At The Nation, Charles Taylor looks over two new biographies of Leni Riefenstahl â€” JÃ¼rgen Trimborn’s "Leni Riefenstahl: A Life" and Steven Bach’s "Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl" â€” noting that "[e]ver since Triumph of the Will
goose-stepped across movie screens in 1935, Riefenstahl has been
central to the arguments about whether politics can be separated from
art, whether form can be separated from content." He goes on to also question Riefenstahl’s true prowess when it comes to aesthetics, but returns to that prickly issue of separation:
At its most benign, that separation can be a case of a talented
director making something stylish and witty and entertaining out of
trashy, routine material (or a good script ruined by bad direction).
And we certainly have to be able to separate art from politics. The
best liberal intentions have never made John Sayles‘s movies anything
more than plodding, inept pieces of storytelling. The most simplistic
fantasies of agrarian revolt cannot make Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1900
anything less than one of the movies’ most staggering examples of epic
But if we are truly going to face up to the movies’ propagandistic potential, we can’t sit back and pretend to be aloof from the feelings the most talented polemical filmmakers can rouse, even if we are appalled by those feelings. It’s cowardly to acclaim The Birth of a Nation as significant because it was the first film to succeed on an epic scale without acknowledging Griffith‘s ability to get our blood pounding as we watch the Klan race to the rescue in the climax. Gillo Pontecorvo‘s The Battle of Algiers is so brilliantly made, so emotionally involving that you glide right past its contention that violence was the only avenue open to Algerians under French colonialism. And while I’d argue that Potemkin, like all of Eisenstein‘s films, is more a demonstration of his theories of montage than a dramatic experience, there is no denying the revolutionary fervor the director stirred up.
Of late, this question seems applicable not only to Riefenstahl’s Nazi epics and other films brandishing an overt agenda, but to what we turn to for intimation-free entertainment, whether that be epic violence or queasy historical revisitation. Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly last week found herself disturbed by what she saw as critics giving nods to "Black Bookâ€™s noxious moral relativism before rushing to lavish praise on its undeniable merits as an edge-of-your-seat thriller":
[W]e live in dodgy critical times when aesthetic sophistication trumps moral and political discrimination. And when pop aestheticism reaches all the way from effusing over the ritualized violence and reverse feminism of a Sin City or a Grindhouse to heaping laurels on a movie that pits sensitive Nazis against treacherous resisters, it may be time to get uncool and start pointing the finger.
Simplistic cousin arguments to these topics have abounded this year â€” for pop aestheticism, there’s the "it’s just a movie" argument recently presented with bluff aggression in the makers of "300"‘s insistence on their film’s irrelevance and benign lack of context. The flipside claim, dusted off on the occasion of Seung-hui Cho’s possible "Oldboy" fandom, is the outcry that extreme movies, video games and TV are molding the minds of the masses like so much fruit cocktail-studded jello. Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between (or at least equally far away from) those two extremes, as much as film is firmly planted between art and entertainment.
[T]his is a thriller with two recognizable b-list box office names, not some grindhouse quickie! For all that, even a grindhouse quickie would see the connection between the evils of a snuff film operation and the profit-minded fake torture films of modern Hollywood. Vacancy almost makes it a point of missing the connection and/or commenting on it, and maybe thatâ€™s the ultimate difference between art and exploitation.
Ned Beauman at the Guardian‘s Film Blog is similarly perturbed by Gillian Anderson‘s new film, "Straightheads," which he places in the mainly 70s tradition of the rape-revenge genre, a category he find simply can’t work as entertainment.
And elsewhere, Joel Stein at the LA Times responds to the Harvard School of Public Health’s suggestion that movies with smoking get an R rating to spare impressionable youth:
I also don’t believe that showing implies approval. Not everything a character does is meant to be positive or desirable. Even if smoking looks cool, it doesn’t necessarily make you want to do it. Getting a machine gun for a prosthetic leg looks pretty cool too, but three weeks after "Grindhouse" opened, most people are sticking with their legs.
+ Ill Will (The Nation)
+ Black Book, Grindhouse and the Relativist Hole (LA Weekly)
+ Collateral Torture (Bright Lights After Dark)
+ Shame on Straightheads for reviving the rape revenge genre (Guardian Film Blog)
+ Puff away; it’s just a movie (LA Times)