That’s a phrase I’m going to remember – and, hopefully, steal.
I’m going to disagree with a number of Deresiewicz’s judgments while agreeing with his basic presence. Our Town is considerably more than audience-flattering sentimentalism, and “Tree of Life” may be peddling something, but it isn’t empty uplift. On the other hand, I question how “disruptive” “The Wire” really is, and I can spot the sentimentalism lurking behind Cormac McCarthy’s bloody mask. And don’t knock great art that aimed to be popular. You tell me I can’t delight in Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Billy Wilder because they are flattering my sentimentalism and I’ll tell you to jump in a lake.
But he’s got “Upper Midcult” dead to rights. The trouble with the kind of art he’s criticizing is that it’s self-involved without being self-examining. And that’s a particularly bad combination.
I wonder, though, whether “Upper Midcult” is a type of art, or just a style. Flattering your audience’s assumptions, after all, is pretty common in popular art. Take a guy like Aaron Sorkin (please). He’s clearly an enormously talented craftsman, but I’m pretty sure he’s never challenged anybody’s assumptions about anything, least of all his own. But I’m not going out on a limb to say that – his films, after all, are Midcult. His “seriousness” is precisely the type that isn’t supposed to challenge anybody.
Someone like Wes Anderson, though, who clearly has a highly idiosyncratic vision that he pursues with great determination, seems like he’s doing something different. Something more like art. But it’s not an art that, in my experience, takes significant emotional risks, or asks itself questions that it doesn’t already know the answers to. I don’t sense, watching a Wes Anderson film, like he’s discovering something. The style fools people into thinking it’s something it isn’t – but what it is isn’t something evil, just something more akin to Midcult than its afficionados would like to believe.
I don’t think it’s hard to find art that “disturbs our self-delight,” though. Not at the movies, anyway. I certainly thought “The Master” cleared that bar. So did “Blue Valentine.” But so did other movies that are not as obviously stylish – “Rachel Getting Married,” or “Greenberg,” or “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene,” to name a few films from the last few years that took significant emotional risks.
And I think it should be clear that “disturb our self-delight” doesn’t have to mean, “disturb our delight.” One can be delighted without being flattered in our self-regard, delighted by something that takes us out of ourselves. “Bernie” – again, to pick a recent film that makes the cut from my perspective – is a delightful movie; disturbing in its way, but subtly so, and designed to go down easy. And it doesn’t delight by flattering its audience. “I Love You, Phillip Morris” is another one in that vein. Going in a different direction, “The Illusionist,” is an absolutely charming, sweet-and-sad little fable, the sort of thing that Wes Anderson undoubtedly loves. But I suspect Anderson is too self-conscious to create a world so convincingly independent of himself.
And yet, even that isn’t necessary for art to move us. “Synecdoche, New York” is a massively self-involved movie – about as self-involved as a movie can be. But it’s painful because it offers itself no false comforts. It’s a massive, elaborate construct, and it’s about how art – and life – is just such a construct. But it’s not satisfied with that fact, the way our soulless confectionists seem to be. It’s terrified of that fact. And so will you be, if you let it sink its teeth into you.
I’m rambling at this point. Perhaps I just like talking about movies – and art – and perhaps I just like arguing with Alan Jacobs, even when I suspect we basically agree. But I keep coming back to the same point. Art is an expression of the soul, and its greatness is related to the quality of that expression, which, in turn, is related to the degree to which it escapes the trap of flattering the audience. Wes Anderson is an accomplished stylist. If he makes a movie that exposes his soul – what lies behind the persona that we already know – I’ll want to see it.