Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Random Thoughts On Art

From ten years ago...

There’s this sculpture on the corner of Buena Vista and Victory in Burbank of an all American ten year old farm boy in over-alls dancing with joy hand outstretched to the sun. Kind of Norman Rockwell kitsch. Inoffensive, and 99% of the time I drive by it and don’t even notice it. The last time I went past I was on my bike and hit the stop light and had a minute to look at it and think about it. Someone had taped an American flag in the boy’s out-stretched hand. It looks like he’s celebrating America, wholesomeness, and that 1950s version of pure patriotism.

But when I thought about this Norman Rockwell piece of art I wondered if it even was art. Adding the American flag made it even more on-the-nose and obvious - even more bland and invisible. It’s expected - like a plastic pink flamingo on a suburban lawn. It doesn’t catch your eye. It’s not really interesting - you don’t really think about it. Something else you drive by at that intersection, like the sign for the Radio Shack in the strip mall or the marque for Ralph’s Groceries with this week’s deals... Actually, I often look at the Ralph’s marque, because it changes constantly. It’s *different* and often unpredictable - How can they sell ten ears of corn for 99 cents? That’s downright *provocative*! I might have to pull in and see that for myself! But the fake Normal Rockwell kid? Booooring! It’s *expected*. I don’t think art can be expected... so maybe it is not art, just decoration. Manufactured, like millions of identical Halloween skeleton decorations which are not a bit scary.

I wondered what kind of reaction this same decoration would get if someone had taped a Soviet flag in the dancing boy’s hand. Red. Hammer & Sickle.

Now, we have something interesting. Something that is probably art. It’s no longer bland. Because it forces you to think. It’s shocking. It may even offend some people. It’s different. Unexpected. No way we could drive past that without thinking about it, wondering what it means - is this a ten year old *Soviet* kid? Or some sort of innocent and idyllic traitor? I’ll bet there are hundreds of different ways this could be interpreted! Even if you are deeply offended by it, you would be *thinking* about it and *feeling something*. It would not be some passive experience - just a decoration. And I think that makes it art.

There is a conflict between our image of that dancing ten year old kid and the hammer & sickle flag. An incongruity. You can’t just absorb it - you need to process it first. To think about it. To figure out what it means, and what it means to you. We take art personally - we love it or hate it. It provokes us.


Now, my normal opinion is that what makes art is the test of time. If we still think the movie is great 50 years from now, it is art. There are many movies that people claim are art... that just vanish in a couple of years. Films that were called a work of genius, and a decade later we aren’t even thinking about. I think those films are often “surface art” - they seem provocative on the surface, but they don’t touch us deeply... and don’t stick with us. There are movies that I will never forget... and others that I see in the cinema and don’t remember seeing the next day! And many of those are artsie indie films where the film maker was trying to provoke me with things on the surface of the story, instead of digging deeper and *really* screwing with me. And there are mainstream studio films that seem inoffensive on the surface, but go straight for your heart and that unevolved insect part of your brain... and stick with you. One of the reason why I love those BOURNE movies is that they dig deep into the protagonist’s motivations and get into the icky things we don’t like to think of: am *I* the monster?

One of the things that makes horror films work is the connections to our subconscious. Great horror films are often completely politically/socially incorrect. They deal with the things we don’t ever want to think about - the things we fear are true, but have created this concept of society to contain and control those thoughts. I watched THE MIST on 9/11 - it seemed fitting. I think that film might have reached a much larger audience with a different ending... but would not have been nearly as powerful. The nightmares in that film aren’t what the monsters do to people, it is what people do to people. And how people think they are doing the right thing... and they are wrong, and must live with that for the rest of their lives. Good horror movies give characters impossible choices - things that haunt the characters for the rest of their lives, and haunt the audience as they leave the cinema. “What would I have done? Only 4 bullets...”

As a million people have said before me, a beloved Christmas film like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE sticks with us because it’s a bleak, ugly, nightmare! It’s not some bland story about nice characters who never engage in conflict with each other - it shows us both the good side of humans and the bad side... and I think the bad side gets a lot more running time! It provokes us. It challenges us. That film even *scares us* more than many pre-fab horror movies that get turned out by Hollywood. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has passed that test of time - we are still watching it today.

I think there are two things required for a film to pass the test of time:

1) Enough people must have seen it so that it *can* be remembered decades later. Even though IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was not a box office hit, it was a big wide release movie that many people saw, and later in its life became a staple on TV at holiday season for a couple of reasons... at least one of which was that it had fallen out of copyright for a while and any TV station could show it for pocket change. The other reason being that it had a big name star and a big name director and a story that - despite its darkness - was accessible. Many arty indie films often have stories that are *not* accessible to a wide audience, and those films may become nothing but memories when one black-beret wearing audience gives way to the next. They are *temporary art* instead of something that we will be watching and talking about for decades to come - over 70 years in the case of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. A movie must be seen by large numbers of people to be remembered.

2) The film must be memorable. No matter how many people see a film, if it is bland and doesn’t touch them; they will not remember it. I did not see PRINCE OF PERSIA or SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, but many people didn’t see them. The reason why *I* decided not to see either is that they seemed generic - nothing provocative or dangerous about either. Now, that may be because they failed to include those elements in the trailers, but I suspect traces of dangerous material would still show up in whatever scenes they picked for the trailer. Those things are in a story’s DNA (hey - read my article in this current issue of Script Magazine for more on this!). If cut a trailer to BOURNE IDENTITY you can’t help but put in something about how the lead is searching for his identity and is afraid he is a very bad person. You can’t cut a trailer to THE MIST without including the conflicts between the people trapped in the market - even if you were trying to make it look like a monster movie. I will eventually get around to finishing the Fridays With Hitchcock on REBECCA, and there is no way to make a trailer to that movie without Max deWinter having some dark secret... and maybe even giving away that he may have killed his first wife. These provocative elements are *part* of the story and can not be removed or hidden. The Micky Mouse cartoon of SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is more dangerous and provocative than any of the 3 minute trailers to the Nic Cage film. Cute little Micky does the forbidden - he uses magic, and it gets out of control. He’s like that Norman Rockwell 10 year old dancing with glee with a Soviet flag in his hand.


No one wants to ride a roller coaster where the tracks just end - and the cars shoot off into the amusement park to crash into the merry-go-round.... nor do they want to ride a roller coaster that is mostly straight-aways and gentle hills. We want the thrill of danger without the actual danger. That means a good movie is going to be a little dangerous - sure, we leave the cinema with all of the limbs we came with, but we may have a little scar tissue we didn’t have before. We don’t go to the cinema for a safe and bland experience - we want to *almost die*. We want to see a movie that leaves a mark. When the roller coaster ride is over, we want our hearts to still be racing in the memory of how close to death we came... and survived.

The problem with the business side of entertainment is that it's stupid. They are afraid of doing anything that might offend some segment of the audience - they are afraid of doing anything that is too different than the norm - they are afraid of doing anything that will anger advertisers. Now, as businesspeople they want to protect their investments, and that means they need to be cautious. They need to make sure they aren't going to produce some TV show or movie that people will not watch. That makes sense...

But at the same time, they need to be intelligent about their caution. They can't just say NO to everything that is different and always play it safe - because that leads to boredom. Part of entertainment is the novelty of the show or movie. That often leads to I SURVIVED A JAPANESE GAMESHOW and crap like that... but it doesn't have to. By the way, how many of you even remember HOW I SURVIVED A JAPANESE GAME SHOW? It was a TV series on summer of 2008 - only 2 years ago. Hey, it was strange, weird, wacky... and all surface. Nothing that left a scar. Novelty without art.

But novelty can also lead to interesting and innovative shows that stretch the medium - look at how 24's concept of one hour of TV = one real hour of the story was an interesting innovation or how LOST’s concept of starting in the middle of the story - the plane crashes on an island - then zipping back in time to tell us who these survivors really are and what their secrets are... as the continue forward and things just get stranger and stranger on the island. If we rewind time and look at what network execs were thinking before the first seasons of those shows aired, I'm sure they secretly thought they would be huge failures. And screw them up big time - because if it failed after 5 episodes, they would have this dangling unfinished story. This is a business run by fear - no one wants to greenlight the unusual TV show that could flop big time, or greenlight the movie that challenges the audience or makes them feel things that might be unpleasant.

But as those suits become more conservative - more interested in *not* taking a risk... they take a greater risk by giving us either crap or shows and movies that are so tame they are not novel. They are not original. They are not interesting. They offer us nothing we haven't experienced before... and that's when networks and studios make nothing but flops. They play it safe - not realizing that safety is really dangerous. No one wants to ride on a roller coaster with only moderate hills and no big scary turns. A safe roller coaster where you never worry that you might die.

To a certain extent TV and movies needs to "color within the lines" - TV has to make shows that run a half hour or an hour and follow the basic things we expect... stories that make sense and have some sort of conclusion at the end of the episode (though in the case of shows like 24, maybe not *the* conclusion). Movies need to be something that tells a coherent story about characters that we can understand and maybe identify with, and probably stay within the basics of drama those Greek dudes identified 2,400 years ago and hopefully run under 2 hours so that we can get a 7pm and 9pm showing on weekdays and 1pm, 3pm, 5pm. 7pm, and 9pm on weekends (or 12, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10).

But just because we have a certain framework doesn't mean we can only use 8 pack of Crayolas to color our pictures... in fact, because we have that framework, we need the full 120 pack of Crayolas... and we need to find ways to combine and shade and use those crayons in ways they have never been used before to color those pictures. The more we color within the lines, the more we need to be creative about colors and do wild bold things that no one has done with Crayolas before. We have to give the audience that near-death experience of the roller coaster... even though they know they will survive intact at the end. We can’t make our Crayola drawing bland and predictable - we need to make it exciting and inventive and maybe even frightening.

And here's where things go wrong - those Studio Execs and TV Execs think they need to play it safe in all ways, when they only need to play it safe in *some* ways - and be dangerous as hell in others. But knowing where to be cautious and where to be innovative takes intelligence - not computer print outs and business plans. I think that's the thing that may be missing in Hollywood these days - the old Moguls, for whatever reason, had that strange ability to know what elements required caution and what elements required anarchy. Or maybe they didn't - maybe they just knew what required caution and didn't care about the other elements at all - and the writers and directors were allowed to go wild (as long as they colored within the lines). Whatever the case - there was that blend of popular story and innovation. And I think Robert Evans at Paramount may have been the last of that line. GODFATHER PART 2 is one of my favorite films, and it is both art and potboiler. It's a gangster soap opera and an examination of morals and family. There was a time when - for whatever reason - we could have a TV show or a movie that was both innovative and interesting *and* popular. But that required the person in charge to know what elements needed to be treated with caution and what elements needed to be innovative.

I think the big problem with the suits in current Hollywood is that they are trying to make safe choices in all things - when a movie really needs to be dangerous and frightening like that roller coaster. A movie needs to be more than “decoration”, it needs to be provocative. It needs to scare us. Challenge us. Make us think. These people use intelligent caution but have no idea what intelligent innovation is. They want to bland down anything that might offend any audience member. Instead of making “sharp” movies, they want to make dull ones... and I think the reason why movies like PRINCE OF PERSIA fail is because they are dull or seem to be dull from the trailer.

Saw what you want about INCEPTION - you may hate it - but that end sure starts a conversation doesn’t it? And when it is revealed who killed his wife... not a safe bit of plot at all! Hey, that film sold some tickets!

And so did TOY STORY 3 - the darkest of the series. A movie that left a scar on me. The amazing thing about Pixar movies is that they aren’t afraid to make the roller coaster frightening, and at times really uncomfortable. They make films where the protagonist may be completely wrong, where the protagonist may have caused the problem, where the protagonist’s problems may self-inflicted. Pixar makes dangerous movies. Movies that stick with you. Movies that leave a mark. Hey, and what film sold the most tickets this year?

One of the things that pisses me off about writing scripts is that they always want me to sand down the rough edges. That's the first rewrite - the "caution" rewrite. Anything that might snag something needs to be removed. And that's where things go wrong - because if there is nothing rough to snag on the imagination, nothing to rip into the viewer, the story becomes "harmless" and smooth and boring. The roller coaster with gentle hills and no sharp turns. Boring. And they think this makes it better!

Think of the moments in films that you remember - the scenes that snagged you - and chances are, those are the scenes with the rough edges. Think of the films that left their mark on you - chances are those are films that may have looked like entertainment on the surface, but cut deep into you... causing you pain or discomfort at times. The films you remember are the ones that made you feel something you did not expect to feel. People love CASABLANCA because he *doesn’t* get the girl (sorry - spoiler). All of the test audiences and focus groups and marketing idiots who might look at that ending and think that the film might have been more successful if Bogart and Bergman ended up together at the end are just plain wrong. The audience might have “liked” the film more when they initially viewed it... but it would never have stuck with them and it would not have survived to become art had Bogart actually *not* been good at being noble.

For something to become art, it must stand the test of time. To stand the test of time, it must be seen by enough people to be remembered, and have enough rough edges to snag their memory. A movie has to be more than a decoration that we see and forget, it must be dangerous and provocative.

I think I’m going to buy a Halloween plastic severed head, and the next time I’m stopped at that intersection near that Norman Rockwell-like sculpture, tape it in the hand of that all American ten year old farm boy in over-alls dancing with joy.

- Bill


Axel said...

Many good points in this post, but I have to take issue with your view of The Mist. The original novella was a strict end-of-the-world scenario, with our dimension being overrun with the life forms of another dimension, placing us at the bottom of a new food chain. No way to fix it; no way to survive, long-term. The story had a kind of nihilistic exhilaration, a giddy masochistic hopelessness. It ended with the rag-tag band of heroes driving away from the grocery store, and encountering a moon-crater sized footprint of something sequoia-tall, sending SOS signals in to the fog and hoping there was some place where they might be received.
Darabont's cheesy finale brings to life all those bogus morality party games (Destroy the Pieta? Or save the kitty??)we played when we were stoned at college. The worst part is it assumes that this overwhelming inundation of our world by another one could be stopped by some GI Joes in a tank. No big deal. Like many 'twist' endings, it just invalidates the earned emotion of the rest of story and leaves you feelibng cheated by a stupid 'gotcha'.
Too bad. It could have been a great film.

rich said...

Great post, Bill.

And I loved the ending of The Mist, even though I know I'm in the minorty. But I will disagree with Steve Axelrod's assertion that these things couldn't be stopped by "GI Joes in a tank."

The only time the monster cannot be defeated by the military is in the movies. Even the Hulk would be toast with some of the weaponry we have. Quite frankly, it's just a matter of physics.

James said...

The irony of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is when most people think about it, I'm not sure they see it as a bleak film. (It is. Incredibly so).

I think that because it has become such tradition, something that seems to have always been, something that plays endlessly on TV during Christmas that people just equate it with other heart warming Christmas tales, without giving much thought to what the story actually depicts -- pressure is too much, never realizing my own dreams, wanting to kill myself aspect of the film.

The only reason I think this film was put in heavy rotation at Christmas time has nothing to do with its content, but rather because the copyright lapsed.

The lapse of copyright made it cheap filler to put on TV made by a master storyteller. Some smart (prolly smarmy too) producer saved some network a ton of money putting this on the air. And in turn created a tradition.

James said...

From your script tip:

"In fact, when Ben complains about his job, instead of feeling sympathy... I think he's a wuss complainer and I actively dislike him. I'm not sure that's why the writer intended."

Totally agree both with what's written and my own personal reaction to characters like this. I hate them and actively root against them.

It got me thinking though -- about producers and agents. When they talk about making a character "likable" or "relatable" they LOVE shit like this.

Often, I will write some very a-holish dudes. And a note I will get on these guys is to make them more "likable."

My problem is that -- I like that they are such big aholes. Usually, the screenplay doesn't work if you soften them and usually what producers and agents are responding to in terms of liking the screenplay as a whole is how distinct the characters are. I like watching movies with aholes in them. And scenes when you have aholes petting a kitty or some crap like that proving "they aren't such a bad guy" make me want to vomit.

Sometimes what makes a character likable is consistency.

Seems to me, movies prior to the 80s, the protagonist could be a real prick in one department or another, but you still love him. Somewhere along the lines political correctness filtered in and made for a horde of these boring Ben-type characters that have no real color.

yyyyyyyyy said...

The ending of the mist was not good. The idea of humans becoming the bottom or thereabouts of a new food chain is very interesting. But that is a question not of ends, but new beginnings, however awful they may be. By the way, most of my stories are about such awful prospects.

Other thoughts on art:

Did you know that a poll of artists identified Marcel Duchamp as the most influential artist of the twentieth century, not Picasso, Dali, or Pollack?

In retrospect, it is obvious: Duchamp was more committed to the moment and the long excruciating moment that was the 20th century was all about the destruction of meaning.

Anonymous said...

When I look at a comment like the one about the statue, I think "What could I put in that hand that would cause the most wonder?"
A Soviet flag would be odd, but limited, as the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the point would necessarily be limited.
Same applies to, say, a gay rainbow flag - the story implied is limited.
How about a vibrator? A slightly different implication rises there, and might lead to a different story.
So - what pro or line of dialogue, or tag line, or piece of costuming or ... whatever leads to the most interesting "What the hell is THAT?" reaction.
And what prop (such as the American flag) leads people to just turn away and feel like something has been cheapened, or given rein to the blatantly obvious and predictable?

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