Friday, November 12, 2010

24 frames per seconds of the beautiful and true - The Gleaners and I

A few months ago I saw a film by the French filmmaker Agnes Varda for the first time. The film was The Beaches of Agnes, her wonderfully composed poem of a documentary about her own life, about memory and love and this strange and perplexing and wonderful journey we call life. The film has sat and mellowed with me like fine scotch. It is a marvel of filmmaking by a deeply sensitive artist who has humility, humor and a philosophical mind without being pretentious or overtly intellectual, a woman who likes asking questions about who she is and where she is going, even at this late stage in her life.

About a week ago I sat down and watched another recent film by Varda, The Gleaners and I, a low-budget documentary shot almost entirely on a small, hand-held digital video camera Varda had recently acquired about "gleaners," people who are scavengers of sorts, searching through freshly picked fields, dumpsters, trash, whatever is at hand, for food, clothes, art and memories. It is a film about those on the margins of society, about the ones who live on what the rest of us throw away, about finding treasure in a trash heap. It is the kind of meditation savored by practitioners of Zen, putting forth opposites and what is seemingly mundane and lowly to reveal something very pristine and beautiful. Varda, as always, is also engaged in a kind of introspection, thinking about age, time, death. There are lovely moments when she suddenly aims the camera at her face in the mirror or on her wrinkled old hands, questioning her own mortality with a mixture of fright and amusement. Here is a filmmaker who does not hide behind her art, does not seek to create appearances that hide truth but who views art as a form of dialogue between herself and her audience, an invitation to a philosophical questioning engendered by a sense of the beautiful, of seeing the deep and profound and the beautiful all around us.

Having seen these two wonderful films by Varda has made me think anew about cinema as an art form. There are, of course, countless theories and philosophical analyses of what constitutes art, aesthetics meditations ranging from Plato to Hume and Kant. To my mind the greatest truth about art was arrived at in Greek metaphysical thinking, most profoundly in Plato's majestic Symposium where Diotima of Mantinea, the seer and prophetess, expounds upon Truth and Beauty as being part of the same metaphysical reality. Human beings, we learn, are drawn towards both in an erotic ascent, transcending the realm of shadows and confusion to reach The Good and The Beautiful, the natural resting place of the soul. The 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger would later attempt to return to this fundamental insight, in some ways moving past aesthetic theories expounded during the so-called "Enlightenment" period. Hume and Kant, for example, had focused primarily on the relationship between emotional and cognitive responses to art and whether or not moral and aesthetic judgments are related (Kant's most influential contribution was to maintain that they were not). Moving beyond either a purely emotional or cognitive understanding of art, Heidegger views art primarily in terms of aletheia (a concept used by the Greeks to denote Truth) or "unveiling." Truth for Heidegger is not primarily characterized in terms of correspondence or probability, as it is for the natural sciences, but rather as unconcealment, as an experience of what is truly real being revealed to us, little by little. This is exactly the power of art, to engender such an experience of unveiling. In this way art is a kind of "clearing" (Lichtung) whereby the shadows are lifted, if only momentarily, and we can come face to face with who we truly are. Heidegger believed such an engagement took a great deal of courage and commitment, not only by the artist but by the audience. To truly appreciate and love great art can be as difficult as creating it. But if we are up to the task it can open up realms of possibilities previously unthought of. Art can be the gateway to a truly authentic existence.

Yet the sad fact is that so much art fails exactly in this vocation. Of course, one could ask whether only art that manages to be such a "clearing" truly deserves to be called art. In my mind it makes the most conceptual sense to call a work art if it contains the possibility of such unveiling. This is why I would hesitate to call video games art, for example. It does not seem to me that they, at least yet, contain the possibility of opening up unthought horizons, of enabling us a deeper, more profound understanding of our condition and a kind of spiritual transcendence. Films, due to the development of the medium and the potential it has exhibited, naturally contain within themselves the possibility of being such a clearing, and are therefore art. This goes for a Pauly Shore comedy as much as it goes for an Ingmar Bergman film. Yet the former fails in its very being, its very essence, as art while the latter exhibits the unveiling in question in a profound manner (this is not to say that all Pauly Shore films are without any merit or that all Ingmar Bergman films are artistically unquestionable - these crude and obvious examples are simply pointers towards a deeper conceptual understanding). Additionally, bad art is a terrible thing indeed. Bad entertainment is, at worst, boring. Bad art is at worst a kind of an insult to the soul, a mockery to what is highest and most beautiful in human life.

One reason why I think a great many films have failed to exhibit their potential as art, in this sense of aletheia, is that the medium, for various reasons that are interesting both historically and aesthetically, is so dependent upon corporate funding. Film is an extremely expensive art form, one which requires dozens, if not hundreds, of people to accomplish, the communal craft par excellence. Because of this the business side of the art form has tended to dominate it exponentially, wanting to reduce films to a "product" sold to "consumers," instead of viewing film as an art deserving of an audience, i.e. people who wish to give themselves over to a dialectic that  can make them see and understand themselves and reality in a new light. Another fundamental problem with the development of film as art is the deviation, early in the 20th century, from film as primarily a visual medium to it being a kind of filmed story, of denigrating the visual image to serving the written word. This is not, in any way, to belittle the beauty and wonder of prose and poems as art. It is simply to say that each medium is the shepherd of truth, of aletheia, in its own unique way, and that even though film is wonderful exactly for enabling a meeting between image, word, music and plot it nonetheless is primarily a poetic revelation of the power of the moving image. This is not necessarily to say that films should all be non-linear, abstract and silent (though it would be wonderful... absolutely wonderful... if more such films were made) but simply that word, plot, music and structure should all be at the service of the moving image, of those 24 frames being projected per second. The great directors are all masters of the image and through it they bring forth characters, plot, music, poetry and dance.

What I love about Varda (and I really hope that anyone reading this will be inspired to examine her work) is that she exemplifies a denial of both the corporate element of film and the overemphasis on linear plot, not to mention her absolute inability to even begin thinking about film as primarily entertainment. By simply sitting in her apartment, viewing an old painting of "gleaners," getting a digital video camera for a present, she is ready to create. The muse beckons and calls and because she is an artist she responds and creates something beautiful, thought-provoking and true. And her art is purely cinematic, perhaps in the same way the astounding power of the image is revealed in the great classics of the silent film era. There is a great deal of power in the moving image, in painting with light and shadow, and there are few things that are as precious in this life as entering into this power, in communing with it and learning from it.

1 comment:

e said...


Nice post.

I'm curious if you would consider yourself a romantic when it comes to truth. I mean, the concept of it, of coming in contact with it, seems to sweep you up (which I'm not arguing is bad... in fact, I like that about you). And, like a good romantic, you seem to keep your distance from definition; that is, although you speak of truth as something which is identifiable and quantifiable, namely, found in one work of art more than another, you stick to vague terms like "our condition," or "what is truly real," when speaking about truth, which come across as some form of tautology, or rather, as lacking valuable construction for direction should one want to spend more time with "good" art that has "more truth, more of the case, more of what is really real, truly true, the is of the is, the authentic."

All these phrases seem to indicate more of, or make more space for, a subjective pull towards what resonates with you as truth, rather than as setting up an argument for a particular type of art to universally (or least generally) unveil more truth than another.

Finally, and this is a bit of an aside from the argument above, if you're viewing art as a clearing or potential for unveiling, then all things are stamped with the title 'art' or 'not art' depending on the viewer's perspective, which seems contrary to your intent (correct me if I'm wrong). Everything, even a lie, even the "inauthentic" reveal something that is the case, at least broadly, should the viewer be open to seeing such, for instance that a lie suggests what is behind it and shows that lie exists as 'truly' a lie.

If you move towards potentiality or the concept of a clearing, that is, some sort of possible delivery system for unveiling truth that is better than simply living and observing, then what would you do with, as Camu says, truth that hits you at the most absurd time, walking out of a phone booth perhaps... does that act of walking out, if indeed "truth is unveiled," become art? And if a dense one finds they can't stand a Bergman film, 'it's so boring,' are they no longer in front of art?

I failed out of philosophy, as you know, so... perhaps you could illuminate the solutions to my issues gently, that is, with as little Heidegger terminology as possible.