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


Anonymous said...

But what about Derrida?

ps: my word verification is tragic

Random Stranger said...

Very good article--Button might not hold up as a great movie because it's borrowing from Forrest Gump, but it certainly should hold up as a work of art by David Fincher. And Gerry was amazing when you allow yourself to be taken out of the mindset of what a film is supposed to be about. When I talk about movies that I like and I wonder whether whomever I'm talking to has seen it, the typical response is "No, I go to the movies to be entertained." Which is kind of insulting, because that's the only reason I watch movies. It's unfortunate that more people can't watch films by Haneke, Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, and appreciate them both as entertainment and as art.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

If you're viewing cinema as photography, then Button is certainly more 'artistic'. But movies exist and move in and through time, which makes them different from photos. Baz Luhrmann's gift is finding the beauty in time and editing, the juxtaposition of images rather than the images themselves.

Bubba Schmieding said...

I agree, Speed Racer had much more of an impact on me than any other film this year.

Stuart said...

I think that the distinction between art cinema versus non art cinema is a pretty artificial one. Your definition of something transcending the medium and becoming something other than "what they literally depict" seems pretty vague, and relatively unfair, since of course this would be subjective. And besides, that telephone is still a telephone. What's important is the idea which is connected with the phone. Art is a declaration, in cinema or anything else. If someone calls something art, then it must be. We as a culture can decide whether or not we like it, but ultimately and the artist decides whether or not something is art.

Scott Nye said...

Thanks for reading, everyone, and especially thanks for the comments. They're really the biggest thing that makes the effort worthwhile, and I hope you'll all keep coming back to keep the discussion (whatever it may be) going.

@Random Stranger - Yeah, ultimately, Eric Roth's script seems out to destroy Fincher's accomplishments (aside from the story itself, which is really quite lovely...check out my review on this blog for a further exploration of how these forces are at war in the film).

As for entertainment vs.'s tough, because it is really great and fun when they collide (Jarmusch has made some damn entertaining films in his time...Speed Racer's probably the best, or at least most recent, example of that collision), but I don't really have the expectation for all films to be art. I love pure entertainment (I'm an unabashed Michael Bay fan), and I hope you'll all stick around to see that.

Perfect one-sentence take on Gerry, btw.

@toby - Fair point; I just didn't think Luhrmann really DID that. Australia (the movie) seemed intent on hammering the audience over the head, insisting that it's epic and beautiful, which never gave it the chance to do that naturally. As for his other work, I've yet to see all of Moulin Rouge!, and it's been too long since Romeo + Juliet for me to fairly discuss that, though my memory of it is quite fond.

@Bubba - Stay strong. There's a small, vocal contingent of moviegoers that recognized the importance of that film, and history will vindicate us.

@Stuart - Oh, it's absolutely subjective. In the end, something is art because we say it is; I just tried to relate an explanation for how we come to that conclusion, and give some examples of where I've found art and where I haven't. I refuse to believe that all cinema is art, however (not that you're saying that, necessarily; I just disagree that the distinction is artificial).

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Scott, the distinction has to be artificial. This is mostly due to the arbitrary nature of the sign in the first place. When you consider art to be a signifier which has transcended its signified, you must realize that the distinction between signifier and signified is blurry to begin with, and any signifier can in some sense refer to itself.

When I said before that word verification is tragic, how did you take the signifier "tragic"? Did you take it as signifying a tragedy, or did you realize that the 6 letters I had to type into the word verifier was t-r-a-g-i-c, the signifier "tragic?" Tragic in that case transcended its signified of tragedy and referred to itself. This falls under your definition of art.

PS: Sorry for bringing up Derrida. I'm sure you all have the greatest disdain for them him. I should too, I know. He can be useful at times, though.

robbe said...

you're searching for films with that special profoundness?
i would suggest expanding your cinematic experience. here's some movies i would recommend. 'reconstruction' danish, by christopher boe 'o'horten' forgot by who but also scandinavian.

and filmfestivals!
by god, every single cinematic experience i've ever had i got at filmfestivals, in dark rooms, between people who adore film (not the popcorncrunching audience)

there's a social context to that cinematic experience. it's a shame, but i believe you can only concieve this experience in numbers. a film sweeps away an audience, and you're a part of it. even if you're alone in the theater, u become a viewer more than a person

Evan said...

I appreciate the thought and personal reflection that went into this article. However, there are a few points I wish to dispute.

First, the claim that some films are Art and others not. While I am no apologist for lazy or uninspired film making, I believe this sort of line-in-the-sand logic requires caution, especially when the subject is cinema. Let's not forget that it was the arbitrary distinction between high and low Art that kept the output of pupulists such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks out of serious discourse for decades. And in retrospect, Pauline Kael's turgid and self-aggrandizing essay "Trash, Art and the Movies" is infinitely less interesting than Andrew Sarris's auteurist watershed "The Forest and the Trees". All I'm saying is that defining these absolute dichotomies often opens the door for shallow and uninspired criticism (not that I am accusing you of this).

Second, you make the implied assertion -- in juxtaposing the isolated shots from "Benjamin Button" and "Australia" that shots are isolated pockets of meaning. Of course, we know this to be false at least since Lev Kuleshov's so-called "Mozhukhin Experiment" of the 1910's. (i.e. shot of Mozhukhin followed by shot of food differs semantically from shot of Mozhukhin followed by shot of a gun; the former implies hunger, the latter fright.) Naturally, composition and framing can convey a great deal, but one must never elevate these elements at the expense of camera movement or editing. In the end, composition is just a fragment of the total canvas available to the film director.

Matt King said...

Your comments on the visual art of Benjamin Button are... I'm not sure how to put it. I disagree with you. The main issue I found with that movie was that, much like Australia, none of its cinematography had anything to do with its thematic dwellings. Everything was made to simply look pretty in both of those films. That one shot you included - the only thing it had to do with the theme was the man-baby and Cate Blanchett. The beauty of the shot itself, the shot composition, the warm lighting - that was all very pretty, but frankly had nothing to with the themes of the film. That's like saying the previous shot from Australia was thematically resonant because it had a horse and some sun in it.

The Dark Knight I found to be quite intelligent in terms of its visual presence. There were many shots (such as the Battersea Powerstation shot) that dwelled on the character's iconic representation. The Dark Knight barely had a shot in it that wasn't thematically relevant. Whether it was the artfully composed Batman-as-power-figure shots, surrounded by carnage yet standing tall in adversity, or the chaotic shots of Heath Ledger's joker, the camera slowly turning a la Cape Fear, showing Heath dangling in the air, yet upright, a figure of daunting anarchy, as represented by the film's brilliant use of camera movement.

Certainly, Benjamin Button was pretty, and beautiful to look at, but Australia was in equal parts pretty, and equal parts thematically irrelevant. I don't mean to sound rude, and I hope I don't - I just, I guess I don't agree. I love arguing film criticism.

Oh and for your next part on quick cutting, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin would be a good example, or The Bourne movies too, especially the brilliant Paul Greengrass ones. Although I'm not a fan of quick-cutting, I can see its value at times. Sometimes it's just gratuitous nothingness (such as Tony Scott's use of it). Any Soviet film criticism though is good fodder for arguments for the use of quick-cuts.

Scott Nye said...

@Doug - I guess I didn't take into account the true definition of the word "artificial," but I did say it's subjective, and just an explanation of the way we come to the conclusion about what is art rather than a scientific formula to determine art. If you and a few other people think the typed word "tragic" is art, then more power to you. I just might think you're a little nutty.

@robbe - I'm with you on the communal experience thing. I really, really wish I had the money (much less the access) to more festivals, but I am moving to NY this fall, so hey, there's the access.

@Evan - I agree, and much as I love Kael, of those two essays, Sarris does make the better (certainly more compelling) argument. And I'm not closing myself off to "low" art, I just don't make the distinction - last year alone, Speed Racer hit me just as hard and felt as artistically inspired as Synecdoche, New York, and I didn't slight the former just because it involved cartoon race cars.

And I should have been more clear that I was using compositions as an example, as they're the easiest to convey in a blog (especially when I don't have a DVD to rip from...I did direct people to the trailer, though). And again, I didn't find anything in Australia particularly inspired, including the editing.

@Matt - I love arguing film criticism, too. Please keep coming back to do just that.

I might have been reaching with thematic resonance, but I think Button went as deep with its shots as TDK did (your examples are solid, I just don't think there were nearly as prevalent as you said).

Without a copy at my disposal, I'll be working mostly from the shots in the trailer and my memory of how they related to the picture, which I saw in mid-December. There are the shots of Benjamin looking at himself in the mirror. In the first, he starts to feel young and alive for the first time; in the second, he's more contemplative, the mirror a vehicle for him reflecting on his own life and the odd ways his body is changing.

There's the shot of Daisy looking out the window at Benjamin and their daughter sitting on the curb, watching a balloon float away, which acutely illustrates the distance between them and Benjamin's uncertainty about staying.

I want to go deeper into this, as I feel I've come up slightly short. Stick around the blog, and when the DVD comes out, I'll talk about this more at length. Promise.

b said...

@Doug- Learn from a fellow Cornell artist/photographer: "Poetic logic is the sensuous apprehension of what we do not yet understand in the presence of reality." - Frederick Sommer

We all know real communication is very difficult. That is why great art makes us leap for joy. To my understanding, Scott wasn't trying to construct a philosophically bulletproof definition of art, he was relating a working personal belief and if you had trouble understanding what he meant, it says much more about you.

There's clearly no equation for art, its too intuitive for just the mind. It comes from a vision that *must* be expressed. If not, philosophers and mathemeticians would surely be the toast of the art world and thus be getting laid on an almost regular basis.

But they aren't artists, and conversely, when artists try to turn their work into philosophy, we get Minimalism, the clusterfuck that nearly destroyed the visual arts, not by some dazzling Dada-esque display of brute force, but by the absolute tedium of their work.

in short, i think we can all agree that we shouldn't believe something just cuz some a-hole in a tweed jacket said so. he's just us with twenty more years and a bad divorce.

Oh, and deconstruction is more or less a joke to give grad students something to do for a last few years before getting a real job or teaching other grad students.

Read this if you don't believe me:

@Scott- awesome article.

@Everyone else-nice to meet you.

Scott i think you meant 'elude' instead of 'allude'

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