Mixing Art And Pleasure
The Fun Part
‘In every job that must be done there is an element of fun…’ Thus spake Mary Poppins, and it can apply even in the most serious and thought-provoking stories. By ‘fun’, I mean that the reader/viewer/listener must be rewarded a little for the effort of paying attention. Every work of art is a triangle; it consists of three connected points – the creator, the work and the audience, and you ignore the third point at your peril.
It’s a trap into which many writers and directors fall. I’ve reached the point where there are many films I can’t watch because they’re too unsurprising. If you can tell where a story is headed and it offers no glimmer of human interest, the art has failed.
If you look at the BAFTA nominations, you’ll see that the most nominated film is one that supposedly straddles the ‘arthouse’ label – ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ was favoured over ‘Mr Turner’, which failed to garner nominations. I think the problem is that, despite being meticulously constructed, in ‘Mr Turner’ we watched an inarticulate man painting and repeating his day over and over, almost as if Mike Leigh was deliberately denying his audience the pleasure of insight, or perhaps that was the point; there is no revelation about art to be had, it is something innate and inexplicable. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is not arthouse, it’s a confection. Wes Anderson based his tale on the writings of Stefan Zweig, but it feels closer to Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’. Ultimately it does not make a point (nor, as far as I can see, does ‘Mr Turner’) but it is a lot of fun.
A sense of pleasure is often missing from films, especially in worthy Oscar votecatchers like ‘Selma’. It happens just as much in blockbusters; watching the refit of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies it’s hard not to be struck by the contrast between the meticulous effects work and the deadeningly flat human scenes, as if the CGI designers were more passionate about what they were doing than the filmmakers. I preferred the lower-budget SF movies like ‘Automata’ and ‘In Time’ to the last half-dozen Tom Cruise films because the emphasis is on intriguing ideas. Does that make them art films? Just because a film is tackling serious subject matter doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be enjoyable.
The Art Part
Speaking of enjoyment, lately there has been a vertiginous decline in arthouse films.
What defines arthouse? For me it used to largely mean free-thinking, experimental, possibly non-linear filmmaking that existed outside of the major studios, films like ‘Eraserhead’ or ‘Last Year At Marienbad’. They didn’t necessarily have to be subtitled or obscure, they just had to make you feel strange or offer some food for thought.
From the 1950s onwards arthouse cinemas seemed to be doing well in London. Then, almost overnight, they started closing down. Now I can’t even recall the names of these palaces where I spent my youth. What was that one in St Martin’s Lane? Wardour Street? What was at the Pantheon in Oxford Street (the one which produced its own woodcut posters)?
Suddenly, films like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Sideways’ (both bland mainstream comedies) started turning up at supposedly arthouse cinemas. It was like finding that ‘Spirit of the Beehive’ had been replaced by ‘Love, Actually’. It wasn’t just about bums on seats; the actual definition of arthouse changed. It had come to mean anything without Adam Sandler in it. And yes, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is suddenly considered an arthouse film, although I have no idea why – because it doesn’t have a hearthrob male lead or any guns in? Because it’s quirky?
Arthouse in the style of say, Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais and Werner Herzog vanished from London. Economies of scale were largely to blame. In New York and Chicago you could stage packed festivals because you had the numbers, and in university towns like Austin, Texas you could fill an arthouse auditorium with ease. But London, a city of only 8.3 million? Pah, no chance.
When did we become so unadventurous? I like Peter Greenaway films, but there are hardly any quality prints of his films available. Almost no Blu-Rays, no complete box sets. I spent a couple of years tracking down every Fellini, every Ken Russell, every Alain Resnais, and eventually gave up. The only version I could find of Resnais’ ‘Smoking’/’No Smoking’, two films based on a pair of English plays by Alan Ayckbourn, are so rare that they’re currently going for £221 on Amazon. I can’t be the only person who wants to watch them. Rigorous films can still provide pleasures; my favourites include Borowcyz’s ‘Blanche’ and Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’, Leigh’s ‘Topsy-Turvey’ and Von Trier’s ‘Europa’. All tough watches – all filled with pleasurable moments.
Home viewing has allowed us to catch up with experimental or unusual movies – but as Hollywood attempts to force streaming on everyone, they’re narrowing the choice to what somebody else considers arthouse, a specific style of film placed in a box with a neat little label. Whereas part of the pleasure for any cineaste is discovering the unusual for oneself.
So, what is art? Was ’12 Years A Slave’ art? Not in my book; it was a turgid, condescending wallow through history anyone should already know. Was the nine and a half hour ‘Shoah’ or the half-hour long ‘Night and Fog’ art? Yes, because it was impossible not to feel different after seeing them. What is art? That’s up for each of us to decide.