Monday, March 19, 2018

Thoughts on strong affect in art


I have often said that our crises of society might be more aesthetic in nature than the normal ways they are usually understood when they are referred to as moral, political,  or, frankly, crudely sociological in nature. I was happy that philosopher Daniel Kaufman, on a favorite site with which he is associated, The Electric Agora, called the problem what it is, when he invoked the word and concept philistine. I wrote a piece in 2000 called The New Philistinism and, as Kaufman wisely clarifies in his piece, the situation has only worsened in the eighteen years since my 2000 piece.

I think the notion of the arts and letters being an essential and special way of understanding is one notion that is unpopular at the moment. People take what they consider the concerns of the real world to be what ultimately matters and if not the real world then the "spiritual" correlate of the real world which comprises of their particular faith and/or religion. But the idea of artificial works of representation being inherently interesting and interesting precisely to the degree to which they can be separated from sociology is an idea that is itself under represented and if thought of at all is immediately rejected. Above all, if the arts and letters are respected they are only respected to the degree with which they are seen to further certain causes in the real world.

I was reminded of this problem when, in taking a break from my usual study of 1970s visual culture, I went back and watched several masterpieces of Hollywood melodrama from the middle fifties through the sixties. One of the things that struck me was the emotional seriousness, the sheer meaningfulness of the mise en scene: the lighting, coloration and composition seemed the equal of any of the masterworks of representational painting. The actors too were doing things of an emotional depth on screen, bespeaking a complete fearlessness with regard to what they were trying to evoke. There is a sense of awe on the screen: awe from the creators in their creation and an attempt to evoke awe in the spectator, a complete lack of jadedness, laziness, or snark. If contemporary people laugh at such films now because they think them dated, politically inconvenient (note I do not say correct) or silly,  I think the fall might reside in those contemporary people rather than in the films. The creators of such films were aesthetes and thought in aesthetic ways. I am thinking of films by people like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Elia Kazan, Richard Quine, Joshua Logan and Vincent Minnelli, to name just a handful.
PICNIC (Logan)

One characteristic of the films I have in mind is their emotional intensity. There is an enormous amount at stake for the characters and, quite in keeping with the nature of how cinema was envisioned by their creators, the films at every moment attempt to express such high stakes in every conceivable way possible with the tools at the time - again another striking similarity to painting. That is, the emotion is a matter of art direction and lighting and wardrobe as much as it is of acting.

Of course one of the reasons why this is the case with these films is that emotion is actually their main subject matter. However much outward action or plot there is in the films, their real theme is human interiority, or consciousness itself. And to make matters more interesting, because many attitudes and behaviors were forbidden for representation on the screen at the time in a literal form, filmmakers had to work extra hard to envision new ways of expression. It is not so much that the films are "Freudian" or "psychological" because, frankly, you who are in the  in the audience will have to feel or undergo something internally simply by experiencing the films - whether you are versed in psychology or not, and maybe even whether you are particularly emotional or not. The films traffic in feelings in something like a raw state - that is, prior to any psychological theories.  Now strong emotion in art is neither inherently good or bad, but it is simply a fact that works of strong emotion can only accomplish certain things that will be impossible if a work were to take a cooler approach. At the end of the day it might be a subjective affair indeed, the objective excellence of the works in question notwithstanding.

What I am talking about, of course, is style, rather than genre. ("The concept of genre is as cold as the tomb": Andrei Tarkovsky) The power is not merely the result of narrative structure or even milieu. To my way of thinking, Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Strangers When We Meet, The Sandpiper and Johnny Guitar have much more in common than not, even though the locales, ages, and periods of the stories couldn't be more dissimilar on the surface. Yet they feel like the same artistic project in that they have found a way to represent characters and their environments on film in such a way that every detail matters and is organized - compositionally - for maximum affect.

I think to look at the films in this way is to see that films like these are much closer to opera, dance and ballet than  they are to either the theatre or the novel.  If I am right then we have been wrong all along in trying to fit these films into categories normally associated with psychological realism or novelistic narration.

In fact - and in this way they are really like paintings or arias - the films are more interested in the emotional moment rather than only moving the plot forward.
This, then, is one virtue of strong emotion in a work of art like a movie. Strong emotion forces the action to be arrested for a time. It is an experience akin to religious or spiritual worship or contemplation. As we all know when somebody is in a sate of contemplation they aren't generally running around  in the world in extroverted and busy tasks.  (Of course that some spiritual masterworks of art are contemplative by virtue of turning down the dial on emotion, as in Mark Rothko, is a fact that only goes to show that there are, as it were, different kinds of religions.)

You can try to fit the films into such labels as realism but it not where their heart really is. They are radical expressions of states of feeling. The narrative course of the film  or psychological categories (or diagnosis) of the film's characters are actually secondary. What matters is the emotional moment. In this sense these works of art of a staid and conservative Hollywood era are anything but. They are revolutionary in their romanticism, in their stubborn insistence on the virtue of authenticity and truth seeking - values that however overused and problematic they are in word, are as indispensable and inescapable in culture more generally in deed.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A particular, if not peculiar, form of Humanistic education

My previous post was a look backward as I began a big move forward. I should like to go back to the beginning and discuss certain influences. Any kind of artist or critic has to have definite and definitive influences. These form the imaginative center and in practically all cases this is a psychological theme unique to the individual's identity. The world of the arts is the largest mansion conceivable. The doors are many; some of which are dead bolted, still others unabashedly unlocked, and ajar.

One of the things about art objects is that when you interact with them, if you are doing it correctly - and there are more or less correct or incorrect ways of interaction - the more correct mode of interaction will involve repetition, and ultimately be a form of education. Through memorizing the artwork, even if like I was, a child doing the work and not old enough to even comprehend it in its fullness, the art object will become a part of you. As a result, whether you intend this intimacy or not, by "memorizing" the object you will, learn, if only unconsciously, a lot of things about the arts in general since you are learning about certain patterns, or genres, or styles going back many years, centuries, epoch etc., thus learning about some of the oldest antecedents in an indirect fashion.

1967 being the year of my birth, and my father being a Beatles fan, meant that right out of the womb the record player was playing the Sgt Pepper album. If my earliest filmic memory was seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey twice my earliest music memory was the Sgt Pepper album and, simultaneous with this, some Bach recordings. My parents told me that I would ask to hear Day In The Life over and over again, so fascinated I was by it as  composition and the dissonant orchestral sonorities in that crescendo.

Last month  I saw an original pressing of Let It Be at my shirtmakers' shop and my entire body was transported back to four years old or a few years after as I had not looked at the photos on the album cover since them. I remember, as I had always done, staring for great lengths of time at the photos of the musicians. I did this because I had I thought that my looking was a form of magic that would reveal to me how these songs I enjoyed so much were made, doubtless a cognitive error on my part,  but one that revealed a curious hunger in the context of me being quite isolated for long periods of time - isolated not only from the musical instruments in question but also from relationships with others.  I used to fantasize or wonder about how the music was made and the photos of Abbey Road Studios revealed many technical and technological devices and artifacts about which I was curious and had little or no understanding.

Around this time I discovered the Guys And Dolls original soundtrack. Whenever I found a song I really liked I learned how to manipulate the needle, carefully as to not scratch the record, but, more precociously, how to identify by the visual size of the groove formations, which songs were the ones I liked.

For some reason I was obsessed with Fugue For Tinhorns. Here is the same version to which I listened incessantly.

It was the incessant almost rhythm changes styled form and contrapuntal singing I loved so much, as much as the phrasing of the cast singers. Now you could say this is nothing special, simply a round. But you'd be wrong to say that, because Frank Loesser seems to have the perfect ear for just the right melodic sequence to choose.  I was also learning about melody itself from some great ballads on that album, in particular "I'll Know".

A third record was one of the Bach Bradenberg Concertos. This one in particular I would repeat over and over.

The very first Miles Davis I heard was this soundtrack for a Louis Malle film.

This sparked a life long obsession with slow tempos as well as the blues tonalities. Curiously, the next Miles I would hear was not anything from this period, not Kind of Blue, but In A Silent Way. I was really at the mercy of what I could find in record stores and such stores were at the mercy of what was considered worthy of stocking from the past, what was reissued or not, and what was considered a sure or safe sale. Probably the kinds of groves and sounds on In A Silent Way were more popular than anything from the fifties or middle sixties at least in the Tampa, Florida where I spent most of the year,

I was not exposed to very much rock at this time aside from The Beatles. I remained ignorant of much of it. I was intensely interested in rhythm and blues and soul music however. Seeing The Jackson Five at Madison Square Garden might have been the initial stimulus. Then again there were some old Bessie Smith recordings that were in the house. The only exposure I got to rock was what was overheard at public venues or on the radio and I never really followed it in anything like a systematic way.

But you can't really escape rock. I was on this swim team and my coach kept calling me Frampton because my last name rhymed with Frampton. Actually my swim coach himself looked like Peter Frampton. "Hey Frampton do that lap again!" was a constant refrain. Not only would he call me Frampton but he would blare Frampton Comes Alive from loudspeakers and an 8 track coming from his elaborately designed van.

I actually had a girlfriend at this age (which I understand now is not considered age appropriate since I was child, though she was a child as well, a peer), and she was in love with Peter Frampton, and had a huge poster of him in her bedroom. Because I liked her mother's taste in music so much more and considered her, well, simply more attractive than the daughter, I would sort of hang around the mother more and find excuses to leave the daughter's room and go see the mom in the kitchen or living room, and listen to mom talk about Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis, and gaze at this mom in her halter top, much to the chagrin of the daughter.

I believe listening to these particular musical styles was inculcating me into their ways and their methods. I think the best things you can have for inspiration by, or memorization of, things that are at least good in quality.

When I wasn't restricted to the basically lone experience of record listening I was enormously blessed to experience live artistic performances. One of the hallmarks of every Summer as a child were the several weeks or even months I would spend in New York City. Now this was a NYC Summer in the 1970s. Because of, among other things, my father's deep love for the theatre, I would see practically every production that was mounted in NYC and I mean everything - from Joseph Papp, to commercial Broadway fare to avant-garde off-Broadway fare as well as both musicals and dramatic plays.

For some reason seeing the original production of Bob Fosse's Chicago made the deepest impression on me. Part of it was Fosse's sensibility which seemed to have some spiritual connection with mine. That is, Fosse, like myself, was an aesthete. Everything for him was a matter of sensual form, no matter the particular content or medium.

A great part of my love for his original production of Chicago resided in two women: Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as they appeared here. This is the closest thing to a documentation of the two of them as they appeared then as I have been able to find.

I was so taken with Rivera and Verdon that I had a poster of the two of them throughout my childhood over my bed. A video documentation by a cast member - courtesy of Candy Brown - gives you a sense of what the staging felt like:

The erotic in art has always been a matter of censorious contention in many audiences.  This is a pity, for in Fosse we have someone who made the highest art of the erotic, albeit in mass popular forms like movies or musicals. He had no illusions about his subject matter and could be as morally stringent as a Sunday preacher (or Brecht) as in Star 80, Sweet Charity (or for that matter, Chicago) but he was not only a critic or satirist: he was also an unabashed entertainer, interested in the eternal pleasures of life. Work which is interested in such pleasures for their own sake - like the work of Jacque Demy or Radley Metzger - will always have opponents and naysayers of various kinds. But it is all a question of style and not all styles are equally congenial to all populations, subcultures etc.

What do all of the above have in common, aside from their intrinsic excellence? You will note that they are examples of adult culture: that is, they were not specifically designed for a children's audience, and yet I was a child being exposed to such material. Most importantly, all of these works of culture are made by we humans: they are produced, designed, created. They are not simply found falling from the sky or laying on the ground. Things humans create are always set apart from the daily world even as they engage with that same daily world. The designed or created aspect has to do with imagination and representation: two categories that create much misunderstanding as to their ultimate purposes in life. Now imagination and representation have an abstraction from life even as they fully engage with life. They are fictions but have about them much truth and as such are partly nonfictional. It is human to reflect upon life rather than simply survive or suffer this life. I think what I have in mind in this particular post is the cumulative effect of certain reflections and what their uniqueness or aesthetic vastness might mean for a single human life and how it may develop in time.

An immense thank you to Candy Brown for posting her footage on youtube.