I had originally intended to use this space to write on Noah’s post last week on the discussions of Chester Brown’s Paying for It, specifically his ongoing thoughts about the importance of addressing content in comics criticism. However, on Friday, our good friend Tim Hodler used some of his space on The Comics Journal’s editor blog to link to and excerpt a short essay on movie reviewing by the New Yorker’s film listings editor Richard Brody. Tim went on to relate some of what Brody said to comics criticism. I have issues with what both wrote, and I would like to take the time to discuss some of my differences with them.
Here’s the excerpt Tim quoted from Brody’s essay:
At newspapers and magazines, as here at The New Yorker, classical-music critics and pop-music critics are usually different people. With movies, things are different: David Denby and Anthony Lane write about “The Dilemma,” “Source Code,” and “Toy Story 3”; about “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Meek’s Cutoff”; and about the life work of Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami. Though analogies between the arts are inexact, the boundaries between classical and pop cinema are as fluid as are the interests and curiosities of critics who do the cinema justice. D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Sergei Eisenstein are artistic peers, regardless of the differences in their cultural heritage and context, and one of the great discoveries made by critics—the young French writers at Cahiers du Cinéma in the nineteen-fifties, the inventors and advocates of the politique des auteurs (or “auteur theory”) who are now better known as the filmmakers of the French New Wave—is the recognition that some of cinema’s most popular latter-day artists, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, are not merely skillful showmen but classical artists, akin to the writers and painters of the grand tradition, despite working in popular styles and genres in the employ of a mass-media industry.
Here’s Tim’s follow-up:
Comics, too (or at least modern comics), has something of the same “problem”—it began as (and remains?) a popular art form, and as a result of that, many of the most historically and aesthetically important comics are not sufficiently “serious” for more respectability-minded contemporary critics and artists. This is partly where the vitality—and for some, the embarrassment—of comics come from. It’s an issue that permeates nearly everything written about the form, and won’t be going away during our lifetimes. I have mixed feelings about how film critics have handled their version of the same issue, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
The issue Tim refers to is the reconciliation of popular entertainment with more overtly ambitious efforts in what is considered an art form’s canon of works. (One can call the two modes “classical” and “pop,” or “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” or any number of other terms. Choose your own poison.) Brody is of the attitude that this has been achieved in film. Tim’s apparent view is that the comics canon is the stuff of popular entertainment, and conflicts have arisen because an influx of “respectability-minded” critics and practitioners don’t want to accept it.
A major problem with this is that both writers seem to assume that canons are essentially fixed entities. Brody writes warmly of the “discovery” and “recognition” that filmmakers like Hitchcock and Hawks “are not merely skillful showmen but classical artists, akin to the writers and painters of the grand tradition.” He treats the ostensible greatness of these two filmmakers as if it was an established fact—albeit one that received a rather late acceptance—instead of an opinion put forward by a particular school of thought. Tim also treats canonicity as an immutable status for a work—once a work is considered canonical, it has arrived, and there it stays. The inference one draws from his statements is that no matter how much these “respectability-minded” critics and artists feel a work’s canonization is undeserved, it is what it is, and they’re just going to have to live with their discomfort. I gather he feels he’s being fair: he writes that he doesn’t feel the issue will “be going away in our lifetimes.” In other words, the “respectability-minded” are going to have to accept a canon they feel is unworthy, and those that are happy with the canon will just have to tolerate the continued (though impotent) grumbling.
The truth is that aesthetic canons are hardly fixed things. There may be something to the notion that once a work is considered canonical, the status is all but irrevocable; it is always possible someone will look into what all the noise was once about and spark a revival. However, works and artists do become unfashionable to one degree or another and occasionally fall completely out of favor. T.S. Eliot’s attacks on Percy Bysshe Shelley didn’t do much to discredit the English Romantic poet and his cohort, but they were more or less responsible for diminishing the reputations of such American Romantics as Longfellow and Whittier, and that work has yet to recover its former stature. In his lifetime, Adolphe-William Bouguereau was considered the premier painter of his day; he’s now an art-history joke. Does anyone still regard William Dean Howells as the greatest American novelist of the late nineteenth century? Contemporaries like Mark Twain and Henry James once stood very much in his shadow.
The contentiousness surrounding canonical status grows exponentially the more recent the work is. Gather some people who are well read in terms of fiction written after World War II. Just try to get them to agree to a short, consensus list (a dozen works or so) of the best novels since 1945. In 2005, the New York Times asked 200 assorted literary dignitaries to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” Twenty-two separate works received multiple votes, and who knows how many more received single ones. The tides of fashion certainly shift in film-criticism circles. In 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound began polling large numbers of critics from around the world as to what they think are the ten best films of all time. The survey is conducted once every decade, and only two films have been among the top ten vote-getters every time they could have been considered: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. (Click here to see the top vote getters decade by decade.) Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the most popular film in five of the six surveys (it didn’t get enough votes to make the final list the first time out), has yet to be named by a majority of those polled. And while the Sight and Sound polling largely tracks the degree of relative continued popularity—several films make the final list one decade, miss out the next, and are back the decade after that—it’s not unheard of for a top vote-getter to fall completely out of favor. Look at that 1952 list. How many people today even know Louisiana Story by reputation? Furthermore, how many consider Greed, Le Jour se lève, Brief Encounter, or Le Million anything more than curiosities? Canons of modern work (i.e., work produced over the hundred years) are areas of enormous dispute and highly mutable. There’s no good reason why comics should be an exception.
Whether or not they realize it, both Brody and Tim are largely just declaring and protecting their turf. They believe the canons are the way they want them, and they’d like to keep them that way. Neither questions, here or elsewhere, the thinking behind the canonicity of certain works. Has it ever occurred to Brody that perhaps, back in the ‘50s, Godard and Truffaut were just a pair of pretentious guys in their twenties who were exalting their taste—and it’s a very typical taste for young men of that age–for the popular suspense and adventure films of the day? That these enthusiasms caught on because their later prestige as filmmakers gave a patina of respectability to work whose primary appeal was that it was so undemanding? Is a young critic’s passion for Hitchcock and Hawks back then terribly different than a young critic’s passion for Christopher Nolan or David Fincher today? As for Tim, he writes that the popular-entertainment aspects of comics are a key source of the medium’s vitality, which of course is mainly a trope for their appeal to him. He insinuates the “respectability-minded” critics and artists—those unfortunately pretentious individuals that he’s resigned to enduring—find these aspects “embarrassing.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that they may just find these aspects banal. Or that they feel the touted achievements of the works—generally the strength of the graphics and the pacing effects—are just too thin to justify canonicity if that’s to have any significant meaning. I wonder if either Brody or Tim has asked himself if the canonicity of his preferred works is more based on fannish zeal than critical engagement and rigor.
I’m not asking Brody or Tim to change their tastes; they’re entitled to their likes and dislikes as much as anyone else. What I object to is their attempt—conscious or unconscious—to assert or reinforce their taste as a hegemony on their respective fields of interest. Canons change, and new generations of critics, if they have much to offer, smash old icons and raise new ones. Brody might want to show more of an awareness that his beloved Hitchcock and Hawks may someday fall from favor. (With Hawks, I believe this is already underway, although more from neglect than disdain.) And Tim should be open to the possibility that the likes of Eisner, Toth, or even Crumb may be deemed unworthy of significant acclaim or otherwise ignored. To paraphrase Montaigne, there is always room for another, and a road in a different direction.