Murdochisation; or, Lapses at The Times

Even though his was the streamlined horse with rocket engines, I cheered on Rupert Murdoch in the unfought race to acquire Dow Jones — and no, not because I'd bet on it. The pulsatile substance could be anything from coinage to malnourished bone, but I'm sure my heart is made of capitalism.

It's not as if I read the Journal. I've read about it, and its hyperright opinionists, in the memorable piece which introduced Philip Connors and which his ambling book reviews ('In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery') cannot match, but financial news is for men whose heads are capitalist too. If that was true of me, I'd be typing this on white keys.

In Corsica once — a marina town — Murdoch strode past my family and me. His white yacht was big, vulgar. His white shirt was tasteful.

Nor is that the reason I cheered him on. The reason is a jambalaya of reasons from which I'll isolate two. First, when I hear of such a venture, which will make of two smaller powerful entities one ('By the long barrows of Logres they are made one') gleaming mega- entity, I experience what may be a completist desire that it be seen through, that it happen (yes, in Amis italics). Second, reliable sound English infracaninophilia. Everyone was bitching their wristbands off on poor beleaguered Murdoch so I fell to supporting his case. Underdog love.

Such instincts would be foolish if thoughts; as it is they're embarrassing. More embarrassing still if The Times's commentary on the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni can be accounted the result of 'Murdochisation', an event whose observation's origins in prejudice cloud its empirical verification, but which is verified enough by anecdote, Fox news and the tabloids for us to dread its reappearance in better frames. I for one dread the weakening of Sunday's occasionally excellent Culture. Landesman wants replacing, but AA Gill is talented and Januszczak pleasant. Because — unlike fiction — it's so bad when it's bad, and when it's bad itchy-back reviewers don't say so, poetry gets a page a fortnight. Carey is allowed to wheeze on. Will anybody ring the undertaker?

Tonight I learnt the Swedish for 'meaningless'. There are funny bits in The Seventh Seal, as there is bleakness, and poetry (Jof's closing lines); on the assumption that, poetry being famed for its economy, in the film there is not a wasted shot you could call it 'poetic'. You shouldn't: it would put people off, and to find that film boring you'd have to find not boring scenes in many films which are, actually, boring. You'd have to be thrilled by 16 Blocks, moved by Anakin's loss to the Dark Side. You'd have to laugh at Match Point.

Taste is not true or false, right or wrong — it's love and hate. I don't love your wife, I'm pretty meh about her (in fact I think she has a face like a potato dipped in treacle), but to honest uxorious you, she's Helen revenant. You think Natalie Hershlag's mouth improbably broad; I write poems celebrating, in metre, its gashlike, dustbin charm. Picture got. Where this goes awry is philistinism (whose ghoulish opposite is highbrow absolutism, not elitism), the OED's best definition of which, 'one perceived to be indifferent or hostile to art', needs correction: the philistine most pure is not indifferent or hostile, but indifferent then hostile. My opinions of your wife and the movie star germinated in attention's soil. No, I didn't spend as long or as much emotion thinking over that tuberous visage; nonetheless, as you have Natalie's, I've wasted nights in her company. Stephen Pollard, humidly editorialising, starts off his 'Thunderer' (and so beclouded?) piece on tedious Ingmar with a rhetorical rat-a-tat. Bergman? he scoffs. Ever seen one? Ever liked one? Could you name one? It misfires. I have. Oh yes. Det Sjunde inseglet, currently 81st on IMBd's top 250 list. Persona loiters up at 248th.

The problem here is Pollard advertises his disqualification to write about the films. Namely, he hasn't seen them. We're asked to trust his taste for what he has ignored. The situation recalls Eliot Weinberger, on Sontag: 'disbelief does not get willingly suspended when she declares, twice, that this book [Under the Glacier] is "like nothing else Laxness ever wrote," considering that he produced some sixty novels, most of them as yet untranslated from the Icelandic.' You have to love that 'twice'.

Pollard's indifference is his ignorance, hostility his rhetoric. Plenty saw Fanny and Alexander: it was on telly in Sweden, then released in cinemas, then sold in various formats and versions for watching at home. Even my Dad, not known for his cineasty, bought the DVD. To say 'Bergman is one of a large category of "important artists" whose defining quality is an almost total absence of public acclamation or popularity. Every art form has its equivalent — think James Joyce [...]' is only to bellow one's incompetence. Who says 'important'? Cite someone. What absence? Bergman won Oscars, was financially (so publicly) successful, was something of the national artist of his country, having encouraged a media debate on marriage with his popular and acclaimed serial Scenes from a Marriage, and was 'public' enough to be parodied incessantly. But Joyce! Cite me, Joyce is important. He's also still in print in many editions, stocked by most bookshops, and even (this will please Mr Pollard) polls well — in the kind of polls that ask us to define the Hundred Best X of X.

I'll say it again. Pollard doesn't adduce a single scene of Bergman's in support of his case against the director's importance, his view that he's 'tedious' and 'overrated'. Of the films he names one, and just to giggle it's the one everybody's heard of. The points he does bless with substance are obviously wrong. I call this the progression from or association of indifference to hostility which is philistine. His indifference affects even the article's construction. In the fourth paragraph Pollard begins haltingly to argue that 'critics' love Bergman because he's Swedish and those Swedes are 'you know, deep'. But he can't think of anyone, not in literature or film (where Sjöberg, Hallström, Moodysson, Sjöström were available) to flesh this out. Instead he cites von Trier, whom he admits is Danish! And while the reader's still bemused, thinking, 'Wait, I didn't yawn in The Idiots' (Pollard's right about the USA films), this stillborn idea is finally scuttled in the man's philistine rush to disdain. '[I]t’s not as simple as that', he advises, going on to bash the extraordinary Terence Davies with a marshmallow hammer ('mind-numbingly dull', 'dark, worthy and dull' — what judgement!). Wikipedia informs me Goethe said, 'The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own.' He probably didn't, but if so Weimar classisist Germany had Pollards also, of whose descendant Goethe like me would ask, 'There are plenty of exciting movies: why not make room for tedious ones, and the people who like them?'

I'd recommend to Mr Pollard Chapter 4 of Ferdydurke (the Yale translation). He is valuably immune to culturespeak; that can't be said of most film critics. Ultimately though his thrashing returns us to Bergman, where we find assurance of his ignorance and his silliness. Here, a paragraph from the DVD:

At Svensk Filmindustri, The Seventh Seal suddenly became part of the pomp and splendour of an anniversary celebration, focusing on the golden age of Swedish film. This was a catastrophe for the film; it was not made for such activities. The gala premiere held a murderous atmosphere for a serious art film, complete with a society audience, a flourish of trumpets, and a speech by Carl Anders Dymling. It was devastating. I did what I could to stop the onslaught but ultimately was powerless. Their boredom and their malice poured relentlessly over everything.


The second lapse to which my title refers is illustrated best in quotation. I give you these excerpts from The Times's obituarial coverage of Michelangelo Antonioni:

[...] works such as L'Avventura turned him into an icon for directors such as Martin Scorsese, who has described him as a poet with a camera.

With a poet’s intuition, his work sensitively mirrored a certain spiritual malaise that was especially to be found among the class of wealthy Italians that he knew so well.

Yet the gloom of this 'poet of ennui', as he was nicknamed by some, was relieved by a translucent beauty, notable in his depiction of the melancholy poetry of urban landscapes. His philosophy may have been facile, but as a visual stylist he was highly original, one of modern cinema’s great innovators and truest poets.

Antonioni’s philosophy may well have been less original than his manner of expressing it, and it is true he was weak on intellectual analysis. But essentially his was a poet’s intuitive and emotional response to life, and this was his strength. His four best films, from Le Amiche to L’Eclisse, are likely to stand the test of time for their searing poetic vision and for a beauty that is no mere decoration but — as with Keats or Van Gogh — is integral to the melancholy outcry of an anguished soul.

This idea was apparently so liked it was promoted to a headline — twice:

Death of film 'poet' who laid Sixties London bare

Antonioni, film's 'poet of ennui', dies at 94

Now, I wrote in an email recently that the definition of poetry was impossible, and everyone should admit what we do have are favourites among failures. Next day I read this, Geoffrey Hill's pre-emption:

[...] But when I
say poetry I mean something impossible
to be described, except by adding lines
to lines that are sufficient as themselves.
('In Memoriam: Gillian Rose')

And in Ferdydurke the following day I saw: 'Nonchalance, brutality, terseness, disdain — this was poetry', which wasn't intended as definition but succeeded, with brevity, at smelting some iron clichés. I have too some limping attempts of my own: poetry, n. Not knowing what poetry is, or refusing to say. Poetry — language where the music of sense and the sense of music are close. Poetry — with as much care for the quality of his expression as for the quality of his thought. (But, to heckle: altering expression alters thought; if not the thought thought, the thought communicated.) Poetry — language thought as music. Poetry's what poetry is not.

Keith Douglas: 'Poetry is like a man, whom thinking you know all his movements and appearance you will presently come upon in such a posture that for a moment you can hardly believe it a position of the limbs you know. So thinking you have set bounds to the nature of poetry, you shall as soon discover something outside your bounds which they should evidently contain. [...] In its nature poetry is sincere and simple.'

Perhaps the ideal definition would be ostensive. Poetry is

He ha's no Children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say All? Oh Hell-Kite! All?

and what it makes you feel when you read or hear it after the rest of Macbeth. 'Oh Hell-Kite!' particularly. To have Macduff speak so underpowered a curse, to risk bathos and have him utter an expletive so near-comically anodyne ('All my pretty Chickens'), Shakespeare had to be what he was.

Poetry might also be the abridgement of the pentameter, that disordered spondee of a line-end, in counterpoint with Macduff's disbelieving, repeated (on stresses; in the first line, after the caesura) 'All?' It might be the correspondence of sound between 'All?' and 'Hell'. I couldn't say.

My argument, reluctantly admonitory in tone, then is: if 'poetry' and 'poet' are words nonchalant, brutal, terse and disdainful in their relation to ossified meaning, to definition, we should be cautious deploying them — especially outside their accustomed remit. Which is why my gut does somersaults whenever I hear a film critic spraying them around like piss on a weeklong bender.

In context of cinema criticism, what is 'poetic'? Without ever composing a shot, Tony Harrison's released a book of 'film poetry', and Auden and Betjeman wrote verses so described. We can be certain the obituarists don't mean that, not because they are making a distinction between two sorts of poetry in film, but because they don't mean anything. Like David Baddiel, they are resorting in their laziness to arty-sounding cover-all, block-purchase, panic-bought adjectives, which tell us nothing of use about the work, and by their chaff-cloud of bogus wisdom actually militate against insight. For what would it mean to be 'modern cinema's [...] truest poet', to have behind the camera 'poet's intuition'? The nearest we get to a gloss is, 'essentially his was a poet’s intuitive and emotional response to life', and if that's what (in any medium) poetry is
— the intuitive and emotional response to life, which response this critic is oafish to deny the masses of us not deemed 'poets' I'm a Burmese pornstar. And I swallow.

At 2o, Keith Douglas wrote: 'The expression "bad poetry" is meaningless: critics still use it, forgetting that bad poetry is not poetry at all.' I can't agree. The unguarded implications of this are that all poetry, because 'poetry', is good (though we may still distinguish between the good and the great, good poetry taking in that hierarchy the place of bad) and that if you're a 'poet', whether soi-disant or commercially nominated, you're good if you write (what Douglas considers to be) poetry. Bad poetry is failed poetry: despite its failure, by virtue of the traces of poetic ambition it bears where that ambition faltered most garishly evident we call it poetry, as distinct from nothing, but too obviously, fully, that which it is to name otherwise. The Times's journalists' ugliest insult, clinching testimony of their misunderstandings, is their allowance that poetry join a dialectic which posits it philosophically facile and intellectually weak, its procedures thought to accomodate nothing more intelligent than searing outcries of melancholy. Whatever else it is, poetry is magnanimous. Poetry might contain philosophic thought or melancholy, thought and melancholy, neither of those or those with others, and the fact of what it contained would have no bearing on its quality, or status, as poetry. Since it can denote, in its unparagoned flexible way, anything from 'great poetry' to 'godawful', the word is evaluatively null: to say (as The Times of Antonioni) someone is a poet, depicts poetry, has poetic vision, etc., should properly tell you zilch about how good he is, whereas these obituarists appear to believe it a specific, noble and ultimate term of acclaim. The man is a busdriver! He depicts busdriving! He has busdrivers' vision! Yes, but did he drive them buses well?


Why is The Times sponsoring philistine commentary on Bergman's death; why has it allowed its notices of the death of a great filmmaker to exhibit such laxness, ignorance of the practice of criticism and of cinema as artform? If the answer is Murdoch — and these lapses seem characteristic of him, or to have occurred in his impenetrable shadow — I certainly regret my instinctual support of his Dow Jones buyout. All there is to do is watch in silence, for now consenting to wonder if his promises to the Bancrofts of editorial modesty will hold, or will vanish along the level of the roofs.

PS. There is a work of art available at your local bookshop, for £9.99. Its title is cribbed from Milton (you stickler — short of a phrase). Don't miss it.

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