Category: Ramblings

A one-size-fits-all art metaphor

I’ve been thinking, on and off over the past year or so, about creating an all-encompassing metaphor that can be used to talk about any work of art. For it to work it has to be about something that seems to be a problem in many modern-ish works, and it must refer to something so universal that it could work for nearly any situation. I think I’ve come up with it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the one-size-fits-all metaphor: The Mona Lisa. I recently got the chance to ask her a few questions and I’ve provided her responses in the quote feature here.

mona-lisa
Still just some pixels.

“Let’s take her out for a spin, kick the tires a little bit. Quick, throw me out a problem you have with something. Don’t be shy, just Nike it.”

“Ok, looks like a billion snobby people on the internet are clamoring to tell me just how horrible the moviegoing experience is, and how amazing movies look in HD on their 60 inch tvs. Mona, what have you got for us in this regard?”

“Well, Alex, I don’t think its right to say you’ve truly seen something until you’ve seen it the way the artist expected you to see it. Take me, for example. I’m a pretty picture in any format, on any screen, but have you seen me in person? People line up out the door just to see me. Only then can you appreciate the human work that went into my creation. Only then can you consider me from slightly to the left to see if I change. The same goes for my friends, Goya’s black paintings. I know you saw those in Spain a year or so ago, didn’t you Alex?”

“That’s right, Mona, I did. Let me tell you, they may be disconcerting when viewed via a computer screen, but in real life they have a presence. They suck the air out of the room, and they have the power to quiet any audience. They’re amazing. But how does this all relate to movies, Mona?”

“Well, Alex, what if I told you watching Godzilla at home was the same as watching it in a movie theater? Why, you’d laugh me right out of the room, wouldn’t you? There’s no home speaker system that matches IMAX sound, and nothing but the several story height of those screens can make Godzilla such an imposing presences. So yes, watch a movie at home if you must, but don’t tell me it’s the same thing. It isn’t.”

“Indeed, Mona, indeed. Let’s try another one. We’ve hardly hit one-size-fits-all with a singular example. Mona, what have you got to tell us about the subject of authorial intent?”

“Aha! Going to get a little academic on me, eh? That’s fine, I can rumble in that Bronx. Look at me. What do you see? A woman, that’s sure. I’m in a delightful setting aren’t I (more on that in a bit, I think), and my clothes seem, if not rich, at least untattered. Where am I looking? Just off to the left a bit, certainly not at you. You aren’t that interesting, sorry. But what else is there about me, what has captured hearts and minds for hundreds of years? It’s my smile, of course. And this is no orthodontic masterpiece. It’s just a little thing. You might not even notice it at first glance. But soon enough it will draw you in, and you’ll start to wonder what I’m smiling at, exactly. Was Leo my lover, and is it for him that I turn up the corners of my mouth? Or do I know a secret? What did Leo see in me to give me such a mystery? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. He might have just been drawing me the way I looked at one particular moment. He might have been trying to cover up a nasty sore I had on one side of my mouth, or he might have known all along that he was creating a masterpiece, a work that would last for centuries on end. And he knew that the grin would captivate you, that sly fox. He wasn’t a dumb man, of course. Any of these and a million other possibilities exist, but they are almost entirely meaningless when it comes to you, dear viewer. What does my smile (and everything else about me) mean to you? That’s enough. It needn’t go further.”

“Well, that was a bit of a diatribe, Mona. You really got going there.”

“I like to talk.”

“I’ve noticed. Anyways, what’s next on the docket? Oh, let’s talk videogames and action movies.”

“What of them?”

“People like to complain about them as a corollary to the rule that people like to complain about everything, I guess, but mostly they like to complain about the dumb stories contained in the vast majority of action movies and videogames. You’ll see it with things like the Godzilla reboot or Destiny. ‘Where are the characters?’ ‘Why isn’t the story complex or good?’ Got any answers for us, Mona?”

10_1_Guardians_2_shot
Some characters in search of a story. Or at least something to shoot.

“I think I do. These questions all end up being a matter of priorities. When Leo painted me, he obviously had to spend some time on my background or else I’d be in a canvass colored void and any effect my smile might have on you would be rendered moot by the lack of context. However, he obviously didn’t spend a whole lot of time on my edges, you can see a bridge behind me and to the right, but it’s just there. There’s no mystery, nothing which really enhances the feel of the painting, other than giving it a bit of an idyllic tone. Seems like a nice place to sit a while, is all. So, do perfunctory stories play the same role in things like Godzilla or Destiny? I think so. We demand that our entertainment have stories, usually, and that’s a fine impulse. You humans are a storytelling species, and you should embrace that. But sometimes a story can just be there to get you from one cool action scene to the next, or to give you some local color as you’re shooting space-baddies back to whatever planet they came from. So, if the story in Godzilla is kinda silly, so be it, as long as there’s a giant monster battle which pulls no punches, I’m all for it. And if the shooting and looting is fun in Destiny, why does the story have to be anything more than window dressing? Would these be better works of art if they had better stories? Sure, and I would be better, maybe, if I had a more interesting background, but I’m pretty good at certain things and less good at other things. It’s all a matter of priorities.”

“Cool. I think that wraps us up for today. Maybe you’ll come back for further metaphorical philosophizing at a later date. Until then, hang in there. Get it, Mona? You’re a painting. Paintings hang on walls. It’s a pun.”

“Goodbye.”

The Long “S” Stupid: Embracing the shock of The Cabin in the Woods and other things

“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?” – A Fish Called Wanda

It happened again. It haunts me. Family members do it. Friends do it. Random audience members do it. And whenever they do it I seethe. It’s the thing that makes me the most angry and I hate it. It’s the Long “S” Stupid. That sibilant that expresses just how contemptuous the speaker is of the subject. “This is SSsssssstupid,” they’ll say, and I’ll know that they’ve checked out. Something has turned them off and they’ll never recover again. I first noticed it when I was watching an episode of Community with my family, and at some point, likely one of the more slapstick-y points, my dad just said “SSSssssstupid.” But there’s a problem. The subject, the SSSsssssstupid thing, is almost never actually stupid. It’s weird, sure. It’s different, it catches you off guard and it challenges you, but it is rarely actually stupid.

I most recently heard the Long “S” Stupid in the theater, watching The Cabin in the Woods. That is a film that is different from a lot of the horror that is popular today, and it’s even different from the movie that the marketing told you it’d be. If you went to the movie expecting a slash-fest you’re in for a shock. Firstly, it’s a comedy as much (or more than) it is a horror film, an element that was absent from most of the advertising of the film. Horror is a genre that generally takes itself seriously – too seriously, often (Saw) – and an audience that goes to a movie called The Cabin in the Woods won’t be expecting to laugh a lot. My audience didn’t crack up until a good 15 minutes into the movie, long after the first joke flew (that happened in the first few seconds of the film). After the dam burst they were looser and quicker to laugh, which was great, but those first 15 minutes also contained some great jokes that were missed because the audience wasn’t even looking for the film to be funny. This is, however, just setting the table for the Long “S” Stupid.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that has a few surprises in store for it’s audience. I won’t go into much detail here but if you want to go in completely unsoiled by spoilers you might want to skip on to the next paragraph and assume that I made excellent and salient points about everything. Ok, here we go. The first surprise happens with the first shot of the film, showing us that there’s more going on in this movie than in your typical horror flick. It’s hinted at in the trailers, so it’s not a total surprise, but the full story is a little more in-depth than what you might expect. A lot of good horror works on a psychological level as well as a visceral level, so it’s not unheard of that there’d be more than just slashing, but the past few years have shown that the smart horror film is not the most popular genre. I’ll point again to the Saw franchise. The first film is pretty smart, but each successive sequel got dumber and dumber, raking in more and more money as they did so. When The Cabin in the Woods twists even further and the characters begin to realize what’s going on there’s a point where you’ll either go with it or jump off the train. It happens in an elevator and we get a peek at what’s to come. It was at this point where a member of my audience announced that, “This movie is SSSsssssstupid.”

Of course, that moment was the point where the film solidified into my favorite of the year so far, and a potential top 100 film. So what is it about those Long “S” Stupid moments that turns some off and energizes others into love? It seems, in my experience, like some people just don’t want to go exploring with their entertainment. We’ve become so entrenched in specific forms and expectations that we can practically predict an entire movie from a two-minute trailer or know what’s going to happen in a TV episode within the first five minutes. When those movies and TV shows then confound our expectations and do something different we can have one of those two reactions, embrace or reject. Neither is inherently better than the other, both are completely valid reactions. But if you have uttered the Long “S” Stupid at something, ask yourself why. Why are you reacting that way to that piece of media? What, exactly, is stupid about it? Is there a different way to see it? Could it maybe be silly instead of stupid (I’d call both of my examples, Community and The Cabin in the Woods, stupendously silly and I love that about them)? Could it just be different from what you were expecting? Don’t fear difference! Embrace it! Love it!

The Necessity of Mediocrity

Wrong Turn is the epitome of mediocrity.

Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating. ~ Icelandic proverb

As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m reading Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire book The Strain. It’s kind of pulpy fun, but it is no great shakes. And that’s okay. Recently I’ve found that things are divided into two categories: The Best Thing Ever and The Worst Thing Ever. There’s no middle ground. No room for a wide spectrum of quality. When you read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song you put it into one of those two boxes and then bash it or shout its merits from the rooftop. But is that really the best way to talk about art on the internet? Isn’t there some stuff that’s just okay?

Let’s get this straight first, though. There are some things that are just that awesome. Magnolia, my number 1 movie of all time, is super awesome. The National’s High Violet is super awesome. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is super awesome. Awesome things exist. So do crappy things. I really hate Idiocracy. I really hate Logicomix. But most things aren’t awesome, and most things aren’t crappy. Most things are pretty mediocre. Most things have good parts and bad parts and middling parts that mesh into a fine, gray, blobby blob. These things are worthy of conversation. They let us know where artists go right and where they go wrong, often in the same scene or song or whatever. They provide a case study in mediocrity, show us the ways they can be great and the pitfalls that sit waiting for us to fall into them.

I watched a few movies over the past weekend. Outside of Black Narcissus, none of them were very good. Dreamcatcher, based on one of Stephen King’s lesser books, has a few tense moments and some pretty good performances but the movie is mired in silly dialogue and sillier aliens. It doesn’t work very well as a film, but there’s something to learn from it. I, for example, learned that what might work on the page as quirky dialogue that has developed among friends over many years doesn’t work when real people have to say dumb phrases over and over again. Cujo, too, is a movie full of great moments that suffers from a bad ending. The final attack on the mother by the rabid dog is super intense and scary. However, the ending kind of leaves you with a bad taste. The book ends with the kid dying, and it is bleak as hell. But that works. The kid shouldn’t survive such an ordeal. In the movie he seems like he dies, but he gasps for another breath right when you think he’s toast. Ugh.

Cujo almost avoids mediocrity, then it doesn't.

See? There’s room for the stuff that’s just ok. Not all art works as it is supposed to. If it was easy to create great art we’d have nothing to judge it against. Everything would meld together into one big boring mess. The bad stuff serves to tell us what to avoid and how to do it. The mediocre stuff fills the space between those great and crappy works. They are like our lives. In general, every day is kinda mediocre. There are bad days and great days, but most end up as a mix of the two. You spill coffee on your shirt, you find some money in a coat pocket. You have a good meal, you have a boring meal. You watch a good movie, you watch a bad movie. Or, you watch a mediocre movie, because most of them are just that. Mediocrity is our lives, our norm. It’s the way we’re able to distinguish good from bad, by knowing what’s in between.

By the time Poltergeist 3 came around, it was almost inevitably going to be mediocre. Just look at that mediocre car!

Placing the blame, a ramble

I’m very manipulative towards directors. My theory is that everyone on the set is directing the film, we’re all receiving art messages from the universe on how we should do the film. – Jeff Bridges

I recently started to read the Guillermo del Toro/Chuck Hogan book The Strain. It got me thinking, who gets the blame for things where more than one artist contributes to a work? I think singer/songwriters and authors are generally the only people in the media arts that get to claim sole authorship, but what happens when you have multiple writers on one book, or when a band writes a song together? And what about movies? There’s a saying that a film is made three times, the first in script form, then during shooting, and finally in the editing room, so who gets to claim credit for what?

The Strain isn’t the first book I’ve read where two authors wrote together. The collaboration between Stephen King and Peter Straub for both The Talisman and its sequel, Black House was a strong one. They always feel like just a Stephen King book. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t read any Straub before I read those books, but I don’t think that’s the sole culprit here. When two people come together to create one thing there is necessarily a give-and-take with one giving and the other taking. I’m not trying to invalidate one artist over the other but something’s got to give, right? So far, about 40 pages into The Strain, only the opening scene seems del Toro-y. It’s a fairy tale told to a young boy, a scene that occurs over and over again in del Toro’s films. The rest seems more thriller than horror or fantasy, focusing on an airplane that lands at an airport and then shuts down completely on the tarmac. There’s a more techno-thriller vibe than anything I’ve seen GDT do, including a paragraph that describes in detail the weapon selection of the SWAT team that approaches the airplane. I don’t know if del Toro even knows what a gun is, unless it’s a steampunk one. Maybe this is how you distinguish who to blame/credit for what. You get two very different people and only have knowledge of the artistic leanings of one of them. Then when something doesn’t fit you give it to the other guy. Problem solved.

Steven Spielberg directs Henry Thomas while making E.T.

Or not. What about a movie? I once had an afternoon-long argument between me and my roommates about the legitimacy of the auteur theory. I don’t even know if I fully buy into the theory, but here’s my understanding of it. The director gets credit for the final film, while everybody else gets credit for their element. The Director of Photography will get credit for how the movie looks, the actors for their roles, the writer for the story and words and so on and so forth. But the director gets to claim the final artistic vision, the big picture if you will. My roommates thought that this devalued all the work that everybody else did. I countered with the idea that directors are the decision makers, the people that get the final say on all aspects of the film. They’ll use the input from everybody and decide what goes into the film and what stays out. Even if they don’t directly make the artistic contribution of lighting, they direct the DP to do one thing over another, taking into account the expertise the DP brings to the job. It’s not a perfect accounting of the way a movie gets made, but it kinda works.

And how about The Beatles. They’re the most popular band ever. There are four of them, but the specters of Paul and John loom the largest in most people’s minds. They’re a very well documented band and we know almost every backstory to every song. We know who wrote them, who played what on them and who sang them. But take the example of Yellow Submarine. It is credited to Lennon/McCartney, but wikipedia tells us that it’s really mostly McCartney with a tiny bit of Lennon and even Donovan thrown in for good measure. Paul thought that the song sounded more Ringo-y than anybody else, so he gave it to Ringo to sing. So who gets the credit for the song? Is it Paul? Ringo? Donovan? I think the safe answer here is that The Beatles get the credit, no matter who did what. They formed a group for a reason, and you have to take that as it comes because anything else seems disingenuous. Maybe we should just take everything as it comes. Stop being so demanding of art and artists. Let them do their thing and then we’ll do our thing.

The Genre Question; or Rambling about Genres

In Sullivan's Travels a director finds out that comedy can be more important than drama.

Genre is a bookstore problem, not a literary problem. – Rick Moody

What the heck do genres mean to artist and their audiences? I recently made my top 100 films list and at the end I did a little wrap up and broke down the number of movies from each genre. Seems like a simple task at the start. We all know what the basic genres are: comedy and drama, sci-fi and western, war and romance. Where it becomes difficult is trying to pinpoint each movie into the confines of one genre. Let’s look at my top 5. Magnolia is a drama, certainly. But it’s also pretty funny. And the ending makes it a kind of fantasy, or at least a fairy tale. Which brings us to Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a fairy tale, too. But it’s also a war film. And a coming of age story. Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the easiest to classify as one thing. It’s an adventure film through and through. Blade Runner is sci-fi, obviously, but it’s also a neo-noir romance. And There Will Be Blood is a character study-western-epic. It’s not so easy to just pick one of these and put them on that particular shelf. So what does genre matter?

As an aspiring writer, I struggle with my choices about what I read and what I write. I feel like I read way too much fantasy and everything I’ve written has been in that genre to some degree. There’s a sense among literary people that genre fiction is somehow less valuable than straight literary books. There’s a reason why the sci-fi/fantasy sections are always at the back, behind romance and before comic books. Is there something wrong with reading and writing genre pieces?

Pity those—adventurers, adolescents, authors of young adult fiction—who make their way in the borderland between worlds. It is at worst an invisible and at best an inhospitable place. Build your literary house on the borderlands, as the English writer Philip Pullman has done, and you may find that your work is recommended by booksellers, as a stopgap between installments of Harry Potter, to children who cannot (one hopes) fully appreciate it, and to adults, disdainful or baffled, who ‘don’t read fantasy.’ Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, ‘serious’ and ‘genre’ literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power. – Michael Chabon

I have, in my travels through literature and movies and music, decided that magical realism is the best of all possible genres. In fact, with a few exceptions, I think it could probably be used to describe every work of fiction. There’s something about storytelling that necessitates both invention and some degree of grounding in the real world which leads to every story being a little bit fantastical. The idea of Magnolia, that each of these lives are connected in obvious and obscure ways is fantastical without the ending, though that ending cements it firmly into the fantasy-ish genre. The act of condensing stories to be told in two hours or two hundred pages or two minutes means you have to cut out the boring parts inbetween the big events. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions often change the story in other ways so that everything becomes both magical and real at the same time.

There're more important things to struggle with when it comes to writing than genre.

A movie I like has a line in it that goes like this, “All stories say something.” I think that’s true, and that’s the most important aspect of art, for me. The way a story is told shouldn’t matter as much as what the story is trying to say about the act of living. A genre has almost nothing to do with the potential quality of a story. Sure, sci-fi movies have a bit of an easier time talking about technology and humanity while romance has it pretty easy when talking about the love element of our lives and comedy allows the inherent silliness of our existence to be pointed out better than any other genre. But none of that says you can’t have a really great sci-fi story that gets at what it is to love somebody or a fantasy story that demonstrates how absurd our ways of thinking are. Heck, that’s what Terry Pratchett has done his entire career. So don’t be afraid to read what you want and write what you want. There will be people that make fun of you for it, but those guys are the real suckers, falling for silly distinctions while you enjoy great art. Ha!