I have no doubt that we are partisan when we look at art, its meaning and worth, just as I have no doubt that all art is partisan, too. College professors would have us believe that a science of criticism exists which would enable us to make judgements we can be sure of — and it does — but, unfortunately, such a science doesn’t cover enough of the elements which constitute a work of art or our ways of judging it. After teaching English in the universities for six years, I decided that criticism provides us mostly with an excuse to enjoy what we are already predisposed to like, and, given the emotional limitations of the university world, what we are capable of teaching. (After mortgage and children and insurance and tenure what we like in art is frequently what we are.) The eighteenth-century man likes the eighteenth-century, its Popes and Johnsons, its values, its classical measure — and even in its failures he is inclined to find the shape of good intention.
A bias at the heart of our judgment, yes, but even more so when we look at films. In the course of reading a book we have time to change our mind about things, or anyway, the author has time to change our minds. But seeing a film is different. Not only the brevity of the event, but the limited intellectual possibilities of the medium itself make it almost impossible for a filmmaker to challenge (uproot, enlighten, deepen?) the filmgoer’s attitude about the way things are. The fact is, no matter how much we insist upon our own disinterested judgments, we are inclined to praise the virtues of a film which confirms our good sense of things, and to detect easily the vices in films which don’t. (Of course what we regard as good sense is often made up of many things: half-understood political and economic theories, current intellectual trends, admirations, lessons of childhood, our unconquered whims, etcetera — so many things, in fact, that our good sense allows us to lead lives of deep contradiction without ever finding fault with ourselves. Good sense, in other words, which isn’t good sense, but more like the diet of tin cans and oranges which fatten the goats of Greece.)
Friends, to be honest, argue against such a view, insisting that they possess a fairmindedness, even an objective fairmindedness, which rises above those daily choices which may be said to constitute the manner of their life. But I don’t think so. I think that the life we create for ourselves and which certain economic and psychological conditions help create for us, the manner of our life — what interests us, what threatens us, what we hope for — embodies assumptions which are stronger, more imperative, and finally (to ourselves) more convincing than any notion we have of fairmindedness.
(Sometimes we try to hide our assumptions, disguise them, or even pretend that we don’t have any, but in the long run they make themselves clear to us. A few years ago, for example, when my relatives complained about the length of my hair, they would accuse me of conforming, of joining the crowd. What they were not able to see at the time was that the crowd was already established, and it wore short hair. It was only in relation to the unstated acceptability of short hair that long hair drew attention to itself and suddenly seemed collective. Short hair, however, represented the status quo itself, that is, the expectations of the society, its hidden rules to which one must accede if one is to succeed in that society. With its efficiency, its controllability, its masculine emphasis and lack of sensual line, short hair represented a set of unacknowledged assumptions which underpinned the mentality of the commercial bourgeoisie. It was well understood by everybody that one couldn’t get a job in the business world with long hair. Anyway, calling attention to these assumptions by challenging them made everybody angry.)
But even though I believe that our assumptions always make us partisan, that we go to movies with what seems like reasonably closed minds, I don’t want to conclude that partisanship is a fact and art is a game. Because there is a better point to be made. For if filmmakers need to admit that an audience secretly knows what it is looking for, then that very knowledge may create in the artist a craftiness which enables him to tell the truth less obviously and to deal with less obvious truths. In the best filmmakers a universalizing instinct takes over — inherent in the property of metaphor itself — which takes the strain off one’s arguments with existence, perhaps offering us even more of existence than we had before. Needless to say, it is the rare artist (filmmaker or otherwise) who shows us what all men can see, whose art adds to the fullness of life. The only term I can think of that describes the center of such an achievement is respectfulness, that is, a serious regard for the people who inhabit the film as well as a genuine consideration for the facts of their lives. Anything less is mere commerce. And this consideration should not be false, the way sentimentalism is false, a kind of hopefulness without facts.
The Hollywood film, on the other hand, with its purely commercial intent, an intent so dominant as to obliterate all suggestion of art except as veneer, offers us a kind of disrespect for life. Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar is such a film. Here the filmmaker tried so hard to figure a way to get the audience in to see his movie that, as a consequence, his inattentiveness to the real life of his characters allowed the picture to get away from him — the facts, the details, the words people say to each other, the smell and resonance of the real world.
There is almost nothing in this film which rings true; in fact, the movie looks like it was made by someone who had seen American movies but had never lived in America. The city streets, ostensibly New York streets, look like stylized stage sets from a Broadway musical — and one scene which takes place in an alley looks like it came straight out of Porgy and Bess, replete with black and white people arguing with each other in a friendly manner, kids, mamas, and laundry baskets. Nor can Brooks even hold onto his filmic style — the airless non-reality of the stage set gives way now and then to realism, and at the end, to superrealism, a sort of hacking-and-slashing realism which invariably takes the place of a good script.
The characters in the film suffer from the same inattentiveness. Pollution fills the air, affecting everyone, degrading everything — it is all worse than it needs to be. Theresa’s first lover, a college teacher, merely postures academics. He treats his student so badly that the women in the audience laughed. Her father drinks beer and watches football on TV, wearing a jacket with Notre Dame emblazoned across the back — I suppose the beer is for the Irish and the jacket for the Catholics. Her sister smokes grass and swaps. Theresa herself, who teaches deaf children by day and haunts singles’ bars by night, is never allowed to connect her two worlds, and so both seem gratuitous. Her innocence at the beginning of the film, that perfect, dazzling, chic, urban Diane Keaton innocence, is as false as her jadedness at the end. Annie Hall in the wrong place.
This story of a young girl raised in a lower middle-class Catholic family who haunts singles’ bars only to get killed by a lunatic pick-up suggests a moral at the end, but in the modern unspoken way, and of course not a real one. When Theresa is hacked to death we are not really supposed to think that sex without love leads to this; on the other hand, if the moral is there — no matter how simple-minded — we can perhaps justify the ghoulishness of the last scene its exaggerated sadism? Who knows? To go on would be pointless. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is one more shrewd film created out of the Hollywood notion that lurid puritanism (sex plus morality) is good box office, just as Hollywoodism itself is another form of disrespect for life designed to con you out of a few bucks. The point is a cynicism so consistent as to represent a point-of-view; not a set of assumptions we can take seriously, but the will to exploit any assumption.
If a silly determinism underlies Looking for Mr. Goodbar, then a respect for the manner of man’s survival underlies Alain Tanner’s 1975 film, Jonah Who Will Be Twenty-five in the Year Two Thousand. To Tanner survival means the survival of man as a creature of dignity, that is, as a creature possessing an intelligence which can name and understand the forces which degrade life, thereby rising above the normal confusion. Tanner shows a deep respect for the lives of his characters, and he never allows his political passions to overstate his perceptions: the characters, even though they are all in reaction to a well-defined enemy, a class, a form of life-destroying organization, are, nevertheless, full in themselves, psychologically complex, and unperfunctory. To use Sartre’s terms for a moment, Tanner’s socialism is vivid enough to offer us images of the master without being glib enough to be certain that the slave will replace him.
Jonah is a film about eight people in the 1970’s who come together on a farm near the Swiss border, and, privately or together, in conversation, on walks, over dinner, try to keep some image of dignity alive among themselves; they are not particularly political in their approach to reality, and yet few of them are unaware of the economic circumstances which surround, and occasionally overwhelm, their life. Nor is their retreat from the outside world by any means complete: one works in a bank-office, another behind a cash register in a supermarket chain, another teaches high school. Their joint cause is sporadic and casual, and some of them are not aware that the root of their camaraderie is political. It looks more like fellowship than politics — but perhaps that’s the point. In their eccentric way these men and women embody a range of opposition to capitalism which stretches from tantric buddhism to marxism, and yet in the presence of the enemy they all see the same thing: a joyless, mechanized, self-serving bourgeoisie which dehumanizes men and women in its factories, keeps most of the profits, and settles for nothing less than a constant extension of its power. This film is about how these people oppose this devouring of life by maintaining among themselves an understanding of what is true — whether that means growing vegetables without poisons, telling the truth in the classroom, or giving pensioners a break at the cash register.
Interestingly enough, Tanner’s assumptions which are political and therefore biased have allowed him to see the world more clearly, and, as it were, more respectfully, than the seemingly apolitical director of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. This clarity, I believe, comes from an attempt to identify the source of pain and confusion in the lives of his characters, and thereby reserving contempt for who is properly the enemy, in Tanner’s case, the capitalist profiteer. Brooks, on the other hand, assumes nothing and everything at the same time, never attempts to understand his characters emotionally or intellectually, but instead settles for a vague sense of the malaise, an opaqueness of motive, a malignancy at the heart of existence which touches everybody, leaving us with no dignity or comprehension. Unlike the absurd fatalism of Goodbar with its sense of unlived life, of tension without resolution, of the heart’s death, Tanner’s Jonah is alive with a feeling for the precise coloration of loss, and with its transparent imagery, not of a world that has grown irrevocably confused, but of a confusing world which remains, for those who want it to be so, fairly intelligible. It is this intelligibility along with his refusal to collapse in the face of the modern calamity, which has permitted Tanner his measure of clarity.
There seems to be a special prejudice against films that are obviously political, as if they violate some canon of good taste by calling attention to certain facts about our society, as one violates good taste by pointing out the crumbs our neighbors push under their carpets; or conversely, as if films which avoid emphasizing political issues are therefore more subtle. This is cocktail talk, however. The slightest reasoning tells us that UFO’s or country music or the cruelty of the insane asylum are not any better subjects for art than an image of the political realities of our time. Still, those subjects are distanced from us; they neither indict or implicate us, and having to think about them comes closer to that abstraction of “pure entertainment” the tired American supposedly wants when he comes home in the evening. Perhaps the depthless quality of such entertainment, or anyway, most of it, corresponds to a thinness in our lives, a banality, a forgetfulness, a continuous compromise that we are tired of making, but which we can’t stop? Perhaps we are partisan after all, deeper than we suspect, and that what films like Looking for Mr. Goodbar overlook, leave out, is precisely what we want left out too, just for our peace-of-mind? It’s hard to tell. Goodbar packs them in, though, and when the film is over the audience comes out, like those marbles of gum in penny machines, feeling handled.