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The Functions of Criticism

Excerpts from: “Cassavetes and the Critics:
The Road Not Taken”

It is one of the continuing disgraces of American film scholarship that there has been so little serious attention directed at the work of John Cassavetes, arguably the most important and original American filmmaker of the past thirty years. Even at this late date, more than three years after Cassavetes' death, not counting the pieces that follow and my own previous writing, there have been only three significant scholarly essays in English devoted to his work (all by the present author, alas). One only has to tally the comparable statistics for Fellini, Bergman, or Woody Allen for the difference to be strikingly apparent. In the past decade there has been much attention paid to the so-called evasions and repressions of film history in terms of gender- and minority-based film, but the fact that not a single discussion of Cassavetes' work appeared in either Cinema Journal or Wide Angle during his lifetime is worth pondering.

One casts about for an explanation of how eleven films and an entire career could have fallen so completely in the cracks. In the first place, it must be candidly acknowledged that film scholars are as much governed by herd instincts, fads, and fashions as general audiences are, and Cassavetes' work never entered the cinematic vernacular critically or commercially. It was just too far off the beaten path. Given their invariably limited and brief releases, it was hard to get to see most of Cassavetes' films. (I remember I had to fly to Los Angeles to catch a single screening of Opening Night in the late 1970s, when I learned that the film was being pulled from distribution because of its poor box office performance.) The video situation also worked against the would-be scholar of his work: to this day, only the three weakest of Cassavetes' films (Gloria, Too Late Blues, and A Child is Waiting—each a studio co-production with which the filmmaker was dissatisfied) are available on tape or disc. (Big Trouble, which is available on tape and bears Cassavetes' name in its credits as director, actually does not count as his work.)

Otherwise overlooked films can occasionally break through into critical awareness with the help of newspaper or television reviews, but journalists were left almost speechless when it came to Cassavetes' work. With a few notable exceptions, David Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Michael Ventura, David Sterritt, and Sheila Benson being the most important, reviewers just didn't know what to make of him. His movies didn't dish up the obvious socio-political generalizations that the vast majority of movie reviewers (and, if truth be told, most academic film critics also) confuse with artistic significance. They never punched any of the topical hot buttons that guarantee Spike Lee, David Putnam, or Oliver Stone an otherwise entirely undeserved amount of attention. (There is not a single drug-dealer, Vietnam vet, feminist, nor any of the other clichÈs of “socially relevant” filmmaking in all of Cassavetes' work.) There are no “issues” for Susan Stamberg to discuss or Ted Koppel to organize a panel discussion around.

If Cassavetes never played into the hands of the political correctness (or incorrectness) crowd, he equally confounded tony journalists like John Simon, Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby who confuse artistic profundity with visual gaudiness, stylistic preciousness, and “literate” (or worse yet: “literary” ) dialogue. The rag-tag sprawl of Cassavetes' scenes, the sputtering inarticulateness of his characters, and the strenuous avoidance of easy gorgeousness in his visuals violated every English-Department dictum about how Art (spelled with a capital A, as in Allen) was supposed to look. Any Freshman knew that important modern work was stylistically taut, clean, virtuosic, and masterful—not loose, messy, shaggy and baggy.

It's not really surprising that a Masterpiece Theater aesthetic was preferred by the average reviewer over Cassavetes' apparent messiness. Coppola, Toback, and the Coen brothers made movies that were elegantly lighted and stylishly scored. They looked great and sounded wonderful. Canby, Kael, and the others were like the audiences who applaud the scenery or the costumes in a play; they simply didn't know where to look for beauty in Cassavetes' work.

Furthermore, the fashionable aesthetic (at least on the Upper East Side) was Flaubertian or Pateresque: arch, ironic, cool, poised, detached, impersonal—but Cassavetes' characters and scenes had a sweaty intensity and in-your-face emotionality that was personal to the point of being embarrassing. His scenes and characters came on so strong they made the New Yorker/New York Times-types squirm with discomfort. The natural audience for Cassavetes' barbaric yawp was always closer to being the cab drivers and construction workers who read The Daily News—hardly the right crowd for an auteur to be seen hanging around with. In brief, for Kael, Canby, Simon, and other intellectual wannabes, Cassavetes was the guest at the dinner table who refused to be “charming.” Thank goodness James Ivory, Woody Allen, and Whit Stillman never forgot their manners.

Cassavetes' final journalistic sin was that his movies refused to get abstract, intellectual, or symbolic in the way high-brow reviewers demanded of “advanced” works of art. A film like 2001 declared its seriousness by going ballistic from the first seconds of the credit sequence: rhetorically freighting every shot and scene to tell us that we were not merely watching particular characters and actions, but were participating in an abstract imaginative experience. Every event is shifted one notch to the side to signify something more intellectual than the mere facts. Citizen Kane similarly keeps poking us in the ribs, insisting that it is not simply the story of one man's life, but an American epic, an archetypal allegory. Every prop, kick light, camera angle, and musical strain on the soundtrack is made to function symbolically; every experience is metaphorically pushed to mean something general and intellectual. Apocalypse Now, Heaven's Gate, Blade Runner, and Nashville play the same rhetorical game. Even Woody Allen knows enough to get grand when he wants to get a serious reviewer's attention. Look at the opening of Manhattan: the credit sequence is as metaphorically insistent as 2001's about the fact that we are participating in a Big Intellectual Experience. Though Allen comically pokes fun at his narrator's stuttering, self-dramatizing bombast, he is at the same time clearly enjoying and endorsing its mythopoetic grandiosity—and wanting his viewers to buy into it. Critics obviously don't mind being told what to think or they'd never sit still for films that are so insistent about how we're supposed to understand them.

While so-called serious filmmakers insisted on the importance of their work by making high-concept allegories—Armor-Plated Think-Tank Cinema about the Age of Anxiety, Cassavetes went in the opposite direction. He absolutely avoided the jiffy-pop rhetorical inflations of Modernism for the Millions: the stratospheric generalizations and cultural pontifications that Ridley Scott, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola built careers around. They ported-over into film the symbolic / mythopoetic modes of expression Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Joyce pioneered in literature, while Cassavetes stayed small and intimate. Their work is fundamentally metaphoric in its thrust, while his characters and scenes resist abstraction. Their characters and events are generic; his are as ungeneralizable and idiosyncratic as the creative conditions of the productions that created them. In their dogged domesticity and unpredictable eccentricity, Cassavetes' characters and scenes defy our efforts to generalize them, to translate them into abstractions of anything. While Thelma and Louise invite sociological generalizations, Mabel and Nick Longhetti resist them. Declining to lie down and become canon-fodder for kulturwissenschaft, Cassavetes' scenes force a viewer to live along with them in continuously shifting details, prickly particularities, second by second emotional transactions.

The physical world of act places, and events is obviously not complex or mysterious enough to hold the interest of these other filmmakers. Every metaphoric transformation within their work proclaims that the life of the body and emotions is less important than the life of the mind. That is why if these movies have tritely schematic plots, cartoon characterizations, and clichÈd personal interactions, the suggestion is that it doesn't really matter, because they are not about life but Life. They are metaphysics. They are visionary philosophy lessons. We watch them for their Ideas, their Images, their Clanging Symbols, their Trumpet Blasts of the Apocalypse, not for a sense of experience as it is actually felt and lived hour by hour. Cassavetes' mistake was to attempt to bring us to our senses, while reviewers clearly preferred work that took us out of them.

A less charitable way of putting it is simply to say that Cassavetes didn't make kitsch for critical mass-consumption. His complex acts of genius didn't have handles attached for easy journalistic pickup and delivery of their meanings. His films couldn't be turned into Time Magazine quips and epigrams. Their characters won't be appropriated to illustrate the cinematic theme-of-the-week in The Sunday Times: the facile pop-culture generalization masquerading as an act of critical intellect. All of which is, of course, not to argue that his films are devoid of larger imaginative or cultural resonances, but only that they will not yield up their secrets in six minutes or less to MacNeil/Lehrer cultural “commentators” and their ilk.

But this is admittedly only the journalistic situation; one obviously hopes for more from serious film scholars. What Cassavetes' films require for understanding is the same thing his greatest characters figure within them: capacities of delicate sensitivity and continuously revised awareness. They require complex acts of critical appreciation (as distinguished from journalistic ambulance-chasing and headline-making); but when it came to truly serious film criticism, which is to say academic criticism, Cassavetes was victimized by a classic case of bad timing. To oversimplify only slightly, it's fair to say that two forms of criticism have dominated American universities for the past two decades: ideological and formalistic. Unfortunately, neither is in the least congenial to the appreciation of his particular kind of filmmaking (nor to the appreciation of works of artistic genius in general, I would add).

To consider the ideological critics first: Much of the most interesting recent writing on film has been a form of intellectual history or sociological analysis. For such critics (though they might more aptly be called intellectual historians), criticism becomes a matter of revealing the invisible ideological codes that inform the work and dictate its possible interpretations. The seductions of the ideological approach are obvious. It offers what seems like an enormous enlargement of the scope and importance of criticism. The critic is no longer a dilettantish connoisseur of “irrelevant” or “superficial” aesthetic effects, but is transformed into an analyst of “deep,” “pervasive,” and culturally important structures of knowledge. Art and criticism not only become “relevant” to our understanding of ourselves, they become unique anthropological documents that reveal secrets otherwise unable to be uttered. It is an intoxicating vision of the function of criticism—which is undoubtedly why it has won so many converts.

The only problem is that, in the heady rush to significance, the actual ways artistic language operates get forgotten. Works of supreme genius are not explainable in terms of a series of generic cultural meanings. The greatest artists inflect and comment upon the systems of expression into which they are born—they do not merely repeat them in their work. Shakespeare is not synonymous with the Elizabethan world-view; in fact, the power and wonder of his writing begin where cultural descriptions of it end. The great artistic texts punch holes in the very systems of understanding that semiologists, sociologists, neo-Marxists, and ideological critics of all stripes describe. The ideological approach explains only the most weakly authored works (which is why it is most usefully applied to the litter of pop-culture: Star Wars, Rocky, The Cosby Show, The CBS Evening News, ad campaigns for AT&T or GM).

It would be hard to imagine a filmmaker whose works yield fewer dividends to a sociological approach than Cassavetes. Not only are his characters and narratives too eccentric and idiosyncratic to make themselves available to sociological generalizations, but the energies in his films are too extreme, fluxional, and fragmented to be contained within ideological frames of reference (which are invariably normative, static, and totalizing). Indeed, as several of the essays in the following pages suggest, the expressive agenda of Cassavetes' films is deliberately opposed to sociological and ideological understandings, insofar as he calls into question the adequacy of all super-personal, abstract, or intellectual ways of knowing. Ideological criticism implicitly levels the individual, reducing him or her to being a semiotic function of the environment, while Cassavetes does the opposite: He dramatizes imaginative energies that break forms that would contain them. He presents characters and scenes that figure the possibility of escaping the limitations of systematic understandings.

As luck would have it, Cassavetes' films were equally out of step with the other dominant form of American academic film criticism: the formalism practiced by David Bordwell and his epigones—which has had a truly lamentable effect on American film criticism. Though its practitioners would vehemently deny it, formalism is basically an extension and updating of sixties auteurism (with the addition of a clanking, specialized, hi-tech vocabulary)—only this time the critic, instead of limiting himself to discovering Hitchcock' s, Welles', or Ford's stylistic “signature,” sets himself a much larger and more ambitious task: comprehensively describing the stylistic earmarks of whole bodies of work—the thriller genre, the thirties studio picture, the art film, the continuity editing system, etc. But the important point is that the new formalists are as essentially taxonomic in their approach (and as indifferent to questions of value and meaning) as the old auteurists were. Film criticism becomes a matter of discovering and describing stylistic patterns within a body of work.

Now there is nothing particularly wrong with compiling such analytic taxonomies—as long as one realizes what errors of emphasis a reliance on them introduces into the critical account: what features of a work they exaggerate, on the one hand, and what aspects they underestimate or ignore, on the other. The formalists, by the very nature of their enterprise, are committed to the discovery and description of organizing principles that are general, repetitive, and abstract. That's well and good, but the problem is that that's where they stop, and it's only a baby-step along the road of artistic understanding.

The stark limitation of the formalist approach is that the path of creation in the most interesting works is, in fact, in the reverse direction from the one in which the formalists face. It is an idiosyncratic, eccentric swerving away from systematic structures and repetitive stylistic patterns. It's fine to describe the totalizing systems that the artist performs with; the error of the formalists is to mistake those structures for the important part of the work when what matters is the movements of the individual artistic imagination within and against the structures that empower it. Those movements are not systematic, repetitive, and abstract—they are concrete, unique, and unrepeatable; they live in a present that forever erases the past; they are less made, than continuously in the making; they do not represent leaps of abstraction above the prickly particularity of sensory experience, but plunges into it.

What formalism omits entirely might be said to be precisely what makes the work of Cassavetes (or any other great artist) most interesting. Cassavetes' meanings are in transition between the fixed structures in his films. While the stylistic patterns of the formalists are necessarily general and disembodied, Cassavetes' works live in bodily reality and sensory particularity. His meanings are not impersonal or abstract—as the styles the formalists describe must be—but are brought into existence practically, and expressed within specific times and spaces. They are not static and spatial, but fluidly flow and change: endlessly substituting one interest for another, constantly shifting tones, muscularly pushing us through incompatible spaces and times, energetically erasing one view and replacing it with the next.

That is why what is really needed is an inversion of the agenda of formalism: Rather than boiling a work down into a series of abstract structures, criticism has to find a way to talk about how meaning boils over forms that would structure it. Rather than talking about how structures abstractly contain a work's content, criticism has to find a way to talk about how content will not be contained, about how meaning liquefies itself and leaks away from all forms. We need to put our efforts into finding a vocabulary for semiotic slippages among forms. We need to forge a critical syntax to characterize processes that won't stand still to have their picture taken. (Isn't that, after all, why they are called the movies?)

In short, the forms of formalism are easy to describe, but trivial—at least in a work of genius (in works of schlock or pop-culture, on the other hand, where there is often less there than meets the eye, they may be all there are). The forms are what Emerson called the “gymnasium on which the youth of the universe are trained to strength and skill.” But, as he added in the same October 25,1836 journal entry: “When they have become masters . . . who cares what becomes of the masts and bars and ropes on which they strained their muscle? . . . I am nothing else but power.” The formalists focus on the relatively unimportant “masts and bars,” but ignore the dazzling displays of “power” by those who have mastered them.

One of the most obvious imbalances introduced into the critical account by the formalists is their almost completely leaving acting out of their descriptions. It is clear why the old auteurism did this since it focused on the director-auteur at the expense of every other creative contributor to the meaning of a film, but the neglect of the actor as an originator and controller of meaning continues under the regime of the formalists insofar as the streaming particularity and fugitiveness of great acting, grounded as it is in concrete events and moment-by-moment adjustments of relationship, is clearly impossible to reduce to an abstract system of signification. (One might as well attempt to produce a taxonomy of facial expressions or emotions—though no doubt a Ph.D. candidate somewhere is working on that too.)

The corollary to the demotion of the performer as a maker of meaning is the promotion of so-called “pure” filmic effects as what really matter in the artistic experience. The formalists exaggerate the importance of abstract, metaphorical, and visual/visionary forms of expression (the domain of the director/cinematographer/set designer) insofar as they are distinctive to the cinematic experience, and downplay the importance of bodily, facial, verbal, and social forms of expression (the domain of the actor and writer) since they represent areas in which filmic expression obviously overlaps with expression outside of the movies. The result is a serious distortion of the critical account, a systematic bias in favor of intellectual, contemplative, and purely imaginative understandings and relationships. Experience is disembodied and inflected toward the realm of Vision.

The formalist approach has carried the day because it does successfully describe the work of certain filmmakers (Hitchcock, Sternberg, and Welles, for instance). Their films and others all too obviously testify to a belief that disembodied, visionary ways of knowing were at least potentially more beautiful and moving than socially engaged and verbally expressive ways of being-in-the-world. In works like Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo, Hitchcock tells us that our most profound, intense and important experiences are figured by socially disengaged states of silent and incommunicable looking, thinking, and feeling—are, in short, figured by the sorts of visual/visionary experiences the formalists describe in Hitchcock's films.

No approach could be less suited to Cassavetes' work. He is essentially an anti-visionary artist. He passionately rejects turns out of the forms and structures of non-visionary expression. His films exist to explore new ways of knowing and being in-the-world. His films define sensitivity and awareness not in terms of states of unexpressed feeling and isolated imagination, but as practical, enacted engagements with and responses to the non-visionary aspects of life.

The formalist agenda has another unfortunate side-effect. Insofar as it represents a disengagement from the ordinary, non-visionary complications of life, the ideal film of the formalists marginalizes the artistic experience and the experiences depicted within the work. It continues the trajectory of Pateresque aestheticism by telling us that the peak experiences of life take place not in the heat of the moment, in the midst of the ordinary, but off to the side of the highway of life, in a special “world elsewhere,” a private temple sanctified to states of otherwise inexpressible consciousness. Cassavetes utterly refuses to cordon off a special realm of super-ordinary imaginative experience. The ideal work of the formalists is, in this sense, world-fleeing and world-denying, while Cassavetes' films are world-embracing and world-loving. The formalist aesthetic, like the Symbolist, is only a finer form of disengagement and escapism, while Cassavetes is the poet of “plunging-in” (as he once characterized his own work to me).

The consequence is not only a different view of art, but an entirely different view of the artist as well. The artist of the formalists is vatic—a seer, a dreamer, and a visionary. The artist for Cassavetes participates in an entirely different tradition—the tradition of Whitman and Emerson. Rather than going up on the mountain, he goes down the Open Road. Rather than criticizing or rising above ordinary life, he celebrates it. Rather than calling us away from our social duties and interpersonal responsibilities, the artist calls us to them, and himself participates in them. In brief, the place of art shifts. Everyone becomes a potential artist of his or her own life. Every character in Cassavetes' work is viewed as, at least potentially, having the capacity of being as sensitive and responsive as Cassavetes himself. The artist is not at an Olympian remove—up on the heights of supreme sensibility with Flaubert, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf—but is figured by each character within the work. The way we become artists is the same way Cassavetes does—by plunging into expressive messes and social muddles, not by leaving them behind or criticizing them.

The problem with the formalists and the works they admire is that the expressions they recognize are too pure, too purely artistic, and too detached from the expressive compromises and impurity of life outside of the work of art and the movie theater. The Bordwellian formalists locate meaning-making in the wrong place (in the work instead of the characters), and describe the wrong kinds of meaning-making (meaning as weightless, contentless, ethically neutered, socially disengaged, and transcendent, rather than meaning as socially embedded, morally entailed, and personally contextualized). In the end, the result is an utter trivialization of criticism. Considerations of a work's meaning, content, truth are replaced by a sterile, content-free, value-neutral, stylistic inventory.

The vocabulary of formalist criticism represents an attempt to give its methods a pseudo-scientific rigor and precision. It's an open secret that film study is ghettoized in the American university and that film scholars, still not taken quite seriously by their colleagues in the humanities, are forced to overcome a kind of academic inferiority complex. One of the ways they have responded to this sense of being second-class citizens in the arts is by doing what any other threatened guild does: attempting to legitimize their field by developing an esoteric methodology and a specialized language. In an effort to establish that film is an autonomous art form entitled to full academic rank and recognition, “filmic” effects are implicitly defined as being those that other arts (like drama, dance, literature) do not have available. “Theatrical” effects (acting, voice tones, facial expressions, feelings, narrative meanings, effects of scripting) are largely ignored as the sources of meaning, while purely cinematic effects (those brought into existence with lighting, editing, sound, etc.) are focused on. The formalists microscopically atomize a work into a series of semantically empty rhetorical effects—effects of lighting, framing, focus, editing, sound, intertextual stylistic connections, etc., while almost completely ignoring the most meaningful and important parts of an artistic experience—the content, tone, feelings, emotions, characters, acting, understanding of life embodied in the work. The formalist account gives us films with style a mile high and knowledge of life an inch deep. (It's not surprising that Hitchcock, Welles, and De Palma become superstars in this all-American triumph of stylistic razzle-dazzle over truth.)

The most unfortunate side-effect of this indifference to the actor by the formalists is that the history of American film is implicitly rewritten to conform with the formalist bias. The importance of the actor-centered work of certain directors (from Chaplin, Capra, and Sturges to Cassavetes and May) is downplayed, while the value of other, more “purely cinematic” directors (from Keaton and Sternberg, to De Palma, Kubrick, and Malick) is played up. The otherwise inexplicable over-estimation of the value of the work of Hitchcock or Welles is a case in point. Not only the work of Cassavetes, but that of most other truly interesting filmmakers drops completely through the cracks in such an account. Cassavetes' art not only lacks the sorts of superficial (and eminently discussible) visual and acoustic frissons that formalists equate with “the filmic,” but is double-damned because it depends upon the script and the performance of the actor (and not upon effects of camera placement, lighting, or editing) to create many of its crucial meanings.

Given these tendencies in American film scholarship, it was not at all surprising that when a call went out for papers for a special issue on John Cassavetes, not one of the submissions came from a mainstream film scholar teaching in an American university. The pieces chosen for publication came from two academics whose major previous work has been devoted to the study of acting (Maria Viera and Carole Zucker); two Australian film scholars (George Kouvaros and Janice Zwierzynski); and two writers who approach Cassavetes from the perspective of interdisciplinary American Studies (Lucio Benedetto and the present editor).

In short, although the Society for Cinema Studies and American university film programs have obviously dropped the ball when it comes to Cassavetes, others are apparently more than eager to pick it up. But there is no reason the two groups should be separate. This special issue represents an attempt to initiate a critical dialogue about Cassavetes' work with mainstream film scholars and teachers. A serious, scholarly evaluation of Cassavetes' career is long-overdue. America deserves the chance to rediscover one of its supreme bodies of artistic work. It is no exaggeration to say that as long as the work of Cassavetes (and that of several other equally important and equally neglected, independent narrative filmmakers) remains unstudied, American viewers, filmmakers, and critics are denied their own cultural inheritance. As long as that is the case, the true history of American film, the authentic history of the American experience, remains unwritten.....

Excerpted from: “A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken,” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities Volume 11, no. 2 (Winter 1992), pp. 3-12.

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