The Cult of the Imperfect
November 6, 2019 10:54 AM   Subscribe

An essay by Umberto Eco: "many of the works we call cults are such precisely because they are basically ramshackle, or “unhinged,” so to speak."
In order to transform a work into a cult object, you must be able to take it to pieces, disassemble it, and unhinge it in such a way that only parts of it are remembered, regardless of their original relationship with the whole. In the case of a book, it is possible to disassemble it, so to speak, physically, reducing it to a series of excerpts. And so it happens that a book can give life to a cult phenomenon even if it is a masterpiece, especially if it is a complex masterpiece. Consider the Divine Comedy, which has given rise to many trivia games, or Dante cryptography, where what matters for the faithful is to recall certain memorable lines, without posing themselves the problem of the poem as a whole. This means that even a masterpiece, when it comes to haunt the collective memory, can be made ramshackle. But in other cases it becomes a cult object because it is fundamentally, radically ramshackle. This happens more easily with a film than a book.


When all the archetypes shamelessly burst in, we plumb Homeric depths. Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting—because we become obscurely aware that the clichés are talking to one another and holding a get-together. As the height of suffering meets sensuality, and the height of depravity verges on mystical energy, the height of banality lets us glimpse a hint of the sublime.
posted by sapagan (34 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
My own cult author is Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche). Costume drama, lots of great action, lots of twists and turns, the driving narrative of a wronged man overcoming adversity to extract something like justice from his terrible adversaries. At the same time, Sabatini's heroes (Peter Blood, Oliver Tressilian, Andre-Louis Moreau) are ridiculously over-the-top, virtual and virtuous supermen, whose emotional lives are full of melodrama but little real character development. I always recommend him, but with an asterisk: best in small doses.
posted by SPrintF at 12:14 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]

Metafilter: fundamentally, radically ramshackle
posted by otherchaz at 12:23 PM on November 6 [13 favorites]

To me, this essay points out the foolishness around anything like an "aesthetic canon." If the best, most interesting works are the imperfect ones, why is there some external version of "perfect?"

I was under the general impression that "canons" generally were fairly declasse these days. Good art is the art that you like.

This is what he says:
According to the traditional aesthetic canons, Casablanca is not or ought not to be a work of art, if the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, and Antonioni are works of art.
Huh? It is regularly listed as one of the top films of all time, including a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is at the top of many lists.

I'm having trouble with figuring out what his point is. He seems to be saying that Casablanca is somehow objectively artistically flawed based on some set of external values (whose values? not critics), but that we should appreciate it as a cult film. Except that it's right at the top of critically recognized best films. AFI puts it as #2 best film, EW puts it at #3, etc.

He's simultaneously putting the film down with a straw man argument and then arguing why it's good.

I find the essay confusing and kind of oddly elitist.
posted by MythMaker at 12:45 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

Huh? It is regularly listed as one of the top films of all time, including a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is at the top of many lists.

(Eco died three years ago - the essay is recently translated but was probably written some time ago.)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:03 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]

I'm having trouble with figuring out what his point is. He seems to be saying that Casablanca is somehow objectively artistically flawed based on some set of external values (whose values? not critics), but that we should appreciate it as a cult film. Except that it's right at the top of critically recognized best films. AFI puts it as #2 best film, EW puts it at #3, etc.

He's not using "cult film" to mean underground or generally unknown. He's using "cult" in a more literal, religious sense:

Mythopoeia creates a cult and veneration precisely because it allows of what aesthetics would deem to be imperfections.

We worship cultural objects that unintentionally defy convention, that are better by being worse. It's a very, very Eco argument.
posted by Think_Long at 1:23 PM on November 6 [27 favorites]

MythMaker, other examples Eco cites of imperfect cult works are The Count of Monte Cristo and (to a lesser extent) Hamlet. It's clear that he doesn't mean "cult" precisely the way we call Rocky Horror, The Princess Bride, or Donnie Darko "cult" movies. Each of Eco's major examples is solidly canonized in its medium. The essay explores why Eco believes these works are so well-regarded and culturally venerated despite and because of their apparent flaws that formal analysis would point out: Monte Cristo's structural and stylistic bloat, Casablanca's implausibility and fractured composition. You read the essay as using formal criticism to attack and belittle some classic, beloved stories, I read it as using these stories and the lasting impact they've had on audiences to demonstrate the limitations of formal criticism. It's actually something of an anti-elitist thrust, as I understood it.
posted by skymt at 1:34 PM on November 6 [15 favorites]

Curiously, "An essay by Umberto Eco" is an anagram of Martin Scorsese.
posted by chavenet at 1:41 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]

posted by elkevelvet at 2:30 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

A case in point: many of our favourite anagrams have lots of seemingly extraneous letters, or don’t contain the letter i and so on. But these “imperfections” actually serve quite an important purpose, and in fact help to explain their enduring popularity.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 2:30 PM on November 6 [13 favorites]

> "Curiously, 'An essay by Umberto Eco' is an anagram of Martin Scorsese."

Huh. I get "Become naysayers, o bout!"
posted by kyrademon at 2:47 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]

Or "Necessary beauty boom".
posted by Grangousier at 3:39 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]

Re Casablanca: While I don't dare put words into Eco's mouth, those Antonioni and Eisenstein works are self-consciously "Art", made by masters of the craft, planned out and pushing boundaries intentionally. They aim to accomplish what they succeed at. Casablanca was a hurried studio production subject to studio demands, constant rewrites, little planning, and without the same artistic pretensions of those other works. And it caught absolute lightning in a bottle, at least largely because of those "ramshackle" aspects of its production.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:40 PM on November 6 [13 favorites]

Or "Sea toys encumber a boy".
posted by Grangousier at 3:44 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]

Metafilter: confusing and kind of oddly elitist
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 3:46 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]

I’m sitting here like “wait, Umberto Eco is still alive?”
posted by gucci mane at 4:05 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]

In our hearts, dear boy, in our hearts.
posted by Grangousier at 4:28 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]

Casablanca was a total fluke, unique, sui generis, lightning in a bottle, I did naz see that comin, art by committee, studio monkeys typing Hamlet; but it just weirdly randomly fell into place together and made sense as a coherent artwork. This kinda phenomenon only happens once in a lifetime. So I disagree with Eco trying to make sense of it in the context of a collage piece that just comes together, because many beautiful collage pieces don't come together.
posted by ovvl at 5:22 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]

The essay is from 2012, but it continues a line of thought Eco began in 1962 in L'opera aperta (The Open Work).
posted by homerica at 5:37 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]

I’ve always liked the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile this way. Smile was supposed to be the masterpiece, but it collapsed, and this ruin of fragments and half-assed ideas is tons of fun — and probably better than the “masterpiece” was ever going to be.
posted by argybarg at 6:18 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

or "One barbecues yam toy"
posted by otherchaz at 6:40 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

Umberto Eco’s re-evaluation of Duke Nukem Forever.
posted by gucci mane at 6:51 PM on November 6

"Boomers act uneasy; bye!"
posted by xigxag at 8:08 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]

I’m sure there’s more to it —and I promise to finish reading the fine article— but this idea of “ramshackleness” resonates with me strongly. Like, I (without having a word for it until now) actively seek ramshackle things. My Spotify playlists, for example, defy easy categorization but the overriding theme of each one is a desire to be challenged.

When I really really get into some unconventional art thing it’s exciting, and it kinda feels dangerous. It feels like joining a secret club, with signs and key words and all yeah the more religious cult idea makes sense to my experience.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:27 PM on November 6

But in other cases it becomes a cult object because it is fundamentally, radically ramshackle. This happens more easily with a film than a book.

The most ramshackle film that ever rammed a shackle illustrates this point nicely.
posted by flabdablet at 10:44 PM on November 6

What interests me about the notion, and how it relates to the whole Scorsese thing (but which I won't drag over here other than in mention), is how the internet has changed the way people engage with the arts, or maybe just made more apparent something always present, by drawing out so much attention to the pieces of the whole, the work disassembled, into fragments, as in gifs, memes, or other stray connecting elements, to further enthusiasm for the original work as something of a cult object, even as that work itself may be simultaneously disparaged as a thing to itself or just deemed irrelevant to the veneration of the idea of the thing the pieces represent.

The Star Wars movies, especially the prequels, are often used this way, often mocked as movies in themselves but sliced into usable bits to better build a cult around the whole of the franchise. The need or expectation for coherence often seems secondary to finding the good bits and grasping on to them to provide a revised version of the work that only exists in imagined conjunction to the pieces one likes. That seems to be what helps enable the Marvel universe, the individual movies become more like meme feeders to the larger whole, that only roughly have to make sense or be consistent in how they all work together other than from a general point of view around character theme. It's all very odd and fascinating.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:10 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]

This seemed pretty straightforward to me; the core thesis is obvious in retrospect. "Art" and "interesting" and "narrative" intersect but are not congruent. The appeal of a work with regard to the latter two may come precisely by virtue of its failures as the first.

When this happens, it has "cult" appeal in the sense that its "ramshackle" pieces separately resonate to various familar cultural beats and the audience primarily engages with it on that basis:
Mythopoeia creates a cult and veneration precisely because it allows of what aesthetics would deem to be imperfections.
Casablanca stages the powers of narrativity in the natural state, without art stepping in to tame them.
This gets to the heart of the distinction he's taking for granted and one worth carefully considering.

Just going back over the essay, I'm struck by how dense it is with ideas worth exploring in more detail. It's very Eco.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:47 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

>The essay is from 2012

Pretty sure it's much earlier than that. I have a copy of it in a collection of mainly 70's stuff ("Faith in fakes: travels in hyperreality" published in 1995).
posted by tomp at 3:22 AM on November 7

the text linked here is an excerpt from "On some forms of imperfection in art" (2012) (published in the 2019 English publication "On the shoulders of giants"). The publisher's note of the 2019 book states:
The texts published here were written by Umberto Eco, in the years shown at the end of each chapter, expressly for La Milanesiana, a cultural festival held annually since 2000 in Milan. Accepting the invitation to present a lectio magistralis twelve times between 2001 and 2015, Eco prepared these to be read aloud. Since 2008, every Milanesiana has had a theme, and Eco held to these themes—and in some cases, inspired them.
tomp, you might be thinking of "Casablanca: cult movies and intertextual collage" (1984). there are overlaps between the two, of course, the later copying some passages from the earlier.
posted by sapagan at 3:54 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

The part that really got me was the idea that cliches can interact. That is I think the Eco-iest of the points made, that these little chunks of meaning, and all their layers picked up by immersion in past works, are what do the storytelling in his examples. That an assemblage of many cliches, arranged maybe in a new way, can be more engaging than something pure and sparingly crafted.

It makes me think of Tarantino, because that's what he does. He makes everyone a cliche and he brings them together and he makes incredibly popular film that is weirdly resistant to 'critique'. I can't speak for everyone, but this essay really helped me understand what it is I enjoy so much in Pulp Fiction, or Django Unchained, or Kill Bill, or even From Dusk til Dawn, at least his half of it.
posted by dbx at 5:45 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I guess the part that I find elitist is this notion that "art" somehow equates "good art."

Of course Casablanca is art. It is also good. It is also popular.

As an artist, I really despise some kind of definition of art which excludes many artistic works.

Just because you don't like something, or its formal concerns are different from yours, doesn't make it not art. It might be "bad art," by your subjective view of good and bad, but that doesn't exclude it from the category of things that are "art."

Yes, Casablanca was created, more or less, improvisationally as they were making it. They didn't know how it was going to end when they started. Lots of works of art have been made that way.

I feel like this article only makes sense in the context of excluding most art, which seems counterproductive.

The premise of this article seems unnecessary.
posted by MythMaker at 9:10 AM on November 7

It really, really, really isn't a question of like and dislike or good and bad. Really.

The thing is different kinds of text require a different kind of reading - The Count of Monte Christo, by Eco's account, is appallingly badly written by academic standards, but the qualities that make it so are not accidental - they are necessary attributes of the kind of book it is and the conditions by which it was written, not the incompetence of the writer (Eco compares the book to the same author's Three Musketeers). However, it's a fantastic novel, so one should conclude that we need different standards from the academic to consider it; we need a different kind of reading that acknowledges the specific qualities of this kind of text.

It struck me that the same qualities apply to another great cult narrative - classic Dr Who. If we were to judge it by the same standards we do, say, Breaking Bad, it might not come off well. However, by dint of both its longevity and the passion of its followers (the latter making it, literally, a cult), we must conclude that it's a compelling text. It is, therefore, a valid critical consideration to assess what qualities it has that makes it compelling. This will demand abandoning any notion of "quality" (which will tend to benefit another, more expensive, kind of text).

Eco's notion is that such qualities sneak in through the holes that a ramshackle, messy production environment creates. One thing that immediately struck me, regarding Dr Who, is the way that the last few minutes of an episode and the first few minutes of the following episode will cover the same events, but will often be shot separately for each episode. This is often quite obvious when you watch the episodes one after another, but when they were first broadcast (and I can attest to this), there was a wonderful uncertainty regarding what you were seeing and what you thought you remembered from last week.

(Same thing is true of the old Flash Gordon serials, yes. Many a cliff-hanger has been cheated that way.)

I read a lot of Eco along with things like Roland Barthes' Mythologies many, many years ago. The point of what they were writing was to look at texts and the ways they functioned without the distorting filter of judgement (good/bad) which will invariably cause us not to see what's actually there. It's literally the opposite of an elitist argument.

(If someone could take my ramblings and distill them down to a coherent argument, I'd be grateful.)
posted by Grangousier at 9:57 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]

I’m an academic. A film academic. I disagree that film academic standards suggest that Casablanca is not art, or is a bad film. Any definition of quality that excludes Casablanca is a straw man.

I guess that’s really what I’m arguing. I’m saying that he is saying that there is some external set of values that says Casablanca is not art or is not quality. I’m saying point me to that. I’ve never once seen someone making the argument that he’s refuting.

Academics haven’t been arguing the things he’s saying for decades. There is no longer a canon.
posted by MythMaker at 4:23 PM on November 7

Academics haven’t been arguing the things he’s saying for decades. There is no longer a canon

I read a lot of film theory and criticism, but I'm not sure which of it or what is being currently taught. From what I can gather, there isn't much remaining interest in teaching qualitative standards in any sense. I mean, sure, I can still find stuff dealing with film appreciation in terms of how to read a film and the like, but after there doesn't seem to be much that looks at more traditional concepts of aesthetic value, with the varying "theory" studies taking its place, alongside some Bordwellian history of film language stuff. Is that the case? Or more directly I guess, what is being taught now?
posted by gusottertrout at 2:15 AM on November 8

I don't have much else to add, but when he's talking about criticism and any sort of canon, I believe he is limiting it to the aesthetics who are talking within their own subfield, not a general canon. Aesthetics are very much still interested in identifying and describing what is and is not 'art', even if it's not very in vogue these days in broader cultural criticism.
posted by Think_Long at 6:33 AM on November 8

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