Are Movies Going to Pieces?

The "techniques" of such films are so apparent, so obtrusive, that they may easily be assumed to be "advanced," "modern," "new." It's perfectly true you don't come out of an older movie like Renoir's La Grande Illusion, or Flaherty's Man of Aran, or Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night saying, "What technique!" Nor do you come out of a concert by Serkin exclaiming about his technique—you're thinking of the music. But those who adore Jose Iturbi always say, "What technique!"; what else is there to respond to? And the comment—which means how fast he can play or how ostentatiously—is not so very far from the admiration for Antonioni or Torre Nilsson or Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc (though they are generally admired for how slow they can play).

My attitude to what is happening to movies is more than a little ambivalent. I don't think that my own preferences or the preferences of others for coherence and wit and feeling are going to make much difference. Movies are going to pieces; they're disintegrating, and the something called cinema is not movies raised to an art but rather movies diminished, movies that look "artistic." Movies are being stripped of all the "nonessentials"—that is to say, faces, actions, details, stories, places—everything that makes them entertaining and joyful. They are even being stripped of the essentials—light (The Eclipse), sound (The Silence), and movement in some of the New American Cinema films (there is sure to be one called Stasis). It's obvious that the most talented film artists and the ones most responsive to our time and the attitudes of Camus and Sartre are the ones moving in this direction. The others, those trying to observe the older conventions, are usually (though not always) banal, trivial, ludicrously commercial, and out of touch, somehow. It is the highest talents, the most dedicated, who are driven to the dead end of "pure" cinema—just as our painters are driven to obliterate the image, and a dramatist like Beckett to reduce words to sounds.

Cinema, I suspect, is going to become so rarefied, so private in meaning, and so lacking in audience appeal that in a few years the foundations will be desperately and hopelessly trying to bring it back to life, as they are now doing with theater. The parallel course is, already, depressingly apparent. Clancy Sigal's (admiring) account of Beckett's Endgame might have been written of Bergman's The Silence:

Endgame's two main characters . . . occupy a claustrophobic space and a deeply ambiguous relationship.... Outside, the world is dead of some great catastrophe.... The action of the play mainly comprises anxious bickering between the too principal characters. Eventually, Clov dresses for the road to leave Hamm, and Hamm prepares for death, though we do not see the moment of parting . . . none of the actors is quite sure what the play is about, Beckett affects complete ignorance of the larger implications. "I only know what's on the page," he says with a friendly gesture.

Is Beckett leading the way or is it all in the air? His direction that the words of Play should be spoken so fast that they can't be understood is paralleled by Resnais's editing of Muriel so fast that you can't keep track of what's going on. Penelope Gilliatt writes, "You may have to go to the film at least twice, as I did, before the warmth of it seeps through . . ."; Beckett has already anticipated the problem and provided the answer with the stage direction, "Repeat play exactly."

When movies, the only art which everyone felt free to enjoy and have opinions about, lose their connection with song and dance, drama, and the novel, when they become cinema, which people fear to criticize just as they fear to say what they think of a new piece of music or a new poem or painting, they will become another object of academic study and "appreciation," and will soon be an object of excitement only to practitioners of the "art." Although L'Avventura is a great film, had I been present at Cannes in 1960, where Antonioni distributed his explanatory statement, beginning, "There exists in the world today a very serious break between science on the one hand . . . ," I might easily have joined in the hisses, which he didn't really deserve until the following year, when La Notte revealed that he'd begun to believe his own explanations—thus making liars of us all.

When we see Dwight Macdonald's cultural solution applied to film, when we see the prospect that movies will become a product for "Masscult" consumption, while the "few who care" will have their High Culture cinema, who wants to take the high road? There is more energy, more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch like Gunga Din, Easy Living, the Rogers and Astaire pictures like Swingtime and Top Hat, in Strangers on a Train, His Girl Friday, The Crimson Pirate, Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, To Have and Have Not, The African Queen, Singin' in the Rain, Sweet Smell of Success, or more recently, The Hustler, Lolita, The Manchurian Candidate, Hud, Charade, than in the presumed "High Culture" of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Marienbad, La Notte, The Eclipse, and the Torre Nilsson pictures. As Nabokov remarked, "Nothing is more exhilarating than Philistine vulgarity."

Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down. Macdonald believes that "a work of High Culture, however inept, is an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals." No. The "pure" cinema enthusiast who doesn't react to a film but feels he should, and so goes back to it over and over, is not responding as an individual but as a compulsive good pupil determined to appreciate what his cultural superiors say is "art." Movies are on their way into academia when they're turned into a matter of duty: a mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is. In this country, respect for High Culture is becoming a ritual.

If debased art is kitsch, perhaps kitsch may be redeemed by honest vulgarity, may become art. Our best work transforms kitsch, makes art out of it; that is the peculiar greatness and strength of American movies, as Godard in Breathless and Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player recognize. Huston's The Maltese Falcon is a classic example. Our first and greatest film artist D. W. Griffith was a master of kitsch: the sentiment and melodrama in his films are much more integral to their greatness than the critics who lament Griffith's lack of mind ( ! ) perceive.

The movies are still where it happens, not for much longer perhaps, but the movies are still the art form that uses the material of our lives and the art form that we use. I am not suggesting that we want to see new and bigger remakes of the tired old standbys of the film repertory: who wants to see the new Cimarron, another Quo Vadis? And meanings don't have to be spread out for us like a free-lunch counter. There are movies that are great experiences like Long Day's Journey into Night, and just a few years back there were movies which told good stories—movies like The Treasure of Sierra Madre, From Here to Eternity, The Nun's Story.

People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experiences of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art—generally referred to disparagingly as escapism—may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of modern big city life and small town boredom, it may be a major factor in keeping us sane.

In the last few years there has appeared a new kind of filmgoer: he isn't interested in movies but in cinema. A great many of the film makers are in this group: they've never gone to movies much and they don't care about them. They're interested in what they can do in the medium, not in what has been done. This is, of course, their privilege, though I would suggest that it may explain why they have such limited approaches to film. I'm more puzzled by the large numbers of those who are looking for importance in cinema. For example, a doctor friend called me after he'd seen The Pink Panther to tell me I needn't "bother" with that one, it was just slapstick. When I told him I'd already seen it and had a good time at it, he was irritated; he informed me that a movie should be more than a waste of time, it should be an exercise of taste that will enrich your life. Those looking for importance are too often contemptuous of the crude vitality of American films, though this crudity is not always offensive, and may represent the only way that energy and talent and inventiveness can find an outlet, can break through the planned standardization of mass entertainment. It has become a mark of culture to revere the old slapstick (the Mack Sennett two-reelers and early Chaplins that aren't really as great as all that) and put down the new. But in a movie as shopworn as Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? there is, near the end, an almost inspired satirical striptease by Carol Burnett. The Nutty Professor is too long and repetitive, but Jerry Lewis has some scenes that hold their own with the silent classics. I enjoyed The Prize, which opens badly but then becomes a lively, blatant entertainment; but there's no point in recommending it to someone who wants his life enriched. I couldn't persuade friends to go see Charade, which although no more than a charming confectionery trifle was, I think, probably the best American film of last year—as artificial and enjoyable in its way as The Big Sleep. The word had got around that it isn't important, that it isn't serious, that it doesn't do anything for you.

Our academic bureaucracy needs something alive to nourish it and movies still have a little blood which the academics can drain away. In the West several of the academic people I know who have least understanding of movies were suddenly interested by Laurence Alloway's piece called "Critics in the Dark" in Encounter. By suggesting that movie criticism had never gotten into the right hands—i.e., theirs, and by indicating projects, and by publishing in the prestigious Encounter, Alloway indicated large vistas of respectability for future film critics. Perhaps also they were drawn to his condescending approach to movies as a pop art. Many academics have always been puzzled that Agee could care so much about movies. Alloway, by taking the position that Agee's caring was a maladjustment, re-established their safe, serene worlds in which if a man gets excited about an idea or an issue, they know there's something the matter with him. It's not much consolation, but I think the cinema the academics will be working over will be the cinema they deserve.

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