Monday, February 23, 2009

Art and the Cinema

You'll forgive the title, but I felt it was the most effective way to invite those for whom those things matter into the discussion.

Last week, there was a link on IMDb that said “Appreciating Films As Visual Art, Part 1.” I was skeptical, as this isn’t exactly groundbreaking territory, but what was contained within better expressed what the cinema does to me than nearly anything else I’ve read in my entire life. The piece is a collection of correspondence between Rick Poynor and Adrian Shaughnessy, two names I couldn’t be less familiar with. And even though if, like me, you end up taking one side over the other (as you’ll soon see), if you glean from it half as much as I did, you’ll find it incredibly rewarding.

Radio On is entirely carried by its acute matching of wonderfully moody monochrome images of roads, buildings, interiors and bad weather with a soundtrack that includes music by Kraftwerk and David Bowie. There’s an exquisitely severe shot of the DJ, sitting at the wheel of his ancient Rover in a car wash, looking through the windscreen at the inky blur of the whirling brushes as Devo’s dislocated, robotic version of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” clanks away on the soundtrack. The camera doesn’t move; the shot lasts a long time; nothing else happens in the scene. This isn’t a psychological moment in any explicit sense — we can only see the back of the actor’s head — yet this oblique image, like the rest of the circuitous, dramatically reticent non-narrative, still packs great emotional, symbolic and cinematic power.

Aside from making me add Radio On to my Netflix queue, like, now, Poynor hit at the very essence of cinema that seems to allude nearly everyone I discuss it with – the great moments in cinema aren’t something you can define, much less explain. They’re not written, acted, lit, and even the idea that they’re photographed seems distant and unreachable. They simply are. They transcend what they literally depict and become…art, in a word.

Last fall, I took a class called The Artist and the Making of Meaning. The central goal of the class was to define what Art is, and also what is not. Basically, Art became defined as an occurrence when something transcends what it literally represents, and instead represents itself. To use Poynor’s example, director Christopher Petit seems to have created a scene where what we see onscreen is no longer a guy in a carwash, it’s…Art.

The explanation of Art in The Artist and the Making of Meaning helped to explain what happened to me that day – part of what happened was Art. If you can wrap your head around that much (many in my class could not), we can proceed.

Basically, that concept explained everything I hadn’t been able to concretely define for myself. It explains why an art exhibit featuring a telephone in an empty room feels more like art than nearly any of the portraits I saw in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. (although there are some exceptions there, as well). It absolutely explains why the insistence that to be Art, it has to display some sort of skill is insane, as if the idea that a piece on display could be painted by your kid somehow invalidated it. And, more importantly, it explains why some films are Art and some are not (though where that distinction lies depends on the viewer, certainly).

It explains why the rigid formalism in, say, Funny Games, Revolutionary Road, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is art, but the rigid formalism on display in, say, The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, and Australia is not, even though all six of those could be described as “beautiful” or just photographed in a way that pleases the eye – between the construction of the images and the execution of their scripts, they fall into the still-respectable class of Great Craft. And I wish there was more I could do to define that, but basically, aside from the shot of The Joker leaning out the police car, I can’t think of a single moment from that film that transcends itself. Australia certainly LOOKS as good as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the latter was undoubtedly art while the former almost certainly isn’t, because it focused heavily on making sure everything looked good without giving thought to why it looked how it looked, aside from perhaps the goal to update the feel of Classical Hollywood Epics.

The lighting's right...there's even a lens flare! And yet we feel something essential is missing; we sense a lack of inspiration that we can't quite put our finger on, a sense that nothing in here matters in the context of the film.

The perfect shot. We sense a master's hand at composition and the ability to convey theme, especially when placed in a larger context.

(If you want further, moving examples of this, simply compare Button's theatrical trailer with Australia's. Pay attention, and you can easily discern story and theme from Button, while Australia is devoid almost entirely...the films themselves would pan out in similar manners)

So while executing Australia may have been physically harder than executing Wendy and Lucy, the latter contains all the inspiration and grace in the world, while the former lacks any inspiration at all. And anyone who’s seen the two, while they may not be able to say why, knows that in their heart.

Let me expand on this with a personal experience.

In early 2003 I saw Gus Van Sant’s Gerry in theaters. The film has its champions and detractors, but that remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life. It fundamentally altered and expanded the way I look at movies. There comes a moment in the film, and it’s different for everybody, but a moment comes when the rocks crunching beneath Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s feet, the sight of them walking through the desert, the wind, the sun, the clouds, everything stops looking and sounding like any of that and just…becomes. Beyond that moment, I was absorbed; it felt like I didn’t blink for the rest of the film and just absorbed it, become one with it. It’s almost impossible to describe, but to borrow from Martin Scorsese’s recollection of seeing and thinking about L'Avventura for the first time, it “changed my perception of cinema, and the world around me, and made both seem limitless.” He was eighteen when he saw that film. I was sixteen when I saw Gerry. These are the kinds of inexplicable, sudden, profound realizations you can only have at a certain age – old enough to have what you believed were firm conceptions on life and art, but young enough to instantly subvert them.

The only other experience like that was the first time I saw Terrence Malick’s The New World, almost three years later. I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes I sense it happening at home, but films at home are never as powerful as those in a proper theater. Not that there haven’t been better movies, or movies that have shook me deeply. The cinema continues to astound me, surprise me, give me hope and change my life. And when I’m lucky, I’ll see a film like Marie Antoinette, Youth Without Youth, Speed Racer, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Wendy and Lucy that will contain a few moments that start to affect me the way Van Sant and Malick did through the entirety of their films. Those moments are beautiful, wonderful, and beyond any explanation. They are the cinema.

I'll be publishing a second part to this in the next week or so, in which I respond to the allegations made that quick-cutting in films could never be art. I'll be defending Tony Scott's Domino to the bitter end. I hope you'll join me.

Scott can be reached at