Art That Challenges You

After recently watching a movie and disliking it greatly, I did what I so often do; I decided to watch the special features. This has become something of a pattern for me, I watch a movie and if my response to it is strong (in either direction) I immediately want to delve into the special features to see what the filmmakers have to say. Although the DVD format is still relatively new I must admit to having grown accustomed to these features and my ability to watch them. Whenever I encounter a DVD that contains only the movie (which I admit is rare now) I feel as though the video store has pulled a fast one on me.

What recently came to my attention concerning DVD’s are two things:

1) there are many kinds of special features and commentaries and

2) what I have come to expect from them is absurd.

To address the second point first let me say this: say you read a book and when you turn that last page and close the cover you shake your head and say, “well, at least it’s over”. Do you immediately run to the library or to your computer to look up what the author has written in defense of the book? When you visit a museum and see a painting and find that it looks like something your prized chocolate lab could construct with twigs, tennis balls and mud do you venture out to the information desk to see if there is a pamphlet printed on behalf of the artist explaining the merit of the work? My guess is you do not. Instead you accept the fact that the painting is not to your liking and move on to the next. Perhaps you decide to try another book by that author, reading reviews of it beforehand.

My point is this, to the best of my knowledge this is the only art form that offers the artists the opportunity to explain and defend their work in such a widespread manner. Personally, I enjoy these commentaries and special features quite a bit. Having an interest in making movies there is occasionally information that seems aimed at helping people like me. What I take issue with is what I have come to expect from these features, that is, a defense of failed films.

What do I mean by failed films? Mostly I mean movies that made very little money at the box office. Thanks largely to the Internet Movie Database everyone now has the ability to find out (roughly) how much every movie makes at the box office. Why this should be of interest to anyone other than the investors (and others who stand to profit) I will never know. I do know that I have checked these figures times beyond counting and I cannot offer a reason as to why. Perhaps because it is there. To get back to the original point, the DVD format seems to have become a place for filmmakers to get in the last word about their movie, if they choose to. Take for instance the film, “Mallrats” by Kevin Smith. Critically the movie was not well received and commercially I believe it lost money (now that I have brought it up I must, of course, refuse on principle to look up such things). If you listen to the audio commentary Mr. Smith and the cast discuss why the film did so poorly.

I single out Mr. Smith because he is a shining example of where DVD’s go wrong. Rather than create a commentary for people who like the movie (which must be the majority of the people watching) a great deal of time is spent pointing the finger and assigning blame. Perhaps this is appealing because gossip makes a person feel like they are part of the group. Clearly I am of this type because I have delved into numerous commentaries and articles where mud flies freely and done so with glee. In any case — a movie, a sculpture, a topiary should stand on its own. If the artist needs to explain what they have done in order for the audience to like (or understand) it then they did not do their job well. If the Sistine Chapel required a tour guide who explained all of the obstacles the Medici family and competing artists created for poor little Michelangelo – asa the only meanly for you to appreciate why it is beautiful, I doubt it would receive so many visitors.

The film that brought all of this on (so you know who to blame) is called “Down in the Valley”. Aside from starring Edward Norton I knew very little about the movie prior to watching it, which usually is a good thing. My problem with the movie is that it seems to lack two very important things;

1) a point and

2) likable (or redeemable) characters.

I say this because the film ended and I sat watching the credits wondering, why did I watch this? As I previously wrote I then navigated through the menu and saw that the DVD contained a question and answer session with the director and Mr. Norton. What I learned from this exchange was that they both love the movie and feel that it is wonderful because it challenges the audience. Neither the director nor Mr. Norton elaborated on this point so I, the humble viewer, was left feeling as though I was lacking. Because of this feeling I decided to sit down and sort through my thoughts in an effort to better understand the film, why this idea of  ‘not getting it’ troubles me so and if this is somehow part of something larger.

The novel Lolita is one that I think challenges many readers. Its subject matter is so shocking, so revolting, so clearly wrong that the elegance of the writing and the readability of the book makes many readers question their own morality. I do not mean to say it makes men and women wonder about pedophilia, but, as I found while reading, it made me wonder what the writer was doing so well that kept me reading despite my disgust with the subject matter. I would call this a challenging book because its subject matter is one that I have strong negative feelings about, yet it is crafted in such a way that I continued to read.

So many works of art, especially modern art, seem to be designed to achieve the opposite effect. The subject matter of the book or sculpture or movie is something benign, something trivial but the way the viewer (or reader) is forced to interact with it is so unpleasant that the challenge lies in enduring the process to (presumably) reach the ‘ah-ha!’ moment where the beauty and importance is made clear. The bent beam of steel is ugly, it is plain, it is common and only those who take the trouble to study it, to examine it closely and use their imagination as to what it could be or was are able to to see the beauty. Perhaps the fault lies with me and this is just my attempt to come off looking good. Perhaps. I have noticed that generally speaking independent films (which is what Down in the Valley is) claim to be intentionally difficult and challenging as a positive attribute. This is something that people who create independent film seem to take pride in. Whether this is turning a weakness into a strength or embracing the other simply because it is the other I do not know for sure. I can say, as someone who does have a lot of time on his hands, that unless I am lured in by the film or book I can no longer find a reason to sit through two hours of dreariness or boredom, simply because it is art.

And yet here I am, some time later, writing and thinking about this film. I take no pleasure in these thoughts, in these words I am writing. The film whose meaning I’ve missed is akin to the sore tooth that my tongue cannot stop probing. Without social media I might write my behavior off to a personality quirk, another shortcoming I possess. I see, daily, how many other people devote their time and energy exploring the artistic works of others (usually films) from this place of ‘not getting it’.

What I hoped to poke at a bit here is the intention of the artist regarding the work. Someone like David Lynch enjoys making enigmatic films (and television shows) and offers no explanation to their meanings. He’s interested in making you think, in confusing you in posing questions without answers. Other artists, like the people who made “Down in The Valley” I think have other intentions. I think they wanted to tell a story about a certain kind of people in a certain kind of place and knew that this was not a film for everyone. They seem to take pride in the fact that people will be put off by aspects of the film, be it the subject matter or the pacing of the storytelling, and I find this to be a different animal.

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