A Hit by Varèse

Greg Sandow has a series of posts up about popular vs high culture. (Nothing new about that.) Several times he (or someone he is quoting) refers to Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood as works of popular culture, and this brings up what I think is an interesting issue.

The project of postmodernism to remove the taxonomic wall between "popular" and "high" culture has been remarkably succesful. In fact, it has been so succesful that there are signs that it is being rebuilt, this time with "popular" culture occupying the "superior" turf, with its "authenticity" and "audience ownersdhip" tropes carrying the rhetorical day.

It looks from here as though this new wall is as artificial as the old one, and the seemingly automatic classification of There Will Be Blood as a product/artifact of "popular" culture is an example of its arbitrariness. Under what criteria is Mr. Anderson's film on the same side of a defining line as, say, Blades of Glory, and on the opposite side of that line as Edgard Varèse's Amériques or Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto or Symphony of Three Orchestras (not to mention Wagner's Ring cycle), all of which have much in common with There Will Be Blood?

I have some ideas about this, but I am interested in reading your thoughts and reactions first. Please leave a comment if you are so inclined, and I promise not to drink your milkshake.


  1. Curiously, it is only relatively recently that I first heard the Chicago track to which (I believe) you allude here : - )


  2. Correct, Karl. That's the reference. How did you happen to hear that recently?

  3. Your posting raises a very hard question, mostly about public reception, but also about how creative artists themselves understand their work. But beyond the obvious point that different media draw the line or understand the balance between art and entertainment differently, I've been unable to come up with anything more clever. Within the genre of "Hollywood Film", for example, there are clearly works that have artistic aspirations and work on terms independent of simple entertainment value, and film has little difficulty on this point with subgenres -- a western, or space opera or romance can be as high or low as one likes, and an artfilm can usefully play with low genres, while a vehicle designed for pure entertainment (a space opera, for example) is obliged to use the most arty of techniques simply to optimize its entertainment potential. With music, it strikes me that there is nothing like the indifference to sub-genres found in film and the situation is closer to literature, in which a Thomas Pynchon (my favorite example) might use all possible popular genres (in Against the Day, boys' adventures, mysteries, westerns) yet the genres are held within the frame of the larger project of the novel.

  4. Hi Steve,

    The movie world has never really endorsed the idea of the high/low divide, much to their credit. Nobody denies Hitchcock is a genius, even though his movies are extremely entertaining and popular.

    And look at the canon: the consensus best pictures of all time include a couple of gangster movies, a samurai adventure, a thinly-veiled biopic, a Soviet propaganda piece, an ensemble farce, a war movie, a psychological thriller, a Western, and a sci-fi epic.

    People in music attach an inordinate amount of attention to genre. To me, that's crazy. If you claimed to be a film buff but rejected everything except, say, intimate domestic dramas by European directors, you'd rightly be regarded as a complete fucking idiot.

  5. Thanks, Daniel and Darcy. You both make good points, and I note they both touch on genre. I think there's a considerable amount of awareness on the part of filmmakers about the stratification (for lack of a better word) of genre vs non-genre and they are often quick to say that their film(s) "transcend genre".

    Also, the existence of art and revival houses speaks to a belief on the business end of the film indudtry that there is some difference or distinction between "art" and "entertainment".

    That music is abstract probably has a lot to do with genre-related ghettoization, too.

  6. Also, the existence of art and revival houses speaks to a belief on the business end of the film indudtry that there is some difference or distinction between "art" and "entertainment".

    But in film, no one believes those two things are mutually exclusive.

    As for "art houses," like NYC's Film Forum, they exist to present (A) old movies and (B) new independent movies. It's got nothing to do with whether the movies meet the prevailing cultural standards for "high art." Film Forum are as likely to screen car chase flicks like Bullitt and Vanishing Point as they are to show captial-A "Art" movies like 8 1/2 and L'Aventurra.

    And I expect that the curators at Film Forum probably genuinely love all of those movies and believe they are each, in their own way, great cinematic achievements. (Which, duh, they are.)

    Where's the musical equivalent of that type of open-mindedness, the unconditional love of great moviemaking, without regard to whether it's "high art" or not? Why is being genre-agnostic a prerequisite for being taken seriously as a film buff, but is almost nonexistent amongst people who consider themselves lovers of "art music"?

    I suspect 99.9% of this has to do with music-as-identity. Being a "classical music lover" automatically puts you in a very different social cateogry than being a "movie buff."

  7. Thanks again, Darcy.

    All of that is, of course, true.

    I find the music-as-identity idea crosses all genres and is a problem for all music, not just concert music.