"The tale of royal triumph through a commoner's efforts expurgates the story in order to render its characters more sympathetic, whereas the depiction of Mark Zuckerberg as a lonely and friendless genius (when, in fact, he has long been in a relationship with one woman) serves the opposite purpose: to render him more ambiguous, to challenge the audience to overcome antipathy for a character twice damned, by reasonable women, as an 'asshole.'" — Richard Brody, The New Yorker*
And that is superior to what The King's Speech does — why exactly? This seems to be exactly symptomatic of what is wrong with the indie sector and the aesthetic consensus that supports it. We all know for example, that every so often, art must delve into the darkness if it is to be representative of our lived experience. We know, from that experience, that a great performance sometimes must refuse to give a hoot about 'likeability' in order to sound out certain depths of the human psyche. The artist's aim is higher than such trivial categories as 'likeable' or 'unlikeable,' 'pleasurable or 'unpleasurable.' He or she is simply pursuing their vision, and let the chips fall where they may. Let the critics divvy up the amount of light or dark in their work. It would be as trivial for an artist to pursue 'likeability' as an aim in itself as it would for perverse for them to pursue 'unlikeability'. Imagine! Imagine if there ever was to arrive a group of artists and critics who pursued unpleasantness as an aim, not because they found life unpleasant but because they found the people that found it pleasant objectionable? What peevish opposition that would be, what petulant self-circumscription. Except we don't have to imagine: that mindset is exactly the one Brody is describing. It is the reigning aesthetic consensus of the day. In Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher we have a pair of twin dark princes for whom life is misery and pain and unpleasantness not just every now and again, but all the time. Black Swan is virtually a primer on developing-your-own-dark-side, in much the same spirit that teenagers take up smoking to annoy their parents, but presented as if this represents the loftiest of artistic aims. In The Social Network, it is not enough that Fincher portray Zuckerberg as he is. He must go out of his way to render him more unlikeable than he really is — "to render him more ambiguous, to challenge the audience to overcome antipathy for a character twice damned, by reasonable women, as an 'asshole.'" And it is this that makes his film art and not "pap", "invigorating" and not "anesthetic." Why, except for the pleasing sense this gives some audience members of their own superiority to Hollywood norms - the sensation of being able to wriggle beneath the self-imposed hoop that they've decided will best demonstrate their own double-jointedness? Since when did that become a legitimate artistic aim? It's just snobbery, an elite congratulating itself on completing a challenge designed to demonstrate its own broadmindedness: crossword enthusiasts completing puzzles they have themselves set. God, how many indie movies that describes, with their deliberate smudging of plot, their studious crosshatching of moral ambiguity, their "challenging" subject matter, even if they are only watched by the people least likely to be "challenged" by anything they see, having long since imbibed the liberal piety of pretending to be offended by an artist within a 200-mile radius, just to make him feel better about his latest collage of squashed fruit flies or multi-media slide-show of duplicating Ebola cells. Enough! It's almost enough to make me glad that The King's Speech is going to clean up.
* Brody has augmented his comments somewhat:—
He thinks I’m complaining about pleasantness, and about viewers who enjoy “The King’s Speech”; not at all. (He also writes that my post is “exactly symptomatic of what is wrong with the indie sector and the aesthetic consensus that supports it”; it’s true that there are some films that sell grimness as others sell cheer, but they’re not the distinctive province of any one industry sector, whether independent, studio, or foreign.) “The King’s Speech” is pap, but I have no argument with the people who enjoy it. I’m not against the film’s existence or the audience’s pleasure, I’m against giving it awards for any supposed artistic merit. Because, as it turns out, my point of view regarding character in art is one that has some precedent. It is, in fact, the core of what we call Western art: inducing the audience to overcome feelings of repugnance or derision (i.e., prejudices or settled moral values) and enter into sympathy with people who, despite (or even because of) their virtues, make themselves into monsters (in tragedy) or asses (in comedy)... In any case, an overemphasis on characters is one of the abiding pathologies of film criticism, since much of the power of the medium comes from images, ideas, and the abiding presence, just beyond the edge of the screen, of the director, whose character is the one that counts most. It's true, I did think he was complaining about pleasantness. (He totally was!) There's less to disagree with here, although I would still shiver slightly at the prospect of artistic merit so cleanly expunged of "the audience's pleasure." I guess I put more store by that. If it's pleasing an audience, it has some artistic merit in my book. And the whole "challenging" thing — films being better because they "challenge" their audiences — still fails to grab me as much as I know it should. Why is it that the people who talk of films "challenging" audiences are never the same bunch of people actually being challenged. (They couldn't be, because they are expecting the challenge, and thus not challenged at all. It is part of their smoothly-grooved set of expectations about what will happen to them in the presence of a work of art.) It's always some other sod, or bunch of sods, the speaker has in mind as targets to be challenged, preferably the ones who don't know that art is supposed to be challenging, so the idea can hit them square between the eyes just seconds after they've parted with their hard earnt cash to see a pleasant piece of nonsense about a stuttering king. The shock is always supposed to be good for them, or jolt them out of doltish false consciousness or some such, although I've never heard a single person exit a movie theatre going "well.... that was challenging" and mean it in a good way. I've never heard it said in a bad way. I can imagine it said in a sardonic way, though, and will use it myself the next time I sense a filmmaker trying to impress me with the exact breadth, depth and width of their dark side.
Cieply's point isn't even dented. Both movies take liberties with the facts. You can make a reasonable, though not watertight, point that whitewashing a deeply flawed head of state is a bigger crime against history than making out a titan of business to be worse than he actually is. But that isn't what Brody is saying. I re-read it to make sure, because it didn't seem possible, but he really is arguing that making someone less likable is a more artistically respectable act. Which puzzles me on levels you don't even bring up. Such as, what kind of defense is that? Why not just say The Social Network is a better, deeper and richer movie?ReplyDelete
A good screenwriter and director bend characters to suit the shape of their narrative. I can't fathom the notion that one direction is always preferable to another. Brody seems to be saying that less likable always = more complex, but that dog won't hunt. There's plenty of detestable people, and movie characters, out there who are boringly noncomplex. They're simply shits. Even if you accept the prevailing view that people are no damn good, doesn't that make human decency a larger mystery--and more challenging to depict?
I have to keep reminding myself that I actually thought The Social Network was a better film than The King's Speech. The way this battle is being fought out I am hearing many more objectionable arguments mounted by Social Network fans than I am by King's Speech fans. It's really bringing the snobs out of the woodwork. In fact, I can't find any arguments from King's Speech fans online, at all, which is crazy. It's suddenly dropped from number 6 or 7 on people's top ten lists to 'barely mentionable.'ReplyDelete
This attitude doesn't surprise me at all. Edgy, dark, unpleasant characters have been viewed with more more respect by film types for decades--at least since the counter-culture films of the '70s (and also retrospectively with the celebration of film noir over and above other styles of cinema in the '40s and '50s). And it's not just prevalent in the indie film sector. Nolan's Batman is celebrated over other comic book superheroes for his "darkness," the latest Harry Potter was praised for being the darkest entry in the series to date, etc. etc. It's just a lazy mental attitude that must be fought at every turn.ReplyDelete
I tend to dispense with the likable/unlikable dichotomy and judge instead by whether characters are compelling/non-compelling. I don't have to like the characters to get absorbed in their stories (the three leads in L.A. Confidential come to mind). Conversely, I've seen plenty of films where I find the characters "likable" or "nice" yet bore me to tears. That I find the characters of The Social Network more compelling than those in The King's Speech doesn't diminish your point, though the latter film seems so terrified of rubbing against any rough edges I can see why some think that it's taking the easier route. (Harvey's threat to airbrush the one scene with any spark isn't exactly negating this impression.)ReplyDelete
The Black Swan example is a good one, however, especially when viewed through that review quoted by James Wolcott that argues Aronofsky has it backwards: It's the role of the White Swan that's the greater challenge for a ballerina, because the White Swan has a richer interior life. A movie about that notion wouldn't have put as many butts in seats, of course, but developing it may have made for a more compelling, less monotonous heroine and narrative.
Couldn't agree more. I found Isabelle Huppert compelling in The Piano Teacher not because her character was unlikeable, although she was, but because she so successfully communicated the yawning gulf between her exterior and interior life. By the end of the movie, you can feel the almost heroic effort it takes to get the most basic social pleasantries out of her mouth. Her interior life is as vivid and treacherous as a blush. As for Natalie Portman's Nina, I hadn't the slightest clue what she makes of Cassel's leering aesthetic advances. Do they repel her? Does she submit to them anyway because she so wants the part? Was she going to develop a dark side anyway? At the end of the movie, I am clueless, and so, I suspect, is Portman. A better actress would have asked all these questions until she got an answer that satisfied her. As it is, the idea that Nina's wishes might be divergent from her director's doesn't seem to have occurred to her. She's under orders, from start to finish. Aronofsky fobbed her off with something about her character 'coming into her own', which she then interpreted through some gender studies crapola that allowed her to spin the most exploitative part for an actress in years as some sort of post-feminist triumph.ReplyDelete
As for Natalie Portman's Nina, I hadn't the slightest clue what she makes of Cassel's leering aesthetic advances. Do they repel her? Does she submit to them anyway because she so wants the part? Was she going to develop a dark side anyway? At the end of the movie, I am clueless, and so, I suspect, is Portman. A better actress would have asked all these questions until she got an answer that satisfied her. As it is, the idea that Nina's wishes might be divergent from her director's doesn't seem to have occurred to her. She's under orders, from start to finish.ReplyDelete
And that parallels Portman's relationship with Aronofsky, whom I had the sense couldn't care less about the interior life (or logical consistency) of his movie's main character. Best Actress or no, Portman's limitations are exposed badly under his direction. With a strong director she can be effective: Closer isn't my favorite movie, but Mike Nichols has always been good with actors, and he helps Portman work up enough mojo in her scenes with Clive Owen you almost forget that she's the world's most reluctant stripper. She may have looked better in Black Swan with somebody like Brian De Palma at the helm. While not my favorite filmmaker, I could see him having fun with the white swan/black swan silliness, with visualizing the psychological states, and making the movie as a whole more sensual.
To add one thing to the above (not directed at you, Tom, just in general): Yes, I'm aware that Black Swan is supposed to be a horror film. But I'm finding many filmmakers today fail to grasp that horror can be elevated when it's contrasted against its opposite (i.e., against some form of "light"). Horror films that are 24/7 all-dark all-the-time from the get-go are invariably less horrifying.ReplyDelete
Horror is very much a love of mine, too, although I don't buy Aronofsky's contention that Black Swan is a horror film. He said the same thing about Requiem for a Dream, too, but it seems to me that he aims much higher, and tI don't mean that as a compliment. He'd have to be more interested in showing the audience a good time to be a true horror director. Of even to be more in touch with the audience, period. He lacks that tip-of-the-fingertips feel for the temperature in the theatre: witness his surprise (and it was surprise) that Black Sawn was being greeted with laughter.ReplyDelete
I think you hit the nail on the head when you say Black Swan needed to be more sensual. Aronofsky is the least sensual filmmaker working today. He's all in his head, and hates, absolutely hates bodies. You feel like he's one of those types like Mike Myers who talks about perversity all the time but jumps out of his skin if you touch his knee. You compare him to someone like Lynch and you realise how tactile, and sensuous Lynch's images are, even his titles: Blue Velvet. Is there a more sumptuous movie title out there? And what do we get from Aronofsky? Pi. Lovely. I can feel a tingle in my toes just thinking about it.
@Tom - I've been mulling over this post for a few days now (I found it through Brody's blog). I think you're making good points and I agree, in general. But though I know there are people out there using "challenging" the way you're saying they use it, that's not how I use it (or, at least, that's not how I want it to sound when I use it). For me, when I talk about a "challenging" movie, I'm not thinking of one that challenges some other, imagined audience (the mythic "general audience" or whatever), but one that asks me to meet it halfway - to engage actively and not consume passively. What I don't like about the "unchallenging" movie is that, too often, it operates based on "movie rules" - i.e. things happen in it in a certain way because that's the way we expect things to happen in movies - rather than operating based out of observation of/insight into something human. (FWIW, one of the things I like about The King's Speech is that it does provide this kind of challenge in the way it reverses the more conventional moral of The Queen.)ReplyDelete
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