Are Movies Going to Pieces?

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The spokesmen for this cinema attack rationality as if it were the enemy of art ("as/ the heavy Boots of Soldiers and Intellect/ march across the/ flowerfields of subconscious" and so forth by Jonas Mekas). They have composed a rather strange amalgam in which reason = lack of feeling and imagination = hostility to art = science = the enemy = Nazis and police = the Bomb. Somewhere along the line, criticism is also turned into an enemy of art. The group produces a kind of euphoric publicity which is published in place of criticism, but soon it may have semi-intellectually respectable critics. In the Nation of April 13, 1964, Susan Sontag published an extraordinary essay on Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures called "A Feast for Open Eyes" in which she enunciates a new critical principle: "Thus Smith's crude technique serves, beautifully, the sensibility embodied in Flaming Creatures—a sensibility based on indiscriminateness, without ideas, beyond negation." I think in treating indiscriminateness as a value, she has become a real swinger. Of course we can reply that if anything goes, nothing happens, nothing works. But this is becoming irrelevant. In Los Angeles, among the independent film makers at their midnight screenings I was told that I belonged to the older generation, that Agee-alcohol generation they called it, who could not respond to the new films because I didn't take pot or LSD and so couldn't learn just to accept everything. This narcotic approach of torpid acceptance, which is much like the lethargy of the undead in those failure-of-communication movies, may explain why those films have seemed so "true" to some people (and why the directors' moralistic messages sound so false). This attitude of rejecting critical standards has the dubious advantage of accepting everyone who says he is an artist as an artist and conferring on all his "noncommercial" productions the status of art. Miss Sontag is on to something and if she stays on and rides it like Slim Pickens, it's the end of criticism—at the very least.

It's ten years since Dylan Thomas answered Maya Deren's call for a new poetry of film with "I'm not at all sure that I want such a thing, myself, as a poetic film. I think films fine as they are, if only they were better . . . I like stories, you know —I like to see something going on." Movies have changed in these ten years, disastrously in the last few years; they have become "cinema."

At the art-house level, critics and audiences haven't yet discovered the beauty of indiscriminateness, but there's a lot of talk about "purely visual content"—which might be called the principle of ineffability. Time calls Resnais's Muriel "another absorbing exercise in style." Dwight Macdonald calls Marienbad "'pure' cinema, a succession of images enjoyable in themselves." And Richard Roud, who was responsible (and thus guilty) for the film selection at the New York Film Festivals, goes all the way: films like La Notte, he says, provide an "experience in pure form."

Once matters reach this plane, it begins to seem almost unclean to raise issues about meaning and content and character, or to question the relevance of a sequence, the quality of a performance. Someone is sure to sneer, "Are you looking for a paraphrasable content? A film, like a poem, is." Or smile pityingly and remind you that Patroni Griffi had originally intended to call II Mare "Landscape with Figures"; doesn't that tell you how you should look at it? It does indeed, and it's not my idea of a good time. After a few dismal experiences we discover that when we are told to admire a film for its pure form or its structure, it is going to exhibit irritating, confusing, and ostentatious technique, which will, infuriatingly, be all we can discover in it. And if we should mention that we enjoy the dramatic and narrative elements in movies, we are almost certain to be subjected to the contemptuous remark, "Why does cinema have to mean something? Do you expect a work by Bach to mean something?"

The only way to answer this is by some embarrassingly basic analysis, pointing out that words, unlike tones, refer to something and that movie images are rarely abstract or geometric designs, and that when they include people and places and actions, they have implications, associations. Robbe-Grillet, the scenarist of Marienbad, may say that the film is a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself, and that the existence of the two characters begins when the film begins and ends ninety-three minutes later, but, of course, we are not born when we go in to see a movie—though we may want to die by the time we leave. And we can't even leave Marienbad behind because, although it isn't particularly memorable (it isn't even particularly offensive), a kind of creeping Marienbadism is the new aesthetics of "poetic" cinema. This can only sound like pedantry to those interested in "pure" art who tend to consider analysis as an enemy, anyway (though, many of them are in it). The very same people who say that a movie shouldn't mean anything, that art is beyond meaning, also say that it must be seen over and over again because it reveals more meaning with subsequent viewings. And although the structure of many of the new films is somehow supposed to be the art, we are frowned upon if we question the organization of the material. There is nothing, finally, that we are allowed to question or criticize. We are supposed only to interpret—and that as we wish.

The leaders of this new left-wing formalism are Resnais, who gives us his vision of a bomb-shattered, fragmented universe, and Antonioni, the master practitioner of the fallacy of expressive form, who sets out to demonstrate that boredom (and its accompanying eroticism) is the sickness of our time (but doesn't explain how it helps to add to it). If their characters have a curious way of using their sophisticated vacuity as a come-on, are they not in their creators' image? They make assignations (as in The Eclipse), but nobody comes.

The movie houses may soon look as desolate as II Mare—set in Capri in winter. I've never seen so many people sleeping through movies as at Lincoln Center: no wonder there is talk of "cinema" achieving the social status of opera. A few more seasons of such art and it will be evidence of your interest in culture and your sense of civic responsibility if you go to the movies.

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