Monday, March 19, 2018

Thoughts on strong affect in art


I have often said that our crises of society might be more aesthetic in nature than the normal ways they are usually understood when they are referred to as moral, political,  or, frankly, crudely sociological in nature. I was happy that philosopher Daniel Kaufman, on a favorite site with which he is associated, The Electric Agora, called the problem what it is, when he invoked the word and concept philistine. I wrote a piece in 2000 called The New Philistinism and, as Kaufman wisely clarifies in his piece, the situation has only worsened in the eighteen years since my 2000 piece.

I think the notion of the arts and letters being an essential and special way of understanding is one notion that is unpopular at the moment. People take what they consider the concerns of the real world to be what ultimately matters and if not the real world then the "spiritual" correlate of the real world which comprises of their particular faith and/or religion. But the idea of artificial works of representation being inherently interesting and interesting precisely to the degree to which they can be separated from sociology is an idea that is itself under represented and if thought of at all is immediately rejected. Above all, if the arts and letters are respected they are only respected to the degree with which they are seen to further certain causes in the real world.

I was reminded of this problem when, in taking a break from my usual study of 1970s visual culture, I went back and watched several masterpieces of Hollywood melodrama from the middle fifties through the sixties. One of the things that struck me was the emotional seriousness, the sheer meaningfulness of the mise en scene: the lighting, coloration and composition seemed the equal of any of the masterworks of representational painting. The actors too were doing things of an emotional depth on screen, bespeaking a complete fearlessness with regard to what they were trying to evoke. There is a sense of awe on the screen: awe from the creators in their creation and an attempt to evoke awe in the spectator, a complete lack of jadedness, laziness, or snark. If contemporary people laugh at such films now because they think them dated, politically inconvenient (note I do not say correct) or silly,  I think the fall might reside in those contemporary people rather than in the films. The creators of such films were aesthetes and thought in aesthetic ways. I am thinking of films by people like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Elia Kazan, Richard Quine, Joshua Logan and Vincent Minnelli, to name just a handful.
PICNIC (Logan)

One characteristic of the films I have in mind is their emotional intensity. There is an enormous amount at stake for the characters and, quite in keeping with the nature of how cinema was envisioned by their creators, the films at every moment attempt to express such high stakes in every conceivable way possible with the tools at the time - again another striking similarity to painting. That is, the emotion is a matter of art direction and lighting and wardrobe as much as it is of acting.

Of course one of the reasons why this is the case with these films is that emotion is actually their main subject matter. However much outward action or plot there is in the films, their real theme is human interiority, or consciousness itself. And to make matters more interesting, because many attitudes and behaviors were forbidden for representation on the screen at the time in a literal form, filmmakers had to work extra hard to envision new ways of expression. It is not so much that the films are "Freudian" or "psychological" because, frankly, you who are in the  in the audience will have to feel or undergo something internally simply by experiencing the films - whether you are versed in psychology or not, and maybe even whether you are particularly emotional or not. The films traffic in feelings in something like a raw state - that is, prior to any psychological theories.  Now strong emotion in art is neither inherently good or bad, but it is simply a fact that works of strong emotion can only accomplish certain things that will be impossible if a work were to take a cooler approach. At the end of the day it might be a subjective affair indeed, the objective excellence of the works in question notwithstanding.

What I am talking about, of course, is style, rather than genre. ("The concept of genre is as cold as the tomb": Andrei Tarkovsky) The power is not merely the result of narrative structure or even milieu. To my way of thinking, Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Strangers When We Meet, The Sandpiper and Johnny Guitar have much more in common than not, even though the locales, ages, and periods of the stories couldn't be more dissimilar on the surface. Yet they feel like the same artistic project in that they have found a way to represent characters and their environments on film in such a way that every detail matters and is organized - compositionally - for maximum affect.

I think to look at the films in this way is to see that films like these are much closer to opera, dance and ballet than  they are to either the theatre or the novel.  If I am right then we have been wrong all along in trying to fit these films into categories normally associated with psychological realism or novelistic narration.

In fact - and in this way they are really like paintings or arias - the films are more interested in the emotional moment rather than only moving the plot forward.
This, then, is one virtue of strong emotion in a work of art like a movie. Strong emotion forces the action to be arrested for a time. It is an experience akin to religious or spiritual worship or contemplation. As we all know when somebody is in a sate of contemplation they aren't generally running around  in the world in extroverted and busy tasks.  (Of course that some spiritual masterworks of art are contemplative by virtue of turning down the dial on emotion, as in Mark Rothko, is a fact that only goes to show that there are, as it were, different kinds of religions.)

You can try to fit the films into such labels as realism but it not where their heart really is. They are radical expressions of states of feeling. The narrative course of the film  or psychological categories (or diagnosis) of the film's characters are actually secondary. What matters is the emotional moment. In this sense these works of art of a staid and conservative Hollywood era are anything but. They are revolutionary in their romanticism, in their stubborn insistence on the virtue of authenticity and truth seeking - values that however overused and problematic they are in word, are as indispensable and inescapable in culture more generally in deed.

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