Friday, February 26, 2016

Rejecting Heartattack & Vine

What follows is a response I wrote to this piece, Manny Farber's "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art". My words originally appeared on a private blog related to one of my CSUN courses. I am a little in love with what I wrote, so I can't leave it there all alone.


In 2015, I lost all interest in contemporary film. It was an abrupt falling-off, from running through two or three Netflix discs a week to having the same three on our shelf for months on end. Part of the reason for this was how stubbornly film seemed to be turning into spectacle, like the circus, rather than crafted narrative, like the novel. I came to feel that aside from balletic new car stunts and Bruce Willis's gradual transformation into his Unbreakable character, few elements remained in new movie releases that could surprise me. Someone was going to save the cat. Someone was going to get the girl, despite the girl's being given a few token gestures toward a personality. Someone was going to crack wise and someone was going to say "Let's get out of here" and someone was going to run away from an explosion in slo-mo. This predictability made me ashamed of American film, and I retreated deeper into opera, literature, and bad films (which are always surprising). Though I miss the rapture of sitting in the darkened dream-room, I don't miss the spectacle.

It's all white elephant art at this point. Sometimes Tarantino will release a film, or the Coens, and I will go see it and be reminded that termite art exists. But usually not. Usually someone will say "Let's get out of here" and I will obey. We have returned, artistically, to classical Hollywood, "the past of heavily insured, enclosed film art" (to quote Farber), in the early millennium. I do not know why.

I don't know why television has become the new frontier, either. Breaking Bad is termite art. (It is not Antonioni, but it doesn't need to be difficult to be subversive.) A character arcing downward eats holes in what you think you know about narrative.

But what's going on in television is not new. Unpredictable, but not new. Serials were popular a hundred years ago, in early cinema. Podcasts are radio (Allen and Burns, Little Orphan Annie, The Shadow) rejiggered for new media. Everything old is new again.

This itself is termitesque. The moment you think there's something new about One Direction, an old fart comes along and shows you a NKOTB video. Or a Monkees clip. Art's repetition and remixing eats holes all through our culture, weakens our foundations - what we think we know about architecture - such that a single realization can collapse the whole structure. (So that we may rebuild again. Grind it up into sawdust and pack it into particleboard and rebuild again.) The structure is illusive, allusive, elusive. It's wood, not steel. Something organic and fragrant and noisy beneath our feet.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance undermines every single film John Ford had made about the West, every beautiful frame of Monument Valley he ever put to celluloid. It's as stunning a disillusionment now as it was in 1962, and I'm going to disagree with Farber and say that's not John Wayne's achievement at all. Wayne is the man he always was, with his passions and his derangements buried under swagger and drawl. It's Ford, showing his hand. Showing that he knows his life has been in service of illusion. That he knows, full well, that the dreams he made manifest on a nine-foot screen are white elephants, but that too much termite art would have broken him. Would break us. Would eat at us until we were mere sawdust and insect shit.


Marc Criley said...

I did a comic some time ago vaguely along these lines :-)

Katharine Coldiron said...

And it was right on! :)