By Christopher Sharrett.
Readers will note that my title derives from essays and certain phrases by Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence, Robin Wood, and Andrew Britton. I in fact stole it from Leavis, and will risk pomposity. In no way would I claim that my slapdash work has much in common with the writings of these distinguished individuals. I invoke them because I embrace their thinking about the role of criticism in society. I agree with their arguments – with occasional, sometimes substantial, qualification. There are important women who belong in this group, although they might argue otherwise – I think of Simone de Beauvoir, Q.D. Leavis, Tania Modleski, and Kate Millett, among others. I include them because they, like all the above, read literature closely, argue from evidence, and when approaching a work (only two of the above male critics dealt with film as well as literature; the women dealt exclusively with literature with the exception of Modleski, and many other disciplines outside of the arts) recognize its social and historical context – Beauvoir and Millett are of course central feminist voices, the former of overwhelming significance. I am forgetting many other people: of those still with us, I’ll add Tony Williams, one of the last of the surviving British “expats,” who studied with Robin Wood. A younger critic, Robert K. Lightning, has affinities with the writers at the top of this piece. These writers continue the idea that art must be understood in a social context, with a focus on progressive works supportive of (or demanding) a transformation of society (although Leavis argued otherwise in the essay whose title I am stealing; his work was manifestly involved with social conditions, with an emphasis on how literature represented such conditions), that art should be carefully read, and that reading it otherwise does a disservice to all of us. Above all, the critic must be serious, and look to questions of value. Why am I reading/watching this work? What is its significance to its form and to humanity? How does it enrich human life and provide some form of instruction as it invites us into a dialogue? Criteria must be established. Value and value-judgments aren’t popular terms as criticism of film is turned into a “science” by academe. The fervor of that effort has ebbed, but the debasement of cinema as art has happened, thanks to “the market” and the large sectors of academe that, perhaps inadvertently, collude with it.
I am coming late to the topic of criticism’s fate, since there has already been much anxious discourse on the subject, but from sectors that don’t always command my respect. Many worriers about the fate of criticism in the new century tend to invoke Pauline Kael, an apparently venerated figure, but one I hold in the greatest contempt, whose ideas are now a matter of the most pernicious contagion, making me wonder if we ever had an appreciation of criticism. That Pauline Kael is seen as a symbol of the lost age of American film criticism shows how low we have sunk. A person who dealt in self-promotion, cutesy wordsmithing, a refusal to be at any time serious-minded, and who enjoyed hobnobbing with Hollywood, is wrongfully our prime example of intelligent criticism.
Criticism is seldom found anywhere; what is called criticism is reviewing at best. Reviewing is a distinguished vocation, or was. There are still people who perform admirably as reviewers and critics: David Sterritt and Jonathan Rosenbaum are examples, so I want to temper my broadsides. Today, reviewing is reduced to offhand pieces of hyperbole on the radio, internet, or television. Even worse, it appears as odd sentence fragments, often very familiar, as promotion on movie posters: “Hits you in the gut!,” “Makes you stand up and cheer!,” “The thrill ride of the summer!.” The latter appears attached to almost any summer blockbuster, reminding us, quite reasonably in our times, that film is nothing but a momentary amusement park attraction. As to the other examples, I can’t recall when any film made me have the kind of emotional/physical response advertised, and would stay away from any film that I felt might.
It gets much worse. There is an online site called “Rotten Tomatoes” that gives a certain number of points to a film after the site owners compute the ratings assigned to a given film by reviewers. This way “entertainment value” is quantified, with something like the scientific method applied. If one goes to individual reviews written by people who contribute to the site, one rarely finds anything that comes close to a serious valuation of a film. But “Rotten Tomatoes,” owned by the Comcast corporation (when last I looked), enjoys some esteem: the logo is often on posters or DVD boxes if the score is high: the company has achieved respect. It reflects not only the cybernetic era’s emphasis on speed, but its insistence on ill-considered consumption, with cinema one commodity among many to be mindlessly, compulsively swallowed – and then perhaps vomited out to make room for more of the same. Reviewing has for some time been nothing more than a shopper’s guide, the same function as the “thumbs up” approach used for years by Roger Ebert and colleagues (since Ebert’s death he has enjoyed new appreciations – I can only invite the reader to Robin Wood’s accounting of Ebert on The Virgin Spring, 1960, and Last House on the Left, 1972, in Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond, 2003). Ebert’s slovenliness was remarkable, but perhaps no more so than that of most syndicated columnists. In fairness, he did bring public attention to some important films. But what he/they do has nothing to do with criticism, which is at all times, in and of itself, concerned with contributing to and enriching a culture.
At first I thought of titling this piece something close to “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold’s famous essay. Although I agree totally with the essence of Arnold’s piece, especially his argument that criticism culturally enriches a frequently narrow society, I decided to nick Leavis’s “The Function of Criticism at Any Time.” (Leavis would be mortified by my insertion of the word “film,” which he saw merely as a symptom of an impoverished “popular culture.”) Arnold’s concerns, at the Victorian moment, while relevant to ours (especially his desire for enriching world culture), seem wildly out of place in a culture so impoverished, lacking in his sensibility (or any sensibility?).
Criticism has specific functions and responsibilities which are immutable, but the cultural climate has changed drastically in the last thirty years (not for the better, in my view) affecting these functions, largely due to the cybernetic revolution, the economic forces that propelled it, the failure of the educational system (in the U.S. at least) and the reach of supranational capitalism. I want to note these changes and speak to how they affect criticism at this writing. I did not use a phrase like “…in the new millennium” in my title, simply because, while I am very much concerned about the future, I cannot see too far into it, and wonder if we have one, due to threats to the planet like global warming and nuclear annihilation.
Arnold made a major point about criticism in distinguishing it from art itself:
A false or malicious criticism may do injury to the minds of others; a stupid invention, either in prose or verse, is quite harmless.
The quote seems vexing. What is “false or malicious criticism”? By using the word “false” Arnold seems quickly to dispense with the idea the criticism is purely subjective (“well, that’s my opinion”). Malice can be based on bias toward an artist or type of art, with the critic refusing to be disinterested and thus capable of just assessment. Bias, especially based on supposedly moral outrage (the discussion of “New French Extremism,” to which I will return, is a case in point) is common in film history, in fact the history of art. Or the critic may wish to show off in some way or other: Kael and John Simon are sufficient examples. Daily reviews may be simply vapid, and “false” in the sense that their unintelligence fails to give the reader the slightest idea of work’s real value, often confounding the reader, usually because the writer has nothing in the way of refined criteria. “False” also means imperceptive, and disrespectful of the work and the reader’s intelligence. This falsity is often fairly deliberate, with the reviewer churning out a number of so-called reviews per week, without a moment even to consider what s/he is doing and why. It may be fun to take potshots at the latest Star Wars, but the question must be asked: is this worth the effort? It is true that such are the films that get most recognition, while important films slip by the wayside?
In Arnold’s clause after the semi-colon we face problems. Do we truly know what a “stupid invention” in art might be? Do we have criteria for assessing stupidity? Any magazine reviewer might brush off a badly-made horror film (even though that film may contain virtues – horror films seem to condemn themselves axiomatically, the assumption always being the genre is for low-brows or kids), but does a culture that values Lucas and Spielberg recognize stupidity? Arnold assumed in his day that he addressed an educated public capable of recognizing the dismissible (but able to assess it carefully). I think that particular civilization, or the American sector of it, has mostly disappeared.
Arnold is saying that the bad art object has less consequence than the critic who misrepresents it, who doesn’t bother to study carefully so as to see into the heart of it, who misses its value even if that value is incoherent or tentative. The irresponsible critic is in essence a bad educator, refusing to see his/her social responsibility, and failing also to take the given artist seriously, as a person who conscientiously (or otherwise) offers work to us for our consideration.
There is a common refrain these days on the order of “anybody can be a critic.” This utterance is reasonable, since one could argue that anyone with a decent education (and I insist as much on the education one does for oneself rather than that handed out at schools and universities, which in my lifetime have failed miserably, evident with each passing year, regimenting people, ignoring or killing off disciplines of importance, and bowing to capitalist interests), competence with language, and a concern for the goals of criticism, could indeed become a critic. But today the paramount problem is defining for the new generations what criticism is.
In the age of blogs, tweets, so-called social media, and the like, there is the sense that everyone is a critic, or that the role of the critic, as understood in another era, is obsolete. There is some intelligent writing on the internet, although one frequently must plow through scads of material to find something genuinely thoughtful. At times we are faced with the usual problems: intelligent thinking often side-by-side with marginally literate essays; articles written on the spur of the moment; essays clotted with bad prose, or, more common, the dependence on untestable, senseless “theories” that promised to die off but continue to hang on, as writers refuse to depend on their own intelligence, their general education, but instead need to say what Deleuze or Lacan or Zizek have to say on a topic. I have made use (and continue to do so) of certain thoughts about culture in my time (usually Marxisms, Freud variations, radical feminism, and people who have produced useful work in various disciplines), but after enough reading of the canonized theorists of postmodern academe, I have concluded that many such people hide behind obscurantism (I will give them the benefit of the doubt at times: bad translation may be at issue), their major ideas, banalities, or truisms – or sheer nonsense.
The problems I mention have affected print journals at least as much as online publications. I would take internet sources like Film International (the print version of which published the last writings of Robin Wood, still on their internet archive), Senses of Cinema, or Bright Lights Film Journal over some of the “refereed” publications where graduate students must make their bones with heavily-sourced spadework about topics that often contribute little to new knowledge of anything meaningful, that is, seriously concerned with the life of the mind.
But the internet poses real problems based on assumptions long present in our society. I am thinking of the “I’m OK, you’re OK” ethos, where one person’s ideas are as good as another’s. This is the triumph of postmodernism, or at least the part of it governed by a version of Nietzsche. Everything is perspective, with people showing little interest in refuting a poorly presented argument. In current film studies, arguments about films and filmmakers (ostensibly the subject of the discipline) are replaced with discussions (if that is the word, since critical exchange is rare) about subjects of little relevance, presumably because the author and his/her work are “dead.” This seems to apply now to almost the entirety of the last century’s film history. At the last meeting of the Society for Film and Media Studies, there were precious few papers on individual films and filmmakers of the last century, when the medium was created and refined. The emphasis was on the “media studies” part of the organization’s title (against which I protested years ago), with many roundabout discussions – or directionless speculations – about trends in the thing called “media.” Much of the better thinking here flows from Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and the Roland Barthes school of semiotics which analyze the impact of capitalism on mass culture, except this work has either been mostly discarded in favor of newfangled notions that dispense almost entirely with Marxism in favor of ideas actually owing a great deal to the past, but reworked in hellishly tortured prose, the essays usually saying “this is true, but so is this.” “Contradiction,” an idea basic to all experience, assists people in avoiding “reductionist” arguments.
I recognize that the films of the past have been made mostly by white men, an issue of concern that needs thorough criticism, rather than Maoist-style dismissal. Genuine controversy is ignored. Cases in point are Andrew Britton’s remarkable essays (mostly published in the defunct Cineaction but reprinted in a collection issued by Wayne State University Press) on a variety of topics, from the “Wisconsin school” of film studies to postmodernism, all of which went unanswered. Britton has been dead for a long time, so questions about his arguments go unanswered except within a small circle of people. Robin Wood conjectured that they couldn’t be answered, perhaps because of typical academic cowardice: “if I do this, someone may attack me.” If this is true, the state of criticism (and the academy that nurtures it) is truly wretched. One sees the occasional irate letter to an editor, but hardly anything like the famous bout (joined by many in the British public) between F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow on the state of English culture. Such would be utterly unimaginable today. While Snow was intellectually outclassed by a mile, and Leavis utterly unsparing, one couldn’t imagine the current American public having the slightest interest in so central a debate, nor would it accept the central tenet of Leavis (and in a much more limited way Snow), namely that culture is at the center of our humanity.
A serious problem with current criticism, internet or otherwise, is the emphasis on brevity, or what journalism called “concision.” This seems peculiar at one level, since an internet site is vast compared to a printed magazine or journal, and indeed some sites take advantage of their spatial freedom. But many sites actually recommend to readers a focus on brevity, as if the reader is reading on the run. Can one honestly say that a tweet constitutes anything more than a tiny fragment, often unreadable? Blogs can be responsible, but are often self-promotion, the author preferring to keep his/her work from other pairs of eyes until it is “posted.” The role of the editor has mostly gone out the window – in both print and cyberspace – as money is saved, the critic never permitted the kind of disinterestedness that demands s/he step back from work for a time, as other, ideally neutral eyes examine it. Commerce is an issue with cyberspace as with print, since advertising continues to impinge everywhere.
Brevity is a formula of the internet for the simple reason that many people (especially the young) are now impatient with reading, and seem to try to avoid it at all costs. In a time when our president feels the same way, a good role model for better practices is hard to find. I can hardly imagine teaching Daniel Deronda or Crime and Punishment (I always mention the latter after screening Pickpocket, 1959 – one has to) these days – I am often appalled to learn what students haven’t read; they are unfamiliar with all of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, whose major works were once required for virtually any degree in the humanities. It is difficult to teach the films of Renoir without alluding to the illustrious culture that produced him, yet those allusions fall on deaf ears. If one teaches John Ford and mentions Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln (even), Frederic Remington, World War II, or phases of the American Revolution, one can expect those comments to be met with blank stares.
It has been many decades since people were able to distinguish reviewing from criticism, or scholarship from criticism, or theory from criticism. Leavis and Wood gave us instruction on how “theory” (Leavis, sensibly, used the word “philosophy,” since the age of theory had not quite descended in his lifetime – for him “theory” was a common term, but it applied to a general approach to literature) and scholarship serve criticism – they both indeed serve it, with criticism being the highest goal of the writer, indeed of any thinking human being concerned with understanding art, with life itself, which, for Leavis, could not be separated from art.
Theory gained traction in the 1970s due mainly to a healthy interest in creating a progressive society. Some theorists (Barthes at times, feminist writing) proved very useful. But what can we really say these days about clowns and showmen like Althusser, Lacan, and Zizek? The latter seemed for a time to churn out a book a month; I would look through a given book to find out what he was trying to say. Often, after a hard slog. I would conclude that he saw Lenin of some value after all. Here is part of the point: many “theorists” prefer not to argue, so they therefore avoid being pinned down and seriously questioned about a specific argument. They talk around issues instead of seriously engaging with them. The major issue is fraudulence, for which Paul de Man will forever be the symbol. There is no need to rehearse his case here, nor that of the Yale School that gave him an endowed chair with virtually the same credentials I had when I entered academe as a young man. De Man, a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite, thief, forger, bigamist – no need to go on – became the symbol of the necessity of theory. Looking at his work today, such as the slim volume The Resistance to Theory, I once again think that the only concept here is one I had in my high school years, and I am sure, from many conversations, any number of people had the same thought but few dared voice it – I was in their company, not out of fear, but because I was seduced by this malarkey.
Theory is very often anti-humanist because it avoids entirely the artwork itself, especially so in cinema studies, which still feels as embarrassed about itself as parents forty years ago watching their children go to graduate school (“can you make a living with that?”). The idea is now the rationale for the university’s destruction of the humanities. Cinema scholars want to sound smart and scientific by actually avoiding the silly films made by some long-dead human in order to discuss theories of no value to anyone, nor of any enriching or simply enjoyable function. Who wants to talk about the ideological issues of Advise and Consent? All that was put aside back in the “auteurist” years, when people liked to talk about these stupid movies and people who supposedly created them.
Although the wife-murderer and “anti-humanist” proto-Maoist Althusser told his students that his classroom was a more radical locus than the 1968 barricades (he might have been right about classrooms other than his own), it strikes me that our common experience had a far more radicalizing effect than the role of theory. Radicalization also occurred through our immersion in culture, our exposure to art, from Bergman’s Shame (1968), to Godard’s Weekend (1967), from Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), to Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958), from Zinneman’s High Noon (1952), to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), that made us contemplate seriously the state of our society, and to engage in discussion with others, as we evaluated the films and the society out of which they came, here and abroad. Discussion was key in those days – we intuited T.S. Eliot’s notion of criticism as a “common pursuit.” But some of our friends said in those days (the 60s) that these films, and even Shakespeare, were “irrelevant.” We wore our radicalism as a badge, in the form of a Mao button (few of us knew what was actually happening in China), pretending to junk the entire knowledge of a civilization in favor of demented pamphlets.
This recollection always reminds me of the social responsibilities of the film critic. In his day, Leavis saw “technologico-Benthamism,” that is, the effects of late industrial demands, especially related to an emphasis on technology, as a threat to humanity. He praised works like Hard Times and Women in Love, for their “intelligence about life,” which for him meant affirmation of life (he was so put off by the pessimism of Thomas Hardy that he dismissed him outright, a major failing).
One would hope that today Leavis would see that the ills of society have long been caused by far worse than technology (itself neutral), but by the steady demands of capitalism. One would also hope that he would rethink Hardy, and watch Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), seeing it as a superb, self-critical work about where the assumptions of capitalism – and even a thoughtfully venerated western culture itself – have taken us. Or would he simply be repulsed, like the average person today, put off by its excesses, its uncompromising honesty in service of its cautions?
Criticism is always concerned with a precise use of language, an exhaustive attempt to uncover the meaning (I am of course not referring to plot or story, but rather idea) of a work, a respect for art and the artist, a knowledge of history and as many works of art as humanly possible, and an underlying concern for promoting and protecting progressive values by having as one’s key motive and method (not “theory”) proving or disproving (or showing the ambiguities of) a given work. Criticism is never shallow or self-serving, and never allows a work of art to be an excuse for tortured ruminations on some sector of philosophy. Short pieces are fine – provided they are serious, not off-the-cuff, jokey, and disrespectful of the work, the audience and the critic’s task. Robin Wood has a simple instruction for the critic – and all of us: read the great literature (for me this means Shakespeare and the nineteenth-century European novel), listen to the great music (for me Bach and Schubert are the pinnacle, but the greatest rock as well, when it still had feeling and politics, from the mid-Fifties to the late Seventies), and watch films, as many as possible – “at least one a day,” as Wood said, the film very correctly a needed daily vitamin (which occasionally has to be spat out).
“New French Extremism” and the Assault on Criticism
There are many examples of criticism’s failures, but one in particular comes to mind. I am late to the table in discussing “New French Extremism” (NFE – it is also called New European Extremism) simply because I could not take the concept seriously. But it endures; several books and a number of essays have been written about the phrase and the films representing it. Categories can be useful, but also very slippery – genre is the most obvious example. But NFE presents very significant problems. The category was apparently invented by James Quandt, appearing in a 2004 essay by him for Artforum. It has been much reprinted. The essay and the category flowed from Quandt’s displeasure with Bruno Dumont’s film Twentynine Palms (2003). Quandt complained that the film “dismayed many, particularly those who greeted Dumont’s first two features, Life of Jesus (1997) and L’Humanite (1999) as the work of a true heir of Bresson.” First, I want to say that I have no brief against Quandt, whose work is often interesting. But there are a number of serious problems with the sentence I transcribed. Who are the “many” left dismayed by the film? Twentynine Palms is not my favorite Dumont, but he succeeds in his goal of portraying America as a wasteland, so much so that Karl Richter’s rendering of Bach’s magisterial Suite No. 1 in C BWV 1066, Overture, apparently used diegetically, as if emanating from a store, is paid attention to by neither of the two major characters, nor by the despicable residents of the Southwest town.
On the matter of Dumont being as “heir to Bresson,” Quandt might profit from Dumont’s many statements on the topic, if Quandt cares not to view with care the films themselves. Dumont has no interest in being heir to Bresson. While he respects Bresson, he complains about that director’s use of monotone “models,” of post-production sound, and various other technical issues. Most important, Dumont is a non-believer, separating himself from critical testimonials that Bresson was a Jansenist (or at least some form of Christian), an idea Bresson danced around in interviews during his lifetime.
Quandt complains that Twentynine Palms is long and drab, but his real complaint, which prompts the creation of NFE, is the ending, wherein the man and woman are set upon by local rednecks (for Dumont the American population), the man beaten and raped, the woman physically and emotionally degraded. At the very end, while staying in their motel room, the man savagely knifes the woman to death, then dies in the desert. Dumont wanted to evoke the horror film, the ending through the traditional allusions, the text of the film by the contentious, awful relationship between this bogus Adam and Eve in the desolate New Golden Land (Quandt acknowledges this as old news). But what raises Quandt’s ire most is the sex and violence (which appear graphically – genitals exposed – in the two previous films that almost made Dumont eligible for sainthood).
Quandt then pursues a number of directors who have committed similar mortal sins, exposing their intellectual vacuity and moral bankruptcy. He creates a long list: Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Francois Ozon, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh (for their Baise-Moi, 2000, perhaps the most notorious of the NFE)…it goes on. Over time, the NFE has expanded territory to take in offenders like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, perhaps the two most important European filmmakers currently working. My first recollection after reading Quandt’s piece were of the charts of the old Catholic Legion of Decency, which proscribed numerous films based on sexual content (violence usually wasn’t all that problematical) or questions raised about faith and a personal God. Quandt isn’t that narrow, but his complaints are similar: don’t focus much on context – just look at the sex acts and other mischief used to draw spectators. Mattias Frey has written a book on the NFE, arguing that the movement is a kind of collusion among filmmakers, producers, advertisers, festivals, “cynical” critics (that reviewers will do anything for advancement is nothing new) and theaters to find new markets for European cinema. Although Frey, like Quandt, gives the occasional tip of the hat to some directors, the emphasis is on collusion. Quandt is downcast that we do not have the quality of cinema represented by Bergman and Bunuel; I too miss these men, and Antonioni, Resnais, and a few dozen others, but one wonders what category they would be thrown into given their treatment in their day. I for one am not unhappy with many of the foreign films made today, especially those of Haneke, Dumont, and Trier. The latter is treated most of the time as little more than an obscene provocateur, rather than one of the most brilliant feminist directors of our times (as I argued several years ago in the print edition of this publication).
I want to say a few – and only a few – words about some of the directors under fire by Quandt and others. Exhaustive critiques of each will await another time (I have covered in some depth Dumont for Film International online and Trier for the print edition [“Woman Run Amok: Two Films by Lars Von Trier,” 10.6], Haneke for various publications). My basic case can be presented, or introduced, by an exchange between F.R. Leavis and Philip Collins many years ago. Collins, laboring under the assumption that Dickens was chiefly a vacuous entertainer (a position Leavis held for a time), pointed to a representative flaw. Collins complained about Dickens’s many flaws:
….another such device is his describing the hopeless childhood of some of the criminal characters, such as Nancy in Oliver Twist and Magwitch in Great Expectations, with which he wishes us to sympathize.
That – I put it in this way in order to insist relevantly on the force of an important word – is very emphatically not an intelligent observation. Nancy and Magwitch are both criminals and both presented as victims of society, it is true; but Nancy comes from an early and immature work, while Magwitch belongs to one of the great European novels, of which he, in his essential relation with Pip, forms a major part of the theme.
I would expand on Leavis a bit. Oliver Twist might be early and immature (I’m concerned with the latter word), but it is brilliant sketchwork outlining almost all of Dickens’s major concerns – it is unfortunate that popular culture’s constant rendering of the novel has almost ruined it. And while Nancy may be called a “criminal character,” she is by no means solely this, and Magwitch is at the center of Dickens’s extraordinary criticism of the English class system, something refined in all the late novels.
My point here is that distinctions are basic to criticism; the process is seldom helped by categories that pay little attention to the individual author and the work’s ambition and accomplishment. I would like to speak exhaustively to the following, but for the present will take issue with some common notions about these films:
Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s film is one of the most disparaged of the NFE, banned for a time in France, brushed aside here as a crude “rape-revenge” film, or a “punk Thelma and Louise (1991).” That this is a film created and controlled (for the most part) by women has enjoyed only a glancing note to my mind, so its graphic portrayal of the sex act (which I find horrific rather than “pornographic,” and hence arousing). The film’s shot-on-video grubbiness is crucial in dispensing with any association with Thelma and Louise. The working-class strife of the two women emphasizes their total entrapment; the suicides at the end of Thelma and Louise are portrayed as both blithe and heroic – in other words, as a device of the male-oriented action film – while the end of Baise-Moi, with one woman shot dead while robbing a store, the other simply arrested as she drifts into despairing fantasy, tells us that the anarchist temperament remains in film, the real essence of punk as class-based criticism. Baise-Moi is not a film I esteem highly, but I return to it now and then, and see it as a worthwhile contribution to the remains of adversarial cinema.
The films of Gaspar Noe are often treated as the very embodiment of all that is wrong with the NFE: sensational, needlessly violent and sexual, preoccupied with style. I know of only two serious essays that interrogate Irreversible, one by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt for Film Quarterly, the other by Robin Wood for this journal, archived on this site. Wood’s piece, one of his last, is conflicted (as its title tells us: “For and Against Irreversible”). Some publications won’t even touch Noe, at least not without snide asides. The editor of a distinguished journal told me: “He [Noe] has his audience.” Not wishing to start an argument at that moment, I simply assumed the person meant low-life degenerates, or kids who watch rock videos (most young people I know have a difficult time with Noe). I will say straight off that I am “for” Noe, his films always a surprise for me.
Seul Contre Tous (1998, poorly translated at I Stand Alone), Irreversible (2002), and the early sketch Carne (1991), are as profound a set of representations as I can recall of the disintegration of a civilization. The films that follow, Enter the Void (2009) and Love (2015), offer tentative ways back, but tentative indeed. Seul Contre Tous, with its narration by the misanthropic Butcher, is a remarkable portrayal of betrayed working-class life in a deindustrialized civilization. The Butcher is “alone against all” in a solipsistic, Dostoyevskian consciousness where all ills are external, as the narrator’s racism, misogyny, and general neurotic complaints dominate. Noe tells us “this is now France,” the logo a red outline of the map of France. The Butcher’s solace in incest with his daughter becomes a kind of redemption, reminding us, in Trotsky’s words, how “perfidious Christianity” (referring to Doestoyevsky’s various redemptions) hang on insistently in whatever perverse form.
Irreversible begins, after credits that unfold backward (the told-in-reverse narrative seems to me the film’s least interesting aspect after the initial viewing), with the camera spinning through space, taking us through what appears to be an urban alley, and making an anchored perspective impossible. No one seems to have mentioned that the film is bracketed by Mahler’s 9th Symphony – Adagio, and Beethoven’s 7th; the abrasive music by Banglater overwhelms us, making us forget that the director reminds us of what we have left behind. As Mahler fades, the camera takes us into a grim apartment where we see the Butcher, his story continuing, yet soon drops, as he speaks with an unprepossessing man about his time in jail for incest with his daughter. The friend responds: “the western syndrome!” Incest, in some form, dominates western civilization, making possible kingship and male authority. Yet this crime marginalizes people in our populations who lack the money and clout to say, “What I do is no aberration – look at your society!”
The key part of the film – Alex’s rape and the revenge by Marcus and Albert – will, I am sure, receive fuller attention. Robin Wood has made the key observations: Albert, the “enlightened” man, brutally murders a man he mistakes for the rapist, probably because he was jilted by Alex, his fury flowing from the damaged male self. Marcus is all brutish rage, his racism and all other aspects of his deformed self apparent as he races through the Paris night, molesting a hooker, hijacking a taxi while shouting racial invective. Like Seul Contre Tous, Irreversible shouts “This is your France” (what Leavis said of Great Expectations, replacing “France” with “England”). The sexual politics also deserve far more time than I can offer here, my main concern being the need to pay attention to what a work achieves through its conventions (it’s fair to say that sex and sexual violence are the universal conventions). There is reason to be concerned about the gay S/M club The Rectum signifying the inferno, while the final scene of Alex on a green lawn, Beethoven appearing on the soundtrack, signifies paradise regained. I would simply say for the moment that the Rectum gives us the male world, with its constant hate and torment, both homosexual and heterosexual (both orientations appear, and the straight men are the killers). The homosocial world of popular art, from the western to the war film to the crime film, explodes, as the love whose name that has for so long been unspoken takes its revenge.
Noe’s subsequent films have value. Noe has been criticized for his preoccupation with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick’s film might be seen as transcendent art, or as satire – suggested by the famous bone-to-spaceship cut, telling us that we are no more advanced than our killer ape ancestors. Noe does things with the camera far exceeding Kubrick’s space journey. In Irreversible and Enter the Void, the camera seems totally unanchored, making us wonder where we are, or what is allowing us to see all that is presented to us. But Noe’s films are interior journeys, reminding us how far we have fallen. Seul Contre Tous and Irreversible show us a civilization long since disintegrated. Although his characters reference The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Enter the Void, Noe has remarked, and his works support him, that the film has nothing to do with death and transcendence, life after death, and the like. Noe’s film makes one rethink the hint of horror in the Beatles’ psychedelic songs like “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Transcendence here, as in Enter the Void, depicts that the surrender of rationality to some peculiar “void” is not only at the heart of political failure in the Sixties and now, but the embrace of death over life. Noe’s film, at the most apparent level, is a floating tour of postmodern Tokyo, a crowded, totally overdeveloped, garish city that has embraced capitalism all too well. The “consciousness” that takes us on this tour is that from the shattered skull of a young man murdered during a drug deal and confrontation with the police. The void he slips into takes us to the Oedipal construct, first in a shot of the primal scene, finally in a penis shooting semen into a vagina (from the vagina’s point of view), with reminders of the violence of male society telling us how this “eternal return” guarantees the misery of patriarchal civilization (albeit with hints of resistance from the female).
Love is the most under-analyzed of Noe’s films, perhaps because it has the gimmick of 3D accompanied by more explicit sex than, I think, is visible in any of the NFE. I am not a fan of 3D, although Noe uses it here for occasional chuckles (a penis flops off the screen and ejaculates on us). The film’s virtues are centered on that most essential concern: the heterosexual monogamous relationship, its attendant fantasies, and ultimate failure. A close read of the first images of the film reveals something of its intelligence. The establishing shot shows a naked couple involved in mutual masturbation, posed in a position approximating Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (I couldn’t help but think of Botticelli’s sly humor – the nearly-naked Mars is asleep after orgasm and so oblivious he can’t hear the little putas blowing horns into his ear, while Venus is clothed and upright, attentive to the world around her and her responsibilities). The scene is perhaps the most remarkably tender of any erotic sequence in memory. When the man climaxes, the woman takes his penis in her mouth. This scene appears, in the context of the film, to be a flashback. It is followed by a domestic scene in a kitchen, the wife and children causing the man to register silently (but we hear them) the predictable complaints about domesticity. Thus in the film’s first moments we have wonderfully articulated the sex urge and the legal and religious institutions circumscribing it, with normal biological and emotional impulses controlled by centers of power, imposing on us romantic love meant to be eternal (guaranteeing a high divorce rate, and eternal bitterness between the sexes).
Since I have written at length about Lars von Trier in the print Film International, I have wanted to say something about his last “controversy” (the press always makes much of his provocations). Among the expressed concerns: is the film pornographic? Is he trying too hard to sell his films with sex? Does the film really have anything to say about women’s sexuality? Is it chiefly a joke? I would say first that I agree with those who say that Vol. I is more impressive than Vol. II, although there are things in Vol. II indispensable to what Trier has to say. What he has to say is fairly simply stated: women can find no sexual liberation under patriarchy, even if it is governed by Enlightenment figures like Seligman, Joe’s rescuer. The film strikes me as the most depressing of the Trier’s Depression Trilogy, for which Nymphomaniac is the conclusion. The film’s world is circumscribed by death.
There is a key scene early in the film, when Joe relates how, as a child, she was berated by her mother for playing “froggy” with her little friend on the bathroom floor – the girls slide about open-legged so that their genitals are stimulated. They laugh with glee. The tolerant father says “leave them alone,” but he mutters it rather than chastises “the cold bitch” wife (Joe uses the term in her narrative to Seligman) outright to help the girls. We learn that the father was Joe’s good friend, teaching her about trees, especially the life of the ash tree, “proudest of all.” The ash is very important to Norse mythology, key to patriarchal narratives of conquest, certainly in the last century. We see images of the ash tree in winter, when its barren limbs look almost Gothic. The chapter changes when Seligman’s reference to Poe shifts Joe’s narration: we hear Seligman reading the grim opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as the young Joe approaches a hospital where her father is dying a very painful death from cancer – with dementia a horrific supplement. In Seligman telling Joe about Poe’s death caused by dementia, the idea of the father, even a benign one, becomes inextricably tied to death. Joe’s mother is simply the example of the female internalizing patriarchal rule, one imbibed if not from her husband, than another male of her family or circle.
The icon in the last of Joe’s narratives is a stain on the wall, which is said by Seligman to resemble a Walther PPK, the handgun of James Bond, fiction’s ever-popular state-sponsored assassin. Joe’s stories have included her own involvement with violence. But the PPK has special significance. Seligman, repository of wisdom and western culture, attempts to rape Joe in the night, saying “one more can’t possibly make any difference.” Joe has a handgun and shoots him dead. Before he shows his true colors, Seligman tells Joe that were she a man, her many sexual escapades would be meaningless. That remark, and the attempted rape (which is a basic instruction in how men see no boundaries keeping them from the female body), are as basic and essential a pair of feminist statements as one might conceive.
Trier has said that his long battle with depression made him empathize fully with the plight of the female. When pressed in interviews, he becomes somewhat defensive and says merely that he doesn’t see one sex as superior to the other, a sensible remark. But his remarks, for some reason, get him into trouble, and reviewers don’t believe he is really feminist in his thinking. But what can one say about this artist’s worldview given the evidence of his films at least since Breaking the Waves (1996)?
Much more needs to be said about Nymphomaniac, including “the Jewish question.” Seligman is apparently the Jew-as-keeper-of-knowledge, who saves the young gentile girl abandoned in an alley in the latter part of the deindustrialized age. He doesn’t see his rape as “turning on” the woman he consoled; he is merely exercising the privilege guaranteed by the Law of Moses. Without knowing it, Joe has fallen into the hands of male archetype, the deadliest one, in a refined, educated, charitable guise. But the issue of Seligman needs much more interrogation.
In her book on Michael Haneke, Catherine Wheatley remarks:
The principal points of interest that these articles raise are usually linked to questions of violence within Haneke’s cinema, or to the socio-political context of Haneke’s films, with a few critics such as Robin Wood and Christopher Sharrett reading Haneke’s films as “contemporary morality tales.” In their treatment of ethics, such approaches are typical of the “American moralist” school of criticism involving, for the main part, a predominantly narrative focus. ( )
I am very happy to be mentioned alongside Robin Wood, but I don’t know how he became an American, nor do I know of any “’American moralist’ school of criticism.” To ignore a work’s narrative (not that narrative in and of itself always has special importance) to me suggests that Wheatley, like so many, would rather ignore the work and its creator – and indeed “socio-political context” – in favor of speculations about the audience, as if the audience for a work isn’t axiomatically complicit in the ideas of that work and the period in which it is created.
The moralist should not be a moralizer, intent on advancing some sort of dogma. Rather, one should be in pursuit of moral fiction, that is, works about human beings struggling with various forms of oppression. That there are films today offering “lessons” good only for a five-year-old is perhaps one reason for the torpor in critical writing, or its disappearance in favor of scatterbrained thoughts about one theory or another. The pursuit of moral fiction means that we must be wary of categories like NFE which take critical responsibility away from us, substituting the kind of arrogance that has been the tool of oppressive institutions from time immemorial.
Arnold, Matthew (1863). “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Culture and Anarchy and Other Selected Prose. London: Penguin Classics. 1970.
Brottman, Mikita and David Sterritt (2003-2004). “Irreversible,” Film Quarterly, 57.2: 37-40.
Frey, Mattias (2016). Extreme Cinema: The Transgressive Rhetoric of Today’s Art Film Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Horeck, Tanya and Tina Kendall (2013). The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe. Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press.
Leavis, F.R. (1969). English Literature in Our Time and the University. London: Chatto and Windus.
Quandt, James (2003). “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema”. rpt. In Horeck and Kendall.
Wheatley, Catherine (2009). Michael Haneke’s Cinema. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He is writing a book on the TV series Breaking Bad.