Desilet’s Final Axe-Blow
In Our Faith in Evil, Desilet expresses his frustration and disappointment with the Film Academy for giving awards to what he perceives as undeserving films (Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction). Apparently, by looking to the Academy as a benchmark for culture, he has a faith in public institutions that I do not. Apparently, his naïve hope, if not expectation, is that they might function to serve the collective good if only managed rightly. From my perspective it’s more like sheer fluke if an institution like the Academy gets it right, and it gives me little real satisfaction when things I value are culturally championed (on the contrary, it causes me to doubt my own tastes). Desilet’s misplaced optimism smacks to me of a lack of awareness regarding the nature of public intuitions, which, in my opinion are never about serving the collective good but only about serving themselves. Perhaps a similar sort of naiveté is behind his unthinking trust in the mainstream media narrative surrounding the shooting of Ronald Reagan?
In the case of a film like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, or The Wild Bunch–films I personally treasure that have also received almost unanimous cultural approval (albeit over time)–it’s a bit too complicated to dismiss this as a “fluke” (though it is fluky these films were ever made). I think it has to do with the way in which profound psychological realities–including transformations occurring at an unconscious level in the collective psyche–weasel their way into popular culture (the collective ego) via a kind of Trojan-Horse strategy. This Trojan Horsing occurs, on the one hand, at the semi-conscious, individual level of the artists involved (Peckinpah, Coppola, Scorsese), men who briefly gained access to the Hollywood system before being corrupted (or destroyed) by it, and who thereby managed to do something of unusual merit within it. On the other hand, it is occurring at a much deeper and largely unconscious level, within the society and culture itself as it attempts to give rise to healing strategies. These strategies are often first regarded with suspicion by the society, rightly enough, since they are attempting to bring about an apocalyptic healing crisis. But over time (sometimes almost immediately, as in the case of the above films), they are embraced by the culture. This is done as a means to neutralize their impact. By turning them into cultural artifacts (and trends), they can be used to bolster a flagging system and inject it with new visions and values that are craftily coopted into service of the old ones. So it is that all new wine gets slowly siphoned into old bottles.
In this regard, I can see why Desilet would regard many of these films with suspicion, and why he would want to question their benevolence in terms of social influence. The way of culture is that any social or cultural system promotes only those ideas, works, and personalities that further its own growth and development. I highly doubt Taxi Driver or any other popular film–or for that matter, any widely endorsed book, song, painting, or scientific breakthrough–has improved human social conditions in any truly meaningful way (i.e., spiritually). But does Desilet seriously believe that Shutter Island has succeeded where Taxi Driver has failed? Does he think it has been effective in introducing new human values and interpretations that will have a ripple-down effect on social structures? If so, he is deluded, though I don’t think it’s any great cause for regret or frustration on his part. Movies (the good ones at least), like everything else that stems from human creative expression, are geared not towards societies but towards individuals, and it is the individual response that constitutes change, for good or ill, and that will eventually and inevitably ripple down–through attitudes and actions–into the social structures or their final dissolution (I am being optimistic here!).
Towards the end of Screens of Blood (p. 138), writing about Boardwalk Empire, Desilet stresses that his primary interest is not the possible negative moral influence of melodramatic screen violence: “the issue concerns quality of conflict and the context conflict provides for the portrayal of violence.” Boardwalk Empire is a show that both my wife and I enjoyed and which we stuck with for fifty-six episodes and five seasons. True to his calling, Desilet disses and dismisses it in several pages as “the pornography of corruption” (p. 143). While his argument draws on criteria that are now quite familiar to me, on this occasion I found his case considerably more persuasive than previously, to the extent it had something of a retroactive effect on me, bolstering some, though not all, of his previous condemnations. Desilet’s argument against Boardwalk Empire rests on his claim that it “cannot count as great drama because it does not present great conflict” (p. 142).
Stories of neutral or corrupt characters descending into corruption and greater corruption in violence against each other cannot provide engaging conflict because witnessing corruption versus corruption traffics in merely shock-value violence and voyeuristic pleasures. When primary characters progressively appear as scoundrels and the primary conflict as treachery between crooks, viewers are deprived of dramatic conflict in which anything of genuine value is at stake. [Boardwalk Empire] panders to the pleasures of key-hole peeking into the lives of nasty, brutish people whose behavior would be of little interest were it not for the saucy mix of power and money with sex and violence. This kind of material may provide a guilty pleasure in the gratification of human tendencies to be drawn to the spectacle of train wrecks and analogous human distasters, but these diversions do not come without associated cultural costs–namely the deadening of sensibilities toward genuinely engaging conflict and drama. (p. 138-140.)
As much as I enjoyed the show, unlike Taxi Driver it occupies no special place in my heart. Maybe this is why I found Desilet’s arguments at least partially convincing. As a result, somewhat to my chagrin, I found myself minimally more open to his views about the works I do hold sacred. Maybe Desilet was aware of softening his audience up for his final blow, because he winds up this chapter by arriving, as if by stealth attack, at what appears to be his actual, designated target–The Godfather. In the last but one paragraph, he offers Coppola’s film as a parallel, if considerably more hallowed, example to Boardwalk Empire of drama that lacks real conflict because nothing “of genuine value is at stake.” In Desilet’s view, “no great conflict arises either within the family members or within the psyche of the protagonist who starts out as the ordinary guy” (p. 142, emphasis added). Yes, he means Michael Corleone here. Desilet concludes his argument by pointing out that The Godfather won an Academy Award for Best Picture and ranks no. 2 on the American Film Institute list of great American movies, quipping: “if persuaded by the analyses herein, the Academy and the AFI mistake fool’s gold for gold” (p. 142).
If persuaded by the analyses herein. The agent of the Republic is tipping his hand here. Desilet’s goal has been to educate us in order to immunize us to the nefarious indoctrination methods of the dominant culture. It is these methods that keep us locked, collectively and individually, inside antagonal melodramatic structures of conflict. Hollywood Babalon, all right! I have been attempting something similar in my own way ever since I first put pen to paper. So when Desilet professes immunity to the artful seductions of consensually endorsed cinematic masterpieces such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, or Taxi Driver, I’m tempted to be impressed, even envious. Let’s face it, I’m the last person to put stock in a consensual view of anything. I am always theoretically open to the possibility I have been conned and that my perceptions are faulty–even, or especially, when I most fervently believe what they are telling me. This open skepticism obviously includes–in fact is especially honed for–Hollywood and the probability that my own aesthetic response-ability has been sabotaged from an early age. (Cf. Seen and Not Seen.) The whole inspiration and purpose of The Kubrickon was to bust open the phony consensus of Kubrick as a great filmmaker and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (no. 22 in AFI’s canon), A Clockwork Orange (no. 46, just above Taxi Driver!), Full Metal Jacket, or Eyes Wide Shut as works of art rather than highly sophisticated celluloid shite.
In this regard Desilet and I would appear to be intimately aligned. It is only that our specific designated targets are worlds apart.
In his afterword to Screens of Blood, Desilet levels his fiery sword towards Woody Allen’s Match Point. Towards the end, he imagines a sequel to Match Point (the horror!) in which the morally bankrupt protagonist is faced with the emptiness of his existence, realizing how “he has closed off a significant part of himself to others and cannot allow that part to speak. To do so would result in the collapse of the identity façade he has labored, through murder and lies, to create.” Oddly enough, this would also serve as a concise encapsulation of the film Desilet disparages, The Godfather, and of the tragedy of Michael Corleone. Yet somehow, Desilet is entirely unmoved by that tragedy–at least until he imagines it for another character, in another movie (one he gets to create).
Having read both his books in the space of a week and I think more or less grokked the difference between antagonal and synagonal dramatic structure (melodrama and tragedy) as contexts for cinematic violence, the fact remains that I would be hard-pressed to guess which movies and TV shows meet with the Desilet stamp of approval. (He admires The Sopranos and The Wire but dismisses Deadwood with a single line.) At this point, I would probably feel safest picking movies a) that don’t have any special place in my heart; and b) that aren’t recognized as movie classics. But beyond that, I would have no real clue. This is because, while his analytic system seems to be well worked out and more or less coherent, his application of it remains entirely gnomic, unpredictable, and almost willfully perverse. In the end, I am left wondering if Gregory Desilet is only happy when he gets to go after the biggest game. Perhaps he is the Captain Ahab of film reviewers, so attached to his harpoon that everything has started to look like an evil-incarnating white whale?
For Desilet, The Godfather and its sequel lack what he considers the essential elements of contrapuntal conflict. That is to say, the films fail to meet his very literal notion of opposing characters forcing the protagonist into a healing crisis of self-awareness. But isn’t this frequently the case with life? It doesn’t mean a healing crisis can’t occur, because the unconscious has ways of making itself felt through external encounters, regardless of how consciously or actively engaged the people we encounter may be with directly challenging us. An impossible neighbor can bring about a breakthrough if they are annoying enough. Anything can. More to the point perhaps, the real breakthrough that needs to occur is in our psyche and soul, not in our external life (though that will invariably follow), and surely it is here that the deepest layers of conflict, whether tragic or restorative, unfold? As I wrote in The Blood Poets, The Godfather and its sequel portrays, in suspense-filled pulp fiction format, the almost unbearable tension of what happens when a man seeks worldly power at the cost of his own integrity, and how he eventually–perhaps literally–loses his soul. How can there be a more tragic or compelling conflict than this? In dismissing Michael’s struggle as “fool’s gold”–as hollow and dull because there is nothing at stake when an ordinary guy becomes corrupt–I can only deduce that Desilet’s sympathy for the damned is highly conditional (i.e., nonexistent). For whatever reason, ironically, his own orientation seems to be more for external, worldly struggles (for socially identifiable manifestations of conflict) than for internal or spiritual ones.
I have no idea why this might be the case. It is almost as if he denies movie criminals and “nasty brutish” characters a spiritual dimension. Maybe he should ask himself why Jesus hung out with thieves and prostitutes–or why, in the words of my fellow movie slummer Pauline Kael, “If there is any test that can be applied to movies, it’s that the good ones never make you feel virtuous.” (From “Ersatz,” Kael’s review of Stand By Me, Hooked, p. 197.)
I was on the edge of my seat reading Greg’s afterword to Screens of Blood and here’s why: Match Point is a film I found utterly loathsome and easily one of the most offensive “artistic” movie endeavors I have ever had to suffer through. It is also a message movie, and I wrote probably my most vicious and unkind piece of film criticism ever about it (“Woody Allen, Misanthropy, and Match Point: Or How Death Got the Last Laugh,” still embarrassingly online). Here’s one of the mildest parts:
Match Point is a moral fable whose moral is that morality is a delusion, and that crime pays if you can deal with the guilt. It has the same basic message as Crimes and Misdemeanors, namely, that it is not the fit but the morally vacuous who survive. Any movie that wraps itself around a message runs the risk of being offensive. A movie is not a fortune cookie, and messages are for postmen not for artists. But it’s understandable if we are more indulgent of sappy, life-affirming messages, no-brainer “do unto others” Christian-type ones, since, like Hallmark cards, we know these messages (and movies) aren’t really meant to be taken seriously as art. Any movie that offers audiences an overt “message” automatically forgoes its credentials as “art.” Match Point, however, is a freak creation. It is what Woody does worst of all: a nihilistic message movie.
I was on the edge of my seat because, if Desilet had praised the film, all my attempts at bridging this gulf between us–a gulf that seemed, however microscopically, to be narrowing through patience and dedication–would have certainly proven in vain. To my relief, Greg disparaged the film, albeit mildly. In the process of doing so, he compares the film to, you got it, Taxi Driver! Bad as this was, he did provide me with a final clue to this perceptual puzzle. “Just as Scorsese does in Taxi Driver,” Greg writes, “Allen offers absolutely nothing in Match Point to place the actions in a critical context” (p. 207). Greg’s point here is that, while Allen’s professed aim was the make a movie whose message was that morality is only possible when we accept that life is meaningless–he had somehow wound up making a film with the very opposite message. I agree with Greg here (I said the same in my review), for the simple reason–obvious to a sophomore but apparently not to Allen–that meaninglessness and morality cannot co-exist.
Ironically, Desilet’s objection to Allen’s film (essentially that he does not judge his characters by presenting their actions outside of any critical context) is the entire philosophical point and raison d’etre of Allen’s film (as Desilet points out in his review): to depict life in a Godless universe, free from the “critical gaze” of any deity. So apparently, Desilet wants from movies what Allen is determined to deny in life: a visible, active moral compass impacting the lives of human beings every step of their way? In Desilet’s case, the presiding moral intelligence–the judge of the quick and the dead–is the filmmaker him- or herself.
While I can certainly agree with him about Allen and Match Point (or about most of Kubrick’s films: that they lack a moral center), how true is it that Taxi Driver offers nothing to place the actions in a critical context? I think it is only possible to say this if we completely ignore the possibility that an artist’s sensibility is the lens through which all his or her work is projected. The “critical context” for Travis Bickle’s actions is the film itself, being the film that Scorsese, Schrader, and DeNiro made and thereby imbued with their combined perceptions about Travis. Its power stems from the claustrophobia of being immersed in Travis’ world, both inner and outer, with no relief besides that of our own conscience, that is to say, our conscious critical awareness. For almost two hours, we get to become Travis. The film leaves us–by our own devices–to try and find our way through and out the whirlpool of morbid self-attention that is Travis’ existence as “God’s lonely man.” This can only occur by virtue of our own discernment. It cannot be via some deus ex machina correcting our course at every step that grace enters this world. It can only come about through our own compassion, acceptance, and love, in this case not just for Travis and his victims, but for ourselves.
The same applies to Michael Corleone and to every other tragic hero that ever stalked the halls of fiction–both high and low.
Argument to Jehovah
When it comes to compassion for the damned, Desilet certainly extends it when conditions are right for him to do so. In the afterword, Desilet writes the following about Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment):
The conundrum of his own identity . . . emerges and transforms through the voices of the characters he encounters. Each character speaks the voice of an “other” within himself. And, if in life or drama, the voice of another does not take on the weight and value of an inner voice, then that person or character has not come alive in the drama of a given person or character. It would be misleading to think of this internalization as the voice of “conscience” because, in the active inner life of any person, there are likely to be many competing voices. (p. 217.)
Naturally, all the voices in Crime and Punishment were aspects of Raskolnikov because he is the subject of the novel and its author, Dostoyevsky, created all the characters that populate that world. All these voices are literally sourced in Dostoyevsky’s interior world–his active inner life. We recognize a work as great drama or as art when the intelligence behind it is sufficiently in tune with his or her interior world to faithfully translate the various voices that sound forth from that interiority. This is what makes a work truly personal, as Taxi Driver is personal, compared to the impersonality of countless comparable works (like Shutter Island and other films Desilet admires, for reasons I have been unable to fathom).
Yet what makes a character and a voice “come alive” is also dependent on our own ability to tune into its particular frequency and become aware of the sentience behind it (the inner voice of its creator). In life, the more aware we are of ourselves and our own unconscious processes, the more aware we become of our environment and everyone within it, until potentially everyone we encounter “takes on the weight and value of an inner voice.” It doesn’t matter how aware they may be: it is what is moving through them, and its particular way of corresponding with our own unconscious, that we respond to. The same applies to a work of cinematic art: it doesn’t matters a jot how “contrapuntal” the characters surrounding the protagonist may be or how consciously and actively they engage him or her with critical conflict. All that matters is how aware the intelligence creating the tragic drama is, at the time of creation, and how much these characters represent voices from the creator’s interiority. The work in question then depicts a becoming conscious of inner conflict within the awareness of the people who have created it–as in the case of Schrader, Scorsese, and DeNiro’s shared revelation of male alienation in Taxi Driver. This can then be transmitted to a viewer or reader. Conversely, in the case of bad melodrama, we have the struggle of an artist to remain unconscious, to use artistic expression as a means to assert and reinforce a crucial fiction about the world and themselves–witness the morbid didacticism of Match Point–which has a corresponding deadening and emptying effect on audiences.
If Desilet’s aesthetic asceticism extended to every movie ever made, he might just have me as a convert. When all is finally said and done, I would be willing to throw Taxi Driver onto the bonfire of the vanities, if Desilet was arguing that culture in its entirety is a craven and corrupting edifice from which nothing emerges that is benign in any true or meaningful sense. (Nothing good comes out of Nazareth, and all that.) The trouble is, while dismissing some of the greatest works of American cinema (go Greg!), Desilet offers in their place films like Book of Eli or Shutter Island–films so undistinguished that all I remember about them is that I have seen them. Something is rotten in the Desilet Republic, HAL is starting to sing inane nursery rhymes off-key, and Desilet’s schemata are collapsing in a heartbeat as he demonstrates the very inverse of rigorous critical intelligence. I could just about be persuaded by his overarching thesis that the films I love aren’t as worthy of my affection as I thought they were (I have long suspected it), but to then be invited to transfer my affections onto a subset of tawdry B-movies that happen to meet Desilet’s set of abstract philosophical criteria, there I balk and bounce back to position, more or less (though truth be told, not quite) undaunted by the momentary wobble I have suffered. Sweet relief!
When Desilet “explains” why he likes Shutter Island or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (or even No Country for Old Men), he is advocating not film art, much less the power of individual expression, but those structural principals he considers to be most artistically sound and socially responsible. For Desilet, movies are apparently a means and not an end, and the end he has in mind is some sort of utopia of “nonviolent competition” where film art doesn’t so much represent life–complete with human neuroses–as some idealized goal of what life ought to be. Not that he wants art to represent that perfect world (he wants it to be tragic), but that he somehow wants the artists to do so, even while no such world exists for them, because it doesn’t exist for anyone. While Desilet is right, I think, in emphasizing the ways in which popular media acts as a form of soft propaganda and cultural indoctrination, even as a subtle form of violence, if his solution is to serve up a kinder, gentler sort of propaganda, then I am left with the amateur’s refrain as my only riposte: “I don’t know about synagonal art, Greg (or justice), but I know what I like.” I think I’ll stick with my spaghetti westerns.
The films I cherish the most do seem to have this in common: they invoke an experience of compassion in me, a kind of love that transcends the norm. That some–perhaps even most–of the characters in these films (Vertigo, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather 1 & 2, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Don’t Look Now, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Counselor) have distinctly “nasty, brutish” sides to them is what makes my experience of love so improbable and so startling. There is not less at stake because of how far these characters have fallen, there is more. If I can love characters who embody the worst in me, if I can love them despite their terrible failings, maybe I am learning to love myself in the same manner: without conditions?
This is not something I was fully aware of before I felt compelled–like Abraham arguing with Jehovah to spare Sodom–to counter the force of Desilet’s condemnation with my own counterargument. Out of a struggle to break down my opponent’s argument, I have forged my own oppositional thesis. I do not know if it is true; I only offer it as a possible alternative. Perhaps the struggle between our perspectives is synagonal and not antagonal? Perhaps we can finally return to the point we started, and know it at last? Because what divide is more worth bridging than the divide between the world and the soul?
 While reading a first draft of this piece back to my wife, she suggested that the appeal of Boardwalk Empire (like that of House of Cards, a show we gave up on) has to do not so much with key-hole peeking but with the growing public awareness that the ruling class is also a criminal class. Far from being beneath our interest, the lifestyles of the rich and heinous are of direct, pressing relevance to us, because these are the people who are running our world. This is even more apparent with The Godfather, which consciously uses an Italian mobster family to illustrate the underbelly of the American Dream.