Friday, January 07, 2011

3 Videos, 1 Installation and a "Rebuke" of Sofia Coppola

1. Dance is beautiful: Part I.
One of the things I like about my siblings and their spouses is that they love to dance.  Cliff and Scranton are a mean pair of breakdancers. Christine throws down with the intensely kinetic African dances. Stephanie and Phaedra work a floor like nobody's business, especially when it comes to hip hop. (My parents have taken Irish dance lessons and are fun to watch too when they dance their jigs and reels.)

I'm fair on the floor. But when I get to heaven I want to devote several years to learning what these guys do. It's just breathtakingly astonishing. I have to wonder whether the angels invisibly look on from the side, taking notes, with an eye to future imitation.

(Thanks to Scranton for the video.)



2. Dance is beautiful: Part II.
What can I say. Gorgeously filmed, gorgeously rendered, fantastically interpreted. Very inspiring. (Thanks to Tim Stewart for noticing it first.)




3. Russians are funny.
I posted this on FB a couple of weeks ago on. It's quirky and ingenious.



4. DaVinci Installation.
From the Wall Street Journal:

"Presenting “Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway,” an amalgamation of 8,000 years of art and 112 years of cinema, or so the artist said on the Upper East Side Wednesday morning. The installation uses 33 screens and over 2,000 lights, offering the audience an audio visual tour and cinematic lightshow highlighting two classic paintings -– Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” and Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana.”"

5. A rebuke of Sofia Coppola.
You don't have to agree with all the parts of the author's argument to feel that he is on to something. There are, for the sake of the argument I'm about to make, two kinds of great movies: those that are genuinely profound in their ability to unpack the strange, mysterious nature of human behavior (I put "Babel" into that category) and those that are profound the first time around, but by the second and third become cliches and a sad commentary on the insular world of the writer(s).

For as much as I enjoy Ms. Coppola's movies, I leave them with a funny feeling of boredom. Like much that I see on cable TV ("The Sopranos") or hear via ITunes (Kayne West), Sofia's stories are a kind of peek into the author's therapy. Art has long been a way for people to make sense of their lives. From Sophocles' dramas to the tales of the Brontë sisters, art is a gift that God has given us to understand obliquely the many non-straightforward parts of our lives. For us as viewers/readers/hearers, the experience of such art can become an occasion for genuine self-knowledge, perhaps even transformation.

Where I quickly grow bored is when I'm watching the artist sit with their therapist, so to speak, refuse to grow up, refuse to grow into new things, and in their artworks recycle their issues over and over and over.

The spectacle of sound and sight can sometimes make it seem like they're saying something new. They're not.  If I were to venture a judgment, I might say that there is a glamor to the sadness of our lives. Dysfunctional pathos generates attention. The dark places in our souls keeps our imaginative and affective capacities acutely tuned, and for an artist that's an invaluable resources to have at a constant as well as immediate disposal. But I cannot admire this kind of art. Perhaps the artist doesn't know any better. Perhaps their theological horizons offer no possibility for hope beyond the grim circumstances of their life. Perhaps they are surrounded by self-indulgent friends, who offer no better help. So be it. Life's a mess. We can say a prayer for the artists that we care about. But I refuse to call art along these lines beautiful.

Whether Coppola is guilty of all that Noah Buschel argues against her is debatable. But just because an artist is described as "daring" or "formally audacious" or keeps her lens patiently focused on the broken pieces of our lives does not make her work profound. It makes her work predictable and quite possibly thematically juvenile. At worst it makes the art easily dismissible. After a while I just want to say, "Can we grow up a little?"

(Thanks to my filmmaker friend Mike Akel for passing the article along.)

28 comments:

Brannon Hancock said...

Thanks for the link to the S.C. review, and for your thoughts, too, David. I have always felt this way about Sofia Coppola's films, and I always suspected I was not alone...but never said much, worried perhaps I'd forfeit some culture-vulture cred if I dissed her. But very similar experience to yours: drawn in by her films (the first time) but left fairly empty and disinterested in a second viewing.

w. david o. taylor said...

Brannon, just so you won't feel like you're alone in your worry that you'd lose culture-vulture cred, I'll confess another possible culture-vulture cred-losing opinion. As much as I love Paul Thomas Anderson's films, I was bored by "There Will Be Blood." I simply did not believe Daniel Plainview's character.

Daniel Day Lewis' performance was a total wow moment. I wouldn't expect anything less. But Anderson's characterizations felt forced. I kept wanting to like the movie but felt like my shoulders equally kept shrugging throughout the movie with a "who cares" attitude.

Cole Matson said...

Absolutely spot-on article about Coppola's films. I remember watching Lost in Translation and thinking, at the end of it, "I'm just bored." So many other people seemed to see it as genius that I wondered if I had missed something. But I really don't think I did. I just think I prefer solidity to evanescence.

Money quote: "one needn’t dip their art in vagueness and indistinctness to create mystery."

Btw, I recently submitted my application to the Div School, so we'll see what happens.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

OK, so this review is really well-written, helps me to get clearer about several observations I've had that I hadn't yet been able to articulate. And, D.T., your comments help that much more. The sort of "window into therapy" vibe that does not become about something bigger/larger/more mysterious. (Buschel: "True mystery is all around us all the time.")

For what it's worth, here's a couple of things I'll be thinking about in response:

1. Thinking through the critiques of the artists mentioned here (S. Coppola, Kanye, etc.)helps me get clearer about something I see in me. I lack courage and have consistently tried to be a writer without actually being a writer, writing about things that matter to me without actually writing about them specifically. The end result is that my words feels to me a bit like the characteristic that they "become more about what they’re blocking out than what the camera is trained on" with which Buschel tags S.C.'s movies.

2. I wholeheartedly agree with Buschel's admonition to find the mystery in the ordinary. (crass paraphrase, I realize) The ditch on the other side of the road, though, is super-mystifying the ordinary. I have to think about this some more before I can come up with concrete examples of what I mean, or why the review kind of set me on edge regarding that point. But I'll be thinking a lot about it, don't you worry!

3. Also, I am stunned that the Russians are funny. Who knew?

Reno said...

maybe part of the problem is that you find Babel profound ... just saying.

w. david o. taylor said...

Cole, so happy to hear about your application. I'll cross my fingers and say a prayer. Would love to have you around.

Tamara:

1. That's a great bit of self-knowledge.
2. If you get more insight into this, let me know. I'll love to read it.
3. Who knew indeed. :)
4. Hope you're feeling better health-wise.

Reno: I did find "Babel" profound. I'm not sure how that relates to "the problem." What problem exactly? Whose problem? I don't know how your statement is apropos to the conversation here.

For the record, I am a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu's movies. They risk skirting into cliche, but I felt that he avoided it in "Babel" and I don't think I'm too terribly alone in that opinion. I found equally stirring "Amores perros" and "21 Grams." I haven't seen "Biutiful" yet.

Alex Humphrey said...

I really enjoy your blog posts. They help me to see things in the world I would have otherwise passed by. Your videos are a great example of that. Thank you Mr. Taylor!

w. david o. taylor said...

Thank you, Alex. Glad to hear that. I love finding these videos and I'm keen to share them.

Reno said...

Well David, you seem to be pitting the profundity of a film like Babel against the lack of profundity of Sofia Coppola's films.

Is that not a true statement?

w. david o. taylor said...

Reno, you're correct.

Reno said...

So the problem you have with Sofia Coppola's work is dependent you preferring the way Iñárritu views and expresses the human condition vs. the way S. Coppola expresses the human condition. Is that a true statement?

w. david o. taylor said...

Reno, I'm not sure my concern with Sofia's movies is best described by your use of the word "dependent." Obviously it's not that simple. However, I do think Iñárritu handles his subject matter better than Sofia.

Reno said...

So you are saying that it is the handling of subject matter rather than subject matter itself?

w. david o. taylor said...

Yes.

Reno said...

Are you sure? Because I didn't see any mention about cinematic technique. I only read this:

"But just because an artist is described as 'daring' or 'formally audacious' or keeps her lens patiently focused on the broken pieces of our lives does not make her work profound. It makes her work predictable and quite possibly thematically juvenile."

... a general statement that could just as easily be attributed to Iñárritu if we were talking about subject matter.

w. david o. taylor said...

You're right.

And as you rightly suspect, things are more complicated than I state in this blog. The comment about Sofia's films is an opinion, not a carefully researched argument. It's an opinion based on my experience of her movies and in comparison with others. I made no attempt to argue my case for "Babel." That would have to happen elsewhere.

And when I say "handle the subject matter," I'm not talking about "cinematic technique," I'm talking mainly about screenwriting and the decisions that a director makes with the script.

Reno said...

Bro, let me first say my intent is not to 'expose' lackadaisical thinking, i admire your work very much, but my intent is to make the very important point that the issue of 'taste' is something that rarely arises in theology and the arts and is usually disguised in most 'theology of art'.

As far as cinematic technique ... "I'm talking mainly about screenwriting and the decisions that a director makes with the script" is expressed in cinematic technique.

And this is my second point about theology and art. When it comes to what is good, true, beautiful and lasting we (the Church) have lost our way in regards to our discussion of technique. We are so caught up in popular culture and discussion about what popular culture is saying or not saying or what we can say with the 'art' in popular culture that we have forgotten about technique.

I personally don't hold either director in higher stock, but to make theological insights from 'taste' will be the undoing of us all.

grace and peace in all things, sir.

w. david o. taylor said...

Reno, fair enough. I read Frank B. Brown's *Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste* a few years back and found that he offered me a careful lesson in the idea of taste and on the different ways that it's been put to use over the centuries. When I hear or see the word "taste," I know now that I need to hear and see it carefully, because its meaning may not be obvious. I don't see it as simple matter, either. To say that dark chocolate and P.T. Anderson are to my "taste" is only one way or level that the term can be used.

I hope it goes without saying that I'm all in favor of rigor of all sorts: theological, artistic, technical, biblical, cultural, missional, spiritual, relational--and the list goes on, including "taste."

I'd love to see you unpack your concerns in an essay. If you've already written something along these lines on your blog, please let me know. A "comments" section, admittedly, is an awkward place to build an argument.

Reno said...

needless to say, then, my initial comment was indeed apropos.

There were issues far broader and deeper that weren't being included.

ps: please add the term 'bored' to the complex issues list ... whatever we mean by that in an entertainment/consumer age.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

Wow -- looks like I missed quite a kerfuffle at this here site. So much agitation about such a small note in your whole body of notes over the years, eh?

Anyway, I stopped by again to say that, at this point, all I can say about my hesitation towards Buschel's antidote of the "ordinary" for S.C.'s films is to channel F. O'Connor: "I know what I mean but I ain't got the right words for it." All I could come up with so far is "sentimentality and superstition", but I'll keep you posted.

p.s., At the same time, I have rolling around in my brain F.O'C's reply to a intellectual former-Catholic who had reverted to seeing the Eucharist as only a "symbol" and F. O'C. says, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." And I admire her conviction but wonder why the earthy, common bread and wine as an ORDINARY symbol, selected by Christ to represent Him to millions of people over thousands of years loses it's value by only thinking of it as a symbol. Isn't that the beauty of the ordinary? That it's so ordinary? Able to transcend normal bounds because of mystery and poetry and the Spirit and communion of saints reflecting and meditating on the wonder of it over centuries? Why does it only have value when it becomes "extra-ordinary" by something that happens *to* it so that it is no longer actual ordinary bread and wine?

Like I said: "I know what I mean but..."

w. david o. taylor said...

Tamara, quick reply and this will seem like cheating but also quite possibly as a predictable answer. It all depends on how we define the term "symbol."

Christians throughout the ages have worked with different understandings of the term and it is an unfortunate affliction of our contemporary world that the term is used in a careless manner, often assuming that its meaning is self-evident.

To make matters more complicated, the term operates with a variety of meanings depending on the context--whether theology, philosophy, the history of art, biblical studies, liturgical studies and so on.

I'm not sure how Flannery was using the term in her reply. Sometimes people get bothered by the adjectives that get attached to the term, such as "mere" or "only." Was that her case?

Your instinct is right, though. There is something fishy about the notion that only extraordinary things can serve as symbols of God's presence. I doubt that Flannery would be bothered by this, when all her novels seem to do just that: make the ordinary symbolic vehicles for a disclosure of God's grace, etc, etc, etc.

It would be flat unbiblical to expect only the Great Red Sea or the Flames of Pentecost, as rather extraordinary, singular and spectacular events, to be serviceable symbols of God's person and work in the world.

And again, that statement would need to slow down and ask what I meant by the term "symbol."

If you wanted to read up on this, with respect to the arts, I'd suggest, for starters, Viladesau's *Theological Aesthetics* and Begbie's *Voicing Creation's Praise*. A quick look at their indices will pull a number of places where they unpack the meaning of "symbol." You could also grab a theological dictionary (or several) and check out what they say.

Hm. This was a long answer. Not so quick as I originally thought. Hope it helps. Love the questions you ask.

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

THANK YOU!

kelly said...

It's odd that your blog lists the time of each post but not the date. I don't know how stale this discussion is but I'll jump in anyway.

I tend to keep up with what's going on in movies but sadly don't have time to see enough of them. So I know about all of the younger Coppola's films but I've only seen 'Lost in Translation'. But I did enjoy it immensely and it kept me thinking for a long time afterward, sort of living in its world of alienation and anomie. I've been keeping up with 'Somewhere' and I hope I get a chance to see it in the theater.

'Translation' was not about a world that I know much about or that I live in, but I was captivated by the slow, careful way she used images, sounds, and very few words to bring me into it and explore it with me. It struck me as Faulkner-ish to spend so much time exploring so small a universe, obeying the writer's dictum to 'write what you know'.

On the other hand, I watched 'Magnolia' not too long ago because I'd heard so many great things about it and was left every bit as cold and absent from the film as others have described their experience of Coppola's films.

My preference in any medium is for works that explore a few things thickly than a lot of things thinly. It felt to me like P.T.Anderson threw every idea he had into one movie. I felt like it could have been 5 or 6 good movies but instead it was one sloppy movie. And I'm not really talking about the number of narrative threads, it's more about the number of visual ideas, the number of different tones, etc.

I lot of this does get into the sticky issues of preference and taste, and the review that you linked to deals with these issues with experiential things like warmth and distance. There's really no place outside of this realm of personal experience when dealing with art, which is why some find art frustrating, illogical, or even dangerous. Experiencing it together and in conversation with others, though, can make it an interpersonal experience where we discover more about our own and other's worlds.

We can be grateful that Coppola, Anderson, and Inarritu are good enough at their work that some of us find connections to it, and we know more about ourselves and others by seeing who connects to what and how.

w. david o. taylor said...

Kelly, you're so awesome. I love the way you put things--so clear, so warm, but certainly not wussy.

It is weird that blogger includes a time but not a date. It's almost pointless. Weird.

I appreciate what you've said, and would maybe connect it again to my original point: first time around, Sofia's movie worked for me; second and third time around, hm, well.... It gets tricky. "Writing what you know" and "writing merely what you know" are possibly two different exercises.

On their own, each movie can be strong. When strung together--and this relates to any filmmaker--you want to hear them say something distinct, something new perhaps. As a Christian I want to know that an artist is growing and not staying stuck in his or her issues. I've seen this happen with singer-songwriters. I've seen it with painters and poets.

Random dogleg: I found Harry Potter as a character rather frustrating for this same reason. I felt that it was one of the big weaknesses of Rowling's writing. We get the same "character" through every book. He doesn't really grow up in the character department, and here I'm using the term in a moral-spiritual category, not artistic. I got tired of reading the same whinyness page after page. Every once and a while I would groan, "Good Lord, grow up, child." It was a complaint of Rowling, of course, not of Harry.

Last thought. P.T. Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love" felt satisfying in the "small is beautiful" department because he honed in one person and held the focus tightly on the character played by Adam Sandler. I thought it was strong.

Finally, I've long been curious what Anderson would do if he took up a biblical character and put it on the silver screen. I can cross my fingers and say a prayer to that end.

kelly said...

Some quick thoughts:

I'm way too far behind on my netflix cue to watch a non-kid's movie more than once so I have no response to your 'second and third viewing' principle. Sorry.

I liked 'Punch Drunk Love' a lot. I forgot it was P.T. Anderson.

I hadn't thought about that with Harry Potter, though it makes some sense. For me the most poignant and real moment for him as a character was at the beginning of book 6 when he was short-tempered and angry at everyone and everything after Sirius died. Then I talked to others about it saying they hated that part, disliking him as a character for how mean he seemed to be. It felt to me like Rowling was writing what she knew having experienced this kind of grieving firsthand, while those that didn't like it were quite mercifully ignorant of what this kind of loss feels like.

To keep this sidetrack going, my kids got the movies of Harry Potter 1 through 3 for Christmas so we watched them back-to-back (we already had 4-6). The leap in quality of filmmaking between 2 and 3 was even more stunning than I remembered. Cuaron rocks.

w. david o. taylor said...

Kelly, love it.

I actually liked the way Rowling depicted Harry's grief at this massive loss of death, which seems to be a terrible constant in his life. His sad-mad-bad behavior felt believable. I think I'm mostly bothered by the general flat quality of character that follows him through most of the books.

Otherwise, I'm a happy Harry Potter customer. :)

Anonymous Daughter said...

a lovely example of motion and art...

http://vimeo.com/14803194

behind the scenes link is just below the original clip. enjoy. :)

w. david o. taylor said...

Thanks, AD.