Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Pretentious Stupidity"

What always bugged me the most about the postmodern, deconstructionist drivel I was forced to study in college was not the trademark duo of impenetrable prose and lazy thinking. My frustration was that once you made the effort to get past all that and by sheer force of will figured out the great thinker's point, well, it was obvious. Not wrong, usually, just really obvious. Stupid obvious. Like, "a picture of a tree isn't itself a real tree" obvious, and I'm not even making that one up. That's why their writing is so muddled, because if they came out and said their point clearly, not only would their essays be a great deal shorter, but the reader's inevitable reaction would be, quite simply, "um, duh."
But lord, do they ever think they are clever. They'll come up with books and plays and entire artistic movements based on the earth-shattering observation that, say, actors are actually, you know, acting. As if it never occured to Shakespeare that the guy playing the king in Hamlet wasn't, in reality, his and the nation's sovereign. No, if only the bard had been a tad more clever, he would have had his characters reflecting on their own inescapable characterness, and then of course he would have written himself as a character into all the plays, too, right before throwing out the last few pages of each one, naturally, because endings are just so artificial.
But postmodern thinkers have no talent and no real intelligence, just a smug belief in their own cleverness, a cleverness which is nothing more than pointing out that which has always been obvious to everybody else and which has simply never been remarked upon before precisely because it was so obvious. They remind me more than anything of a ten year old who thinks he's a genius because he's figured out Santa Claus isn't real, then devotes his entire life to spreading the word. Maybe I'm nuts, but I much prefer the kid who plays along with the illusion, because it's fun for his folks and it's a good tradition. You know, the kid who isn't a giant tool.
These postmodernists are so consumed with stating the obvious about the artificiality of art that the actual truth of art, its beauty and its divinity, goes straight over their heads. But enough of my rambling, go here and read "Obstinate Orthodoxy" and have Chesterton explain it all. Very crudely excerpting:

So long as we are thinking of the thing as copied mechanically and for money, as a piece of monotonous and mercenary ornament,we naturally feel that the flower is in a special sense an artificial flower and that the moonlight is all moonshine.[...]But the moon is the moon and the rose is the rose; and we do not expect the real things to alter. [...] The moon will continue to affect the tides, whether we paint it blue or green or pink with purple spots. And the man who imagines that artistic revolutions must always affect morals is like a man who should say, "I am so bored with seeing pink roses painted on chocolate-boxes that I refuse to believe that roses grow well in a clay soil." [...] Falling in love remains radiant and mysterious, however threadbare be the thousandth repetition of a rhyme as a valentine or a cracker-motto. To see this fact is to live in a world of facts.To be always thinking of the banality of bad wallpapers and valentines is to live in a world of fictions.

Please excuse me as I anticlimax, because all of this is just a very long preamble for me to say that I really liked this review of Watchmen by Debbie Schlussel. She's getting attacked by "graphic novel" fans for highlighting their special brand of "pretentious stupidity," but I'm loving it. Because she's attacking exactly what I can't stand, this bizarre belief in one's own remarkable cleverness for noticing the obvious. As she puts it, "Guess what? We know there are bad people and that people are everyday people with problems. If you don't know that, and you think a movie like this is necessary to make the point, you're even more warped and stupid than I originally diagnosed." I love this part, too, when she attacks the perverted love for sexual violence against women, which its drooling fans justify in the name of edgy realism and sophisticated art:

You're a bunch of dummies with no moral compass, but liking this stupid comic book which pretends violence and the depraved is "edgy" or "sophisticated," makes you feel smart. [...] Quit your pretentious drivel about this being important because it's a "graphic novel." Memo to the creators of Richie Rich and Archie: You missed your calling. If only you'd called your product a "graphic novel" and added scenes of Archie raping Betty and Veronica and Jughead sawing off Reggie's Arms, you'd be in businesss. Dummies.

What she says goes not just for Watchmen, by the way, but for most of the movie industry ever since the seventies. We're so daring and edgy and sophisticated, we're incapable of making decent movies anymore. Argh. And so I end this post like I've ended so many others, thinking God Bless TCM.

p.s. yes, I did like the "graphic novel" The Dark Knight Returns. It's not hypocrisy, it's sophistication, deal with it.

UPDATE: Related, and very true :
[Our cultural critics'] highest words of praise are adjectives like
“shocking,” “disturbing,” “searing,” and “radical.” They swoon over films like
Towelhead, The Woodsman and The Reader that seek to wrong foot our moral senses
by presenting us with sympathetic child molesters and Nazis.
But the truth
is, any fool can pull off crap like that. It’s easy.
The single hardest thing
to do in the arts is not to shock or disturb or sear or radicalize—but to
delight.

2 comments:

grendelkhan said...

If I have this right: (a) You're attacking postmodern literary deconstruction. (b) Debbie Schlussel is attacking Watchmen fans for defending the movie. (c) Debbie Schlussel says that she's doing so because the movie is merely postmodern wankery. (d) Therefore, you applaud Debbie Schlussel.

Please reconsider your support for step (c). From where I stand, it looks like she's simply trolling comic fans (a notoriously-trollable audience, unfortunately). Schlussel's argument would hold water if the film were indeed a series of pointless horrors (including the blue CG penis which so offended her that she mentioned it thrice, twice "swinging"), but, as fans keep trying to explain, it's not.

Trying to say anything substantive in response over at her place will inevitably be somewhat truncated--the commenters there are still trying to explain that "comics" isn't a genre. If you're actually curious about just what is so fascinating about Watchmen, there's a fascinating post and even more fascinating comments at Roger Ebert's blog; most of it is about quantum physics, but there are other topics covered--for instance, Dr. Manhattan's gradual isolation and growing inhumanity reminded me of something I'd read in an E.O. Wilson book about how minds can't exist separately from their emotions, which can't exist separately from their primary drives.

If you're bothered because it doesn't stroke your political prejudices like The Dark Knight Returns did (though I'm surprised more conservative-minded people aren't rallying around Rorschach, since he has such moral clarity), then say so. But don't dress it up with justifications about your high-minded principles; it's a vulgar sort of fig leaf. If someone can convince you that a work is valueless by pointing to it and shouting "postmodern! wankery!", I think that reflects poorly on you.

Schlussel tried to pull this same nonsense, ranting against the blood and gore in Watchmen after favorably reviewing Taken, 300 and The Passion. The only thing more grotesque than her self-serving hypocrisy is that people actually take her seriously.

Adrian said...

hey, thanks for reading and leaving a comment!
you definitely have the high ground in any argument, because I do not like the ol' ultraviolence and so I will never see watchmen, or any of the other movies you mentioned in your comment anyway, it's just not worth it as far as i'm concerned. I was just reacting to Ms. Schlussel's review and her take on it, whether or not that take is relevant to the movie is for you to judge, as you already have and quite strongly, because i definitely do not intend to find out. So I guess take what I said not as criticism of watchmen in specific, but of a certain kind of modern movie or book in general, of which watchmen may or may not be an example, the whole "let's show how ordinary and flawed and maybe even wicked our supposed heroes are" approach which annoys me a whole lot because, like i said, duh. It's just that her review is what reminded me of all the other movies that frustrated me, and I really liked her take on the style in general, at least as applied to those other movies. Anyway, sorry for the rambling incoherence!

Just to try to be clearer, while I won't see it because of the violence, the blood and gore isn't what annoys me about it, and I don't think that was Ms. Schlussel's point either, it was her mockery of the whole 'ooh, heroes are flawed' angle which appealed to me, the violence thing is unrelated. Maybe that's why she liked those other violent movies you talk about, but again, I'm not going to see them to find out.

p.s. the natural companion to the "good guys are flawed/twisted/fascist" movie is of course the "villains are noble/heroic/misunderstood" movie, which there is a whole lot of, too, with gangsters and murderers getting glorified, and I can't stand those movies, either, for what it's worth.