02 September 2005

A Weekend Dose of Sontag & Kael

Continuing the not-quite-random quoting from the works of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, here are some words for the weekend, since I am heading out of town and won't be posting anything more until Monday.

First, Sontag, in an early essay:
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors -- real or anticipated -- by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.

The fantasy in science fiction films does both jobs. The films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction which I for one find haunting and depressing. The naive level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is full of monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like, "Come quickly, there's a monster in my bathtub," "We must do something about this," "Wait, Professor. There's someone on the telephone," "But that's incredible," and the old American stand-by, "I hope it works!" are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.

--Susan Sontag,
from "The Imagination of Disaster"
in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays
And now some early Kael, wherein she becomes fed up with European art films full of decadent parties:
These movies are said to be "true" and "important" because this kind of high life has been observed (gossip columnists assure us that they have been eyewitnesses); do the people who read the gossip columns get so much vicarious pleasure that they think they're living it? Here we are in an age of increasing mechanization and dehumanization -- with the trends horribly the same under both capitalism or socialism, with no relief in sight, and people go to Fellini's and Antonioni's Marxist-Catholic-Hollywood glamour parades and come away carrying the banner that fornication is the evil of our times! And whom do these directors pick to symbolize the victims of materialism: the artists -- just the ones who escape into freedom. I'll admit that I once knew an apparently bored artist, a famous composer, born wealthy, who said to me, "The days are always two hours too long for me." I wanted to hit him with a poker because the days are always too short for me and I am always trying to prolong them by staying up half the night. But I decided that he was using his boredom as a come-on -- a lure so that people would want to fascinate him, to awaken him from his sleeping beauty trance.

--Pauline Kael,
from "The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties"
in I Lost It At the Movies

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