Art That Challenges You

2-2-07

After recently watching a movie and disliking it greatly, I did what I so often do; I decided to watch the special features. This has become something of a pattern for me, I watch a movie and if my response to it is strong (in either direction) I immediately want to delve into the special features to see what the filmmakers have to say. Although the DVD format is still relatively new I must admit to having grown accustomed to these features and my ability to watch them. Whenever I encounter a DVD that contains only the movie (which I admit is rare now) I feel as though the video store has pulled a fast one on me.

What recently came to my attention concerning DVD’s are two things:

1) there are many kinds of special features and commentaries and

2) what I have come to expect from them is absurd.

To address the second point first let me say this: say you read a book and when you turn that last page and close the cover you shake your head and say, “well, at least it’s over”. Do you immediately run to the library or to your computer to look up what the author has written in defense of the book? When you visit a museum and see a painting and find that it looks like something your prized chocolate lab could construct with twigs, tennis balls and mud do you venture out to the information desk to see if there is a pamphlet printed on behalf of the artist explaining the merit of the work? My guess is you do not. Instead you accept the fact that the painting is not to your liking and move on to the next. Perhaps you decide to try another book by that author, reading reviews of it beforehand.

My point is this, to the best of my knowledge this is the only art form that offers the artists the opportunity to explain and defend their work in such a widespread manner. Personally, I enjoy these commentaries and special features quite a bit. Having an interest in making movies there is occasionally information that seems aimed at helping people like me. What I take issue with is what I have come to expect from these features, that is, a defense of failed films.

What do I mean by failed films? Mostly I mean movies that made very little money at the box office. Thanks largely to the Internet Movie Database everyone now has the ability to find out (roughly) how much every movie makes at the box office. Why this should be of interest to anyone other than the investors (and others who stand to profit) I will never know. I do know that I have checked these figures times beyond counting and I cannot offer a reason as to why. Perhaps because it is there. To get back to the original point, the DVD format seems to have become a place for filmmakers to get in the last word about their movie, if they choose to. Take for instance the film, “Mallrats” by Kevin Smith. Critically the movie was not well received and commercially I believe it lost money (now that I have brought it up I must, of course, refuse on principle to look up such things). If you listen to the audio commentary Mr. Smith and the cast discuss why the film did so poorly.

I single out Mr. Smith largely because he is a shining example of where DVD’s go wrong. Rather than create a commentary for people who like the movie (which for the most part must be the people who watch commentaries — or should be) a great deal of time is spent pointing the finger and dishing out blame. Perhaps this is appealing to all of us because gossip makes a person feel as though they are part of the group. I must be with them because I have delved into all of this mud-flinging about these people. In any case — a movie, a sculpture, a topiary should stand on its own. If the artist needs to explain what they have done in order for the audience to like it then they did not do their job well. If the Sistine Chapel required a tour guide who explained all of the obstacles the Medici family and competing artists created for poor little Michelangelo so that you could understand why it is beautiful I doubt it would receive so many visitors.

The film that brought all of this on (so you know who to blame) is called “Down in the Valley”. Aside from starring Edward Norton I knew very little about the movie prior to watching it, which usually is a good thing. My problem with the movie is that it seems to lack two very important things;

1) a point and

2) likable (or redeemable) characters.

I say this because the film ended and I sat watching the credits wondering, why did I watch this? As I said I then navigated through the menu and saw that the DVD contained a question and answer session with the director and Mr. Norton. What I learned from this exchange was that they both love the movie and feel that it is wonderful because it challenges the audience. Neither the director nor Mr. Norton elaborated on this point so that I, the humble viewer, could understand how it challenged the audience so I find myself here, trying to sort out these thoughts by writing.

The novel Lolita is one that I think challenges many readers in that its subject matter is so shocking, so revolting, so clearly wrong that the elegance of the writing and the readability of the book makes many readers question their own morality. I do not mean to say it makes men and women wonder about pedophilia, but, as I found while reading, it made me wonder what the writer was doing so well that kept me reading despite my disgust with the subject matter. I would call this a challenging book because its subject matter is one that I have strong negative feelings about, yet it is crafted in such a way that I continued to read.

So many works of art, especially modern art, seem to work in the opposite direction. The subject matter of the book or sculpture or movie is something benign, something trivial but the way the viewer (or reader) is forced to interact with it is so unpleasant that the challenge lies in enduring the process to reach the end. The bent beam of steel is ugly, it is plain, it is common and only those who take the trouble to study it, to examine it closely and use their imagination as to what it could be or was are able to to see the beauty. Perhaps the fault lies with me and this is just my attempt to come off looking good. Perhaps. I have noticed that generally speaking an independent film (which is what Down in the Valley is) can be categorized as being unpleasant and difficult to watch. This is something that people who create independent film seem to take pride in. Whether this is turning a weakness into a strength or embracing the other simply because it is the other I do not know for sure. I can say, as someone who does have a lot of time on his hands, that unless I am lured in by the film or book I can no longer find a reason to sit through two hours of dreariness or boredom, simply because it is art.

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