Wednesday, November 17, 2010

With Gravity or Levity: How Art Addresses the Condition of Existence

Call it what you want – ignore it if you can… but if you choose to engage with art you are always, on a level, confronting someone’s point of view on the eternal questions: Why are we here? What are we doing? And how do we survive both the searing heartbreaks and petty foibles that make up the human experience? Even if we don’t want to wrap our minds around it in the abstract, we contend with it daily and often look to art to alleviate our angst. An artist will pose the questions through poetry and reminds us that the answers are of no consequence, really.

I knew nothing of Roy Andersson before coming across his film, “You, the Living” (2007). When I discovered that he comes from a commercial background I became immediately skeptical; I am always afraid that when someone uses their art in the service of commerce their vision might be sullied leaving a permanent Gaussian blur on their world-view. But then sometimes I am surprised and reminded that a work ethic in film (or any art) is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes when someone is forced to churn it out they take every note a little less seriously potentially generating the most unencumbered truths - as opposed to, say Charlie Kaufman, who is funny but sometimes a little heavy-handed or the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr who is well, just heavy.

I’ve written about Bela Tarr before and am not looking to delve too deeply into his particular brand of melancholy here. I bring him up for the purpose of highlighting difference, specifically between his film “Damnation” (1987) and Andersson’s work in “You, the Living”. Both films deal with love and the seeming isolation of loss or the despair of never having. Visually, they are each cloaked in a pervasive and unusual atmosphere: “You, the Living” exists in a perpetual haze while “Damnation” is a foggy, rainy, beautifully miserable place. Both wear the filter of subjectivity, while reminding us that there is a full spectrum of perspectives through which to view the human experience.

Andersson’s work is deceptively easy. I think the gloss of commercialism works in this films favor as we do not at first judge anything we are watching as out of the ordinary and even when we do, it is hard to get past the humor. Andersson is, in effect, mocking the petty trials and travails of human experience. Showing us the silly in all that we take to be so serious: ritual, sex, loss, the yearning for companionship, old age, etc. People demand so much – they demand to be happy as they perpetuate their own suffering.Pitifully and often hysterically crying, everyone in Andersson’s film is struggling with how to connect with their fellow men. Andersson asks, why do we feel the closest human connections in our fantasies and then at opportunity of genuine relationship we often cannot take the leap?

Tarr’s work can be excruciating – it is almost more painful to witness such long, drawn-out shots, murky atmosphere and mournful characters than it is weather ordinary experience. Exaggeration is its method. Watching the abstraction of human suffering can help us to take a step away from our individual suffering. We become part of the grand epic of human suffering when we engage with Tarr’s film, but it also feels a little like a rich indulgence in misery. There are moments when this is appropriate, but it’s not a state to exist in for very long. To focus on one layer of experience – despair – is dangerous. While it is not the overriding human experience/emotion, it can overshadow everything when it comes. What about fragile hope? And where is the compassion for fellow man instead of total self-absorption? This is where Andersson’s film fills in – what it lacks in intensity it makes up for in scope. “Damnation” is almost entirely focused on the suffering of the self but “You, the Living” manages to address the universal through it’s telling of the particular.

There may be no really good reason to compare these two films – 20 years apart and as different as they can be – but for some reason I’ve considered them together, and for me they function to create a more complete picture. Both films have an undeniable poignancy that manages to avoid the saccharin and they deal with subjective reality and yet escape solipsism. They are artfully complete as they stand alone, but I like how they balance together as well: two perspectives on a theme. Whatever your particular preference, gravity or levity, it’s a relief when anyone addresses the condition of existence. The human experience is tragic and absurd and it should be talked about.

"Damnation" (1987) Bela Tarr

"You, the Living" (2007) Roy Andersson

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Don't ever tell anybody anything..."

a tribute to J.D. Salinger 1919 - 2010

Like many, I was pretty much in love with Holden Caulfield. We had so much in common; he was full of adolescent angst and it’s attendant depression, had family troubles, and a faculty for spotting bullshit and phony people. And not a far-fetched prospect: 17 years to my 12. During junior high school I went through a period during which I ate nothing but Swiss cheese sandwiches, in his honor.

But I was not exactly as moony as all that sounds. I did have the wherewithal to realize that my affections for this character might easily translate to solidarity with his author. And so, I went in search of more information on his elusive creator: Jerome David Salinger. Of course, I came home from the library empty handed because, as everyone else already knew, J.D. was a very guarded man.

So, I sought him through his books. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour, an Introduction, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, I met the Glass family and fell in love all over again; more characters with brains and wit, prone to spiritual and existential crisis and wise beyond their years. During my more fervent writing years, I looked to Salinger as a guide for how to creatively exorcise existential anguish and air my grievances with the world. Of course, I had little to no success, which is how I know that a truly gifted writer is never simply issuing their personal gripes through the voices of their literary progeny.

Most of Salinger’s characters exist in some state of alienation often teetering on the cusp of emotional collapse. Franny struggles with the realization that while she has no trouble meeting people she likes, it’s almost impossible to find anyone she respects. Holden hasn’t the stomach for bullshit. Seymour cannot abide an ordinary life. It’s difficult to deny an underlying kinship when a reclusive writer tells the tales of the misanthropic and the malcontent.

… If you do, you start missing everybody.”

And I have to admit, as frequently as I fall for characters I still have trouble separating them from their genesis. Perhaps they weren’t designed to speak his truth – Holden with his excessive profanity and Seymour’s morbid humor - but rather to demonstrate his sympathies. Hardly emotional dummies, these characters represent the sort of people Salinger wished to know but never found. It’s too easy to pin withdrawal from society on emotional vulnerability, and I wouldn’t accuse a writer I admire of such a lily-livered temperament.

I think Salinger’s self-imposed exile was in part a withholding from a public with which the writer was endlessly dissatisfied; but I also believe it was a self-protective measure – a way to avoid attachment to something (people, fame, etc.) that would invariably, eventually let him down. Like Holden said “don’t ever tell anybody anything… if you do, you start missing everybody.” I’m glad Salinger didn’t take this notion entirely to heart. I don’t know where I’d be without Holden and the family Glass – co-conspirators in angst, companions in exile.