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Subjectivity and Objectivity in Art


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#1 Tony Watkins

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Posted 15 September 2006 - 06:11 AM

I imagine this may have been discussed here at some point (there's a limit to how many old threads I want to look through), but I have just been reflecting on the experience of enjoying a film and thinking about how many levels there are on which that happens. Here's a few:
  • Story
  • Visually, in terms of the cinematography: colour, balance, space, focus, movement, etc.
  • Other aspects of mise en scene: production design, set layout, etc.
  • Performances
  • Depth of characterization
  • Effects
  • Emotional impact
  • Score
  • Dialogue
  • Sound effects
  • Editing
All of these are important, and a failure on any one of them can significantly impair our enjoyment. But I wonder about their relative importance. Intuitively I feel that of all these, the single most important is the normally the story (assuming the film is not non-narrative experimental work like Nathaniel Dorsky's) because story-telling seems to be a basic fact of human nature. I recognise that story takes a back seat in some kinds of film - musicals, for example, may not use the story as anything more than a hook for the songs - but are even these ruined if the story is a complete failure? Can the other factors adequately compensate for a rubbish narrative?

Or am I drawing a general conclusion about film viewers from my own specific concerns and values?

#2 johnmark

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Posted 17 September 2006 - 06:54 PM

It was here that I meant to say that story is everything. Nothing else matters as much. People make far too much of image and spectacle.

For example, theater is a much more potent and profound art form than film is. Without story, theater is just a parade. (Film without story is just a parade of things, too.)

Why is theater greater than film? Human scale, live performance, and interaction that is much more demanding and thus more rewarding. Photography is not as great as painting, and live music is more thrilling than recorded sound. These are truisms which upset many, but are true nonetheless.

The problem is that I've seen far more very good movies, photos, and recorded music than I've experienced great theater, great paintings, and live music.

We are made as creatures to make sense of things. Story is what does that. We can't help making a story out of everything that is. When you meet God and discover he is all Love. That makes a story - that Love explains everything. When you meet God, and respond, Daddy! -- that is a story about truth, relationship and happiness. When you meet Jesus, and are forgiven all your evil - that is a story about a man who is God who has infinite mercy.

If you know that about story, then why in the world would anyone ever want to do anything other than tell stories above everything else?

#3 Tony Watkins

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 04:14 AM

QUOTE(johnmark @ Sep 18 2006, 12:54 AM) View Post

Why is theater greater than film? Human scale, live performance, and interaction that is much more demanding and thus more rewarding. Photography is not as great as painting, and live music is more thrilling than recorded sound. These are truisms which upset many, but are true nonetheless.


I do agree that story is primary, as I indicated in my original post. But is it actually legitimate to claim that these comments are true in some absolute sense? These things are all art forms, and aren't art and the aesthetic experience fundamentally, inescapably personal and subjective - at least at some levels?

I love theatre, but in what sense is theatre essentially greater than film? I also find live performance (whether theatre or music) to be a more intense experience than listening at home - there's an immediacy about it, and I think that the corporate nature of being in an audience is important too (being in a cinema is also more intense than watching a DVD for the same reason). Perhaps there's something about the imperfection of it that we respond to. But does that make it objectively greater? Film offers an opportunity for repeated viewing, slow viewing , selected viewing, viewing in a variety of contexts including alone - that can lead to a profound engagement with the film that I never achieve in theatre because the performance is, by its very nature, transient.

Is 'human scale' necessarily a good thing? When I'm in the theatre, the human-scaled performance can deal well with some aspects of life. But it can't convey the beauty of the natural world in the way that film can, or the variety of environments, or the bustle of a major city, or the spectacle of a battle or all kinds of other things. Viewers are also at a distance from the actors in most theatres, which means that stage acting is a different kind of performance from screen acting. The ability to study a close up of a face showing extraordinary subtlety of emotion isn't possible on stage. Think of Bergmar's use of faces - you simply couldn't do it on stage.

Since long before the development of photography (which, incidentally, I find more satisfying than paintings) and of film, there has been a tendency to divide art into high and low, sophisticated and vulgar. These two media were very much seen in a second class category when they first appeared, and there is still a dismissiveness towards them which often seems to me like elitism. I am not at all convinced it can be justified. It's not a question of one medium being inherently better or worse than another - they are just different - but what the artist does with it that matters.

#4 johnmark

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 04:28 PM

I contend that the subjective experience of art in different forms becomes objective at some point. Enough time, and people with the most discerning souls have judged the matter; just as the books of the Bible entered the canon because they were the best, the most enduring, true, and powerful. (Although if you want to take out Tobit, I won't mind.)

How many people, when exposed to Shakespeare jump up and down in ecstasy? Very few, and so by rights, Shakespeare stinks. The same with Sophocles. But we know that isn't true.

I've had great film experiences, but presence always adds more. The stage does cause some separation, but more, it divides the active from the passive. One of the greatest things about the Catholic Mass, and why it endures so forcefully, is that there is no division between the active and the passive since the "audience" is part of the play, so to speak, along with the priest.

The Mass is so beloved that people who don't even like what the Church teaches or believes go every week to participate.

What humans love more than anything else is the Real. We get various degrees of it here and there, but none are as impressive as the presence of the Real unmediated by artifice, but either through or with another human or by apprehending grace or God directly.

In judging art and its forms, we can only judge as a kind of descent from the mountain top in gradations. There was perfection, and now here it is a little so, and there a little more less so.

Some things are lesser, but perfect for what they are. A good joke, for example. Things can be perfect in themselves according to the boundaries or their frames. Movies can be perfect as they are, but they don't ever achieve the transcendence that the unmediated Real does.

My argument with film (or art) is when a movie fails to be perfect on the terms of genre, execution, etc. If the story doesn't work, or is evil in that it subverts truth by lie and seduction, then it doesn't matter how fine any other aspect of it is.

I heard many critics praise Brokeback Mountain as being fine storytelling with interesting characters and so forth. But if my natural sympathies and human compassion are used against me to deceptively persuade me to see homosexuality in a whole new light that wants to lead me to approval and acceptance of a hidden agenda, I'm sorry. An engaging lie, a tissue of half truths craftily made to undermine natural law and visceral knowledge is simply going to be savaged by me.



#5 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 06:09 PM

johnmark wrote:
: It was here that I meant to say that story is everything. Nothing else matters as much. People
: make far too much of image and spectacle.

On the contrary, image (including, but not limited to, spectacle) is what film is all ABOUT.

: For example, theater is a much more potent and profound art form than film is. Without story,
: theater is just a parade. (Film without story is just a parade of things, too.)

I repeat what I said in the other thread, then:
Koyaanisqatsi is my #4 film of all time -- does IT have a "story"? ("Dramaturgical development", yes, as the director calls it. Films exist in time, just as songs do, so it is important that certain images come after certain images and before other images, etc.; these things communicate some sort of meaning. But, given that the film has no plot or actors or dialogue, would "dramaturgical development" be the same thing as "story"? Do people go around insisting that "Story is all that matters" when it comes to MUSIC?)
Going to the theatre could never, ever, ever produce an experience like seeing Koyaanisqatsi -- and I say this as one who has seen Koyaanisqatsi with live musical accompaniment by Philip Glass's ensemble. The film ITSELF is simply unreplaceable. If you took a still image from each shot and hung them all in a gallery in sequential order, you would not be replicating the experience of watching that film. And if you replaced all those still images with paintings, you would drain them of even MORE of the qualities that give that film its very unique -- and uniquely cinematic -- power.

: Why is theater greater than film? Human scale, live performance, and interaction that is much more
: demanding and thus more rewarding. Photography is not as great as painting, and live music is
: more thrilling than recorded sound. These are truisms which upset many, but are true nonetheless.

No, this is not true. Painting is better FOR SOME THINGS than photography, but photography is also better FOR SOME THINGS than painting. You cannot generalize and say that any one artform is better, period.

: I've had great film experiences, but presence always adds more. The stage does cause some
: separation, but more, it divides the active from the passive. One of the greatest things about the
: Catholic Mass, and why it endures so forcefully, is that there is no division between the active
: and the passive since the "audience" is part of the play, so to speak, along with the priest.

Hmmm, maybe theatre would be even MORE of an "active" experience if the audience had to STAND throughout the play. wink.gif

#6 mrmando

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 06:39 PM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Sep 18 2006, 07:09 PM) View Post

Hmmm, maybe theatre would be even MORE of an "active" experience if the audience had to STAND throughout the play. wink.gif

Which, in Shakespeare's day, was true for much of the audience! I seem to recall being in the SRO section for at least one play, although for the life of me I can't remember which play it was.

Even if we could infer some sort of theological reason to prefer one art form over another (which seems to be what johnmark is driving at), that would hardly make such a reason "objective." Theology isn't an exact science either.

Edited by mrmando, 18 September 2006 - 06:40 PM.


#7 David Smedberg

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 10:51 AM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Sep 18 2006, 07:09 PM) View Post

johnmark wrote:
: It was here that I meant to say that story is everything. Nothing else matters as much. People
: make far too much of image and spectacle.

On the contrary, image (including, but not limited to, spectacle) is what film is all ABOUT.

In addition, in any movie which includes sound, that sound is also what the movie is about. Images are only half of the matter.

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Sep 18 2006, 06:43 PM) View Post

David Smedberg wrote:
: johnmark wrote:

: : Story is all that matters. And the story must be of good morality.
:
: What is a story? smile.gif

To this I would add, why does it matter so much? Koyaanisqatsi is my #4 film of all time -- does IT have a "story"? ("Dramaturgical development", yes, as the director calls it. Films exist in time, just as songs do, so it is important that certain images come after certain images and before other images, etc.; these things communicate some sort of meaning. But, given that the film has no plot or actors or dialogue, would "dramaturgical development" be the same thing as "story"? Do people go around insisting that "Story is all that matters" when it comes to MUSIC?)

See, I'm pretty sure that in any movie which sets out to have a story, that story must provide the governing principle. That's because of my (relatively broad) definition of a story, which holds that any work which represents a person, i.e. a being capable of choice, is a story. Thus, a portrait would probably be the simplest form of story. It represents, through the image of his or her face, the series of choices which brought the person represented to the point they were at at the moment their visage was "frozen" into an image.

For me, this creates a contrast between an ordinary painting, in which there is only one artist, and a portrait, which is a collaboration between the painter and the subject. In, say, a landscape, the artist has only himself or herself to answer to, whereas in a painting with story, the artist has a responsibility to characterize the person(s) represented fairly and in accordance with truth. The same goes for a movie, a book, or any other artform - should an artist attempt to tell another's story, that story has got to come first, in my opinion.

As for any artwork which does not have story, I'm pretty sure that we're in agreement that it shouldn't be judged as if it did. smile.gif

Having not seen Koyaanisqatsi, I'll have to hold out on commenting on whether that movie has story, but I will say that this plays into my previous idea: without its music, I'm quite sure that Koyaanisqatsi would be a fundamentally different piece of art. It is the joining of sound and image that characterizes most modern movies' art.

#8 Tony Watkins

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 01:50 PM

QUOTE(David Smedberg @ Sep 19 2006, 04:51 PM) View Post

In addition, in any movie which includes sound, that sound is also what the movie is about. Images are only half of the matter. . . .

Having not seen Koyaanisqatsi, I'll have to hold out on commenting on whether that movie has story, but I will say that this plays into my previous idea: without its music, I'm quite sure that Koyaanisqatsi would be a fundamentally different piece of art. It is the joining of sound and image that characterizes most modern movies' art.

I agree up to a point. Sound is not an essential part of what constitues film as a medium since silent films are equally part off the category of 'film'. I would also argue that even a film intended to have sound is still clearly film when the soundtrack is missing, whereas the soundtrack without the images is something altogether different. But you qualify your comments wisely to limit them to 'any movie which includes sound', in which case, although you clearly can watch it with the sound off, you diminish the experience and certainly don't engage with the bisensory experience which the filmmaker intended.

I still feel instinctively that, as you say, story provides some governing principle (when there is one). I feel more and more than we can't be reductionist about it. We can't say, clearly, that films are 'nothing but sound', and we cannot say that films are 'nothing but image' (except at a purely physical, technical level since that is precisely what films are; it's not a very useful thing to say at an aesthetic level) but neither can we say 'films are nothing but stories'. Of course there are many exceptions - Koyaanisqatsi etc - but my guess is that the level we usually value ahead of others, even slightly, is the narrative.

Most films do have some story (though I wouldn't define it as widely as you do). I haven't yet seen Koyaanisqatsi either, but given that the word apparently means 'life out of balance' (I'm rashly believing Dan Brown on this point, though most things he says about most things seem to be not quite right or jnust plain wrong!), I suspect there is something that could be loosely defined as story. I imagine that it has images which reflect the beauty of the world, as well as the mess humans have made of it. If this is so, at the least it acts as a signifier to the story of human recklessness towards our environment. Show it in a Christian context and it also acts as a signifier to the story of God creating a good world. If my guesses about the film are wide of the mark, I will go and hide in a cupboard until I've seen it.

#9 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:16 PM

Tony, you make good guesses. smile.gif

And if memory serves, Dan Brown spells "koyaanisqatsi" differently from how the film does. But anyhoo. The thread for that film is here, if you're interested.

#10 Tony Watkins

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:21 PM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Sep 20 2006, 12:16 AM) View Post

And if memory serves, Dan Brown spells "koyaanisqatsi" differently from how the film does.

He does indeed: 'koyanisquatsi'. Ha! But given the difficulties in transliterating words like this from one language to another, I'll let him have that one rather than adding it to my list of blunders, howlers, non sequiturs, complete inventions and faux pas!


#11 johnmark

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:39 PM

Mr. Chattawayís notion that Koyanaaisqatsi is not a story is absurd. As I said previously, ďWe are made as creatures to make sense of things. Story is what does that. We can't help making a story out of everything that is.Ē

As William Blake said about every work of art being of necessity a unity, he also meant every failed work of art, because the act of making art draws from an innate sense of unity whether we do that well or poorly. Blake, of course, insisted that he did it better than others.

The very fact that Mr. Chattaway brings Music into the discussion is a red herring. But as a composer and musician, it is a subject I can discuss with some detail. A song is indeed all story. We call it the lyrics. Instrumental program music is all story since it is created and intended to convey in a musical sense, a story. Thus, nearly all movie music is story since it subordinates itself to convey a direct message or it comments on what is on the screen.

Pure instrumental music such as Bachís Art of the Fugue has an intellectual argument to make about music itself.

When music exists to serve a purpose, say a lullaby to put a baby to sleep - that is story.

All music is created to do something. The very crafting of a melody, the way it repeats, turns, rises, falls, and concludes -- the necessity for a beginning, middle, and end -- the linear nature of it mimics the way we tell a story.

Just as the mind/soul demands we make sense out of all we experience, put it in a larger context or gestalt, just so music has to make sense. And what is sense but a story we create or experience?

Look, film is simply another form of theater done with photography and projection rather than with real people and the artificial assistance of stage craft. Film is a completely different art form than Music, but it is not greatly different than theater.

As you like Koyaanisqatsi, fine, but thatís simply admitting that spectacle works. I can come upon a surprisingly breathtaking vista with ease and might convince myself that there is no story to it except that would be a lie. I always supply a context such as, ďMy God!Ē Or ďHow beautiful.Ē Any use of language (and you cannot avoid it) creates context and that context comes from a story about my understanding of reality.

I donít believe for a minute that going to the theater could never produce for you an experience like that of the movie you cite. How does one predict such an event not ever happening? In fact, going to the theater can produce an experience greater than the movie. Not different, but greater.

(BTW, I donít quite understand the remark about standing at the Catholic Mass. Catholics sit, kneel, stand at the Mass at various times, but mostly we sit.)

I can generalize and say one art form is better simply because I can say it is more effective and carries a greater charge or resonant value. You cannot point to a single work of art outside the Bible, for instance, more powerful, effective or charged than the King Jamesí Bible Psalm 23. Or The Lordís Prayer.

The psalm is not simply better at some spiritual thing than say a Cole Porter song is better at setting a nice romantic mood. It has more of the Real in it. That is why I distinguish between art forms. Some carry more of the Real than others do. Itís that simple.



#12 Overstreet

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:44 PM

There are many, many films I value for reasons other than their story.

Sometimes, a film's narrative isn't all that great, but the imagery is powerful enough on its own to have redeeming value.

In fact, some films with sloppy and even immoral storytelling have, against the director's best efforts, offered images and moments here and there that are worth encountering in spite of the trouble they're set within.

The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, isn't so hot as a narrative about Jesus, but there are moments and images regarding Christ in that film that speak powerfully to this viewer.

Mulholland Drive is less a narrative and more a work of surrealist art about the depravity of Hollywood narcissism; I don't recommend the film for general audiences, primarily because most viewers aren't equipped to process what Lynch is doing there; in fact, I try to steer a lot of people away from it. But, speaking from personal experience, I find its imagery and sound to fuse in profoundly affecting ways.

Looking at my all-time Top Ten, there are only a few where I'd say that the story was the primary reason I love them. Wings of Desire and Blue are much more compelling to me as visual poetry and meditations on the spirit than they are as narratives.

To say "Story is everything. Nothing else matters. People make far too much of image and spectacle." is like somebody talking about food and telling a gourmet chef that "Nourishment is everything. People make far too much of flavor and presentation."

I think God cares about excellence in visual appearance too. When he gave specifics for the tabernacle, he was careful to make precise specifications to ensure it would be beautiful, because what we see speaks to us.

Of course, as a storyteller, I would never seek to de-emphasize the importance of excellence in storytelling. Cinema is a powerful tool for storytelling, clearly, and most people go to the movies because they want to be told a good story. Many find non-narrative films alienating.

But many filmmakers seek to speak to us through what they show us with light and color as much as through story. And the more I learn to appreciate those endeavors, the more I'm drawn to richer, more rewarding films -- and the less patient I am with filmmakers who just film scripts without taking advantage of the communicative possibilities of such a large canvas.



Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet, 19 September 2006 - 07:09 PM.


#13 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 07:17 PM

Tony Watkins wrote:
: He does indeed: 'koyanisquatsi'. Ha! But given the difficulties in transliterating words like this
: from one language to another, I'll let him have that one rather than adding it to my list of
: blunders, howlers, non sequiturs, complete inventions and faux pas!

I'll gladly let him have it, too -- provided he was referring directly to the Hopi word and not referring to the film. Heck, if I, as a Canadian, can spell a title World Trade Center or The Color Purple even though the spellings in those words just look wrong, wrong, wrong to me, then Dan Brown should surely be able to spell Koyaanisqatsi the way that Godfrey Reggio did! smile.gif (Oh, but what to do, what to do, when an American film like Rumor Has It... is released in Canada with the title Rumour Has It...?)

johnmark wrote:
: Mr. Chattawayís notion that Koyanaaisqatsi is not a story is absurd.

I might have suggested something like that, but I did not actually say that; instead, I asked you a question. Heck, I even offered you a possible basis on which to apply the word "story" to that film (via my reference to "dramaturgical treatment" (or "development", as I apparently mistakenly wrote)).

What we need here is a clarification of terms. A lot of people, when they talk about "story", care about little more than "plot". And if anyone were to say a movie is all about "plot", they would be wrong.

: Look, film is simply another form of theater . . .

Wrong. Many films are made without professional actors, and a few without actors of any sort whatsoever.

: . . . done with photography . . .

Wrong. Many films are nothing more than a series of still drawings -- or, in recent years, recordings of digitally created images.

: I don't believe for a minute that going to the theater could never produce for you an experience
: like that of the movie you cite. How does one predict such an event not ever happening?

Well, you're the one saying that film doesn't (and presumably can never) do anything substantially different from theatre. Sounds like YOU are predicting an event that will never happen.

: In fact, going to the theater can produce an experience greater than the movie. Not different, but
: greater.

Um, how is being more or less great than another work of art somehow NOT a difference?

Fact is, no live theatrical event could possibly give me the experience of watching, say, nature unfold in time-lapse motion. Maybe theatrical experiences which do not give me this experience ARE greater, in some ways, than film experiences which do give me this experience -- but in other ways, they certainly aren't.

: (BTW, I donít quite understand the remark about standing at the Catholic Mass. Catholics sit,
: kneel, stand at the Mass at various times, but mostly we sit.)

Most Catholics do, yeah. But if the Eastern Rite Catholics are anything like the Orthodox, they would stand throughout the entire service.

: I can generalize and say one art form is better simply because I can say it is more effective and
: carries a greater charge or resonant value. You cannot point to a single work of art outside the
: Bible, for instance, more powerful, effective or charged than the King James' Bible Psalm 23. Or
: The Lord's Prayer.

Okay, now you're moving yourself outside of any sort of "dialogue" or "discussion" and into a realm of purely dogmatic assertions. Is there any sort of THEORY underlying your claims? If so, can you explicate it here?

: The psalm is not simply better at some spiritual thing than say a Cole Porter song is better at
: setting a nice romantic mood. It has more of the Real in it. That is why I distinguish between
: art forms. Some carry more of the Real than others do. It's that simple.

Well, as Crossan once said (on page 30 of this book), "But the term real comes from advertising, not scholarship -- Coke is the real thing -- and it is calculated to make debate impossible."

#14 Overstreet

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 07:29 PM

QUOTE
In fact, going to the theater can produce an experience greater than the movie. Not different, but greater.


I'd like to see theater produce an effect greater... or even similar... to Koyaanisqatsi. Or March of the Penguins. Or Baraka. Those are uniquely cinematic experiences. I can imagine theater productions that are just as memorable, but for different reasons and to different effects.

#15 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 07:47 PM

BTW, my apologies, Tony, for not responding to your original post, but only to the follow-ups. A few comments, if I may:

: Intuitively I feel that of all these, the single most important is the normally the story (assuming
: the film is not non-narrative experimental work like Nathaniel Dorsky's) because story-telling
: seems to be a basic fact of human nature.

I appreciate your qualification, "normally". smile.gif

I might replace the word "story" with "structure" (since the most important thing about a film is not just the images but how it arranges those images), and then tack on the adjective "narrative" (since the structure followed by most films is indeed a narrative one).

That said, there are different kinds of narratives, too. Does The Passion of the Christ tell a "story" or follow a "narrative"? Well, sure, in one sense; the images are not just grouped according to a set of abstract themes, as in Koyaanisqatsi, but they follow a consistent set of characters across a straightforward linear chronology from one point in time to a later point in time. But in another sense, that film has a rather non-narrative agenda. A number of people complained that the characters weren't fleshed out too deeply, or that the events were not given enough context; but on some level, the film was meant to be a cinematic interpretation of icons, paintings, and Catholic rituals -- and so the film itself worked much more on the level of image and the expression of a certain form of Catholic piety than it did on the level of "story".

One film that got a bit of love around here a few years ago was Punch-Drunk Love, and that film also doesn't have a particularly deep or complex "story" -- but a number of us defended it as a sort of cinematic piece of music, or poetry. The film creates an experience that resonates in a way that goes beyond mere "story".

And there are lots of other examples one could cite, too.

: I recognise that story takes a back seat in some kinds of film - musicals, for example, may not
: use the story as anything more than a hook for the songs - but are even these ruined if the story
: is a complete failure? Can the other factors adequately compensate for a rubbish narrative?

Again, there are different kinds of musicals; some weave music and narrative together very tightly, while others use the narrative as little more than connective tissue -- and I would argue that in almost any decent musical, the songs THEMSELVES help to move the narrative along (this is true even for a film like Singin' in the Rain, in which virtually all of the songs were written in the '20s or '30s and the guy who owned them wanted to revive them in the '50s by building a movie around them; the narrative -- which, incidentally, is great! -- is, in some sense, just connective tissue, but it plays to the strengths of the songs and gives at least some of them an opportunity to move the plot or the character development forward).

As for whether "rubbish narratives" can ruin things, a lot of it may depend on how the narrative is interpreted and performed by the actors, cinematographer, and director (and others).

Incidentally, this thread is beginning to remind me of the distinction C.S. Lewis made between "myth" and "poetry" -- to quote something that I posted to my blog last year:
What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all -- say by a mime, or a film. . . . In this respect stories of the mythical type are at the opposite pole from lyrical poetry. If you try to take the "theme" of Keats's Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth -- in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters -- this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, "done the trick." After that you can throw the means of communication away. . . . In poetry the words are the body, and the "theme" or "content" is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes -- they are not much more than a telephone.
Sometimes good myth can be detected even through bad poetry, if you know what I mean.

#16 johnmark

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 04:01 AM

Mr. Chattaway,

Since the Pope recently make an argument about the nature of God from John, ďIn the beginning was the LogosĒ he instructs that Logos isnít just Word, but Reason.

Working from the bottom up from your reply, you may quote Crossan as you please, of course, but talking about the Real doesnít make anything impossible. Thatís like saying statements about God make discussion impossible which is simply not so.

Iíll tell you a story.

On a trip along the west coast from California to Washington, I observed people interacting with the natural world. There were lots of kids and adults on ATVs at the dunes roaring around them for fun. I came to a high cliff where young men were flinging themselves off with hang gliders. At the beach, there were people in wetsuits surfing. At a campground next to the ocean were folks watching TV from their RVs.

People were propelling themselves across the ground, through the air, and in the water for what purpose? A desperate kind of attempt to grasp the Real, to capture something in a moment, an ecstasy in immersion with Nature, but it didnít work. Here and there some adrenaline thrills, and then an addictís need to try and repeat the endorphin fix.

People could not simply exist with the beauty around them, but sought a forced interaction, a kind of demand from Nature (God) for higher, more abundant being.

Now does my observation about that human compulsion to try and touch the Real end discussion?

I gave a perfectly good example of what I meant about a vast difference between Psalm 23 and, letís say, Cole Porterís Night and Day. How that is reduced to a dogmatic assertion puzzles me, since you really havenít engaged what I wrote.

Iíll give you another example (because I always use concrete examples with my generalizations rather than theoretical abstractions). Compare the situation of the extraordinary grace a man feels with the birth of his first child, the day of his marriage, or some other event that makes the soul fly into air and ether -- then compare that day, that grace with the direct experience of meeting the risen Jesus -- a terrible, glorious, divinely merciful, and miserable event.

The experiences are perceptions of reality, alike in many ways, but also very different. That is similar to my point in differences in quality or quantity (hard to say which) between different experiences of art forms.

Time lapse photography is a wonderful gimmick, a matter of spectacle. We canít be talking about gimmicks here in relation to the difference between a poem and film, per se. There is nothing that language lacks in conveying a truth or a wonder. The difference is medium, not effect. I mean, the wow factor is real in every art form. Uniqueness in a particular form is not what impresses. Invoking wonder is impressive and I will assert that certain forms or expressions do that better than other forms. Re: my reference to the 23 Psalm.

To try and clear away some of the brush here (and I apologize if I have seemed brusque and unkind), let me say that story is everything (not a fictional plot) because a human being is all story (Logos), the making of sense about reality in everything about life and being.

Art (and film) means to convey Logos and nothing else. The best means for conveyance is unmediated experience of truth. From there, we descend in order of Power to sacred literature, to poetry, to painting, music, to theater, prose, photography, film, TV and so on. Itís not like Iíve made it a system, but there is a gold standard regarding the sacred and art.

If I speak in absolutes, itís because there are absolutes. You may not, for example, tell me that there is any figure in literature who is greater than Shakespeare. Or in prose fiction greater than Tolstoy. If you have a different opinion, you canít be taken seriously. You are not intelligent. If that offends you, well, you have no wisdom.

The same thing holds true if you want to tell me the Koran is a greater sacred literature than the OT and NT together. You cannot read with the mind of real human being if that is what you would claim.

Mr. Overstreet,

Theater is easily able to produce effects greater than March of the Penguins et al because we are confusing what effect means if we see it as gimmicks unique to a certain medium. The effect of perception of reality, oneís sense of power, holiness, grace, truth, goodness, beauty is not bound to any particular medium, but they are increased in some mediums over others.

Does anyone here yet deny that the 23 Psalm or The Lordís Prayer -- works of art, of rhetoric, of poetry, of language, of musical sound, of pictorial painting -- are not more effective in their power, their charge than just about anything you can name?

#17 Tony Watkins

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 05:20 AM

Johnmark, I agree with a number of your points - up to a point. The problem for me comes because you keep absolutising things that cannot be absolutised. It is in principle impossible to make absolutes out of the aesthetic experience because they are culturally bound as well as being tied in with personality and experience.
QUOTE(johnmark @ Sep 20 2006, 10:01 AM) View Post

I gave a perfectly good example of what I meant about a vast difference between Psalm 23 and, let’s say, Cole Porter’s Night and Day.

Psalm 23 is a wonderful psalm. If I want to reflect on God's care for me, it is enormously potent (though less so than some other parts of Scripture for me). If instead I want to reflect on the nature of romantic love (which is a reflection of God's love for his people as made clear by the constant use of marriage as the primary biblical metaphor for communicating the relationship of exclusivity and intimacy which ought to exist between God and his people), then Psalm 23 doesn't even feature on the radar. The Song of Songs is more the territory then, but the idioms of SoS are such that more contemporary expressions of it will have a greater emotional impact on me - Notting Hill for example.

QUOTE
Time lapse photography is a wonderful gimmick, a matter of spectacle. We can’t be talking about gimmicks here in relation to the difference between a poem and film, per se.

You cannot simply dismiss a particular way of producing an art work as a 'gimmick'. Spectacle is part of art. The beauty of a time-lapse film of a rose budding and bursting into flower is breathtaking. Give me that rather than Van Gogh's Sunflowers or even of the Dutch still-life masters and day. I see more of the beauty of the rose in it because it takes me closer to the Real of the rose, which seems to be one of your primary criteria - and one of mine too in many contexts.

QUOTE
There is nothing that language lacks in conveying a truth or a wonder. The difference is medium, not effect. I mean, the wow factor is real in every art form.

But there is. Language cannot adequately convey the splendour of the Horsehead Nebula or the intricacy of the mirad of microscopic plankton, or the shimmer of light on a stag beetle's wing casing, or the peculiar quality of light that one experiences in the English Lake District, or the subtle shifts of hue in a sunset or countless other things. Language can describe them; language may be able to evoke memories of such things and thus create in us a similar emotional state - but it is not the same as the images of such things falling on my retina to be processed afresh by my brain. Language can describe the aching melancholy of Samuel Barber's or Albinoni's Adagios or the soaring beauty of The Pearl Fishers' Duet, or the joyful exuberance of Mendelssohn's Octet, or the stately grandeur of HAndel's Zadok the Priest. It can describe them, describe the feelings evoked by them, remind me of them, but it cannot even convey what it means to hear a chord or three notes filling the space in which I sit. Language simply cannot substitute for the real.

A film, however can get me much closer to the reality of all these examples by bringing the images to my eyes and the music to my ears. Yes, it's better in many ways to be at a live performance, but I will never be able to see with my own eyes the Horsehead Nebula or the magnificent emptiness of Antarctica or the courtship of blue whales.

QUOTE
Uniqueness in a particular form is not what impresses.

But you are arguing for the primacy of some forms over others. You have said that theatre is better than film because it is real, human-scaled, etc. Isn't that suggesting that it is the uniqueness of the form which impresses you?

QUOTE
Invoking wonder is impressive and I will assert that certain forms or expressions do that better than other forms.

Exactly. And as I have just set out, film is a far better medium for some things than any other form or expression.

QUOTE
The best means for conveyance is unmediated experience of truth. From there, we descend in order of Power to sacred literature, to poetry, to painting, music, to theater, prose, photography, film, TV and so on. It’s not like I’ve made it a system, but there is a gold standard regarding the sacred and art.

Yes, unmediated experience of truth is best, but as I've indicated, it's not always possible. But then your ordering of forms is precisely a system that suits you and your background, personality, cultural context. Of course Scripture is the most powerful of all since it is God's inspired word - God himself speaks through it by his Holy Spirit which is an extraordinary transcendent experience.

QUOTE
Does anyone here yet deny that the 23 Psalm or The Lord’s Prayer -- works of art, of rhetoric, of poetry, of language, of musical sound, of pictorial painting -- are not more effective in their power, their charge than just about anything you can name?

Yes, they are God's word, so for me as a believer it has a profound impact. But the problem with introducing these into this discussion is that it is no longer comparing like with like. There is nothing else that God has inspired in the same way, so it doesn't actually help us in discussing whether the experience of film is a greater, lesser, or just different thing than the experience of literature in general. But if the BIble was merely the words of human beings, then it could not in and of itself be given a greater value than anything else.

From there on your system is frankly elitist. Poetry is deeply culturally-related. You need great fluency with a language which is not your own to even begin to appreciate it, and it never translates adequately. Visual images are cross-cultural, independent of language. I would venture that this could be a criterion for saying that visual media are therefore greater than verbal media.

QUOTE
If I speak in absolutes, it’s because there are absolutes. You may not, for example, tell me that there is any figure in literature who is greater than Shakespeare. Or in prose fiction greater than Tolstoy. If you have a different opinion, you can’t be taken seriously. You are not intelligent. If that offends you, well, you have no wisdom.

These statements are so subjective that they cannot be taken seriously. We bring far too much of ourselves to what we engage with. Milton is for many people - myself included - greater than Shakespeare. What about Goethe or Dante? As for Tolstoy, no thanks. Give me Hugo or Hardy or Eliot or even Austen please. So I am not to be taken seriously? I'm not intelligent? I have no wisdom? How deeply offensive! And what about the vast majority of people in the world for whom English is not their first language? Do you think they even care about whether Shakespeare trumps Milton or vice versa? Norwegians probably prefer Ibsen.



#18 Overstreet

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 09:48 AM

QUOTE
Theater is easily able to produce effects greater than March of the Penguins et al because we are confusing what effect means if we see it as gimmicks unique to a certain medium.


The Scriptures tell us that the heavens declare the glory of God, and creation itself pours forth speech. I am of the opinion that a true incarnation communicates in a way that cannot be duplicated or paraphrased in any other way to convey exactly the same thing. Uniqueness in form is essential.

Nothing can duplicate the unique glory of a sunset. No theater designer can create a perfect equivalent on the stage of what March of the Penguins presents to us through its captured imagery of those frozen lands.

The story of The Fast Runner wouldn't have been the same filmed in any other context, and especially not on the stage.

The art of Andy Goldsworthy illustrates the uniqueness of a work of art, even if he tries to duplicate it. It demontrates that the particular combination of forces at work in a moment will make every work distinct, no matter how carefully he repeats himself.

Stage plays may echo a film's message, or even create an artificial frozne environment that reminds us of that, but nothing can communicate the harsh beauty of those specific images in exactly the same way. Likewise, a film can't duplicate what a stage play would make of it. There would be something unique there too.

Similarly, nothing done on the stage would have exactly the same impact and effect of the balletic imagery fused with the music and the juxtapositions of Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Similarly, if Christ had chosen other things to be the symbols of communion, something other than bread and wine, it would not have been the same thing... it would have changed the meaning. Scott Cairns has a wonderful poem about the glory of Christ's choices... bread and wine... and how their uniqueness is what completes the experience of communion.

These are my opinions, and I welcome challenges. But Johnmark, your know-it-all declarations and "my claims are immune to any challenge" statements are making this all very unpleasant and uncivil. This is a place for dialogue, not for one person to tell everyone else that their own opinions are the "absolutes" of art. And it is definitely not a place for someone to say that anyone who disagrees with them is a fool.

For those of us who are interested in dialogue, there is a function of this board quite valuable in its uniqueness... we can simply block the posts of people who are offensive. But in this case, if you don't change your approach soon, I hope the administrators will take note and then take appropriate action.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet, 20 September 2006 - 10:29 AM.


#19 Tony Watkins

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 10:25 AM

QUOTE(Jeffrey Overstreet @ Sep 20 2006, 03:48 PM) View Post

The Scriptures tell us that the heavens declare the glory of God, and creation itself pours forth speech. I am of the opinion that a true incarnation communicates in a way that cannot be duplicated or paraphrased in any other way to convey exactly the same thing. Uniqueness in form is essential. . . .

Stage plays may echo a film's message, or even create an artificial frozne environment that reminds us of that, but nothing can communicate the harsh beauty of those specific images in exactly the same way. Likewise, a film can't duplicate what a stage play would make of it. There would be something unique there too.

Similarly, nothing done on the stage would have exactly the same impact and effect of the balletic imagery fused with the music and the juxtapositions of Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Similarly, if Christ had chosen other things to be the symbols of communion, something other than bread and wine, it would not have been the same thing... it would have changed the meaning. Scott Cairns has a wonderful poem about the glory of Christ's choices... bread and wine... and how their uniqueness is what completes the experience of communion.

Yes! And well expressed. Thanks.

Edited by Tony Watkins, 20 September 2006 - 10:27 AM.


#20 johnmark

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Posted 20 September 2006 - 05:49 PM

I just lost a reply in defense of absolutes to power outages that would have mollified a number of complaints and challenges. It will take me some time to reconstruct my very careful thesis. I had the file mostly saved, too, but the second power interruption somehow killed that.

On a personal note, I have not said anyone is a fool, and I am not a know-it-all, I am a know-of-somethings. This insistence of some on the subjectivity of art is an absolute statement in itself, so I donít understand why my absolutes are disagreeable, and anotherís is not.

What I wrote about Shakespeare and Tolstoy and saying that an inability to recognize their greatness in their fields means lack of wisdom and intelligence may sound harsh, but must be true when we further examine what I meant.

We are all certain of absolutes here. I say there are absolutes in art. Others say not so (which is another kind of absolute which is contradictory). I say there is a hierarchy in art in its forms. Others say comparing forms is like apples and oranges.

How do they know that? Isnít that simply conventional thinking? Something assumed and presumed through our education and culture?

But if we are all created in Godís image, then subjectivity is subject to suspicion.

Tony and I may stand side by side and look at the same patch of blue sky, and so long as our eyes are healthy and normal, we will see the exact same thing. But we may respond differently. Is it possible we may ever respond exactly alike?

Yes, of course.

We are all created in nearly total unconsciousness (a zygote), and process to full consciousness (God) we hope or expect. That procession can also be said to be hierarchal. Our consciousness and knowledge of God develops in stages, but ultimately, Tony and I are always striving to the same Logos, Reason, Trinity. And if we are able to understand God together, literally to stand under him, we must apprehend and experience the same Person in the same way if we have the same fully developed faculties of perception and reason.

As we are now able to equally appreciate that 1+1=2 through the development of math reason currently, and see the same color blue through different but normal eyes, if we are whole in God, we must know and perceive him the same.

God is the same for everyone whether they recognize it or not. Art is similar. As we mimic God as creators, we are not drawing that mimicry from different sources. As we perceive created works, we are not using different faculties. But we respond to stimuli differently because of the accidental positions in our relation to God and our position to the goodness, truth, and beauty conveyed by Art; what we make out of him.

If Tony doesnít respond well to Tolstoy, it isnít because thereís something lacking in Tolstoy, but in Tony. That doesnít mean Iím saying Tony is a fool.

Many people in the world do not respond well to the Lordís Prayer. Do we fault the verses or the people when even children find them beautiful and wonderful.

Take prayer itself. Why do we have categories of prayer? Why do we distinguish between good, better, and best in prayer? Why is prayer something we can practice and get better at? What do we start out wanting from prayer and where do we end up or imagine we end up?

Donít we expect that with art, too? That is, we consciously improve our perceptions, refine our understanding, and enrich our experience of it. If we are doing that, we are following a holy program and are not feathers in the wind. We are directed to self-improvement by the Holy Spirit in our insight in art as in morality. And the Spirit, in effect, plays by rules and not caprice.

We donít love the same book, music, movies, images as we did at five years old because we process through a hierarchy in art, same as through a hierarchy in our notions of God. Are we not climbing a Jacobís Ladder here? With art, you have to ask where the ladder leads. Do I have a clear vision? Am I even ascending or am I just a guy stuck in a comfortable mindset?

If you had your story to tell before the throne of God to all the other people there, how would you tell it? Would you show them a movie?

I doubt it.

***

Tony, you made a number of interesting points that I'l have to get back to.