You’ll forgive the title, but I felt it was the most effective way to
invite those for whom those things matter into the discussion.
Last week, there was a link on IMDb that said “Appreciating Films As Visual Art, Part 1.”
I was skeptical, as this isn’t exactly groundbreaking territory, but
what was contained within better expressed what the cinema does to me
than nearly anything else I’ve read in my entire life. The piece is a
collection of correspondence between Rick Poynor and Adrian
Shaughnessy, two names I couldn’t be less familiar with. And even
though if, like me, you end up taking one side over the other (as
you’ll soon see), if you glean from it half as much as I did, you’ll
find it incredibly rewarding.
On is entirely carried by its acute matching of wonderfully moody
monochrome images of roads, buildings, interiors and bad weather with a
soundtrack that includes music by Kraftwerk and David Bowie. There’s an
exquisitely severe shot of the DJ, sitting at the wheel of his ancient
Rover in a car wash, looking through the windscreen at the inky blur of
the whirling brushes as Devo’s dislocated, robotic version of the
Stones’ “Satisfaction” clanks away on the soundtrack. The camera
doesn’t move; the shot lasts a long time; nothing else happens in the
scene. This isn’t a psychological moment in any explicit sense — we can
only see the back of the actor’s head — yet this oblique image, like
the rest of the circuitous, dramatically reticent non-narrative, still
packs great emotional, symbolic and cinematic power.
Aside from making me add Radio On
to my Netflix queue, like, now, Poynor hit at the very essence of
cinema that seems to allude nearly everyone I discuss it with – the
great moments in cinema aren’t something you can define, much less
explain. They’re not written, acted, lit, and even the idea that
they’re photographed seems distant and unreachable. They simply are.
They transcend what they literally depict and become…art, in a word.
fall, I took a class called The Artist and the Making of Meaning. The
central goal of the class was to define what Art is, and also what is
not. Basically, Art became defined as an occurrence when something
transcends what it literally represents, and instead represents itself.
To use Poynor’s example, director Christopher Petit seems to have
created a scene where what we see onscreen is no longer a guy in a
The explanation of Art in The Artist and the
Making of Meaning helped to explain what happened to me that day – part
of what happened was Art. If you can wrap your head around that much
(many in my class could not), we can proceed.
concept explained everything I hadn’t been able to concretely define
for myself. It explains why an art exhibit featuring a telephone in an
empty room feels more like art than nearly any of the portraits I saw
in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. (although there are some
exceptions there, as well). It absolutely explains why the insistence
that to be Art, it has to display some sort of skill is insane, as if
the idea that a piece on display could be painted by your kid somehow
invalidated it. And, more importantly, it explains why some films are
Art and some are not (though where that distinction lies depends on the
It explains why the rigid formalism in, say, Funny Games, Revolutionary Road, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is art, but the rigid formalism on display in, say, The Dark Knight, Gran Torino, and Australia
is not, even though all six of those could be described as “beautiful”
or just photographed in a way that pleases the eye – between the
construction of the images and the execution of their scripts, they
fall into the still-respectable class of Great Craft. And I wish there
was more I could do to define that, but basically, aside from the shot
of The Joker leaning out the police car, I can’t think of a single
moment from that film that transcends itself. Australia certainly LOOKS as good as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,
but the latter was undoubtedly art while the former almost certainly
isn’t, because it focused heavily on making sure everything looked good
without giving thought to why it looked how it looked, aside from
perhaps the goal to update the feel of Classical Hollywood Epics.
lighting’s right…there’s even a lens flare! And yet we feel something
essential is missing; we sense a lack of inspiration that we can’t
quite put our finger on, a sense that nothing in here matters in the
context of the film.
perfect shot. We sense a master’s hand at composition and the ability
to convey theme, especially when placed in a larger context.
(If you want further, moving examples of this, simply compare Button‘s theatrical trailer with Australia‘s. Pay attention, and you can easily discern story and theme from Button, while Australia is devoid almost entirely…the films themselves would pan out in similar manners)
So while executing Australia may have been physically harder than executing Wendy and Lucy,
the latter contains all the inspiration and grace in the world, while
the former lacks any inspiration at all. And anyone who’s seen the two,
while they may not be able to say why, knows that in their heart.
Let me expand on this with a personal experience.
In early 2003 I saw Gus Van Sant’s Gerry
in theaters. The film has its champions and detractors, but that
remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life. It
fundamentally altered and expanded the way I look at movies. There
comes a moment in the film, and it’s different for everybody, but a
moment comes when the rocks crunching beneath Matt Damon and Casey
Affleck’s feet, the sight of them walking through the desert, the wind,
the sun, the clouds, everything stops looking and sounding like any of
that and just…becomes. Beyond that moment, I was absorbed; it felt like
I didn’t blink for the rest of the film and just absorbed it, become
one with it. It’s almost impossible to describe, but to borrow from
Martin Scorsese’s recollection of seeing and thinking about L’Avventura
for the first time, it “changed my perception of cinema, and the world
around me, and made both seem limitless.” He was eighteen when he saw
that film. I was sixteen when I saw Gerry.
These are the kinds of inexplicable, sudden, profound realizations you
can only have at a certain age – old enough to have what you believed
were firm conceptions on life and art, but young enough to instantly
The only other experience like that was the first time I saw Terrence Malick’s The New World,
almost three years later. I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes
I sense it happening at home, but films at home are never as powerful
as those in a proper theater. Not that there haven’t been better
movies, or movies that have shook me deeply. The cinema continues to
astound me, surprise me, give me hope and change my life. And when I’m
lucky, I’ll see a film like Marie Antoinette, Youth Without Youth, Speed Racer, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Wendy and Lucy
that will contain a few moments that start to affect me the way Van
Sant and Malick did through the entirety of their films. Those moments
are beautiful, wonderful, and beyond any explanation. They are the
I’ll be publishing a second part to this in the next
week or so, in which I respond to the allegations made that
quick-cutting in films could never be art. I’ll be defending Tony
Scott’s Domino to the bitter end. I hope you’ll join me.
Scott can now be reached at ScottN_86@yahoo.com