Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Reaction, Appreciation, Construction, and Morality

Brad Warbiany (Warbs) has a post today talking about this post by Bradford Plummer:

Eichmann and Lolita:
Here's an anecdote about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita that I have never heard before (that is, I don't remember reading it in Eichmann in Jerusalem):
As Kubrick was beginning to film, an Israeli guard in a Jerusalem prison gave a copy of "Lolita" to Adolf Eichmann, who was awaiting trial. An indignant Eichmann returned the book two days later, calling it ''a very unwholesome book." The sulphurous halo of Nabokov's novel was still burning brightly in the popular consciousness of 1960 and it seems that Eichmann's guard gave the book to him as an experiment--a sort of litmus test for radical evil: to see whether the real-life villain, he who impassively organized the transport towards certain death of countless innocents, would coldly, or even gleefully, approve the various and vile machinations of Nabokov's creation.
Heh. I'd laugh harder, but this sort of thing persists to this day, depressingly. Yes, it's now "acceptable" for people to enjoy and endorse Lolita without also approving of Humbert Humbert, but that's only because the book has been designated a "classic," and only the most extreme moralists would be unashamed to denounce it. Good for people. But the confusion between the quality of a work of art and its moral character certainly lives on. If film reviews over the past year or so are any indication, apparently no one can enjoy Fahrenheit 9/11 without also endorsing its political views wholesale, and a denunciation of Che Guevara the human being suffices for an appraisal of The Motorcycle Diaries. But that's obviously wrong. Good books can be written about pedophiles. Good movies can be made that contain repugnant views on things. So it goes. Someday we'll get over this, but not, apparently, anytime soon.
On this one, Warbs and I are in concert. It is entirely possible to appreciate the construction of something, without approving of the content of that thing. In fact, some art is deliberately produced this way to provoke reactions in the viewer/reader that would play with their moral sense.

Actually Lolita is a poor example of this, because Humbert Humbert is not a sympathetic character in any way (at least in my reading of the book). Humbert is a pathetic and weak NOT-MAN, and we are meant to dislike him. The fascination is supposed to be in his obsession and moral dissolution, for which we are intended to feel both attraction and revulsion.

A far better example is that of propaganda, and this is where Warbs and I are really thinking along similar lines. Warbs cites Farenheit 9/11 as the example used by Bradford in his argument :
I am one of the right-wingers who can appreciate Fahrenheit 9/11 for the piece of propaganda that it is. Michael Moore is a talented filmmaker, who can craft loosely-arranged snippets of video and completely unrelated facts into a piece of work that causes most lemmings to watch it to reflexively hate Bush. It wouldn't have been such a popular film if Moore wasn't so good at it.

That being said, I still think he's completely wrong, his movie is full of deceptions and outright lies, and don't think in any way that it proves what he wanted it to prove. But that was never his point. He made that movie to make himself rich and to cause people to hate Bush. It succeeded on both fronts, regardless of such things as "facts".
Brad Warbiany | Homepage | 08.29.05 - 3:18 pm | #

I’d like to disagree just a bit, not on the basic premise (Propaganda is the perfect vehicle for demonstrating how one can appreciate the construction while disliking or even hating the content of something), but in the example used.

“Roger and Me” is a brilliant piece of propaganda, and actually a fairly decent movie upon which Moore made his reputation.

Unfortunately everything he’s done since has lacked any sort of subtlety whatsoever, as well as significant elements that are risible on their face by anyone who has been paying atention; so any hope of persuasion rather than simple reinforcement of existing views is out the window. To my mind, propaganda should serve BOTH purposes, so F-9/11 is only a marginally effective (though certainly well constructed) propaganda piece.

Of course you make more money playing to your audience, so that is what more does. It is more of a agitprop piece to stir up the base.

I believe the most well constructed piece of propaganda ever made is Leni Reifenstahls "Triumph of the will". It is in scope and composition a completely magnificent movie, about the most repugnant evil of the past century. In it we watch through wonderful cinematography, and some of the best scoring ever used in film; the most perfect example of demagoguery in modern times. Intercut with this are persoanl scenes which allow you to relate to those involved, and detach them from their ultimately evil purpose.

It is both fascinating, and disgusting, and the scale and visual impact of the film alone contrasts against this evil. In effect, and viewed from our presepective; it is a meta-analysis of propaganda itself, and as such it is a marvelous piece of film (though it's intent was anything but).

If you can watch "Triumph of the will" without at least seeing how these feelings are created, then there is something wrong with you. If you are not revulsed by them in relation to the ultimate subject of the film, then there is something even worse wrong with you.

I hate to sound like a moral relativist, but honestly, it is all dependant on perspective.

Perhaps we need a somewhat less controversial example, and one that is more relevant to most of my readers who havent seen the film.

There is a lot of music out there I dont like. I don’t like Eminem for the most part, because I generally don’t like his sound, OR his lyrics which I frequently find personally, morally, and ethically repugnant (although Stan and "Lose yourself" are just great pieces). Frequently even those pieces I do like are about extremely unpleasant subject matters (Stan, "Cleaning out my closet" etc...).

That said, I think that some of his writing is BRILLIANT.

I don’t like his music, but I can appreciate it’s intelligence, it’s structure (his use of rhythm and vocabulary to complement that rhythm is some of the best ever in the business), and it’s personal emotional expression. Eminiem is clearly writing the most intelligent and expressive rap on the pop charts today.

Oh and yes, I know there are many better than he (Atmosfear, Blackilicious Jurassic five and the lyricist lounge, Talib Kweli, Rahzel, Scarface, KRS-1, etc…) but they have not achieved the pop success that Eminem has. His music is getting out there. I suspect that for the most part it isnt being appreciated on an intellectual/lyrical level by most of his listeners... but maybe that's just me being culturally elitist.