Tag Archives: Art

Artistic Stratification

So the Oscars announced a new category. Is it something like Best Stunt, to acknowledge some of the crazy cool things stuntpeople and Tom Cruise do? Could it be Best Choreography for beautiful fights or films where the blocking of camera and actors plays like a dance? Maybe it’s for Best Color Scheme, which sounds totally arbitrary but you’ve movies like (500) Days of Summer and Pacific Rim that use colors masterfully. The correct answer is none of the above, but rather a category that recognizes popular movies. As in what’s the best popular movie.

Like many people who purport to not really care about the Oscars, I have a lot of opinions about them, both the awards awarded and the whole thing as an institution. For starters, recognizing a movie as being ‘the best’ is incredibly difficult, as my own consternation over my annual Top Nine lists serve to remind me every year. There’s also the thing that ‘best’ is incredibly subjective; is a movie deemed better than another by its quality or by how much it entertains you? Isn’t whether or not it entertains you really the ultimate litmus test? Can you like bad movies? (Yes.)

For many recent years, the Oscars has, on a whole, come down on the side that there’s art and then there’s Art. Logan is a good movie, but it’s not a Good Movie like Birdman. So there’s been furor aplenty, especially amongst moviegoers who are more likely to be described as fans rather than critics, about the snubbing of more pulpy fare by the Oscars, with the inference that the Academy only considers ‘serious’ movies’ scripts, direction, and actors to be worthy of recognition. Sure, those visual effects and sound design are neat, but, honestly, The Last Jedi with its magical space knights isn’t really Oscar worthy. That’s the divide between art and Art that the Academy has typically enforced.

Creating a separate category to recognize ‘popular movies’ is really just more of the same. Sure, it looks good that Black Panther actually has a shot of winning an Oscar, but it’d be Best Popular Movie. It’s not Best Picture, it’s a movie that’s really good — for a popular one. It formalizes the notion that there should be different criteria for quality, that we’re willing to accept a movie as being good enough or one of its sort, rather than recognizing the art inherent in even, yes, ‘popular’ movies.

Because why on Earth shouldn’t Logan and Black Panther be viable candidates for Best Picture? There’s masterwork in both of them, not just in technical things like sound editing and effects, but in direction, storytelling, and acting. Both Hugh Jackson’s performance as Logan and Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda and the story of an isolated king deserve recognition by the highest court of cinematic opinion.

No matter how much I don’t want them to, the Oscars do matter. Like it or not, they’re an established institution that have a great deal of import put on them. People care about who wins Best Picture and the decisions and taste of the awards tend to set the trend for the industry as a whole. My fear regarding the creation of a category for ‘popular’ movies is that it creates a ghetto for movies that are good, but thought not serious enough to be considered really good. It means that Black Panther could be nominated (and win!) that category and thus, technically, have all the recognition of an Oscar; there’s a space for blockbusters and offbeat films to be shunted off to so that Best Picture can still be those True Art movies.

I don’t think there should be a divide between one sort of movie and another. A movie that’s really good is really good, period. I lament a category like this, because it reinforces what’s already a current of thought, and rather than the establishment acknowledging pulpy fare as art, it lets those movies go off and play in the yard while keeping all their toys indoors.

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Tarantino, Iñárritu, and The Art of Indulgence

I finally saw The Revenant this week. I also saw The Hateful Eight the same day and it’s really interesting to have seen them back to back. Both are by directors who are arguably auteurs, both are classified as Westerns, and both are covered in their fingerprints.

Filmmakers have their trademarks. Something by Joss Whedon will be rife with witty dialogue. J.J. Abrams’ stories will have mystery and wonder. A Michael Bay movie will have explosions and questionable depictions of women. You’ve got these people who’ve developed both a reputation and a style such that you know what you’re in for when  you see one of their movies.

Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro Iñárritu are both directors who have their own very distinct style. Tarantino takes pulpy subject matter, throws in wall-to-wall banter, and a plethora of references to other films. Iñárritu does Art with a very important capital ‘A.’ Their newest movies, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant (respectively) are both them given an incredibly long leash and them making movies that are very much them.

For Tarantino, it means a movie that rests almost entirely on the dialogue. Hateful is sparse on locations and heavy on dialogue, telling a story that’s essentially what if Tarantino got to have a go at Clue. Though clocking in at three hours (including an intermission!), it doesn’t feel overlong courtesy of the twisting plot and engagingly sociopathic characters. Tarantino plays to his strengths. So yes, the movie is Tarantino-esque to the point of indulgence, but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Laden within the layers of dialogue and duplicity is motivation and hints as to what’s to come.

The Revenant is an entirely different beast. Iñárritu, as shown in Birdman, has a very clear idea as to what constitutes art and his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. There are long epic shots a plenty with a mind boggling level of complexity to them. Then knowing that the whole thing was done using only natural light and there’s no denying the considerable talent behind the movie. The Revenant lets Iñárritu really go wild with it, putting his visuals front and center so everyone can know what he really considers Art.

Thing is, for all its gorgeous imagery, The Revenant feels something like an exercise in futility. The craft is incredible, the plot is meandering. And that’s an issue: all the pretty pictures in the world don’t mean crap if your story sucks. The second act of The Revenant is essentially Leonardo DiCaprio’s character crawling through the American wilderness. Stunningly executed? Yes. Incredibly boring? That too. Stories need statue changes to keep things interesting — Luke goes from Tatooine to the Death Star to a Trash Compactor and so on. The Revenant has Leo crawling in snow here, then snow there, this river, and then that river. Everything about the film exists to showcase the cinematography. Iñárritu’s indulgence means a relentlessly grim movie that exists almost to say “see how much a better moviemaker I am than you.” As a friend of mine said, the only thing missing from it were the words “For your consideration” right after the closing shot.

There’s that saying about necessity being the mother of invention. I’m pretty sure there’s a corollary to that adage about how limitations force you to do better. Look at the Star Wars prequels for an example of an unrestrained writer/director compared to the original film. Indulging in what you love as a storyteller also means knowing when to cool your jets. Tarantino, in The Hateful Eight, knew to not just write banter for the sake of showing off, but to also keep the plot moving along at quick pace. Hateful Eight mayn’t be a perfect movie, but it’s still a darn enjoyable one. The Revenant, on the other hand is Iñárritu’s unbridled pretension mixed with DiCaprio’s Oscar desperation indulged to the point of maniacal self-absorption.

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Commercial and Literary

There’s an interesting divide that tends to come up when discussing literature of any sort in an academic setting. That is, the divide between the commercial and the literary. What’s this mean exactly? Apparently when it comes to fiction and stuff there’s the stuff for ‘the masses’ and then the stuff that’s more for only people who would really understand it.

It’s the difference between Beasts of the Southern Wild and Pacific Rim. The latter is a movie that’s geared for just about anyone, the former is a borderline experimental movie with a tenuous grasp on a story. Maybe it’s its experimental nature of maybe it’s because it seems like you have to really really get it to understand it, but Beasts of the Southern Wild has been met with awards and Oscar nominations and the like. Pacific Rim on the other hand has gotten fanboys but will, of course, be absent from any considerations of it being a truly ‘great’ film. Why? Because Beasts is literary and Pacific Rim is commercial.

This is where I feel that things get weird. How do we define what’s entertainment and what’s art? On which side of the divide does a movie like Black Swan land? Or District 9? District 9 tackles the issues of race and prejudice with all the gusto of Invictus only masked in the slick veneer of excellent science fiction. Sure, District 9 was nominated, but there was little buzz afterwards (especially in comparison to The Hurt Locker). It was relegated to being ‘good science-fiction’ rather than a good movie. Because it’s got aliens and spaceships.

My problem with all this is that it’s such an arbitrary distinction. Maybe it’s because true art is incomprehensible, or maybe some people just like the ability to be snobs. Way I see it, literature is literature. The best way to judge something is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve (for example, Pacific Rim told a phenomenal story about canceling the apocalypse; Hereafter failed to provide a half-interesting look at life and death). Even then, it’s unfair to say one film is better than another simply because it’s more arty, more literary than another. It’s that weird thing in the library where you have the fiction section here, but the literature section over there. Of course, that’s all genre; some fiction gets written off completely because it’s in a different medium.

Ah, video games. Not unlike science-fiction or movies about giant robots, video games as a whole are written off by most people by virtue of them being entertainment for kids. Never mind that there exists games like Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, or The Last of Us; all games that push and blur the ideas of games and stories, playing with their form and the stories that can be told. I’ve written about The Last of Us a few times, and it bears repeating just how great a story and game it is. Yet it won’t be considered literature (thought by all means it should be). Why? Because it’s a video game; childish entertainment. Hence: commercial, not literary; low art not high.

I fully realize I’m championing a lost cause. I know Pacific Rim and The Last of Us will never be considered in the same league as A Tale of Two Cities. It just seems to be such an injustice that this distinction exists and that it’s such an arbitrary one.

All said, I suppose it’d mean we would have to compare Sharknado with The Avengers, so there’s that.

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Art or Not

Here at NYU I hear a lot of things about movies and art and stuff. With the Oscars being last week and half of my classes being primarily film related, I heard plenty (like how Beasts of the Southern Wild was everything an indie film needed to be […so?]). But one thing that really stuck out to me was the opinion that Argo shouldn’t have won since Argo was more Summer blockbuster fare as opposed to Best Picture fare.

Yeah, I know, I touched on this last week. This time, well, we have to go deeper.

I don’t understand this disconnect. Well, no. I kinda do, but I don’t agree with the disconnect. Argo isn’t any less Best Picturey than any other movies on the list.

Did Argo not deserve Best Picture because it was funny? Other nominees had their moments of humor and past winners were funny too. Even Lincoln solicited the occasional chuckle. Still, what is it that bars a comedy from winning an award? Sure, a lot of them can be crude and really base, but on occasion you’ll have a comedy that’s just clever. But these won’t win because of the perception that comedy is not art.The Hangover, bawdy as it is, has a brilliant script; firing its Chekhov’s guns and playing off it’s excellent foreshadowing. But due to it being a comedy it’s not award worthy.

Then is Argo undeserving because it’s thrilling? Argo was exciting from start to finish. But so were Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Return of the King. Those movies were even more action focused that Argo, but also had the same great technical achievements as the new winner. Just because Argo has its characters taking action rather than spending half the runtime ruminating doesn’t mean it’s any less than another movie. The illusion that art has to be angsty and eclectic is just that: an illusion. There is room for awesome and badassery in a Best Picture.

Could the disdain for Argo be because it deals with the titular science-fiction movie? I’m being facetious here, but seriously: what is that bars science fiction from being ‘Best Picture’ material? Sure, a lot of science fiction is crap and much of the pulp novels from which they originated are absolute drivel. But it’s been decades since those pulps and in the meantime we’ve had movies like District 9 and Inception that show us the allegorical and exploratory power of science fiction. So why is it that these movies keep getting passed over for the real awards?

I don’t buy into the idea that one movie can be better than another simply due to genre or subject matter. Just because Argo could pass as a summer blockbuster doesn’t disqualify it from its Best Picture win. Art can be entertaining. Halo 4 has some incredible emotional (and technical) moments that rival and beats many films, but it gets discarded because it’s a video game (and a science fiction one at that [a science fiction shooter). The Dark Knight, despite proving that a superhero movie could be dramatic and weighty, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.

There needs to be a shift in the perception of art. A movie that’s an excellent mix of direction, acting, music, writing, and editing not earning a nomination simply because it’s not ‘arty’ enough just doesn’t sit right.

And yeah, I’m still kinda bummed The Avengers only got one nomination.

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