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I will start with some eminently questionable remarks. Let us start from the place of cinema in American life. Americans are notorious for the great gap their society leaves open in-between personal, private experiences, particular to each one and interesting mostly to himself — and public debates or public discourse, which is dominated by abstractions.
Tocqueville famously said Americans are uniquely given to general ideas — whenever doubt should arise about anything, a principle will be stated with god-like certainty. What lies in-between the abstract or universal and the personal or particular is judgment. Judgment, in both common senses of the word, is frowned upon in America. Obviously, moral judgment is frowned upon because it is a form of discrimination and the ground and mode of discrimination — it also odors of inequality, as he who judges necessarily sets himself the superior of he whom he judges. But judgment offends not merely equality — it also offends independence, or individualism.
You will notice, if you pay attention to your fellow Americans, that they spontaneously desire to raise an individual objection to just about any general statement in order to ruin the credibility of that statement. In America, every word for generality becomes suspect — think merely of the scientific word stereotype, which is not something anyone would say about his own way of thinking or mode of argument. The sacred rage against general rules is the intellectual correlative of the moral problem of judgment. There is a kind of heroism in Americans that leads them to fight off the claims of the intellect, that their freedom or unpredictability may remain intact. The argument against judgment is that it traps people’s individuality in human types available to the intellect in abstraction from experience. Each one wants to retain his essential mysteriousness, his opacity to the scrutiny of reason. This is politically salutary in many ways — a people without this aggressive rejection of reason would be easily tyrannized, indeed, with its consent. But it also creates serious problems. In America, taste is impossible publicly to distinguish from prejudice. Judgment, however, requires a ground more amenable to the intellect than inclination, less shifting than preference, and more social than habit.
So then taste would be the mysterious way in which conversation becomes possible that is neither as particular as one’s experience, nor as abstract as a universal statement. Taste is formed, however, not by cinema, but by music. I recommend to you the effort to explain your taste in music; you may find the failure humiliating, which is a chance you’ll have to take. If you allow the word, I would put it this way, it is perplexing. I will not attack anyone’s particular taste, but only point out the problems with taste in America. On the one hand, every American is rather proud of his own taste, at least because it’s his possession. Not everyone shows off his taste, but who will suffer it to be slighted? But how can taste be personal or individual in a country where there are massively popular successes in music? There is no way to say enthusiasm for popular music is less genuine than enthusiasm for the obscure. It would seem to be part of human vanity or self-flattery that we can be proud of our individuality even as we affirm and experience our sameness. On the other hand, the more Americans stand up for their taste publicly — from tee shirts to books — the less they experience the almost inexpressible or non-rational character of love of music.
Conversation about music is rare, therefore, first, because it is very hard to talk about it intelligently, secondly, because people are ferocious in their defense of their own loves. Americans agree and disagree about music at the top of their lungs, but that is not conversation. Professions of love and hatred are ubiquitous, but it is generally conceded that no disagreement can be reasonable, taste being a subjective thing, but not universal. The collapse of conversation is premised on this most peculiar opinion. Americans, when it comes to their hatreds, if not loves, have repealed the law of contradiction.
The farthest thing removed from the deeply felt, inexpressible character of love of music or hatred of it — is politics. Here, too, Americans are loud and proud. In a spontaneous way, their loyalties and outrage are voiced in a way that makes conversation impossible. This is because of the peculiar combination of justice and self-interest that dominates American public life. On the one hand, Americans make professions of justice indefatigably — they will always have a principled statement to offer, free of uncertainty or misgivings. On the other, they take disagreement on principle to be a near-impossibility, a kind of mythic animal. Therefore, the press Americans love best on the one hand confirms their every prejudice to be a show of righteous outrage, and on the other hand, proves for their money’s worth that anyone who disagrees with them is corrupt, malevolent, or morally incompetent.
The American taste for hysteria and enthusiasm in politics, for superlatives, for the worst accusations and the most implausible suspicions, is also part of the freedom of a free people. It must at some level be defended. But it makes political conversation almost impossible. Americans seek refuge, nevertheless, from the endless anger of disputation and the appurtenant fear of being in the wrong — they give themselves over to science, the safe haven of knowledge in the stormy seas of opinion — the opportunity in the chaos. Policy expertise is plentiful in America and people then use it for their partisan purposes, to silence or awe their interlocutors.
In between the too-private musical taste and the too-public abstractions of politics, cinema provides Americans with an endless chance to gossip. Because movies have stories everyone can follow, they are not as obscure as the other things. Because people invest their human dignity in the story, they take pleasure or offense at the endings of movies, with respect to their wishes and to their judgment of the plausibility of the endings. Movies are therefore the ideal place in America for lively disagreement and discovery. They are held to be objects of debate, unlike the music, but not for purposes of partisan victory, unlike the politics. Perhaps the lack of movies about music and politics is itself testimony to the way in which the movies are the commons of America. After all, books about music and politics, of which there are endless numbers, appeal to very small audiences of admirers. There are not many books about movies, however, because people do not much respect opining. What Americans want primarily in talk about movies is recommendations that will lead to a pleasant viewing and reminiscences about old pleasures that can replace the bother of watching them again. Movies are experiences, but not objects of judgment.
The taste formed for principled partisanship or unprincipled love of one’s own is hard to change. One begins to suspect that Americans love movies precisely because they are not conversations. When one looks back to the great directors in old Hollywood or even most celebrated actors these days, one notices that they are as silent as possible about their judgment. A reputation for being an artist is dangerous with the people. It is snobbishly coveted, however, by the few who oppose prestige to popularity. But both sides are pleased by anecdotes that give secret information about movies. Facts about movies are liked, as all facts tend to be. But thoughtfulness about the most superficial thing — movies — is generally forbidden. So, this then is the place of cinema in American life — socially, it encourages judgment and opining, but it fails, most of the time, to spur conversation. It educates the people silently.