We celebrate success. That seems unobjectionable until one begins to question just what is meant by success. Rarely can anything be claimed as an unqualified success. Life is full of qualified successes. But a qualified success is still a failure to some degree. My point here is not to be needlessly pessimistic but rather to interrogate what precisely we mean when we dub something a success or a failure (although somehow the absolute failure is, sadly, easier to imagine than the absolute success).
Let’s focus here on art. How do we appraise success or failure here? In the history of modern aesthetics a long-standing answer to this question has involved the notion of unity. An artwork is said to succeed when all of the components work together to create a coherent whole that is, as one says, somehow more than the sum of its parts.
There are elements of this evaluative approach that go back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas claims that the formal criteria for judging something beautiful are: proportion, integrity, and clarity. A thing was beautiful for Aquinas in that it tended toward perfection, where “perfection” (Latin, perfectio) means “complete”. So the beautiful thing was fully and well formed. We take it in as a whole. Indeed this is nearly tautological in that “formosus” in Latin means “beauty”.
We find something similar in Descartes’ first work, the Compendium musicae, in which he claims that an object is more easily perceived (and thus more easily found beautiful) when the parts of that object have a great deal of “proportion”. Yet this unity must not be too simple or the senses grow bored. Descartes here anticipates Felix Mendelssohn and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in suggesting that there must be unity in variety. The beautiful is dependent on the internal dissimilarity of parts that is brought into the resplendent coherence of the whole.
This emphasis on unity continues in the landmark works of modern aesthetics starting in the second half of the 18th century — most notably, Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique, the Critique of Judgment. Indeed, Kant gives a special weight to unity insofar as he believes that the beautiful must be judged without a concept as to what it is supposed to be. Thus, the fact that we can see it as formed and can appreciate it through the interaction of the faculties of the imagination and understanding is the grounding of the judgment of beauty. For Kant the forming happens through our faculties and thus the purposiveness of the aesthetic object is a “purposiveness of the representational state of the subject”.
We might summarize our trajectory thus far as follows: the judgment of a successful (beautiful) aesthetic object involves: 1. a completed thing (something that seems fully rendered); 2. a subsumption of a variety of dissimilar parts beneath a unified whole (perhaps implying that the greater the dissimilarity that is overcome, the more successful the object is); 3. the experience of beauty in part arises from our effort in engaging with the object (that is, the experience of beauty is not passive but involves our active participation).
Theodor Adorno claimed that starting with late Beethoven (so at the turn of the 19th century) the integrity of the artwork had become an impossible ideal. Adorno believed that artworks bore the traces of the social formation of the materials they employed. He offered the example of the fully diminished seventh chord. In Bach’s time this was a striking, indeed unsettling harmony. By the time of Beethoven it was already losing its impact and became a vehicle for abrupt and surprising modulations (thus, not necessarily a signifier in its own right but more a conduit for progress into distant tonal realms). With Tin Pan Alley, the chord devolved onto mere cliché.
A composer, Adorno asserted, is not free to use the material in any way she chooses insofar as that material comes fully packed with its own history and set of socially coded meanings. One can attempt to use it “against the grain”, so to speak, but that still involves working with and against its history. By late Beethoven, Adorno believed, society no longer offered the promise of a unified whole that could equitably support the ever-divergent range of individual needs. Society had become the administered world where subjects are increasingly made into objects to be controlled and subjective need is ignored or punished. These social contradictions and antagonisms appear in artworks as an immanent concern for artistic form.
This gave rise to a strange evaluative claim for Adorno: the successful work necessarily fails:
Art-works of the highest rank are distinguished from the others not through their success… but through the manner of their failure. For the problems within them, both the immanent, aesthetic problems and the social ones… are so posed that the attempt to solve them must fail, whereas the failure of lesser works is accidental, a matter of mere subjective incapacity. A work of art is great when it registers a failed attempt to reconcile objective antinomies. That is its truth and its “success”: to have come up against its own limit. In these terms, any work of art which succeeds through not reaching this limit is a failure. [Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 99-100.]
Notice an intriguing distinction that emerges here. A work can fail in two ways (for Adorno, unmitigated success in no longer an option): 1. it can simply fail through “subjective incapacity”, that is, an inability to arrive at form altogether; 2. it can succeed through necessary failure, that is, it confronts the contradictions inherent in modern art (as reflective of the contradiction immanent to modern society) and does not pretend that they are reconcilable. The latter form of failure is read as truth and a sign of greatness in confronting the limits of the artwork’s efficacy.
One can see how this notion of necessary failure engages with the three points concerning aesthetic unity we raised above. A unified artwork, for Adorno, is not possible in that it cannot attain a sustainable form (against point one) owing to the fact that the divergence among its constituent parts simply cannot be ameliorated (against point two) and the recognition of this fact requires our critical engagement insofar as the work’s truth content (a favorite Adornian term) demands incisive evaluation (a reworking of point three).
Of course, judging which failures simply fail and which succeed through failing is precisely within the remit of the critical faculty. It’s important to note that Adorno does not claim that the authors of these works intend them to fail (Adorno rarely runs afoul of the so-called Intentional Fallacy). Rather he claims that failure results from a conscientious attempt to engage with the antagonisms inherent in the material without resorting to the aesthetic equivalent of a Carthaginian peace.
I found myself thinking about the aesthetic qualities of failure when viewing the film One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort, which will be running in New York City at Film Forum 14-20 October. The production history of the film is fascinating. It was originally to be scripted by Sam Peciknpah (an even earlier script was penned by Rod Serling) and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Brando’s production company paid for the rights to the story and he soon fired Peckinpah and then Kubrick. Brando decided to direct.
The film stars Brando as Rio, a bank robber who works with his mentor “Dad” Longworth (Karl Malden). Dad betrays Rio, and the young man is sent to a work prison in Sonora where he suffers for five years before escaping. He vows revenge and discovers “Dad” is now a sheriff in Monterey, California. Rio joins in a plot to rob the bank in Monterey; his role in the plan is to murder the sheriff.
This Western revenge plot is saddled (I couldn’t resist) with another, romantic plot that sits uneasily beside it. Rio meets, seduces, and impregnates Dad’s stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). The film thus operates through a pair of contradictory desires. Rio insists he must avenge himself on Dad for the latter’s perfidy. He claims he cannot let the betrayal go as long as he draws breath. On the other hand, Rio wants to start a new life with Louisa, but she contests that they cannot found their happiness upon a murder.
Certainly plenty of Westerns include revenge and romance plots that serve to counterbalance each other. The difference here seems to be two-fold. On the one hand, Brando treats these two plots with entirely different dramatic tones — to such a degree that one sometimes wonders if one is seeing the same film or two different films intercut with each other. At its best, the revenge plot involves scenes of grandeur, deft pacing, and vitriolic, toxic masculinity. The romance plot devolves onto melodrama mired in banal sentimentality. On the other hand, Brando makes little attempt to demonstrate that these two plots are indicative of contradictory impulses within Rio’s character. The problem here is that Rio’s character (and Dad’s as well) fails to cohere in any recognizable fashion. This seems to be the driving point behind Brando’s conception of the film (insofar as there is a coherent conception evident here).
Indeed, coherence serves as the central heuristic approach to the film and is the source of the failure (whether “accidental” or a sign of greatness, in Adorno’s sense, remains to be seen) of One-Eyed Jacks. Alongside the strikingly incongruous structural conflict between the revenge and romance plots run a series of other contradictions that threaten to reduce the film to dramatic nonsense.
We see two instances of Rio seducing women (the second instance is the deflowering of Louisa), in which he offers the woman some jewelry that he either stole or purchased last minute; he claims that the item was given to him by his mother on her deathbed. Rio is shown to be a callous, indifferent, and manipulative. Yet during two other scenes we see Rio fighting (or threatening to fight) men whom he feels are mistreating women.
Now in one sense, there is a clear difference. These men are being physically coercive, whereas Rio plays on the sympathies of his conquests. But seen in another light, his acts of chivalry might be just another form of manipulation, making himself seem virtuous by comparison. Again, this seeming contradiction might be explained in all sorts of ways. Brando chooses not to explain. It is this refusal, this insistence that coherence is not a quality one ought to seek in a character, that leads to what I think of as the film’s intriguing failure.
In a pivotal moment near the end of the film, Rio accuses Dad of being a “one-eyed jack” that only shows most people one side of his personality while Rio knows the other side. The same is true of Rio, of course, except that he seems to be far less calculating as to when he shows his “other” side. In the world of One-Eyed Jacks people are not coherent selves. They may present (as does Dad) a coherent façade to others in a self-serving manner, in an effort to be accepted and gain influence. Alternatively, the can (like Rio) allow any sense of coherence to disintegrate into a series of actions, none of which absolutely represents the subject behind the action insofar as there is no one subject to be found.
The film, being a Western with a revenge plot, is predicated upon the anticipation of action and yet it makes the viewer wait through long stretches with little happening. One of the finest sequences is the extended stay of the bandits at a small fishing village while Rio recovers from wounds inflicted on him by Dad. There he waits and practices his draw, still intent on killing his former friend. Nothing much happens. He waits and forces us to wait with him. Most directors, perhaps wisely, would have moved briskly through this part of the story and remain focused on the build-up to the final standoff.
Calling this sequence a “slow burn” seems appropriate in the abstract, but when one sees the film itself one realizes how inaccurate such a description is. These scenes do not burn at all; they are nearly meditative. They lead us to meditate on the nature of action by forcing us to endure the utter lack of action.
But if a character is not a coherent self, if he is an admixture of impulses that come from no solid source, then what is the status of the act? We tend to entertain an intentionalist theory of the act. We ask: “What did so-and-so mean to do there?” Then we judge the act on its fidelity to that intention. If I recklessly throw rocks into a crowd and just happen to knock a man cold who was about to rob a purse, I cannot be praised for my action. I had no intention of stopping a robbery. My intention was to randomly inflict pain on strangers.
There’s also an expressivist theory of the act. Intention no longer matters. Rather, the question becomes, “How does the act reflect so-and-so’s nature?” Here one may discover oneself in an act. The act becomes a process of becoming and revealing.
But both the intentionalist and expressivist views on the act are predicated on the existence of some relatively coherent (but not immutable) underlying subject that performs these acts. Rio provides no underlying subject, he lacks all coherence. Indeed he’s a lack, a void. He’s not the sinner with a heart of gold (as some critics seem to take him to be). He has no redeeming qualities because the very notion of having qualities depends upon there being some subject on which such qualities are founded.
When Rio acts we can’t really blame him for his intentions are never clear. Nor can we say that the acts expressively reveal his underlying character because he seems capable of anything. His acts are arbitrary.
In this sense, Brando’s direction of the film perfectly mimics his gifts and flaws as an actor. Brando tends to mumble his way through large parts of the dialogue in his film performances. He seems disaffected, bored, unwilling to participate. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he lights up, incandescent with some random moment of inspiration. These quicksilver moments of illumination are what leave their indelible impressions on anyone who has ever been moved by the actor. Are these revelatory moments somehow dependent upon the mumbling, the indifference? Or do they have nothing to do with the latter?
The same questions apply to Brando’s directing effort in One-Eyed Jacks. It’s an action film with precious little action. It’s a romance that seems almost devoid of genuine emotion. It’s a character study without coherent characters. The film acts as though it offers explanations. The characters hold forth, telling of their past, their interpretations of that past, and their hopes for a future. But nothing is explained, really. Every effort is mere grasping at sand.
One-Eyed Jacks presents itself as the classic moral tale in asking “is Rio justified in his desire to kill Dad?” and then fails to provide an adequate answer to that question. That failure is absolutely necessary in that the film puts forward a vision of the self as cipher, an incoherent jumble of actions without purpose, without cause, without explanation (beyond banalities and clichés that no one really believes in the first place — the characters insist that those around them are liars). In this world, more accurately, there is no self, just inept flailing gestures pointing to the void.
Film Forum will present One-Eyed Jacks from 14-20 October in a beautifully restored print. For years this film was only available in a degraded manner. Whether it is a failure in Adorno’s first or second sense (whether it’s a minor film or a great one), it is worth seeing in its original splendor.