Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 57, December 2003



Richard Porton


Vagaries of Taste, or How 'Popular' is Popular Culture?:

A Reply to Frigerio



Vittorio Frigerio

'Aesthetic Contradictions and Ideological Representations: Anarchist Avant-Garde vs Swashbuckling Melodrama -- Porton's _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 53, December 2003


Since four years have passed since the publication of _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_, it's both gratifying, and a little disconcerting, to be the recipient of one more review. Given the fact that the book has made much more of a splash with activists than with academics, I find it of interest that this unexpected review appears in what could be termed an academic, or at least a quasi-academic, forum.


Dylan Thomas once followed a public reading of some of his favorite poets with a self-deprecating introduction to a presentation of his own work -- 'after the jam now comes the pill'. Vittorio Frigerio's review of my book, whether unwittingly or not, starts off with a large portion of what any author would consider 'jam' -- lavish, dare I say even hyperbolic praise -- and follows this preamble with the inevitable 'pill' -- a vigorous recounting of my work's supposedly fatal flaw. As book review editor for _Cineaste_, I recognize this strategy as a legitimate critical modus operandi. I often tell prospective reviewers that we discourage both puff pieces that read like press releases and vicious hatchet jobs. Frigerio avoids both of these pitfalls, but an editor can only feel bemused (and a bit hypocritical) when he's no longer a neutral observer and is in fact on the receiving end of such an admirably balanced review.


If I can get away with not being accused of either false modesty or lack of gratitude, Frigerio's opening paragraph strikes me as hyperbolic because I know only too well that I haven't seen every film that includes 'anarchist characters or themes'. I see my work as part of an ongoing, collective project. There are a vast number of films that could be loosely classified as 'anarchist', and Pietro Ferrua in Oregon, Eric Jarry in Paris, and Marianne Enckell in Lausanne have been able to view a certain number of movies that I haven't been able to examine.


For the bulk of the review, however, Frigerio is dismayed by my alleged 'devaluation . . . of the use of popular fiction' and my presumed 'equation' of the 'anarchist aesthetic' and the 'avant-garde aesthetic'. I am charged with opposing 'art films' to 'popular' or 'mass films'. What immediately strikes me in these comments is the vagueness of Frigerio's accusations and a certain terminological inconsistency, or even incoherence. While many of the films I celebrate could be loosely labeled 'art films', very few, if any, could be claimed as representatives of the hard- core avant-garde. And despite Frigerio's unhelpful and uninformed comments concerning Dwight Macdonald -- one of the most incisive (and perhaps the wittiest) American cultural critics of the twentieth century -- he glosses over Macdonald and the Frankfurt School's crucial differentiation between truly 'popular' art and reified, mass produced culture (of which Hollywood cinema is one of the most prominent examples). Furthermore, despite what Frigerio blithely intuits, I sincerely believe that my aesthetic preferences are not engendered by a pre-determined 'theoretical' agenda. I don't underestimate the value of practical criticism and I'd argue that my judgments reflect my engagement with specific films as a part-time film critic and magazine editor. (Or, since this dialogue is taking place at _Film-Philosophy_, we could appeal -- a bit more pretentiously I'd admit -- to Kant's vaunted 'faculty of taste'.) In addition, Frigerio's fairly Manichean conflation of popular and mass art (supposedly antithetical to 'art films') fails to acknowledge that some of the most prominent practitioners of art cinema -- namely Fellini and Bunuel -- are profoundly indebted to vital currents within 'popular art' (however one defines that fairly amorphous category). It is well known that Bunuel was both a surrealist and a director with a fondness for melodrama, and Fellini was famously enthusiastic about the circus and comic strips. In a similar vein, many of Louis Feuillade's most ardent fans saw him as both a popular artist and a de facto surrealist.


And don't get me wrong. Leaving aside the question of anarchism for a second, I am very fond of the best of Hollywood -- e.g. Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks's _Bringing up Baby_, Hitchcock's Vertigo_ (a film that is, arguably, an example of homegrown surrealism as well as a work of popular art). If I have little interest in, say, _Star Wars_, the work of Stephen King, or the _Lord of the Rings_ movies, it's not because I'm a snob but because I think they're boring. (Once more, I appeal to the 'faculty of taste' rather than to a predetermined agenda.) Nevertheless, for various reasons that should be obvious, popular art, and particularly Hollywood cinema, has been notoriously allergic (a word that Frigerio claims defines my approach to popular fiction) to accurate portrayals of politics, history, and, it should go without saying, the anarchist movement.


Of course, in a weakly argued passage, Frigerio maintains that popular fiction -- 'sentimental romance, swashbuckling adventure, and melodrama form an important part of the fictional arsenal with which nineteenth-century anarchists viewed themselves'. He is convinced that these popular genres were 'arguably felt as providing a better representation of the living conditions of the people and of the struggle of the militants than the high brow, modern fragmentary aesthetic of the avant-garde'. I have already attempted to challenge the assumption that I am an unregenerate avant-gardist, but I can't really fathom how he concludes that there was some aesthetic consensus among nineteenth-century anarchists. (While I obviously don't want to perpetuate caricatures of anarchists, it is safe to say that there is some truth to the cliche that they can't reach a consensus about much of anything except their opposition to authoritarian strictures.) His emphasis on the popularity of Zola among anarchists, and Zola's apparent reverence for 'lachrymose' popular genres, just seems muddled to me. Anarchists did indeed venerate many of Zola's works, and it's reasonable enough to detect 'genre conventions' in his ostensibly 'hyper-realist' novels, but it seems a bit much to see the author of _Germinal_, a novel which features a fairly vicious personification of anarchism (the perfidious Souvraine), as a proponent, however covertly, of a quasi-populist anarchist aesthetic. It's important to note that, during the late 19th and early 20th centurys, actual anarchists (Emma Goldman is the most prominent name that comes to mind) with an interest in cultural matters tended to pay homage to, whether rightly or wrongly, exemplars of 'high culture' such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Largely self-educated and far from stuffy advocates of a static literary 'canon', anarchist intellectuals such as Goldman and Rudolf Rocker believed it was elitist for workers to be denied access to the classics.


For postmodern academics, nothing is supposedly more emblematic of elitism than a preference for 'high culture' (a term that is in itself as problematic and generally unedifying as postmodernism itself). I suspect that Frigerio's annoyance at some of my aesthetic preferences is tied to the fetishization of 'the Popular' by contemporary academics. The anointment of so-called Popular Culture may be politically correct, but it also may represent an insidious faux-populism. As Chris Lehmann, emulating Macdonald, proclaims in his recent pamphlet _The Revolt of the Masscult_, the blurring of 'mass' into 'popular' culture' conveys 'the comforting impression that all mass entertainments are . . . freely chosen'. [1] Or as Lehmann's former colleague at _The Baffler_ (one of North America's liveliest journals of cultural criticism), Thomas Frank, observes:


'In academia, where proclamations of 'cultural radicalism' are routine, we observe the consolidation of 'Cultural Studies', a pedagogy that seems tailor-made for the intellectual needs of the Culture Trust. Beginning with the inoffensive observation that an audience's reception of a given culture-product is important and unpredictable, Cultural Studies proceeds to assert that the facts of corporate cultural production are therefore irrelevant, that David Geffen and Madonna are exactly as cool as _Vanity Fair_ says they are (but for different reasons, dude) and to devise new ways to apply the label 'elitist' to people who don't like TV. Its rise to prominence, as Herbert Schiller noted a while ago, coincides perfectly with the Information Revolution, both temporally and ideologically.' [2]


While in no way shirking responsibility for any errors that appear in my book, it is an unfortunate fact of life that well-meaning, although not entirely knowledgeable copyeditors occasionally add mistakes. Frigerio chides me for confusing Marcel Duhamel's series of detective novels, Serie Noire, with _Nada_, the title of Manchette's novel eventually filmed by Chabrol. I am well aware of this and originally referred to 'Manchette's Serie Noire novel' -- inelegantly phrased but accurate. The Verso copyeditor changed this, alas, to Manchette's 'novel _Serie Noire_'. Although I caught some copyediting blunders before publication, this was not one that I noticed until months after publication. (A fair number of typos have been corrected in the Spanish translation of the book -- _Cine y anarquismo_ (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2001). Also, would it be snotty to point out that Frigerio misspells Dwight Macdonald's surname -- the d is lower case -- and refers to Alexander Berkman's never-produced 'treatment', inspired by Nester Makhno's life, as a 'movie'?)


Finally, although the article in _Revista anarchica_ and the book by Della Casa (published, it should be noted, a year after my book appeared) lauded by Frigerio are of interest, I don't see how they offer any definitive challenge to my discussion of _Love and Anarchy_ or Anteo Zamboni. It may be true that Zamboni's failed assassination attempt merely spurred on the fascists' persecution of the left, but the same accusation has been leveled at Marinus van der Lubbe, the council communist who attempted to burn down the Reichstag. Both Zamboni and van der Lubbe have been dismissed as pathologically naive (and van der Lubbe was described as a lunatic by William Shirer). But, whether you regard these men as misguided or idealistic, in no way do they resemble Tunin, the country bumpkin, and quite stupid protagonist of Wertmuller's film. In the final analysis, Frigerio is invoking this controversy to admonish me once more for high-handed elitism. I happen to love commedia all'italiana at its best, (Alberto Sordi is a particular favorite of mine), but respect, or even reverence for a particular genre should not be confused with the quest for historical accuracy.


Hoboken, New Jersey, USA





1. Chris Lehmann, _The Revolt of the Masscult_ (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).


2. Thomas Frank, 'Dark Age: Why Johnny Can't Dissent', _The Baffler_, no. 6, 1994, pp. 10-11.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Richard Porton, 'Vagaries of Taste, or How 'Popular' is Popular Culture?: A Reply to Frigerio', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 57, December 2003 <>.


Read Frigerio's reply:

Vittorio Frigerio, 'Post-modern Bogeymen and the Alibi of 'Good Taste': A Reply to Porton', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 18, May 2004 <>.



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