Saturday, December 25, 2010

Liberals – Art part VIII 114

Liberalism: Inferences by Narration with Picasso and Woody Allen
“It [an African ritual mask] is not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires.”

--Pablo Picasso [as quoted in the February, 2006 Economist article in the previous blog]

So, I am suggesting that modern art and its premiere star, Picasso, are popular with liberals because they have that same set of fears that require magical help to be quelled.  What kind of fear?  A fear of being caught without an identity.  A fear of being inauthentic.  A fear of being the freak in the group, inferior to all others present because they are adjusted. Imogen Clark is afraid that her daughter's heroin addiction will reveal her own lack of adjustment, her inferiority, her inauthenticity. This is so unbearable that she curses her daughter and slaps her.

Intellectually and artistically, this is very akin to Woody Allen's comedy movies.

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Woody Allen's comedy is nothing but a set of variations on the theme of the man who does not have a real "self" or "identity," and feels superior to the inauthentically self-satisfied people because he is conscious of his situation and at the same time inferior to them because they are "adjusted." This borrowed psychology turns into a textbook in Zelig, which is the story of an "other-directed" man, as opposed to an "inner-directed" man, terms popularized in the 1950s by David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, borrowed by him from his analyst, Erich Fromm, who himself absorbed them (e.g., innige Mensch) from a really serious thinker, Nietzsche's heir, Martin Heidegger. I was astounded to see how doctrinaire Woody Allen is, and how normal his way of looking at things—which has immediate roots in the most profound German philosophy—has become in the American entertainment market.

One of the links between Germany and the United States, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, actually plays a cameo role in Zelig. Zelig is a man who literally becomes whoever or whatever is expected of him—a Republican when with the rich; a gangster when with Mafiosi; black, Chinese or female, when with blacks, Chinese or females. He is nothing in himself, just a collection of roles prescribed by others. He inevitably enters into psychiatric treatment, where we learn that he was once "tradition-directed," i.e., from a family of silly, dancing rabbinic Jews. "Tradition-directed" means to be guided by old values, received from old beliefs, usually religious, which give a man a role that he takes to be more than a role and a place in the world. It goes without saying that a return to that old mode of adjustment and apparent health is neither possible nor desirable. One is supposed to laugh at the dancing Jew, although it is not clear whether from the point of view of alienation or health. It is sure that the Jew is a pariah, Max Weber's category given special notoriety by Hannah Arendt, here meaning interesting only as an outsider who has a special insight into the insider, but whose Jewishness has no merit in itself. His value is defined by the world currently of interest to him. His health is restored when he becomes "inner-directed," when he follows his real instincts and sets his own values. When Zelig hears people say that it is a nice day, when it manifestly is, he responds that it is not a nice day. So he is immediately clapped back into a mental institution by those whom he previously tried to imitate and with whose opinions he is now at war. This is the way society imposes its values on the creator. At the end he gets around, on his own, to reading Moby Dick, which he had previously discussed without having read, in order to impress people. His health is a mixture of petulance and facile, self-conscious

Woody Allen's haunted comedy diagnoses our ills as stemming from value relativism, for which the cure is value positing. And his great strength is in depicting the self-conscious role-player, never quite at home in his role, interesting because he is trying so hard to be like the others, who are ridiculous because they are unaware of their emptiness. But Allen is tasteless and superficial in playing with his Jewishness, which apparently has no inner dignity for him. And where he fails completely is in his presentation of the healthy inner-directed man, who is neither funny nor interesting. This is the figure against which the others are understood and judged, as misers are ridiculous only compared to the man who knows the real value of money. But Allen's inner-directed man is simply empty or nonexistent, forcing one to wonder how profound his creator's understanding can be. Here is where we confront the nothing, but it is not clear that Allen knows it. Inner-directedness is an egalitarian promise that enables us easily to despise and ridicule "the bourgeois" we actually see around us. This is all terribly lightweight and disappointing, for it really tries to assure us that the agonies of the nihilism we are living are just neuroses that can be cured by a little therapy and by a little stiffening of our backs. Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom is just Dale Carnegie with a bit of middle-European cultural whipped cream on top. Get rid of capitalist alienation and Puritan repression, and all will be well as each man chooses for himself. But Woody Allen really has nothing to tell us about inner-directedness. Nor does Riesman nor, going further back, does Fromm. One has to get to Heidegger to learn something of all the grim facts of what inner-directedness might really mean. Allen is never nearly as funny as was Kafka, who really took the problem seriously, without the propagandistic reassurance that Left progressivism would solve it. Zelig has a flirtation with Hitler—whose appeal, it almost goes without saying, is to "other-directed persons," or to use an equivalent expression popularized by another German psychosociologist, Theodore Adorno, to "authoritarian personalities"2—but is rescued by his psychiatricus ex machina. (Flirtation with Stalin never needs explanation in this intellectual universe.) Woody Allen helps to make us feel comfortable with nihilism, to Americanize it. I'm O.K., thou art O.K. too, if we agree to be a bit haunted together.

In politics, in entertainment, in religion, everywhere, we find the language connected with Nietzsche's value revolution, a language necessitated by a new perspective on the things of most concern to us. Words such as "charisma," "life-style," "commitment," "identity" and many others, all of which can easily be traced to Nietzsche, are now practically American slang....

--The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, ppg. 144-46, on line at:

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There are two problems with jumping to Allan Bloom to discuss Imogen Clark and her book, Saving Jessie. The minor problem is that Clark is an Australian and Bloom is talking about Americans and American comedy. My response to that is that the cultures and the philosophies of those country's liberals are similar enough to survive that complaint.

The other complaint is that it is nearly ridiculous to compare Imogen Clark's bad performance as an angry mother of an addict to a Woody Allen comedy. Imogen is not a ditzy, scatterbrained young woman who says funny things and gets into ironic yet humorous situations in her book Saving Jessie.

Indeed. But what I mean to do is to compare Imogen Clark to the central character in Woody Allen's first and best tragedy, his 1978 masterpiece Interiors. The philosophy and approach is the same, but Allen brilliantly decides to let everything go wrong and work for dramatic character development instead of laughs. And the center character, the interior designer, Eve, played by Geraldine Page, has a great deal in common with Imogen. Eve is a perfectionist who is enraged if things go wrong or don't match into the elegant feng shui that she imagines. She has three children, the youngest of which is most like her and follows her example (just like Imogen and her daughter Jessie). Eve and her children are uneasy about being found to be inauthentic. Diane Keaton plays daughter Renata, Kristen Griffith plays daughter Fly, and Mary Beth Hurt plays daughter Joey. Ex-husband Arthur is played by E. G. Marshall and Arthur's second wife is played by Maureen Stapleton, the counterpoint of this situation tragedy. Stapleton's character is realistic and frank; she is something like Juliet's nurse or Brutus' wife or Coriolanus' mother in various Shakespeare plays. Imogen's daughter, Jessie, appears to know no woman of this sort as she travels down the path to addiction.

Here is a review of Interiors from

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A Film That Deserves A Place
in Every Art Collection
By Grady Harp (Top 10 Reviewer)

Revisiting INTERIORS written and directed by Woody Allen in 1978 it becomes apparent that this is one of the most important American films made. In this time of video art and digital manipulation of images, both in real time and in fixed entities, INTERIORS exemplifies the finest in what film can achieve. Without manipulation of scenery, without (gratefully) a senses-assaulting musical score, without GIMMICKRY - here is a film of brilliant writing, stunningly and beautifully subtle sets and costumes, and acting of the first degree. The angst so present in our society's family relationships is gently observed and explored and the results are a paean of understated simplicity and pain. It is difficult to single out any of the outstanding cast as 'best' and that is yet another proof of ensemble acting and directing at a zenith. Yes, it is unimaginable to leave behind the characters created by Geraldine Page, H.G. Marshall, Diane Keaton, and Maureen Stapleton, but again this is an indicator of how well and cohesive the experience provided by this movie is.

I have never been a Woody Allen fan: I find his comedies overwrought, self-absorbed, and frustratingly tedious. Seeing INTERIORS on a DVD, in the quiet of home, has altered my respect for this man. A dazzlingly brilliant, thoughtful, elegy of a film.

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