Talking of Kitsch
What is intermedial kitsch? It amounts to an aesthetic approach that too readily draws upon the arts without quite adding up to a remark of its own. As Stanley Cavell says, "so many remarks one has endured about the kind and number of feet in a line of verse, or about a superb modulation, or about a beautiful diagonal in a painting, or about a wonderful camera angle, have not been readings of a passage at all but something like items in a tabulation, with no suggestion about what is being countedor what the total might mean. Such remarks, I feel, say nothing, though they may be, as Wittgenstein says, about naming, preparations for saying something..." If we feel the film is piggybacking on a culture it perceives is higher than cinema's own, there is a good sense we are in the presence of kitsch. Steve Jacobs in Framing Pictures alludes to this when he talks of Lust For Life, Moulin Rouge, Klimt and Nightwatching. "While usually artists transform motifs into pictures", Jacobs and others note that "filmmakers reverse the process by turning pictures into motifs. The resulting screen image is a more illusionistic version of the painting; the painting stripped as it were of the medium of oil painting." It hides its own relationship with the real in the kitsch of the recreated, even if film is of course now a digital medium that, according to theorists like Lev Manovich, thus turns all films into animated works, moving from the index to the icon, from film recording life through a chemical process, to a mathematics of recreation. For Manovich all films are now a branch of painting: they are all made rather than recorded.
However, we believe that when a film accepts its inferior status to the fine arts it cannot create its own singularity. Thus when looking at late Wim Wenders films like The Million Dollar Hotel or Don't Come Knocking, or Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Nightwatching, what we see are films denying the filmic relationship with the index (all the films were shot on celluloid), for the iconic status of the represented, painterly image. Hopper, Hals and Rembrandt allow the films to be knowing, but what exactly is it that they know - as if the knowing is a weak epistemology that relies on a nod and a wink? This has nothing necessarily to do with the closeness between the painting referenced and the film. Tarkovsky's use of Brueghel's The Hunter in the Snow in Solaris and Mirror doesn't so much homage the work as inquire into its very nature, and the nature in the very painting. Tarkovsky justifies what Schelling would call corporeal spirituality, a brilliant blend of soul and soil that allows Tarkovsky to suggest that he isn't at all Breughel's inferior, but an artist approaching the same terrain on his own turf. When Greenaway, on the other hand, utilises studio interiors to recreate Hals in The Cook, The Thief... he seems to be acknowledging filmic limitations rather than opening up cinematic possibilities. The best Greenaway can do is reproduce Hals to dignify the impoverished medium of cinema. As Greenaway says, "Cinema does not have its own Joyces or Borgeses. For over 8,000 years, our life has been dictated by men of letters, they wrote all the holy books, all the instructions - from diapers to aircraft carriers. Maybe it is high time to change the paradigm in the digital age. However, cinema surely has nothing to do with this." So how can cinema hope to come close to equalling the achievements in other arts - presumably by replicating as closely as possible work done elsewhere, Greenaway seems to suggest.
However, this doesn't achieve higher art but indeed a lower form, taking into account Hermann Broch's comment that "kitsch is always subject to the dogmatic influence of the past - it will never take its vocabulary of reality from the world directly but will apply pre-used vocabularies, which in its hand rigidify into clich..." ('Evil the Value System of Art') The great filmmakers (the equivalent we feel of Joyce and Borges), like Tarkosvky, Godard and Antonioni, do not see the mediocrity of cinema next to the other arts but the possibility available in an art form that has the world not at its fingertips as the painter does, but at the end of their viewfinder. They frame the world but it is a world and not a picture: indexical recordings and not painted images. In an interview in the mid-sixties the Cahiers du Cinema editors asked Godard if he thought that had Nicolas de Stael been a filmmaker perhaps he wouldn't have taken his own life. Godard replied, "I agree, The cinema is optimistic because everything is always possible, nothing is ever prohibited: all you need is to be in touch with life."
Is this what Greenway is not in touch with, and what Wenders lost touch with? When we watch The American Friend we see a director finding a visual correlative to the famous remark in his earlier Kings of the Road: that the Americans have colonised our subconscious. In The American Friend it is Edward Hopper who has colonised Wenders', but in a manner that allows the filmmaker to breath and the images to retain their relationship with the real. Here he makes both American and German cities look the same: that now American had entered the visual world of the director's work but as a positive, self-conscious influence. Wenders had long since been taken by Hopper, but insisted that the direct application only started to appear with The American Friend. "The first film of mine that was influenced by Edward Hopper's paintings was The American Friend, which I shot in 1976." (Double Take) The influence is of course still there in Paris Texas eight years later but remains contained within the sensibility rather than the homage. Critics have noted similarities between Hopper paintings like Gas and Morning Sun in the film, but it wasn't until his late works like The Million Dollar Hotel, End of Violence and Don't Come Knocking that the homage led to intermedial kitsch: when the remark was absorbed into the nod.
Both Greenaway and late Wenders seem kitschifying as Milan Kundera might view it. "Kitsch is something other than simply a work in poor taste. There is a kitsch attitude. Kitsch behaviour. The kitsch man's (kitschmensch) need for kitsch." This has nothing to do with entertainment or with trash in our definition: one that we take from Broch in 'Evil in the Value System of Art', and from Kundera in The Art of the Novel, rather than Adorno and Greenberg, explored well in Greenberg's 'Kitsch and the Avant Garde'. Greenberg sees kitsch in popular entertainment, Kundera sees it in the pretentious. "I never minded Agatha Christie novels. Whereas Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Horowtiz at the piano...Kramer Versus Kramer, Dr Zhivago...I detest, deeply, sincerely." Usually, kitsch aspires to high art, perspires in the process of getting there, and expires as it fails to achieve anything more than the self-reflexive. Major artists can move between the two and there is probably little sense when the filmmaker is working on the film that they will slip into kitsch or escape its grip. As we have suggested, Tarkovsky's direct relationship with Breughel doesn't ruin the work; in Alain Robbe-Grillet's case we feel that Eden and After absorbs Mondrian on its own terms, while La belle captive perhaps does not succeed with Magritte.
We cannot pretend there isn't an element of taste in this process, but that might be our very point. We could even say kitsch invites the question of taste as entertainment would not. Entertainment entertains, in an italicised tautology, but kitsch acknowledges, demanding we note the references as it takes its place in high art presumptuously. When Greenaway says "I don't want to be a film-maker. I think painting is far more exciting and profound. It's always at the back of my mind - let's give up this silly business of film-making and concentrate on something more satisfying and worthwhile, he reveals that all his films can aspire to is another art form that he finds so much more admirable. The remark he makes isn't about the world as Godard suggests, but about the traditional fine arts: the films are reactive rather than proactive: they look to the past and another art form, rather than to film and its possibilities. His films are close to kitsch as Broch would define it. When we look at Godard's Pierrot le fou we may see similarities with de Stael's work, but this would seem to be Godard acknowledging painting's importance without at all undermining cinema's significance. If a painter can help a director 'see' colour, then what matters is the capacity to see the world, not merely homaging a painting. We may look at Paysage du Lavandou and Nu Blue couche and see their importance on Godard's film, but what matters is the director's approach to colour which is much greater than the influence of De Stael's work. What counts is film's relationship to colour, here, not its relationship with painting per se. To pass through painting makes sense since film was relatively new to colour, while painters had been working with it for centuries. Godard' use of de Stael adds up to a remark in the Cavellian sense: imagine, Godard seems to be saying, if what we saw when we saw the South of France was not the place in all its detail, but the first and last impression: the immediacy of the senses and the lingering nature of its memory.
Finally we have Antonioni, no less a colourist than Godard, who would draw upon Rothko, Di Chirico, Turner and others. It is Antonioni's comment about Rothko painting anxiety that would be central to understanding an aspect of Antonioni's work, just as we might say the importance of Di Chirico's is that he could paint human absence. Like Antonioni it isn't the non-presence of the human as we frequently find in Turner and numerous other landscape painters, but the absently human that Antonioni was always drawn towards. The anxiety of someone suddenly disappearing is the subject of several Antonioni films, and if Rothko offers something of the anxiety of such a loss, Di Chirico indicates the geometry of that absence.
Our point here is to say little more than this. Does the use of painting add up to a remark or does it do no more than pay homage. If we believe it happens to be the latter we are, indeed, in the realm of Intermedial kitsch.
© Tony McKibbin