Tuesday, March 15, 2005

By Indirections Find Directions Out

My sister was in town this past week (yay!) and we rented BAMBOOZLED. Then she and her friends saw HOTEL RWANDA, which I've already seen. (THE CRUCIBLE is also a spoiler in here, later on.) What Hallie had to say about HOTEL RWANDA was, basically, that one needn't feel compelled to view it as a movie because it basically *wasn't* a movie. It was a vehicle for telling this story. Nobody was trying for a creatively complex characterization--Cheadle met Rusesabagina and was simply trying to portray him as best he could--nobody was trying to utilize any noticeable cinematographic or directorial talent in any creative fashion. It wasn't about being a movie in the way that I am normally prepared to critique movies. As one of my students writes a nakedly autobiographical play about the night her brother was shot, and I'm deeply moved by things in it that I would not have accepted from another high schooler when I was in high school (not that I knew anyone whose brother had been shot and killed at the time), the concept of being direct comes forward once again. It's something that puzzles me in working with the Neo-Futurists (who attempt to create "non-illusory, interactive performance that conveys our experiences and ideas as directly and honestly as possible") and has been stuck in my mind ever since--at what point(s) do(es) directness and honesty overlap, in art and on the world stage?

Hallie argued that the characters in BAMBOOZLED were shallow, and that was part of what made it a bad movie. I believe they were deliberately shallow, that that was part of Lee's point. Hal said nobody makes their characters deliberately shallow; I disagree. I think it's rarely to never a *good* choice, but it's often a choice, and so I believe it was here. It was not a movie that was supposed to be about going into depth with its characters, he was presenting them as characters who didn't know who they were enough to go into depth with themselves, and if they couldn't, we couldn't. Not that that has to be the case--if they couldn't, we couldn't--but I think that's what he was doing. Either way. Lee had a lot to say about race that I'm not sure I entirely get yet. The basic premise of the movie is that a black television writer is told by his white producer that the shows he is proposing about middle-class blacks in various situations are not black enough. Furious, the writer bands together with his personal assistant (black, female, extremely educated) to write a minstrel show, starring two street performers, who have been dancing outside of the television studios, in blackface. It becomes an incredible hit, though it makes the band/gang/rebel group to which the personal assistant's brother belongs furious. Cultural chaos ensues, and a lot of people die, getting shot and killed by one another. Which didn't make emotional sense with the plot, and yet made emotional sense with the anger the plot attempted to express. There was a tremendous amount of power to the scene in which the entire studio audience has come in blackface--it's a groupie thing--and one of the hosts, a black man in blackface, goes through the audience asking people if they are niggers, and people of every race respond, "Yes, I'm a nigger!" (In various permutations of the phrase). I mean, ultimately the movie's not incredibly well-put-together or logical. It's almost a satire, but not exactly, because of the cruel drama of the ending (I suppose when you take another step back, that's parodic too, but it didn't quite feel like you were supposed to take another step back); it didn't find a consistent tone. But damn, the anger, which was what was direct, what assaulted you as a viewer, was palpable and solidly artistically expressed. You understood why it was a movie. And yet . . . it was just this side of completely lacking in symbolism. Everything it had to say it pretty much up and said. For which I do not fault it necessarily, but it's unusual and can often overshadow/neglect craft.

Symbol. Metaphor. Etcetera. These are all forms of indirection--as Sharon once put it, it may be that craft itself is indirect. Art is an indirect form of expression. Why do we choose it? As far as I'm concerned, because not all emotions are direct. In fact, very, very few are. Anger may be one of the closest, and yet some of the best art around is done out of anger. Gwendolyn Brooks said that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility." On some level I would like to extend that to all arts (and emotion, contrary to popular rumor, needn't be simply about oneself, in classic omphaloskepsis style), and yet with theater and performance--I'd also extend it to movies--it's different simply because for a performance to be convincing and/or to draw you in (as in the case of the Neo-Futurists, where they're not trying to convince you that they're someone or something else or feeling something they are not but are often trying to persuade you to opinions they hold), you must use those recollections in yourself to such a degree that they seem to be or in fact are there once again, which sort of disrupts the tranquilty part. As far as I'm concerned, as I think I've said before, the choice to express yourself artistically as opposed to any other way--which ways, such as politics or humanitarian aid, are sometimes more direct--means that you obligate yourself (can you do that?) to the form as much as to the content. If you decide art is the best medium for what you want to say, then the way you will serve what you want to say best is to do the best art you can. And that's generally indirect, but it is the most honest. Why, though? I'm convinced that's true, but I can't see why indirection becomes honest, except that the way humans express themselves isn't always direct, but why's that the case? Why shouldn't we just be direct, except that then there'd be nothing to talk about--was it actually an evolutionary decision, somehow, for us to have something to talk about? That would be completely weird.

On extended metaphor/symbolism, we also have THE CRUCIBLE, which I saw at UT this past weekend (starring Katie and stage-managed by Cassie) and about which script I've long been ambivalent. This production did not change that. In some cases the uses of symbolism are social protection--i.e. it's the most direct form of expression that the current social climate offers you. I don't know . . . THE CRUCIBLE is really very much along the lines of BAMBOOZLED, an unadulterated expression of anger and very little besides anger, but that anger expressed by someone who already has some innate grasp of craft. (I'll admit Mr. Miller had an innate grasp of craft--I don't really admire what he *did* with it, but he *had* it.) And yet, we need to know about that anger, don't we? And better a movie about a weird racial phenomenon/social disaster/injustice/riot than to actually *have* a riot in response to all the weird racial phenomena/social disasters/injustices? Or maybe not--I mean, it's not like there's not a place for direct political action, there very much is; there's even a place for riots. But the mistake people make is in thinking art can *be* a riot. It can't. Art isn't direct action. That doesn't make it better or worse, but it does make it something other than what a lot of political artists wish it were. (And if they're good political artists, they make it good art in spite of wishing it were more direct action.)

So what am I really saying here about being direct? (Directness being, by the way, something I have come in the past year to value much more in social interactions.) I'm saying that knowing that art is indirect, in general we need to embrace its indirectness. To commit to craft, which I believe anyone choosing to do art over anything else needs to do, is to commit to a certain level of not being direct. And we also have to admit that there's nothing *wrong* with that; if indirectness did not have some value, it wouldn't have been a part of social interaction (can we talk about ostensible proper courtship behavior, for example) for so many years? To use a symbol is indirect, but often more honest and capable of having more impact. By indirections--by means of perspective--we're able to see what we have--the directions--more clearly. Hence, recollected in tranquility. As to the anger? I'm still a little confused on this front, honestly. I know sometimes we need to see anger boil through in art, and sometimes that's okay, but often it's detrimental to the art and thus detrimental to the expression, to the messages (pigeons again) it was trying to get across. But sometimes we do need to know: artists, who know how powerful art can be, are doing art about this because they're just that angry. Because what they're talking about just pisses them off so much. Does that last beyond its own era? I don't know. CRUCIBLE kind of has and kind of hasn't. The story of the Salem Witch Trials is just so incredible to me, as is the story of McCarthyism, that the power of those *concepts* can just carry me; I'm not sure it's exactly a good *play.* Same for BAMBOOZLED: it's in some ways a channel to make us look at race and weird racial relations, rather than at the characters and their stories. As Alex R. pointed out, one of its powers is that the whole "who's a nigger? I'm a nigger!" blackface phenomenon seemed so utterly conceivable, even in a movie that was mostly outrageous--outrageous purely to be provocative, which is generally what satire is. But why do movies and plays really have to be about their stories and their characters--isn't that in some ways what Brecht was trying to challenge with the theory of alienation (basically, that it's wrong to get the audience invested in a character's journey without reminding them constantly that what they're doing is watching a play--to go through the intellectual journey before attaching in any emotional way)? But he didn't neglect craft in order to do it--quite the contrary, in fact, since he was so detailed about the kind of responses he wanted. But you never get exactly the responses you wanted, unless you want generally enough.

*Sigh*. This is getting tautological.


At 11:10 AM, Blogger Connor said...



Allowing your criteria for good art, I might venture that (self-propogating?) anger neither adds nor detracts to a works ultimate value in and of itself, but that the intensity of that emotion does not compensate for, and in some ways might hinder, the craft you're looking for.

In another vein, it's one of the reasons that the most moony love poems often sound like crap to us.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

But at the same time, I couldn't say that the intensity of the driving emotions does not contribute to the work's ultimate value. The power of the emotion *does* matter very much. It's just not all there is to it. Craft's an entirely separate commitment. I agree that it doesn't compensate for craft or the lack thereof, but the presence or absence of a driving emotion does have a great deal to do with the work's ultimate outcome.

I agree about the love poems. :>D

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I see what you're saying, and I don't disagree... I've always preferred something gut-wrenching and there to something coldy analytical, but you could argue that the same emotional intensity could fuel either approach.

I was being reductive... thinking about it in a sort of Artaud vs. Brecht sort of way... the one's emotional fury and sincerity vs. the other's rigor and care. And we know who's more fondly remember, and by more people. But I don't know if that's even an appropriate comparison.

So this question, then:

Are you saying that one cannot fake emotional investiture?

At 5:32 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

you know, in all this deep psychological exigesis (one of the most enlightening posts of yours i've read, i must say) the thing that i find myself wondering the most about is the offhand parenthetical comment you made near the end (actually, you probably guessed i would respond to this, come to think of it, precognitively if nothing else) about coming to value directness far more in social interactions. ... rather ambiguous and hooksome phrase, no? the thing is, i suppose that you could say i too have recently come to value directness in social interactions more (if not much more). mainly this directness involves establishing what the emotional relationship between me and the other person is first and foremost -- really i tend towards believing that the emotional relationship (or "dynamic") between people is much less labile than i formerly believed (or is it that it actually *is* less labile now that all of us are older? could this actually be a moot point? hmm). i wouldn't want any of this directness, however, to impinge on (what i see as) the essential artistic nature of social interaction, with artisticness just about necessitating indirection as you say. "be as direct as you need to be but not more" would be a tautology, but maybe the amount of directness that's necessary can be defined, or at least described, as that which actually allows for the maximum amount of indirectness subsequently. this of course is my (fairly deeply held) -- not belief exactly, but personal lifestyle philosophy at least -- maybe because directness in the place of indirectness often just bores me -- and i do wonder how much you agree with. also the movie-as-movie vs. movie-as-retelling thing you wrote about might come in here -- there might be a distinction made between social interaction as something else, such as conversation to plan for a trip, say, and social interaction in its purest form. i don't know. what's going on here??

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Aight, *finally*, Lorenzo. Who knows if you'll even read it at this point. I love "the artistic nature of social interaction," and it's true that I would loathe living if absolutely everything about it were direct. (Emily and I once made a list of "things we would talk about if people were transparent," and it was both short and boring.) But because society's as odd as it is, directness itself is a code, and I can admire that somebody can actually tell me what they mean sometimes without losing the allure of thinking about what kind of person saying what they mean makes them in the world. So even directness is symbolic, and it's symbolism that makes friendship. It's just another symbol I've come to admire, and in some cases (not all of them) it removes a superfluous layer.

Now in some cases, particularly early in friendship, that layer is not superfluous, and I'm good with that. And even when you're being direct, you aren't being direct about everything that could possibly be said, you're choosing one thing to focus on. Just as I do think there is a place in society for pedagogically political art, I also think there's a place for blatantly direct people, though it's not the same place.

That wasn't quite cohesive, but do you get the idea?


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