Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Originality & Authorship: Interstellar & John Carter News

Christopher Nolan, like Alfred Hitchcock, is a master at understanding the mind of the viewer: he knows what we know, because he knows that we have seen the same movies he has seen, and he knows that we have certain ideas that come into our head when we see actors on screen portraying characters, i.e., he knows that we are aware of the world outside of the world the film tries to create. For example, in his film Torn Curtain with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman, Hitchcock knew the audience had seen films with Newman playing an American anti-hero, so when the question of his character's defection to the Soviet Union comes up, we more readily believe Micheal (Newman) has switched sides because we saw him do things like that in Hud; when Michael's girlfriend/secretary, played by Julie Andrews joins him in defection, we are stunned because we had just seen Andrews running away from socialists in The Sound Of Music, so the emotional impact is even more devastating and confusing because Hitchcock knew that the audience has an entire psychology wrapped up in going to see films, and he was able to tap into that when casting his actors to play certain characters; why is that important? Nolan taps into that world in a way most other film makers don't bother with, thereby increasing the dialogue Nolan has with his audience, and--quite frankly--deepening our bond with him and his films because we more quickly bond with someone when we have "spoken with them" rather than them speaking "at" us. Casey Affleck is in this film; what do you think of when you think of him? Certain films he has been in, OR is he still the little brother of Ben, who can't quite seem to break loose and come into his own? While Affleck is a good actor, there are a host of other actors Nolan could have cast, so when we see someone like Casey Affleck on a Nolan screen, we have to ask, "What does Nolan want us to be thinking when we see this?" Likewise, when we see Anne Hatheway's character, will Nolan want us to be thinking of her work as Cat Girl, or her Oscar winning role in Les Miserables? When Michael Caine comes on, will we instinctively think of Alfred the butler from Batman?
  If I had to name the top movie-maker in Hollywood today--producers, directors, actors, writers, anyone in the film making industry being eligible--I wouldn't even need one second to put Mr. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Man Of Steel) at the top, with only the entire Marvel department behind him. Nolan isn't just a man who makes things happen in a big way, he decides how everything is going to start happening and focuses on the audience, rather than the box office, suits or actors. If Nolan has made a decision, in other words, it's a decision that will be felt around Hollywood. In this very brief clip, Erin does a far better, and brief, job of summarizing the technicalities of Nolan's newest film, Interstellar, than my verbose self would, so please take just a moment:
When we hear of a new film being released, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, "What does this plot, narrative or story remind me of that has all ready been done? It reminds me of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which I very much enjoyed in spite of some of the plot lines which created problems for others (please see The Great Betrayal: Prometheus & Death Of the Father for more). We haven't touched on this in awhile, so now is a good time to examine issues of that curse of the art world, the audience's concept of "originality." Without a doubt, when a new trailer comes on TV, someone says, "Why don't they do something original? Why are they just re-hashing the same old films?" There are two concepts contained in this statement: one, that such a thing as "originality" exists, and two that the viewer of the trailer recognizes features of this "new story" being advertised and can link it up to other stories they have seen. Because of the second concept, the first one doesn't exist; there is never ANY ORIGINALITY ANYWHERE, it has never existed at any time, place or in any medium, only the second concept exists. 
Is anyone else shocked to see this? I actually like John Carter, there were a number of levels--especially the political--that I thought the film did a great job on, so I made two posts on it. What everyone is apt to remember most upon hearing of this sequel being made is not the story like of John Carter, rather, the news stories of it bombing so bad at the box office. A sequel happens to be a great side note for our discussion on originality, because most people will hear "sequel" and instantly think, "They must not be able to come up with anything new, so (again) they are re-hashing what they have all ready done." Not true, my friend, not true at all. We have all ready seen the kind of man John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is: we know what motivates him, what drives him, his faults as a character, his love, his fear, etc., so none of that CAN BE "re-hashed," the material for the next story is going to be going down into the "soul of the character," deeper and more meaningful decisions will have to be made and more serious consequences lived with as a result. In other words, instead of "spreading out" in a first film with plot and action diluting the character's identity with issues and virtues/sins, the sequel necessarily has to move inward, deeper into the characters because the more decisions and adventures they face, the more their behavior becomes a pattern, a code of social norms, of what is and is not acceptable in society to do/be. THAT becomes a moral stance by virtue of the same decisions being repeated over and over, for example, John Carter NOT seizing power to become a dictator, so it is re-enforced in the minds of Americans that anyone who makes a false show to gobble up power for themselves, is evil. Another example: Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Whereas the first four installments demonstrated a "change of soul and conversion" Jack was going through (having experienced hell as being his very self) in the latest adventure, there is a new writer, who may take Jack into the throws of socialism rather than the sanctity of heaven (as Jack tells the missionary/preacher in the last film, I want to be with the goodie-goodies, and am willing to believe whatever I must to end up in the right place. Well, that's what's called "imperfect contrition," but it is still a level of contrition; the new writer probably won't have something like contrition enter into his plot line at all. So, there is a challenging level of "newness" with a sequel--who is this character imitating?--but the sequel, like the first story in the series, is only reflecting a larger truth all ready contained somewhere in reality, and the artists who best accomplish the accurate reflection of reality that we the audience recognize, is the artist that we label "original," perhaps because the art reflects what we consider the "origin" of art to be. 
When someone recognizes elements of a new film reflecting elements they have seen previously in other films, that is an act of "criticism," like what we do here, however, most people, in applying a template of the traditional narrative forms to a new film, and not seeing what they consider new in the story, assume it's a bad thing; by now, with all the references with painstakingly try to re-construct with films we discuss, I hope we see all art as really being a dialogue taking place: a dialogue involving the issues of the day and the stages of identity and development being revealed in culture and society, a re-evaluation of the norms, a conflict of those supporting the norms, but a dialogue, a debate, not a brand new, shining, fresh,. newborn creation every time. That just doesn't exist; why? All art reflects reality, and God is the Author of Reality, so everything is a reflection of God's Work.
The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, opening next weekend, the last "summer movie" of 2013 (300: Rise Of An Empire was supposed to open next week but got moved to March 2014 for more time to re-film some of the key scenes). I haven't read the books, but I have been rather protective of this film, having read a comment left by someone on the YouTube page where I saw the trailer: "There isn't anything new or original in this film, just the same old one person chosen to save humanity, thanks, but I'll pass." Another angle on what I say below about a set number of tools, is the importance of which tools are being selected: the choice of tool regarding a person's destiny and free will is perhaps the most difficult tool for an artist to employ in this day and age because so many fail to see God anywhere at all in anything, and it's through destiny and free will (the freedom to choose the higher virtues rather than be enslaved by the appetites of worldly pleasures and pursuits) which best reflect God to us. This distinction between freedom of our will and slavery to our appetites is manifested by the idea within this film of a "shadow hunter," a half-human, half angel being, like what we see in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea Of Monsters, with the demi-gods, half god, half human. The reason such a story line is so important to audiences right now, that this tool of free will and destiny is recurring again and again, is because,. as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost of Adam, "We are sufficient to stand, but free to fall," and films like The Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson want to inspire us to be strong enough to stand, like our fore fathers, whereas films like The Conjuring and Elysium want to mis-lead us into falling while making us think we are really standing. When we have a "chosen" story like this, it's not--in this case--Clary (Lily Collins) who is chosen, it's YOU, in the audience, watching the film; YOU ARE CHOSEN, because you have a destiny that is solely yours, you have an identity solely yours and you have your own free will to do as you please. IF these things weren't somehow acknowledged by you, on one level or another, you wouldn't watch this film (or films like it, like Man Of Steel: that's not Clark Kent's power we see, it's your power and if you couldn't buy into the power of your free will you wouldn't watch it because you couldn't identify with it). When we see a trailer, and we go through this mystical process of deciding whether or not " it looks good" and we are going to see the film at some point in time, these issues of free will and slavery to the appetites is part of what goes through our head in working out that equation of whether, literally IT IS GOOD, i.e., it stands for virtues and "good things" you believe in or it stands for vice and bad things you don't believe in. The more aware we all become about the presence of our destiny and the power of our free will, the better choices we make and the better people we become; when we become who we have been destined to become, society becomes better. On the other hand, we have the freedom to give power and control over to our appetites, like the demons represented in The Mortal Instruments, and that abandoning of our duty, gifts and free will causes the spread of those vices throughout society. That's why art and our deepest engagement with it is imperative. 
You are, as always, invited to disagree with me; I am Christian, so for me, nothing can/does exist apart from God Who is the Creator of all things. When an artist (in any medium, painting, music, poetry, etc.) sets down to tell society what the artist wants society to know (even in the abstract language of music) about itself, the artist stands at a table, and there are a certain number of tools the artist can choose to utilize in telling that story (think of a carpenter working on a job, and he has wrenches, saws, hammers, screws, etc., from which to choose how to build another table). The tools never change, they always remain the same, but some artists, once in a while, will take a common tool used so many times in the past, and realize--what many would describe as a a "different way" of using that tool than it has been used before, and call it "new" and original. Is that new? No, it's ancient, because "seeing" is part of wisdom, and wisdom is the gift of prophecy, seeing how everything has happened before and will happen again in the future, is part of a larger, macro-event, or made up of smaller micro-events: the sublime ability to see something isn't new, it's just the sublime ability to see something--or a part of that something--more clearly than others have seen it before, yet, even as some new aspect comes into clearer, sharper focus for society, as they are led by the artists to share the "sight," an older vision fades away in its time and is forgotten, so we only have what is before us as our understandings of the same thing changes and we think it's new, but it's not. Is that as clear as mud?
Some works of art, on the other hand, make it a virtue to never see anything in a clearer, deeper light, rather preferring to see things exactly the same forever and ever because that's how they want to see it. Lee Daniel's The Butler opens this weekend; Jane Fonda portraying Nancy Reagan? Are they insane? Robin Williams portraying Dwight Eisenhower? Oprah Winfrey's slam against the Fox News Network, and those who watch Fox, almost guarantees a poor-turn-out for the film.
Let's say there is a mirror and "culture" is a face; the face looks in the mirror but can only see a small portion of the face at any time, never seeing the whole face at once. The mirror is God, because our whole purpose in life, as individuals and as humanity, is to see God our Father as He is (which won't be achieved until we reach Heaven). Trying to see God, however, not only allows us to see His Hand moving to bring about events in culture and history, but we see Him in His Glory within us, within our very self. That's the purpose and drive and meaning of art, and artists--and there are plenty of them--not trying to convey these concepts to the audience and humanity pursue trivial matters not worthy of their gifts given to them by God to see God. Again, you are more than welcome to disagree with me--the purpose of this post has been to make you reflect on how you interact with art, and why are is important in your life, why you engage with it and how you engage it--but please, do, think upon these issues now and in the future as you continue watching films and television shows, because there is a battle for your mind, as they saying goes, and you don't want a thief coming in and stealing what you didn't realize you had.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner