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Monthly Archives: December 2019

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by Richard Nilsen

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Recently, filmmaker Martin Scorsese caused a bit of a kerfuffle by suggesting that perhaps superhero movies weren’t, strictly speaking, cinema. The backlash from the fanboy hordes was sharp, angry and, in simple terms, the equivalent of “OK, boomer.”
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He is behind the times, they say. He is trapped in a past and needs to get with the program.
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An old friend and former colleague of mine at the newspaper where I used to work defended Scorsese with a quote from something I wrote years ago. I hadn’t even remembered it. But it is to the point.
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I made a distinction that should be kept in mind: “Movies are about story; film is about how the story is told; and cinema is about what the story means.”
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Most audiences go to the theater for the story — nothing wrong with that, some of the best movies ever are all about story. I would hate to give up myThin Man movies, or my Claude Chabrol thrillers. Story is the foundation of film.
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When crotchety director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said, chomping his cigar, “A story.” And when pressed for what makes a good story, he said, “A story.” You can’t get any clearer than that.
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But in the past several decades, after a crowd of young directors have gone through film school, many films have become instead about how they are told. Take, for instance, Pulp Fiction, which shuffles several interrelated stories and proves Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
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Or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which moves forward and backward in time simultaneously. Or The Blair Witch Project, which creates professionally the look of amateur film. Or 2014’s  Birdman, by Alejandro Iñárritu, which is filmed with the appearance of no editing.
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If you go to film school, you want to try out the toys.
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It may seem as if this tendency is new in Hollywood, but the fact is, most Alfred Hitchcock films are primarily about how they are made. He often set himself filmmaking problems and had a barrel of fun solving them, as when he shot an entire film in a lifeboat at sea, or in Rear Window, where everything is seen from a single room, or even Psycho, where he does the unthinkable and kills off his main character halfway through the film.
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He even anticipated Birdman (and the 2002 Russian Ark) by making Rope in 1948, which presents itself as one long single take. Hitchcock reveled in filmmaking for its own sake.
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In North By Northwest, he has a famous sequence in which Cary Grant is chased through a cornfield by a cropdusting plane. The scene makes no actual sense, and doesn’t logically fit into the story (if the bad guys wanted to kill him, there are lots easier ways to do it than to buzz him with a biplane). But Hitch wanted to shoot it and it is one of the most cinematic in the movie.
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But the type of film Scorsese was referring to is what I label “cinema,” that is, film used to explore questions of existence, to find meaning — or lack of — in life. The Marvel and DC movies he targeted have very little to do with real life; they are utter fantasy. The characters don’t do what actual humans might do; the plots focus on scenarios that are impossible by the laws of physics; and most awful: The world is divided into good guys and villains. Worse: super-villains, that odd concatenation of evil, paranoia and comic books, usually mixed with absurd technology (I’m talking about you, Doc Ock and Doctor No).
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Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the banality of evil, would have nothing to say about this parallel universe.
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Some movies, however, aim to explore the conditions of being human, films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Federico Felllini’s La Dolce Vita, or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Colors trilogy or Decalog.
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These films have sometimes been called “art films,” although to many, that implies unwatchability and pretension. But, like great books or classic music, rather it means not settling for the simple and conventional. To those of us who love such films, they are a joy and pleasure and spark the recognition that yes, this is the real world I know.
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These are films that hit deeply at what it all means, the great questions of life, the universe and everything. Roshomon, The Bicycle Thief, Exterminating Angel, The 400 Blows, Raging Bull.
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But I don’t mean to imply that films are simply one type or the other. An art film can have a story, and a crowd-pleaser at the multiplex can be told in innovative ways. In fact, almost all film dips into each well to one depth or another.
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Consider Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which is a gripping story, told in unconventional ways that is also a deep dive into meaning of psychology, politics, power, love, and childhood. It does all three better than most films. And, as Pauline Kael famously said, it is “more fun than any other great movie.”
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Unless that movie is Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, which has at its core the infinite wisdom of the truth: “Everybody has their reasons.”
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But it wasn’t movies I was meaning to talk about. Really, I meant to notice that this tripartite division is applicable to the other arts as well. In fact, it is a good way to consider them, so you aren’t asking the wrong questions when looking, hearing or watching something.
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A painting of a vase of flowers can be just a painting of a vase of flowers. It’s pretty enough. Watercolor societies all over regularly hold member exhibitions filled with very pretty flowers, very well painted, but their reason for existence is to be pretty, to decorate a home.
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But when Picasso paints a vase of flowers, the point is the way he paints them, whether as a Cubist image, or an abstract, or even, at times, a threatening monstrous vase of potential Audreys from a little shop of horrors. His paintings are beautiful, but never pretty.
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Consider, then, the frequent trope of 17th century Dutch flower paintings, where an utterly gorgeous bouquet is pictured with a few withered blossoms and several insects or snails ready to devour them. Sometimes, if the message isn’t clear enough, a human skull will be placed next to the vase as a memento mori. Vanitas, vanitas; omnia vanitas. Such paintings remind us of the shortness of life and the futility of ambition.
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Again, it doesn’t mean that the Dutch flowers aren’t beautiful; they are. But there is another layer of meaning behind them. They aren’t just a pretty face.
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Or take poetry. A poem may be simply an attractive image or thought. It may tell a story in verse, or illustrate a popular truism. But then there are poems that are just about the way they are written: The tricky layout of an e.e. cummings or the anagram poetry of George Herbert, or the odd-length lines of a Dylan Thomas drawing a diamond on the page.
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A villanelle or a sonnet or even a haiku is always in part about how it is written, as if it were a puzzle that the poet has carefully crafted for you. Even a limerick.
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Not every poem is an earthshaking revelation. But there is always a Paradise Lost or an Intimations Ode to remind us that the world is larger, more meaningful and reflect our part in it.
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A novel may be simply a story, the way Stephen King writes them, direct and with clear structure. Or they may be as James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the manner of its writing is central. Or, like Dostoevsky, it may tackle the big issues of life.
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Again, none of these does just the one thing, but each clearly emphasizes a different aspect. I suppose you could map it all out with a pie chart for each.
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Even in music, there are simple tunes (“chunes” as William Yeats used to call them). They can be pop songs, or dinner cassations by Mozart, but their only aim is to please.
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Then there is music that is about how it is written, which ranges from Haydn’s clever play with sonata form all the way to the dodecaphonic assemblages of Milton Babbitt, which have little expressive content and are entirely about their own construction.
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But swing the whole other way and you have Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Third, music that strives to, in Mahler’s formulation, “be like the world, it must contain everything.”
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In Wagner’s later operas, he certainly tried to explain the world and existence. Yes, much music is pleasant to listen to, but who with a human heart can hear the Liebestod without breaking down in recognition of his own ineluctable mortality, and worse, the loss of those we most dearly love.
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Igor Stravinsky once lied through his teeth and claimed that “music can express nothing,” but can you listen to Schubert’s C-major string quintet and not weep with depth of its sorrow?
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These three motives in art are everywhere, and We should be careful not to dismiss something because we assume it is trying to do something it is not. Roger Ebert often wrote about judging a movie by what it is aiming to do, not by what the critic wishes it did.
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Art can entertain; it can disturb; it can perplex. It can fulfill an expectation or subvert it. There are more colors than one. There is the story, how it is told and what it means.
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Q.E.D.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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