Archive for the 'Movies' Category

The miasma of “truth” in art

I have pretty much nothing to say about the Academy Awards and the current wave of “political” films that are winning all the awards, which manage to surpass even the Passion of the Christ/Fahrenheit 9-11 brouhaha from a couple of years ago for phony hype. But I will say that this little piece by Annie Proulx, the writer of the original Brokeback Mountain story, makes a couple of valid points, despite being what she acknowledges to be a “Sour Grapes Rant” and even though I find it very entertaining when representatives of competing politically correct interest groups try to brand each other intolerant reactionaries (Crash is apparently the pick of “conservative” yokels). But she does bring up a good point about Hollywood acting which I’ve never been able to understand:

“Hollywood loves mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin’ image of a once-living celeb. But which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page?”

And it’s true–almost every year the biggest accolades get heaped on actors and actresses in biopics that manage to do the most convincing mimic jobs of real people with whom everyone is familiar. My theory is that no one would be able to get away with portraying an invented character like Truman Capote–everyone would criticize it as a gross caricature of homosexual intellectuals. And to me this speaks to a larger problem in the arts today, that no one is willing to accept anything the least bit out of the ordinary as “realistic” unless they have the assurance that it actually happened. That’s the real issue lurking in the background of the James Frey cases of the world. And when you have an overly bounded view of representational art, this is what rules–celebrity impersonations and fake “memoirs.”

p.s. Despite the sour grapes angle, and pace Slavoj Zizek, I agree with Proulx that Crash was “a safe pick of ‘controversial film,'” simply because homophobia is an acceptable mainstream attitude (at least in some parts of the country) in a way that racism isn’t. There is no way that prominent religious leaders and politicians could away with ranting about the evils of the dark races or whatever the way that many do about homosexuality. So the film honchos manage to basically insult America with their “best picture” award, and yet amazingly hedge their bets by honoring a film that whips yet again the shebboloth that dares not speak its name rather than one for which conservatives are still willing to rush to the barricades. Sanctimonious marketing at its finest.

The end of the modern artist–not with a bang but a whimper

I just watched a Hungarian-German film called Mephisto, about an actor who refuses to leave Germany after the Nazis take over and, despite his own dislike of Nazism, does propoganda work and becomes the biggest star in the country. The film relies overly on symbolism as shorthand in lieu of real dramatic development, including a conclusion that tries far too hard to sum up the entire film in a single image instead of drawing to a general conclusion, and thus makes the film seem not concluded but merely arbitrarily curtailed. More importantly, it falsely sums up the film by suggesting that the protagonist has gained the world but lost his own soul. This is of course the classic Faustian theme, suggested by the film’s title and by constant references in the film (being a German stage actor, Goethe naturally comprises a large part of the protagonist’s repertoire). But the real conclusion of the film is indicated a bit earlier, when the protagonist attempts to intervene on behalf of a friend who has been arrested and his patron, the Göring-like Reichspräsident, mocks the actor’s insignificance. Hence, while the short-term result of his Faustian pact is an increase in personal fame, in the end the Nazi regime will end by obliterating, or at least trying to, the very literary culture that is the foundation of the theater and his career. It reminds me of a comment I once read regarding Carl Schmitt, the German theoritician of the ’30’s who praised dictatorship and ambivalently embraced the Nazi regime, of whom it was said that it was ironic that he idolized a political system that had no real need or use for philosophers like him.

So while the portrayal of an artistic personality grappling with a social conscience may be revealing on a personal level, it would be somewhat presumptuous for another artist to claim that the stakes of this artist’s battle are as high as Faust’s for the rest of the world. The protagonist in the film is little more than artistic window-dressing for the Nazis, and in my opinion here, as in much of the 20th century, it is the insignificance of artists in society rather than the immoral use of their talents at which it is most to be remarked. Or as Douglas Adams puts it in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

“Things had certainly come down a long way since the great days of Faust and Mephistopheles, when a man could gain all the knowledge of the universe, achieve all the ambitions of his mind and all the pleasures of the flesh for the price of his soul. Now it was a few record royalties, a few pieces of trendy furniture, a trinket to stick on your bathroom wall and, whap, your head comes off.”

p.s. Although Faust is one of the constant points of reference in the film (Hamlet is another), the protagonist actually portrays Mephistopheles on the stage and is identified with him off it. Is this to insinuate a more condamnatory tone than is otherwise presented in the film, and to imply that he is more the seducer to evil than the seduced? These are rather intriguing ideas but somewhat unconvincing, since the protagonist is a opportunist and a follower of the path of least resistance, someone without the boldness or the stamina to be much of a force for good or evil, though the circumstances in which he lives may be enough to tip him decisively to one side or the other. A more natural comparison, though one with less resonance to the specific events of the film, would be to The Hollow Men.

Batman, fake existentialist

Comic-book heroes are not all portrayed at the same point in life. Spiderman was obviously an adolescent, with all the soap-opera drama that entails. Even Superman and Batman, despite seemingly sharing the smooth-faced but definitely hipness-deficient stolidness of incipient middle age, are not really at the same stage upon life’s way. Superman is an innocent, a naif (probably because of being an alien), while Batman has the morose loneliness of a much older man. Indeed, when I first started reading comic books about age 5 he had that certain world-weary authority that comes with age, and indeed he seemed to embody a higher kind of justice (even wisdom) than the craven and ineffectual police. Also there is a difference in employment. Superman uses his special abilities to fight villains when called upon, but he is almost a supernatural neighborhood volunteer, just as comfortable putting a fire out in a building or getting a cat out of a tree. It is hard, on the other hand, to imagine Batman helping someone trapped under a bus like Superman would–or Jean Valjean. He is purely on the discipline and punishment wing.

Perhaps it is only the passage of time that makes watching the new Batman movie somewhat discomfiting after all these years. Sure, I am older, but Batman seems younger, too young, especially since this movie portrays him at the very outset of his career. One sees the origins of the notion of justice that becomes solified in all the other Batman productions. It starts out as the desire for revenge, pure vigilantism. He is repelled from the notion of private justice in the face of an entirely extra-legal organization that presumes to judge and punish entirely on its own. He oscillates, not entirely convincingly, between that and subservience to the “due process” of the judicial system, and it is tempting to view the ultimate product, the character Batman, as a composite of, or compromise between, the two. But that autonomy is largely cosmetic. Sure, he works on his own and has his unorthodox style, but he is basically an adjunct of law enforcement. The police station even has their own beacon to summon him and he essentially gets sent out on patrol. He practically admits himself that he is just a mascot for the law, with his speech about the need for a symbol to rouse people from their lethargy. Granted this helps to defuse the potentially farcical nature of the comic-book scenario–the costumes, the names, the whole personae element. At the same time, this movie pretty conclusively demonstrates that the character has made a conscious decision to not set himself apart and above the courts. He seems to be his own man, but he isn’t. His actions are meant to signify, not to accomplish. Maybe his name should be “opiate of the masses.”

Take that, William T. Vollmann!

Movie critic tries to delve into psychology of violent spectacle, doesn’t get very far. It seems to me that there may be a confusion of aesthetic and moral response here. Super-realistic violence is always going to be more fundamentally revolting than Kill Bill-esque carnage, but that doesn’t mean that the reaction is the fruit of some articulate moral principle. Holocaust art is probably where this divergence is most evident–the violence is by its nature atrocious, but people generally feel that the very portrayal of it is just as innately moral. But the issue arises from the fact that extremely realistic violence doesn’t always nor in everyone induce the sort of generalized aversion that it does in pacifist movie critics. If we were to divide this sort of artistic production according to what sort of effect it tends to elicit, it might break down something like this: 1. Realistic violence which induces both aesthetic and ethical recoil 2. “Stylized” violence which is so unrealistic that it may be exciting but at heart doesn’t evoke real violence 3. Realistic violence presented in a rather blasé fashion (i.e. movies with Bruce Willis in them) 4. Realistic violence which tends to provoke the crusading spirit–Revenge! Justice! This might at first appear to correspond to an order of acceptability, with #1 having the benevolent effect of discouraging violence, all the way down to #4 which dangerously stirs people up. This is, however, questionable as a universal. The heroic aspect of violence after all, as facile as it may appear to our jaded culture, should not however be underestimated. I can’t believe that, even in the case of Holocaust art, provoking complete disgust and abhorrence of violence is desirable any more than I can believe the slogan I saw in a park in London, near a statue of Winston Churchill no less, that said: “There has never been a good war or a bad peace.” Well, actually it might be true descriptively, but not proscriptively because, as Edward Gibbon recognized, “peace cannot be honourable or secure, if the sovereign betrays a pusillanimous aversion to war” (emphasis mine), and the point could be generalized. The idea is that pacifism, paradoxically, does not even lead to non-violence, because it removes the restraints on the violent–bearing in mind, of course, that this truth can always be over-extended. Nevertheless, if the Holocaust and the related disasters of the war had only inspired a loathing of violence and a resolution not to engage in it, we would still be living in their thrall.