The role of a critic is a somewhat paradoxical one. At times of universal agreement over aesthetic principles, the critic serves as a guard dog. A martinet. Forever wielding his rhetorical staff to smack down those who refuse or fail to toe the line. Like Robert McKee we point solemnly to Aristotle’s Poetics and wearily (almost sadly) shake our heads. In order for criticism to escape the quicksands of qualification and relativism, there has to be a belief in universal principles. There have to be rules and there has to be an order to things. But what are these rules? Where do they come from? Are they, like the laws of physics, universal and embedded in the substance of the universe? If our universe contained no sentient life forms, would it still be the case that a character must suffer after a reversal of fortunes in order to realise where he has gone wrong and how to proceed?
I suspect that aesthetic sensibilities are the products of their owner’s culture. The values themselves are formed over time by generation upon generation of artists telling similar kinds of stories and yet gradually changing both the stories and the forms those stories take. This is why older texts can seem odd or unbalanced to modern readers. It is also why critics have to be alive to the possibility that sometimes, a failure to toe the line is not a failure but a great success. As John Crowley puts it in The Solitudes (1987), the first part of his Aegypt cycle :
“It seems to me that what grants meaning in folk tales and legendary narratives – We’re thinking now of something like the Niebelungdenlied or the Morte D’Arthur – is not logical development so much as thematic repetition. The same ideas, or events, or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances. Or different objects contained in similar circumstances. (…) A hero sets out (…) to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle, or find a garden. Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden. Repeated in different forms like a set of nesting boxes. Each of them, however, just as large, or no smaller, than all the others. The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form. The pattern continues until a kind of certainty arrises. A satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem, at last, to have been really told. Not uncommonly, an old romance’s story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters. Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions or inherent in a story’s premises, logical completion as a vehicle of meaning… all that is later. Not necessarily later in time but belonging to a later, more sophisticated, kind of literature. There are some interesting half-way kind of works like The Fairy Queen, which set up for themselves a titanic plot , an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it… never need to finish it. Because they are, at heart, works of the older kind. And the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them. The flavour is already there. So, is this any help to our thinking? Is meaning in history like the solution to an equation or like a repeated flavour? Is it to be sought for, or tasted?”
This passage raises two interesting ideas. Firstly, it raises the possibility of a time when different aesthetic principles were in force. The Arthurian myths and romances are not primitively written works with a questionable track record when it comes to coherence, but rather works that appealed to a different idea of what makes a good story. Not all stories need to take the same form or follow the same rules in order to be great. Not all conceptions of character have to fit in with our current folk-psychological models. Secondly, it hints at a model of aesthetic revolution. An almost Darwinian process through which stories are told, abandoned, revisited, rebooted, reinterpreted and retold. Crowley is speaking of stories within a certain mythical tradition or saga but might this not also be true of the telling of stories in general? Might this process not also explain how certain kinds of story-telling can evolve over time?
Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) has appeared on a number of ‘Best Films of the Decade’ -type lists. I consider it to be quite a dull film. My problem with Reygadas’ work is that it is a film that deals in themes and techniques that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a work of post-War cinema. It clings limpet-like to the existentialist tradition that was pioneered by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni and it explores these well-trodden themes using the same set of cinematic techniques that all art house directors have been using since the 60s. Silent Light contains long takes. Silent Light contains awkward silences. Silent Light contains ambiguous plotting. Silent Light contains a fantastical dream sequence. To watch Silent Light is to gag on the stench of intellectual decay. It is as though the post-War art house consensus has finally played itself out, its stories told and retold using the same old techniques. Just as the Cahiers du Cinema critics who would become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague once rejected the theatricality of French post-War cinema, do we stand at a point in time when the story-tellers have to move on? Must new tools and new stories be told for this and the next generation? One director who seems to instinctively answer this question with a resounding affirmative is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director whose Tropical Malady I wrote about a short while ago. His Syndromes and a Century is not merely a good film, it is a film that makes a robustly compelling argument for Weerasethakul to be considered one of the greatest living film-makers.