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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—7 May 2010

The thing, itself: I bow to no one in my admiration for the wit and persipicacity of the film critic Dennis Lim, but I have to admit that every now and then he shows a tendency—one might call it "monklike," or maybe not—towards eyeball-roll-inducing pronouncements. In a recent Los Angeles Times review of The Criterion Collection's new DVD of Marco Ferreri's 1969 Dillinger Is Dead, he makes much of the film's Marcuse-inflected political content, and ends his notice ruefully: "Present-day viewers of 'Dillinger Is Dead' are likely to respond less to its overly literal satire than to its riot of colors, its Pop Art flair, its modernist design. In other words, a furious attack on capitalist society lives on, ironically, as a consumer fetish object."

"What incredible irony!" as one of those kids on South Park would say. "Oh, please," is what I said, as I've always believed that, to put it more bluntly and crudely than I probably ought to, if you don't on some level actually enjoy what Lim calls consumer fetish objects than you ought to fuck off and go live in a tree or something. "We have to deal with it/it is the currency," The Clash once sang on the subject of "Hate and War." Well, same with consumer fetish objects. And consistently pointing out that consumer fetish objects are consumer fetish objects doesn't make them go away. (For some reason Lim's observation also reminds me of a recent aperçu from Terry Eagleton: "To save yourself too laborious an attention to Marxism, you can dismiss it on the grounds that it dreams of a world of equality in which men and women will all be spiritually wretched and materially miserable in exactly the same way.")

And isn't a well-produced piece of plastic and aluminum that preserves/reproduces what some might call a work of art something more than what Lim categorizes it as? It is not the work of art itself, but it is for all intents and purposes the only object that is going to allow anything that is something resembling a mass U.S. audience is going to get to experience the work of art. Ferreri's film never got a U.S. release until last year, when Amanda Films arranged a very small theatrical run for it. I rather doubt that Criterion manufactured more than 5,000 copies of this disc. Think about 5,000 copies in a country with how many millions of moviegoers, television watchers, DVD-player owners. Yes, a select group of copies goes to Netflix and libraries and so on. But that's still not going to get the sum total of American viewers of the film anywhere near, or past, 100,000. I suppose that the relative scarcity of the object is what makes it a fetish, then, but Lim doesn't bother to put forward, or even consider, for that matter, what might be a preferable alternative. In this light, his complaint comes off as practically decadent; puling leftist posturing from within a capitalist institution.

But I didn't begin writing this for the purpose of castigating Lim. I began because a blog post of my own last week prompted a few friends and confreres to share with me their musings on criticism as it applies to films as projected in theaters on the one hand, and as they appear on DVD on the other, and as it may be pertinent to such emerging/future delivery mediums. How does one review a bit torrent, if at all? (I know that's a silly question on its face, but I think you get what I'm saying.) The New Yorker's Richard Brody, who had a post singled out as "ill-advised" by a commenter on a thread for the aforementioned post, defended a particular approach to DVD assessment thusly: "The most important thing about a DVD is its availability; even at its best, it's a faute de mieux simulacrum of the movie-going experience, and to obsess about the quality of a transfer without discussing the film that's being transferred--what its significance is, or why readers should even bother caring that it's available on DVD--is a kind of technical fetishism that's skew to movie-love. (So many of us have seen so many movies we love on TV, cut by commercials, in the wrong aspect ratio, or on low-fi 16mm. prints, or in theatres that did dreamlike-bleary rear-screen projection, and, though it matters, it doesn't matter as much as does the film itself.)"

So does Brody's recent expression of enthusiasm for an upcoming Criterion Blu-ray of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited represent a sudden reversal of his position? If it does, it's an extremely ironical reversal, as Brody completely acknowledges. Read the whole thing, as they say. I always enjoy the referential curveballs that Brody can pull out of his hat, citations that compel one to consider a topic from an angle that never quite occurred to one so blatantly before. In any case, here he awakened my own mostly dormant inclination to examine my own enthusiasms—and in a non-scolding way, to boot!

Diamonds of the Night?! Now there’s a fetish object I can’t wait to, um, fetishize (?). I had no idea it was coming out, but now I really hope that’s a hint at next week’s Foreign Region DVD Report.
There are consumer fetish objects that are definitely in poor taste. What would Pasolini have made of Criterion’s release of Salo? Where the sleeve was neatly decked with naked and tortured teens? Was there anything to distinguish the packaging from any other torture porn in the way it made palatable, even artful something extremely disgusting and awful?
The first thing that came to mind after reading this was Lim’s appearance recently as the host of a Q+A session with Kenneth Anger at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. If only Lim could have brought this particular subject up to such a man. It would have been interesting to see that but unfortunately all I saw was something akin to a child attempting to interact with a wild dog. I also question the appearance of Diamonds of the Night on top of this pile! It definitely caught my attention. Is there any news of this DVD release? The public library is closing now. I have to get back up to my tree before nightfall.
The reference to Eagleton’s “critique of Marxism” (!!), both in Glenn’s text and in Matthew’s comment, is truly bewildering… Quite obviously, what Eagleton is satirically describing in the quoted sentence is an all-too common anti-intellectual view of Marxism, which dismisses the Marxist project according to an ignorant caricature of it; it views Marxism through the complacent eyes of the bourgeois, whose love of the bogus “freedom of choice” granted under capitalism means that he can understand the Marxist project only in terms of the loss of this “freedom,” only according to the terms of the bourgeois world-view itself. In context, Eagleton is making an analogy between this idiotic view of Marxism and the view of theology offered by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which similarly depends upon an absurd caricature of what religious faith actually is, judging it from the supposedly neutral perspective of scientific rationalism. It is odd that the satirical nature of Eagleton’s remark (which is obvious enough even when quoted out of context) seems not to have been perceived, given that Eagleton is, after all, the most famous Marxist literary critic (besides Jameson) of our time, and so hardly likely to seriously launch such a preposterous “critique” of Marxism. The chief (or, if you like, “incredible!”) irony of this is that Eagleton’s actual point is in fact rather similar to Dennis Lim’s. They are each describing ways in which capitalism pacifies voices critical of it – on the one hand, through caricaturing and dismissing this critique, comprehending it only through the false neutrality of the bourgeois ideology; and on the other, through incorporating the object that carries this critique, venerating it and in so doing evacuating it of any revolutionary potential. The relevant passage from Eagleton can be found here:
Well sure, one can enjoy such a fetish object—-enjoy away! But it does seem weirdly blinkered to talk about a movie that’s overwhelmingly about the creation of consumer fetish objects without noticing that the movie itself has been turned, decades after its ’68’er fantasies collapsed, into a gun-with-polka-dots. Is this the equal-and-opposite reaction to Brody, wherein a DVD is evaluated exclusively on technical grounds, with no concern for its content beyond a withered auteurist reflex?
Apologies, Conall. For “Eagleton’s idiotic critique of Marxism” read “that referenced by” – I should take more time with comments. (Implication being: he wouldn’t want to be caught dead in this context – thanks for pointing that out considerably better than I did.)
I am so glad people are actually beginning to talk about this. I wanted to address this numerous times but could never find the words (or thought I was overreacting). I thank Lim for saying it. And now that it has been said, and is being echoed, there is a lot more to add. And perhaps here is not the right place. But I would like to just share one thing. On Criterion’s Facbook page (I never said the fetish completely eludes me), someone posted that he is “underwhelmed by Dillinger is Dead”. After someone agreed with his reaction, he posted the following, which I think might support Lim’s point: “I think the best thing about the Dillinger is Dead release is the cover artwork.”
Oh, my. Seem to have struck a nerve here. By making a rather too-convoluted joke. Let me just say that I am fully aware that the Eagleton “aperçu” I cite is intended as part of a defense of Marxist thought, and I assumed that the introductory clause “to save yourself too laborious an attention to Marxism” would be sufficient to imply that. But perhaps not, as it initially made poor Mr. Flanagan “want to puke.” The joke, such as it is, being my own (facetious, mind you) implication that Mr. Lim was writing precisely in the fashion of a “Marxist” who wants that very thing. As I said. A joke. One that seems not to have gone down particularly well. In a private correspondence, a mutual friend insists that Mr. Lim’s comment on consumer fetish objects was itself facetious. I don’t know that I caught that. Hell, I don’t even think that Mr. Lim’s point is wrong, at all. What I DO think is that in our current situation, snidely turning one’s nose up at consumer fetish objects—in the pages of the Los Angeles Times (another context in which Eagleton might not want to turn up dead, do you think?), yet— is pretty much the least revolutionary, the least dangerous, and the least committed thing an ostensible Marxist can do. How you like me now, then?

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