I'm taking part in a thread debating the substance of director David Cronenberg's remarks on NextMovie.
In response to one poster on the thread, I wrote the following regarding the dividing line between "high and low culture," which I've been treating as "big and little myths" in recent essays:
"I haven't encountered any arguments as to how the GODFATHER book (which
I've not read) might be better than the film, but I've seen comparable
instances: there are things about Bloch's PSYCHO-- another not-classic
book-- which I like better than Hitchcock's adaptation, even though the
PSYCHO film is indubitably classic.
If I had to set down some rough standards, it might be that people tend
to see "elevated" art (whether it's there or not) in works that suggest
elevated levels of communicability. Bloch's PSYCHO is written with a
meat-and-potatoes clarity; it has some depths, but it doesn't express
them with any great style. Hitchcock and his collaborators take
essentially the same story Bloch wrote (with some differences) and bring
to it a great deal more style, though perhaps no greater content.
I think certain Cronenberg films, such as SCANNERS and THE FLY, are just
like Nolan's trilogy in that they take melodramatic subject matter and
express it with a great deal of attention to style. Again, as with my
example of PSYCHO, this does not mean that melodrama has no deep
symbolic content, but a lot of it doesn't. I'd consider THE FLY to
possess more story-content than any of the Nolan trilogy, but I regard
the Nolan trilogy, flawed as it is, to have more content than SCANNERS
or, frankly, Cronenberg's graphic-novel adaptation HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.
Now I don't know precisely what Cronenberg is thinking about when he
avers to Nextmovie that superhero directors in general-- not just
Nolan-- aren't making an "elevated art form" (his words). I suspect that
he's thinking that as soon as you've got a man in a funny suit, that's
zero content. I disagree; I think there can be as much substantive
content as THE FLY at the very least, possibly more. He's also got a
bone to pick with the idea that artists don't have to answer to outside
interests. I think I'd like to see the shade of Michelangelo conjured
up, to ask him if he thought he still produced art despite having to
answer to the Church of Rome."
I'll expand these remarks somewhat to say that what I called "melodramatic subject matter" is more or less covalent with the "little myths" of non-canonical fiction, and also with what I've termed works of "thematic escapism."
In contrast, the "big myths" of canonical fiction compare well with the works of "thematic realism," also discussed in the essay referenced above.
It's unfortunate that an intelligent director like Cronenberg-- who has himself dealt with material that is at heart no less thematic escapist than Batman (specifically the Batman of the comic books, just to keep to Cronenberg's original context). I for one found Cronenberg's HISTORY OF VIOLENCE to be no more than a well-executed revenge melodrama, different from Batman not in terms of the realism of its theme but only of its naturalistic phenomenal orientation. I think his confusion springs from the Aristotelian notion of art being governed by *mimesis,* often interpreted to mean the imitation of experiential reality. It's a shame that a man who has made a great number of sophisticated fantasy-films is apparently unable to see that superhero fantasies can have a level of distinct content that stands independent of how "elevated" they may appear to be.
NOTE: The phrase I tossed off for the thread, "elevated levels of communicability," compares favorably with Philip Wheelwright's concept of plurisignative poeto-langage, discussed here.
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