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This week’s podcast is the beginning of a series on the films of Whit Stillman, the poet of the preppie class, the ironist of the romantic comedy — as people sometimes say, America’s own Jane Austen. I am joined by our own @flaggtaylor and our common friend Carl Eric Scott for a discussion of Damsels in Distress, a delightful comedy about an American liberal arts college, constructed with an admirable respect for the rules of comedy and almost entirely free of the sordid. Almost everything you see is laughable and there is a sophisticated way of getting to distinguish what we are inclined to laugh at because of our common sense and what is merely laughable because of our prejudices.
I will close this series with two brief explanations of how genre itself involves reflections on American society. I have recently been working on horror movies, so that is one of my examples. American horror comes down to two versions of an attack on progress. One is Christian — Hitchcock did it, his many imitators since John Carpenter do it, and endless others. These stories try to put together the universal and the particular in this way. They start with a social setting that is very broad and designed to show what’s happening with American freedom. They then move on to an individual story of the emergence of evil. How crazily implausible evil has become, and how maddening, therefore, is supposed to teach the audience that they didn’t see evil in the setting. The unwillingness of good respectable middle-class Americans to see the evil in their hearts, and therefore in their society, leads them to countenance or even provoke monstrous things.
The tragic poet in this case resorts to these shocking things rightly called horror on the assumption that nothing else will even get a hearing. This is also what David Lynch wants to teach Americans; or Neil LaBute. These are very sophisticated movie-makers, but they are basically Christian moralists. They mean to remind Americans that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop believing in evil. Instead of providence, you get God’s wrath.
The alternative to Christian horror is scientific horror. America has great examples in Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, more or less to correspond to the great British insights offered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I note in passing that these two British books, answering to the Victorian century of progress, deal with science taking control over life and then over good and evil respectively. Those, you will recall, are the two trees the fruit whereof was forbidden to man in Genesis.
Let us now see how all this emerges from show business. The box office seems to be growing exclusively on the strength of pricier tickets, as fewer people go to the movies. Fewer movies are made every year, counting movies with any kind of broad release — not 4,000 theaters, but say more than 500. The number of studios and the number of sources for stories are also decreasing. In the business, the idea is called intellectual property. In that sense, a minuscule oligarchy sells what a massive democracy wants to buy. The view of America you get at the movies is concentrating, ignoring more and more of the country. So, let us look at what we buy or, rather, buy into, while only really renting.
Today, cinema is dominated by three genres:
- Superhero movies.
- Animation, mostly about cute animals, often about redeeming villains.
- Teenage horrors-with-a-happy-ending, that is, political paranoia.
These are replacements for, respectively, action movies, family movies, and social criticism movies. There are many changes to speak about, so far as society is concerned. The audience for all these stories is getting younger; the knowledge of American society required to follow the movies is itself decreasing. Observations on life in America are constantly replaced by symbols.
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.
A few days ago, I talked to my associate Prof. Harmon who raised a fundamental question by way of a preposition. This is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. He asked whether I meant to speak of American cinema as a reflection of American society or a reflection on it. As I said, the movies are our human way of seeing what we’re like, as humans. But what does that mean more clearly?
“Reflections of society” involves the obvious meaning of imitation. What you see on the screen is what the movie-makers saw looking around — America. But this could mean two different things, being that no movie can reflect America as a whole. American movie-makers might offer Americans the images they think will please them — they see what Americans approve, and are governed in their works by that experience. This would mean cinema is a kind of flattery; a barely concealed form of self-congratulation. Every theater-going experience is really an awards ceremony in disguise. There is more than a little truth to that. Do people leave the theaters of this great notion in a soul-searching mood, somewhat chastened by the experience, or rather smug, and even self-important?
Or on the other hand, you could have what in literature we used to call realism and naturalism: An impious, immoderate staring at ugliness and misery, to chasten the bourgeois materialism of modern society. That’s not fun cinema. Even in America, this paradise, there is misery and there is suffering. That could be reflected in the movies instead of the fun stuff. This is not unheard of, but is very rare; it’s been rare in every decade except the Seventies, and the vaguely suicidal public mood in America at that time suggests there is more than a little that’s questionable in this fascination with ugliness.
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.
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