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.