Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Appetite for Difficulty

I was struck by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s appreciation of the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who died earlier this week. Like fellow searcher/director Michelangelo Antonioni, who died the same day, Bergman asked the tough questions and probed the great mysteries in his films. They were not easy going, these films. They were dark, obtuse, freighted with symbolism that asked the viewer to actually work at its meaning, and that implied that it might take more than one viewing, and a fair amount of thinking and discussion, to adequately explore that meaning.

Scott wrote, in part:

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Given all that, it may be hard for someone who wasn’t there — who never knew a film culture in which “La Notte” didn’t already exist — to quite appreciate the heroic status conferred on Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman 40 years ago. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good. All that’s left are the films.

It was and is an utterly radical proposition: that enlightenment and entertainment were not mutually exclusive concepts; that one could come blinking into the sunlight from a darkened theater and emerge not numbed, not mollified, but as a better human being.

A comparable movement was underway at the same time in the world of popular music. In the same years that Bergman and Antonioni were at the peak of their considerable powers, The Beatles were redefining what was possible in pop music with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Marvin Gaye was probing the incongruities of Black Power and life in the ghetto, and Bob Dylan was spinning out couplets like these:

Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation will be like after a while

Now we get:

I’m hot coz I’m fly
You ain’t coz you not

Yeah, okay, I’ve stacked the deck, and I’m picking examples that suit my argument. And yes, there are exceptions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t view the sixties as some sort of mythic golden age in the history of music. I was there, and I had my ear to the radio, and I’m here to tell you that there was as much musical swill then as there is now. But what was different is that complex, innovative music and culturally engaging lyrics could still find a mass audience – even when that audience had to listen to the songs three or four times before even conjecturing on their meaning.

The wonder is not that music such as Sgt. Pepper’s … or Marvin’s What’s Goin’ On? or Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde could be made. People are still making comparably challenging music today. The wonder is that it could achieve mass acceptance, that people – a large number of people, at that – actually listened to these albums, really listened to them, sat around and pondered lyric sheets and debated rhyming couplets, and that people like Bob Dylan could have #1 hits on the Billboard charts. The miracle is that Bob Dylan was utterly inscrutable, and yet he was a certifiable rock star who sold millions of records.

We could debate endlessly about why we, as a culture, no longer have an appetite for difficulty. We could toss around terms like “MTV” and “video games” and “American Idol” and engage in hand wringing over the cultural lobotomization of America. And that’s a fun game. I’ll be sure to play it next week. But for right now I’d simply like to salute what was, and what may never be again. Bergman and Antonioni are gone, and so are Lennon and Harrison and Marvin Gaye. They made me a better human being. They made a lot of people better human beings. And they miraculously entertained us in the process.


Eriol said...


Phillip Johnston said...

How true. I think we've totally lost that appetite because culture has become so much more fast-paced since the 60s. There are so many more distractions calling out for attention during every single minute of life that the great majority of people just want to sit down and turn their brains off when they go to the theater or listen to music.

I wish it weren't so (and I try not to do it), but in a culture that moves SO FAST it is increasingly hard to find works of value in the mainstream media. When one is found, it is even harder to try to get people to engage it.

Catfish Vegas said...

I'm just a bit more than a week removed from my latest Dylan show and I gotta say that despite there being at least some 'appetite for difficulty' left in our culture, it certainly isn't front and center.
Keep in mind, we're even 20 years removed now from "Appetite for Destruction," as Rolling Stone reminds us this week. I have no way of reconciling in my mind the fact that "Appetite" represents the halfway point between "John Wesley Harding" and now.