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Is Art Bunk?

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The subject heading is an inter-allusion, by way of C. S. Lewis's essay title "Is History Bunk?", to Henry Ford's oft-quoted dictum "History is bunk"... or perhaps I should say oft-misquoted, since what Ford actually said was "History is more or less bunk," which kind of gets right down to the subject at hand.

My musings here were inspired by a line of thought in the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas thread on narrative art and the Holocaust, which included such comments as

QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 1 2008, 11:06 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE
This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting.

and

QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 4 2008, 01:47 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Memory that is accurate is factual in the storied way that only memory can be. This is why I prefer the use of Holocaust footage to Holocaust stories.

What I am wondering is just how particular to the Holocaust this principle is.

The Holocaust obviously occupies a unique place in Western history and imagination. Yet similar principles would seem to apply, for instance, in responding to films about the Rwandan genocide, like Hotel Rwanda (which, like Schindler's List, is more about people who don't die than people who do), and in fact similar criticisms were leveled at that film.

Questions of memory and truth also apply to other events besides genocide. One school of dramatic thought says "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Yet it seems to me that the more we know about the facts, and especially the more we care about them, the less likely we are to feel either that departing from them actually does make for a "good story" (or a better story than the facts themselves, or than a more truthful story hewing more closely to the facts) -- or that a "good story," even if it succeeds on its own terms, justifies the distortion of the facts.

The closer we are to the facts, the more likely we are to find the real facts a good deal more interesting than the dramatist's conceits. Questions about historicity matter more to me with a film like World Trade Center than with a film like Braveheart, because 9/11 is more important to me than a thirteenth-century Scottish freedom fighter. On the other hand, historically minded Brits might care more about the historicity of Braveheart than I would.

Apart from questions of dramatic interest, there are also questions of justice and truth. Cinderella Man makes Max Baer a villain that, apparently, he wasn't; I would argue that that doesn't make it a better story -- a more nuanced character would make a better story -- but even if it did make a better story, would this justify the injustice to Baer and the pain caused to his family members? Likewise, James Cameron's Titanic depicts First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe, shooting passengers and eventually committing suicide. Such things do happen, of course, and they can make for good drama. However, Murdoch's surviving relatives were reasonably aggrieved by this depiction, for which apparently little evidence exists (and once again my own feeling is that the depiction harms rather than enhances the drama).

Events don't have to be recent to be relevant. The history of Kingdom of Heaven is more ancient than that of Braveheart, but I care more about the former than the latter because Christian-Islamic issues are more important to me than English-Scottish issues.

Obviously, how much we know about an incident directly impacts how much liberty we can take. The Ninth Day is mostly speculation about a period in a concentration camp prisoner's life about which nothing is known. If the real story were known, and if it mattered to us, we probably wouldn't be able to appreciate the film the same way. I can live with United 93's speculative depiction of the last minutes of the flight because we don't really know what happened. If we did know, I would want the depiction to match what we knew, just as I want the parts of the film that depict events we do know about to match those events.

And it's not just history. Anything you know about, you like to see accurately portrayed. Professionals in any field -- healthcare workers, computer experts, military or law enforcement, whatever -- find that it takes them right out of a movie when filmmakers get things wrong. Individuals from a given culture or familiar with it find inauthentic depictions detrimental to a film. If you don't know anything about Somalia, you won't know or care that the African-Americans in Black Hawk Down don't look like Somalis; if you do, you may. Similarly, those in the know about American Indian cultures often find the depictions in classic Westerns variously hilarious or offensive.

The smaller the world gets and the more familiar we become with things outside of our parochial experience, the less willing we are, at least in some ways, to accept falsifications. It's hard to believe today that Charlton Heston could ever get away with playing a Mexican, as in Touch of Evil, or a Spaniard, as in El Cid.

Science too. The more you know about the natural world, or the closer you are to it, the less willing you may be to accept stuff that's wrong. To pick silly examples from a couple of computer-animated films, consider the male cows with udders in Barnyard or the male "pollen jock" bees from Bee Movie, or the way that the latter film depicts "pollen" as magic plant food "fertilizer" that revives withering plants, rather than botanical reproductive material. In my review of Bee Movie I called it "an urban comedy about the circle of life made by filmmakers a generation too many removed from life on the farm." In other words, it seems to me that a certain amount of distance -- or ignorance -- is required to conceive of the world this way in the first place.

All of this raises an interesting question. To what extent is all art like that? Could it be that art is essentially something we do between the cracks of what we actually know? Is there a sense in which the more you know, the less room there is for "art"? Conversely, must literal historical and scientific truthfulness always be the ultimate ideal in art, so that to depart in any way or on any level from such truth always weakens a work of art?

Should all films dealing with historical facts seek to be as scrupulously factual as the most objective documentaries? I am not disposed to this way of thinking, although I confess I do find again and again that historical movies are invariably weakened by departures from the facts.

A few counter-examples. Christian eschatology and angelology are subjects of the greatest importance to me, yet the patently false portrayal in It's a Wonderful Life bothers me not at all. Likewise, I know very well that the Lucan adoration of the shepherds and the Matthean adoration of the magi are two entirely distinct events, yet I don't at all find "pastores et magi" scenes and depictions problematic. And while I know that Thomas More had several children, I don't mind the conflation of them all to Meg in A Man for All Seasons.

Thoughts? Edited by SDG

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Wow. This is very much along the lines of stuff I've been thinking about lately. That's a lot of stuff to think about, all related yet can each be handled on it's own, what are facts? Is there ever really such a thing as "just the facts?" I used to do a lot of recording and frequented a couple discussion groups. One thread that I always remember was a guy who came looking for a microphone that did not colour the sound for a symphony recording he was doing. He wanted the microphone to reproduce accurately what was being played. He never did get the idea that there is no such thing. Every microphone colours what is being recorded. It is inescapable. A lot of discussion also centered around it is impossible to ascertain, even through all sorts of measuring gear, what that "true" sound actually is. So many things affect acoustics, even your own ears, that every microphone selection is always subjective. Even where you place the microphone will affect what the microphone "hears". A person may never hear exactly what the microphone hears and vice versa.

I can't help but wonder if history and art are the same. When we try to tell the story about something that actually happened not only are we becoming like that microphone, but so is our placement not just in history, but also our placement in our environment is like the hall or room where the subject we are recording stands. Never mind all the wires and electronics along the path from the microphone to the recording media. And then there is also all the electronics and speakers we use to play back that recording and how they affect the sonics. Seems to me intent (of viewer as well as creator) is about all we have to go by as to whether accurate content is important. To a degree, everything is a story. It is just a matter of what the story being told actually may be. And what we want to hear. Or not.

Just one consideration,
Joe

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SDG wrote:
: The Holocaust obviously occupies a unique place in Western history and imagination. Yet similar principles would seem to apply, for instance, in responding to films about the Rwandan genocide, like Hotel Rwanda (which, like Schindler's List, is more about people who don't die than people who do), and in fact similar criticisms were leveled at that film.

Side note: When I saw Schindler's List 15 years ago, I remember thinking at one point that none of the characters we cared about were going to die, because they always seemed to survive -- and of course, the movie is based on a book which, itself, was based on the memories of the survivors. So in a strange way, this film, which was all about "remembering" the Holocaust, was also "forgetting" the experiences of the many who died -- and, in a way, those latter "forgotten" experiences might have been more germane to the very nature of the Holocaust itself. Certainly the fact that I could sense that most of the protagonists would survive kind of distanced me from the movie -- so I didn't really get emotionally involved in it until the very, very end, when we see the actors walking arm-in-arm with the real-life people that they were portraying. Suddenly it wasn't just a "movie" any more to me, but something more real.

: The closer we are to the facts, the more likely we are to find the real facts a good deal more interesting than the dramatist's conceits. Questions about historicity matter more to me with a film like World Trade Center than with a film like Braveheart, because 9/11 is more important to me than a thirteenth-century Scottish freedom fighter. On the other hand, historically minded Brits might care more about the historicity of Braveheart than I would.

The question of historicity versus "dramatist's conceits" is also important here because dramatists frequently change the facts to fit certain preconceived myths. The Myth of the American Superhero explores the differences between the real William Wallace and the movie version of Wallace at some length, to show how the movie ignores the history in order to convert this character into just another typical example of the "superhero" monomyth. So for me, the revisionism of Braveheart is important not so much for whether or not it gets the details "right", but for how the film exists to perpetuate existing modes of uncritical thought. Even if every detail were factually sound -- and they definitely are not! -- the way the film presents the material is still geared towards something OTHER than an engagement with history.

: If you don't know anything about Somalia, you won't know or care that the African-Americans in Black Hawk Down don't look like Somalis; if you do, you may.

You mean, black Americans were cast as the black Africans, despite not looking like them? Interesting. Reminds me of complaints I once heard about Lou Gossett Jr., a black American, being cast as Anwar Sadat, because Sadat was Arabic -- although, technically, while Sadat's father was Egyptian, his mother was Sudanese, hence the dark complexion, etc., etc.

: And while I know that Thomas More had several children, I don't mind the conflation of them all to Meg in A Man for All Seasons.

Heh. Kind of like how C.S. Lewis had TWO stepsons in the original version of Shadowlands, as indeed he had in real life, but only ONE stepson in the big-screen remake.

FWIW, my enjoyment of Lawrence of Arabia is enhanced by the fact that certain episodes are real, such as when Lawrence turns back to rescue an Arab who has fallen off his camel in the desert, or when Lawrence kills one of his Arab comrades to prevent intertribal warfare among his "allies". (I say "fact", but of course, many people think there is a lot of fiction in Lawrence's autobiography, so who knows.) My enjoyment is NOT hampered too much by the fact that the movie links these two incidents by having the man that Lawrence rescued turn out to be the same man that he shoots. (In Lawrence's book, these two incidents involved DIFFERENT Arab men -- and if I remember correctly, they even happened in the opposite order.)

The reason I don't mind the fictitious linkage is because screenwriter Robert Bolt (who also wrote A Man for All Seasons!) and director David Lean use these fictions to raise deeper questions. And the film as a whole encourages us to be more engaged with history and politics and all sorts of complex issues, without converting them all to pat, generic, monomythic cliches.

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Alright. A little more directly to the point. here is a youtube clip from our DVD called Last Dance. Maurice Sendak and Pilobolus collaborated on this piece on the Holocaust.

I still don't know how to make active links.

Last Dance nudity controversy

If that didn't work here is the url:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNBweJR8Wng

There is brief male nudity in the clip so be forewarned.

My point is whenever we are presenting history it is always an interpretation of history. Especially when it involves something as catastrophic as the Holocaust, we aren't just trying to list the facts of history, we are needing to convey the horror of the event, how it affected people, how we want it to affect us now as we tell/hear the story. Even if we held tightly to a sterile list of events, there is motivation behind that.

My only concern when art "strays" from "facts" is if there was no struggle or thought to the action--gratuitous, as Maurice says in the clip The struggle between a sterile history lesson versus a particular perception wanting to be conveyed.

Joe

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I am very fond of Miller Williams. This doesn't necessarily address the questions raised but touches them obliquely.

Let Me Tell You

how to do it from the beginning.
First notice everything:
the stain on the wallpaper
of the vacant house,
the mothball smell of a
Greyhound toilet.
Miss nothing. Memorize it.
You cannot twist the fact you do not know.

Remember
The blond girl you saw in the bar.
Put a scar on her breast.
Say she left home to get away from her father.
Invent whatever will support your line.
Leave out the rest.

Use metaphors: The mayor is a pig
is a metaphor
which is not to suggest
it is not a fact.
Which is irrelevant.
Nothing is less important
than a fact.

Be suspicious of any word you learned
and were proud of learning.
It will go bad.
It will fall off the page.

When your father lies
in the last light
and your mother cries for him,
listen to the sound of her crying.
When your father dies
take notes
somewhere inside.

If there is a heaven
he will forgive you
if the line you found was a good one.

It does not have to be worth the dying.

by Miller Williams

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I was also just wondering if the level of realism employed in the media also has an impact on how much deviation you, as a viewer, are willing to allow. Movies and books (print being more associated with "fact" dissemination) are more prone to a higher level of scrutiny than maybe dance or paintings, music being the most dis-associative.

Joe

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QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 6 2008, 02:52 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Science too. The more you know about the natural world, or the closer you are to it, the less willing you may be to accept stuff that's wrong. To pick silly examples from a couple of computer-animated films, consider the male cows with udders in Barnyard or the male "pollen jock" bees from Bee Movie, or the way that the latter film depicts "pollen" as magic plant food "fertilizer" that revives withering plants, rather than botanical reproductive material. In my review of Bee Movie I called it "an urban comedy about the circle of life made by filmmakers a generation too many removed from life on the farm." In other words, it seems to me that a certain amount of distance -- or ignorance -- is required to conceive of the world this way in the first place.

There are about a dozen great topics in your post, Steven, all of which are worthy of discussion, but let me single out one of them.

Art should create a world that is consistent within itself. That goes for the most rigorous, factual documentaries and the wildest, most speculative fantasy.

But surely the genre has to be taken into account, no? The fact that the makers of Bee Movie have a muddled view of botanical reproduction strikes me as of little account, particularly given the other plainly non-factual premises that we are asked to swallow. These are bees that talk, and, what's more, talk like Jerry Seinfeld. But it's a cartoon. And cartoons frequently feature characters that do some amazing, non-factual things. I find it far more fantastic that Barry B. Benson, the protagonist of Bee Movie, appears to be Jewish.

For the record, I would care a lot more about the botanical faux pas if I was watching, say, a Natural Geographic documentary about the life of bees. But perhaps in the world of Jewish, wise-cracking bees, magic plant food fertilizer is no big deal. Edited by Andy Whitman

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QUOTE (Andy Whitman @ Dec 7 2008, 03:54 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I find it far more fantastic that Barry B. Benson, the protagonist of Bee Movie, appears to be Jewish.

Apparently Andy got a better look at Barry's stinger than I did. wink.gif

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QUOTE (DanBuck @ Dec 7 2008, 03:59 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (Andy Whitman @ Dec 7 2008, 03:54 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I find it far more fantastic that Barry B. Benson, the protagonist of Bee Movie, appears to be Jewish.

Apparently Andy got a better look at Barry's stinger than I did. wink.gif

Circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with orthodox bee Scripture. I think it's in the Bee Attitudes.

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QUOTE (Andy Whitman @ Dec 7 2008, 03:54 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
There are about a dozen great topics in your post, Steven, all of which are worthy of discussion, but let me single out one of them.

Art should create a world that is consistent within itself. That goes for the most rigorous, factual documentaries and the wildest, most speculative fantasy.

But surely the genre has to be taken into account, no? The fact that the makers of Bee Movie have a muddled view of botanical reproduction strikes me as of little account, particularly given the other plainly non-factual premises that we are asked to swallow. These are bees that talk, and, what's more, talk like Jerry Seinfeld. But it's a cartoon. And cartoons frequently feature characters that do some amazing, non-factual things. I find it far more fantastic that Barry B. Benson, the protagonist of Bee Movie, appears to be Jewish.

For the record, I would care a lot more about the botanical faux pas if I was watching, say, a Natural Geographic documentary about the life of bees. But perhaps in the world of Jewish, wise-cracking bees, magic plant food fertilizer is no big deal.

Thanks, Andy. The principle you cite, that art should create a world that is self-consistent, is one that does resonate a great deal with me. (I think it's an important rule, though not necessarily an exceptionless rule; I suspect sometimes an artist might have leeway, in the name of a larger artistic integrity, to deliberately allow inconsistencies in his created world, but that's quite a bit afield from my driving concerns in this thread.)

Let me describe the effect first, and then try to feel my way toward the cause. The effect is this: When it comes to a movie like Bee Movie, I can easily accept that bees in this world talk, graduate from school, and have to choose a career which they are stuck with for the rest of their lives, much to the dismay of the occasional non-conformist like Barry B. Benson. I can accept that bees in this world have nuclear families, rather than all being half siblings with a common queen mother.

Yet I have a tougher time with the notion of macho male flyboy bees gathering pollen, and when it comes to the conceit of using rose-flower pollen to revive the world's withering botanical biosphere, I am offended and rebel completely.

Why is that? I think it is because the bits I have no trouble accepting are either simply part of the general conceit of anthropomorphization, or else are humorously incongruous juxtapositions of anthropomorphization and apian reality. Giving bees nuclear families and sending them to school and having them pick careers is simply a way of making bees like ourselves. Having them stuck with one job description for life suggests the specialization of semisocial bees, and Barry's distinctly un-beelike alarm at this finality is a humorous juxtaposition of human (and specifically rootless modern American) discomfort with commitment into the apian lifestyle (none of the other bees has a problem with this lifestyle, which is what you would expect from bees; bee society wouldn't be that way if more bees were like Barry, which is to say like us).

The macho flyboy business bothers me perhaps in part on the level of feminist consciousness. The image of giggling female groupies clustering to macho males in uniform presents certain cultural difficulties even in our own species -- and if ever there were a species in which this kind of macho is utterly inapplicable, it's bee society (though a sufficiently daring bee cartoon could conceivably get away with another type of macho). Yet there doesn't seem to be a self-conscious joke here on the movie's part. Like the sexually incorrect depictions of the hyenas in The Lion King, it seems to be an ignorant and sexist projection onto the film.

The "fertilization" bit, though, blows the lid off the movie for me. This has nothing whatsoever to do with anthropomorphization one way or the other. It has nothing to do with the plot-level conceits about honey production, human exploitation of bees, bee rebellion and all the rest of it. The eco-responsibility angle is unaffected by whether bee "fertilization" of the botanical biosphere is correctly depicted in terms of pollenization or in terms of magic plant food. There is no creative reason in the story for this massive defection from biology, except perhaps a complete unwillingness to confront the fundamental reality of the Birds and the Bees even in a Bee Movie.

And that perhaps pushes all kinds of wrong buttons for me because I've already got a bee in my bonnet about our society's separation from reality when it comes to the birds and the bees. If I gave full head to my critique of Bee Movie I would eventually get around to railing about contraception and everything.

For the sake of converging themes and even-handedness, I might note that similar separations occurs in conservative Catholic circles as well as liberal secular ones: Joseph I. Breen, the devoutly Catholic head of the Production Code Authority from 1934 to 1954 and the architect of much of Golden Age Hollywood's big-screen Catholicism, was apparently so much a city boy (a product of Philadelphia Jesuit education in an era when that meant something) that his discomfort with the onscreen display of mammary glands extended even to cow udders. Yes. A good Catholic farm boy, be he ever so proper, could hardly help laughing at such an absurd scruple, but there it is.

The transformation of apian botanical fertilization into the distribution of magic plant food seems to me to similarly reflect, not necessarily morally inflected scruples, but urban divorce from biological reality. It's not filmmakers creating a world, it's filmmakers who have lost their moorings in the world. Stylization and departure is all well and good, but it needs to be grounded in reality somehow. That's why Lewis Carroll, a mathematician and logican, could write such delightful nonsense -- not because he didn't care about logic, but precisely because he did.

And now perhaps I'm approaching a way of closing the circle on the point I started with? Perhaps it isn't fidelity to reality that matters, but deliberately choosing how and where to depart from reality for creative reasons, rather than stumbling into departures neither knowing nor caring why. Peter's point about dramatists changing stories to fit overriding monomyths may be very much to the point here. What bothers me about the misportrayal of Max Baer is partly the injustice to a real person, but also partly the cliche of the movie villain. Perhaps if the filmmakers had changed Baer's character another way that didn't reflect thoughtless monomythicization but served some more deliberate creative vision, it wouldn't bother me the same way (though I think it would still bother me if it were an unjust characterization).

While this theory would allow me to affirm departures from reality on a case-by-case basis, I can't escape the general sense that specific departures from reality often or even usually replace something that is more interesting with something that is less interesting, perhaps often because of the influence of the monomyths Peter has noted.

In general, my impression is that filmmakers would tell better stories and make better movies if they were more respectful to real people and places and events and less concerned about shaping those stories to suit dramatic ideas that are often less interesting than reality.

QUOTE (DanBuck @ Dec 7 2008, 05:59 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Apparently Andy got a better look at Barry's stinger than I did. wink.gif

See? See?! Another symptom of the problem! Male bees don't HAVE stingers, but Bee Movie doesn't know that either. Stingers are what female bees have where male bees have male sex organs. Female bees make war; male bees only make love. Edited by SDG

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SDG, for some reason your latest comments get me thinking about Changeling and the objection that one of the "Real Geezers" raised over the fact that, in real life, the sexual predator accused of kidnapping the boy was living with his mother at the time, and indeed his mother was sentenced for the crimes just as he was, yet the movie makes no reference to the mother whatsoever -- which is kind of glaring, in light of the fact that the main character of the film is a mother who is concerned for her boy. It really does seem like a missed opportunity, that the film COULD have explored two different kinds of motherhood, but in the end did not. Though whether Changeling conforms to a "monomyth", I'm not sure I could say.

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QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 6 2008, 03:52 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Questions of memory and truth also apply to other events besides genocide. One school of dramatic thought says "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Yet it seems to me that the more we know about the facts, and especially the more we care about them, the less likely we are to feel either that departing from them actually does make for a "good story" (or a better story than the facts themselves, or than a more truthful story hewing more closely to the facts) -- or that a "good story," even if it succeeds on its own terms, justifies the distortion of the facts.


The simple answer to the thread title is: Art isn't bunk because the Resurrection isn't bunk. (By "resurrection" I mean the Advent complex which includes the entire incarnation-resurrection trajectory.) If the Resurrection were bunk, then art would just be another language game. Because resurrection is a reality, aesthetic expression can be connected to history, to trauma, to hope, and to critical reflections that have cultural value.*

And I think taking this theological tack also helps in navigating the issues of history and its representation. Facts do exist, but they are only brought into contact with each other by means of a storyline. Whether it be the scientific method or different forms of historiography, any time facts are brought into proximity with each other some kind of narration has occured. Good historical narration understands this storied texture of fact and memory, and is able to determine what rhythms and patterns of storytelling best fit the facts it is attempting to communicate. This connects to the incarnation and resurrection because as foundational facts, they are the anchor points for a Story that grants all other stories legitimacy. Just as the Advent grants history purpose, so does it grant telling stories about history purpose. So it isn't necessarily about the amount of facts in a story, but about how appropriately the facts were arranged and narrated. Deliberate distoration of facts in a way that damages or discredits an actual historical memory are to be called out and criticized as crimes against the Story that gave them shape.

SDG: "And now perhaps I'm approaching a way of closing the circle on the point I started with? Perhaps it isn't fidelity to reality that matters, but deliberately choosing how and where to depart from reality for creative reasons, rather than stumbling into departures neither knowing nor caring why."

We are getting awful close to each other here.

SDG: "In general, my impression is that filmmakers would tell better stories and make better movies if they were more respectful to real people and places and events and less concerned about shaping those stories to suit dramatic ideas that are often less interesting than reality."

Yes. This corresponds very well to the emphasis on materiality in the Incarnation and Resurrection.

QUOTE (Andy Whitman @ Dec 7 2008, 03:54 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Art should create a world that is consistent within itself. That goes for the most rigorous, factual documentaries and the wildest, most speculative fantasy.


I don't think this is always the case. Art, and especially the cinema, are space in which aporia becomes revelatory. I am always looking for the stories that fall apart and don't connect, the films with ragged edges and black hole gaps, or paintings that conjoin contradictory terms. My experience of life isn't always consistent in itself, and I want art that helps me to negotiate the possibility of living both thoughtfully and joyfully in the face of contradiction. Nothing is really going to add up until the eschaton. Until then, I will lean on Brakhages self-refuting flickers of paint, Richter's constantly evolving media, Faulkner's blank mutterings, Denis' inconclusive proposals. Herzog's farcical blithering. Such things leave space for hope.

But Apocalypse is about rupturing things that appeared to be consistent, and replacing them with worlds that are. So from this perspective you must be right. Art should be striving for a consistency that doesn't actually exist in the world, unveiling its myths by opposing them with even more coherent possibilities. So I will also cling to the world-building of Wenders, Tarkovsky, and Malick. I will treasure Rilke and Bradbury.

As you can tell, I want to be consistent in describing what art is - but I am more than willing to be inconsistent in explaining what it can do.

QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 05:30 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
The "fertilization" bit, though, blows the lid off the movie for me.


Huh. What blew the lid off the movie for me were several scenes between a bee and a woman that are almost romantic. The movie allows it to become a narrative possibility. A bee and a woman!? My wife will attest to the fact that I still freak out about this.




*On art and advent from a different, recent thread: God initially describes Himself as a creator of fallen creators. The resurrection is the high-water mark of His inconceivable creative intelligence, the restoration of humanity by an act that didn't just celebrate Christ's accomplished work but the defeat of all that which robs the earth of its Artist's signature. The resurrection is a material victory, fashioned out of the same substances that had fallen in the beginning. To bend Tarkovsky's metaphor, it is God sculpting in time. Then I get to Romans 8, the great chapter on Spirit and resurrection, and I can't help but think of all artistic activity within the context of the earth "groaning and laboring" (8:22). The artistic impulse, the desire to materially produce thoughts, patterns, and compositions, is both an echo of God's creative activity and the response of His creation to its own fallenness.

I think God's role in the resurrection is directly parallel to His role in the creation of the world, which tells us a lot about how we can think about art: 1. It involves material, physical materials. Fashion, style, and trend are all okay - but they are always subordinate to art as the trained manipulation of physical material (and virtual I suppose, as there are electrons in there). This wades into the current fine art vs. craft debate, but you can probably tell where I land on that one. 2. It is public. The practice of art is a social process, a communicating process. God accomodates Himself to us in both creation and resurrection, and I enjoy artwork that understands this analogical process. There is an idea that through knowledge of a particular material (oil, metal, film, etc...) becomes communicable. A "good" work of art is one that by successful use of craft and material becomes articulate. I guess this is the aesthetic of "The Word became flesh." Edited by MLeary

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MLeary, that post was a thing of beauty. Thank you.

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QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 7 2008, 09:29 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
The simple answer to the thread title is: Art isn't bunk because the Resurrection isn't bunk.

I grok, and I would push it further back and say Art isn't bunk because the Incarnation isn't bunk, because art is human and the Incarnation affirms all that is human.

The question is a provocative way of exploring the relationship between art and fact, and the all-too-common experience I have of less-interesting "art" supplanting more-interesting "fact." Really what I'm doing here is cross-examining that notion of "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," using the issues around Holocaust-stories as a springboard. Maybe art isn't bunk, but is art "another way of forgetting"? And if so, is it only memories of the Holocaust we should be concerned about? That's my question here.

QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 7 2008, 09:29 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I don't think this is always the case. Art, and especially the cinema, are space in which aporia becomes revelatory. I am always looking for the stories that fall apart and don't connect, the films with ragged edges and black hole gaps, or paintings that conjoin contradictory terms. My experience of life isn't always consistent in itself, and I want art that helps me to negotiate the possibility of living both thoughtfully and joyfully in the face of contradiction. Nothing is really going to add up until the eschaton. Until then, I will lean on Brakhages self-refuting flickers of paint, Richter's constantly evolving media, Faulkner's blank mutterings, Denis' inconclusive proposals. Such things leave space for hope.

Yes, and on a simpler level there is the sometimes flimsy narrative coherence of The Chronicles of Narnia (how can Tumnus and the Beavers put out such meals during a hundred year winter?), Wall-E (why does Eve pack heat?), Casablanca (why are the letters of transit seemingly all-important, then never used?), Citizen Kane (who heard Kane say "Rosebud"?), etc. I don't mind when Superman II pulls the Amnesia Kiss out of Superman's back pocket; I do mind when Superman can't catch the two nuclear missiles in Superman, but can fly around the world several times a second in order to turn time backward.

QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 7 2008, 09:29 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Huh. What blew the lid off the movie for me were several scenes between a bee and a woman that are almost romantic. The movie allows it to become a narrative possibility. A bee and a woman!? My wife will attest to the fact that I still freak out about this.

Yes, definitely a narrative possibility, so much so that there is clearly sexual rivalry between Barry and the boyfriend. Yet I find that I don't mind Despereaux the mouse being in love with Princess Pea, either in the book or in the movie. Perhaps it's because Despereaux's love is of a romantic-courtly sort bound up in a whole chivalric worldview, rather than romantic in the Hollywood sense. (DiMillo tells us in the end of the story, "Even in such a strange world as this one, a mouse cannot marry a princess" or something like that.)

P.S. What Peter said -- I was hoping this thread would pull you into it, Mike. Edited by SDG

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QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 10:24 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 7 2008, 09:29 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
The simple answer to the thread title is: Art isn't bunk because the Resurrection isn't bunk.
I grok, and I would push it further back and say Art isn't bunk because the Incarnation isn't bunk, because art is human and the Incarnation affirms all that is human.

At the same time, I should add that it is in following this line of reasoning that I tend to be most open/sympathetic to narratives like Schindler's List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful, etc., and least likely to be persuaded by the counter-arguments.

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It might go without saying, but we can draw the line all the way back to the Henry Ford quote and note that it's possible for history to be bunk in much the same way that art is bunk

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QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 09:24 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Maybe art isn't bunk, but is art "another way of forgetting"? And if so, is it only memories of the Holocaust we should be concerned about? That's my question here.


Yes, there is more than the Holocaust to be concerned about. The odd thing about Holocaust Studies is that the discipline has a lot of very interesting things to say, but it prizes the Holocaust as an sui generis historical event. And while there are many good reasons for treating the Holocaust as something unique, I am all for finding ways to talk about other trauma as well. When something that looks or feels like a work of art becomes "another way of forgetting," then perhaps it ceases to become art as defined by art's connectedness to Incarnation. It is propaganda, disinformation, indoctrination, something that should have a different name. Maybe our proclivity to create and communicate is in constant competition with our proclivity to tell ourselves therapeutic lies about history and reality - art is the first casualty in this combat. When a particular work of art is just "another way of forgetting," it is the critic's job to enable us to remember properly again. Otherwise, our "remembering" faculties are constantly dulled by Hollywood.

QUOTE
Yes, and on a simpler level there is the sometimes flimsy narrative coherence of The Chronicles of Narnia (how can Tumnus and the Beavers put out such meals during a hundred year winter?), Wall-E (why does Eve pack heat?), Casablanca (why are the letters of transit seemingly all-important, then never used?), Citizen Kane (who heard Kane say "Rosebud"?), etc. I don't mind when Superman II pulls the Amnesia Kiss out of Superman's back pocket; I do mind when Superman can't catch the two nuclear missiles in Superman, but can fly around the world several times a second in order to turn time backward.


Yeah, I guess there is art that is incoherent because an artist doesn't want to tie the loose ends together, and some that is that way just because it is poorly done.

QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 10:19 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
At the same time, I should add that it is in following this line of reasoning that I tend to be most open/sympathetic to narratives like Schindler's List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful, etc., and least likely to be persuaded by the counter-arguments.


Can you walk me through this? Life is Beautiful seems particularly abhorrent because it uses Holocaust material to create a narrative world in which we the audience experience Begnini's charm as a universalizing response to traumatic experience. We can get past trauma if we just learn how to play the kind of mind games that turn the Holocaust into a relief for the joy that can be enacted in life. Edited by MLeary

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QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 8 2008, 09:50 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 10:19 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
At the same time, I should add that it is in following this line of reasoning that I tend to be most open/sympathetic to narratives like Schindler's List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful, etc., and least likely to be persuaded by the counter-arguments.


Can you walk me through this? Life is Beautiful seems particularly abhorrent because it uses Holocaust material to create a narrative world in which we the audience experience Begnini's charm as a universalizing response to traumatic experience. We can get past trauma if we just learn how to play the kind of mind games that turn the Holocaust into a relief for the joy that can be enacted in life.

I'm not totally up to speed on the larger discussion, but re: Life is Beautiful, I will toss in my two cents. I've seen the film maybe a dozen times and I have changed what I think it means and what it is saying.

At first, I imagined the movie was about finding joy in the bleakest of circumstances. But I'm not there any more. This is a film about dignity. It's about the fact that nothing on this earth, holocaust included, can determine what or who you are.

1. Think of the scene where Guido is being trained to be a waiter, and his uncles tests him on how he bows to customers.
QUOTE
Guido: (learning how to be a waiter) How far do I bow? I suppose I can even go 180 degrees.

Eliseo: Think of a sunflower, they bow to the sun. But if you see some that are bowed too far down, it means they're dead. You're here serving, you're not a servant. Serving is the supreme art. God is the first of servants. God serves men, but he's not a servant to men.
It's really a definition of being meak, and yet having dignity.

2. Then think of the scene where Dora is weeding through the clothes of the massacred jews. In the midst of doing a horrifically degrading task, she hears her husband and son over the loud speaker saying "Buongiorno, Principessa!" Not only does this tell her that her family is still alive, it reminds her that, even now, she is a princess.

3. And finally, the famous "Translation scene" where the German soldier is giving instructions manifests this ide perfecty. Despite the messages of the soldier, "You are a number, you are a slave, you are subhuman" Guido refuses that perception of himself or his son and translates it into the language of dignity. "You are at play, we work for you, you are, utlimately, winners."

So, at the end of the movie when Joshua tells his mother, "We won. We won." The film is not, as some critics have speculated, claiming that their victory is the result of shielding Joshua from the bad in the world, but rather, their victory is that they still possess their humanness amidst one of the universe's greatest efforts to destroy it. Guido used his playfulness and inventiveness to never let his son (or himself) lose sight of his own dignity. That dignity, for Guido, is manifested through the color of his humor and cleverness, but his insatiable joy is not, I believe, the crux of the film's theme. Edited by DanBuck

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What you're getting at with all this relates very closely to part 1 of Riceour's Time and Narrative (sorry if you knew that already... but how am I supposed to know?). Basically, that time can only become intelligible (that is, human time) insofar as it begins to become narrative. But we have already set off in this direction when we conceive of a 'moment', in which past and future are co-present through memory and expectation; in other words, all our experience of time is already inchoate narrative. Or something like that.

Anyway, I got a lot out of reading it recently, and should get round to parts 2 and 3 sometime. Part 1 includes an analysis of various recent-ish French theories of history, and a reading of Aristotle and Augustine.


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QUOTE (stu @ Dec 8 2008, 12:08 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
What you're getting at with all this relates very closely to part 1 of Riceour's Time and Narrative (sorry if you knew that already... but how am I supposed to know?).


Oh yeah, and even more specifically where Ricoeur and theology interface. The thread also touches on Halbwachs and this Kelber essay.

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DanBuck wrote:
: At first, I imagined the movie was about finding joy in the bleakest of circumstances. But I'm not there any more. This is a film about dignity. It's about the fact that nothing on this earth, holocaust included, can determine what or who you are.

FWIW, as per our thread on Life Is Beautiful, I currently favour Mike D'Angelo's view that the film is "a pointed, extremely disturbing parable about the human capacity for denial". In fact, because of how the film depicts the relationship between objective fact and the deceptive construction of narrative, a section of D'Angelo's review may be worth quoting in this thread:
Numerous criticisms of the film's second half have been voiced, all of them equally misguided: that it's disrespectful to the memory of those who died in the camps; that Benigni delivers a shamefully cheery, sanitized depiction of the Holocaust; that the conceit of the game is in poor taste. Even those without a particular ideological bone to pick often complain that the film is sentimental or maudlin or somehow inappropriately "feel-good." I can only shrug, dumbfounded. At no time did the second half of Life Is Beautiful make me feel anything even remotely approaching "good." Indeed, in certain respects I found Benigni's film more chilling than either Schindler's List or the lesser-known but even more authentic The Last Stage (the latter actually shot in Auschwitz just a year or two after the war ended, with numerous former inmates essentially playing themselves). Because Guido is constantly clowning around, and because he's being played by one of the world's foremost comic actors, an alarming number of people mistakenly assume that his antics are intended to be funny; I can't count the number of times that I've seen this film incorrectly labelled a "Holocaust comedy." In truth, I did laugh on occasion -- especially during a scene in which Guido "translates" a German guard's instructions, interpreting every remark and gesture as an explication of one of the game's rules -- but it was a hollow, choking kind of laughter, totally devoid of merriment. More often, I simply sat in my seat, aghast at the sight of a man stubbornly refusing to accept the nightmare in which he'd suddenly found himself.

For a while, I wondered whether I might have invented this subtext, especially since, to my consternation, nobody else seemed to have noticed it. Heck, maybe Benigni really had intended to make a heartwarming, life-affirming weepie, and had only inadvertently stumbled onto something more intriguing and powerful. In fact, it didn't much matter; I hail from the critical school o' thought that asserts that an artist's intentions are more or less irrelevant, and so my opinion of the film would remain unchanged even if Benigni were to drive to my Brooklyn apartment to explain in person that the subject of denial had never so much as momentarily flitted across his mind. A second viewing, however, made it abundantly clear that it had; in fact, the entire first half of the movie, which had seemed merely a pleasant diversion designed to engender sympathy for the characters, now took on such intense thematic significance that I found myself reacting to Guido's various machinations with horror rather than hilarity. In particular, a scene that I'd barely even noticed the first time around, in which a pal of Guido's quotes Schopenhauer on the subject of "the will to truth," suddenly became the movie's thematic keystone. Schopenhauer, of course, famously believed that human beings construct their own versions of "reality" in their heads; from the moment that he first hears about this theory, Guido begins to imagine that he can control events via sheer force of will, along with a goofy Catskills-magician hand gesture in which he slowly wiggles his fingers while moving both hands in gentle horizontal waves before his face. Significantly, this gesture turns up again late in the film's second half, at a moment when Giosue is threatened with discovery. In fact, okay, yes, perfect example: here we have a movie that is allegedly a story of sacrifice -- even the closing voiceover asserts this -- and yet Guido, given the opportunity to save his son by calling attention to himself, chooses not to do so. Instead, he puts his hands out and goes wiggle wiggle wiggle. When this strategy "works," are we to assume that Guido in fact has some kind of supernatural ability to influence others? Or are we instead to assume, as I do, that little Giosue is one lucky sonofabitch, and that his continued existence on the planet is no thanks to dear deluded Dad?

Some may find this interpretation untenable, because the movie never explicitly condemns Guido's actions -- he's treated like a hero from beginning to end. I'm not at all certain, however, that condemnation is what Benigni has in mind. Rather, what he seems to be getting at is the notion of the Holocaust as an event so fundamentally ridiculous that it only makes sense as a nonsense game -- one like Bill Watterson's "Calvinball," say, in which the rules are constantly changing at the whim of whoever's in power -- and so utterly horrific that it could only be endured by those who opted to pretend that it simply wasn't happening. This, to my way of thinking, is a far more potent and fascinating approach to the subject than the traditional, glumly reverential one; there's no question that Schindler's List is more effective as cinema (as a director, Benigni is at best functional), and ultimately I think it's the better film, but Life Is Beautiful has made me think about the Holocaust in a way that Spielberg's somber, respectful drama never did. Schindler's List, for instance, features a brief scene in which various inmates discuss the rumors of lethal showers and conclude that they must be false; while the exchange is effective, and I imagine historically accurate, I don't find it half as gripping as a similar moment in Life Is Beautiful: Giosue confronts Guido with rumors of people being cooked in ovens, and Guido scoffs at the very idea. "Hey, the fire's getting low," he imagines someone saying, by way of demonstrating to the boy how silly it all is. "Throw on that lawyer." At both of the screenings I attended, the audience laughed at this line. Here's my rhetorical question: is that, in fact, a joke?
There's a fair bit more, and it's all worth reading. Though I see that both DanBuck and SDG objected to D'Angelo's review in that thread. smile.gif

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QUOTE (Peter T Chattaway @ Dec 8 2008, 12:33 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Some may find this interpretation untenable, because the movie never explicitly condemns Guido's actions -- he's treated like a hero from beginning to end. I'm not at all certain, however, that condemnation is what Benigni has in mind. Rather, what he seems to be getting at is the notion of the Holocaust as an event so fundamentally ridiculous that it only makes sense as a nonsense game -- one like Bill Watterson's "Calvinball," say, in which the rules are constantly changing at the whim of whoever's in power --


There is merit to this, especially when considering the fact that the Nazi's also leaned heavily on Schopenhauer in justifying their need for "living-space." I would rather just ditch both uses of Schopenhauer as incoherent approaches to reality.

QUOTE
and so utterly horrific that it could only be endured by those who opted to pretend that it simply wasn't happening.


But this plea to forget comes close to what Johnston so awfully does in the essay quoted in the LIB thread: "For me, ...LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL provided such an experience of human transcendence... But such a response misses both the genre and the intention of the movie. For this film is not about Italy in 1939 or Germany in 1945. It is, instead, a celebration of a father's love, even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy and pain." This manages to misread both LIB and the Holocaust in one fell swoop. Edited by MLeary

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QUOTE
Rather, what he seems to be getting at is the notion of the Holocaust as an event so fundamentally ridiculous that it only makes sense as a nonsense game -- one like Bill Watterson's "Calvinball," say, in which the rules are constantly changing at the whim of whoever's in power -- and so utterly horrific that it could only be endured by those who opted to pretend that it simply wasn't happening.

In other words, Guido is essentially a Dadaist -- he owes more to Schwitters than to Schopenhauer.

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QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 8 2008, 09:50 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Yes, there is more than the Holocaust to be concerned about. The odd thing about Holocaust Studies is that the discipline has a lot of very interesting things to say, but it prizes the Holocaust as an sui generis historical event. And while there are many good reasons for treating the Holocaust as something unique, I am all for finding ways to talk about other trauma as well. When something that looks or feels like a work of art becomes "another way of forgetting," then perhaps it ceases to become art as defined by art's connectedness to Incarnation. It is propaganda, disinformation, indoctrination, something that should have a different name. Maybe our proclivity to create and communicate is in constant competition with our proclivity to tell ourselves therapeutic lies about history and reality - art is the first casualty in this combat. When a particular work of art is just "another way of forgetting," it is the critic's job to enable us to remember properly again. Otherwise, our "remembering" faculties are constantly dulled by Hollywood.

I tend to resist attempts to define "art" in such a way as to render it inherently valid or truthful while excluding the non-valid or non-truthful as non-art. I want to say that art per se can be good or bad, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest.

QUOTE (MLeary @ Dec 8 2008, 09:50 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Yeah, I guess there is art that is incoherent because an artist doesn't want to tie the loose ends together, and some that is that way just because it is poorly done.

Well put. Or sometimes tying loose ends is neither here nor there because the artist was engaged in something else, and sometimes it's simply because the artist was sloppy.

But how would we classify the narrative flimsiness of the Narnia stories? Certainly various plot holes didn't occur to Lewis while he was writing, and he seems to have been disconcerted when they were pointed out to him. In that sense, they're sloppy. OTOH, many readers find the spell of what Lewis did do is capable of carrying them through the story without immediately noticing or being distracted by the problems.

And really, when you go on, the sheer artifice of what Lewis is doing becomes its own justification. When Lewis in Dawn Treader gave the merfolk of the Eastern seas parks and forests with roads going through them, and had them go on hawking-parties with fierce predator-fish on their wrists that they launched up at high (or shallow) swimming fish, he was clearly deliberately applying two-dimensional, dry-land principles to his submarine world. There is no clear reason why real merfolk would have roads when they could simply swim over submarine forests; and human hawking (as distinct from fox-hunting with dogs) is predicated on the fact that hawks can fly and humans can't.

I'm sure Lewis was aware of these issues, but his desire to model the mer-world on the human world overrode the demands of logical consistency. Likewise, even if it hadn't occurred to Lewis that there could be no sardines and tobacco in a hundred year winter (not to mention Mr. Beaver's pond would long since be dead of fish -- and why is he building a dam when all the water is frozen, etc.), the benefits of having Lewis's world resemble and incorporate necessary elements from our world carries the story past the problems.

But this is pretty far afield from my driving concerns in this thread.

QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 10:19 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Can you walk me through this? Life is Beautiful seems particularly abhorrent because it uses Holocaust material to create a narrative world in which we the audience experience Begnini's charm as a universalizing response to traumatic experience. We can get past trauma if we just learn how to play the kind of mind games that turn the Holocaust into a relief for the joy that can be enacted in life.

That's a valid take on the film, but I tend to see it differently. Guido doesn't "get past trauma," let alone "turn the Holocaust into a relief." Consider his back-breaking labor in the Nazi factory; his heartbreaking separation from Dora; the wordless horror with which he backs into the foggy night away from the mountain of bodies he has almost walked into with his son in his arms; the sickening moment when herealizes that the Nazi physician, whom he believed was trying to help him, has nothing more on his mind than his obsession with riddles; and of course his climactic shooting.

No, it's not a realistic depiction of a Nazi labor camp. Yes, it softens the reality. (Any film, even the most unsparing documentary footage, softens the reality, simply by virtue of the fact that I'm watching it from my comfortable vantage point.) But I think that within its own idiom Life is Beautiful acknowledges the horror of war, Nazism and the Holocaust while affirming that life is always a gift, even in the most appalling circumstances. No, we don't actually get "the most appalling circumstances." It's not that ambitious a film.

However, if the character of Guido were based on a real person, then I think I would be likely to feel that the real Guido's story is more worth telling than the fictional Guido's story.

I'm not saying fictionalization can never make a story better. I just find that in practice I usually feel that the opposite has happened.

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QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 10 2008, 06:34 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I tend to resist attempts to define "art" in such a way as to render it inherently valid or truthful while excluding the non-valid or non-truthful as non-art. I want to say that art per se can be good or bad, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest.


I do too. I want to preserve the democratic nature of gallery space. But at the same time, I want a better critical vocabulary that is inspired by the Advent, one that is able to deny artwork cultural currency if it has obviously commercial or dishonest intentions. Every work of art is subject to evaluation based on how it relates to the incarnation's validation of creativity and human-ness - what sort of critical vocabulary does this inspire? If I sound like I am making value judgements of "good" or "bad" art it is because I am groping for a better way to speak.

QUOTE (SDG @ Dec 7 2008, 10:19 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Guido doesn't "get past trauma," let alone "turn the Holocaust into a relief." Consider his back-breaking labor in the Nazi factory; his heartbreaking separation from Dora; the wordless horror with which he backs into the foggy night away from the mountain of bodies he has almost walked into with his son in his arms


Yeah, that is a pretty key scene in the film. Throughout the course of recent threads, the hardline I used to take on Holocaust Cinema has softened, and scenes like this have a lot to do with that shift in my thinking. I distinctly recall my wife's response to Life is Beautiful, and how those particular scenes opened up the floodgates of a previously stoic form of Holocaust remembrance (she lost wide swaths of her genealogy in various camps). This is in distinction to films like Schindler's List, that by virtue of narration and artifice permit us a distance the scene in Life doesn't. It really is a horrific film, and Guido's charm channels our response to the Holocaust into appropriate forms. It enables the scene you mention to be a legitimate form of historical memory.

OTOH, the kind of reader-response foisted by Johnston onto the film is ridiculous, and fails to comprehend what is at stake in Holocaust cinema. I still want to retain the critical ability to de-legitimize similarly flawed responses to Holocaust films.

QUOTE
I'm not saying fictionalization can never make a story better. I just find that in practice I usually feel that the opposite has happened.


Does the idea that actual historical narratives are more worth telling downplay the effectivness of human imagination?

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