Sunday, August 31, 2008

Questions of style

It took a long time to get rid of the History Department snobbery concerning biography but in time I have come to realize that an individual person is one of the best angles available for getting an informative look on an era. This notwithstanding all those well known and legitimate enough reservations - you probably can never really capture an individual experience and so all text will inevitably be misleading and inaccurate thus often raising subjectivity to a second degree. So there is no straight line from an individual life to its cultural and temporal context, but then there is none available for any kind of historical study - which is not only a loss, but sometimes a significant gain.

I am currently in the middle of Antonia Fraser's life of Marie Antoinette, which is competent enough, I'm sure at places even a brilliant case for the defence though her approach has never been greatly to my taste. There is one player permanently out of the scene, namely the 99% of French society whose appearance would perhaps go a long distance in explaining the personal tragedy of this largely blameless but very foolish person. Of course, I have in any case very little sympathy for the aristocracy of the ancien regimé, those decadent painted dolls that, yes, were more a concequence than the cause of the universal awfulness and injustice of the time - but other contemporary tragedies were even worse and unimaginably more numerous.

Anyway, this book surely is the one Sophie Coppola read. When her film came out it didn't receive a very warm welcome from the critics. I suppose the general verdict was that it had some style but no substance and gravitas which it should have had given its famous and portentous historical context. Well, I thought it was brilliant. I have some difficulties in seeing film as a great art form, but it surely best achieves greatness when it gets the form right, never mind the content (as far as we can meaningfully make the distinction, which is mostly not very far). That is how my sense of esthetics works: form can be the substance, a frivolous approach can lead to a great virtuosity of skill and thus also to deep meaningfullness.

In the film this strange era is approached from a very eccentric, unreal angle (which is also how the study of history fundamentally works, even if the academia is never as free as art, odd how ashamed historians are of their craft's near relatives...) - and illuminated in a very understated way. It is a very stylish film and thus a very good film. The famous shot of the pair of Nike runners among Marie Antoinette's shoe collection was not frivolous postmodernism for me but a striking statement about our universal experience of being in time (not to mention some more obvious similarities between two epochs of decadence and over concumption). This is to overstate the case, but overstatement is surely a legitimate reading here. An excellent film indeed, unique almost in its capability to express with a sophisticated, light touch certain aspects of history that academic research would have great difficulties in expressing.

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