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PLOT REPETITION: It has been pointed out to me that according to National Public Radio critic Bob Mondello, Monsters, Inc. and Matrix Reloaded are "the same" basic plot. Certainly, they share the basic concept of two worlds separated by a metaphysical/psychological barrier, a hero who needs to traverse the barrier, and people to be saved in the "other" world. That "other world" turns out to be our own -- and our fate, our happiness, hinges as much on our willingness to accept the messenger from the nether world as on the confidence and belief of the hero in himself. If we follow the Jesus metaphor of Matrix Reloaded this makes sense theologically: the unification of the two worlds is the ultimate destiny of history. See comments on Matrix Reloaded.
ARISTOTLE'S SIX ELEMENTS of drama are Spectacle, Character, Fable (Plot), Diction, Melody, and Thought. These elements (slightly modified and re-interpreted for contemporary audiences) remain essential to modern films. Aristotle claims that, contrary to what one might expect, Plot or "the form of action" is the most important element. This is because, in Aristotle's view, the purpose of life "is a certain kind of activity" and drama ought to depict certain kinds of activity that we may learn the results of these forms of activities. Aristotle would reject the contemporary view (supported by insidious propaganda that acting is a high art form and by public fascination with the lives of actors) that the depiction of Character is central or most important. His argument: "Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions -- what we do -- that we are happy or the reverse" (Poetics, 1450a18). "In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action" (Poetics, 1461a15-20). He concludes that Character comes second (1450b1). It is important, however, to note that Character does interplay with the other elements, and (especially in films) it introduces morality. As Aristotle says, "...character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents" (1450a4). Third is Thought, and this is not what the character says to reveal elements of the character, but what a character may say regarding important intellectual themes -- "all they say when proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition." [In contemporary films it is sometimes asserted (with justification in some instances) that the director of the film actually controls "what is said or asserted," not through the dialogue, over which he has limited control, but through subliminal suggestion through the language of images alone. I reject, in part, this theory. See my Seven Mistakes.]
Aristotle relegates the other elements to lesser importance in drama. A partial list of these elements, with examples, as they apply to contemporary films:
SOUL OF POP: Internal Contradiction between lyrics and beat: soulful/sad lyrics full of yearning, sadness, or despair; exuberant, hopeful, music. E.g., "I'm Working My Way Back to You, Babe."
ETHNIC IDENTITY CARRIED TO NEW LEVELS OF ABSURDITY by Raquel Welch's tearful interview on The Today Show (mid September, 2002). After all these years, she reports, she has found herself, after having felt a void for most of her life, because of not being able to express her Latin heritage. Naturally, in her new TV series she plays "The Aunt with the Strong Ethnic Identity." So NOW she has an ethnic identity? First anyone has ever heard of it. Where was she when it was a struggle to be ethnic? Born in Chicago. Therefore, a U.S. citizen. Graduated from high school in California. Welch's father was Bolivian. So what? How does this give her an ethnic identity? Does she even know a word of Spanish? Ever live overseas? Please.
ART THAT TELLS US HOW IT IS TO BE INTERPRETED is the theme of the current exhibit at THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM IN NYC. If you follow the contemporary art scene closely, there is probably nothing new for you here, but if you are an observer from a distance, you will see that the trend - started in the mid 1980s (?) - toward telling the viewer, through tersely worded commentaries posted next to the works, precisely how to interpret them, has now reached epidemic proportions. Indeed, very few of the works displayed had any visual power of their own (one of the tests of a great work); rather, their "power" or effect is all derivative of their descriptions, all of which are carefully-crafted in postmodernist museum speak. But this is precisely, in my view, the reason to see this show. The show also includes many excellent short films. If there is not already an historical landmark for this point in history, perhaps this show will do as well as any other for marking the "end" of the visual arts -- or at least the point at which the visual arts were finally consumed by narration. See it if you are in NYC.
PROMOTING SCHIZOPHRENIA IN WOMEN, a specialty of popular media and the TODAY SHOW IN PARTICULAR. Now it's Jamie Lee Curtis's turn. Promoting her new book, she promotes "self esteem." Still, while claiming one should feel comfortable about "how they look," she goes through all the physical and mental contortions necessary to make the appropriate glamour photos of herself. Her message is that women should not be held to the standard of perfect bodies shown in the air-brushed photos of women's magazines. True. But, she added: "If this is the way I look in my 40's after doing 60 sit ups and 50 pushups, exercising, and eating right, then I have to feel comfortable with this." This is in contradiction to the ostensible message of simple "self-esteem" and "don't hold yourself to the standards of photos in women's magazines." What she means is that you should feel good about how you look after you have worked as hard as you can. In point of fact, some people will look like models if they work hard enough. This attitude contradicts the feel-good relativism promoted by so much of popular media. What Curtis is really saying is that no one (woman or man) should give up on "how they look." Appearance is important, as is health, and you should do everything you can to promote them -- as we know from Aristotle, and, not withstanding the popularity of messages to the opposite effect, from virtually every moral tradition and every bit of common sense available to us. Self-esteem is not something that is your birthright, something threatened by the intrusion of impossible stereotypes in popular media; rather, Curtis is clearly implying (quite consistent with tradition and common sense) that it is something your earn. Hegel would love the way the mixed messages of popular media play themselves out: If left unelaborated, "accepting the way we look," is a dangerous and destructive message (thesis). This is why it is almost always presented in a context in which a contradictory message (antithesis) is presented. We need to separate these messages and see how their opposing "truths" result in a still higher truth.
DOWNSTREAM FILM FESTIVAL: Excellence often comes in small packages, and this film festival was both excellent and "small" -- but only in the sense that it took place in a relatively small venue for a film festival and, since it was its first year at this location, was relatively lightly attended. It was a "large" festival in every other sense.
The range and quantity of films was impressive:
There were some real gems from the independent, semi-professional and student film makers here. Among the many gems:
* Actual footage/still taken by a volunteer at GROUND ZERO just days after 9/11 woven into an inspiring narrative about America and American values.
* A touching short by a student from Duke University about -- of all unlikely subject matters -- a hot dog vendor whose wife left him because she wanted to attend Divinity School.
* A Claymation (!!!) retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus.
* The story of "The Man Who Lived in a Commercial": what kind of person would use an entire bar of soap every morning?
* With more plot turns per second than an average full-length feature, several shorts featured not only a captivating and humorous story ideas, but excellent acting and production qualities. Among them:
Having drifted into a combined sense of dread and boredom with Hollywood, this festival brought back to me the feeling that film still is, after all, an evolving and exciting art form with plenty of unexplored territory left.
CAN HOLLYWOOD STOP SANITIZING reality? True The Sum of All Fears does have its moments, but compare it against Failsafe with Henry Fonda. A similar plot and, conceptually, an IDENTICAL TECHNIQUE (silent "stills" of people about to die in a nuclear explosion) -- yet, the older film has emotional impact at this point and the newer one does not. Why? Many reasons: (1) The newer film substitutes a real enemy (Islamic Fundamentalism) for a fake one (an essentially non-existent Nazi party). (2) The newer film is designed to provide us with a combination of fantasy and a positive heroic ending, while the older film is unapologetically realist. (3) We can't be drawn into the story because the characters are weak and unconvincing (no one is of the stature of Henry Fonda in the newer film).
MASTER CULTURAL NARRATIVES most easily come to light in entertainment designed explicitly to educate the young in paradigms. ICE AGE is an excellent example. But is the narrative one which reflects an already established center of cultural norms, or is it carefully-contrived propaganda to subliminally affect a new generation with new definitions of cultural norms? In this film, you will find the proposition that "family," or "tribe," is "whoever cares for you" unambiguously defended. This is the sort of issue that used to generate considerable outrage amongst conservatives, who often used examples like this to demonstrate how the infiltration of leftist ideology into mass media was destroying traditional notions of "family." But Ice Age is a fairly complex film. While it makes no bones about this politically correct definition, it also is at pains to show that extreme communalism (communism) is wrong (it goes extinct). It also is thematically centered on the revenge vs. forgiveness in cross-tribal warfare (contemporary geopolitics) -- this, in an overarching metaphysical frame that "small actions can have huge consequences". Best Scene: Animals study the man's cave paintings and wonder how this defenseless creature can survive. The answer revolves around the themes of the film.
FROM: What Work's and What Doesn't SEQUELS almost never work. This, some people apparently think, seems to be due to a recurring failure of production values, casting, funding, or some other sad mishap. In truth, sequels rarely work, particularly in dramas, for the same reason that TV series are rarely able to maintain a consistently high level of dramatic impact: the concept of a repeating a story with the same character is fundamentally flawed. I read somewhere in an excellent book (now unable to find) the reason for this: as Aristotle pointed out, a character must develop during the story and must overcome some obstacle. Once this has happened, the story is complete -- the usefulness of the character in exploring the meaning of the story has essentially been exhausted. It is therefore, of little point to merely repeat a different version of the story featuring the same character. To do that is to undercut the idea that the character (and therefore the audience) learned anything from the original series of moral trials.
--- from What Works and What Doesn't, elsewhere on these pages
The Truman Story is perhaps the quintessential contemporary film version of Plato's Cave. Plato's problem: The Cave, the narrative structure comprising our unexamined social and political conventions, does not, evidently, encompass Ultimate Reality. It is therefore, both a moral and an epistemic failure to uncritically accept the narrative of the Cave. However, there are strong political arguments in favor of supporting, at least to some extent, a master narrative that is known to be false (the Noble Lie). Moreover, part of human nature actually rebels against liberating its self from its own self-imposed imprisonment. Liberation from one's chains, especially if its links have been woven together by the power of one's own narrative, is a frightening prospect. Still, it is necessary, for the sake of the Good, that the pain of this liberation is endured. The film's script reflects this dilemma nicely. When accused of creating a sick, artificial world and challenged about the morality of keeping the truth hidden from Truman, the director of the show quips: "If he wants to discover the truth, we can't stop him. He really loves his cell -- that's what you fear. We offer him a normal life -- your world is the sick one." Unbeknownst to the director (and the viewers of the film, at this point), Truman is actually planning his escape at that very moment.
Morality and Integrity are generally upheld even in the most ridiculous films. Consider The Nutty Professor II, for instance. Despite incredibly lewd jokes about sex and bodily functions, the film has a moral center: Papa Klump explains to his son (the Professor), as they both sit on a bridge (symbol for moral arc of the film) overlooking the town (symbol for our ephemeral earthly existence), that nothing in life is permanent except love and family values. The film is an excellent example how serious themes can be interwoven into absurd or humorous story contexts without being patronizingly sentimental. Film is remarkable technically as well. Video has interesting interviews with the producer (same guy did Blazing Saddles) and the cast.
2001: The Short List
There were only four good films in 2001: Momento (actually from 2000, I think), The Man Who Wasn't There, AI, and Lord of the Rings.
(Monster's Ball not seen.)
Lord of the Rings: Can you improve on Tolkien? The answer is yes. Tolkien's work is partly an abstract allegory that often does not give us access to the interior life of its characters. Some of the trilogy (particularly Part III) is more like a chronicle or outline than a novel. Films do not (and for the most part cannot) provide us direct access to the linguistic narrative of a character's interior life. However, films can bring characters to life in another way, allowing us to identify with characters, to be respond to the emotions expressed by the human face, and to be swept up in the magic of fully-realized, alternative time and space. The film version of Lord of the Rings succeeds at this. Best to be seen on the largest screen possible. Is shown on IMAX in some locations.
Film scene of the year: Cohen brothers' incarnation of Every Lawyer explains the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as he walks through a cage of light and shadow.
Special Category:Moulin Rouge. Like One from the Heart, a film that takes advantage of the things only film can do. Negative side: More evidence of the disappearing difference between music videos and films. Positive side: Beautiful, inventive, humorous -- a feast for the eyes and ears.
Cartesianism and Personal Identity in Films: Could we distinguish reality from brain stimulations that were identical in quality, but different in content, from normal, "reality-induced," experiences? Such stimulations might be produced through a computer wired to the brain, through the effect of drugs, or through a psychotic episodes. Watching a film is itself a form of "artificial reality." Interesting things happen when film explores questions related to its own foundations. One technique is for a film to remind us that "this is only a film." But this cannot be done too often, because a film then risks losing its ability to induce our (much wanted) willing suspension of disbelief (that is, to have an experience that demands both or intellectual and emotional investment). For those of you interested in this sort of thing, the following films are excellent examples of how a narrative can simultaneously provide both the basis for a willing suspension of disbelief and a grounds for examining questions about reality and personal identity. Vanilla Sky, Momento, The Matrix, A Beautiful Mind, and Fight Club. See comments on these films below.
An Example of How to NOT to do Criticism:
China Mieville, author of PERDIDO STREET STATION writes in a recent newsletter on fantasy:
"Tolkien wrote the tap-root text for fantasy set in a neverland of Feudalism Lite, where Good and Bad are absolute, and moral and political complexities conveniently evaporate. In Middle-earth, the Good look the part, and the Evil are ugly. Elves are noble, Dwarfs are good salt-of-the-earth types. In this world, conveniently enough, social and ethnic pigeonholes are actually true. This is a paean to Order and Reasonableness, to the status quo: threats come from outside. This profoundly conservative view is a lie."
First, this view is factually mistaken. Tolkien's characters are not one-dimensional. Several important characters, even the hero himself, succumb to the temptation of evil. Evil, in Tolkien's universe, is never entirely banished. Evil does not come "from the outside" unless it can get a foothold on the "inside." That is one of Tolkien's points. Nor are there any "ethnic" pigeonholes. Wizards, men, and even elves can become evil. Even some Hobbits in the Shire become Nazi-like. Second, Mieville's criticism appears to be driven by a theory about morality, truth and art. Mieville implies that simply because Tolkien's morality is conservative, it is inappropriate for profound art. Would he say the same thing about Milton? See my Seven Mistakes of Criticism, below. See http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=0345443020 for info on China Meiville's book.