Monday, June 7, 2010

"If It's Crap, Why Do I Cry?"

The best seminar paper title I ever saw, hands down, was this: 'If It's Crap, Why do I Cry?' As that suggests, the paper was looking at 'high art' versus popular culture, with specific reference to the lofty dismissal of the latter, and examining emotional response as a deal-breaker for determining where 'high art' ends and whatever the other thing is begins. Anyone who follows Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury and knows the back-story of these characters in yesterday's strip (though Trudeau is so good that I'm sure it stands alone as well: here's some background if not) will have been giving these matters some thought as recently as yesterday.

If you don't or can't cry, then it's unlikely that you're worth a cracker as an arts and/or literary critic. But there's an ongoing mental process of sorting emotional from intellectual responses to a work of art, especially when it's popular culture and you know there will, even these days, be resistance from some quarters to the notion that that's worth anything at all, much less the serious attention of a critic. And it actively damages your capacity to think about a book in a substantial, knowledgeable way if you're too busy laughing, crying or throwing up. You have to wait until you've calmed down before you bring the brain into play, and then your initial visceral response is one of the things you have to think about.

I trust the body's understanding of what's going on in art, as in life, and its responses have their place in art criticism, though I've been mocked before for saying so and no doubt will be again. (Also, the mocker in question is one of those people whose disapprobation makes you think you must be doing something right.)

I occasionally get asked whether my academic reading and training interfere with my pleasure in art; I assume these people mean the sort of spontaneous nonverbal response I think of as wild (or maybe feral) pleasure, pleasure that is bodily and instinctual and has no truck with literary theory and so on, but the answer is that no it never does; it's entirely possible to think rationally about something after you've finished laughing, crying or throwing up, nor do I think of the cerebral and the visceral as a dichotomy but rather as occurring along some sort of sequence or spectrum of response. And anyway, there's also a certain wild pleasure in thinking.

When my mate R offered me a choice of three movies yesterday afternoon, namely Robin Hood, Animal Kingdom and Love Lust & Lies, I went immediately for the last-named. We'd had a sort of plan to see Robin Hood for quite a while, and not only is Animal Kingdom getting rave reviews but R knows that I am a big fan of Jacki Weaver, especially since I saw her onstage in Last Cab to Darwin in 2003 and realised just exactly how gifted an actor she is.

But in the course of work-related reading, I'd just finished a novel about a rape victim who falls in love fifteen years later with a jailed rapist (not the same one), part of a behavioural pattern clearly set long ago. It's a very good novel and the writer is herself a rape victim, so there are very detailed accounts not only of the physical event but also of the even more detailed and painfully frank, self-lacerating accounts of the profoundly complex and tangled internal processes leading towards and away from it, and on top of all that you know she knows what she's talking about because she's been there, and you have some sense of what an excruciating experience it must have been to re-live her experience in order to shape it into fiction.

And because the writer is, as I say, very good, all of this stuff has been very successfully processed into a proper shapely novel -- what Helen Garner calls 'a little machine that works' -- rather than half-baked, which is to say insufficiently transformed, autobiography. So there was the power of the subject matter, of the writer's dark relation to it, and of the crafted work itself.

Having just finished this short but profoundly disturbing novel, I contemplated seeing either Robin Hood or Animal Kingdom and realised that the thought of sweaty, violent masculinity crashing through either the trees of medieval Sherwood Forest or the suburbs of contemporary Melbourne was making me feel quite ill. Sweaty violent masculinity is something I can usually take in my stride, but in the immediate wake of this novel I couldn't face it at all. So off we went to Gillian Armstrong's excellent Love Lust & Lies, which is the fifth and latest instalment in her Seven Up style doco about the three Adelaide girls whom we first met in Smokes and Lollies (1976) when they were in their early teens, whom Armstrong has revisited for a catchup doco several times since, and who are now all cruising for 50.

Love Lust & Lies, of course, made us cry.

Oh well.


  1. I wouldn't bother with Robin Hood. I have a high tolerance threshold for escapism, but this film pushed it too, too much. I could cope with the stretching and straining and just plain shifting of historical events, but the cremation of one character was so a-historical, and the topography so confusing (I never knew that Nottingham was so close to the sea), that eventually I could cope no longer, and started snickering and muttering comments to my partner, which no doubt ruined the film for the people in the seats in front of us.

  2. Love, lust and lies make us cry IRL a lot of the time too. Some films need tickets which include a stiff G&T in the price.

  3. I am still unclenching my muscles from Animal Kingdom on Saturday night. I thought it was brilliant, but unusually not a tear was shed by moi. Oooh please go see it.

  4. Really like this post, PC. When I first started doing Cinema Studies, so looong ago, I thought I'd be watching European High Art. It would be Bergman all the way. I remember so well that the first film we were shown was 'Singin' in the Rain', which confused me dreadfully. I already loved the film, but couldn't understand why I was watching it at university.

    I has a wonderful Cinema Studies lecturer who pushed and pushed us to really try to understand what was going on in the films he showed us. We saw heaps of Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Lubitsch, Keaton, Sirk, Fuller, Ophuls, Welles, Chaplin, Murnau. It was a wonderful introduction, though US-centric. We were also shown many more films than students are today. I think there were screenings every day and we saw about twenty Hitchcock's, alone. But the problem was always the resistance the students had to analysing how the films worked, because we were frightened our pleasure would be ruined. He taught us to be inside the film, of being sutured into the processes of identification and being outside the film and analysing it. But, it's a resistance students still have. I think it's especially so for film, and in particular for Hollywood studio film, because it's such an industry and tends to collapse high-art/low-art dichotomies.

    PS: 'Animal Kingdom' is brilliant and so is 'Love, Lust and Lies'. Personal gripe: how the Oz film industry keeps getting slagged off, even though we keep making films like this.

  5. It gets slagged off for things like Wog Boys 2, not LL&L...

    Great post.

  6. But 'Wog Boys 2' is doing well at the box office. One of the constant criticisms is that Oz films aren't commercial enough. WG2 certainly ain't high art and seems to work for its target audience. But this is probably a bit OT.

  7. Feel free to go OT. I'm not averse to a bit of thread drift!