Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

One of my favorite observations in English literature is Jerome K. Jerome's sage remark, "I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

Unfortunately, it has not been lack of work that has kept me from my appointed blogging rounds. But the focus of my most recent contributions to Jewish Week has been largely musical this summer, very pleasant but not germane here. On the other hand, I neglected to post anything about the Pedro Costa series at Anthology Film Archives, for which I humbly apologize. Colossal Youth, which received its theatrical debut in New York as part of the series, is my first Costa but will definitely not be my last. The film is a riveting blend of Straub-Huillet and Cassavettes, sort of a neo-realist-Marxist-minimalist ode to the downtrodden residents of one of Lisbon's worst slums, Fountainhas, now gone. Costa's use of screen space is challenging, fascinating, and I wish I had a copy of the film to look at again and more closely.

And there is no shortage of good stuff on the way. In just the past couple of weeks, I have seen two excellent new films, David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon, a breathtaking documentary about the Apollo program in which all the living moon-landing astronauts except Neil Armstrong are interviewed, and Exiled, Johnnie To's delirious homage to The Wild Bunch, which lacks the dark, brooding heft of Triad Election, but has considerable charms of its own. I also was at a press screening at Anthology of the Bill Douglas trilogy, unseen in the town for something like 30 years and still a tremendously moving experience. I will talk about these films at the appropriate time; suffice it to say, all are highly recommended.

I promised some of the highlights from the raging battle in Ira-land over the legacy of Ingmar and Michelangelo, which somehow turned into a no-less-ferocious dispute over our memories of NYC cinephilia in the 1970s and a long, interesting debate on opinion v. fact in criticism.

Lazy SOB that I am, I haven't asked any of my colleagues for permission to include their postings here. I believe that several, if not all, read this blog and I encourage them to reproduce some of the meatier entries in the Comments section.

In the meantime, here are a couple of my more, shall we say, temperate remarks:

I miss the movie world in which I grew up. I miss the 42nd St. grindhouses, I miss the New Yorker, I miss the Regency and so on. On the other hand, I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the old NYC rep houses -- the Thalia was a dank pit and half the films they showed were artsy crap; the Elgin was a lousy place to see a movie of any kind; the Theater 80 St. Marks had back-projection, wihch mean that everything was shown in soft-focus.

Would I rather see a movie on a big screen or on my TV? No comparison. But the advent of the VCR and the DVD player means that I now own copies of thousands of films that 30 years ago I could only dream about seeing, let alone seeing whenever I feel like it. I think Ira is probably the only other person on this list who remembers the mixed thrill/discomfort of watching a good 16 print of an obscure Tashlin or DeToth or Karlson in the apartment of Roger McNiven (may his memory be a blessing) and Howard Mandelbaum. There would be 20 of us crammed into their living room, sweltering whatever the weather outside. Now I can flip on the AC and watch the same films in my own living room with Margo or whoever, any time the urge takes me. I keep a card-file catalog of my tapes (Three are almost a thousand of them, so I have to), and I have some 40 John Ford films on VHS -- that's more Ford than gets shown in all the rep programming in New York City in a year, perhaps a decade. (Oh yeah, and with cable I get TCM and French TV on Channel 5.)

And there are still a few choice rep programmers left -- Anthology, the Film Society, Film Forum, MoMA -- the quality is probably higher right now than it was when we were young and impressionable.

Is ciinephilia dead, as Sontag claimed? I don't know, I don't get out as much as I used to.
But I can tell you one thing for sure -- Bergman, Antonioni, Yang, Sembene (what a shit year this has been) may be dead, but cinema isn't.


No work of art exists in an ahistorical vacuum. While I will happily concede that there are "timeless" masterpieces that speak to us across millennia -- Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, Austen, Elmer Fudd -- it's still useful, even imperative, to have some understanding of what produced them. If nothing else, it may help us decipher some of the more arcane references -- have you ever tried reading The Divine Comedy without notes? Whoo boy.

There are works -- and the Dante falls into this category for most readers -- that are rendered all but inaccessible without some kind of context in which to understand them. It's probably vulgar and crass for me to quote from my own book, but I think I said it best in Chapter 6 of Essential Torah and there's no reason to give you some warmed-over variant.
When we read Homer, we may be shocked by the petty nature of the argument that sets Achilles to sulking in his tent, or appalled by the violence with which Odysseus and Telemachus dispatch the suitors. The moral code that condemns the sinners to the various circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno may puzzle, even outrage us. The depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has been giving sensitive directors fits for centuries, and the promiscuous use of a certain racial epithet frequently blinds contemporary readers to Mark Twain’s vigorous denunciation of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In one way or another, texts from the past trouble us, but not so much that we can’t find a way to read them creatively or with an understanding of historical context that allows us to look past our own contemporary attitudes to discern what is great in them.

The Torah is older than most of these books, the creation of a civilization far removed from our own in time and attitudes. Why are we surprised to find that there are many passages in it that challenge our beliefs, even offend us?

For a moment, let us put aside the problems of the troubling text and consider a more basic problem that afflicts our reading of any passage of the Torah. Quite simply, the distance in time between ourselves and the Torah is at least 2400 years.

Consider what that means in terms of our reading comprehension. Shakespeare’s plays are about 400 years old, Dante’s Divine Comedy about 700 years old. Try reading either in an edition without footnotes and you’ll find yourself frequently lost in a wood as impenetrable as the one in which The Inferno opens. Even with footnotes, we cannot hope to recreate the experience of reading these texts (or seeing them performed) that the authors’ contemporaries had. Certainly we can read the footnotes and a stack of histories of medieval Florence and learn about Guido da Montefeltro, but his name will never strike us with the immediate resonance that it would a Florentine reader in, say, 1310.

And the Torah is more than three times as old, as distant from us, as Dante. To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust. As Barry Holtz says of The Inferno, “To read the poem, we need to bridge the gap to a world that viewed hell as a living reality, that saw nine circles of inferno populated by the souls of actual beings. This is a profound gap, and interpreters have struggled since the advent of modernity with ways of overcoming it.” (And that is without taking into account a world in which the names of those actual beings would have been instantly recognizable.)

This is not an insurmountable gap, but it requires not only a huge amount of background reading but also an imaginative act of recreation, a kind of reading that places the text in its own time. Reading the Torah this way calls upon our full attention to detail and overview, putting everything in context. We have seen examples of this kind of reading throughout this book.

For example, Yitzhak’s great achievement is re-opening the wells his father dug; given the setting of the story in a desert nomadic society, that’s a pretty important legacy. And given that setting, one can easily see why the emphasis on hospitality – a unifying cultural positive throughout the Middle East – is so great. Would either of these facts be as significant in a modern urban society, where one has recourse to hotels and motels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants? Obviously not.

But these are simple examples that don’t call on a huge imaginative leap for us. The problems arise, I think, when we get into those thorny areas where we are distanced from the sociocultural context in such a way that the mindset, the philosophy and ethical assumptions of the text are drastically removed from our own. Our own societies are no longer built on tribalism, no longer revolve around customs like primogeniture or bride-price. Texts that involve and invoke xenophobic violence should fill us with horror. The advent of social structures based on individual rights and responsibilities dates back only as far as the Enlightenment, but it seems us as if they have been here forever, and when faced with a world in which such notions were utterly incomprehensible – and the world in which the Torah is set was such a world – we are as dumbfounded as Moshe would be if you handed him a cellphone.

Simply put, as Holtz says, “The Bible has a symbol system and ideational framework that require explication and understanding. Its concepts of holiness, covenant, divinity, prophecy, and law are all very different from those of our contemporary world.”

For all that we may attempt to understand, on some level, when we read Torah the Patriarchs and Matriarchs might as well be Martians. This is a gap that is on some level unbridgeable. When we study these texts, we have to accept that reality, as surely as we must accept the reality that there are certain words in the Torah whose precise meaning we cannot reconstruct.

I believe that having access to historical context doesn't hurt our reading of a text. It enriches it. It makes accessible to us texts that might otherwise lay inert on the page -- ever read the Epic of Gilgamesh, pretty dull stuff until you start to learn where it fits in the larger picture of that civilization.

And that, I think, is part of our job as critics. I believe that what we should be doing is to speak for and/or with the text (film, song, painting, whatever) so that someone who reads our stuff gets more out of their own experience of the text.

Merely confirming our readers' prejudices or giving them a flat-out consumer guide with nothing more than 'It's great" or 'it stinks' -- that's the literary equivalent of being a racetrack tout or a pimp. One of the pleasures of reading Michael [Giltz's] new DVD column is how much he insight he gets into the very small amount of space he has per film; if all he did was say 'buy this one, but not that one,' any halfwit could have written it. As I said in an e-mail to him off-list a few hours ago, you end up like the teens on American Bandstand (I'm dating myself here, but that's okay 'cause I enjoy my company), saying "Gee Dick, it's got a good beat, yuh can dance to it. I give it a 95."

You have to be able to tell someone more than that. Emily Dickinson once said something to the effect that she recognized a good poem because she felt like the top of her head had been blown off. By that measure, a .44 Magnum slug is the best poem there is, and a Claymore mine ripping your lower body in two is a Homeric epic. You have to be able to say something more meaningful than "it blew the top of my head off." And that means you have to be able to see more than the fact that you enjoyed it on a visceral level -- you have to be able to say why.

And that, I repeat, is our job, or at least part of it.

Some civilian -- i.e., not a writer, you know, someone who actually makes a living from their job? -- once asked me what the best part of writing is for me. I thought of all the clever one-liners (Benchley said, the best part of being a writer "is not writing.") But I didn't have to think for more than a split second to give a serious answer. For me the best part is when I'm writing an article and I suddenly understand something or learn something about the film or music or book that I'm writing about. That's the most exhilarating thing I do as a writer. And the best part of all is that I get to pass along something like that to whoever is reading my stuff.

Well, you get the idea. It was like one of those great old nights at Cannon's or the Marlin, both gone the way of all Upper West Side Bars, when a bunch of half-waxed undergrads would get together and settle the great questions of the universe. I think our ambitions are somewhat less grandiose now, and we don't get as wrapped up in these large issues as we used to. That is the product of time and the perspective that generally accompanies its passing.

One last thought, completely unrelated to the function of criticism, the death of cinephilia or the woes of the freelance writer. This is one that's been buzzing around in my head for a long time. I throw it out for discussion, wherever and whenever:

When Sight and Sound assembles its decennial greatest films list, I'm always surprised how few of Luis Bunuel's titles turn up. I think all but a handful of critics would fail to include Don Luis on their list of the greatest filmmakers, yet somehow he gets short shrift in the all-time-ten-best-list follies. I have pondered this for quite a while now and the only explanation I can come up with that does credit to my profession is that Bunuel's filmography is of a remarkably consistent quality. There are many great films in his oeuvre and almost no clinkers (even the worst of the Mexican films has a great deal of charm). But there is no single Bunuel that everyone points to as his obvious masterpiece. Think about it: with Ford you have The Searchers, Hitchcock Vertigo, Renoir Rules of the Game, and so on. Now it would be absurd to say that these are the only listworthy films for each of these artists, and there are camps that would argue for, let's say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Psycho, French Can-Can. Looking at the post-mortems on Bergman and Antonioni, the same few films get mentioned over and over -- Persona, The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, Red Desert, L'Avventura, Blow-Up.

But once you've named one Bunuel film -- might as well start at the beginning with Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or -- you keep wanting to add more titles. I personally would plump for Phantom of Liberty or Discreet Charm, in recognition of their pretzel-bending narrative lines and magnificent illogic, but you wouldn't be heckled for saying Viridiana or Los Olvidados or any of several others worthy of inclusion.

In a sense, then, Don Luis is punished for his consistent excellence. Does that mean he's a greater filmmaker than Jean Renoir or John Ford or Roberto Rossellini or fill-in-the-blank? Now you're on my sportswriting side. The best comparison I can offer is the double measurement of value that Bill James uses in his magnificent Historical Baseball Abstract, where the greatest players of all time are given two yardsticks, career value and peak value. If you think that Bunuel never made a film as great as The Searchers or Touch of Evil, then his peak value would be below that of Welles and Ford. If you agree with my supposition about his consistency as an unfortunate damper on his appearances in critics' polls, then you would probably say that his career value -- his worth over the long haul -- is greater than that of most other filmmakers. But, of course, there is no objective way to measure greatness in the arts, which is what led to the heated discussion on Iranet in the first place.

For the record, I have never actually sat down and ranked filmmakers that way. I'm not sure there is any satisfactory way to do it that isn't demeaning to great art and artists. Certainly box-office figures, critics' awards, Oscars and their non-US equivalents, are only a measure of middlebrow acceptance (or worse). Is Bunuel a greater director than Lubitsch? I think the nicest answer I can come up with is, "That is a truly stupid question," and move on to other matters.