These essays explore the material realities of certain artifacts. On the one hand they examine specific cultural products, both as themselves and in their social contexts (or, when their context is other texts, then the nature of the mesh of texts of which they are part). On the other hand the essays examine what it is that allows aesthetic matters to be apprehended so variously as to be enjoyed and judged in immensely divergent ways.
After an introduction which raises some questions as to the appropriateness of dealing in terms of aesthetic quality and audience taste, the study examines aspects of popular entertainment and attempts to determine the extent to which such entertainments are politically partisan–consciously, unconsciously, non-consciously–in their structures and in their stories: specifically, a look at the American western; and at a late 1970s television series, Jack Webb’s Project UFO. From there, the study explores two different examples of canonized literature–the phenomenon of ‘tragedy’ and whatever breadth of meaning for contemporary audiences that concept might have; and the work of John Berger, the novelist-filmmaker-critic. Finally, the study looks at some of the factors implicit in professional criticism which can both hinder and reveal processes of understanding.
When Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris came out, my wife and I went to see it with moderately close friends, a couple we usually agree with about movies. While we and they have our personal differences, many of our film tastes are close enough so we talk easily afterwards. If we disagreed it was always inside the same kinds of categories.
They disliked some parts of the film, enjoyed others, and said so as we came out of the theater. I despised the thing but only made a couple of polite judgements till we got back in the car. Then I exploded: what utter trash.
They tried to explain, gently, how they understood the qualities of the film, but to no avail. The argument quickly left the film behind as I lashed out at any hint that there might be some value to that silly and crude and dangerous waste of two hours.
They suggested (they are kind people) that I was “making psychological generalizations about films just like always” and “seeing social and economic causes in every detail” and “finding things wrong with a movie just so it’d fit some theory or other.”
For a while I tried to work out some organized responses. These, related to a breadth of cultural artifacts, primarily narratives, among which the Bertolucci film was an activating motivator, comprise the argument of Narrative Taste & Social Perspectives.