Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy: Part I

As I have a little time, I thought I'd write about a general idea about film that's been kicking around my head lately. Skip this post if you don't feel like a theory session.

So I came up with this formal concept back in my early film-buff days, and it hung around in my belief system ever since then, without being particularly useful. The concept was that all films contain both realistic and artificial components, and that art happens on the interface of these components. And further, that it didn't really matter how realistic or how artificial a film might look to us: that the interface would always be there and would always operate in the same way. The same vocabulary of realism and artifice could be used for Farrebique or Tales of Hoffman.

You'd think that I would have some problem with the "realism" half of the formula, as that term is so embattled. But I'm a Bazinian, and have therefore had to consider what kind of meaning that word might have - and Bazin himself is much more helpful on that count than his detractors would have it. So I actually felt capable of some nuance when discussing realism and its value.

The problem was with artifice: not so much in identifying it as in figuring out how it worked. When was artifice good and when was it just phony? Thirty years later I was still dancing around that issue. Sometimes I would get pleasure from blatantly artificial elements, and I would vaguely attribute these artistic successes to some formal subtlety, some question of balance or proportion. Which I realized was just hand-waving, as we used to say in math. Other times I would criticize films for not being real, and my irritation would hide from me the obvious question: why do I consider this film false, where instances of artifice in other films seem to get a pass? Clearly I lacked a theory of how artifice might work or not work.

A few months ago there was a break in the case. And, like so many developments in my thought in the last ten or fifteen years, it can be traced back to my increasing adherence to a Freudian, or perhaps a psychoanalytical, mindset. A big current of psychoanalytical thought involves looking at old complexities in a simpler way, and realizing that we didn't light on the simple theory immediately because it was undesirable, because we didn't want to hold that belief. Why do we have nightmares? Maybe part of us likes the nightmare. Why do we have incest taboos? Maybe we think of family members in sexual terms. The problem of evil? Maybe people like to hurt each other. Etc.

So, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that maybe I liked some artifice because it fulfilled some fantasy of mine, and disliked other artifice because it pressed some button of mine. Forget for the moment considerations of craft, artistic balance, and so on. Maybe the artifice in art is, at root, just wish-fulfillment.

This was not the belief I wanted to have. Early in my film-buff life I had decided that fantasy and wish-fulfillment were incompatible with art. That was not just a way of rejecting the happy-ending ethos; it was a way of drawing lines between art and pornography, art and violent fantasy, art and anything that seemed too primal and powerful to allow delicate formal issues to operate.

This new belief was letting in all this stuff that I'd been excluding for years. But maybe it was worth giving it a spin, theoretically speaking.

So: instead of an opposition between realism and artifice, I tried thinking of art as a balance between realism and fantasy. The idea clicked immediately. As a filmmaker, I knew full well that I was drawn to some subjects and not others for pre-artistic reasons - that there had to be some powerful, primal motivation that would keep me working on a project. So I might be drawn to a sexual theme, and then complicate and distort it until it could be no one's fantasy: no matter, there was an element of fantasy that gave the project a juicy, desirable feeling in my mind. Surely film appreciation worked in the same way.

I saw the big advantage of the new realism vs. fantasy concept. It's always been painfully obvious that, as much as film buffs like to theorize about what makes films good or bad, we all like different things, and our reasons for liking and disliking are often blatantly linked to our personalities. We have a lot of trouble grasping why everyone doesn't love Film X, or hate Film Y; something about us really wants to believe that the issue is purely aesthetic, despite the screamingly obvious subjectivity of all parties.

By substituting "fantasy" for "artifice" in my formula, I was losing the idea that artifice was a formal element that could be manipulated well or poorly. But this idea had never done me much good anyway, had never developed over the course of my intellectual life. On the other hand, I was gaining a view of film appreciation that allowed for the subjectivity that so badly needs to be acknowledged in film theory, the elephant in the room that we all ignore. Our pre-artistic preferences could now be, if not actually theorized, at least inscribed in a theory. And the new formula also allowed for realism as a purely formal element that could be used to shape, oppose, redirect fantasy in ways that could challenge us, and that could be analyzed. I was already down with the idea that realism was formal, was something that the medium gave us, something that was bigger and less controllable than any fantasy. Now I had a new way of thinking about "the ontology of the photographic image": it's the part of cinema that the artist doesn't just dream up, that necessarily contributes more than the artist can intend.

A checklist for Part II of this post:
  • Discuss how this dichotomy might be adapted to other art forms.
  • Discuss why we want art to be more than pure fantasy, and whether that was always the case.
  • Acknowledge the problems posed by this new formula. In particular: does realism always come from the nature of the medium? (Plainly not.) Can the artist introduce it as a kind of nega-fantasy? (Plainly.) In that case does it work the same way as medium-based realism? (That's a tough one....)


Marcelo Gilli said...

I enjoyed your considerations, and by the way your blog is one of the best things I have come across lately. I don't read much film theory (and am not a filmmaker), but I have thought about the same issues you address here. A recent film called "Ask the Dust" (which I hated but for the following lines) has H.L. Menken's solution to the dilemma posed by the central character (you must live to have something to write about, but if you do that you won't have the time to write): "Do more with less." The problem with bad cinema (e.g. Ask the Dust, and almost anything nowadays) is that they are following this advice in its extreme version, which is "Do all with nothing". As for your own dilemma (fantasy or artifice) you abandoned a neat line of reasoning for a confused new one, it appears. If you think of a film as a formal structure, there are 3 things it must abide by: stylistic and ideologic consistency; focus (the film must have a center, and no more than one), and economy of information (every element must be there for a reason). So, for me, artifices that (1) are consistent with the film's style and ideology; (2) do not take the film away from its focus; (3) are functional -- are good ones.
A sex movie, for example, would rarely fit into my view of great art simply because it would fail to abide by my three rules above (take economy of information as the most frequent absence).

Dan Sallitt said...

Marcelo - if nearly every sex film violates the accepted codes for good art, isn't that a clue that maybe the sex films have different goals? The things about erotic fiction that make it an easy target for criticism - excessive repetition, adjective abuse - are exactly the elements that arouse the reader/viewer.

My problem with your three rules is not that they are not good rules, but that they seem more useful in shaping value than in creating it. I love many works of art that are inconsistent, unfocused, and gratuitous to at least some extent, and I dislike some others despite their consistency, focus, and functionality. Where is our pleasure created?

Your comment about abandoning a neat line of reasoning for a confused one reminded me of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, asked by his friends if he plans to abandon Catholicism for Protestantism: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" Hopefully time will shed some light on the matter.

Marcelo Gilli said...

Dan - Maybe I shouldn't debate too much before reading your next installment (and probably some books too...), but let me just point out that, yes, the 3 rules are useful for shaping value precisely because I am only talking about the "artifice" elements, which is the shaping part of a film. The element that creates value is its connection to reality. This part cannot be systematized, and should prevail over the artifice.
Of course, this last statement is only my personal taste, as I notice that an increasing number of people prefer films which are abstractions (eg Lord of the Rings, practically any sci-fi, some Korean films like Oldboy, etc).
PS: maybe I used the word "confused" inappropriately; what I meant was simply that I was confused.

Marcelo Gilli said...

Dan - First, I admit that the concept of reality is problematic; it's not realism I mean. Second, ignore my examples of abstract movies (I fell into the pitfall of confusing both concepts).
I gather that the core of this discussion is psychology in film. How best to depict human behavior in film - this seems to be your primary - sole? - concern.
I think it all boils down to Meaning. The artist should be aware that everything he puts into his film has a meaning. If you accept this heretic view, things become quite simple. Differences of taste become simply differences of opinion. You don't like a film (or any part thereof) because you don't agree with its meaning.
I am probably just riding on the Lacanian notion that "the subconscious is structured like a language", a sentence that comprises all the knowledge I have on this subject.
I am already out of my depth.

Dan Sallitt said...

Marcelo - I don't mean to restrict the discussion to the depiction of human behavior.

Your substitution of "meaning" for other aesthetic values is interesting, but it raises questions. Is art a message to be interpreted? I'm in the habit of regarding art as Something Different.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dan. I'm looking forward to the follow-up. I feel if more people out there understood the realism/artifice dichotomy as central to art then we'd live in a better, or at least more consistently interesting world -- it's always been a big part of the way I've conceptualized art even though it's only really crystalized for me in the past few years. It just seems... central.

I was interested in your comment about the films we favor and make being related to personal psychology. Isn't it possible that the situation of the love triangle just happens to be something easily conducive to a masterpiece by your standards? It seems like one of the most common scenarios where constant, semi-manifested emotional tension flourishes.

Sometimes it seems to me that certain artists have a preset to expressing realism or artifice, autobiography or fiction, whether they'd like to or not. And sometimes greatness results from trying to fight these personal presets, and reach a pure compromise. We know Hartley does want to give his audience a good time, and we know Kiarostami doesn't per se, so perhaps a masterpiece happens when Hartley decides to get a little more difficult, and when Kiarostami gets a little easier. In the same vein, when Joni Mitchell downplays her standard complexity, we get songs like "Big Yellow Taxi," and when Bob Dylan goes for more complexity than usual, we get "Desolation Row," in my opinion their best work. This distinction doesn't seem to work so well for people like Hawks and Rohmer, whose conceptions of life and art appear to be perfectly balanced.

I know that even though Hong Sang-soo is my favorite working filmmaker, part of me recognizes that he's doing something similar to what I'm trying to do: use cinema to resolve personal dilemmas. WOMAN ON THE BEACH in particular struck me as more of a diary entry than a story, but this might be how I would describe my own work. Nevertheless, I feel more eager to try to break from this mold than dig deeper into it -- triumph is so often the result of grappling with our own limitations.

Dan Sallitt said...

Sky - that's an interesting take on Hong. It's easy to see a resemblance between his style and yours. But your story structures are easier for me to grasp: some failure or insecurity on the part of your characters derails what was previously a perfectly functional drama and causes it to flatline. Hong's "doubling" tendency is harder for me to grok, and is subtly troubling. Somehow, two-ness throws fiction into question in a way that three-or-more-ness does not....

I suppose it's possible that the love triangle is just a particularly rich storytelling device, and that I'm one of the few who sees it!

Y'all can see two of Sky's short films online at:

Marcelo Gilli said...

Dan (and possibly Sky) - I have reread your (Dan's) post, and am pretty sure now of having grasped all you said. I have also read a bit about Bazin's theory (mostly on a book by one Dudley Andrew) just so I don't stand on too lower grounds than everyone else about what is meant by realism in film. Sorry if my previous posts were a bit unfocused or outright off-topic. I would like to point out, though(and God forbid this causes any ripples between you two), that Sky seems to have misread you: it seems to me that you are ceasing to consider the dichotomy realism-artifice as central to film appreciation/making.

Anonymous said...

Marcelo -

It wasn't my intention to claim that Dan was saying the realism/artifice dichotomy is central to film thought. I meant that it seems central for me personally.

Dan Sallitt said...

Marcelo - I'm just pulling this stuff out of my ear, so you can't really be more unfocused than I am....

If I may make a suggestion, though: there is no substitute for reading Bazin! Commentary on Bazin is often downright misleading, and never seems to capture the man's intelligence.

Marcelo Gilli said...

Sky - Ok. Sorry.

Dan - Thanks for your tip; I plan on reading Bazin's original writings.


Unknown said...

Interesting post - this struck a chord as I have just seen Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters for the first time in a while, to which many of your comments seem particularly pertinent.

Dan Sallitt said...

Colin - I haven't seen Mishima in years, so I can't comment on it in detail. I wasn't wild about it in 1985 - I wonder whether the idea of combining multiple formal approaches might seem less forbidding today.