua" is popular in the surreal realm of "Christian" entertainment, where the standard fare is a bowl of sugar with honey and molasses on top. But to his credit, Anschutz took a different tack after backing this dud. He has backed a number of mainstream films, the best of which is "Ray" (see SP review). And in December his subsidiary, Walden Films (in conjunction with Disney), will release "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," the first feature film based on the Narnia children's books by C. S. Lewis.
Lewis, of course, was a highly literate Christian who spent his life arguing against the kind of "feel-good" faith that makes God into "a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'" For Lewis, the God of the Bible is "something more than mere kindness ... He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense."
Can this stern view succeed at the box office? The singular example I can think of is "Dead Man Walking," Tim Robbins's brilliant film about the Death Row ministry of Sister Helen Prejean. Some conservative Christians I know admire this film. But you won't find it listed on most of the sugary "Christian" websites, because after all, it was made by Hollywood liberals. What can I say? Maybe some of those who call for better movies while thumping the Bible ought to try reading it instead.
If the universe is meaningless, should we laugh or cry? According to the Theater of the Absurd, born on the Left Bank in the 1940s and now on life support in a million high school drama clubs, neither laughter nor tears is appropriate. Instead, we are enjoined to watch actors shuffle onto a half-lit stage with no scenery (except maybe a dead tree), glare at us with befuddled expressions, and (either by talking or by not talking) say nothing at all.
I always wondered why, if the universe were meaningless, we had to sit through plays by Beckett, Genet, and Pinter. Why not attend lavish productions of Broadway musicals? Or skip the theater and go roller skating? Or (pushing the envelope here) kidnap small children and drop them into vats of boiling oil?
Some (not all) of the same questions seem to have occurred to Douglas Adams, author of the 1970s radio series, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which over the next 30 years spawned several novels, a TV series, and now the top-grossing film in America. If the universe is meaningless, then why not follow the example of the hero, an ineffectual Brit named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), and hitch a ride on a passing spaceship, because one fine morning the Earth blows up with him still in his jammies?
Strange but true: most of the Adams fans out there seem to find the universe profoundly meaningful. Why else would they be blogging so madly about how the forces of evil (Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment) have corrupted the pure art of their shining hero (Adams)? One is tempted to say, get a religion. Most of the big ones are at least as clever as Adams.
Oh, well. The movie is fun. I liked the singing dolphins - the second most intelligent life form (after mice) bidding farewell to the third most intelligent (us) by singing, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish." I liked the Babel Fish, a life form that when stuck into the ear of any other life form, enables it to understand the languages of all. I liked the crusty female computer who, after humming away for untold years, announces the answer to the ultimate question: "42." I liked the no-nonsense planet designer, Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) who won an award for the Norwegian fjords.
And I especially liked the cool, minimalist graphics used to illustrate lessons from the guidebook of the title. For instance, after the main story ends, there's a tag about how the denizens of a distant galaxy become so enraged at the rebuilt Earth, they send a mighty invasion force to destroy it. But (as we see in the nifty little drawings) they miscalculate the scale, and their force arrives no bigger than a golf ball and is gulped down by a suburban dog.
This is a very cool meaninglessness. Indeed, they could have made the whole movie out of these graphics, and I would have skipped a whole evening of Albee to see it.
In my review of the movie "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (see below), I marvel at the courtesy of motorists in Southern California. In case you are having trouble reconciling that observation with the recent freeway shootings there, I offer the following, from Verlyn Klinkenborg in today's New York Times:
"These shootings change the very idea of the freeway ... I've been struck by the attentiveness and skill of the drivers around me, by the fact that nearly everyone signals a change of lane and tries to keep a reasonable distance between vehicles. In three months of freeway driving here, I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard a horn sounded in anger. And now I know why.
If nothing else, these good driving manners express the centrality of the freeway system in the consciousness of Southern California. I've begun to think of those lanes as a giant public square spreading all across the city, a square where most people try to contribute their mite of civility in hopes of keeping the overall experience as tolerable as possible. But there's another way to look at it. The civility on display may reflect nothing more than the profound hostility lying just below the surface.
As a friend from Fullerton puts it, you drive politely, without challenging other drivers even implicitly, because 'they're packing.' No one honks because no one wants a fight. People use their turn signals to say, as innocently as possible: 'Changing lanes now! Not cutting in! No disrespect intended!'"
Mr. Klinkenborg makes perfect sense. But my question is, why doesn't this work in Boston?