On Beauty

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 Artistic Response: Fury & Grief

What values, methodologies and ideas have characterized the artistic responses to the events of September 11th, 2001.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Art Against Commerce, Truth Amidst Trash: Is American Film a Dead Art?

In their seminal 1945 essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkneimer posit the blistering claim that “movies need no longer pretend to be art…they are just business made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.” What possible defense can anyone raise to this claim, nearly sixty years later, when confronted with the reality of the explosion of the studio system, each owned by a massive communications corporation with their interests in all forms of media and advertising, not to mention the continual, nearly-hyperbolic inflation of film budgets and actor salaries from the thousands of dollars into the tens and hundreds of millions or, more immediately, the mudslide cultural phenomenon of New Line Cinema’s Snakes On a Plane (see: every other popular culture blog/media outlet in the known universe for the past month), a film whose popularity is based solely on its "so bad, it's worth spending $12 to witness" blog buzz/marketing campaign, or as Chuck Klosterman of Esquire in his typically incisive manner, writes “a disposable movie that people can pretend to like ironically”…?

The film, Snakes On a Plane, though only moderately successful, is a prime example of the commoditization of art as entertainment in our current culture and is a valuable piece of evidence in the case against the de-clawing and devaluing of American film--where “film” is a bad word and most “movies” that dare to bear their artistry or consider contemporary cultural and moral issues, are forced to be made independent of studio assistance and funding, not to mention difficulties in being distributed across the nation. If moving pictures have replaced the novel and radio as the most relevant genre of popular entertainment (this contributor to Granta argues the novel is on the proverbial slab), how do the movies we consume inform our cultural norms, ideas and values? Bringing attention to the top three grossing films in the United States during the Labor Day weekend, Americans chose to examine narratives revolving around:

#1: A white male football player who overcomes odds to succeed and get the girl.

#2: A white male gangster who shoots and bleeds his way in order to succeed and get the girl.

#3: A white male police officer who investigates a pagan, matriarchal village.

Apparently, Americans just cannot get enough of those wacky white male adventures. What is evident from examining these narratives is that popular American film is not representative of an entire culture or ideology. As harsh as it sounds, the Big Explosions/Big Mac/Big Breasts/Snakes On a Plane culture is not one of fulfillment and vitality for all Americans. Simply because a certain sect of citizens are paying to see such works of racist, sexist, class-ist escapism (yet is that not the purpose of entertainment, to distract?), does not indicate that there is not a space for film that functions as a medium of artistic expression and “importance.” Should the silver screen not also be the place where popular art is produced and viewed? In today’s climate of inescapable war, terror and suffering, film is a prime medium for discourse as well as entertainment. True beauty exists in a film that can accomplish both and, fortunately, one such work recently opened in arthouse theatres.

The film Half Nelson, is an example of a film that functions as both entertainment and art, a serious work of passion and relevance. It was released limitedly across the country on August 11 and succeeds as a film of substance and realism, balancing a consideration of moral and political issues with a careful character study. The film, based on a 19-minute film made by the director in 2004, titled Gowanus, Brooklyn, defies its admittedly “Movie of the Week” premise, a junior-high History teacher with a drug problem finding connection and friendship with one of his students, by delving into both the personal and political with subtlety and seriousness. The film's protagonist is a college-educated, talented, aspiring writer, who is lost in a world where the answers are not easy, where no artificial story structure promises a quick, safe resolution, and the possibility of peace and happiness is found only in self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and casual sex. The lead performance from Ryan Gosling defies easy description and hyperbole. It is easily the best performance in any film this writer has witnessed since Ellen Burstyn's in Requiem for a Dream. It's daring, unpredictable, honest and artful. The film navigates issues of race, poverty, education, gender, history and hope. Mahnola Dargis of the New York Times heaped effusive praise on the film, noting it as “that rarest of marvels—an American fiction film that wears its political heart on its sleeve.” The gritty realism of the film, its challenging political ideas and taboo subject matter indicate of course, that it would be released only independently, resulting in an opening weekend on two (!) screens in the nation and an opening gross of $54,450, an extremely successful opening for such a small film. Compare this to the 3,555 screens and $15 million dollars made by Snakes on a Plane in its opening weekend.

The thriving of popular art in a culture requires a populace that will support, participate and absorb art that is challenging, influential and engrossing. Films should not only entertain the public and alleviate our realities with escapist narratives and emotional resonance, but also instigate debate, encourage discourse and contribute ideas. Simply put, movies should say something, not simply sit on the screen and evaporate after the end credits only to be replaced next week by the newest, more-expensive piece of cotton-candy fluff. When the films that dominate the screens and box office are none of these things, when popular art is replaced with popular distraction, the advancement and growth of a culture (a group with shared meanings) is stymied and all we're eventually left with is motherf******* snakes on a motherf****** plane.

Enhance yourself and your life and go see Half Nelson.