Saturday, March 19, 2011

Day 13

Tonight we're having guests over for dinner, for the first time in more than a year.  (We still know no one here.)  I've done the shopping (making a stir fried chicken basil thing, with fried basil leaves) and now prepare to settle in to my study for an afternoon's work.  Basketball calls to me, but not very loudly.  Very dizzy when I woke up, but it seems to have abated.  Wife is home, her typical weekend grouchiness exacerbated by the worries about having people coming over later.  After waking I was told to reclean the muffin pan.  Muffin pan now (I hope) meets high standards of cleanliness held by wife.  Cannot go forward in life without spotless, unused-looking muffin pan. This lesson I have learned once more.

Rewatched the second half of Big Lebowski last night, motivated in part by recent DVD viewing of a documentary The Little Lebowski Achievers (or some such).  Film is about the birth and growth of the Lebowski cult, people who travel around the US every year to go to Lebowski festivals, dress in elaborate costumes, memorize Lebowski trivia, etc.  Current thesis about Coen brothers (and my ongoing reservations about their cool, chilly, technically briliant work): they are the triumph of craft over art.  They are ALL craft, no art.  The distinction, I know, is not clear cut.  (And Eliot, I think, argues persuasively at some point that at a certain point, extreme craft IS art.)  Like Kubrick, they excel at everything except...I don't know.  "Connect", in the words of my play.  Mojo.  Inspiration.  Soul?  Maybe this is why their best films are adaptations (True Grit, Miller's Crossing)....  This is not the most fully fleshed-out idea, I know.  Art vs. craft an ongoing obesssion of mine.  Is there a distinction (yes, I think).  If so, what is it?  To me it is the difference between, say, the Beetles and Boston, between Bowie and David Sylvian, between the Coens and Tarkovsky (or Linklater, to pick someone more recent).  

But then I consider someone like Updike or Nabokov, writers both vulnerable to similar criticisms.  My feeling is that, at least in their best works, both men absolutely prove themselves to be artists, but I can see how each, in their writing, can seem similarly skewed.   Maybe if my ability to appreciate techincal accomplishment in film were greater, I'd rate the Coens or Kubrick as highly as I do Updike, in literature?

Be interesting to hear the thoughts of my many millions of readers.  (Except yours, Gullett.  No one wants to hear those).

Ok, have to work.


Dezmond said...

I can see your point on the Coens work. I really enjoy it, but I see your point. I think it is harder to do comedy than most other genres, and their "Raising Arizona" ranks as one of my favorite comedies (and movies, for that matter). Is that "art"? I don't know. It is freakin' funny, though.

What other directors do you think cross over on the artistic side of the line? Let's stick with American directors for the moment. I'm not saying with every film, but at their best. Scorsese? Coppola? I've been obsessed lately with 70's cinema.

ANCIANT said...

I don't know, is the short answer. As I say, this is kind of a working thesis, and has not yet blossomed into a fully-blown coherent idea.

It's hard to argue against The Godfather (I and II) as anthing other than art (a term I really should define, if I'm going to insist on contrasting it to craft, I know.) I would put Mean Streets up there for sure, but I haven't seen, e.g., Taxi Driver recently enough to have a strong sense of it either way. I don't know.

I'd say Billy Wilder, at his best, gets past craft into art. Sunset Blvd, to me, is a masterpiece of American cinema. Preston Sturges (in Sullivan's Travels, for sure).

I guess a working idea about the difference would be to do with what they inspire--how, rather, with how much and how intensely they inspire. The well crafted work is a dead-end, in a sense. People watch it, enjoy it, and move on. Art in some sense, gives rise to something. People watch it, get ideas, have an emotional response, and are moved (literally) to act, to either make something of their own or bring a spirit of making and creativity into their daily life. That is fairly abstract I know.

I will intend to keep posting on the subject.

ANCIANT said...

Badlands, too. That's another absolute masterpiece of American cinema that came out in the 70s and was made by an American.

As I've thought about this I've realized most of the movies I value most are not made by Americans. This troubles me for some reason.

Dezmond said...

But how to explain how the same film can effect people differently? One person can be moved and have their life changed by a movie, while someone else can watch it and have it do nothing for them. As in, the same film can do both of your definitions for different people. So how to categorize it as art vs. craft?

As much as a worship the first two 'Godfathers,' I think Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' is the greatest gangster film ever made. It is a beautiful thing to watch.

How do you feel about Sergio Leone? His westerns were made on the cheap, yet there is much there, both visually and symbolically. Art or craft?

Barbara Carlson said...

I just found your 30-days blogging challenge -- am thrilled. Will read back to Day One, but fear any comments will languish unread -- for who goes BACK once a post has appeared?

As for Art vs. Craft. I think

1) if you notice the craft first, it may not be art, or a "lower" art

and 2) that one learns a craft so one can have a vocabulary to work with -- to say something, to move other people, to challenge conventional thought, to ... well, to change the world somehow, to make it better, to have made a difference having been born. (As you say in your 4th paragraph comment to Dez.)

And as for your comment about the movies you most value not being made by Americans...I have long loved "foreign" films over most American which are formulaic, blow up too many things, have an ethnocentric stereotyping basis that precludes serious consideration. When your goal is to make money, you have to dumb down movies.

independent film makers are being taken seriously now AS money-makers which may give the movie moguls pause... Times change. I won't give up hope on the American film scene yet. Look at Sundance. When it began, there was one reporter. And now,
"overnight" success.

JMW said...

What you should love about the Coens, ANCIANT, is their humor. I'm surprised to learn you're not a bigger fan of theirs. I think they're among the best American artists of the past, what, 40 years? No one in America makes films like theirs, and their body of work is now becoming a pretty big, solid thing. I like them much, much more than Kubrick. Again, maybe the humor? (I find craft maybe even more important in film than in other arenas, because you have to look at the damn thing, which can be so enervating when it's ugly or boring. Ugly music can still have a great beat, an ugly book can have stretches of being great at whatever sloppiness it's doing -- Hunter S. Thompson, etc. -- before it falls off a cliff. But an ugly movie -- ugh.)

I do like Richard Linklater. He's not in the Coens' league, though.

Barbara Carlson said...

Yes, JMW. Watching TV last night, my husband and I happened on Coens' Burn After Reading, 20 minutes in...after only a few minutes we were SURE it was a Coen film -- a specific subject chosen to explore

The humourous digs at spy mentality, the catch-phrases of spycraft used by Frances McDormand's character, the naturalness of speech rhythms. Even tho not their best (Fargo & Blood Simple IMO), the film was entertaining, deliciously satirical w performances (esp. Brad Pitt) memorable. Art? Perhaps bits of it, perhaps pitch-perfect satire IS art. I don't know.

ANCIANT said...

I do think they're funny JMW. And I've seen most of their movies, many of them several times. I thought "True Grit" was outstanding, maybe the best thing they've ever done. And, yes, Dez, to go back to an earlier post, I do think "Raising Arizona" is hilarious, especially the first half. But as a coherent whole? I'm not so sure. (I almost never watch it past the point where the motorcycle bounty hunter starts to track them down).

The point in none of this was to denigrate craft. I assume that craft is a starting point--a sine qua non--for the production of art. I'm trying to separate between very good and great, I guess. But anything that approaches art MUST involve craft, to some degree.

Cartooniste said...

I'm intrigued by the art/craft distinction, particularly as in a lot of recent contemporary art objects the emphasis is on this hyper intense, almost obsessive display of craft. Karin Sander, say, who is a German minimalist who did a piece at the Guggenheim years ago in which she polished a gallery wall with fine grained sandpaper so thoroughly that it shone as if it were made of wax. Moving, astonishing, beautiful, and intellectually engaging (removal, rather than creation, being at the heart of her project). But it was hard to look at that and not think "Holy shit, how long did it take her to DO that?" Craft, to a nearly self-indulgent, almost mechanical degree. It's cold, in a way. Interesting, but cold.

Cartooniste said...

I HATE Richard Linklater. He's the poor man's Robert Altman. And I will wrestle anyone to the ground who dares to disagree with me.

ANCIANT said...


I think "Dazed and Confused" is one of the great movies of the last twenty years.

Although you're right about Altman. I rewatched "Gosford Park" recently (which I think is his best); it gets better every time I see it. A sure sign of a masterpiece.

JMW said...

I think Robert Altman is the poor man's Robert Altman. Linklater's made some good stuff, but he's wildly uneven and seems uninterested in a coherent career to an almost weird degree.

ANCIANT said...

I agree that Linklater can be self-indulgent and that he fails more than he succeeds. But, what can I say. I enjoy his failures a fair amount. ("Waking Life" e.g.).

I know, JMW, of your dislike for Altman. I think you judge him by the wrong movies ("The Player", "Short Cuts"). I'd put his best two or three films up there with anyone's work. I know I've told you this before, but you need to watch "Cookie's Fortune." And see "Gosford Park" again.

Cartooniste said...

JMW. You are mistaken.

You have to watch "Nashville." More than once. Three times, maybe.

It will test your patience. But that doesn't mean it's bad - it means that your attention span is changing.

Ditto Gosford Park.

Ditto MASH, which, unlike the other two mentioned, is also hilarious.

ANCIANT, if I wanted to know what it felt like to be a bored and stoned teenager in Texas in May, I'd just go back and re-live my life. The presence of Matthew McConahey (sp?) in that film alone is enough to make me want to stab someone. Possibly myself.

ANCIANT said...

Well, Cartooniste, though I completely agree with your comments about Altman--to the point where I now want to go rewatch Nashville--I'm afraid you are, as far as Dazed and Confused goes, wrong wrong wrong. ("Well maybe it wasn't that bad. But lord knows it wasn't good.") Have you seen it recently? It gets better every time I see it.

M McConaghy is perfectly cast in the movie, too. The role he was born to play. Not to say the character isn't appalling, but he is familiar, and real. Sad to say.