whereas actors are able to switch between characters and themselves (as they celebrate after a successful premiere), we are stuck with the part we have created and continue to forge for ourselves till the end. yet there is nothing special, unique or fated about the persona we have acquired. had we be born from the same parents in another epoch or another country, we would have fashioned for ourselves a different identity based on the local mores. although the genetic component would remain the same it would be applied to a dissimilar social and cultural landscape. as a result, our beliefs, worldview, and expectations would be radically unlike what they are now. in other words, our “self” is made of putty: it could have been equally at ease in a thousand other roles.
what matters most then is that, from day one, we are shaped by the culture around us. not only does it equips us with a conspicuous first or last name, a mother tongue and a preferential way of grooming and dressing ourselves, it also cocoons us in a web of traditional practices and belief systems that soon define who we are, what we think, and how we see the world. sometimes nationality is the most potent force acting upon us, sometimes it is ethnicity or religion. insofar as such culture is necessarily sectarian, it immediately positions us in relation to groups that hold different views. “we” are now opposed to “them”. cultural or real wars follow.
at times, in some countries, in some circumstances—through the chance meeting of an exceptional individual for instance—one can shift allegiance and embrace an option more to our liking. on the whole though, the culture within which we are born strictly demarcates our options. do you dare convert to christianism if you are born a moslem? is someone foolish enough to assert his gayness in iran? in sum the dominant culture forces most people to spend their entire life in a way beholden to local traditions. this kind of culture enslaves us.
a subsection of this culture, the chatter of everyday life (the latest in politics, business, entertainment, sports, etc.) is prompted by newspapers, television, and the rest of the social media. these platforms provide topics of discussion when we get together. certain subject matters last quite some time, most flare up then disappear quickly. these conversations are not necessarily worthless but the orthodoxy of the thinking generally associated with them sooner or later shackles us.
in contrast literature and the arts are thoroughly international and trans-historical. they provide vistas beyond the here and now. although they too can be impacted by fads and customs, they are our only means of escape from the local ideology. through them we are able to discover different ways of living and thinking. in a flash, the world opens up and choices arise. this particular culture liberates us.
no one goes about making art. one creates something, a vase, a dance, a film, a house, a musical score, an environment, which may or not be perceived as art by others.
why is there something rather than nothing? heidegger once asked. a similar question could be asked of art. true, art doesn’t start from nothing. there are always precedents, anterior models, not just in other art works, but also in the world (the landscape painted by the artist). so why would someone work painstakingly to produce a new configuration out of an already existing entity? maybe something about it challenges the artist, as mont sainte victoire did for cézanne. but what that is exactly remains vague. furthermore it is equally unclear that the goal is ever achieved. again and again cézanne went back to his favorite spot attempting ever new versions of the mountain ridge. even in retrospect, the artist is unlikely to know for sure why certain avenues were chosen rather than others.
to some extent then, what happens during the artistic process is not unlike the dreamwork when the conscious self is no longer in charge, leaving the rest of the mind free to meander. although the dream content is impacted by recent events, cast with familiar figures, etc., the material is rearranged through unexpected combinations and startling cuts. all art then (not just surrealism) involves a free association process whereby what is known is reshaped into a novel figure that makes us pose.
the creative process takes a lot out of the artist. the labor that led from the vague concept to the finished piece is exhausting. every step, move, or advance on one side requires a quid pro quo from the artist in return. in the end, the creation forged out of the artist’s limbs stands there, full-blown, independent of its drained procreator. at the same time, something of the artist is now alive in the entity.
even when an artist portrays his/her subject as faithfully as possible, the depiction is necessarily disunited from the model. the dual presence literally opens a space of unfinishedness in the world. this is so because the duplicate introduces a choice: which version do i prefer, the original or the new rendition? the world is now more complex than before. the more adventurous the art, the more room there is for questioning our assumptions about the original in view of the novel interpretation just encountered.
to put it differently, one could say that art is fundamentally at odds with reality. by bringing alternatives to us, it suggests that the collective construction we call reality is provisional at best. certainly, art doesn’t have the immediate impact of earthquakes or revolutions. its significance may in fact not be noticed at first. nonetheless, its ramifications can be far reaching down the road, not unlike what happens when the weather in one part of the world alters the climate elsewhere months later.
art does not exist for its own sake. it doesn’t stand alone, aloof, incommunicado, as was at times asserted. often enough, art changes those it comes in contact with. this does not depend on some didactic or utilitarian intention on the part of the artist. instead, very much like a scientific discovery or a philosophical breakthrough, an art work can open up new ways of apprehending the world. beyond this, the proposition that things do not have to be the way they presently are makes it possible for us to demand more from society as well as from life in general.
the number of people interested in the arts unfortunately remains limited. most regard art as some kind of highfalutin malarkey that concerns only the elite. adding fuel to the fire, we have witnessed during the last few decades a relentless attack by those who control the economy against the areas of society (the arts, higher education, mental health, etc.) that were still resisting the commercial imperative. one repercussion in our field: independent filmmakers have been pressured to adopt a more business-friendly attitude in their work. the penalty for those who refuse to do so is that their movies end up marginalized. this means we are left with hardly any film daring to challenge the banalization of art and life that is our lot today.
the problem with art is that no one can define it with any precision. it can be utilitarian or fanciful, mimetic or abstract, primitive or refined. experts have never agreed on the value of any given work either. how can vertigo be judged best film of all time in the sight and sound/bfi list while rising no better than the sixty first position in the afi poll which, adding insult to injury, comprises only american films? in fact, it is impossible to find a universal criterion that would allow us to compare radically different films, for example citizen kane and titicut follies, lawrence of arabia and symbiopsychotaxiplasm take 1, schindler’s list and la jetée.
if that is so, are all films of equal value? don’t all films show a certain level of artistry? don’t they all do their best to interest viewers? so, instead of a black and white situation with commercial movies on one side and art cinema on the other, let’s acknowledge the fact that there is a continuum between the two groups with many movies striding both areas.
still, films are built based on very different assumptions. with commercial films, one of the goals is to immerse viewers in the tale. lately, the most effective way to do so is to use a filmmaking style peter watkins has called the monoform. armageddon and the bourne supremacy are manifestations of this über-genre. from the get go, the narrative is designed to propel us forward at breakneck speed through non-stop action, violence galore, commotion everywhere, rushing protagonists, brisk camera movements, forceful lighting changes, energetic editing, thundering sound effects, and stirring musical compositions. this bodily-kinesthetic (howard gardner) style of filmmaking is meant to meet the global audience’s demand for amusement. more than “speaking” to viewers though, this line of attack triggers continuous hits in the eye/brain system. even if the story itself is not great, the rods and cones are bound to respond to the stimulations on the screen. whereas in ordinary life, the circuitry is hardly challenged, it is working overtime when exposed to this treatment. one exits the theater stunned, not unlike our experience after a particularly challenging roller coaster ride.
for the makers of this kind of films, success at the box office confirms that people want to escape their present condition by fantasizing about characters and situations that have little to do with everyday life. this thinking nevertheless indirectly acknowledges that people are confronting difficult personal or social issues that need healing. the cure that is offered however provides only short-term relief. no attempt is made to equip viewers with more lasting medicine, the kind that could help them once they are back on the street.
conversely some films—a minority surely—make more demands on us. we recognize these films because they offer a practice of cinema at odds with what we are accustomed to encounter at the cineplex. to simplify greatly, these films can be said to operate more like poetry insofar as they dislocate codes and conventions, forcing us to pay attention to aspects of movies we normally overlook. the manner through which we discover an action thus becomes as important as the action itself. long after the movie is over, the mind is still active, thinking and rethinking the film experience.
through their process then, these films tend to set up stumbling blocks that impede our absorption within the story world. let’s take effi briest, a middling film by fassbinder, as a single example. from the beginning the director insists on maintaining a certain distance between the camera and the characters. at times he even stops the action, posing the personages in painterly tableaux. furthermore, scenes are often reflected in mirrors or observed through gauze or foreground objects. inevitably we are forced to question this unusual presentation. why is this scene shown this way? are the decorous intrusions dispensable extravagances, personal indulgences, that real professionals would quickly excise from the film? or are they central to the film’s project insofar as they allow us to experience the stifling milieu that imprisons the heroine? as for the mirror shots, they too bring out a perspective at odds with similar scenes in ordinary movies. whereas in the latter they tend to disclose a personal, reflective moment for a female character, in effi briest the camera is sufficiently away from the mirror to keep us from becoming privy to the heroine’s self absorption. we notice rather that she is caught in a role she cannot escape. all in all, fassbinder’s visual style, far from being gratuitous, provides us with a critical viewpoint that is distinct from the character’s own awareness of herself.
in films such as effi briest, it is the neurons and the synapses that are working overtime as opposed to the rods and the cones. this is so because such films make us confront difference and otherness in the way people act, think, and create. although these films are inevitably entangled in the commercial marketing and distribution of movies, their main purpose is not to make money. by unfurling unanticipated, more reflective, and more challenging views of the world, these works are not unlike gifts that demand a follow-up on the part of the recipients (marcel mauss). the response in this case consists in living up to the challenge created by the film. when i leave the theater indeed, i’m not the person i was when i walked in. i’ve just been given some insight that redefines how i see the world. i’m thinking about the film and what it means for my life.
why is it that formal hindrances are rejected by most viewers whereas obstacles to a protagonist’s goal in ordinary movies are enjoyed as suspense? it may be that in the latter, they appear to emerge from within the story itself, and are thus construed as organic to it, whereas aesthetic flourishes are interpreted as being imposed externally, the work of an obnoxious interloper. like it or not, the majority of spectators regard visual tropes as meddlesome interferences denying them personal, immediate, transparent access to what’s going on. beyond this, there is also a difference in kind between the two types of obstacles. on the one hand, impediments thrown in the path of a protagonist are dramatic conventions that viewers are familiar with based on prior experience with movie narratives. they know it is the job of the protagonist to overcome them. on the other hand, the difficulties they themselves experience while watching more artistically inclined movies remind them of their own frustration when confronting real life stumbling blocks.
looking back in time, it is clear that the cultural changes and the technological advances of the last decades have (inadvertently?) undermined the traditional artistic approach. through new devices for instance, we have been given power over the story’s progression. we can now fast forward through a scene when we feel the director lingers too much on material that doesn’t do anything for us. or we can skip a scene all together. in other words we have trained ourselves to deal with the film on our own terms. most often this means responding to the “what” of the story, leaving behind its “how”. the dynamic narrative chain leading from one event to the next is now paramount for our pleasure as opposed to the formal approach permeating each moment of the tale. we no longer have the time, patience or willingness to postpone immediate gratification for more solid rewards later on.
in a similar vein, however much mainstream critics like dargis and scott at the new york times come out in support of more difficult fare, their voices are blotted out by all those who complain, online or through social media, about how slow and boring these films are. for hollywood fans indeed, only one kind of movies should be made, the one where everything shows up as expected.
even though all movies open a world, what shows up most of the time under the surface gloss is a shrunken scenery exhibiting overly familiar stories, figures and techniques. put simply, like the natives of old, we are being offered shiny but valueless trinkets. only on rare occasions, an unusual, more personal imagery emerges. only then do we find ourselves transported in a realm that surprises us and makes us pay attention. formal devices in particular disturb ,complicate, and delay the story proceedings. put more crudely, art mucks up the picture. it slows down the process. it frustrates our demand for immediate pleasure. a tension is created. our assumptions about life and the movies are shaken up.
the words usually associated with brecht’s theater—the estrangement, alienation, or distanciation effect—are not particularly inviting for the general audience. they suggest a forbidding, standoffish, unfriendly attitude. if anything, the german playwright wanted his public to become more, rather than less, involved in the tale. whereas in ordinary theater one doesn’t question the story, in his own work brecht invited the audience to cogitate about the premises taken for granted by the situations they were watching, even question the characters’ responses to them. we should for instance pay attention to the fact that othello is not just a military commander. he is also a political leader like general franco or general pinochet. desdemona, for him, is thus more than a beautiful young woman. she is a token of his power. for her to be unfaithful would expose him to ridicule, loss of prestige and possibly bring an end to his political career.
judging characters, even criticizing them, has of course remained taboo in our cultural production. the ploy is said to keep the audience from enjoying the work or, worse, to be preaching to them. to counteract this prospect, brecht embedded the commenting in movies, music, and songs that were genuinely entertaining. another tactic involved getting rid of the fourth wall thereby converting passive spectators into implicated parties. these maneuvers bolstered his theater, making it more exciting than traditional straightforward productions.
to call something cerebral in our culture means it lacks emotion. it is a kiss of death when attached to a work. yet why would awaking a response in the brain be perceived so inimically compared to more straightforward sensory feedback? it is happening in our body after all and we are bodily impacted by it. in brecht’s view then, to be able, as a spectator, to see through the ideological construct that organizes social life (the one in our life as well as that experienced by the characters in the play), that is to say, the system of beliefs and ideas which makes the world what it is instead of what it could be or what it can still become, is a sensation of the first order, a lightning flash running through the mind.