Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Art Imitating Life: Cinema and Contemplation

What is art?  I'm not entirely sure.  To me, any sort of media creation that involves personal creativity mixed with some level of universality and convention is art.  Another broader way to look at it is any media creation that is meant to engage a personal being on a level that transcends practical materialism is art.  These are at least art with a lowercase "a."  Architecture is only art when it goes beyond mere shelter and embraces an aesthetic dimension.  Historically, art is presumed to be a meaningful work, unless it is modern anti-art, which still carries with it a certain meaning and ideology.  Or anti-anti-art.  Art can not escape meaning or at least people attempting to place meaning on it.  Classical art, though, and especially storytelling, is a lot more overtly and objectively meaningful.  Themes and messages abound.  This search for meaning leads to a contemplative mode when applied to more ambiguous, existential work.  Classical art and notions of art positively shape perceptions of valuable existential art which in turn brings value to our real lives.

Robert McKee, in his fantastic book Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting comes up with three types of narrative: archplot, miniplot, anti-plotNon-plot is a fourth option outside this triangle.  Archplot, also known as classical design, is defined as "a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change."  This is largely commercial cinema as already defined on this blog and it has a storied history.   Miniplot, or minimalism, is "the reduction of the elements of classical design."  Often this can involve multiple characters or looser narrative.  Anti-plot, or anti-structure, is "the reversal of the elements of classical design."  Anti-plot often has inconsistent realities, or nonlinear time, or relies on coincidence.  Non-plot, the main focus of this essay, of course has no story.

Archplot has a surface story and underneath that a moral to the story that can be hidden or out in the open to varying degrees.  People want to know "What was the point?"  The great archplot movies are built around theme and moral.  The audience watches a work and searches with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the work for its meaning.  This search for meaning is very important because archplot is the most common form of movie and thus archplot expectations are brought to the medium as a whole, including the other types of cinematic works.

Classical art conditions an audience for a presumption of meaning.  This presumption of meaning affects the way we look at mundane, existential, often non-plot art.  If I spill a can of paint on the floor, it is just a mess to clean up.  If I spill a can of paint on a canvas and then place it on the wall at an art museum, suddenly people are analyzing it for purpose and meaning.  The context elevates the content.  Contemplative cinema draws us to contemplate elements of life and the universe that we may not do while living in them.  As Thomas Aquinas says:  
"All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly."
There is so much depth and beauty in the world around us but most of us do not have that intense intellectual curiosity that draws us to analyze and find meaning in everything at all times, especially since our lives are much too busy for this sort of freedom to be practical.  On the other hand, a movie only takes a finite amount of our time and it comes with the strong presumption of meaning.  Even if I am a pure, atheist believer in scientism, I have to presume a meaning in a work of art since it is the creation of a rational human being.  The grass growing has no meaning, but a movie about the grass growing is something to ponder.  Although a movie's content may be identical to something we can technically experience in real life, there is a qualitative difference.  Cinema draws us to look at things differently.

What are a few downsides of this style?  For starters, it allows for a certain level of ambiguity that lessens the ability of the artist to control the message.  This may or may not matter to an individual artist.  Also, this style may try an audience member's patience either with its slow pacing or he might find the meaning so esoteric that it is not worth digging for or is eventually presumed non-existent.  It's as though the artist is just messing with him.  Although this type of film making is lacking in sheer entertainment value, I do believe there is a place for it and I am glad to see that it does enjoy some audience

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