Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Random Rumination

Looking at Art From The Outsider's POV


     I watched an interesting documentary the other day called The Outsider (available on Netflix Instant watch). Driven by my curiosity to understand everything there is to know about making movies, I started watching it expecting to be educated on a couple of things, a proposition increasingly difficult to satisfy as the more inscrutable, utilitarian aspects of filmmaking can only be learned through the practice of actually making movies. But knowledge is power and I'm not averse to expanding my intellectual capital in the event that I do enter the discipline full-throttle. The downside is a hellacious misuse of my free time, but the upside is incalculable in ways that keep my capacity to dream big alive.
      Directed by Nicholas Jarecki, who recently made Arbitrage, a compelling dissection of modern capitalism and the polluting ambitions it creates in men to ascend the endless mountain of money, The Outsider, navigating much different terrain, follows the idiosyncratic movements of maverick indie-filmmaker, James Toback (Fingers, Tyson, screenwriter for Bugsy). Toback is the kind of man whose genius is engineered to excess through problematic personal indiscretions; a high-stakes gambling addiction only breaches the surface. Jarecki's curiosity in Toback is more of an enchantment stemming from the psychological faculties with which it becomes necessary to sustain a vital career in the thrust of such manic, extremist preoccupations. We can deduce from the stark juxtapositions comprising the dramatic arc of Toback's professional life that his incessant intellectual fervor and behavioral curiosity is tethered to his personal misgivings. For a man who has seen and done it all, who has lived life precariously to maximum pleasure and pain, who has exhibited insatiable thirst for discovery, what can possibly motivate him to the set? A set where he commands unflinching authority, patiently directing actors, dictating millions of decisions instinctively with regards to lighting, camera placement, lens choice, and communicating the film's conceptual functions upon which every frame, scene, and sequence depend?
      The answer is actually pretty simple to fathom. That inexorable willpower Toback harnesses in his personal life to achieve pertinence, material or otherwise, fuels his quest to find artistic meaning in life. Only difference is the guise of cinema as opposed to a perverse personal enrichment. 
      The question more compelling than what is why. An artist can always summon the creative juices to propel their next project. But organizing and augmenting these creative flourishes in ways that trigger a more primordial emphasis is the true challenge. And even more challenging still is finding an acceptable intersection of ideas, which aligns these passions and convictions to the chasms of an evolving, even mercurial marketplace. Will anybody be interested in what you have to say? What purpose does your art serve if not cultural? What value can be ascribed to art if there is no audience to digest it? These are primal questions that have intrigued minds since the dawn of time. No finite answer will ever close the discussion. But Jarecki and Toback have ventured that metaphysical journey nonetheless, and through their impassioned inquisition I felt compelled to write this piece. This act alone is a testament to the work they have put forth. 
      Roger Ebert appears in the documentary during a few key moments to offer some well-reasoned insights. One particular idea he posits that is worth reflecting on is this notion: 
      "all the great directors are self-indulgent...if you're not going to indulge yourself, then who? The audience? Then you're not a director at all, you're a caterer." 
      While this insight seems quite inflammatory, bemoaning any director who seeks to furnish a work that encapsulates best the public's demand, it is actually a pretty inevitable conclusion to draw. Art is entirely a function of self. Good art enhances self in a manner that is agreeable.  Great art transforms self and becomes universal. And the greatest of art often shocks and penetrates our sensibilities, requiring new parameters to evaluate its primacy. Stanley Kubrick, considered by many among cinema's greatest visual artists, purposely imbued his films with layered meanings to encourage multivalent explanations. Exploitation film by its very design is meant to provoke outrage. What critic in the 1970s was not morally appalled by Michael Winner's Death Wish, a film whose reputation has grown more favorably with each successive generation? The New French Extremity movement is principled on the belief that subjecting an unwitting audience member to unconscionable depravity is a source of visceral enlightenment. The tides of posterity will be the true determinants of which films warrant exultant praise and those that wade eternally in the murky waters of mediocrity.
      The spirit of this idea speaks intimately to the philosophy of Toback. He is an artist first and foremost. His canvas is a stock of film. Visual images are his brush strokes. The viability of an artistic idea should not derive from its commercial solvency. Fecundity is the operative word that ought to be used. To what extent a creation achieves a kind of intellectual or creative vibrancy is the proper currency from which to define its merit. Not a dollar sign. If the merits of film, which I strongly believe to be consistent with all avenues of artistic expression, are ultimately valued based upon how much money it can make, how palatable its commercial prospects are, then it ceases being a film. It is, as Toback comically quips, "no different than a shoe," or any other facet of merchandise meant purely to satisfy the masses at the most digestible economic level. 
      Art is deeply personal. The creative and imaginative power it provisions is diluted if the driving force is commercial. But, if art succeeds the test of honest design, if it is cultivated through the proper organic channels and manages to reach a massive audience, then it's accomplishment is magnificent. In that instance I can truly bow for the outsider has been welcomed into the community of commerce. 

8 comments:

  1. A splendid rumination, Matt. I will have to check the documentary out. Was Ebert's participation onscreen? Was he using the text to speech program that uses his real voice as a sound pattern?

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    1. Thanks, buddy!

      Ebert's segments were filmed prior to the onset of complications that left him without a voice, so the Ebert we're privy to is the same affable, insightful one we love and know from the balcony. Still despondent over his passing :(

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  2. never heard of this docu but I might have to check it out. Sounds intriguing!
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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    1. It's a compelling look inside the mind of an iconoclast. I encourage you to check it out.

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  3. This is a brilliant piece. I've not heard of this documentary, but I will definitely seek it out. I agree with Roger, directors, nay all artists are self indulgent. We have our vision of story, concept, etc. that we want to bring to life, everyone else be damned. When we indulge ourselves we are creating art, when we cater to masses we are creating product. It takes a unique vision to bring to life something that will affect people, there is no vision in mass-produced.

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    1. Thank you so much, Melissa!

      If you have Netflix, it's available for Instant Watch. It's also a breeze of a doc. I believe the running time is less than 90 minutes.

      As a published author and a creator of unique worlds and characters, your opinion carries significant weight. I'm thrilled that you agree with my assessment even though I feel much of what I have written is pretty easily deducible. Your last statement illuminates precisely what I think on this whole matter of art vs. commerce. Thanks for elevating the discussion :)

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    2. Aww.. saying you're welcome seems so self-serving, but I am honored that you said what you did. :)

      I was doing a lot more thinking about this topic. I hope I make sense, but when I go to see a Transformers picture, I know I am going to escape, a wild ride for a couple of hours that turns my brain off and appeals to that visceral part of me that enjoys roller coasters and Oreo cookies. It's like a hit of a drug.

      True art makes me uncomfortable, makes me think, wonder, question. I don't see films like that in the theater because when I go out, I'm looking to escape, to forget about everything and be entertained. That is what I am sure many of the movie going audience is looking for. they are looking for that hit, that thing that will get them out of their lives for a while. The Michael Bays of Hollywood are like pushers, feeding our habits.

      True artists and their creations I watch at home where i can digest, rewind and absorb at my leisure. I feel like these are museum pieces. When I go to a museum, I can take an entire day as I read all the placards, learning what I can about the exhibits. I piss people off, but hey, I'm there to learn, not while away an hour or two to say that I've seen something.

      Both sides are necessary. One for our entertainment hits and the other to feed our souls.

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    3. I'll say it again: You personify awesome :)

      That my piece has sparked the intelligence of your mind gratifies me to no end. These conversations are tantamount to this blog's existence. It's why I invest any time in it.

      You make a distinction that I believe is drawn by most moviegoers. I think it is accurate and I will not argue its merits. All my friends who don't obsess over cinema—who don't even use the word cinema, thinking it pretentious—go to the theater for the very reasons you've enumerated. For pure, visceral entertainment. To escape. This mentality is the bedrock of the industry. It's why marketing costs entail $100 million outlays. Making the movie appear "entertaining" is the primary job of every Hollywood studio executive.

      But where I diverge, and I concede it's entirely a matter of personal preference, is the reason for going to the movies. If all I sought out was even the most brazen attempts at escapism, apart from being incredulous, I'd feel empty. I derive no greater joy than in those instances where a master director wields their infinite powers of seduction, cerebral or visceral. Witnessing them operate with such conviction and skill is mesmerizing.

      Art films nourish me in ways that to neglect them would be to disown my true self. The power that a theater viewing affords—the mammoth, crisp screen, amazing sound quality, communal atmosphere—elevates these viewings to heights that a home viewing experience cannot come close to emulating. That is why I make a concerted effort to see these more artistically conceptualized films at the theater despite the ostensible lack of "bang for your buck" escapism.

      All of this is not to say that I do not hold escapist films in the same regard as artsy, independently-minded films. They achieve different ends, which you brilliantly outlined, and warrant different perspectives. To rationalize the viewing experience the way you have is perfectly valid. So, too, is the approach I take. The beauty of moviegoing is there can be no wrong answer. The pursuit is intimately personal.

      Thanks for the awesome insights :)

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