Smooth talkers

So, there I was reading a couple of interviews with Kevin Smith, and giggling. In an industry that believes that every part of a movie performer’s life should be spent “selling the film,” it’s refreshing to read a filmmaker who’s willing to go off the rails, name names, curse, and crack wise at hallowed institutions. I think Smith is one of the greatest talkers that cinema has produced—he’s forthright to a fault, genuinely funny, articulate even with his extreme pottymouth, self-aware of his own failings (aesthetic and personal), and refuses to sugarcoat internal nastiness on his film sets.

A generation before Smith entered the cinema universe, there was John Waters. There’s considerable overlap between the two. Both make astonishingly filthy, high-shock cinema; both began as low-budget outsiders who gradually became industry insiders; both create hermetically sealed universes based on their hometowns (Baltimore for Waters, New Jersey in general for Smith) and a dedicated mix of obscure actors and non-professionals; both began as clumsy aestheticians, barely able to line up a competent shot or shoot in focus. What they most have in common are two things. First, both are great conversationalists and charmers, able to create and market their vision of the world through interviews and a public persona so charismatic that they draw ardent followers. Compare these indie stalwarts: Andrew Bujalski might have fans but Smith has followers.

Second, both Smith and Waters are crummy filmmakers. They’ve improved by degrees over the course of two decades or more—how could they not?—but their technical chops remain amateurish, and their moral/social concerns haven’t matured at all. The recurring gags and in-jokes, many of which were lame at the outset, have gotten stale. (Do we need another appearance of Silent Bob, or another reference to the number 37? Do we need another winking use of an ex-porn star or Manson Family member as a supporting character, especially when said figure can’t act?) Critics say Wes Anderson has retreated into his own Wes world but I think he’s branching out into new forms (stop-motion animation) and locales (India), and examining his own white privilege from an increasing variety of directions. It’s Waters and Smith (and Quentin Tarantino) who spend millions creating dioramas (or, rather, the same diorama, over and over again) dedicated to themselves.

In short, Kevin Smith’s movies are as crudely constructed and juvenile as he says they are. The Kevin Smith persona—the blogs, the interviews, the books based on his blogs, the autobiographical standup routines, the public statements to reporters, the open engagement with his fans and detractors about everything from movies to comics to smoking pot—is much more interesting and complex than anything he’s made with his camera or written for comics. Oddly, I don’t mean that as an insult, exactly. Smith’s movies are mere springboards for his persona. He wouldn’t be famous if he didn’t make movies but his movies are the least interesting thing about him.

There are some artists whose greatest work in their talk and/or their correspondence. I’m convinced that Oscar Wilde falls into this category, though I admit that two of his plays—The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, for the record—are hilarious. His theories about life and art, nestled within his endless witticisms, are fascinating and form the roots of a cohesive, coherent life philosophy. When you quote him to his friends, there’s a 75% chance you’re quoting something he said, not something he wrote. His life was a work of art. Sophocles and Samuel Johnson also apply—to some degree, their thoughts about the world, and humanity’s place within it, come as much from how people recorded their acts as from how they acted in aesthetic terms. (Yes, all you Latin-spewing “Dr. Johnson” conservatives, I am well aware of Johnson’s concrete accomplishments, thankyouverymuch. But would they loom so large in our consciousness without Boswell?)

Lately, I’ve been considering Stephen Elliott’s essay, “Why I Write.” I love this essay; it hits home in so many ways, and its whiffs still give me much to chew on. I feel bad about that, because Elliott’s known for—and primarily interested in—being a fiction writer, and I don’t like his fiction.  I have the same problem with Salman Rushdie; I love his thoughts on writing and its role in life, and adore reading his interviews and roundtable conversations.  But I can’t finish one of his books.  The Moor’s Last Sigh?  Started and stopped three times.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet?  Those first 30 pages are as dazzling as you’ve heard but I’ve never gotten much past them.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories?  I swear I like folktales, I do, but not this.

Paul Theroux is considered a master of modern travel writing, and I guess it must be true, since so many of my favorite travel writers say so, but I can’t take more than 50 pages of his testy, easily irritated, just-plain-mean voice at a time.  William T. Vollmann is one of the most fascinating talkers about art that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I also think he’s one of the most undisciplined, solipsistic, and troublingly bad writers I’ve ever tried to read.  I love Samuel R. Delany’s ideas about literature; his books, though…

(It’s quite possible that many of this blog’s readers like my memoir pieces better than any of the criticism that’s posted here, even though I work harder on—and think more of—the latter.  At least, the number of hits and comments left indicates that y’all prefer the “Me” stuff.)

But then, the pendulum swings.  There are several great artists whom I don’t trust for a second to say anything useful or far-reaching about their work or that of others.  I think the Coen Brothers’ moral vision is as rigorous and thoughtful as Ozu’s, and all the better because it’s expressed through satire.  They must save their best stuff for the page and screen; they’re useless when discussing anything beyond technical specs and allusions to other movies.  And then there’s the whole Tarantino problem.  I want to see Inglourious Basterds, I really do, and I think he has interesting and disturbing things to say about violence.  But Tarantino’s fanboy persona, encyclopedic swagger about movies, and total lack of regard for anything outside of them, has kept me (so far) away from the multiplex.

 

So, what gives?  Obviously, there can be a disconnect between an artist’s life and her work.  I’ve never been one to believe a particularly upright person produces outstanding fiction, or vice versa.  Like Mary Gordon (another good talker who I can’t read) sez, “I don’t think [the novel] makes people any better.  If that were true, English departments would be moral paragons of this or any age.”  I’m not interested in starting that debate.  But there’s a middle-ground argument that’s worth burrowing into.  When such a disconnect occurs, how do you deal with it?  At what point is the disconnect so wide that you decide to re-assess or re-read someone’s work? At what point is it so wide that you’re no longer willing to give your money to support the artist and his/her estate?

Yes, this is a longwinded way of reaching into the Roman Polanski fiasco. There’s no doubt that he should be extradited back to the States and dealt with on the terms of the government. Yes, he can argue that his trial and conviction were handled poorly but he should do so on American ground and on that government’s terms. Fugitives shouldn’t get to set the parameters of the debate over them. No matter what their victims say in retrospect, no matter how rehabilitated he seems to be, convicted rapists should not determine the rules by which the legal system deals with them. Sorry, Richard Brody; sorry, Jonathan Rosenbaum; sorry, Woody Allen—who should, by the way, have the self-awareness to stay the fuck out of this one.

Now, I love Polanski’s movies, and I can recognize that he might be a moral monster in real life and simultaneously a deeply moral, lucid artist. But, but, but… I know that part of my purchase of the Criterion Collection’s edition of Repulsion, or of Chinatown and The Pianist and Rosemary’s Baby and Death and the Maiden will go toward the upkeep of a person who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. Is it a hard-enough pill that I shouldn’t buy them or rent them, thereby denying him a royalty cut? At what point do I make that choice?

I don’t know; I really don’t. What do you think? Where do you draw that line? This line, I acknowledge, is as much about money as it’s about morals. Art and money, though, have always been intertwined, so I think it’s a fair question. At what point do your morals meet your pocketbook? As someone who deeply wants to see Knife in the Water and Oliver Twist with a clear conscience, this is not an idle question. I’m curious to hear your feedback.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Smooth talkers

  1. Steve Pick says:

    First, let me just say that I enjoy all of your writing, but it’s the criticism (and the links to equally interesting criticism) that makes me check this site just about every day.
    Sweet Honey in the Rock have a great song called “Are My Hands Clean?” which basically traces the path of injustice and oppression that leads to the nice blouses the singers bought on sale (this came out something like 15 or more years ago when that concept was a little less obvious). At any rate, participating in the economy, unless we manage to completely buy from independent, local suppliers who have somehow only bought from independent, local suppliers, and so on, is pretty much a guarantee of complicity with something immoral somewhere down the line.
    So, you know that Polanski committed a rape. You also know his movies are great. You don’t necessarily know anything about the personal characteristics of everybody else involved in these or any other movies, people who were paid or will be paid because this collaborative effort was brought into existence. You don’t know anything about the people involved in film or video distribution, or for that matter, in the retail or rental company who gets the money directly from you.
    The artwork exists on its own terms. The people involved at all levels are possibly morally corrupt – almost certainly so if you consider the pool of all the people involved in all the books, movies, records, etc. you have “consumed” in your lifetime. You can’t escape that moral complicity, but if you try, you will deprive yourself of the moral value inherent in art.
    Basically, I say, buy what you want to buy.

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