Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top 10 Lists

Let's take a look at several top ten lists.
Time magazine 1
Time magazine 2
Entertainment Weekly 1 and 2
The Onion

I am not going to agree/disagree with these lists (how boring!), but I want to see if we can find some idea of the cultural logic that generates them.

Here's a summary:
Movies that were voted #1:
No Country for Old Men (4)
I'm not There (1)
Michael Clayton (1)
There Will be Blood (2)

The most common (composite) list would be, in no order:
No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, I'm not There, No End in Sight, Once, Zodiac, Sweeney Todd, Michael Clayton, Atonement, and Persepolis. (Possibly The Lives of Others and the Assassination of Jesse James would be in the last spot.)

The most interesting aspect is (you'll notice there is more than one list for each publication) how the lists from one publication mirror each other fairly closely. Time Magazine liked In The Valley of Elah, a film which appeared on none of the other lists; there is a near-consensus at the Onion on the top two spots.

But there is remarkably little agreement past No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood: films I've never heard of, films I saw that were mediocre, films I saw that were horrible, films you couldn't have paid me to see, that strange breed of film that is only made to win Oscars, etc.

Here's what we'll want to think about:
* The difference between the critics' lists and the Oscar/Golden Globe lists.
* The kind of movie that only exists in the universe of these top ten lists.
* Why there are hardly any comedies on these lists.

Here are a few examples of films that seemingly exist only to compete for Oscars: The Aviator, Master and Commander, The Hours, For a Few Good Men, American Beauty, Apollo 13. (Possibly the best example in recent memory, though, is The Good Shepherd.) It seems incomprehensible that these films were extraordinary or watchable in any year. Let's be serious for a moment. I've seen all those movies. They are all garbage. And yet there appears to be something mystical about a certain class of movie--respectability, seriousness, the holy grail of "character development".

Let Michael Clayton stand in for this entire class. If you prefer, I think you could use Atonement (haven't seen it yet). In my mind, these films exist only to indicate whether people have any taste or not. Michael Clayton was an unenjoyable would-be "guilty pleasure" for me, and yet a "real" movie to critics. A quick look at Roger Ebert's list (which has Juno at number 1!!!!) finds a whole slew of these movies: The Great Debaters, Into the Wild, and The Kite Runner. Without having seen these movies, let me say: I HAVE SEEN THESE MOVIES.

But of an entirely different class are the strange movies that creep into top ten lists (Ebert's list being the exception): The Assassination of Jesse James got nearly universal "meh" reviews when it came out, and yet has pulled ahead (on reconsideration, I suppose) of many better-reviewed films; Superbad, Knocked Up, and Grindhouse all made it onto a list or two; Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, director of Showgirls) made it onto three lists!!

Here's the best I can do: when we are listing our favorites, we include some weird things we don't expect anyone else would like, and yet our collective imagination of what everyone will agree is the best is wildly boring and crappy. Perhaps a critic really enjoyed Black Book or Juno, but when we make the awards lists, Atonement seems like a better "use" of one's voice. Why throw away your vote?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Conversations with My Parents

Have had two interesting conversations with my dad in the past couple of days (being at home for christmas), of which the main lesson is, everything looks like a platitude until you restate your interpretation of an example as opposed to someone else's interpretation of the same.

Discussion 1 was me explaining my understanding of Hegel's historical aesthetics (through a somewhat marxist lens). Of course such a general discussion instantly falls into platitudes, if there aren't examples. My dad summarized what I was saying as, "everything happens in cycles," while I precisely meant the *opposite*. For instance, here will no more be a re-vival of American poetry than of Italian fresco painting. My main point was how naive it is to think that art occurs as spontaneous appearances by "talented" or "inspired" individuals. Is it a coincidence that Shakespeare and Virgil were writing at the peak of their respective cultures? Or that Socrates, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus were all alive at the same time? One either has to admit something about history and culture (i.e. advance a theory about aesthetics) or else be left with the idiotic explanation that these geniuses all "happened" to be born in the same place at around the same time.

It is extremely naive, I argued, to think that the preeminence of cinema in narrative art precludes or is siphoning off artists from producing great novels. Would it, I asked, make any sense to imagine that there are people living who *could* be producing Gothic Cathedrals, if only left to their own devices, and that they are being "siphoned off" by some other media?


The second conversation was today, on the very "dad" topic of Stevie Ray Vaughan. To my readers, this is a slam-dunk, of course, but here is what came out of it.

The "bluesman" is a kind of "mythology" in the Roland Barthes sense. Like all mythologies, the naturalness, the authenticity, the "type" is crucial. Stevie Ray has to appear "from out of nowhere" (and of course I can't argue that he planned his own early death). I was arguing that SRV is a "regression," a nostalgiac retrenchment that simultaneously masks the black origins of the music he plays.

Take the White Stripes as a counter-example. The White Stripes make no effort to look the part. They dress like idiots. They are, essentially, the second coming of Led Zeppelin. But compare them to the other second coming of Led Zeppelin, the Black Crowes (or Guns 'N Roses)--you could look at a picture of these bands and see what they are trying to sound like; that sound is entirely nostalgiac: one can imagine that Led Zeppelin have "come back to life" in these look alikes. With the White Stripes, there is no naturalness to their resemblence to Led Zeppelin: it is entirely a fanboy worship that makes no attempt to *be the real deal.*

In this way, the White Stripes continue the deconstruction of the "authentic" that Bob Dylan began when he abandoned his folk-troubador persona and migrated, first into rock, and then into country music. Fools, at the time, were shocked that he was not really politically committed and folksy. But by the time he appears on the cover of Nashville Skyline in a cowboy hat, no one could have thought he was trying to deceive them into thinking, this is what Bob Dylan "really" is.

This is taken further by the Velvet Underground. Basically, their greatest accomplishment is in taking the blues of Highway 61 Revisited and deconstructing it further: "Sister Ray" is basically Dylan's version of the blues, taken to its logical extreme. But, even less than Dylan do the VU "pose" as authentic bluesmen. Both Dylan and Lou Reed are playing the blues in "bad faith"--the organ is pasted on, the riffs are retreads, the redundancy exaggerated.

When my father tells me that SRV "breathed new life into the blues," what is ostensibly an interpretation is really just self-identification. As in my post about Radiohead and Wes Anderson, you think you are telling me what your opinion on art is, and all you are telling me is what age you are. To say that one thinks SRV is an innovator and took Hendrix to the next level, only enters my ears as "I am a father."

If you have read Barthes' Mythologies, I don't need to "give" that style of interpretation for Stevie Ray Vaughan here; it writes itself. But I am most proud for convincing my father on the point that everything Vaughan did was already accomplished by Eric Clapton on Cream's version of "Crossroads."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Victor Hugo, hélas!

In a poll of French literary figures, Andre Gide responded to the question, "Who is the greatest French poet?" with "Victor Hugo, alas!"

I can barely imagine a more interesting answer. More on this later.