Distilling Art from Artist
The recent theatrical release and only moderate popular success of Kill Bill Vol. 2, partnered up w/ the home video release of Vol. 1, left me wondering whether Tarantino’s recent films, the first of which was a delirious and bloody brilliant paean to global lowbrow cinema, and the second, while flawed, still potent and emotionally engaging, would have been more successful if their auteur had been a less obnoxious public figure. Which further led me to consider whether we’d be better off knowing absolutely nothing about the personal lives, public pronouncements and private proclivities of the folks whose work in movies we admire (or detest.) Wouldn’t the movie-going experience be more likely to be untainted w/o the knowledge that the people making the film were first grade assholes? In QTs case, as with many, many other media-savvy folks in the business, this is complicated by the fact that he not only welcomes the spotlight, he’s rigged the thing with 3000 watt bulbs and operates the generator himself. I mean, c’mon--showing up as a guest judge on American Idol? To be fair, he has more qualifications as a purveyor of popular musical than at least two of the regular judges on that show’s panel, but still, other than brazen self-promotion, what purpose does such an appearance serve? Does QT really thing that there is a large, untapped KB audience in the milquetoast-y audience that forms the core of the AI demographic? And, if so, could it be more clear that QT is off his meds again?
Now, where was I? Oh yeah. Brace yerself; I go on for awhile.
Leaving aside the question of whether a certain level of prickliness is an important ingredient in a committed artist because it is pretty much besides the pt in this argument, let’s look at the allure of personal attack masquerading as criticism. Simply put, it is so much easier to dismiss individuals than it is to study and analyze their work. I return here to the old adage that shallow folk gossip about other people, while sophisticates talk about ideas, issues, and values, and I’m left to wonder if some of us aren’t being just a little lazy and an awful lot superficial in our critical approach to film. There is certainly an immediate emotional satisfaction to this sorta criticism because we feel justified that the people who piss us off oughta have their work denigrated (hate the artist, dismiss the art). And consider how challenging it is for us to dislike an artist for his personal qualities and yet admire him as an artist (or vice versa—did Hitchcock get an easier ride cuz he cultivated that whole lovable curmudgeon schtick? Is criticism of Tom Hanks films softened cuz he’s such a great guy?). These sorts of conflicting interests force us to confront aspects of ourselves that we may find discomforting, but if we inhabit the spirit of Whitman, we’ll be large enough to contain these vast and multitudinous contradictions.
In a perfect world we’d know as little as possible about the private lives of our artists. Still, I’m compelled to recognize the futility of such a hope. In this age where surveillance equipment is microscopic, where satellite shots from outer space offer clearer pictures of people cavorting in my neighbour’s hot tub than my 100 dollar digital camera, where we bask in the warm glow of the 24-hour information service that is the internet, and where the public embraces the Patriot Act like it’s the Holy Grail, it’s clear that ignorance—just another word for paranoia, according to HS Thompson--is no longer an option. It appears that the best we can hope to do is minimize the impact of such information on the purity of our aesthetic enjoyment of art. Like most of y’all, I am a victim of Pop Culture’s overweening need to peer into the lives of the rich and famous. In this land of 24/7 infotainment I once allowed myself to be seduced by the easy virtue of scandal sheet journalism, but now it’s the morning after, and I’ve got a scummy taste in my mouth. All of this by way of admitting that my current one is not the position I came with, but one I have arrived at. And so I say it is time to turn your back on all that is fashionable about being in the know. Time to say Fuck This Noise! and retreat from the continuous blare of satellite sound and cable fury. We’ve got to stand up to the tide of meaningless blather that is distracting us from what really matters (Hint: The Art Itself) . It is Time to Signify Something. This is not a proscription for intelligent film criticism so much as a cry for all the gossip-mongerers disguised as critics to grow the fuck up. If you are letting personal vitriol infect your ability to look at the work’s aesthetics, you need to take a step back and ask yourself why you are in this biz.
But still and all, once the information is out there, can we (should we) ignore it? Is there a parallel in the field of book adaptations-those who haven’t read the source material have a "purer" experience of the film than those who have read it and come in with all sortsa preconceptions? And just as the adaptation wouldn’t occur if novel hadn’t been successful, so too a movie star’s success plants ‘em squarely in the public eye, where they can use their popularity to enhance career. But this double-edged Damoclean sword of publicity can also be turned against ‘em because we love to build ‘em up just so’s we can tear ‘em down. Plus, there’s also the whole prurient interest thing to be considered; while we wouldn’t dare to do some of the things that celebrities indulge in daily, we get vicarious thrills outta hearing about it.
Despite all the distractions, I remain firmly in the "artist is dead" camp. Once the work is produced, it no longer belongs to the artist, but to the audience to whom it has been gifted. Anything an artist says about the work, whether process or product, needs to be taken w/ the proverbial grain of salt at best, and is completely irrelevant at worst. Of course, like any gluttonous cinephile I gobble up every director dvd audio commentary I find on my plate, but I don’t consider this hypocrisy so much as skills-sharpening scholarship. Like any movie-lover, I am interested in hearing about a director’s inspirations and influences, plus I find it interesting to line up my own reactions and interpretations of the film against others—good art should be a dialogue of sorts, no? Still and all, most of the time I find that director’s commentaries are only marginally informative, and often degenerate into banal chatter about the work-a-day processes of filmmaking. I much prefer discs like those in the Criterion Collection that are often graced with the commentaries of scholars in the film community. Their intellectual rigor and emotional distance from the making of the film usually results in a much more satisfying audio experience.
Of course, it ain’t all so black and white; there are ethically challenging areas here. Looking at Roman Polanski, f’instance, we see someone who has had a long and wildly varied career, with, at one end, films as viscerally charged and thematically complex as Repulsion, Chinatown and The Pianist, and at the other, movies as deeply flawed and misguided as The Tenant, Ninth Gate and Bad Moon. However, his current legacy appears to be not cinematic, but rather his very public run-in with the law in California and his subsequent flight to Europe in order to escape prosecution for allegedly drugging and raping an underage girl. Now, these legal troubles don’t seem to have hurt his career at all, as last year’s Oscar for directing The Pianist surely attests, but I know that for every frame of every Polanski film that I’ve watched since his case became public, I remain aware of what this man has admitted doing with young girls. My ability to really enjoy his work is permanently corrupted. As the father of two girls, I’d sure wanna know if he moved into my neighbourhood, so doesn’t that make me something of a phony bastard to simultaneously desire that I be able to view his films w/ a mental blank slate allowing me to remain unaware of his alleged pedophilia? And should I even be implicitly sanctioning the work of a man who has engaged in such despicable acts? Tough questions all.
Charlie Chaplin, who may have lived in a "simpler time" where he didn’t have to be concerned with how his every move was going to become public knowledge, managed to flourish despite inclinations startlingly similar to those of the currently-vilified Roman Polanski, and it was only when his politics became a front-and-center issue that he wore out his welcome in H/wood. Despite the legendary appetites, fetishes and exploits of his contemporaries, such as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who is remembered more for the shame of his trials than the films he produced, I still see in Chaplin a lesson for the ages. When I’m watching Charlie's greatest films, like City Lights or Gold Rush, I’m not thinking about his sexual escapades with pubescent girls, but about the unique way he had of tilting his head in order to frame his smile at just the right coquettish angle. Should I feel guilty for loving the films of a fella only a couple degrees of behaviour removed from the likes of Roman Polanski? Well, since the public and history have vindicated the Robert Mitchums of our world, whose career was thought endangered when he was busted for marijuana possession, as well as the Charlie Chaplins, who knows? Maybe it will even look kindly on the ethically-challenged moves of the Woody Allens or the repugnant inclinations of the Roman Polanskis. So what I guess I’m trying to say is that in the end, mebbe it is with Chaplin that we learn the ultimate lesson and in which we can take the final solace: In this, as in all things, Time Will Out. Today as we pass judgement on the Artist we ought to be reminded that in fifty years audiences will be adjudicating the quality of the work itself.
Lissen, I guess that in the end it comes down to this: Critics are often heard to complain about things that "take us out of" a movie, whether it’s internal, such as an anachronistic bit of set design or piece of dialogue, a poor performance by an actor, or external, like a lousy projectionist, a terrible sound system or a disruptive popcorn-munching, television-bred, mouth-breathing chatty-Cathy audience. Well, getting distracted by your personal distaste for the people working on or in the film also qualifies. In the end, good art transforms and transcends. It lifts us out of our daily mire, and makes us a incrementally better. Knowledge of the filmmaker’s private proclivities and predilections is an impediment to this experience.
So, how can you deny to yourself that the media over-saturation/attitude/behaviour/eating habits of a fella like Tarantino pisses you off/bores you to death/makes you wanna take 12 inch skewers to your eyeballs? You can’t. But you can control how much such nonsense you bring yourself into contact with. While we may find ourselves gleefully swept up by the tornado of news fed to us by the infotainment industry, we should remind ourselves that it is okay to stand back and unplug. Of course, all of this would be a lot easier if guys like Tarantino would just, in the words of Hole City’s gadgetgirl, drink deeply from the warm cup of Shut the Fuck Up. Anyways and regardless, if an artist is a misanthrope or a misogynist, a pedophile or a cannibal, these are things that I might want (or need) to know if I was going to enter into close proximity or a relationship with that person, but is otherwise outside the realm of my interest as a consumer of this individual’s work. However, unless the individual in question is a felon-at-large, a danger to the community, well, I just don’t wanna know about it, all right? Talk amongst yourselves. I’ve got better things to do. Like watch a movie.