On Form, Function, Art and Commerce
From Noah Millman’s post at his Shakesblog at The American Conservative about Paul Thomas’ new film The Master:
I still can’t make up my mind what to think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, which I saw last night. Not that I’m not sure it was a great film – I know what I think of it. I’m just not sure what I think about it.
First things first: yes, I saw it in 70mm. Film snobs everywhere are arguing about whether this choice was brilliant or pointless, but from my perspective the significance of the choice was simply that it made it possible for the film to be really big. And there’s something about monumentality in and of itself. Vir Heroicus Sublimis really doesn’t look like much at all, unless you’re up close and personal. See? So, similarly, a close-up of Joaquin Phoenix’s curled lip is one thing, but when his face is the size of Jefferson’s on Mount Rushmore, a curl of the lip feels like it heralds the collapse of civilization.
On the other hand, precisely because of the impact of sheer scale, I’m second-guessing my initial awed reaction. How much of that was a reaction to the movie as a movie, as opposed to the experience of it as an overwhelming fact?
On yet a third hand, maybe experiencing an overwhelming fact has the right to be, you know, overwhelming. And this movie is chock full of overwhelming experience, overwhelming images and overwhelming performances.
Neil Simpson has had enough of the Beatles:
In their prime the Fab Four must have provided a welcome relief from a buttoned-up and austere Britain. No doubt this gave them a sense a purpose and a revolutionary quality. Yet today they have become excruciatingly bland and inoffensive. The Beatles are now background music, unable to fulfil the most basic criteria of art – to provoke and stimulate.
The problem is that we’re simply too removed from the revolutions they fought and the British past they reacted against. They challenged a world of clear class and gender distinctions, lingering imperial memories, and patriarchal government. We’re a long way from that world today: we’ve retreated from messianic efforts at world revolution or liberation.
Today their ideology has more in common with the vague platitudes of a piss poor mobile phone adverts than anything more substantial. Even in their later years their flirtation with eastern spiritualism seems laughable in a world of public school boys jaunting off on gap years. Far from being edgy today, they look naive and self-indulgent.
Wait, the Beatles had an “ideology”? Coulda fooled me. But even if they did carry around such baggage, scarcely anyone has ever listened to the Beatles to become politically or socially or spiritually enlightened. If their reputation continues to be high, it will be because of the music they made: its melodies, harmonies, arrangements, and lyrics.
A few years ago BBC Radio 6 ran an extraordinary documentary featuring interviews with the great producer George Martin about how the Beatles’ music was recorded. One of the best things about the show is the way it plays voices and instruments in isolation, so that you can hear the quality of the musicianship and, equally important, hear the way Martin helped the Beatles to build up a sonic palette of exceptional beauty. (It’s also interesting to discover how Martin and the engineers, especially Geoff Emerick, got the best possible sound out of the existing technologies — which in fact were superior in many ways to the most commonly used recording technologies today.)
And lastly, Farhad Manjoo’s review of the iPhone 5 at Slate:
If I tell you the greatest thing about the iPhone 5 is how it “feels,” you’ll accuse me of being a superficial aesthete who cares more for form than function. You don’t care how a phone was built or how it looks; you just want it to work. But I think that argument misses something important about what it means for a phone to “work well”: When you’re holding a device all the time, how it feels affects its functionality. Or, as Steve Jobs might say, how it feels is how it works.
Back when I cared a lot about how sexuality was depicted in in moving images I tried very hard to encourage people who critiqued and analyzed these images to (at least for a while) lay aside gender and social politics and agendas, and to parse what they saw in terms of the tools and techniques employed to create the depictions, and then to work backwards from these easily observable (well for me, at least) facts to a comparission to the tools and techniques used to depict other human activities and to ask: Is there a difference, and if so, why is there a difference?
For example, here’s Tony Comstock (that me), at The Atlantic, lacing into another Atlantic article for leaning too hard on gender politics-fueled speculation, while ignoring easily observed, readily quantifiable facts:
In her article “Hard Core: The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women” in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that the modern phenomena of easy online access to sexually explicit material represents a near-perfect market catering to male sexual desire. She posits that the nature of the material available online and its popularity offers a window into the true nature of male sexuality, untempered by social norms; and that this gives lie to various tropes of sexual mutuality and egalitarianism that have misguided her own journey towards sexual adulthood.
In service of her thesis Ms. Vargas-Cooper cites various sex acts that she (quite rightly) claims are easy to find online and complements these citations with personal testimony from the trenches of singlehood and dating, as it were.
My own experience in making and marketing sexually explicit films makes me cautious about declaring the market perfect, let alone representative of anything, other than what aspects of the human sexual experience can be captured and distributed as a media product. I would further caution that attempting to draw any insight as to the nature of male sexuality or the fundamental dynamic of male/female relationships on the basis of what sort of sexually explicit material is being produced and distributed is, at best, a vast inductive leap, and fraught with hazard.
Markets are notoriously imperfect and notoriously misunderstood; and broad inferences drawn from misunderstandings of imperfect markets tend not to be particularly insightful.
Writers, and other people who trade mostly in words, sometimes have a very hard time understanding that were making movies or recording records is concerned, some words cost more than others; you might want to use cerulean, but all you can afford is robin’s egg blue, and there is a fantasy that (Someday soon! Right now if you buy this wonderful gadget or service!) technology will make all forms like writing; all words available to all writers, at anytime. (Google [tyranny of the cinematographer])
Walter Murch posits an endgame to the above fantasy, a time in the (not too distant?) future when we will simply run a jack from my head to your head, and you will experience my “movie” fully realized and utterly disintermediated, and Murch is not impressed. By his reckoning, the high point for painting was the Reneisence, when the materials of the times required that a painter function more like a producer/director, heading a team of creative people to produce monumental words. By his reckoning, it’s been downhill ever since, every advance in technology that has allowed painters to work in greater and great isolation contributing to greater and great self-indulgence, with little of worth to show for the bargain. (So much for Gauguin and my South Seas fantasies!)
By contrast, Wikipedia tells me Aristotle ranked Opsis (aka “spectacle”) of least importance in his theory of what makes a good play good, and though a friend of mine said I was the “least Aristotilian person he knows”, I’m not quite sure I have the brass to say that I’m right and Aristotle is wrong.
In any case, and at least for the time being, how the iPhone 5 feels is how it functions, and how Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is recorded is how it sounds; and if Galaxy is projected at Mt. Rushmore scale, well that is how it looks, isn’t it?
And some people do that better than other people, sometimes because they are more talented, often because they have better tools, and usually both.