Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Play the Philistine

Endowed as I am with critical arrogance and unusually literal habits of mind, I am rarely intimidated by obscure movies. If I can't follow a movie, I blame it on the movie, enjoying its pictorial or episodic virtues without straining to make connections that probably aren't there. In other words, I play the philistine. I insist that this is only play--real philistines miss out on too much fun. But they do have a line on a fact of cultural history that more pious moviegoers often ignore, namely, that an important function of artistic experiment is to piss off the bourgeois. Dada made that explicit enough. Yet art religionists prattle on about the expansion of expressive form and so forth, just as if Arrabal, say, has something to express besides his own disgust.

As I hope you don't know, Arrabal is the career avant-gardist whose Viva la Muerte is currently doing an El Topo (of which more later) at the revitalized, or refurbished, St. Mark's Cinema in New York. He is admittedly an extreme example, because he has always been more interested in testing the mettle of his audiences than in saying what he has to say. Since what Arrabal has to say, basically, is something like "Life is shit," or perhaps, "People are shit," that's only natural. I'm oversimplifying, I suppose, and in my head Arrabal protests that because he loves life and people very much his disillusionment has been very intense, that the boy in the film suffers the way he, Arrabal, once suffered, that children are wronged in this world, waahhh. But never mind. That's all part of the avant-garde canon, and in practice it always comes down to a lot of wise-asses and a few geniuses creating works intended to baffle and outrage all who aren't visionaries like themselves.

As long as he sticks to making poems or pictures or whoopee, such ambitions don't involve the artist in especially severe contradictions, because the cost of manufacture isn't insurmountable. Products of more sophisticated technology require either obsessive dedication, family wealth, or some sort of rapprochment with the audience. More and more, avant-gardists who are willing to make films within a narrative tradition can depend on the latter. Historically, avant-garde art has always appealed to two audiences, one consisting of more or less isolated outsiders whose experience jibed with that of the artists themselves, the other of rebellious but essentially apolitical scions of the ruling class. Both audiences felt the need to elevate themselves above the mass of common people, the natural avant-gardists because they felt threatened in their isolation, the rich out of the usual habits of class preservation. But now something weird has happened--in the past decade or two the avant-garde audience has become almost a mass audience itself. Whole droves of people, most of them young and college-educated--"the herd of independent minds," a snobbish but acute art critic once called them--are striving to elevate themselves above the droves. El Topo, a film which I have successfully avoided, provides a perfect example nonetheless. Midnight showings at a hip New York theater provoked critical controversies in the Village Voice and Section Two of the Sunday Times. Now it has been picked up by a big distributor and inspires its own billboard on Times Square.

Obviously, Arrabal has similar hopes, and maybe they're justified. The herd of independent minds being what it is, the time could be right for a movie set in Civil War Spain that focuses on the sadistic fantasies of a boy and his mother. Technically, Arrabal's most striking innovation is to have inducted several of his actors to actually bleed for the camera. His rendering of fantasy (and of flashbacks and flashforwards, if that's what they are) is typically inadequate. I've never had much sympathy for attempts to deal with mental life or mental time on film. If normal montage passes for the real world, no technological trickery--Arrabal's use of monochrome for fantasy, say--is going to make portions of a film replicate mindscape, because the difference between the inner world and the outer world is just too radical. Filmic representations of consciousness (or what lies beneath it) work only intellectually. You know what they mean but you don't feel it--you don't enter a character's mind the way you enter a physical situation.

This problem wrecks a couple of films now current. Henry Jaglom's A Safe Place takes place in the mind of a poor little rich girl who believes she once knew how to fly. By the end, it would seem that she wasn't crazy, because she soars up up and away, but not before she's led the film through a modish set of flashback and flashforward images and episodes. The justification is that she is forever retreating into the past (appropriately represented by Orson Welles) when nasty old reality threatens; unfortunately, she also advances into the future, forever fucking Jack Nicholson in the rain, and the only justification for that is Art. What can you expect of a director who devotes a film to such a nit?

The other offender is Dennis Hopper's much-maligned The Last Movie. Hopper really did want to make the movie to end all movies, I think, although his title makes sense within the plot, which contrary to report is there for the following. The Last Movie is about such heavy dichotomies as illusion and reality, art and life, imperialism and revolution, and so forth, and in the end, despite Hooper's impossible, unfelt fantasies--are there really people out there who dream of Mama's tit?--I kind of liked it. The fantasies failed, and so did many of the realistic scenes, but Hopper managed to communicate--emotionally as well as intellectually--the cosmic confusion that prolonged consideration of such questions inevitably produces. Sometimes, probably in the cutting room, he decided to forget about making sense out of the mass, and so came up with an honest pretentious movie. The problem is, my rule about enjoying pictorial or episodic virtues doesn't apply. The movie works only when you strain to make connections, in fact, it works in terms of that strain. So Hopper deserves his bad press. He is testing his audience, just like Arrabal, and if his audience resents it, that's their prerogative.

Fusion, Oct. 1, 1971