Seven Years in the Pit

Rather than spending the first paragraphs of this belated annual reflection flogging myself for the previous year’s scant output, wondering aloud whether this blog is still seaworthy, or is sinking under the weight of its own discursivity—if I am writing, as S.T. Joshi once wrote about Arthur Machen, around rather than about my purported subject (music, by the way)—if this is my comeuppance for asserting that, music being what it is, whenever one attempts to write about it, one has no choice but to write around it—that it is an absent center we drive toward, and as such the writing has to find a way of orbiting itself, of becoming its own center, for only by doing so will it find its way to the corona of the musical experience, that superheated margin, second only to the unassailable core, the thing-in-itself … but then you see I’ve written that paragraph after all. So I can move on to the topic of this year’s reflection: blogs versus books.

Over the past few years a couple of friends of mine, doubtless in an effort to humor me, have encouraged me to think about assembling the material on this blog into a book. It’s something I occasionally fantasize about: how it would be organized, what would be left out, whether some of these annual reflections might be assembled into a viable introduction.

Last fall I read Minding Movies, a book composed of selections from the blog Observations on Film Art, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I bought the book because, though I’ve long admired Bordwell’s work, I found myself rarely visiting OFA. Much as I love the blog as an opportunity to “publish” my musical thoughts unimpeded, I’m still much more comfortable reading on paper—a good reason in itself, I suppose, to think of the work here in The Pit as a quasi-book. It was also a good opportunity to see how a couple of veteran academic bloggers had managed the print transition.

That Minding Movies was rather a disappointment forced me to consider the differences between the two media with a minuteness of attention I hadn’t before. Reading the selections, I kept wondering why the book hadn’t provided Bordwell and Thompson with the impetus to dig deeper, consolidate posts, and re-think issues, rather than just re-present their writing from the web. Instead, the posts are printed with addenda, which generally present a little more evidence for a point argued (sometimes from a reader comment), qualify assertions, and/or rebut responses.

The choice speaks volumes about the way we conceive of blog-based writing: finished enough to anthologize, but ephemeral enough to necessitate addenda. Or at least, some blog-based writing. One section of Minding Movies is dedicated to criticizing the state of film reviewing. Lots of opinions, Bordwell gripes, but few ideas. He touts the critical essay as a nice middle ground between blurby review and scholarly exegesis; he thinks the web is a “hospitable” place for such writing, and wishes there were more of it out there; and he clearly sees himself working in this vein. His lovely conclusion to “In Critical Condition”: “Web critics could write less often, but longer. In an era of slow food, let’s try slow blogging. It might encourage slow reading” (61).

As someone who thinks of himself as working in a similar vein, I can’t help but agree with Bordwell. (The quote even serves to justify my output … though, admittedly, the ratio between dwindling number and growing length has not remained equal.) And it must be said that the best “posts” in Minding Movies, including many of those about individual films and filmmakers in the latter half of the book, fit nicely into that category: longish, thoughtful, erudite but not (overly) academic.

That said, Minding Movies also serves as a sad reminder that the web has actually failed to foster just the sort of writing Bordwell would most like to see.* Too many of the pieces anthologized feel like fluff. This is true less often of Bordwell’s than Thompson’s, which are by and large shallower in their examinations, and occasionally fall into a irritating “so-and-so said X, now I’m going to rebut that in [#] salient points” format. They are also more oriented toward the business of filmmaking than Bordwell’s, a topic which, handled well, can be enlightening, but otherwise can sound depressingly close to a speech at a trade luncheon.

Now, I would guess that the fluffier pieces actually read better on-line. But even something that feels relatively weighty on the screen may look scant transferred to the page. Print is a painfully unforgiving medium; a book—paradoxical as it might seem—is still a much larger pond.** (I should add that I encountered a surprising lack of sensitivity in Minding Movies to the way different media shape expression.)

In keeping with the hybrid nature of the critical essay, Bordwell and Thompson strive for a light tone, even as they treat some fairly knotty questions of film art and craft. The desire not to sound like stuffy academics goes hand-in-hand with a generally positive vibe about mainstream Hollywood cinema, something that I think is supposed to sound maverick, but strikes me as pretty much hegemonic in the pop culture-sodden world of the humanities today. So Louis Menand, in that stuffiest of stuffy journals the New York Review of Books, is taken to task for writing a disparaging article about action movies; “David” and “Kristin” “are forced to conclude that literary intellectuals and workaday reviewers do not have the inclination or expertise to think about cinema as deeply as their counterparts routinely reflect on the other arts” (xi). I’m not sure who “forced” them to conclude this. They do make a blanket assertion to this effect in the previous paragraph, and Menand is clearly supposed to be the representative “literary intellectual.” It feels like a cheap shot, particularly since they put him against Charles Rosen “dissect[ing] the intricacies of musical composition,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that if you gave Rosen a Judas Priest record, he would behave very much as Menand did with The Rock. (N.B.: Alex Ross, who they mention earlier, would be a better foil for this sort of thing.) The bias of some intellectuals against Hollywood per se may be unjustified, but to assert that “they” can’t think about “cinema” per se is as unjustified a generalization.

There are perils in the desire to keep a blog non-academic—perils inherent in being a blogging academic, which become (once again) that much more apparent between the covers of a book. The long post called “The Anatomy of the Action Picture” is most egregious in this regard. It wanders along with nary an acknowledgement that it is rehashing the sort of plot analysis English teachers (“literary intellectuals”?) spout in freshman-year courses. Chekhov’s gun gets a passing mention; but not until the conclusion (and then again in the addendum) does Bordwell note that Hollywood’s narrative conventions are hardly indigenous to Hollywood, that they were adapted from the short story and the play. Nor does the post make any effort to engage with a century’s worth of narrative theory. It’s a missed opportunity; a writer of Bordwell’s acuity would be up to the difficult task of translating some of these ideas for a general readership and applying them to the plots of action films. In dialogue with said theory, this might make for a very interesting analysis. But in the limbo of the blog, it reads like Freytag’s Triangle (or whatever) fell on him like Newton’s apple.

In the end, if the goal is to convince me that “the action movie needn’t be considered a mindless splatter of violent spectacle and CGI. It can have a cogent architecture” (122), I would answer, “So can track housing.” So, for that matter, can the old 42nd-Street triumvirate of porn, slasher, and kung fu. That spectacle can advance plot without ceasing to be spectacle is hardly news, and is as true of episodic narratives as more “tightly-woven” plots (e.g., “You killed my master”). Action sequences are nominally integrated in order to give them a raison d’etre, but they are bloated far beyond what is necessary to merely advance the plot because, after all, they’re what we’ve paid to see. A minimal amount of horizontal movement is the penny paid to plot for the pound of vertical expansion that it is the logic of spectacle to maximize. Menand’s NYRB quip—that action movies alternate two minutes of dialogue with ten minutes of action—might be a rhetorical exaggeration, but it’s hardly a lie, as Mr Spock knew. Formulaic structures make wonderful vessels for just such mindless splatter, whatever the fluid in question. As always, it’s what you do with the formula, how you fill it and how you squeeze it, that makes the difference.

The “Anatomy” raises a related, and tricky, question. It’s the role of research, and the responsibility (if such can be said to exist) of the blogger, particularly the academic blogger, to draw on research in building his or her arguments. In fact, Bordwell himself calls for more “research essays” on the web. Let me inject my own experience as a blogger here. I’ve noticed that, as the blog has grown (and I’ve grown with it), the work on it has become somewhat less impressionistic, or at least that impressionism has been folded into a broader agenda. It has become more and more difficult to post before doing at least a minimal amount of reading. (This may be for better or for worse; I miss the innocence of some of those early posts; it was occasionally a strength.) But once again, the blog presents itself as an interesting hybrid: I don’t feel the need to scour everything that has been said about a subject, as would be my duty were I writing a book, at least an academic book in my field. Hence, again, the problem, or at least challenge: making the blog book-worthy would (for me) necessitate a great deal of revision based on yet-to-be-done research in the plethora of genres I write about. And that might end up tilting the writing out of the equilibrium both Bordwell and I seek.

That said, I’m in a somewhat different position from Bordwell and Thompson. They are film scholars, and as such an erudite flippancy sits easily with them. Whatever my issues and my wishes, they clearly know their shit. I’m not a music scholar; I just play one, pseudonymously, on the web. Matt Hills’s distinction between what he terms the “fan-scholar” and the “scholar-fan” (originally in Fan Cultures, Routledge, 2002; I came across it in Chris McDonald’s superb academic monograph Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class, Indiana UP, 2009) might be helpful here. The former category describes someone who produces work based on intensive research and deep familiarity with their subject, but who is without formal academic training. Their work has no currency in the academy. The “scholar-fan,” on the other hand, is an academic by training and/or profession, but presumably also a confessed inebriate of his or her subject of inquiry; such an assertion would flout the objectivity expected from academic writing, though, of course, it may be absent from, or only marginally present in, the academic work.

The kink in this model is that “scholarship” is too broadly conceived. I am an academic, but my degree is in a non-music field. (It is actually a hybrid doctorate, part studio (creative writing), part traditional English.) Nor am I a professional music writer, where my authority would be established based on that of the publications in which my work had appeared. Like the “fan-scholar,” I am driven to write about music because of my dilettantish passion for the subject, not my expertise. Yet, I’m not quite a fan-scholar, either: because I have academic training and an academic career; because my discipline is at least related to music under the broader umbrella of the humanities (i.e., I’m not a civil engineer); and because English itself has morphed under the pressure of something called cultural studies, that amoeba which, by turning everything into text, threatens to consume all humanistic fields of inquiry. It’s an odd position to occupy, at once inside and outside scholarship, somewhere on the continuum between scholar and fan. But it’s not necessarily a bad one. As I’ve noted here before, bringing other discourses to bear may be the only way to really grasp (at) music; a cautious interdisciplinarity might provide the key to some worthwhile insights.

And so we return to the idea of hybridity: just as the blog, as Bordwell notes, might be a “hospitable” place for writing that stands on the threshold between the popular and the scholarly, so the blog might also be a natural place for an academic to write about subjects on the margin of his or her field, and to create work that throws lines across boundaries and tests waters, rather than soldering up unsinkable arguments.

Turning a blog into a (successful) book, then, is not as simple as it sounds. What the experience of reading Minding Movies taught me, at least, was that the body of work on a blog is very much its own entity: a growing text that puts out branches in different directions. At their best, blog posts are passionate and thoughtful sallies at ideas that are revisited in time, forming an evolving network of linked ideas, not a coherent argument developed over a set number of pages. A blog may form the bulk of the material for a book; but doing so would mean finding a way to consolidate the output via research and revision. On a blog, ideas necessarily repeat themselves. Readers will come at them from different angles, in different orders, across wide swathes of time. I myself return to ideas from different angles; this difference of approach subtly modifies them, as does rethinking them over the space of possibly months or even years. (Maybe I should have read Minding Movies over the course of a few months rather than a few days.) It means that certain themes and ideas continue to obsess me, as they do Bordwell and Thompson; and as material builds up organically across the blog, I return to them. Considered cumulatively, they express a philosophy about one’s subject and the manner in which it should be approached. A book fails if it tries to function in this way. We may disclaim or revise some of the ideas contained there later in our lives; but that is at least an article … if not another book.


As per tradition, I’ll end this end-of-year reflection with some reflections and not-quite-addenda (ha!) on the previous year’s work.

Regarding, “Elastic” (5.16.16), I came across a quote in Miles’s Autobiography that might serve as an epigraph. About the Second Great Quintet, Miles says, “Instead of developing the new music live which we were playing on records, we found ways to make the old music sound as new as the new music we were recording” (279). My note about the prominent role accorded to tempo in “making the old music sound new,” at least the burners, has a funny contemporary resonance. In Ubiquitous Listening (California UP, 2014), Anahid Kassabian notes that the last couple of decades has witnessed a proliferation of new genres “according to all sorts of parameters, though most obviously beats per minute” (10). Thus tempo itself takes on the sort of genre-defining role traditionally accorded to melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation, at least where the music itself is concerned. I would guess this is due to the diminished importance of harmony et al. more generally. On Four & More, the radical ramping up of tempo is partly responsible for attenuating the importance of melody and harmony, and heightening the role of timbre and rhythm, in Miles’s improvisations.

As readers might have noticed, race became a prevalent theme in half of last year’s posts (“Un/coiffed” and “Samson in old Kentucky”). Maybe it’s the last presidential election. I don’t have anything to add here, except to say that I will likely return to my provisional comments about race in jazz. (By the way, in case it doesn’t come though in the post: I really like Judge Priest. The fact that it’s such an endearing movie makes its racial politics that much more depressing.)

And what with the negatives in my titles? “UN/coiffed,” Left UNsaid”; even the original title of “Flesh Against Steel” was “NO Cowbell” … signs of the blogpocalypse? No clue. But while I’m on the subject of the cowbell, into which I read some pretty heavy symbolism vis-à-vis Carcass’s evolution: after posting, I remembered the cowbell in Pantera’s “Drag the Waters,” a song I described way back in the early years of this blog (“Deulogy,” 1.4.11) as “seedy and grating, a rotting wharf of a song, bottomlessly vile.” But what a different cowbell that is! The cowbell on Carcass’s “Rotting” is the clichéd upbeat heavy-rock break; on Pantera’s “Waters,” it’s anything but. (A manhole cover beaten with a lead pipe; a buoy tolling dully in the mist where men with shepherds’ crooks fish for corpses; etc.). As much as musical context, the difference might be in the tone of the cowbell itself, as I learned when I went to buy “a” cowbell (to play with a bass drum pedal) a number of years ago, when 48th Street was all that. I ended up staring at a wall of cowbells. Who knew there were so many sizes and shapes of cows?

I can’t leave this reflection without throwing in my few cents about the idea of reflection itself (jeez, Helldriver, how meta- can you go?), something I originally drafted as an endnote to the “Samson” post but deleted, cognizant of how much verbiage that poor post already had to bear. Reading around in film and popular music theory during this sabbatical, I’ve been struck by the way some recent writers (Bordwell and Thompson, but also Keith Negus in his excellent primer Popular Music in Theory (Wesleyan UP, 1996)) have frowned on the idea of a work of art reflecting the character of its historical moment, or Zeitgeist. As the argument goes, since the Zeitgeist itself is always an oversimplification of a historical period, which necessarily has many competing currents, and since audiences (of whatever) can’t hope to be representative of the populace as a whole, it’s impossible to draw a firm connection between social circumstances and the art of a particular period. As someone who is prone to make the occasional Zeitgeisty argument, and who has no deadlines to face but those imposed by my own conscience, I felt the urge to reply. Perhaps because he is trained as a social scientist, Negus is disinclined to commit to interpretation. He thinks it more pertinent for the theorist to analyze the how than the what. This seems to be because the how is more data-crunchable, more falsifiable, while the what always involves a certain amount of creativity and imagination—just sort of thing that makes social scientists anxious. As for Bordwell and Thompson: One can surely make a case for dominant or important trends in which a large number of people are involved, even if they do not involve everyone, or are not perfectly representative. Does the fact that a large number of Americans were revolted by the counterculture mean that the Summer of Love did not express something crucial in the nation’s psyche, and that the art produced in the late 60s didn’t reflect that? Does the Nevadan goat herder who never heard of 9-11 scuttle arguments that 9-11 deeply impacted American consciousness, and that this impact is, once again, represented in the country’s art? Hell, I’ve written stories that, only as I was completing them, or even after I was done, I realized (and I mean realized) were deeply impacted by 9-11. The fact that there’s a lot of lazy or glib Zeitgeist crit doesn’t mean that a well-handled argument for reflection can’t be deeply illuminating. Michael Wood’s America in the Movies is delightful precisely because he so imaginatively (and stylishly) constructs Hollywood’s vision of America from the plots and images of classic films. Clearly, there can be no myths without the idea of a widely-shared and identity-defining neurosis for the myth to respond to, “enacting an imaginary solution to an authentic dilemma” (xiii).

Wood is up front about a looseness of approach. Still, I’ll take his sort of graceful and creative floundering in the murk of interpretation any day over the parsing of weekend grosses. What’s the point of falsifiability if there’s nothing worth falsifying?


* “The net,” Bordwell writes in “In Critical Condition, “is just as hospitable to the long piece” (59) as to the short. But to say that the critical essay “can develop new depth of the web” begs the question of what forces within the culture would move us in this direction—or what about the technology itself would predispose us to it. It’s really a question of audience: that college-educated, curious public for which the critical essay is ostensibly written. Perhaps, in an age where even intellectuals complain about their shrinking and divided attentions, it’s quixotic to expect there will be a broad readership for the web-based critical essay. I don’t know.

In my assertion that the short (but not the fluffy) still dominates web writing almost a decade after “In Critical Condition,” I’m using a benchmark familiar to me: the word length limits for submissions to literary journals. The vast majority of electronic journals set very low word limits, and I’ve watched word limits in traditional journals (some of which have gone entirely on-line, others of which have added on-line content for shorter pieces) erode as well. There are of course exceptions that prove the rule: some journals have begun satellite publications sites for longer work, and scant few journals have been founded to provide a forum for longer work (many of them are print-only). The reasons seem obvious to me: electronic submissions have increased the overall number of submissions journal editors have to read; reading on-line is not the same as reading on paper; and, yes, it might just be true that the net has contributed to the shrinking and atomizing of our attention and ability to focus over long periods.

** I even came to wonder, based on how the book was produced, whether the publishers had taken less care because, well, it’s a blog anyway. But I think it’s less a matter of oversight than unclarity about how to transmute a blog into a book—as though the problem was the (mistaken) decision to retain something of the blogginess, to create a hybrid print form. So the font is wonky in the block quotes; some of the pictures are unclearly signaled; section transitions are unappealing, at least to my eye; the “David here” and “Kristin here” salutations from the web feel tacky. These are minor issues, perhaps, but seem symptomatic of the broader one. The decision to include urls in the addenda is also odd. Ah, maybe for the Kindle version they’re useful. Perhaps they figure the only people who buy this as a book rather than reading the blog itself will be pre-net dinosaurs, so they set out to make it look like … a TRS-80?



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