I’ve been a bit absent for the past week or so — our stuff finally got to Bloomington, and I’ve been unpacking. I’m still not really here. So as a placeholder, I’ll quote something from a book I’ve been reading lately — David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I picked it up for a few bucks at a used bookstore and have been wolfing down Thomson’s brilliant miniature essays like peanuts. I don’t always agree with him — he is one of those people whose aesthetics are basically dualistic, shaped at bottom by a sense that style and content are at times antagonistic and threaten to part company, and that, at such times, we should prefer the latter over the former. (I have written about this idea before. Suffice it to say, I don’t completely agree.) But his essays describe various persons and personas vividly and with economy; even more, Thomson in is able to use those person(a)s to illustrate basic historical and aesthetic problems of film — which are, mutatis mutandis, problems of art more generally.
An entry on Harmony Korine, for instance, becomes a meditation on what Thomson calls “minimalism,” by which he means a voluntary poverty of image, an abstention from artifice and ornament. Musicians tend to understand minimalism in terms of repetition — for example in Robert Fink’s masterful book, Repeating Ourselves. The idea of an aesthetic “vow of chastity,” explicit in the Dogme 95 movement, is also implicit in punk: there is in both Dogme films and punk records a sense that there is something sinful about artifice, something corrupt in it that mirrors the corruption of society at large. So what Thomson calls minimalism I would rather call the punk aesthetic, but whatever you call it, Thomson’s bit on it strikes me as particularly clear-eyed. For one thing, he understands that while the punk aesthetic is usually associated with some variant or other of anarcho-Marxist leftism, it is fundamentally a reactionary stance.
There’s no wonder at the appeal of minimalism in an age of budgets over $100 million, of astonishing special effects and a widening gap between the harsh realities in which most people exist and the daft fantasies they are supposed to aspire to. But minimalism can grow out of political anger, a critique of capitalism, stylistic austerity, or a kind of numb, pretentious helplessness that sees the irony in a copy of Voguefloating on the toxic surface of a full latrine. A genuine political dismay would be best advised to go into politics, to change things that way. But the aesthetic response—the urge, say, to make Dogme-like films, or simply to record the passing of unending human disaster—can seem cold and exploitative. In the end, what is the point of minimalism if it only works in the dark?That said, minimalism can be a desperate attempt to hold on to real place, real time, and nature in the broadest sense against the infernal electronic possibilities of change. There is a great need for movies, or for film, that simply record real like and asks us to attend.
There are astonishing beauties in distance and duration, as Renoir, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, and so many great masters believed.
This is a lot more sympathy — and therefore much better writing — than I could have managed on the same topic.