Monday, January 30, 2006


I was just watching an old episode of Six Feet Under (one of my many favorite shows ever) in which Olivier Castro-Staahl, Claire's art teacher, brought up the opposed concepts of White Elephant Art and Termite Art. These ideas belong to Manny Farber (pictured), the film critic, and mean the following things according to facile internet definitions: White Elephant art destroys its meaning and creativity in pursuit of seriousness and acclaim (we have an English word for this: pretentious), whereas termite art burrows and eats away the boundaries of its genre as it goes forward, just eating and regurgitating wood fibers all crazy-style. Farber inscribes classic B movies in termite art, and laments that the institutionalization of the old B genres (sci-fi explosion epics, for instance) has turned termites into elephants. I just thought I might draw a little analogy here and say that White Elephant art is "L.A. Serious," the kind of films that seem to be reaching for an Oscar before they reach for meaning. Brokeback Mountain would perhaps fall into this category if its execution weren't so good much of the time - Ang Lee's terrible scene at the fireworks, for instance, is utterly White Elephant, and of course didn't occur in the story, which demonstrates the trademark concision and power of Termite Art (and is perhaps also embedded in a genre, the Western, that we don't ordinarily think of as serious). Pretty, pretty interesting.

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