The Sound of Architecture

Otto Dix

Otto Dix

” If everything “looks” fake, then what is real? A fake film that makes no effort at naturalism disturbs the separation between spectator and screen. It is a total dreaming state in which the barriers between the dreamer and the dreamed, the projected and the real, are articulated in a jarring mash of lines and bichromate forms: everything is either shadow or light. The city provides the “stage” for this collapsing of the dreamer into the dream.”
Owen Vince
On Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

“Renoir has a lot of talent, but he’s not one of us.”
Daryl Zanuck

“My films were not for mass consumption…I could imagine nothing worse than producing something for an alienated mass culture, which I had no sympathy for.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini

I ran into an article in the Atlantic this week, and then for serendipitous reasons, I guess, I was reminded of Alex Ross’s exercises in cultural criticism at The New Yorker.
The reminder of Ross came via Ben Davis and this article And here is the Atlantic piece

Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland

They all have something in common. And it worth examining briefly what that might be. Ross is facile, glib (hence he gets gigs for The New Yorker) and writes the sort of thing that makes great airplane reading for the educated bourgeoisie. Davis is a cultural critic associated with the left. The conclusions of the pieces I site, are, in some very general way, correct (well not the Atlantic) The problem is the final conclusions, found in the last paragraphs of each article, are not what these articles are about. They are about an intellectual posture, an *attitude*. An attitude about culture and art. Davis’ book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class got a lot of play last year. And while I have a lot of disagreements with it, in fact with almost all it, I still think it is a work of serious intention. But the Artnet essay is very close, really, to what Alex Ross does at the New Yorker. And that is write about recognizable names for people who want to know *something* about these people without having to actually read them. So it’s actually rather close to surreal that Davis links to Ross and The New Yorker in his piece.

Attacking ridiculous Christian right wing trolls is maybe barely worth the effort. And issuing admonishment that an Anders Breivik is not to be forgotten, or an isolated incident, is quite correct but also maybe rather obvious. Or maybe not. In the Artnet piece, Davis suggests that Adorno and Benjamin have *outsized* importance in the artworld, and “for the very reason that their writings almost totally eclipsed questions of political organization and economic critique with questions of philosophical and cultural analysis.” Well, no, that’s not true. They weren’t *eclipsed*. This disguises a guileful hostility to art. Mostly though it suggests an unfamiliarity with Adorno. But like the Atlantic tabloid level argument, it is also wildly simplistic and reductive, and, because of this, incorrect finally. Inside this short secondary argument (not even secondary, it is really just an aside) is something much like what the Atlantic piece does, in a strange way. It is granting permission to avoid theory, to avoid thinking complex ideas. Or at least to discourage it. And why did Davis cite Ross from the New Yorker, and then an article at VOX? This is to prove the outsize importance of the Frankfurt School in the artworld? I assume that the idea is something like providing evidence of what popular media is churning out, except when you re-read it, that’s not actually what he is doing.

Someone told me this week, on social media, that if I would just lighten up with the density of my writing, I *might* reach a wider audience. This is a very American thing to say. Because the final goal of every breath is to grow your image and fame. I think he meant it as a pep talk of sorts (also very American). It is what your high school coach might tell you after you struck out with the bases loaded. It is masked hostility. But the message is, ‘density is unpopular’.

Thomas Demand, photography, model.

Thomas Demand, photography, model.

With Davis, the idea of an almost reflexive appeal to Alex Ross writing in the New Yorker feels very weird to me. NOTHING in the New Yorker really proves anything at all. Other than, maybe, that certain tropes are in play for rich white people in New York. Was that Davis’ point? And not to belabor this, but at the end of Davis piece is this:

“the notion of all-destroying “Cultural Marxism” remains out there, a readymade trope for the aggrieved and bigoted, offering, as conspiracy theories tend to do, a mythological face that condenses all their disconnected anxieties and hatreds into one target.”

That use of ‘conspiracy theory’ is troubling. Its perilously close to a dog whistle, I feel. And I am not sure those two sentences are not, again, so reductive as to actually prevent calling them accurate.

Pasolini and Callas, at premiere of "Medea", 1969.

Pasolini and Callas, at premiere of “Medea”, 1969.

The message that Ross makes in HIS article on the Frankfurt School isn’t so much wrong as it, too, is trivializing. And it masks its trivialization in a tone of clever and impudent, and with an adept sampling of pop cultural awareness. The seriousness is given lip service, but the tone belies this. And yet, when he concludes with…

“As the homogenization of culture proceeds apace, as the technology of surveillance hovers at the borders of our brains, such spaces are becoming rarer and more confined.”

he is right, of course. Absolutely. Still, I am not convinced that he really *is* right. And this could well be, largely anyway, not Ross’ fault. But I just cannot believe in the seriousness of what he is writing. It is the New Yorker, after all. It is a glossy magazine owned by the Conde Nast corporation. The editor is David Remnick. And Remnick is, among other things, the author of an adulatory biography of Barack Obama. Worse though has been Remnick’s relentless anti-communist journalism. The most flagrant was publishing Jon Lee Anderson’s error filled attack on Hugo Chavez, following the Venezuelan’s death. So bad in fact were the errors that the New Yorker was forced to issue retractions and corrections. Remnick, when he took over editorship from Tina Brown in 1998, immediately hired full-on reactionary and neo-con Jeffrey Goldberg. And it was Goldberg, remember, who wrote the New Yorker piece that originally linked Saddam to Al-Qaeda. My point is that publications such as The New Yorker are the mouthpieces of the establishment. They dutifully carry the water for the U.S. state department. So, whatever appears on the pages of such magazines is imprinted with a sense of deceit and manipulation. And the Ross piece, while surprisingly perceptive in places, is also disseminating the meta-message of conformity to the status quo. That is the job of such rags.

Franz Radziwill

Franz Radziwill

By the way, here is the definitive take down of the now infamous Jon Lee Anderson piece on Chavez:

Now, the Ben Davis piece is — like Ross — largely accurate. Except for when it’s not. But OK, some of my objections are simply a difference of opinion. But the point is that the Artnet piece has its critical edge blunted by this blurring or confusion between evidence as symptom or as authority.

It is also worth noting that in some respects I find something similar in what Abby Martin and the Empire Files are doing. On the one hand, there is a lot that gets said that is important, and accurate. And yet, and yet I have this nagging feeling of unease. Because finally, what is the total message of Empire Files? The answer is complicated. But for every very good thing that is said, for all the valuable information imparted, there is an equal amount of things NOT said that are, probably, more important. There are also very serious issues with some of what *is* said. And the heart of the issue is, really, how difficult it is to tally up the positives and negatives. A perfect example of how human relations are subsumed, and then made illegible, under late capitalism. I can’t tell if I think it’s good or not, because I can’t exactly tell what it is.

The Conformist (1970). Bernardo Bertolucci, dr.

The Conformist (1970). Bernardo Bertolucci, dr.

The form of Empire Files, or the New Yorker, is commerical. The beating blood-red heart is COMMERCE. These are commercial enterprises. And when Ben Davis uses Perry Anderson as a footnote, he does so by pimping for Verso Books. Now, on one level I suppose that is…ah…sort of…alright. Ross, Vox and Verso — these are the footnotes. And is this because they encapsulate something populist that is going on culturally? Is that the reason he uses them?

Now Oliver Stone made a series of short films or videos on U.S. history. They are very good. They are almost without problem. Yes, there are very serious missing elements, again, but I can’t find a great deal to criticize, really, of what is there, and more importantly, they service a huge need for pedagogical accuracy of some sort in the U.S. In one way it is impossible to do much better in a commercial world in which costs must be covered and distribution and so forth. But the Stone series somehow *feels* less marketed, less sold. And therein lies the question of profit, and how one produces shows in a capitalist market that are criticizing that market. I start to feel myself drowning beneath three levels of meta-meaning and implication. Who is more profit motivated, and why, and how? What is the effect on how the audience receives the *facts*? This is probably worth a deeper analysis, but my point here has more to do with critics and the need to pander.

Wilhelm Sasnal

Wilhelm Sasnal

The radical voices in this society must become a good deal more sensitive to the virus of the commercial. There is no escape, certainly. But Adorno was acutely aware of the implications of style and how it impacted the meaning of difficult material.

So back to the New Yorker. It is virtually impossible to write for a Conde Nast publication and not be compromised, period. I enjoy some of their film reviews. I enjoy Alex Ross if it comes to that. But I know this is not serious. And in the contemporary world nothing is so needed as seriousness. Nothing is so suspect now, either, as ‘enjoyment’. If you are writing a political commentary on trends in the zeitgeist, and you cite two major corporate run highly superficial sources, it would seem to warrant at least some critique of these sources.

L'Eclisse (1962). Michelangelo Antonioni, dr.

L’Eclisse (1962). Michelangelo Antonioni, dr.

Here is another quote of Davis’, where he links to Buzzfeed afterwards:

“Anyone who is acquainted with recent art writing will be familiar with the Frankfurt School, the group of Marxist philosophers known for virulent critiques of mass culture. If nothing else, readers will be familiar with the ritualistic invocation of its most sanctified figure, the brilliant and eccentric Walter Benjamin, author of the endlessly recycled essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

What might ritualistic invocation mean? Its snide, its silly, but it fits this third generation dupe of Hunter S. Thompson — but applying this style gell to a nominally scholarly piece of analysis. Or is it meant to be that? Its a bit of wanting to be both hip, but erudite. I think Davis is a smart critic, and worth reading, certainly worth in reading in ways stuff like Atlantic is not. But there is also something troubling about the presentation of his positions. As a Hollywood producer once said to me about a veteran director…“he doesnt live up to his vibe”.

Secrets of a Soul / Geheimnisse einer Seele ( 1926) G.W. Pabst, dr.

Secrets of a Soul / Geheimnisse einer Seele ( 1926) G.W. Pabst, dr.

I was thinking of Bertolucci’s The Conformist this week (after reading Davis). Made in 1970, it remains among the best films of the era, one of the best photographed, and in retrospect it feels as it were marking the end of such filmmaking. By which I mean political, personal, literate, historical — films that approched allegory. I have said this of other films, but those were American. This was the last great film of Bertolucci, and maybe of that generation of European directors of which he was the baby. Now Bertolucci has continued to make films, but along with Last Tango in Paris and The Spider’s Stratagem, all made at within a three year period, and The Conformist, he seemed to have used up his creativity. Bertolucci felt old long before he ‘was’ old. But in those three films the quality I find most significant is the seriousness — fascism in Italy, death, and honor. Bertolucci made 1900 a few years later, and while it has some great qualities, and a kind of grandness, it is already flaccid and overwrought. The rest that followed is junk, and at times embarrassing junk. But then film is that most mediated of mediums. All films are commercial enterpises. The greatest of film art is when the director, the filmmaker, comments on his own compromises, and incorporates this into some kind of totalization and negation of failure, the failure of an impossible project. From out of that trauma of expression comes the radical vision. Potentially.
Ezra Stoller, photography. 1966. Olivetti -Underwood typewriter factory. Louis Kahn architect.

Ezra Stoller, photography. 1966. Olivetti -Underwood typewriter factory. Louis Kahn architect.

One of the virtues of The Conformist is the cinematography. Vittorio Storaro went on to do a lot of memorable work, but maybe nothing that quite equaled this. And one of the enduring qualities of the images in this film is the sense of architecture. The soulless fascist, immaculate, repressed, puritanical, anal and sadistic..all of this is reflected in the buildings that themselves reflect nothing back. If one goes back to German expressionist cinema, the UFA period of silent films, all of which were made on indoor stages, the sense of architectural space is always both artificial and organic both, and somehow emotionally alive (by embracing the fatalistic sense of mortality). The most obvious example is Lang’s Metropolis, but really it is more acute in the Mabuse films, and in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul) by G.W. Pabst (1926), or even The Student from Prague (1926) Henrik Galeen. There is a telling and prophetic footnote to the history of UFA studios. In 1925, Ufa came to an agreement with MGM and Paramount, (the Parufamet contract) which granted the American studios exclusive rights of distribution for UFA films. The U.S. studios loaned the Germans something upward of four million dollars…an amazing amount at that time. However, MGM and Paramount released very few of the German films, having decided most were *unsuitable* for American audiences. The Germans were also under contract, then, to show American films in Germany. This, from Film….

“Instead of making inroads into a new market, Ufa – as a result of these obligations – blocked its own productions’ access to the domestic market while opening up this market to the competition. The contractual terms were so unfavorable that they considerably worsened Ufa’s crisis.”

The Spider's Stratagem (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci, dr.

The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci, dr.

Most of the Weimer artists fled to the United States with the rise of Hitler. That sense of film as dream image, or nightmare, came with them, but so did the influences of emotional and psychological realism. In fact, though, the reaction to German expressionism was felt in both fine arts and film, the Neue Sachlichkeit, New Objectivity, and in some respects this has had a longer lasting influence. The paintings and drawings of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Grosz were unsentimental and emphasized a clarity of vision, and a focus on waking life. They were not, however, conventionally *realistic*. It was the objectivity of someone with a high fever. The later work of Fritz Lang, for example, always seemed to teeter on the edge between hallucinatory and rigidly sober and restrained. And the Langian close-up very much feels like an Otto Dix portrait. And in Lang there was an undeniable architectural sensibility. The growth of urban life was now the incubator for one’s dream life. The relative lack of populations during the Renaissance resulted in a good deal of painting of crowds. In the crowded landscape of 20th century cities, there was a corresponding rise in compositions of emptiness and isolation. The emotional was eclipsing the factual. The desire for quiet, for emptiness, for solitude — this drives all the new reconstruction/zombie franchises. Or rather, the shift was been from a desire or quest for solitude, to a desire or quest to exterminate entire populations. The desire for getting rid of people. Humanity is experienced, mythically anyway, as intrusive and threatening.
Liu Wei

Liu Wei

Storaro manages to make the clean blank facades somehow unearthly, the entire film seems to happen in some afterlife. The windows do not reflect sunlight, they seem rather to absorb it. In much of Pasolini, certainly in Teorema, and in Antonioni, though in a different way, and even in Bruno Dumont’s Humanite, the filming of architecture is always crucial, always mirroring psychic structures, and always alive for us as it portends death, in this crypt-like coldness. Antonioni’s L’Eclisse might well be the most architectural film ever made. And I suspect there is a monograph waiting to be written on Antonioni and windows. But above all else, The Conformist is not ironic, it is deathly serious. It never winks at the audience. I was trying to think of contemporary films that are sans wink — and honestly only perhaps Un Prophet, Jacques Audiard, and maybe Stranger at the Lake and Mister John. Certainly Timeout. And Beau Travail. That is about it. There are films I admire that still pander a bit, such as Fatih Akin’s Head On (2012), or Matthew Saville’s Noise (2007). These are very good films, but still films that somehow do not quite resist a quality of familiarity, and that dooms them to some more minor status.

I feel as if I have a somewhat coherent grasp of the nature of theatre, of its origins and evolution. Incomplete and often contradictory perhaps, but at least I can mentally manage it all. The nature of cinema however feels a lot less coherent. And film is the dominant aesthetic form in the 21st century. For better or worse (no doubt worse I suspect). In a dialogue, mid fifties, between Adorno and Horkheimer, Adorno said…

“On the one hand, we are facing questions today that can no longer simply be expressed in economic terms; on the other hand, anthropological questions can no longer be separated from economic ones.”

and Horkheimer replied…

“Today it is no longer possible to distinguish between good and bad.”

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

There is a discussion to be had then about ideas that are abstract. This is too complicated here, but I only mean that notions such as freedom are mediated by psychological regression. The destruction of the environment is partly the result of human self hatred. But that self hatred is, itself, the product of human domination. Today in the West, at least in the U.S., this idea of pleasure is inextricably tied up with work. Making work enjoyable, for example. Recreation in the U.S. is among the most depressing areas of human life on the planet I think. Mostly because it mimics exploitive labor. Why ride environmentally destructive dirt bikes across pristine desert eco systems? Why is that enjoyable? I have no real answer, actually. Except that loud noises seem to express freedom from containment. In prisons, the noise from inmates is constant. It is incessant and very loud. Why? To symbolically break out, probably. Now, in theatre such questions seem not to exist. In film, as it has evolved, it is very much in existence. Hollywood movies are, by and large, louder than ever. They are in some fashion like those dirt bikes in the desert.

That noise in Hollywood film migrates at times to image and narrative. In certain prestige products the sound track can be very quiet, but the screaming and explosions are in the story and in the pictures. I believe it was Sarris who described Joseph Losey films that way; visual screaming and whispers of meaning. That is probably unfair to Losey, but not entirely untrue. And today, Hollywood films are increasingly child like. Or adolescent anyway. Ridley Scott’s newest film, Martian, is like a high school student’s incredibly well made film. Again, the real point of the film is subject attitude. Matt Damon being sort of cute. Admittedly at times very amusing, and even sort of smart, but by the end there is a disquieting feeling of having enshrined an idea of boys are just being so great because they are boys. And this is a film with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars. Worse are all the indi films coming out of the U.S. in which it is clear that a generation of writers now have lost even the last frail grasp of narrative. So, to return to The Conformist, or to Antonioni, or Pasolini…and we could add Bergman, really, and Rossellini, and certainly Fassbinder; that generation made films that today feel very quiet. But it is a particular kind of quiet, I think.

Thomas Struth, photography. (St. Petersburg, 2005).

Thomas Struth, photography. (St. Petersburg, 2005).

The importance of sound in film is understated. In Italian cinema, after WW2, there were debates around the question of post synching the sound track. Elias Chaluja suggested that post-synchronization was an expression of the dominant class, of its ideology and a way to distance identification, but more, to ‘conquer the screen’. Remember that Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni and a dozen others had signed the Amalfi Manifesto in 1968, protesting government censorship, and monopoly control of distribution, but also the laws concerning post synchronization. Antonioni perhaps above all other film directors, radically reversed trends in how to score films. His films create sound-scapes, for lack of a better word. He, like Pasolini, under duress, fashioned new ways to dub and post synch their films. Which suited both their sensibilities. The anti fascism of both instinctively rejected music cues for narratives. They were out to liberate the screen, not to conquer it.

Antonella Cisto, in a very good book on Italian Cinema and Sound, writes:

“Fascist oration continued to circulate in the mouths of foreign actors in foreign films via the voices—timbre and style—of the same dubbers who originally celebrated the Duce and Hitler in the LUCE newsreels and documentaries. Antonioni notes scathingly how Guido Notari’s voice, spoken “with all the emphasis required by the superior hierarchies and with a total lack of sensibility,” is still audible after the historical fall of Fascism, and still declaimed “with the same cadence, the same warmest faith that was fascist,” thus suppressing any other foreign spirit and substance. Dubbing, Antonioni affirms, is a “nightmare” from which the Italians need to
be liberated.”

Antonioni was utopian, said Barthes. And in a sense this was true, but Antonioni is worth comparing with contemporary Hollywood filmmakers such as Sophie Coppola or Darren Aronofsky, because Antonioni was always telling a story based on class analysis. The sound in his films was the sound of what wasn’t normally heard. The sound beneath the surface. If Blow Up, for example, is initially read as deconstructing ‘swinging London’, the reality is more an excavation of the poetic spaces beneath ‘swinging London’, and the anxiety of sensing it is there, normally unseen. Barthes posited the *obstuse* or third sense — the signifier without a signified, and he said it of Antonioni. When Hullot-Kentor wrote, and I quoted last post, that meaning is found in those non conceptual areas behind conventional reading, this is closely related. And it is here that film as a medium takes on its unique capacity to access dream life. Even in Newsweek, reviewing Sophie Coppola, comes this: “the one thing Coppola doesn’t steal from Antonioni is his class awareness; there’s never so much as a glimpse of the lives of, say, the maids in her ‘I’m rich but I’m depressed in a hotel’ movies.”The sound not heard, the missing sound, the sound that is anticipated but doesn’t come — that is Antonioni.

Luca Palazzi (Berlusconi Burlesque) 2010.

Luca Palazzi (Berlusconi Burlesque) 2010.

Remember, too, that when Bergman and Antonioni died on the same day in 2007, the media coverage of those deaths was shockingly and disturbingly hostile and negative. For the conquest of the screen is now complete in the U.S. Exceptions exist, but they are few. That quality of fascist oration, the one you hear in Il Duce, or Hitler, is now heard in Netanyahu, and in slightly different form, in Trump and Sanders and Hillary. Regressed mimesis. In Shonda Rhimes popular Scandal TV show, by my estimate, fully 70% of dialogue is screamed or shouted.

The lost sense of quiet, of absent sound, has links to architecture though. That sensitivity to space in Antonioni, and in Pasolini, is expressed with a kind of acute awareness of the architecture surrounding the human. Bertolucci, too, again in his trilogy from the early 70s. Today, in Hollywood if Nature appears, it is often fetishized. It is either an antagonist, a criminalized nature, or it is beatified — a domesticated part of holiday leisure time. Architecture has a sound, but it isn’t heard directly. Antonioni was very conscious of this, and so was Pasolini. Obtuse meaning, said Barthes, was outside articulated language, but within interlocution. If architecture is read in a class context, firstly, by Antonioni, it is linked to something more nearly mystical in Pasolini. For Pasolini montage subverted the sense of domination, it disrupted the point of view in narratives of authority. He was, perhaps paradoxically, more obsessed with technical issues than even Antonioni. He longed for the “the original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary” origins of art. Pasolini’s mimetic compositions, in film, in that uncanny duration of moving images, was charged with political import. In Pasolini, the reaction shot is not a reaction shot. The prevailing societal point of view — the expected establishing shot, is never quite that. But Pasolini was also highly classical in a sense, too. The audience does not look where society looks, and his characters do not look there either. David Ward in his book on Pasolini, observed Pasolini’s often quoting Barthes, especially the idea of ‘suspended meaning’.

“It is not cinema that is a metonymic art, it is reality that is metonymic.”

Mariana Castillo Deball. Genoa, 2014.

Mariana Castillo Deball.
Genoa, 2014.

Pasolini said the screenplay was a structure that wanted to be another structure. He sense of the material reality around him is always the point of film. Poetics is material, not language about poetics. In both Antonioni, and Pasolini and really, to only a slightly lesser degree in Bertolucci, the material world portends death. The aggression against nature that is those dirt bikes in the desert is the psychoanalytical framing of the disenchanted world. The obsession with speed in the societies of the West today is, as Adorno put it, “a proxy for the enjoyment of work”. Marx said in a false society that technology develops wrongly. This is tied to that idea of *entertainment*, wherein the audience for mass culture feel their own alienation, their own superfluous labor, congealed (Adorno’s word) in themselves — and hence the need for endless repetition of these feelings. One’s identity is sold by mass manufactured media as individualist consumer/producer, and this is the symbolism in play. And it was Pasolini above all other filmmakers was looking for a poetics that interrupted ideas of entertainment. It was in Antonioni, however, where that poetics was more fully realized. For Antonioni, as David Ward put it, was more patient. And this is a crucial consideration, I think. Antonioni never sought control. The famous last shot in The Passenger is among the most beautiful in all of cinema. And it is beautiful because it is inevitable. The Passenger is a film about death. Antonioni’s work is of another register, finally. It is more meditative and less combustible. Looking at the three Italian fimmakers that followed on Italian neo-realism, none of their work seemed consistent with Western culture by the late 70s, if we mean the U.S. And all of them had some contact with Hollywood. Bertolucci was lost there, in fact, and Antonioni navigated it and criticized it, but even if Zabriskie Point feels better today than when it came out, it still doesn’t feel close to his best work. Pasolini died early of course, murdered in 1975, almost certainly by fascists working with the Mafia.

John Mason, ceramic. 1956.

John Mason, ceramic. 1956.

Geoff Andrews’ wrote, in an article from 2005 on Pasolini’s death…

“Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Pasolini’s death was P2 member 1816 – Italy’s current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who was a member of the organisation from 1978. Berlusconi’s populism represents everything Pasolini warned against in his later articles. His control of 90% of Italian TV, (much of it “degrading” and “vulgar” in Pasolini’s earlier description), helped him consolidate power and eradicate dissent. His “culture of illegality” has given new hope to the Mafia, while ensuring that Italy’s body politic remains the most degenerate in western Europe.”

The mimesis of Mussolini and Berlusconi, the fascist orator, the patriarch. In this case a patriarch with a cheap machine tan. Pasolini certainly prophetically expressed the coming cultural vulgarity of Italy (Berlusconi remember owned over 90% of media at one time), and by extension of all mass culture. This a specific vulgarity that can only come from the singular clerical fascism of Italy. And in a curious way, the visions of Antonioni and Pasolini both were seeped in an awareness of the architectural mirroring of this. Las Vegas today, another Mafia town, loud, bright, garish, and somehow oddly southern European Catholic (Vegas is not the love child of Polish Catholicism or even Spanish, or Luther or Calvinism). It is the more harmonious merging of Puritanism with the Vatican. It is gold rings on one side and gold Rolex Daytonas on the other. The architecture of Las Vegas is the cartoon parody of Venice and Florence. It is the kitsch death dream of western fascism, and if looked at dialectically, the cartoon casinos and sonic pollution is also an extension of American road and car culture (speed), of Puritan worship of money and hoarding, and it is the parody of work writ large. The slot machine, the repetitive turning of the cards, the rolls of dice, over and over and over. Leisure Fordism. The ultimate leisure palace, Cesar’s Palace or MGM Grand reside in the Vegas Vatican, and it is probably not surprising that Donald Trump is a hotel magnate who builds equally monumental fascist towers. The Nazis and the Catholic Church, the Aryan worship of monuments, and excess in design — the aesthetic links are all there. And a desert to destroy on dirt bikes just outside your hotel window. That last shot of The Passenger will haunt cinema for another hundred years.

Fra Angelico. (Bust of Christ, 1438).

Fra Angelico. (Bust of Christ, 1438).

The architecture in films by these Italian directors seems to figure into their aesthetic vision in a more concrete way than, say, the French. It has a political color to it. Italians have never left the marble and stone of the Renaissance. The French did leave history, in a sense, for a while. The English — the English New Wave, captured something like Chaucerian death in northern towns, but also in the damp and constantly disappointing seaside resorts. But in the U.S., in Hollywood, there was always only a sort of advanced pragmatism of the philistine arts laborer. (The area around the first street bridge in LA, and down Santa Fe, and up to 7th street, is literally in 98% of shows filmed in Hollywood. Why? Because its easy. A half hour ride out to Redlands or Whittier might find fresh architecture, unseen landscapes, but why bother think location scouts and the bean counters in studio offices. Why? ).Entertainment rejects anything difficult. Not only do critics, or reviewers reject the difficult, they attack it. It must be torn apart like wild dogs tear apart a rabbit. Difficult is never just *boring*, it *utterly insanely mind numbingly tedious and boring*. The reaction of Jean Luc Godard, by the 70s, and with Fassbinder, and others (Jean-Marie Straub for one), the Italians, all of them, was to exile superficial amusement. Make difficult a tactic. It was, I suspect, their own instinct for artistic survival.

“The time before the arrival of the relative with the powers of a prophet is characterized by silence of the family members with each other (nothing to talk about when everything has already been decided by the system).”
Victor (Acting Out Politics blog)
On Pasolini’s Teorema.

The factory at the start of Teorema, the brutal Turkish countryside where Gospel According to Matthew was filmed (and a film I’d nominate as among the very greatest of all time), the medieval city of Sana’a in Yemen for Arabian Nights…Pasolini saw landscape and architecture in terms of a gaze that is, perhaps for lack of a better word, historical. Antonioni’s Red Desert, where again, the point of view is neither that of Antonioni, nor of his lead character Guiliana. Or Godard’s Contempt, or Fassbinder in Berlin Alexanderplatz, or Straub in Moses and Aaron, or Melville in Army of Shadows..always the space is both a cinematic space, and an architectural one. It is more than that, however, it is an actual space. It repels illusion in a way that worthy of an entire post, at the least. The artificial is not hidden, but turned inside out. It renders artificiality mute. In Hollywood today the technical, as well as the narrative, serve only to pump up artificial tension, suspense (one could write an entire monograph on the idea of suspense, something which is an oddly chimerical notion) and titillation. These elements are presented as naturalistic. Nature has no suspense. That is a narrative. But a narrative with suspense, except on rare occasions, is only advertising. Suspense and tension distract the viewer from everything else. Literally.

Socrates (1971) Roberto Rossellini, dr.

Socrates (1971) Roberto Rossellini, dr.

For all the snideness I run into regarding the Frankfurt School, but in particular Adorno, I want to conclude this with a couple points. I had wanted to write about Black Mountain College, in the late 40s and through the 50s. The state of pedagogy and academia today makes revisiting such movements rather important, I think. But I will write more next time. Pasolini’s aesthetics, his adherence, early on anyway, to Gramsci, brought him very close to Adorno’s position. *Illusion* is central to Adorno. Marx thought that as markets got more complex, relations between men became more obscured. Social reality becomes obfuscated. And Adorno took this and analysed late capitalism in terms of aesthetics. It is interesting, lets say, that this seems to bring out such hostility today. The tension between social structures and culture is rarely examined from a position that stresses the cultural. Adorno thought social relations were being increasingly made invisible, or distorted, while areas of culture, including leisure and advertising, took on a false appearance. Unlike Lukacs, Adorno saw promise in modern art, and that through an examination of social and historical forces, one could come to understand the illusions of society, and of self. This is highly reductive, needless to say, but the point is that for Adorno all sociological analysis is also criticism. Art expresses something outside the factual, and this comes by way of form. The difficulty of Adorno’s style is intentional — and his justification is wildly complex. I’ve over the last two years written a good deal on this, and I’m just scratching the surface, really. He said that what mattered in art was not the meaning (the datum) but rather was in the form, in how the artwork *crystallizes* the social relations that went into its making. The experience of the artwork was of another category almost, and one more linked to clear Marxist ideas about hegemony and production.

“The unsolved antagonisms of reality reoccur in the work of art as the immanent problem of its form. This, not the entry of objective moments, defines the relation of art to society”

Adorno wanted art that resisted integration into the social order (or re-integration). How this occurs takes up thousands of pages. For the purpose of this post, I feel there is a depressing dependence on attitude and identity in cultural criticism today, from both right and left. From the right, it is obvious and self justified, and from the left it seems simply a kind of blind spot, a missing of a very large point. And maybe expresses something of the coerced paranoia and distrust that anyone seeking revolutionary change is subject to. If the artwork becomes a marketing tool, then its probably not art. If it becomes a meme, same thing.


  1. John:

    I was curious to know what your opinion on this piece on Antonioni would be:

    Especially this portion:


  2. Sorry for the typo:

    Especially this portion*:
    “British film critics Ian Cameron and Robin Wood provide one of the better commentaries in Antonioni, a series of essays published in 1968. The authors admire the director’s artistic skills but perceptively point to one of the underlying weaknesses in his work—Antonioni’s “defeatist” approach.
    According to Wood, Antonioni’s concentration on style became a means of avoiding more complex aesthetic and social questions. Wood argues that one of the functions of art is to make its recipients “in some sense more alive—not necessarily happy … but alert, responsive, active. The whole movement of [the films] seems to work in the opposite direction, so that they become a sort of depressive aesthetic drug.”
    The artistry in Antonioni’s movies, he continues, “makes them the ideal medium for the self-indulgence of disillusioned intellectuals. Even their desolation is strangely comforting, because it is so little disturbed by any activeness of protest, and so beautifully expressed. There are many ways of seeking refuge from the complexities, confusions and anxieties of a profoundly disturbing age; Antonioni’s retreat into a fundamentally complacent despair is a particularly subtle and insidious one, because it gives the impression all the time of uncompromisingly confronting them.”
    This analysis, and the recognition that powerful creative work can only be maintained by fearlessly challenging the existing social order, is valuable advice for any filmmaker and artist today.
    Antonioni’s creative skills, particularly his ability, in his early films, to visually demonstrate the inner, emotional complexities of modern life, and to make some sort of protest against it, constitute a contribution to cinematic art. This vital element, however, became increasingly faint during the late 1960s and then appears to have died out altogether over the last two and a half decades.
    The artistic decline of an undoubtedly talented figure is a complex process and, in Antonioni’s case, obviously connected to the difficult intellectual climate in which he worked. It is also, however, bound up with his own decision, conscious or otherwise, to accommodate himself to the political and social status quo.”

  3. John Steppling says:


    I remember that article, actually. And I think it is pretty representative of what Ive tried to say in the posting. Whether Antonioni suffered a creative decline, it didn’t occur because or for the reasons Wood and Cameron suggest. But it points to something pretty relevant about aesthetics today, and that is that there is almost never anything but the final reliance on *message*. Even when other factors are referenced, the final appeal to interpretative authority resides in a reconstruction of message. Wood is complaining (and the trotskyists at WSWS) about Antonioni not making the movie they wanted (or movies). The idea that the story was not morally instructive somehow is seen as a failure…and this is true, depressingly, of almost ALL leftist criticism. And it borders on fanatical. To read the major Antonioni films as *defeatist* is sheer philistinism. Its as if the world of just basic sub text didn’t exist. How in the world does one arrive at the conclusion that Antonioni is accommodating the status quo? I guess these films were be seen as much improved if a character gave a speech advocating revolution at the end. But beyond that, if you look at Woods output, its always been pretty lame. Wood made a top ten film list for Criterion — and its not a bad list. It wouldnt be mine, but its perfectly defendable. But he includes a Sam Fuller film. Pick Up on South Street. Now Fuller was a rabid right winger…so twisting one’s interpretation to make him into a politically radical director is a bit bizarre…..but I think it is not totally irrational. But he fails to do that with Antonioni…..and this is what I meant by the consistent hostility to antonioni when he died. And I think that’s because Antonioni is very hard to talk about. Maybe only Sirk is more difficult. But the form of antonioni’s films is always radical. Its always disruptive….and while yes, by the time of Zabriskie Point I think he had lost the thread (and its a really fascinating question why so few directors improve as they get older) but The Passenger is probably my favorite of his films. Antonioni was acutely aware of celebrity and its effects on how audiences would receive his work. Kubrick was too, and I think probably less successful in handling it. Maybe. But the major films of Antonioni remain surprisingly disruptive of expectations — but there is, to be sure, a point where directors who become as *respected*….or whatever word you choose…popular….become open to such imitation that its hard to see the work anymore except through the lens of ironic parody. The very best films resist this, but even those …Welles comes to mind….are subject to the effects of familiarity. People who may have never seen a Welles film will have an opinion about him.That is one of the problems with film as an art form. Film so saturates culture today that the sheer volume of images and stories and stars…I mean Geoffrey O Brien once tried to tally the hours that have been recorded on film and video. Everything from Mexican soap operas and vampire movies to Filipino TV shows to American game shows….and the conclusion was that it beyond counting. Billions of hours. And its out there all the time. But also, beneath this reaction to Antonioni is what I posit as a hostility to art. To seriousness. I mean of course he is going to be criticized now….as reactionary, as self indulgent, as meaningless, etc etc etc. And wood was always very hostile to both marx and freud, and certainly to french theorists that he might have called structuralists. So its odd the WSWS published him. Or maybe not. In any event, I remember that when I taught at the Polish Film School I was surprised how few first year students had ever seen an Antonioni. He was one of those directors who was famous but never viewed. He’s just not entertaining enough, I think. One student complained about his the trilogy that ‘nothing happened’. If some on the left are going to read his films as defeatist, that is hardly surprising I suppose. But it speaks to a general inability overall in today’s critical landscape to engage with work on any sort of more complex level. Im sure there are cogent critics of Antonioni….but Ive not read many. Having nothing happen is itself something happening.

  4. John Steppling says:
  5. John Steppling says:

    Hamish Ford, in another essay wrote…….”Irrespective of how one ultimately reads a film like L’avventura, one thing is certain with this time-image cinema: the powerful temporality that so radically challenges our thought, disabling action and undermining inherited metaphysical superstructures, escapes – even as it destroys – our visual-epistemophilic desire for control.”
    I think it is important to know how deeply both Antonioni and Pasolini were affected by Fascism in Italy. The architectural legacy of Fascism. And that that entire post sync debate was in their mind when they began to make films. One was not trying to conquer the screen. It was about an emancipation of screen, and of space.

  6. It’s certainly what you say about much of the modern-day left needing a tangible thread through which they can examine and appreciate an artist. For instance, Faulkner was no doubt a first-rate novelist, but he seems to be fashionable and somewhat easily co-opted these days due to the ways in which his novels “explored racial relations in the Old South”. That’s just an example of course. It’s only to say that even great artists can inadvertently lend themselves to co-option if the primary *subject* of their art is easily assimilated into the intellectual discourse du jour.

  7. As for whether artists get better as they get older or not, that’s a whole subject I hesitate to discuss as the likes of Malcolm Gladwell have turned that entire topic into an insufferable cliche, but that’s just me.

  8. With that said, even if few directors seem to improve with age, I’d there’s a fair amount who never really *lost it* with age (e.g. Ozu, Bresson, Bunuel, Mizoguchi, etc.) Filmmakers generally do NOT peak ‘too soon’ in my view the way poets often do.

  9. Sorry for not consolidating all this into one post, but thoughts keep coming. Anyhow, you address a broader issue, the contradiction of a genuinely great or radical work of art nonetheless being a commodity, and many critics today seem to despise this paradox or at the very least, they don’t want to have to contend with it beyond saying, “well so and so may have been “radical”, but their works were commodities, so therefore they can’t truly be radical.” See how J. Hoberman discusses Antonioni or Bunuel to see what I mean. Or I guess Proyect’s reaction to Cormac is as good an example as any, but I know you know what I mean so I won’t elaborate too much. Someone like Sartre, or Rivette, or Chantal Akerman is perhaps easier to discuss for someone like Hoberman, since with them, this thorny paradox isn’t so readily apparent.

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