So, my wife and I just watched The Heiress - her for the first time, me for the third - and I stumbled across this essay on William Wyler while I was getting ready to blog about the movie.
Now - I agree with a lot of what David Cairns writes here. I, too, have vague reasons for thinking that Wyler is under-appreciated by film critics/buffs/historians. And I endorse his "big claim" that Wyler "is dramaturgically the finest director ever." Cairns writes that he thinks Wyler's "command of dramatic form, of the screenplay's structure and substance, of casting and directing actors, is second to none" and I agree. And while I wouldn't necessarily say that he's a great "painterly" image-maker - like D.W. Griffith, John Ford, or Orson Welles - I would say that he is a great "theatrical" image-maker: he has one of the best senses of staging of any filmmaker out there.
Anyway, I agree with most of the essay, but Cairns also writes something that stopped me cold:
One argument should be put forward first, however. Try as I might, I can't claim that Wyler's strongest films fall into Manny Farber's category of Termite Art. They are not small, modest, cunning genre films. Wyler's films tend to be big, they often tackle Important Themes, and feature big emotional scenes for great actors. They sound a lot more like White Elephant Art, don't they? So I have to argue that there needs to be a third category, which can contain all the big, ambitious, meaty films which happen to be GREAT. If we can allow such a category as Mammoth Art, Wyler can be admitted, and will find himself in good company with Lean, Fellini, Ophuls, Chaplin, Welles, Murnau, Minnelli, Kurosawa... Small is not the only virtue.
I think Cairns is making a huge mistake here and I'm pointing it out because I think it's a fairly common mistake made by film critics.
Now, readers of this blog probably could guess that I think very highly of Manny Farber's essay on Termite Art vs. White Elephant Art. I think it was (and is) a necessary corrective to the tendency to treat only "prestige pictures" as worthy of critical attention and to ignore all kinds of worthwhile movies that fall outside the approval of "the critical establishment".
At the same time, like all of Manny Farber's film criticism, it is very idiosyncratic*. Farber has a very unique take on the movies, which is part of what makes him so compelling as a critic, but it is also what makes his criticism so unsuitable as the basis for a system to classify movies (let alone art) in general.
The idea that David needs to justify his appreciation for something like The Heiress in the terms set up by Farber's essay is, to me, pretty nutty. The Heiress was not the kind of movie Farber was interested in and, as a critic, he doesn't seem to have much of a knack for talking about that kind of movie.
Cairns' new category - "Mammoth Art" - seems completely contradictory to the spirit of Farber's essay. Farber, I'd guess, would have talked about them as "White Elephant Movies" if he talked about them at all.
Instead of making up a new category, why not just admit that Farber's classification of movies as either Termite Art or White Elephant art, while provocative, interesting, and useful for starting a debate, is also limited and representative of an extremely narrow way of looking at movies (or art in general)?
The same thing happens with some of Pauline Kael's writing. For example, I really love her essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies", but I've seen a number of attempts to turn this into a system for thinking generally about movies/art that, to me, fall flat. I've also seen a number of attempts to argue against her essay as if it were meant to act as a kind of overarching system, which fall flat for the same reasons. Namely: this essay (1) represents her own idiosyncratic take on the movies and (2) was written as part of an ongoing conversation and loses a lot of its meaning pulled from that context.
In that context, it makes sense to point out that there can be a praiseworthy kind of vitality in a lot of the movies the critical establishment might dismiss as mere exploitation, but that this vitality is not the be-all-and-end-all of "film art", while at the same time reminding us that a movie's high-minded, artistic intentions should not necessarily be taken at face value.
However, just because it makes a lot of sense, in that context, I think it's a bad idea to put too much weight on making a distinction between Art and Trash**, let alone to try to use the essay to develop a system to classify Art and Trash.
*As Michael Blowhard writes:
He's unrealistic about the basic appeal of movies. He's so keen (and so good) on the purely visual and rhythmic qualities that it can seem like he's onto something cosmically central about the movies as an art form. And he is, I guess. But -- simple historical fact -- the reason the movies are the movies is that they've got stars, they tell stories, they have spectacle. Most of them feature outsized personalities, and are acted-out dramatic narratives that are enhanced, pumped and sold by elements like rhythm and visuals. They're made and enjoyed as illustrated fantasies for the masses. The kinds of qualities Farber focuses on have been, in other words, and despite what film geeks may want to believe, secondary elements in film history.
**I'll admit it: I'm finding less and less of value in classifying arts and culture stuff as "Art" vs. "Trash". It's such a circular, subjective thing that I'd rather critics just write about the movie itself and leave the Trash vs. Art stuff to history.