02 Feb NEW YORKER: The Cinema’s Fear of Drama
The current cinema is haunted by a fear of drama. The master-thinkers of that fear—like the master-thinkers of modern cinephilia—are French, and there’s even some overlap between them. But these thinkers, for the most part, neither shared this fear nor intended to instill it. The fear of drama is a result of critical misinterpretation, but it’s a real fear nonetheless.
Taboos are misread into Jacques Rivette’s essay “On Abjection”; his warning against aestheticizing matters of life and death is distorted into worry about pictorializing almost anything. Taboos are extrapolated from Claude Lanzmann’s criticisms of particular representations of the Holocaust, which are wrongly extended to contesting fictionalization of nearly any serious matter. Taboos are accurately derived from Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” a frustrated non-artist’s sour-grapes screed against art, which gains credence through Debord’s postures in favor of revolution. Cameo roles are played by the critic André Bazin, whose praise of long takes on moral grounds exchanges psychology for facts and pleasure for virtue, and by Jean-Luc Godard, who, in the films of his nominally Maoist years, supplanted drama with abstemiously didactic scenes of doctrinal advocacy.
In a sense, this fear of drama comes off as latter generations’ asthenic corrective to the unrestrained classical cinephilic embrace of robust Hollywood-centric energies. Just as the New Wave continues to inspire cinephilic critics and directors alike, so this unconnected and unintended quintet of Grand Inquisitors overawes a later generation and places in them the fear of aestheticism, frivolity, irresponsibility, and sheer bad taste of boldly forging ahead to dramatize, depict, stage, and otherwise give oneself over to the power of cinematic fiction. Of course, filmmakers go on doing these things anyway, but many do so with a sense of bad faith, of guilt that they need to expunge, shame that they need to assuage—all the more so among the more intellectualized and self-critical reaches of independent filmmaking.
Fear of drama arises when the documentary genre is seen as meritorious unto itself and film criticism veers toward op-ed punditry in lieu of aesthetics. Yet many filmmakers who don’t plan to make documentaries also don’t have any particularly novel or original or personal approach to cinematic storytelling. Instead, their inclination, in the interest of morality, is to seek out political themes that they approach with a self-reflected sense of dutiful virtue, and then to run the movie through the deflavorizer, to strip out the risk of unjustified or inappropriate fun, to make sure that its bitter truths don’t entice but spur rue, don’t pass too sweetly. (The misguided controversy over “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a prime example of what filmmakers fear.) The fear of drama is a fear of pleasure.