Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sunday, Feb. 19, the day after the IRA Awards (reported online by Michael Giltz on his blog with a great running commentary). This marked the 30th Anniversary of the IRAs, but i haven't attended the annual meetings for THAT long! The results can be found on Michael's blog, but suffice it to say that this year's Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay were a mini-sweep by "Mysterious Skin"/Gregg Araki/Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Gregg Araki (based on a novel by Scott Heim). In all of these "polls", if i get one "right" (if one of my selections turns out to mirror the majority rule), that's about par for the course. (This year, in The Village Voice Film Critics poll, my choice as Best Screenplay was Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale", and that's what came in first.) Actually, in talking with Tony Pipolo (one of the editors of The Millennium Film Journal), we both acknowledged that we enjoyed including more "obscure" choices in our lists, just to make sure that we broadened the scope of these lists and polls. In terms of the IRAs, my choice for Best Supporting Actress was Catherine Keener for her astonishing year; after a two year hiatus, she came back in no less than four films, of which i saw three, and she was superb in each film: "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Capote." (I didn't see "The Interpreter"; i'd forgotten all about it.) And Catherine Keener was the clear winner at the IRAs. (The IRAs were started by George Robinson as an annual gathering of, initially, people who had studied at Columbia University and taken Andrew Sarris's film history classes; the name is in honor of Ira Hozinsky, who continues as an active part of the IRAs.)

But over the last week, in starting this blog, i've been thinking (a lot) about "critical standards" and what people like. The IRAs proved a perfect opportunity to reflect on some of these issues.

When i started writing about film while in my teens, it was my way of thinking about a metier which i hoped would be mine: since i had been so enamoured of the French New Wave, my decision to write about film was occasioned by my (intense) desire to make films. When i look at any work of art, my immediate response often has to do with what i find "generative" about the work, that is, what i think i can use. (I remember Max Kozloff reviewing Manny Farber's collection of film criticism, "Movies," in Artforum, and Kozloff stated that - pardon me if this is a paraphrase from long ago - Farber approached movies as a painter with a painter's grasp of usable form. You look at a work in terms of what you can crib.) Another response has to do with my recognition that the work in question achieves what i can only hope to achieve. (In her introduction to the published screenplay of her film "Brother Carl", Susan Sontag talks about this; it was actually a cagey way to get out of the direct comparison with Ingmar Bergman's work, because Rune Ericson's cinematography was so similar to the style of Gunnar Fisher - Bergman's cinematographer throughout the 1950s - and Gunnel Lindblom, one of her stars, had starred in many of Bergman's movies, most especially "The Silence," a film Sontag regarded as one of his best. So Sontag listed Carl Dreyer's "Ordet" and "Gertrud" as the two films she had wished to emulate!) In my life, i've had that experience a few times. The second play that i wrote in my life was called "Realism in Our Time" (years ago, the Manhattan Punchline would have a play series called - i think - "You Can't Copyright a Title", which happens to be true, or at least it used to be, who knows now with the new "trademark" legislation being proposed, anyway, they would put on an annual series, and have playwrights come up with a new play with titles such as "Gone With the Wind" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", with the only proviso that the play actually have NOTHING to do with the original, except having the same title, i remember that John Guare and Christopher Durang were among those who contributed skits to the series; anyway, i cribbed the title "Realism in Our Time" from the book by Georg Lukacs): it was a play about two friends who are at a diner after seeing a movie (the movie in question was Fassbinder's "Effi Briest") and they proceed to argue for two hours. He is a "formalist" and she is "political" and the film becomes a pretext for a discussion on differing views on what art means, on aesthetics and ethics, and on the nature of "commitment" in art. (See why i chose my title from Lukacs?) I wrote that play in 1973 (while i was still at Columbia University; i have to admit i never took Andrew Sarris's course, in fact, i never took ANY film courses in my life, i was studying anthropology, and it was very exciting at Columibia when i was there, because i declared my major in my sophomore year, and during the three years i was there as an anthropology undergraduate, the guest lecturers were Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas and Clifford Geertz. Because i was an honor student, i was allowed to attend the graduate lectures, and so i got to hear Levi-Strauss, Douglas and Geertz)... actually, it was part of a "trilogy". I wrote three plays. The first play was short, but it had... i can't even remember how many characters, and it consisted of little vignettes that i experienced when i was 16... one scene was a dinner with P. Adams Sitney, Ken and Flo Jacobs, Bob and his then-wife Frances Breer, Annette Michelson, Jonas Mekas and Richard Foreman. Another scene was a chartered plane trip to Syracuse, for Yoko Ono's exhibit, and i wound up sitting with Allen Ginsberg, Shirley Clarke and Candy Darling. I can't even remember the name of that play, and i can't find a copy! The second play was "Realism in Our Time" and the third play was "Art Follows Reality" (THAT title came from one of Brecht's essays in "Brecht on Theater"). Anyway, the idea of an uninterrupted "real-time" conversation (that was ONLY a two hour conversation) was something i was fascinated with. No cutaways, no drama, just intense conversation. And (if the conversation were intelligent and lively enough) that should be enough! Oh, my point is that, in 1977, i would see Marguerite Duras's "Le Camion", and that was it! I saw (realized) what i had tried to do!

(Actually, it's a long story, but Bruce Benderson was working at CAPS at the time, that was the New York agency that gave out individual artists grants. It was dismantled and now that function has been taken by the New York Foundation for the Arts. Anyway, i came in as a semi-finalist, but i was asked to submit my work to the Playwrights Bank, a repository where people from nonprofit theaters could look at scripts. But Bruce really liked my work, and he was very aggressive in getting people to read it, but a lot of people were very turned off by my work. A two-hour play about two people arguing about Fassbinder's "Effi Briest"? What kind of insanity is this? But Crystal Field and George Bartenieff read my plays, and asked me to put it on at their Theater for the New City. And i did in 1976, though it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Not because of George and Crystal, but because this was the first time i'd ever worked with actors, and the actress began, in the second rehearsal, asking for changes to make the play "easier" for her to memorize... and the result was that i did a complete rewrite, and the play was severely compromised. From that point on, i got tougher, and i made Larry come in as co-director, so that i would NEVER be questioned again. Of course, seeing "Le Camion" was exhilarating, but also frustrating, because i knew that two people talking together about art could be utterly fascinating, could be more than enough "drama", and in "Le Camion" it was! But that was an example of a work that achieved what i had hoped to achieve.)

So there are those works which represent "perfection" ("if i could do something like that, i'd die happy!"), and writing about those works, you want to express the most enthusiasm and love (i guess) that you can. The point of a good critic is to be able to make you see, or to make you want to see something. You know a critic is "bad" if, even when they're enthusiastic, they don't make you want to rush out and see that work. Making quips and being disdainful seems to be what a lot of people think criticism is. But if you're enthusiastic and you can't get people to want to see the work, then you've failed. Because it's so easy to make a smart crack and get people to avoid something.

But i was never a "critic": i was always an artist, and my work was (in fact) "critical". But i took my cue from the fact that the era in which i was growing up was one in which art was "about" art. In the essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility", Susan Sontag write: "For instance, in our time, art is becoming incraesingly the terrain of specialists. The most interesting and creative art of our time is nto open to the generally eduated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language. The music of Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman, the painting of Mark Rothko and Frank Stella, the dance of Merce Cunningham and James Waring demand an education of sensibility whose difficulties and length of apprenticeship are at least comparable to the difficulties of mastering physics or engineering.... The most interesting works of contemporary art are full of references to the history of the medium; so far as they comment on past art, they demand a knowledge of at least the recent past. As Harold Rosenberg has pointed out, contemporary paintings are themselves acts of criticism as much as of creation." And my works became "acts of criticism" as creative acts.

But what i didn't expect was that... it's like the end of "The Shop Around the Corner," when Margaret Sullavan explains to James Stewart that she had been reading a book about this glamorous actress at the "Comedie Francaise" ("that's a theater in France"), and when she wanted to attract a man she treated him like a dog. Then Sullavan explains that she treated Stewart that way because she wanted him to like her, but instead of licking her hand, he barked. When i was at Nam June's funeral, i was reminded of the fact (in fact, a lot of people there told me) that i was the youngest part of that avant-garde generation. (Most of the people my age were usually "students"; thus, by the mid-1970s, Artists Space was founded on precisely this notion, so that a selected artist would nominate his or her student for a show. If i'm not mistaken, it was one of the "minimal" artists, either Carl Andre or Sol Le Witt, who nominated Laurie Anderson for her show, and so on.) But i came without that kind of pedigree. (In his never-completed chart of avant-garde performance, George Macuinas listed some people as "independents": i can't find my copy of that chart, i helped George with some of it, and he gave me two copies, but in the move they've disappeared. But if i'm not mistaken two of his "independents" were Yoko Ono and Simone Forti.) George started making the chart in 1974, i started doing my performances the next year. But i never studied with ANYBODY. I simply observed their work, and then went to work!

But what i didn't expect was that people were going to bark. And snarl. In one of her dance pieces, Yvonne Rainer had a section which was a "parody" of Merce Cunningham. (If i'm remembering correctly, i think it was Trisha Brown who performed that section.) There's a photo of that piece in Yvonne's book "Work 1961-1973" and in the audience you can see Merce at the back of the crowd, smiling.

I guess i took that photo to mean, hey, it's ok to "critique" the "recent past". But instead of smiling, some of the audience (feeling so threatened) started throwing things. (This is recorded in the review of one of my performances that appeared in Dance Magazine: a riot broke out, led by Deborah Hay and Jill Johnston.)

Never trust people who claim to be "criticial" because they can't stand it when it's turned on them. Of course, not all of them reacted that way.

But my point is that i never really regarded myself as a "critic": i was always writing about what i was seeing in relation to what i wanted to see and wanted to do.

But maybe because of this, i never cared whether or not a work was one "thing". Of course, every sensibility has its limits. You can't like everything. I don't try to. But (in one scene from my very first - now lost - play) i was talking with Linda Patton and Callie Angell one afternoon; at that time, Linda was Jonas Mekas's assistant, and Callie was P. Adams Sitney's assistant at Anthology Film Archives (when it was part of The Public Theater). And we were talking about different filmmakers in the "Essential Cinema": Harry Smith, Robert Breer, Bruce Baillie. And about some of the filmmakers not in the collection: Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Ed Emshwiller. And i was trying to explain what i liked about the work of some of the people that weren't represented in the "Essential Cinema", and Linda and Callie looked at me, and finally Linda said, "Oh, Daryl, you're just so generous!" in this exasperated way.

But that was over 30 years ago. I haven't changed, but sometimes it gets harder and harder to get excited about things.

I still haven't read the Arts and Leisure section of today's Times. Am i glad that Larry got back from his brief trip to Orange County! He was such a wreck leaving, because the thought of travelling was horrifying, but once he got there, he was fine. Anyway, Larry said there's an article on the new HBO series "Big Love" which is written and produced by Billy Scheffer. Of course, now it's "Will" Scheffer, but to us he'll always be "Billy". But "Big Love" was created by Billy and Mark Olsen.

I can't remember why, but maybe three years ago, i tried to call Billy, but the phone number was disconnected, and i hoped it didn't mean what i thought it meant. But a year ago, i tried looking up his name and came up with information about "Big Love" (then in production).

But this year, i was excited by a lot of movies. Even movies i didn't like, had things that were good in them. The important thing is to develop an aesthetic, a way of looking at art, film, literature. Last night, during one of the calmer moments, people were looking at Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue. In that issue, there's a page in which Mark Summers does the "critics were wrong" number, where he quotes critics who disparaged a film now regarded as "classic" (by whom?), so you get Richard Griffith (in 1941) writing about "Citizen Kane": "Though the attempt is praiseworthy, the results are shockingly unsatisfying." I hate this. In some cases, if the critics weren't really that astute, what's the point? But i hate it when someone like Otis Ferguson is lambasted because he didn't like "Citizen Kane"; neither did James Agee, and for the same reason. Ferguson and Agee were attempting to define an aesthetic, and their belief was that the cinema was the art of "the real" and if ever there was a film that was stylized, it's "Citizen Kane", and the theatricality of "Citizen Kane" was offensive to them. The point is not to say, oh, "Citizen Kane" is a great movie, and everyone who doesn't like "Citizen Kane" is an idiot. It's to say, did they have a point of view? If so, what was it? Was it an interesting/coherent/valid point of view? And from that defined aesthetic, why is it that "Citizen Kane" doesn't fit? You don't have to agree, but you can see that it's another point of view. And art is not politics, it's not science, it's not morality.

To try to make out that there is a "right" and "wrong" way in art is to get caught up in a rigidity that might make you miss out. But maybe it's gotten to the point where there's nothing to miss out on....

But i hate people pulling the "moral" card. Ugh. Because most people are really pigs. I can't help it. I'm thinking of Clint Eastwood. When he did "Paint Your Wagon", something happened to him that had never happened before: he fell in love with his co-star. He (of course) had been married to his wife Maggie since the 1950s; Jean Seberg was married to RomainGary. They left their respective spouses, and started living together, and stayed together after the end of shooting. (That was one of those protracted shoots that lasted about a year!) He eventually went back to his wife. He left Jean Seberg stranded. Now, i've heard different versions of this story. In one version, Seberg's political activities (she supported the Black Panthers, etc.) alienated him, and when Eastwood discovered that Seberg was under surveillance from the FBI, he left her. In the other version, Seberg's emergent political activities enraged Eastwood (who claims to be a conservative Republican) and he denounced her to the FBI after he left her. Either way, he's the one that left. And years later, when he was interviewed about his career, he was asked about Jean Seberg, and his response was, "You meet so many people in this business, I don't remember her at all." HUH? A woman that you lived with for about two years? Has he lived with that many women that he can't remember Jean Seberg? Bad enough he left her bereft while she was being hounded by the FBI, then to bitchslap her memory like that! The man is a pig! And so, years later, when the debacle with Sondra Locke came to light, it was just a messier (and less political) version of what happened with Jean Seberg.

But he's a real movie star, and he's made some very worthwhile movies as a producer and director. Yet the people who are raving about Clint Eastwood as an artist: regardless of what your thoughts about Sondra Locke are, is there any way to justify what Eastwood did to Jean Seberg? Maybe there is. Or maybe Hollywood has a different morality, where women are just so much trash to be thrown out. No matter what, i wouldn't count on Hollywood (past or present) to be cognizant of "morality".


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