America and Marvel, Part I: Introduction

 

At first, this series may seem strange to you. All I can say by way of preparatory remarks is that cinema properly understood is the self-understanding of a society. It comprises individual taste, popular phenomena, prestige, and also great achievements. It is at once all-American and almost universally opposed in America. Cinema is part of civilization — it is an attempt to think through and therefore to educate Americans about what it means to be a human being. But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.

Cinema is remarkably democratic in that it shows us the bodies of human beings whom we instantly recognize, with all the moral and intellectual consequences that follow from that knowledge. But it is also aristocratic, in that it privileges stories which are impressive by reason of being unusual — we generally look for great beauty, great power, or great achievements in stories. Or at any rate, cinema inevitably produces celebrities, the most obvious form of inequality in America.

Cinema today is what books used to be in America. To define the thing by the work it does characteristically is to see that movies, like books or literature previously, are our poetry — our making up stories about the things that most interest us. Our poetry is defined by a concern with the wholeness of life or human action. This is not to say that the highest purpose of cinema is the only purpose — I start there because it is needful to do so in our times. I remind you of Tocqueville’s statement that poetry in democratic times is bound to lose its ambition. The greatest things somehow slip from view without our noticing it. So, what is typical of our situation is that cinema has overrun our lives while at the same time its every claim to consideration is collapsing.

In this generation, music videos, television, internet-based series, and advertising have gradually taken on the polish of cinema — talent from cinema — and even the feel of cinema. Come to think of it, computer games are also full of cinematic events and a realism that is increasingly derivative of cinema. Maybe graphic novels are immune to cinema, though by no means always.

All these changes and innovations, however, do not spell a glorious future for cinema. We are not talking conquest here. It’s not clear that cinema itself has any future, faced with the new technologies that can connect computer animation with digital recording on a phone and the peculiarly half-real actions which our internet-connected screens make possible. Should America be faced with a social revolution, everything you are about to hear will suddenly be obsolete, unless some kind of theoretical insight should work its way through the observations and arguments I will present to you. I justify the insistence on the greatness of cinema partly to explain why it is so imitated, but partly to explain something about American society.

I should also say that my statements are intended to include both the exceptional and the typical; to hold true both in the case of what we can know about greatness in American cinema and how cinema works most of the time, including now. Whatever the next form of poetry is going to be, it will have to square with the requirements of poetry as such, which are perfectly obvious in the case of cinema, at least if civilization endures. You may think of this as a minority opinion, but I hew to it, and it is venerable: It is not possible to have civilization without poetry.

Now, we come to understand things in terms of their being and their power. The power of cinema is to teach justice, ultimately, in both its moral and intellectual components. Who can look at a few favored American films and not learn what Americans think of justice? Who can find many favored films which break away from the American opinion concerning justice? Americans going to the movies know what they want and they expect to get it — they want to see characters get what they deserve.

So much for the society. Let us turn briefly to the man. It is true that we are curious animals. Curiosity, one of the lesser vices, is what gets us going to the movies, if not boredom. But it is also true that we have recourse to stories because we are dissatisfied — both with our experience, each of us a private man, and with the abstract statements that dominate our public life. Each one of us may abandon some of his dignity for the sake of believing what “studies show” — but that authority does not carry over into the secret councils of our hearts. There, other things reveal themselves, which lead us to the movies rather than to dedicate ourselves to scientific control for a successful life. Our lives are massively deficient when it comes to being reasonable.

Poetry deals with our deficiencies of reason — we usually find it easier to tell a story than to define a thing. Poetry also gives remarkable power to our reason — in defying the categories and classifications by which we reason about our affairs, poetry makes it possible to begin to wonder about what we think and why. It is therefore in the basics or even the primitive powers of cinema that a philosophic inquiry becomes possible.

Reflecting on how things appear to us, which is what movies show us, can be a beginning point for philosophy, one that is of great importance for all of us now, because it takes our human perspective seriously instead of replacing it with some kind of public or theoretic authoritative perspective. We do not merely see ourselves at the movies — more importantly, we see in the way that we as human beings do see the world, if we but dare take it seriously.

This is Part I of a five-part series. Part II will be published tomorrow.

There are 9 comments.

  1. Profile Photo Member

    Titus Techera: But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.

    Could a form of art also known as “moving pictures” not have a fondness for images?

    Also with some of the compositional techniques, camera movement and editing, is it really barbaric?

    • #1
    • August 14, 2017, at 8:57 PM PDT
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  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera: But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.

    Could a form of art also known as “moving pictures” not have a fondness for images?

    Also with some of the compositional techniques, camera movement and editing, is it really barbaric?

    Put it this way, Quinn–you could add super-technologies to war, but it would retain its barbaric origins. The art can never supersede that sort of thing.

    I think people who think about movies end up thinking themselves away from the basic fact of what’s uncanny about images & why we love them. I’m trying to go back to that, both to show what’s wrong with our latter-day sophistication & which is the true way from images to philosophical insight.

    • #2
    • August 15, 2017, at 12:02 AM PDT
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  3. Jim Beck Member

    Evening Titus,

    What if as you suggest, that the stories we tell ourselves cease to exist as a force in culture when we have become so atomized. If the prime audience for music or videos, or movies is less than adult, the stories that that audience supports and encourages are not the stories that speak to the nature of man, let alone the nature of morality, and even less the nature of God. So I view cinema more like popular music, in that it is a mirror to an audience and not a mirror to culture let alone a platform by which culture is sustained or transmitted.

    • #3
    • August 15, 2017, at 7:40 AM PDT
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  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Hello, Jim! Glad to hear from you again!

    Pop music now is most of culture; cinema most of the rest. Even images of family or public action–that’s where they come from. Americans can hardly be bothered to try to do better. There are some people with ideas; some people with money; but they seem often to prefer death & damnation to cooperation. Partly, that’s explainable–it’s the individualism, the atomization…

    But when Americans split into audiences, they remain American. In some ways, it’s better to address audiences that are smaller but more coherent. It’s more a matter of doing it well. & at that level, stories are a fight against atomization. They do bring millions of people together at some level. Or rather they keep them somewhat similar, sharing in certain themes & concerns & moods, & also synchronize them in a way. This is an opportunity to do more. To tell Americans about each other. Should anyone be interested!

    That’s all tough to deal with, but only because people find it hard to invest in long-term projects. That’s something Americans need to work on, to give themselves a chance to have new forms of agreement between generations. But it’s by no means impossible.

    • #4
    • August 15, 2017, at 9:17 AM PDT
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  5. Profile Photo Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I think people who think about movies end up thinking themselves away from the basic fact of what’s uncanny about images & why we love them. I’m trying to go back to that, both to show what’s wrong with our latter-day sophistication & which is the true way from images to philosophical insight.

    It’s funny, because I was thinking the same thing. Perhaps we are coming at something similar from different directions. Because I agree that the need for art is something basic.

    Barbaric, on the other hand, suggests a kind of judgment to me that I am not sure whether you are intending to make. For example, I don’t think I would say that music is barbaric because it involves sound or that it privileges hearing. Those things are true in a certain sense, but in the same sense that water is wet. It would well be the way I am reading it, but it sounds like value judgments on things aren’t value questions.

    • #5
    • August 15, 2017, at 9:21 AM PDT
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  6. Judge Mental Member

    Primitive maybe? Primal?

    • #6
    • August 15, 2017, at 9:26 AM PDT
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  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    It’s not sound that makes music barbaric–it’s the human preference for rhythms that recall the blood pounding in your veins.

    I think people separate peace from war in an essentially deceptive way, which nevertheless is practicable & useful when life is decent, orderly. But the art of war is a product of peace that shows its barbaric origins. To fully emancipate the art from its barbaric origin would mean that the art of war produces perpetual peace–that’s a lie democrats want badly to believe, by the way…

    Think about something else: Manliness. It starts from an animal spirit, a barbaric understanding of self-defense. It rises all the way to defending human life by any number of arts & sciences & political organizations–& to defending the dignity of being human. But it can never fully emancipate itself from its barbaric origin. Not practically–again, perpetual peace in a harmonious universe ain’t happening. Nor theoretically–even philosophy starts from wondering what kind of being is the human being, such a strange mixture of body & mind! That thinking can never escape the body fully…

    • #7
    • August 15, 2017, at 9:29 AM PDT
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  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Primitive maybe? Primal?

    In a world of euphemisms, where everyone is elderly, but no one old, he is the only public enemy: He Is Judge Mental!

    • #8
    • August 15, 2017, at 9:30 AM PDT
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  9. Trink Coolidge

    Titus Techera: Americans going to the movies know what they want and they expect to get it — they want to see characters get what they deserve

    My aging psyche can’t handle most movies anymore. But! I agree with your statement and recall the satisfaction with seeing the Harrison Ford character wipe-out in the culminating scene in American Graffiti.

    • #9
    • August 15, 2017, at 12:39 PM PDT
    • 1 like