Sunday, November 23, 2008

Art Vs. Artifice

Looking without seeing. This academic-sounding exploration of genre is not necessarily backed up by deep insight; it's inspired by the fact that half the time I'm not sure if what I just saw was intended....
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We respond to films (and most art in general) by what we're familiar with. Genres allow us to categorize certain works easily, to expect what is likely to happen, and to be pleased and comforted by what comes to pass in the plot.

For example, westerns use as their standard thematic landscape moral tales of forces of right and wrong, of tension between progress, morality, and historical tradition (or more pointedly, nostalgia). Science fiction films place their plots in an alternate world, either in the future or past, or in some other realm in which a different use and/or sense of scientific inquiry is at work, in order to investigate man's place in a hyper-facilitated environment (often at the expense of the human spirit; otherwise why set them in a science-itized (not a word) future?).

These thematic artifices serve to allow the genres - and their inherent strengths - to address effectively (and serves also to let us anticipate and appreciate) the rhetorical arguments the films intend to be engaged in. The plot machinations delight us as they unfold, and may even surprise us. But only to a degree.

We don't like to be too surprised. We want a musical to have singing. If it's a Superman movie, we want to see him fly. Pornography has naked people, and violent movies have the color red.

Yet we should resist being fooled into thinking a work of art is meaningful merely because an expected depiction of an element is appropriate. In an age of increasingly self-reflexive art, it's increasingly easy to identify - and "cooly" accept of the Haskell Wexler sort - something that is little more than artifice. Window dressing. Visual name-dropping. Is putting a red plastic nose on the man in a nightclub identify him as the entertainer?

The whiz-bang surfaces of films today stun and narcotize (a word), and in the process may bypass deeper thematic meaning - if there is one. The thrill comes at the expense of permitting or expecting us to mediate upon the artifices. The props by which we categorize and codify a work of art aren't enough to simply be represented.

They must represent.

They must be exploited, through story, through use as texture (background or characteristic iconography) or as symbol or thematic talisman. Sometimes the tools fail the filmmakers when they're so overwhelmed by a virtuoso ability to create craven images available to them nowadays.

The power of film is that generic tropes, tricks, and devices that make up a detective film or a musical represent specific subtextural outlooks. They're not arbitrary. They're constructs which are (must be) planned. There are schedules, lights and microphone wires that have to be hidden. Actors that must recite scripts, while a camera records. Film must be developed, transferred and edited in an appropriate way. Music is added. The images are manipulated with effects to create narrative and pacing.

All this is artifice, in service (we presume) of the artistic statement to be made.

The post-modern surface of films, and of "film" in general, now more foregrounded than ever with behind-the-scenes, cable-channel exposes, and outtakes over the credits, may prevent us from reflecting back to ourselves what the artistic thrust of any work of art may be trying to show us.

Are we merely responding to the cultural cues, rather than a deeper resonant meaning?

The how of the thing is getting in the way of the why.

The shiny surface of something - the pretty glamour gimcracks and fuzzy dice - may disguise the fact that some of these entertaining articulated robots have no souls.

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