Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Nature of Art, Part 2, as well as other things

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

If you click to get to our home page, and scroll down a few stories, you'll see that on May 23rd, I wrote "Part 1" of this essay, in which I discussed what art is, what all art aims at, and very briefly, a method by which one one can evaluate how well a particular artwork achieves its goal.  This article concludes the essay.

And I also have a few things on my mind, which I'll share at the essay's conclusion.
The Nature of Art, Part 2

My critical method is tripartite--split into three parts.  These parts are:

  1. Argument
  2. Theme
  3. Form
Boiling it down, what I do is extract the essential argument of the artwork, and evaluate its soundness; then I look into how the artwork's themes support the argument, and evaluate how well they do so; finally, I analyze how the forms employed by the artist evoke the themes supportive of the argument, and evaluate how well these themes are evoked.

The best works of art have (a) sound, profound arguments, (b) consistently supportive and non-detracting themes, and (c) properly evocative, non-muddled forms.  

The worst works of art have certainly (a) unsound arguments, and also might have (b) inconsistent and detracting themes, and (c) muddled forms.

Works of art that are in between have sound arguments that are lacking in profundity.

My point is this: it's absolutely crucial for an artwork to have a sound argument--as in, it makes an ultimate statement and has good reasons for making the statement.  If the artwork fails in this regard, it must necessarily fail as a whole.  That is because since the ultimate goal of a work of art is to embody truth, it must then embody a statement that is true and arrive at this statement from true and relevant reasons.  Thus, if the artwork embodies a false statement, it has irrevocably failed at reaching its goal; also, if an artwork embodies a true statement but on the grounds of faulty reasoning, it thus only embodies a true statement by pure accident, and embodies it in an untrue manner, thus this artwork irrevocably fails as well.

Analyzing themes and forms simply allows one to understand how well--e.g., how consistently, how powerfully--an artwork expresses its argument.  In other words, the argument is the 'what' of the piece--i.e., the substance--while the themes and forms are the 'how' of the piece--i.e., the ways that the substance is expressed.

To further express how my critical approach works, I'll use an example from Dead Poet's Society, which is probably my favorite film (bear with my highly simplified analysis here; I do it simply to illustrate my critical method).

Dead Poet's Society (SPOILER ALERT)
Argument: There is an eternal essence to life's meaning, and one comes in contact with this meaning by living passionately, honestly, and compassionately.  The evidence for this argument is that many dead poets wrote about (in their lifetimes) love, life, meaning, experience, loss, etc. in ways that resonate with the characters who are still living, and when the passion, compassion, and honesty are cut-off from one of the protagonists, he no longer has the will to live. MY ANALYSIS: The statement is true, and the evidence is very strong to support it (sound).  Moreover, the statement is about the very nature of human existence (profound).
Themes supportive of the argument: Youth, the eternal nature of meaningfulness, inevitable decay and death in humanity, the importance of new experiences, the importance of love, of honesty, of compassion, the importance of freedom, and courage.  MY ANALYSIS: The themes are consistently supportive of the argument; they detract slightly only because they rely on some cliches about old age meaning unoriginality and grouchiness, as well as tradition meaning arbitrary and stifling rules.  It's slightly inconsistent with the film's other theme of the eternality of meaningfulness in human life.
Forms evocative of the supportive themes: The film employs symbolism: standing on the desks at the end of the movie signifies both the students' courage to stand up for truth, as well as courage and thirst for experiencing life passionately and freely.  Poetry is an art form that is very explicitly about beauty and truth and compassion, all themes that the film intends to evoke.  MY ANALYSIS: Again, the film relies on some cliches here--such as the Romantic authors all portraying beauty, while the Realist authors only portray depravity--but overall, the forms employed properly evoke the themes.
Overall: The film's argument is not only sound, but also ultimately profound. High marks here.  Although the themes and forms are slightly detracting and/or muddled, they are mostly successful.  Thus, due to the soundness and profundity of the argument, and the generally effective themes and forms, this film is highly successful in its goal of embodying beauty, thus it is a great work of art.

I hope this clears up lingering uncertainties about my approach.  Of course, I understand that my approach stems from a worldview anchored in objective truth and ultimate accessibility of this truth to human beings, which is at the very least a controversial philosophical worldview.  But it is one that I believe that not only is true, but also important to realize as true.
other things

-Since it always seems to be a longer and longer time between my posts, I don't know when I'll post again.  So I'd like to say, in the upcoming months, please see films, open yourself up to the beauty of art in its many forms, and keep a watchful eye out for works of art that only masquerade as profound.

-Isn't it hard to believe we're already halfway into the 2012 Oscar season?  I know The Savant must be excited.

-My list of favorite movies?  I feel like sharing some of it with you (not in any order).

Dead Poet's Society
Friday Night Lights
Annie Hall
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Garden State
Wings of Desire
The Departed
The Seventh Seal
Little Big Man
Edward Scissorhands
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Disney's the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Crimes and Misdemeanors
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Phantom of the Opera

-Until this half jew posts again, this is The Good-Looking One, saying have a great life and enjoy the arts, audience members of the world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wait…Did We Watch the Same Movie? (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

By: Alex “The Savant” Heisman

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve written a piece in this series but I felt it was finally time to return as I just saw one of the most iconic films ever for the first time: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I feel no shame in admitting I had never before seen this infamous film as what I understood the themes to be never seemed truly approachable. What I have to say, however, will undoubtedly offend some people, most notably The Older Good-Looking-One, The Good-Looking One’s sister, as I understand that this is one of her favorite films.

It must be understood up front that I’ve never accepted the massive appeal and legend that is Audrey Hepburn. Everyone seems to go gaga over her, I guess from her performance in this film, but I’ve always found her a waifish actress whose sing-song voice greatly distracts from her uninspired line readings. I’ve only ever enjoyed one performance from her, the magnificent Wait Until Dark, but her characterization of the free-spirit Holly Golightly embodies everything I find off-putting about her as an actress. Hepburn’s incredibly exaggerated facial expressions betray the authority Holly so desperately attempts to show the world. The FABULOUS and underrated actress Rosalind Russell so breathes an abundancy of life into her free-spirit character in Auntie Mama a mere three years earlier that Hepburn should have taken a page from her book on how to play such a character.

The only thing thinner than Hepburn’s performance is the plot of the film. Indeed, there is so little narrative that it is essentially presented in vignettes of differing theme stretched over its two hour running time. For one 15-minute section, the movie relies on director Blake Edward’s infamous comedic flair while the next 15 minutes oddly switch to heavy drama without warning. The viewer can tell which emotion they’re supposed to be feeling by the abrupt change in style of Henry Mancini’s oft-lauded score. By the time the ending finally rolls around, the score swells to such bombastic heights as to mirror Hepburn’s completely over-exaggerated and false facial expressions.

Credit where credit is due, however- the film is otherwise very aesthetically pleasing. Blake Edwards’ tight and clever direction harnessed the power of the camera’s lens in conjunction with the cinematographic glow of the overhead lights quite effectively. The well-known, Academy Award winning song Moon River, which actually benefits from Hepburn’s light voice, is one of the best ever composed (although, it seems slightly out of place and a little too epic for this film). Also, two of my favorite actors, Martin Balsam and Patricia Neal, assuredly deliver insightful performances in their small, cameo appearances.

Notice that I have not commented on Mickey Rooney’s unusual, racist performance as the Asian landlord of Holly’s building- I’m still not completely sure what to make of that one.

Audrey Hepburn was most certainly a humanitarian of the first order and had a level of sex appeal surpassed only by Elizabeth Taylor. It is still no small wonder that a mere human being could be as classy as she was. That being said, however, both she and Truman Capote, the author of the original short story, felt she was miscast as Holly Golightly and I have to agree. Indeed, the distinct elements of the character of Holly in Capote’s text (her young age of 19, her bisexuality, her abortion) were sacrificed in the script in order to attract Hepburn to the role and let the studio rely on star power for profit. Go ahead, vilify me in the comments!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dearest Nora

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

Dearest Nora,

Nearly every single tribute composed towards your magnificently giving life has emulated your comedic gift and been some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever read. Forgive me then, in articulating a slightly more heartfelt, less witty piece. Certainly nothing against those who base their obituaries in humor, I’m sure you would be immensely proud, I just find it very hard to try to mimic your style when you were so far above the rest of us that anything less may just appear inadequate.

The pain and shock of losing you and the disappearance of your presence in the entertainment industry has still not yet settled in my being. I’ve come to realize that I took you for granted- I always expected another incredibly hilarious, yet deep, musing on the position of life from you every few years. You were, after all, the one who ultimately brought the very important question of “can a man and a woman truly be friends without sex getting in the way?” to the forefront.

You pushed through the pain of your own personal life to reflect and create some of the most delectably apt coverage on infidelity and divorce ever published in Heartburn. You made countless swoon as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were unconventionally brought closer together in Sleepless in Seattle. You created an unflinching and daring expose on whistle blowing in Silkwood. You afforded us a reason to not feel guilty about over-gorging ourselves after Julie & Julia.

Hell, you gave us one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard in my entire life: “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on… Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

The question then remains- how do we ever begin to push through the pain of losing you?

I thank you for your wit. I thank you for your grace. I thank you for the three projects you and Meryl were involved with- Silkwood, Heartburn, and Julie & Julia. Although the Academy never awarded you a trophy through your three unsuccessful bids, they never truly needed to- you still more than proved your place in the hallowed pantheon of inspirational and genuine filmmakers. Your passing resembles a Peter Sellers, a Madeline Kahn, a Belushi or a Radner- humorous geniuses gone before their time that left a void that can never be filled.

To slightly alter Carrie Fisher’s immortal, repeated line from When Harry Met Sally… “You’re right, you’re right, you were always right”.

Say hi to the big guy for me.

From- one of your infinite and admiring fans

(Nora Ephron- 1941-2012)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Meryl!

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

As I have certainly let more time elapse than I should between parts 1 and 2 of my Meryl opus, please allow this short piece to be submitted as evidence in the interim instead. Today, June 22nd. 2012, marks the 63rd year of Mary Louise Streep’s glorious existence on this Earth. No words I have in my vocabulary can even begin to pay tribute to both the immense impact Meryl has had in my life over the past decade or so and her achievements in the entertainment industry.

I merely want to note this occasion and say- thank you Meryl, from the bottom of my heart, for being exactly who you are. For over thirty-five years you have led a completely flawless, scandal-free career that has forged massive ground and shown to what heights and depths actors are capable of achieving in the medium of film. Thank you for being the reason I have the strength to get up every morning. When life becomes overwhelming, I retreat into your masterful Clarissa Vaughan, your sublime Joanna Kramer, your shattering Sophie Zawistowska. I very humbly put forward that if you could even begin to grasp the depth to which you have influenced just this one fan’s life, I’d hope your own self-acceptance as an actor might be validated. No one in my life so far, including those closest to me, has really been able to understand my utter devotion to your legacy, but, in choosing to live my life strictly by your set of ethics, I have found some semblance of the inner peace we search for all our lives. God Bless You, Harry and Mary Streep for fusing your genes into the being that arrived in this world on June 22nd, 1949 in Summit, New Jersey.

“God bless you, as you have blessed us, and as he has blessed us through you.” – Jim Carrey to Meryl Streep at her 2004 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award

See you front-row, center on August 10th for Hope Springs!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moonrise Kindgom Rises to Kingship!

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman and Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

The Good-Looking One's Rating- 4/5 stars
The Savant's Rating- 5/5 stars

Believe it or not, this is the one movie where Bruce Willis has hair and it doesn't destroy the whole film! -The Savant

Sure. -The Good-Looking One

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Legacy

By: Alex "The Savant" Heisman

In eager anticipation for the release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the prequel to his seminal 1979 masterpiece Alien, and the video recording about the movie from The Good-Looking One and I, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the Alien quadrilogy and the subsequent defining legacy.

When Alien quietly premiered at the end of May in 1979, it was intended to be just another B-grade science-fiction monster movie. As extremely positive word of mouth began to ripple outwards from the few who initially saw it, more and more patrons flocked to the theater to see what all the fuss was about. Although actor John Hurt was a previously minted Oscar nominee from the year before, the cast of seven was led by largely unknowns in the industry- most importantly, Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley in a performance that launched her massive career. Alien shifted the function of the genre in a whole new direction as it proved that anyone, no matter his or her station in the film, was expendable and that danger lurked down every darkened hallway of the starship Nostromo.

Seven years later, James Cameron took the reigns of the franchise and created a sequel, Aliens, that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Once again, Ripley finds herself battling the alien creatures with the help of some new, fan-favorite characters in the quadrilogy such as the friendly android Bishop and the unassuming Corporal Hicks. Ripley also finds herself taking care of a young, orphaned girl whose parents were slaughtered by the alien race. In one of her most fully realized performances, Sigourney Weaver became one of the very few actresses in a horror film ever nominated for an acting Academy Award. In analyzing the relatively weak competition that year, it’s a wonder she didn’t win.

Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are really only worth mentioning because I’m obligated to as they’re part of the saga. Neither movie is very good and both actually diminish the importance and impact of the franchise. Aside from driving the chronicles of Ellen Ripley further towards the critical final battle between human and alien, Alien 3 is most notable for being the directorial debut of respected filmmaker David Fincher while Alien: Resurrection quite blandly features Winona Ryder (Remember her? She used to act!). There is also an infamous and severely divisive moment towards the end of Alien 3 that alters the course of the character of Ellen Ripley and her journey that still remains a hot point of contention 20 years later.

As the days inch closer towards the dawning of the future of the Alien franchise with the release of Prometheus many questions are raised. Two MASSIVE questions left unanswered since the release of Alien 33 years ago are “What’s the deal with the crashed ship the crew explores?” and “What, indeed, is the purpose of the legendary Space Jockey?” The trailer for the film teases very brief shots of what promises to be answers to these questions, as well as many others. Notably, Prometheus will be heavily featured in the annals of film history as having one of the best marketing campaigns ever employed. Aside from Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien film, returning to direct this prequel, literally nothing about the plot is known outside of its basic connection to the Alien franchise. Maybe Guy Pearce, appearing as Peter Weyland- co-founder of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that ordered the Nostromo to investigate the mysterious signal emitted from the downed ship in the first place, can answer our questions in just a few days…

This is Alex “The Savant” Heisman, last survivor of the starship Nostromo, signing off.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Nature of Art, Part 1

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Today, I’m going to write very briefly on a topic that requires an extensive discussion.  But it seems to me that in writing this short article, I’ll be able to gain greater clarity on this topic—really, the topic underlying Alex’s and my blog.

What is the basis for evaluating art?  That is to say, why is good art good, and bad art bad?  Now, many months ago I wrote an article entitled “What Makes a Good Movie ‘Good’?”, and while it had some decent insights, I think that really, I missed the big picture.  In that article, I identified several aspects that viewers typically say helps to make a movie ‘good’, but I failed to say how these several aspects can be unified under the term of ‘good’, and also how movies are subsumed under the larger category of art.

My task in this article is to briefly explore both the nature of art and a method by which, I believe, one should critique art.

First, the all-important question must be asked: what is art—what is the overall definition by which all things come to be known as ‘art’?  Although this is a question requiring tireless effort, I’ll simply state the conclusions that I’ve reached thus far in my short life.  Art is any thing whose meaning is inherently invested in its medium of expression.  Now, that’s a confusing and convoluted phrase, so bear with me.  By “meaning”, I mean whatever evocations are essentially important to the thing under discussion.  By “inherently invested”, I mean that this meaning is inextricably tied to this thing’s medium of expression.  And by “medium of expression”, I simply mean the way in which this thing expresses itself.  For instance, let’s consider as our piece of art Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”.  This painting’s meaning might be as simple as a statement on the physical beauty of women, or something more complex, along the lines of the mysteriousness many people hold behind their faces.  Now, what makes this a piece of art is that the meaning one may get out of this painting is inherently invested in its medium of expression—that is, the various techniques that da Vinci employed in order to create the image, the various aspects that make it a painting.  Essentially, what I’m saying is this: the meaning of the painting can most fully be found in analyzing its nature as a painting.

Another example might be, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The meaning of this novel might be that human interaction is largely determined according to the social class in which one grows up.  But what makes this novel a piece of art is that its meaning can most fully be understood not only in analyzing the expressed philosophy of the book, but also the techniques Fitzgerald employed to express it, its method of expression.

I know this is still somewhat unclear, but if you’re still reading, then you’re either related to me, vaguely understanding what I’m saying, and/or hoping this article gets better.  So I’ll move on from the nature of art itself to how art may properly be critiqued.

Critique is essentially an evaluation, a statement on the merits and/or flaws of something.  So if we’re trying to develop a basis for critique, then we’re trying to understand the criteria according to which something can be said to be better than another thing.

What’s perhaps most important in developing a basis for critique with respect to any category is the goal that all things in this category aim at.  For instance, since all sports players aim (or at least, should aim) to above all else win games, therefore the best sports players are those who most contribute to wins.

In aesthetics (aka the study of the nature of art), it is typically said that art aims at the beautiful.  Not only do I agree with this statement, but I’ll go one step further: all art aims at the beautiful.  Of course, this begs the question: what is beauty?—yet another discussion that requires a lengthy treatment.  But I’ll give you my shorthand: beauty is profound truth.  This might seem counterintuitive to some, but I believe with deep thought on the subject, it will become clear that things are more beautiful as they embody deeper and deeper truths.  Thus, for me, all art aims to embody profound truth, and thus the best art embodies the most profound truths.

Now the question is: how does beauty manifest itself in art?  Once again, (A) considering the nature of art as a thing whose meaning is invariably tied to its mode of expression, therefore (B) beauty must manifest itself in an artwork's mode of expression.  Thus, the profound truth at which some work of art might aim must be expressed both as a result of its mode of expression and within its mode of expression itself.  That is to say, there must be a harmonious link between the truth an artwork expresses and the way in which it expresses it.  And that is to say, the particular aspects that make this thing a work of art and not simply a philosophical verbal statement must combine to make this truth more fully expressed in the former than the latter.  For instance, if the truth of the “Mona Lisa” is, stated verbally, ‘people hide great mystery behind their faces’, then if the “Mona Lisa” is to be considered a great work of art, then it must, as a painting, embody this stated truth more fully than the simple verbal statement of it.

This is much of the preliminary work to my coming discussion (in part 2) of my critical approach to art.  But it seems to me that, in brief, there are three aspects of any work of art:
  1. Argument
  2. Theme
  3. Form

In a great work of art, the argument must be sound and profound, the themes consistent and contributory to the argument, and the form/style properly evocative of the themes.  The greatest beauty in art, therefore, might be said to be the profound and harmonious interrelation between these three.