Against overbearing art

In the wee hours of this morning, as I was watching Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), I encountered a phenomenon which I’ve experienced many times before and will undoubtedly experience many times in the future. To me it seemed as though Rock Hunter, as a work of art, was guilty of what some would consider to be a high sin: it was really, truly, irritatingly overbearing.
But what exactly does it mean for a film to be “overbearing”? If I took anything away from reading the criticism of Manny Farber, it’s that nothing dulls the razor-sharp efficacity of a work of art like unapologetic obviousness. Any which way you slice it, producing or consuming art involves confronting certain challenges; when those challenges are resolved too easily, or when they’re resolved a priori, the work begins to feel like little more than a cheap, overly smooth ride (when it should instead be an aesthetic workout). To be “overbearing” is to approach obviousness, perhaps without ever actually getting there; in other words, an overbearing film is one which is so set on making its point(s) that it feels it has to present itself in such a way that most viewers will walk away from seeing it with roughly the same impressions. An overbearing work of art overextends itself in trying to hammer home its point, thus getting on the nerves of those of us who insist on doing at least some if not most of the work.
In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, the dimensions of satire and not-so-discreet critique are suggested by way of a bootleg Brechtianism, a method which often causes the film’s explicit and implicit content to be conveyed quite repetitively, thereby exacerbating any latent annoyance contained in the film’s various elements (such as Jayne Mansfield’s obnoxious squeaking, or most of Tony Randall’s lines). Of course, some would argue that this is all a deliberate component of the film’s constitution, that any camp or kitsch is purely by design; even so, it’s difficult to deny that the film frequently loses sight of its own wit and finds itself resorting to less-than-clever sight gags (like the TV commercial parodies which serve as the film’s preface) and jokes which fall flat more often than they land upright.
I’m sure much of this has to do with the fact that I’m a 20-year-old know-nothing watching a very of-its-time satire produced in 1957; that said, I think a lot of the overextension I encountered in watching Rock Hunter in 2009 demonstrates how overbearingness, if not genuine obviousness, can poison the foundation of an artistic experience. And for the record, I didn’t dislike the film; I only wish it were more difficult to watch.

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