« So I can, so I can watch you weave | Main | RIP Ronnie Matthews »

29 June 2008

Comments

Daniel Wolf
1.

There was a review this week in Die Zeit of Michael Chabon's most recent novel which mde the point that, if you adapt a particular genre (in Chabon's case, hard-boiled detective novel, albeit transposed to a Yiddish Alaska) you're stuck -- for better or worse, and in this case, worse -- with the formal limits of the genre.

Pynchon gets around this -- at his best in Against the Day -- by treating genre as topoi within the larger novel. But the topoi are not formally segregated but rather integrated into the stream of the text, into which each of the individual topoi is eventually allowed to collapse formally, which, of course, is one of the things that Pynchon handles so supremely well. Entropy and all that. There may appear to be a risk of arrogance to this approach, as when Stockhausen insisted that Morton Feldman's music could be a moment in his music, but not the other way 'round, but Stockhausen's fake Feldman will never be mistaken for the real thing, absent both Feldman's material sensitivity and a formal idenity that resists placement in a foreign context and, especially, the heaviness of Stockhausen's framing devices.

DJA
2.

There was a review this week in Die Zeit of Michael Chabon's most recent novel which mde the point that, if you adapt a particular genre [...] you're stuck [...] with the formal limits of the genre.

Yeah, I hear this a lot and I'm not buying it. In what way is Raging Bull "stuck within the formal limits" of the "sports movie," and how does that undermine the film's greatness?

Daniel Wolf
3.

Raging Bull is not a "sports movie" (like, say, Knute Rockne, All American or The Longest Yard (or even a "boxing movie" like Rocky), but a film that rather systematically cites and subverts elements from this genre as well as several others (film noir) in an anti-heroic epic. Alone, in choosing a story without the usual elements of redemption, a come-from-behind triumph over adversity, and a conventional and virtuous love story -- which are just the about the minimum requirements for the sports movie genre -- Scorsese was forced to break or even invert all of the conventions and used this to the advantage of making a movie that was much more than an sport film.

DJA
4.

Hi Daniel,

Well, yeah, I agree with the above -- but apparently the AFI does not, as they have ranked Raging Bull as the #1 Sports Movie. It's exactly this kind of silliness I am objecting to. Films like Raging Bull and The Wild Bunch and Blue Velvet don't fall neatly into the genres of "sports movie," "western," and "mystery" (as the AFI have categorized them). They might reference a genre or genres, but they aren't bound by them, and comparing them to other "sports movies," "westerns," and "mysteries" is a pretty reductive way of thinking about those films.

John Pippen
5.

What about people who enjoy particular genres? Does the form sometimes constitute the content?

DJA
6.

I think it depends whether your enjoyment of the genre as genre crosses over into "making excuses for stuff that's not very good." I likes me a good superhero movie as much as the next geek, but I'd really prefer that it be a good superhero movie. You couldn't pay me to sit through Ang Lee's Hulk again.

Anyway, being a fanboy of a certain genre is one thing, but limiting your intake to that genre exclusively is quite another. And letting your preconceptions about genre limit your aesthetic choices is definitely a problem. If you claim to be a film buff but refuse to see The Searchers or The Wild Bunch or McCabe and Mrs. Miller because you "don't like Westerns," then you're not actually much of a film buff.

John Pippen
7.

do you think the same is true of music?

DJA
8.

Hells yeah.

andrea
9.

it took me a while to ditch the i-don't-like-country worldview. i eventually came to realize that i don't like the production values that chart-topping 'country' music employs. good songs are good songs. there's a classical music definition of genre which equates it with forms/instrumentation, like string quartets or songs, which is somewhat more useful and less polemic, but still only somewhat. not being a film buff, i can't imagine how that would translate to film categories (cast size? number of props? plotlines?).

DJA
10.

not being a film buff, i can't imagine how that would translate to film categories (cast size? number of props? plotlines?)

I think a rough analogy would be functional categories like "documentary short," "live action short," "feature," etc.

charles
11.

Coming to this a bit late, but it is something I waste a lot of brain cells on. Genre in music and genre in film are two different beasts. I don't know much about film, but in terms of music, genre almost always refers back to particular aesthetics that are used to qualify and categorize music from its reception. How do you know it's good bebop? It uses certain notes over certain chords, is played fast, etc. All aspects of aesthetics that would not be appropriate for, say, country music. These aesthetics, I think, are the product of a shared history...which also opens it up and allows for it morph and change, which is why punkers can listen to Sun Ra or Coltrane...at some level those could be understood as the belonging to the same genre. The scale is flexible, but genre refers to the way in which we classify things to make sense of them, and this is most valid in music when it refers back to a history of aesthetics. When genres are excluded, I suspect that no aesthetic common ground can be found: You cannot understand Bob Dylan if you are only listening for chord substitutions.

The first problem that comes up is that music genre is overrun by marketing, which tends to fix and stabilize genre, and even encourage artists to make things that fit those fixed definitions. But even then, most people are creative enough to think beyond that.

However, even those big music industry genres (Rock, Country, Other), are not similar to the film genres of narrative, non-narrative, documentary, etc. let alone subject matter, which is obviously totally useless in terms of judging quality. To get something similar you would have to think about the style of the film and how that relates to a history of film making, which seems to be less of an issue for film criticism. I think music is ultimately much more diverse in terms of kinds of music than kinds of films.

Final thought: it is tempting to disregard genre in music and just say there are only two types (good and bad) or even more disastrously one kind ("it's all music, bro!" ...why that is always followed by "bro" I don't know). But Ellington wasn't doing us any favors there. It can be useful to classify things as different because without difference there is no diversity, which is the stuff of identity. This music IS different than that music and I am different than you. This hopefully leads to attempting to understand what it is that is different, rather than just dismissing it.

john pippen
12.

I'm not sure I understand why classifying films or music presents inherent polemics. Aren't there many ways of classifying things? For example, couldn't raging bull be a boxing movie and be classified in other, additional ways?

how does marketing over run music? Why is that bad? Or is it not bad?

DJA
13.

Charles,

You make some good points, especially about "ttempting to understand what it is that is different, rather than just dismissing it." However, this jumped out at me:

How do you know it's good bebop? It uses certain notes over certain chords, is played fast, etc.

There's a difference between the things that make bebop bebop and the things that make bebop good. My enjoyment of Charlie Parker doesn't come from the fact that he plays fast and uses certain chord tensions. My enjoyment of Charlie Parker comes from the blistering intensity that improbably coexists with a sense of total effortlessness, his crisp but fluid time feel, his high-minded unsentimentality coupled with a very dry sense of humor, and his above all his brilliant, searching spirit. I honestly couldn't care less about the surface-level genre characteristics, the stuff that makes Charlie Parker "bebop" as opposed to some other kind of music. As Max Roach said, "A person like an Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who plays like Charlie Parker."

I'm not sure I understand why classifying films or music presents inherent polemics.

Because music is intensely genre-segregated. Because many influential elites believe that if a piece music isn't in a particular genre (usually classical music), it isn't even art. Because public and philanthropic funding for music is predicated on the idea that only certain genres are worthy of support.

Take a look at the upcoming programming for Film Forum, NYC's predominant art house cinema. Count the genres represented (film noir from France and Japan, domestic dramas, historical epics, samurai movies, Stalinist-era propaganda, feature-length documentaries about McMurdo station, Louise Bourgeois, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Serra). Now compare that to the programming at your average "art music" venue.

John
14.

Ah. Because it's all art.

DJA
15.

John, I'm not getting what you mean by that. Care to elaborate?

charles
16.

I was being pretty sloppy there about bebop, I had typed out something even more long winded and then erased thinking I should keep it simple. First, I absolutely agree with you; that is why I like Charlie Parker too and we can, if we want, like him without concern for genre, though I think we could, and probably are, thinking about him in terms of a genre that is about intensity, experimentation, individuality, etc. --whatever vectors that would lead us to appreciate other things (like Braxton, who listens to Parker too), which is usefulness of genre. I don't think I have or want to have one way to listen to Parker, one way to listen to Braxton, one way to listen to...I don't know...how about E-40? Wrong crowd? OK then, Stravinsky. Yet, I still want to be able distinguish those things from each other and don't make the same demands from them (or they don't demand the same things from me).

How does the industry overrun these things? It has a long history, hell..it's entire history... of dividing up music in terms of style for marketing purposes, then artists, who need to make a living, make music to match that genre. If something is too far in between or outside of markets it is excluded from marketing, labels, reviews, etc. Additionally, and I see this all the time in my jazz history classes, students think jazz is Kenny G, so they never realize they might like Miles Davis or John Zorn, even though they are listening to things that fit perfectly in line with those things. They just never bothered to look outside of that industry defined pigeonhole, until I force them to do it anyway...hooray for General Education classes. Yes, I think its a bad thing, but not sure that there is anything to do about it as long as artists are interested in selling their music through companies anyway.

Long quote by Duke Ellington from Music is my Mistress

"The category is a Grand Canyon of echoes. Somebody utters an obscenity and you hear it keep bouncing back a million times. Categories are sometimes used by a person who feels that one he's talking to doesn't know enough about the language in which he speaks. So he uses lines, boxes, circles and pigeonholes to help the less literate one to a better understanding. On the other hand, categories are sometimes used as a crutch for a weak artistic ability to lean on. The category gives the artistic cripple's work an attractive gloss. An agreeable smell is in the nose of one who smells it." (p. 38)

Sometimes lines and circles are helpful. Ellington is a bit pessimistic, but I think that genre can help reveal just what vectors are in play and how we might connect to other things. And even why we might not "get" things that don't fit those parameters.

I wonder if the film industry is more open and accepting than the music industry? I imagine that there are far more films excluded for not quite fitting into the schema of marketing than music recordings though. Is there a post-Warhol film school out there, hiding out in after-hours film clubs watching the sun set and rise in real time on borrowed screens? Post-Brakhage?

Jason Guthartz
17.

"I wonder if the film industry is more open and accepting than the music industry?"

It most definitely is not.

The whole "genre" issue is a much bigger problem in film, in part because it is a relatively young artform, in part because it rapidly became one of the most dominant forms of mass entertainment. Popular notions of "genre" in cinema assume that the primary function and purpose of the form is storytelling (i.e., abstracting a narrative from the visual experience of film-watching). It has nothing to do with those elements which make film an art: the ways in which composition and editing (mise-en-scene & montage, in film theory speak) are used to create "light moving in time".
So traditional film genre categories have absolutely nothing to do with filmic aesthetics, whereas in music it can be argued that genres have at least some minimal connection to musical aesthetics.

ps: though I can't disagree with his point in that conversation excerpt, Ebert is not someone who should be quoted when making a point about the ridiculousness of the AFI exercise in genre-promotion -- over the years he has demonstrated an extremely limited understanding of film as an artform. And in fact, as the most popular and widely-read film reviewer, it could be argued that he has done the most harm in promoting what might be called "the tyranny of narrative".

DJA
18.

Jason, you write that "in music it can be argued that genres have at least some minimal connection to musical aesthetics," but it's not at all clear to me why you think that. If music is "sound moving in time," then what does genre have to do with it?

(I also can't agree with you on the idea that Roger Ebert "has an extremely limited understanding of film as an artform," but given your issues with the "tyranny" of narrative it's clear we have irreconcilable ideas about film as a medium. I don't think film is "about" composition and editing any more than music is "about" harmony and structure. These things are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves. But that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.)

Jason Guthartz
19.

"If music is "sound moving in time," then what does genre have to do with it?"

What I mean is that musical genre has some (if slight) relationship to the sonic and structural qualities of the musics to which they refer. So when one refers to "roots reggae" or "classical chamber" music, one gets a certain sense of the parameters of the musical material involved (types of sonic, timbral, textural, rhythmic qualities, etc.).
This is not the case with conventional film genres. Film genres are exclusively concerned with abstractions (narrative, plot, character) rather than the material realities of what one experiences when watching films (light, color, movement, placement of objects, cutting, etc.).
It's a question of whether one values the artworks for their aesthetic possibilities, or whether one uses them for other purposes (sociological, philosophical, spiritual, entertainment, etc.).

re: Ebert - Show me where he has ever made the slightest reference to the works of Benning, Brakhage, Breer, Conner, Conrad, Deren, Frampton, Gehr, Jacobs, Kubelka, Lipsett, Lye, Maclaine, Markopoulos, Menken, Harry Smith, Snow, Sonbert, Warhol, etc. (I only know of this ridiculous piece on one of Warhol's great films, which gives his game away.)

DJA
20.
Film genres are exclusively concerned with abstractions (narrative, plot, character) rather than the material realities of what one experiences when watching films (light, color, movement, placement of objects, cutting, etc.).

Doesn't "film noir" create certain expectations with regard to light, color, movement, placement of objects, cutting, etc.)? How about "wire-fu movie"? How about "a Merchant Ivory Production"?

It's a question of whether one values the artworks for their aesthetic possibilities, or whether one uses them for other purposes (sociological, philosophical, spiritual, entertainment, etc.).

I don't believe that any of the qualities you mention (especially "entertainment") are so easily divorced from aesthetics.

re: Ebert - Show me where he has ever made the slightest reference to the works of Benning, Brakhage, Breer, Conner, Conrad, Deren, Frampton, Gehr, Jacobs, Kubelka, Lipsett, Lye, Maclaine, Markopoulos, Menken, Harry Smith, Snow, Sonbert, Warhol, etc.

Okay, you got me there. As a nationally syndicated film critic, Ebert doesn't often talk about experimental non-narrative films. Now show me a music critic of similar stature to Ebert who covers a similarly broad range of genres.

charles
21.

Music may not be about harmony and structure, but it sure has those things, and it is precisely those things in music genre that differ, typically anyway. Music genres, even those industry defined ones, are more useful than film genres as defined by critics. I think to fully appreciate music you need to have some awareness of its genre parameters: I could appreciate Charlie Parker as just a bunch of notes played with some dry humor, but there is another world of meaning there if you think about the chords. Braxton would be pretty boring if all I cared about was chords, yet again there is another continent of meaning in there.

Jason, that is what I expected in film and agree that it is probably due to the fact that film is not as old. But also perhaps that it (probably) costs more and at least has the potential for making more money. I am just guessing, haven't checked the numbers there, but if it is the case than industry has a much more at stake in films, and they only care about genre in terms of marketing, not aesthetics.

Aesthetics, I would agree with DJA, are not just about the surface (or formal) qualities, but refer more deeply to tradition or effective history. Hence, those marketing genres beget aesthetics. The Hulk may have some different editing, angles or what-have-you, but it is still in the same genre as Batman (whatever version). I mean there is some usefulness for talking about "super-hero" movies or whatever. This doesn't mean that we might want to make different connections based on different aesthetics (the quick-cut MTV style editing versus neo-noir..whatever), but those are seldom used to define genre, especially in film.

It also seems to me that everything experimental is basically lumped into the same "genre," I mean there is a world of difference between Brakhage and Warhol and Maya Deren, yet I think they are treated as part of the same tradition, in terms of film. This is not so much the case in music, but maybe...probably, the more I think about it might be. It would seem that the less money involved or the less market potential, the less likely industry defined genre will be an issue.

As far as critics of stature who approach broad range of genres: I don't think we can really think of Ebert covering a broad range of genres given that he ignores basically everything experimental. It seems that lots of critics cover a pretty broad range of genres. Borat's brother at the New Yorker? Go back awhile and all those early rock critics were all over the map: Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, etc. Or, today, the entire magazine of Wire, most of those blogs in your list over there...wait...wait, what do you mean by "of stature?" I guess you mean "mainstream" or widely-read. It would be nice if more mainstream critics ventured out of those boxes into things that are quite different from time to time, Ebert sure doesn't seem like that type though. The underground, it seems, is always much more diverse...because it is more detached from those industry-defined genres.

Final point, all these "music" blogs are incredibly diverse genre-wise...Kris Tiner's got a great piece up about doo-wop right now, and even posted some great stuff about Rauscheneberg a while back...I am thinking about film while reading your blog! I think you are one of my favorite critics of stature at the moment(oops, is this a genre of criticism?)

Jason Guthartz
22.

DJA:

I don't believe that any of the qualities you mention (especially "entertainment") are so easily divorced from aesthetics.

No, it's not easy.  And I wouldn't really argue for such a separation other than in the context of this type of discussion.

DJA:

As a nationally syndicated film critic, Ebert doesn't often talk about experimental non-narrative films.
Now show me a music critic of similar stature to Ebert who covers a similarly broad range of genres.

You're begging the question.

Traditional film genres are not defined from a perspective based on film as a visual art (of sequential images); they're based on criteria borrowed from literature or theater. So to say that Ebert covers a broad range of genres except for the "experimental" genre is, for me, the equivalent of saying that he shows "an extremely limited understanding" of the art of film. (And given his role, I would not necessarily expect any different; for what he does, he's among the best.)

And regarding the comparison to music criticism: Well, at least most major papers have different critics covering the "pop", "classical", and (if you're lucky) "jazz" beats. Where do you see a paper with more than one film critic (who do more than brief "capsule" reviews)?

Charles:

...[film] (probably) costs more and at least has the potential for making more money. I am just guessing, haven't checked the numbers there, but if it is the case than industry has a much more at stake in films, and they only care about genre in terms of marketing, not aesthetics.

It is a sad fact that arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of American cinema, Stan Brakhage, could not support himself through his art.  So yes, there is the potential for some to make more than a living wage, but not for those who work in the marketing-(un)friendly genre of so-called "experimental" film.

Charles:

It also seems to me that everything experimental is basically lumped into the same "genre," I mean there is a world of difference between Brakhage and Warhol and Maya Deren, yet I think they are treated as part of the same tradition, in terms of film.

Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes! This is precisely my point: traditional film genres are premised on the notion that film is essentially a medium for storytelling, so those of us interested in the art of the matter cannot agree that those genres come close to reflecting the scope of film's possibilities as art (not that storytelling isn't an art, but it is merely one way of approaching the medium). I'm about to make up some numbers, but humor me... We have a situation where 12 of the 13 genres are defined by film's capacity for telling stories of certain types; and then you have Genre #13, the "experimental" (cue spooky sound effects), containing works which deal with the moving-visual qualities of this moving-visual artform in order to create whole new worlds of aesthetic possibilities. (How might genres be defined according to moving-visual aesthetics? Not sure, but perhaps we can start from Sitney's: lyrical, graphic, structural, etc.)

I should back up a moment to dispute your claim, DJA, that "people who get all hung up about [film] genre are rightly regarded as morons."  If only!  To the extent that commerce-friendly genre-mongering is a symptom of a film culture which diminishes aesthetics, then even if that particular symptom has abated (and I have my doubts), the underlying disease has not diminished one iota (neither among the population-at-large nor among elites). It remains the case that when a film is discussed or analyzed (by ordinary folk and elites alike), it is extremely rare to find a single reference to the effects created by the images, or by the ways in which those images are ordered (i.e., aesthetic qualities, usually described by commerce-friendly genre-mongers who make content/form distinctions as "formal" qualities).

To go a bit further afield, consider this: Would an art critic (that is, of sculpture & painting) be taken seriously if (s)he were to, in an Ebertian manner, categorically dismiss any and all "abstract" art? Of course not. And yet we have this absurdity that cinema - an artform developed (primarily) in the 20th-century - is evaluated according to pre-20th-century criteria.

ps - I don't mean to clog up your blog with my polemics, so I'll stop here. I anticipate publishing something somewhere that is more thorough and coherent on this issue in the coming days; if it's OK, I'll post a link and invite you to join any discussion which may follow.

DJA
23.
ps - I don't mean to clog up your blog with my polemics

Dude, clog away. It's the internets. You make passionate and cogent arguments for your POV and your comments here are greatly appreciated. Especially with your most recent comment, I have a much better understanding of where you are coming from here -- even if what you want from film and what I want from film (and film criticism, and, now it seems, music criticism) are somewhat at odds. I'd be happy to follow the continuing discussion.

John
24.

OMG this got big. Darcy, "John, I'm not getting what you mean by that. Care to elaborate?" I interpreted your comments as representing a wider inclusion of what constitutes "art" music. You suggested that the classification of music prohibited the proliferation of public funds. Would you say that all music deserves public financial support?

I am very interested to read that American and European (and perhaps others) film maintains a socially abstracted avant-garde just as American music does. Are the aesthetics of artistic cinema described with a structural rhetoric?

Incidentally I blogged recently about the emphasis on innovation in new music communities. In Henry Kingsbury's ethnography of a conservatory, he described "talent" as a metaphor for social capital that allowed individuals to rate themselves within classical music cultures. Of course, the acceptance of talent as a real thing differs among individuals. "Innovation" and "progress' seem to function as social validators, or capital, among composers just as the metaphor "talent" works among performers. The more innovative, the more influential and thus, the more important a composer can be. In classical music, innovation is often paired with social abstraction, though in the past fifty or so years, various composers have addressed this issue in ways that seek to overcome this "problem."

Jason, "It is a sad fact that arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of American cinema, Stan Brakhage, could not support himself through his art. So yes, there is the potential for some to make more than a living wage, but not for those who work in the marketing-(un)friendly genre of so-called 'experimental' film." Are there film makers whose work you both respect and is popular?

DJA
25.

I interpreted your comments as representing a wider inclusion of what constitutes "art" music.

You are right. I don't really think "art" vs. "entertainment" (or "high art" vs. "low art") distinctions are particularly useful. That seems like an awfully quaint and chauvinistic worldview. But insofar as these distinctions do exist, genre has basically fuck-all to do with whether a given piece of music is "art" or a given musician is an "artist."

You suggested that the classification of music prohibited the proliferation of public funds. Would you say that all music deserves public financial support?

I am saying that musicians should not be disqualified for public support because they don't happen to work in an officially sanctioned genre. Genre should not determine eligibility. Need, and the ability to make effective use of scarce arts dollars, should be paramount. Sting doesn't need a subsidized artists' loft, obviously, but neither does, say, Hilary Hahn. A lot of arts funding is, IMO, wasted on classical musicians that are already well-established and living comfortable lives. Redistributing that money to up-and-coming artists of all stripes would yield much better bang for your arts-funding buck.

Jason Guthartz
26.

"Are there film makers whose work you both respect and is popular?"

John: Take a look at my list of favorite film(maker)s here, and you'll see there are many popular films that I not only respect but love (including more than a few that are on Ebert's "Great Movies" list).

I know my rhetoric tends to create the impression that I'm arguing from an elitist "high art" position, but that's not really the case. My tastes certainly do place me among an "elite" (by virtue of circumstances over which I have no control -- and which I'm trying to understand), but I'm not arguing for the superiority of my tastes. Nor am I saying the narrative approach is invalid. Rather, my position is that it is one among many approaches or "filters" through which one can experience film art. (If my desire to experience the broadest range of aesthetic possibilities in whatever artform is at issue qualifies me as "elitist", then guilty as charged.) While (most) people will inevitably prefer one approach (or set of approaches) over another, it is a disservice to film culture -- and thus to culture at large -- when critics and other privileged elites (e.g., academics) categorically ignore the alternatives. (And, btw, a disservice to themselves, since experiencing those alternatives inevitably expands/deepens one's experience of *all* films.)

So it seems that, for some reason, only in film could a critic like Ebert be characterized as someone with "a nearly unequaled grasp of film history and technique," per A.O. Scott. Such a claim, in 2008, would be considered patently absurd if made of a critic who categorically rejected "abstract" painting or "atonal" music (or similar traditions which developed in various and multiple ways throughout the 20th century) -- or at least failed to show that (s)he has made reasonable attempts to engage with a representative sample of such works.

Jason Guthartz
27.

woops - my list of favorites is here.

The comments to this entry are closed.