Now for a little bit on film.

I’ve been avoiding this subject as I find myself split on the issue. Part of me, the forever a kid part of me, loves big blockbuster films, the types of films that employ numerous special effects and great action scenes with good comedy and epic adventures. One such example of a film which ended a trilogy I find myself one of few who enjoyed all three is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. I know this film was too long for many people and for others it was just too far removed from reality, with all its supernatural elements, that it failed to live up to what the first film had created. But for me it was perfect. I loved that it went too far and was too long and even utilized elements directly from the ride to remove itself a little too much from the rest of Hollywood.

 

Yes, it did do that! You see when the whole team was entering that weird ghost world called World’s End, there was roughly thirty seconds of white screen with sound bites from the ride itself, having the effect of removing us from the cinematic world and dropping us back in reality, reminding us where this trilogy comes from. This very subtle use of that technique is the trend in cinema I feel has been lost in recent years.

 

Now enter that other part of me, that part that wants cinema to challenge conventional ideas and especially this superhuman hold that narrative has on film. Why does film have to be a narrative to be a film? The answer is it doesn’t and I’m sure there are many out there that can point me in many directions to films that don’t follow a traditional narrative, but the point I’m trying to make is that a complete removal from narrative makes film video art, and it ends up in museums rather than cinemas. So what I am really asking for is that artistic desire to challenge and push the envelope, that break from rules and traditions that is controlling film so closely these days. I think that no other medium suffers from such a financial hold as film does.

 

I want to be proven wrong so let the recommendations for “artsy” films start. But also I hate that they have that title, I hate that this traditional narrative form of film has become The norm. No one goes around saying I want “artsy” paintings, painting has retained itself as an art, what happened with film? I’d also suggest that this isn’t limited to film but rather that film has the larges financial hold on it. Music, theater, literature all suffer similar industrial blocks.

 

Now the better question is are these blocks? Are these media being controlled and suppressed in order to turn a profit and turn are into an industry or rather is the industry where art is today? Perhaps what I am complaining about is no different than someone from the turn of the century complaining about the loss of perspective in modern art, perhaps this entire complaint is no different than those who thought modern art was the end of art. Hmmm can we except that industrialized art is just as much art as those that “do it for the art and not the profit?”

 

That is a question I leave for the discussion to decide…

 Huysmans

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8 Responses to Now for a little bit on film.

  1. Elver says:

    “Why does film have to be a narrative to be a film?”

    The answer is: if there was no narrative to film, it would be boring. If you think I’m wrong, tune your TV to a dead channel and see how long you can watch the static.

    Even in “artsy” films where there is seemingly no narrative, we see the pictures on the screen and form some sort of narrative in our heads to justify them. We are humans. Humans are hard-wired to look for meaning and causality everywhere.

    Films don’t suffer from a “financial hold”, especially today. You can take a $100 camera and shoot whatever you want, then post it on YouTube. The “hold” that is on films is the hold of common sense. People value their time and they won’t sit through something that, to them, has no meaning.

    You’d be hard-pressed to find Hollywood directors who don’t do it for the art. Almost all of them do. The people who prefer profit to art are the ones making B-grade genre films that you probably won’t find unless you look for them real hard.

    Look at the films David Fincher has made. Or Ridley Scott. Steven Spielberg. James Cameron. Peter Jackson. John Carpenter. Stanley Kubrick. These people are creating art. They are pushing the boundaries of film and advancing our understanding of film. A nutjob with a camera making “video art” in his bathroom isn’t pushing the boundaries of film, nor is he helping to advance our understanding of film. Everything incomprehensible passes as “real art” nowadays and that’s what the guy is aiming for.

    And here you are praising a film with a $300 million dollar budget for pushing the boundaries of film and talking about some sort of financial blocks which supposedly stop real art.

    Hollywood works in a very simple fashion. They make movies which people want to see. Because if people go and see a movie, the movie makes a profit. The nice thing is that the audiences are actually surprisingly well educated and demand films which push the boundaries. They want to see things which they have not seen before, but they do not want to be bored.

  2. huysmans says:

    First I must respond to our suggestion of “pushing the boundaries” I would disagree entirely with that idea in regards to the Hollywood directors you mentioned. Technically speaking they are, but I do not consider that a boundary for art but rather one for the industry. That guy in the bathroom is pushing the boundary because he is challenging our notions of what can be film. The boundary I want to see challenged is not the one that allows us to make a giant gorilla look real or to portray the Crusades as the “really” happened. The boundaries I am interested in cracking are the ones that tie us to a plot, to characters that are based in reality and to shots that keep us in the world the films create. Wes Anderson, for me, is arguably the closest today to breaking those narrative boundaries that keep us in “the world” of the film.

    Furthermore I would argue that you are wrong about the absence of narrative. Narrative is not something you put together in your head, I am arguing against the narrative put together for us in film. Schoenberg’s music was all the more challenging because it did what wasn’t expected. Now you’re right about enjoyment, you’d be hard pressed today to find someone who actively listens to Schoenberg. But since when is art about enjoyment? Art is about challenging our society about explaining what we can’t explain easily, it’s about engagement. And let me tell you, it is a much more active engagement when it is with something that is harder to understand than with something that is already explained for you.

    And for my last point, I don’t think many today call the shorts on youtube films, but I could be wrong about that, so I wouldn’t exactly use them to argue that our economy doesn’t hold the industry. I personally that the economy is exactly what is blocking the industry, directors and producers are too scared to do anything innovative and challenging because their goal is enjoyment rather than pushing that envelope. I guess in the end what I really don’t like is that we live in a world where enjoyment is the marker of a good film.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. Elver says:

    Why would you want to push the boundary of making things that people don’t like?

    Film for the sake of challenging what can be considered film is a meaningless exercise in semantics. You could point your finger at a dog turd on the side of a road and say “that is film” and if you really wanted to, you could get a bunch of people to agree with you and also point fingers and say “that is indeed film.” You will not have pushed any boundaries. You will have, however, created a lot of unneeded confusion.

    I have three empty beer bottles on my desk from last week. If I say that they are actually water bottles, because beer is mostly water, I will not have been witty and I will not have pushed the boundaries of what we consider to be beer bottles. I will have assigned a false label to an object.

    Pretending to enjoy things because they are not enjoyable is pretentious and juvenile. Schoenberg deliberately made bad music. His music isn’t “challenging”, it’s bad, but that’s okay, because it was designed to be bad. By the same logic you ought to be listening to random teen garage bands, because they are “challenging” as well. Or in other words, simply awful.

    If art wants to “challenge society”, it needs to come up with a better way of doing it, because the “mislabeling things” approach simply insults the intelligence of most viewers. It does not issue any challenge that would be socially relevant.

  4. huysmans says:

    I suggest that you reevaluate Schoenberg. To place him with garage bands is arguably a sign of not understanding him. He approached musical composition from a new angle thus allowing it to take a new form and achieve a different end. I do not pretend to enjoy his music, but I do appreciate it. When listening to it I am engage to fight it, to feel it, to understand why it is that my ears do not like it. To write that off as just bad is to miss the point of it entirely. Some have argued that what makes modern art so much more engaging is that it takes much more than a simple look to be able to understand what it is trying to achieve. That is the argument I am using here, if we remove this need for something to be enjoyable, and by that what we really mean is passively communicable, and allow for art to be harsh, provocative, and even hurtful to our senses, then we can begin to better understand ourselves and why that is. Duchamps Fountain is not artistically critical because it is a urinal, it is critical because it is not a painting or sculpture. It is critical because it forces us to look at art more abstractly, to try and connect this work of plumbing to the great history that is creative expression.

    Also I do not want film created solely for the sake of challenging either, that is to similar to the “art for art’s sake” people of the late 19th century. Instead I want film to challenge instead of conform when presenting its creativity. I want it to break from this narrative hold and financial lock not simply because it should, but because I think that we will find a much freer and more critical sense of film. Buñuel produced works of art that were banned for fifty years because society was not capable of understanding them until that point. Duchamp created a sculpture that even to this day is debated upon. I don’t think either of those statements will ever apply to the blockbusters of today. But I could be wrong, easily wrong.

    It’s clear from your own comments that something of this magnitude would greatly interact with you, yourself. To have such a reaction to the idea is the best outcome, to disagree with art is much more productive than passively accepting it. I am sick of passively accepting films today, I want to hate them, I want them to challenge what I know to be the norm of film. I want another Buñuel to emerge and cut my eyes, I want shock! And I do not want it to be mislabeled this isn’t about filming everything, but about filming what isn’t expected and using film to once again communicate with that deeper sense of Art.

    To film I say this, don’t affirm my reality, challenge it, interact with me!

  5. Elver says:

    When you listen to Schoenberg, you want to understand why your ears don’t like it. Do you not have the same reaction to bad garage bands? And consider this difference. On one side we have Schoenberg. A guy who studied music and spent a lot of time creating a theory, then even more time writing music which our ears don’t like. On the other side we have a garage band, which completely naturally and without all that effort makes music which our ears do not like. I’m not questioning Schoenberg’s historical importance, but I am questioning his relevance today.

    On one hand you say that modern art is engaging, because it takes an effort to understand what it’s trying to achieve. Yet earlier you said that you don’t want pre-made narrative in film. Why do you want pre-made narrative in art? Especially one that is hard to understand?

    I’m not questioning the historical importance of works like Duchamp’s Fountain, but I am questioning their relevance today. Art has stalled in imitation. It doesn’t have anything new to say so it recycles the old, occasionally in new forms. The ideas being expressed have not changed considerably since the 70s. Duchamp made a great contribution to art, but let the historians talk about it. We need modern art in a modern world. If the best social commentary that art can provide today is a performance artist trying out different Guantanamo “stress positions”, then the art of today is irrelevant to today. It is far surpassed by The Daily Show, Hollywood films on the subject, and a ton of other material not intended as art.

    Buñuel made some great and enjoyable films not because he broke with narrative structure, but because he had a great understanding of narrative structure and was able to warp it in new and exciting ways. Camus said that “often the abstract is done by the undisciplined, sold by the unprincipled and shown to the utterly bewildered” and he’s right. Abstract is not about breaking with narrative and tradition. It is about understanding narrative and tradition and warping it to create new meaning.

    I believe that the next wave of groundbreaking art will come in the form of ideas. Narrative, as it were. It’s not hard. Traditional narrative structure works to prove an idea such as the sappy old “love conquers all” or even “poverty leads to crime.” What if the expert handling of narrative structure was to be used to prove ideas which most sane people would not approve of? What if a film proved, through logic and narrative, that selling your preteen daughter as a sex slave is a good thing? Or what if it showed that the society is an evil place and the actions of the school shooters were justified? Film is just a medium, like a canvas. It’s the message that makes it art.

    Thing is, art needs to start looking into the future and narrative is a great tool to use. Unfortunately people, even artists, are afraid of negative labels and have essentially been neutered by today’s society. One wrong move and you’re out. As a result they’re reduced to looking at past glory, only making art that’s politically correct and agrees with the mainstream.

  6. huysmans says:

    I agree with you save your introduction. I think that Schoenberg’s music is engaging and then can be enjoyable but on a different level. It is enjoyable in that it is exciting, that I want to hear what is next because I can’t anticipate it as I could with the highly narrative forms of the romantic composers. I also really like your point about those that appear to break from narrative are really those that understand it at a high level, that in reality they aren’t breaking from narrative at all. That may be completely true, but I have yet to see that in cinema today either.

    Furthermore I don’t think modern art uses pre-made narratives, I don’t want pre-made narratives in art. What I want is the use of untraditional narratives, I want Kafkas to come out and comment on society by shocking us, not by giving us what we want. The messages of today’s Hollywood are simplistic and easily understandable, I love these films but I am not getting anything from them. Narrative has been the bases for art since its inception and is also an aspect that will never disappear, I see narrative like a see art, it is the foundation of art in different media. So let me apologize then for saying that I want film to break from narrative, that may be impossible, or rather it will produce something completely different, and potentially a new medium or not even art. What I want is for film to break from the traditional narrative. I want directors to be more courageous and less dependent on visual representation. Let us use our minds to imagine these stories, when everything is simplified, it loses its meaning.

    I think it is better to ask why Schoenberg is a composer and a genius in that field where as these garage bands are not. The answer to that will help us understand the problem with film today. It is so easy to say that they are both bad, the challenge is in showing why Schoenberg isn’t bad, why he has discovered and invented something unparalleled. But then again I being one earlier in my blog defended the artistic merit of High School Musical, would also argue that only seeing the brilliance in Schoenberg and not seeing it in the garage bands is narrow-mindedness. That in reality all of this is equally as artistic, the only thing that divides all these expressions of art is within each of us; what divides them is our own desire to categorize and compare and at the root of that is our interactions with these works of art.

    Using interaction as the foundation for what art is, I come to my conclusion. That my problem with film not being art is due to my own interaction with it, my lack of vision to see where it is art and to see where it is challenging. Perhaps that is true, but then again, the same themes keep reappearing in film and at the root of film is the linear narrative story that just won’t go away. There are exceptions, but up to now they have just proved the rule.

    Again thanks for the comments, this discussion has been most rewarding.

    Huysmans

  7. Elver says:

    Regarding non-narrative films actually having a warped narrative, you should take a look at Robert McKee’s book “Story”. He dedicates several pages on the matter and offers, by far, the most logical-sounding theory I’ve come across. Apparently the only film that in his mind doesn’t fit neatly into some easily discernable category is Barton Fink.

    This might sound a bit too Objectivist (I’m not), but how about instead of thinking whether Schoenberg is better than a garage band or if they are equally bad or whatnot, we just take the high road and not think about Schoenberg and garage bands? We’ve seen the past and we have a certain level of understanding of the past, but why would we want to waste time on classifying and nitpicking the past when we can build the future?

    The job of art is to challenge society. I wholeheartedly agree. Why has it failed in its duty? Where has serious society-challenging art been in the past 30 years? Counterculture left its high water mark, was integrated into the mainstream and now any artist who challenges society’s foundations would simply be ostracized. This is unfortunate. We ought to do something about it.

    And if you enjoyed this discussion (I certainly did) then you might find my blog interesting as well 🙂

  8. huysmans says:

    I like the sentiments of looking towards the future, but I don’t agree with ignoring the past. I am not trying to classify the past by bringing up Schoenberg but rather I am trying to suggest that he may have started something worth looking at today. Using the past to better understand the present and where the present might be going wrong I wouldn’t exactly call classifying, I guess what I am doing is no different than how the Surrealists like Ernst and Ray used Ubu Roi as a source for inspiration in defining their movement. I see Schoenberg as a source for inspiration in attempting to remove art from being purely “entertaining.”

    Secondly I know that I said I wanted art to challenge society but I don’t necessarily want that to be its job. Art should not have a job, that’s what makes it art and not a craft or an industry, it is beautiful in its meaninglessness that then becomes meaningful through us. What I’ve always loved about art is that power it has to change society simply because it exists and communicates.

    I’m going to look into this text, thank you very much for the recommendation and I have greatly enjoyed this discussion and plan on visiting your blog with greater frequency.

    Thanks,
    Huysmans

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