Thursday, June 28, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy, Part II

I've been hesitating to tackle this follow-up to last month's "Artifice or Fantasy" post, because I see serious problems with my line of reasoning. But let's get it over with.

Recently I discussed my realism/fantasy idea with a friend who's a visual artist. When I talked about photographic realism as a medium-based element that the artist's fantasies must encounter and make terms with, she said that the visual artist's materials serve a function like that for her: that her initial ideas must in some way take on a new or modified identity when they meet the materials with which she is working. I liked that parallel, and especially liked the corollary implication that photographic realism was the filmmaker's material: it's a sort of rephrase of Bazin's preoccupation with the ontology of the photographic image as the basis of cinema.

(Of course, there is a strand of filmmaking and film theory that is an extension of the visual arts, and that is based on the simpler, visual-arts-like argument that a filmmaker's materials are the emulsion, the flicker of the projected image, etc. I would argue that this literalism misses the unique qualities of cinema, and it certainly misses out on the beauties of Bazin's insight; but I wouldn't argue that it creates bad movies. In a way, the works generated by these two aesthetics could be described as belonging to completely different art forms.)

Having described the idea that artifice somehow needs to make terms with the realism of the medium, I must confess that I question how generally it applies. There are certainly many fine moments in cinema that depend for much of their impact on the intractability of the image, on the way that the image's documentation of the world is so much more, or so much other, than anything the fiction can offer. But I have good experiences at the movies that can't be described adequately in these terms. For instance, without searching very hard, I come across my recent blog entry on Noel Black's direction of actors in A Change of Seasons. There is no sense in which the acting ideas that I discussed could be described as the fusion of a fictional fantasy and a medium-based realism. It wouldn't even make sense to talk here about behavioral realism. If I were going to describe what's going on in A Change of Seasons using the language of my model, I'd have to say that Black is arranging for the fantasy of a certain story archetype to collide with a surprising, equally fantastic vision of behavior and intimacy, one built upon a bemused, intimate connection between people that expresses itself even when the story is in the process of driving those people apart.

So, in this case, not fantasy vs. realism, but fantasy vs. fantasy. And, really, when one thinks about it: probably all moments in all films contain a fantasy vs. fantasy structure on some level. How common is it for a movie to express a single pre-artistic fantasy, counterbalanced only by the realism of the photographic image? Very very uncommon, and perhaps unheard of. Even film moments that depend crucially on the photograph, moments that could never have existed in a novel, never be rendered by an animation: even these moments tend to be based on the collision of multiple, interacting layers of expression that do not pertain to the photograph.

This takes a great deal of the fun out of my fantasy vs. realism model. If realism doesn't come from the image, from the nature of the medium, then it's really more like just another fantasy, like something the artist dreamed up to counterbalance something else that he or she dreamed up.

So, for now, I'm thinking that, though "fantasy vs. realism" might describe something, I shouldn't be trying to promote it into a more comprehensive theory of how art works.

Just as a footnote (and to tick off one of the "to do" items at the end of the first "Artifice or Fantasy" post): you can see in my argument a pervasive assumption that good moments in art depend on some complication, some collision of levels, some way in which expression meets a meaningful obstacle. This model is more or less axiomatic for me, and I don't think it's very controversial at this point in history: it seems built into most modern discussions of art. Is it universal and timeless? I wonder about this. Did whoever drew those animals on the Altamira caves build in a layer of contradiction? What about all those medieval paintings intended to glorify God? Of course, the fact that the Altamira dude didn't intend to throw us any curveballs doesn't prevent us from identifying and appreciating such curveballs in the work. Still, I hesitate to define "art" in terms of collision and complication, even if I can't appreciate any art that doesn't make me feel complicated.

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