A Critical Divide, Part One: The Opportunity of Disagreement

Being a 4-Part Examination on Melodrama, Tragedy, the Nature of Evil, and What Constitutes Responsible Movie Violence in Relation to Taxi Driver and Other Works, in Response to the Work of Gregory Desilet [The John de Ruiter/Oasis examination will resume in four weeks, following this series]

Blood Meeting

Last month, I finished up the final draft of The Kubrickon, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dr. Stanley. Somewhat unexpectedly, the book has turned out to be an unofficial follow-up to Seen and Not Seen, insofar as it continues my literary attempt to let go of a lifetime’s reliance on a set of unbending critical opinions about what constitutes film art.

The question “Why should it matter to me so much what other people think of movies I love (or hate)?” is, for me, a non-rhetorical one, and the non-rhetorical answer finally presented itself in the process of writing The Kubrickon, leaving me with the sense of having got a particularly ferocious cat into–or is that out of?–the bag. In the meantime (i.e., since reaching that literary conclusion), a seemingly perfect opportunity has now arisen for me to put this new awareness–and new flexibility?–to the test, and for the rubber of excess theory to meet the road of practiced moderation. This opportunity has taken the (so far virtual) form of another writer, Greg Desilet and his two analyses of film violence, Our Faith in Evil and Screens of Blood. As it happens, perhaps not coincidentally, both of Greg’s books issued from McFarland Press, which published my own Secret Life of Movies. So we have been unconsciously “aligned” for some time, unconsciously on my part, at least.

I came across Greg’s work online while searching for an old (and scathing) review of my first book The Blood Poets (by Oliver Harris) that I wanted to quote in Kubrickon. Desilet’s books came up among the search results and I think the first thing I saw was his analysis of The Matrix (from Our Faith in Evil), in which he challenges my praise of the film as naïve, misguided, and irresponsible. I also found the Harris review, and I emailed both him and Greg with a friendly message. In my email to Greg I suggested we do a podcast together and ended with this line: “I would now agree with most of your criticism of my review. I was quite under the neo-gnostic spell back then.”

Both Greg and Oliver replied. Oliver expressed chagrin at the harshness of his review and gave a belated (by sixteen years) apology. I thanked him and that pretty much ended our correspondence. Greg’s reply was more enthusiastic. He wrote:

When I was writing Our Faith in Evil you were my favorite author to reference and respond to. Although there are films where we disagree (at least back in the day), there were many films where we agreed (from my reading). But whether we agreed or disagreed, I always found your writing to be very provocative and entertaining. More so than myself, you have an engaging and highly readable writing style. No easy thing—so kudos on that.

He finished up by saying that he was currently working on a book “comparing the language philosophies of Wittgenstein and Derrida.” In my response I mentioned that I would like to read Our Faith in Evil and asked if he could sell me a copy because the prices on Amazon were so high. His response was to make a gift of copies of both his film books:

You are one of few people on the planet I would do that for. But I’m happy to do it because I think you would find parts interesting and I would like to know where you might disagree with me on particular lines of argument and on analyses of particular films and/or TV series that you may be interested in discussing.

He also ordered a copy of Seen and Not Seen, because unfortunately I had no extra copies to offer. All of this seemed like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, a feeling that was consolidated when I began to read Our Faith in Evil a few weeks later. The first part of the book (which I highly recommend) offers a comprehensive and thorough examination of the roots of horror and melodrama, and is really a profound and searching philosophical treatise, more than a book about movies. Greg is a true academic, obviously a heavy-weight in the realms of cultural analysis, and, rarer still, a genuine original thinker who is unafraid to take on the Moby Dick of literary challenges (the nature of evil and its strange allure), a challenge that also happens to be close to my own heart. In a word, I was stoked.

There is certainly much more to say about this part of Greg’s book, and I will get to it shortly. Before I do I need to finish laying out the challenge presented me via his two works and the why of this current essay. In part two of Our Faith in Evil, Greg shifts the focus to specific movies as a means to illustrate his thesis. His thesis, if I understood it rightly, is roughly this: melodramatic story structure that includes violent conflict, specifically resolution through violence, illegitimately reinforces an overly “Manichean” (dualistic) view of human existence, one which invariably locates the problem (evil) outside of oneself and in some wholly irredeemable (and inhuman) “other.” This–which he narrows down to scapegoating, with reference to Rene Girard–has unacknowledged social and psychological consequences, most drastically by generating self-perpetuating cycles of violence and preempting the possibility of healing or of a true and lasting resolution. (Hence successful Hollywood melodramas always generate their own sequels!) In contrast to the melodramatic structure, Desilet offers up the tragic one, a form which invariably locates the fatal flaw within the protagonist(s) and presents violent external conflict, not as a solution but as the means by which the problem (evil) becomes fully manifest and active, i.e., tragic.

I had no problem at all with Greg’s thesis. I didn’t even mind his direct criticism of my own (former) embracing of movies that, he feels, adhere more closely to the first template (melodrama) than the second, movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Natural Born Killers, and Bonnie and Clyde. No, my problem (and it’s a beaut) with Greg arose, whole and slavering like the alien bursting out John Hurt’s chest, when he offered up another example of the wrong kind of movie violence: Taxi Driver! Yes, really.

Okay. So the newly flexible, post-Kubrickon, live and let live, let’s allow all points of view to co-exist me wants so badly to say, “Hey, it’s only one movie, cut the guy some slack!” And really, I tried. After a period of soul-wrestling and seemingly unrelated irritability, I pressed on to the following chapters and succeeded in finding my stride again. I made it to the end of Greg’s book and over all was left with a very positive impression–notwithstanding that one, single misstep, niggling away at the edges of my awareness like a badly infected tooth. Taxi Driver?! Really?

It’s one thing to be in profound disagreement with someone when one has no relationship with them or particular hopes for one. It’s quite another when a potential alliance seems suddenly at stake. Yet beyond even that quite practical concern (the desire not to see a relational opportunity going south), this was causing me a degree of psychological unrest that could only be sourced in some early primal responses. I was becoming unreasonably irritable with my wife (admittedly not a rare thing), and, for one night, experiencing a vague and formless sense of being persecuted by nameless forces, just as if the world entire was against me. Once again, this is not such an unusual feeling for me; but even so, it was unusually acute. With his travesty of judgment, Greg had certainly got my attention (like that funky tooth).

What can’t be internally resolved naturally moves–like pus from a boil–into an external expression, a necessary kind of “airing.” It is at times such as these that I am grateful to be a writer, and there is no challenge quite so inviting to me as writing a critique while in the throes of emotional turbulence, knowing that its primary subject will probably be among the first to read it. On the other hand, this is also–like removing a tooth–a delicate and precarious operation. Potential alliances are at stake, and all that, and jousting does sometimes lead to casualties.

You, the non-implicated reader, now get to be a witness to this operation.

How Not to Do Film Criticism

Worse was still to come. Having finished Our Faith in Evil, I picked up Screens of Blood that same night, eager to discover how, during the eight-year interim between the two books, Greg had come to his senses. No such luck. Screens of Blood cites Taxi Driver in the introduction as one of the primary examples of “how not to do screen violence”! There then follows a right-on-the-money excoriation of Tarantino’s genuinely repulsive (in the second half at least) Django Unchained, almost every word of which I was able to concur with. After that, the dread returns: an essay on Taxi Driver that puts it in the same bracket with a wholly forgettable Jodie Foster pot-boiler called The Brave One, twinning them as then-and-now examples of irresponsible and shallow movie violence! So in Greg’s perceptual tunnel, Martin Scorsese’s, Paul Schrader’s, and Robert DeNiro’s cinematic exploration of the causes of male alienation, sexual dysfunction,  and pathological violence is apparently on par with Tarantino at his worst? But there’s more, Greg goes on to contrast these egregious examples of cinematic irresponsibility with his own choices of laudable dramatic portrayals (those that fit his own socio-political model): No Country for Old Men, The Book of Eli, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and (wait for it) Shutter Island!

Take a breath. Bend. Soften. Open. Allow for conflicting opinions to exist internally and not give rise to external conflict. Do not demonize the other.

Pause instead to wonder how this came to pass. How is it that an insightful writer with an appreciation for my own work would single out a film I still consider possibly the most outstanding example of cinematic artistry I know of, a film that is also among the most responsible, intelligent, compassionate, and inspiring explorations of violence–both in society and in movies–ever made, as his leading example of the very opposite? It is not an exaggeration to say that I know of no other movie that more effectively and sincerely addresses and exposes the problem which Greg Desilet is probing into with his books than Taxi Driver. Not one. Nor is it overstating it to say that I know countless men–and at least one woman, my twenty-year old niece–for whom the movie has been a source of inspiration and allowed for a deepening understanding and acceptance of themselves and their own capacity for loneliness, alienation, rage, and potential violence. These are people for whom the movie has–I think unquestionably– had a healing effect due to its unflinching willingness to enter into the pain and suffering of its protagonist. Is it really possible that Greg can see the movie as a melodramatic action film exemplifying “how not to do screen violence”?

Apparently it is. But here’s the thing (and it’s my one ray of hope in this tangled morass): apparently the entire thrust of Greg’s argument (besides his complaint that the film doesn’t give Travis any “back story” or “contrapuntal” character conflict, more on that later) is: John Hinckley Jr. Since Taxi Driver allegedly inspired an act of violence, Greg reasons, there must be something about the movie that caused this to happen, ergo the movie is irresponsible. Greg then sets about finding the evidence to support this conclusion (though I presume he never liked the film to begin with, he doesn’t say). When it comes to A Clockwork Orange (a film I despise), and even Natural Born Killers (a film I hugely enjoyed the few times I saw it), there is plenty of evidence to find and one does not have to manufacture it. This is not so in the case of Taxi Driver. There is, in my view, no evidence at all that it glorifies, romanticizes, or incites people to commit violence. Greg accordingly fails to present any–besides the historical “fact” that, in one single case, it did. I put fact in quotes there because there is really scant evidence that the official version of history which Greg replicates in both his books–i.e., that Hinckley successfully shot Ronald Reagan because he was inspired by Taxi Driver–has any validity to it at all. But I will get to that later.

In lieu of evidence, Greg offers some opinions unbacked by even the simplest form of argumentation (he never analyzes the film in any depth). Worse, in his introduction, he lumps Taxi Driver together with a mishmash of other films, all of varying quality ranging from the execrable to the sublime, under the single rubric of having inspired copycat crimes. They are: The Collector, Bonnie and Clyde, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Natural Born Killers, Scream, The Queen of the Damned, Saw, American Psycho, Dexter, and The Dark Knight. Greg then damns all of these films with a single brush stroke, as lacking “genuine conflict,” having “narrowly drawn characters,” and “seeking shock value atrocities.” The exact words he uses (to describe the central characters in all these films, please note) is that they “are not confronted by a contrapuntal character or characters to probe beneath crude surface motivations” (Evil, p. 16). In Screens of Blood, he narrows it down further by stating that all good dramas “require interaction with persons of sufficient insight and strength of character to force a confrontation by anti-heroic characters with the side of themselves they have succeeded in burying” (p. 138). But does it really require interacting with characters of strength and insight for this to happen? Travis’ date with Betsy (when he takes her to a porno movie) is among the most painful “contrapuntal confrontations” ever depicted in a mainstream movie, and the reason has little to do with either Betsy’s insight or strength of character. She is mostly just a witness to Travis’ catastrophic lack of social awareness.

And what of Greg’s contention that Travis–along with Chucky from Child’s Play and the killer in Scream–is driven by “crude surface motivations”? This is like calling Macbeth a happy-go-lucky kind of guy: just plain absurd. Until its final quarter, Taxi Driver is almost all interior action (which ironically is one of Greg’s complaints–not enough conflict!). A few paragraphs later, Greg writes that all of these films “lack genuine conflict and substitute violence and the tension of violence in its place.” What kind of weird contortions of logic is Greg applying here to argue that violence and the tension of violence is less than genuine conflict? Violence always has roots in interpersonal dynamics, roots that when ignored eventually give rise to out-and-out destruction. This is what Taxi Driver is essentially about, and it’s what makes it so devastating to watch.

Leaving out the other films (at least a couple of which are worth defending in their own right), where does Greg get off trying to categorize Taxi Driver as a melodrama devoid of real conflict, consisting of narrowly drawn characters and lacking tragic depth or meaning, as essentially a vehicle for “shock value atrocities”? What can a fellow film writer say to this? In lieu of my own words, I will instead quote Greg’s back at him, from a passage in which he (quite rightly) reviles those critics who praised Django Unchained: “All of these claims, as will be demonstrated, are so extraordinarily wrong as to be delusional.”

Mapping the Divide

At this point I should remind myself–and the reader–that all of this was merely an introduction to lay out my own dilemma (not diagnose Greg’s delusion!) of how to approach a perceptual gulf between Greg and myself in such a way that it doesn’t lead to a despair-induced shrug and a turning away on both sides. Because, let’s face it, that was my initial reaction at being faced with so seemingly unbridgeable a divide. Yet surely, there is some way to bridge it? What chance is there of a lasting reconciliation between the self and the other, if two writers can’t even make peace about a movie?

As becomes quite clear in his analysis (in Screens of Blood) of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Desilet (I am shifting to the more formal address mode now) approves of movies that carry the right message. How they do so (in terms of film aesthetics) is apparently of significantly less importance to him (I am tempted to say of no importance at all, but that’s more of a taste thing!). Desilet’s preference for structure and intention over internal/unconscious content is diametrically opposed to my own. For me, with a few marked exceptions such as The Matrix, I value movies mostly as a medium for personal expression and for how they offer a glimpse into the interiority of the characters and of the guiding intelligences behind them. Simply put, as artifacts of individual human consciousness that give me an experience of being connected to the mysterious other. I have no concern about the moral capacities of the characters as long as I can relate to their struggle. This is not to say I don’t care about the sensibilities of the people who make movies–au contraire, it’s what I most seek out to respond to, and along with Desilet I feel a degree of disgust for Tarantino’s brazen celebration of nasty violence as “pure” entertainment. At the same time (and this is where Greg and I part ways), if it is done in the right way, such as True Romance, Pulp Fiction, or Natural Born Killers (and frankly, I enjoyed the Kill Bill movies quite a lot too), I am willing to overlook the personal failings of the artist and, you know, have a good time.

Returning for a moment to Taxi Driver, it’s worth remembering that the primary sensibilities behind it–Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Robert DeNiro–were all in their early or mid-thirties when they made it (Schrader was in his twenties when he wrote it). To me, this is a truly astonishing fact, considering just how little wisdom or self-knowledge anyone really possesses at such a tender age, and allowing (though Desilet won’t) how profoundly on the money the film is as an examination of male violence and frustrated sexuality. This alone–for me, obviously not for Greg–is proof that the film comes out of a rare form of creative alchemy, that it is the result of artistic expression that is genuinely soul-searching and therefore the means to achieve deeper self-awareness (at least while it lasts). It is this process, in my opinion, that is the real gold of “art,” the direct transmission of a sensibility. To receive it means being able to meet it at the same level of depth and integrity it was created on, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, to do that requires a willingness to tune into the transmission at its source (In this case, to get inside Travis’ skin, and hence that of Schrader, Scorsese, and DeNiro, too). In this regard, no film is ever the same for any two viewers, as is manifestly evident with Greg and I, in this particular instance.

In fact, besides Silence of the Lambs–for which we are united in our disdain–the sole significant point of agreement between Desilet’s movie appreciation and my own (in the two books I have read) is No Country for Old Men, which is a film we both unequivocally admire. Yet, reading his (quite compelling) analysis of the film in Screens of Blood, I was left with the sense that what Greg admires about the film is mostly its philosophical and intellectual properties. Its “thesis” (which he sums up as the randomness of violence) and its structure (such as how the hero, Tommy Lee Jones, chooses to retire from action rather than confront the villain) appeal to him because they conform to his model of good, responsible filmmaking. In the case of No Country, this happens to overlap with a remarkably skilled handling of the material (i.e., aesthetic brilliance), and because of this, I would say beyond its intellectual depth, the film is also very poignant and moving. Yet apparently, this is another crucial difference between Desilet’s and my own requirements of movie art. I want to be moved by movies and not merely intellectually or philosophically validated by them. (This may well be unfair to Greg–I bet it is–but I can only respond to what he communicates via his writing.)

To be honest here, even now, at fifty, I am still largely indifferent to the question of a film’s social impact. I admire social conscience in a film only when it doesn’t weigh down the more primal and poetic aspects of storytelling. Otherwise, give me Grindhouse. Films like No Country, The Counselor, Fight Club, and The Matrix work for me as both viscerally exciting fantasy fiction and as social examinations with genuine potential for subversion. On the other hand, there are few movies I despise more than those well-intended deliverers of a message that sacrifice storytelling vigor or honesty for the sake of social awareness. I am pretty sure Desilet isn’t advocating these sorts of films (Gandhi, Philadelphia, 12 Years a Slave), but, by having such clear-cut and minutely worked out criteria for what he deems a good movie–and for more or less equating good with socially responsible–he risks falling into a similar pothole.

I have been moved, sometimes to tears, by scenes of extreme violence in films which I imagine Desilet would (or know he does) revile as beyond the pale. In films like The Birds, The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Blue Velvet, or Fight Club, the intense beauty and strangeness–the exaggeratedly stylized quality–of the violence serves, for me, to bring out the tragedy and pain of the human struggle for meaning (a struggle which includes violence, tragically). The finale of The Wild Bunch, for example, improbably blends euphoria with anguish and it invokes in me an agonizing tension. This is the tension between my admiration and awe for the beauty of the film itself, and my empathy and distress for the suffering of the characters being depicted (and of the filmmaker doing the depicting). In the case of The Wild Bunch (and some of the other films I mention above), this accurately represents the characters’ own experience, namely, a mixture of the ecstasy and agony of their tragic and willful acts of self-destruction. I think it accurately represents the conflict in Peckinpah’s psyche, too, as well as the other filmmakers, even if only during the period when they were conveying their “message” and attempting to resolve an unbearable tension within them. Granted, this does not lead to morally tidy or “responsible” narratives that adhere to a strict social or aesthetic model or formula. But that is precisely what makes them gloriously, messily, tragically human.

End of part one. Part Two.

6 thoughts on “A Critical Divide, Part One: The Opportunity of Disagreement

  1. Hey mate remember that book you wrote ” the secret life of movies “. I loved it . I went through a period of years where i tried to watch all the great existential film directors , as a way of seeking mirrors to reflect the mysteries of my own soul , some of which is personal , some is collective and some deeply archetypal. I guess he is focussing on the collective and you are riffing about the personal / archetypal, so its no surprise you ended up talking Swahili to each other ..

  2. Yeah TLJ for mine !

    “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.”

    Got to be the deep breath before the plunge into corporate mass surveillance post modernity , the Twilight of the Gods , Das Rheingold,

    Speechless stuff

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