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Is Art Bunk?

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Guest stu

Just read through this thread again, and realised that these questions are quite close to some stuff I've been thinking about lately. This is a kind of meandering response to SDG and Mleary's comments:

One of the big issues in talking about the Holocaust, it seems to me, is that we don't know what significance to give it, but we know it issignificant. On the one hand, to say - as some people seem to want to - that it reveals some kind of abyssal evil means treating it as a horribly fascinating spectacle. On the other hand, to try to incorporate it into some kind of ongoing narrative, as a regrettable part of a story that nevertheless makes sense, seems to refuse to actually look at what happened. It's like a catch 22 - you can't say nothing about it, but you can't say anything about it. To say something coherent about tends in one of two directions: either to a revelatory moment - wherein we glimpse the malevolence that humans can exhibit, or the affliction that they can be reduced to; or to underplay the sheer senselessness of it by saying something insufficient serious. Either to look for too long, in the wrong way, or not to look at all.

So, in terms of whether closer attention to the facts is more or less likely produce a good story, I think there are times when the answer is "less likely". Because the truth is that a life that ends with death in a concentration camp is not really a story. You can only make a good story from the perspective of the survivors, not from the perspective of the dead victims. But then, in a sense, perhaps this shows something about stories in general - the end of a "good story" is not like the end of a life. The end of life is death; the end of a good story is... well, I don't know, actually. Something like a final piece of a jigsaw, a completion, but also something like a beginning, something like a gesture, a hint.

Anyway, I suppose what I'm saying is that, like MLeary says, resurrection is linked to the possibility of life becoming a story, which means death being overcome. But as death is not overcome, or at least, if it is overcome, this is not yet obvious, I think that there are times when attention to the facts will draw one's attention to the not-yet, to the fact that life is, in all honesty, not much like a story at all.

I suppose in a certain way, this relates to the question of how fussy one is about narrative inconsistencies, and generally how high or low one's threshold for suspending disbelief is. There seems to be an ethical seriousness to objection to the liberties narrative takes with historical fact; if we are prepared to overlook certain inconvenient details in the past, who knows what we will be prepared to overlook in the present, whilst in search of a good story.

I'm studying Simone Weil at the moment, and she has this amazing emphasis on attention to reality. As she sees it, imagination is our enemy; that which we imagine is far too malleable, we can do what we want with it, make it serve any purpose, make it fill up any void, use it to console, or compensate ourselves, or to escape. This is why the idea of "loving God" is utterly meaningless unless it's related to love of neighbour, because "God" can be anything we want. Loving God is too easy, not too difficult.

As I see it, this relates to something really important about an incarnational world view. If it is this world, in all its mundaneity, that becomes the home of God, this means that real, honest attention to the world as it is can only ever be conducive to perceiving and appreciating the redemption story that Christians keep going on about, even at times it seems to render this story unlikely. And I think that this also means that attention to detail is vital. So, I don't know whether this turns us all into bores, obsessing over endless details - I hope not.

I think that my responses to insufficiencies in detail are varied, but perhaps one criteria is of whether you get the impression someone overlooked something because they didn't care enough. This is why I hate most action films - they teach us not to care about evil henchmen, and therefore people in general. It sounds trivial, and slightly Austin Powers-esque, but I honestly think its true. The whole genre relies on a systematic looking away from reality, for the sake of narrative. Not only do we have to believe that Bourne/Bond/Willis can survive any number of blows and still look pretty damn good, we also have to believe that they can routinely knock people unconscious at key moments, without killing them. If we believed that everytime they knocked an anonymous adversary to the floor, they may have killed them (which would be more factually correct - hitting someone hard enough on the head to knock them unconscious carries the risk of killing them), we would struggle to focus on the ongoing story, because death is normally quite significant, it attracts attention. And so for the sake of narrative, we forget this, and very vaguely believe that they have some kind of special ability to administer just the right amount of force, to prevent them becoming multiple murders. This seems like a petty detail at first, but the more I've thought about it, the worse it seems. Every time an action film presupposes something patently false about what the human body can put up with, it affirms a basic lack of care for the body.

Perhaps, then, this is a kind of incarnational rule: if, in order to create a good story, you have to look away from the details, or deliberately not look hard enough, it's not a good story.

Edited by stu

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I think that there are times when attention to the facts will draw one's attention to the not-yet, to the fact that life is, in all honesty, not much like a story at all.

As I see it, this relates to something really important about an incarnational world view. If it is this world, in all its mundaneity, that becomes the home of God, this means that real, honest attention to the world as it is can only ever be conducive to perceiving and appreciating the redemption story that Christians keep going on about...

These are wonderful, provocative applications of some of the thoughts in this thread. Thanks a lot for teasing them out. There is so much food for film-critical thought here.

In relation to this thread, there have been some interesting things floating around blogdom this week about theological theses on art: First Ben Meyer, then this guy, and I snuck one in. Some interesting points of view expressed in this spread of posts and comments.

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Guest stu

Oh, cheers.

The best posts always come when there is a deadline looming, and that one is no exception, sadly.

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See now, this right here is exactly what I'm talking about: HT to Peter for pointing out the Elizabeth Drew article ripping Frost/Nixon for reversing Nixon's answer to a climactic question in order to get the climax of its showdown.

Drew says that Nixon's "semi-admissions" come across as "bathetic" on the real tapes, but "dramatic" on film. It would seem, then, that imagination has enhanced the dramatic art of the narrative.

Why, then, do I feel that such a crucial change actually ruins the story?

At best, I guess, we might say that it shows us what history as it "should have been." There is an "ecstatic truth," or something; the film offers us the guilty verdict that Nixon escaped not only after he was pardoned but after Frost failed to nail him to the wall as he should have.

But I feel as if I'm being told a comforting lie. Peter Morgan and Ron Howard show me David nailing Goliath, when actually, it would seem, Goliath gave as good as he got, and maybe then some. I don't like that story, but if that's what happened, then I want to try to find meaning in that rather than falsifying the record.

And yet I feel differently about the premise of After the Truth, a provocative German "What if?" picture that imagines Josef Mengele resurfacing alive and getting the trial he never got in life. What's the difference? Perhaps it lies in this: In After the Truth, the departure from history is a flagrant fact about the premise of the film, whereas in Frost/Nixon the premise at least purports to be factual.

Anyone watching After the Truth who knows the first thing about Mengele will understand that this is a "What if?" story, whereas viewers watching Frost/Nixon will get the impression that Frost actually nailed Nixon. Even if they make allowances for fictionalization, this being the climax of the film, one would reasonably suppose that this essential point reflects the truth. And even if one is savvy enough to know that it doesn't, then I think one will reasonably feel dissatisfied with the effect of the work, as Drew does.

So, getting back to Mike's question about whether my suspicion of dramatic historical revisionism and my preference for facticity downplays the effectiveness of imagination -- I think not. But I think the proper scope for imagination is both more and less than how it is often applied in "Based on a true story" type dramas.

Frost/Nixon seems to me to fall between two stools, or perhaps it is mired between two riverbanks. On one side is pure documentary, and, a little ways into the water, the facticity of such close-as-possible recreations as United 93 or Downfall, where imagination is used to fill in the gaps of what we don't know. A little further in, there is historical drama like The Assassination of Jesse James or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but here I may begin to feel uneasy with certain liberties taken.

Yet keep on going through the muddy waters of historical fiction toward the other side of flagrantly fictionalizing films like After the Truth or The Ninth Day, and I find my footing again; and certainly I have no trouble with fictional dramas like After the Wedding or The Son, or fantasies like Crouching Tiger or Spirited Away.

Somewhere in the middle, though, I get uneasy. I would put Citizen Kane safely on the side of honorable fiction, despite connections to Hearst and Hughes, and A Man for All Seasons, despite certain liberties and issues, essentially on the side of honorable facticity, since the essential facts are accurately portrayed. But that's precisely what Frost/Nixon DOESN'T do. I also get tripped up with the messiness of a Herzog "documentary" with staged scenes and line readings, etc.

Edited by SDG

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Oops, "revering" rather than "reversing" entirely changes the point I was trying to make, doesn't it? Fixed.

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Why, then, do I feel that such a crucial change actually ruins the story?

At best, I guess, we might say that it shows us what history as it "should have been." There is an "ecstatic truth," or something; the film offers us the guilty verdict that Nixon escaped not only after he was pardoned but after Frost failed to nail him to the wall as he should have.

But I feel as if I'm being told a comforting lie. Peter Morgan and Ron Howard show me David nailing Goliath, when actually, it would seem, Goliath gave as good as he got, and maybe then some. I don't like that story, but if that's what happened, then I want to try to find meaning in that rather than falsifying the record.

You're being told worse than "a comforting lie," you're being told a self-indulgent, self-flattering lie on the part of the filmmakers and their presumed audience. Since all we good-and-enlightened men and women know that Nixon is a wicked villain, then the play-film is not only pushed away from truth but pushed in the *easy* direction, which will almost always cause at-least-me to emotionally rebel. I would have loved to have seen a film in which Nixon broke Frost down and converted him into a Watergate-not-so-bad revisionist -- not for ideological reasons exactly but from perversity born of distaste for historical revisionism always pushing in the "sugarcoat" direction. But such a FROST/NIXON would never be made in the current entertainment-world of course (another reason not to give this text any slack; I've read the play, not seen the film).

I had a similar reaction to the depiction of Prop 6 in MILK, particularly since so many reviews mentioned Prop 8 to put gays in concentration camps (that is what it did, right?). But having so much of the movie given over to a fight against a similarly-named initiative made the film seem like "here's how it shoulda been" revisionism, despite the indubitable fact that Prop 6 did fail. In fact, the proximity of Prop 8 and all the moralistic cluck-clucking in the MILK reviews made the film remind me of, of all movies, RAMBO, in which the hero refights the Vietnam War ("this time, do we get to win"), only this time with a happy ending (by the lights of the film's presumed audience).

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SDG, I am curious to see how/whether Valkyrie will fit into your thesis here. Embargoes presumably prevent me from offering any opinion, per se, on the film just yet, but I will say that there are a number of moments in the film which, in the theatre, I thought might have been added to "juice up" the story and provide some cinematic tension, but which I later found out (via Wikipedia) were actually true to the historical record. (I assume, for the moment, that the film's publicists haven't hijacked the Wikipedia page on the July 20 plot.)

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