As America bloodily disengages from a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the COVID pandemic still rages across the U.S. thanks to the very willingly misinformed unvaccinated (Note: despite this country ironically having THE MOST ACCESS of any country in the world to these very much in demand life-saving vaccines), it seems a bit quaint to speak about things like art.
Or is it?
Of course, art these days isn’t limited to Picassos, Monets or anything else hanging prominently in a museum. It’s more a blanket term that covers movies, TV, theatre, music and even sports.
It might even include chefs, scientists and TikTok influencers.
In short, art is anything that can take us out of ourselves and our troubled world and open our minds up to a different mood or alternate way of thinking or seeing.
In that way then, and most especially in trying times like these, all this art talk begins to seem not so much quaint but essential.
Certainly not as essential as an 80-90% vaccination rate but right up there nonetheless. If art can open up minds to some new momentary way of perceiving or participating in the world then heck yeah, we need it now more than ever.
In fact –
Because I’m all out of ideas for reaching the unreachable.
Yet how many times have we heard and/or read phrases like, oh, she’s a true artist or his artistic vision is limitless before we roll our eyes, disengage or want to and/or actually do scream?
Well, if you’ve spent your life listening in on conversations or reading and writing reviews the way I have, (Note: Or even trying to be creative the way most of us have, whether we know it or not), chances are the answer is too many times or, more likely, daily.
As both a writer and a writing teacher I’m well aware of the pretention of the mere mention of the word ART and of all of the would-be artists who engage in it.
Yet I’m equally aware of its power for both the art-makers and their audiences. When it’s firing on all cylinders, at its best, it’s an unstoppable force for universal good. (Note: Google the global impact of a once in a generation theatre piece of art like Hamilton).
Still, at its most screamingly, omni-presently ARTISTIC it does make you never want to go to another museum, watch another film or TV show, or even try to indulge in something as au-currant as TikTok ever, ever, ever again.
This weekend I spent 2 hours and 20 minutes watching a film called Annette starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Let me state upfront that it’s a somewhat interesting though not thoroughly realized movie that has its moments even as it so often woefully and painfully disappoints.
Annette caused a ruckus at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with any number of walkouts and boos the night it opened the film festival (Note: Exacerbated by the fest’s best director win for Leos Carax).
Yet to its credit, Amazon, one of the biggest corporations on the planet, saw fit to acquire the rights to it back in 2017, ensuring it a huge audience of subscribers with FREE ACCESS to this big risky artistic project.
That was a bold move four years ago but even more so now, in summer 2021, a time where we’ve all been aching for some diversion, or reeducation or just simple relief from the plain, glum depressiveness of our very, very mundanely unpredictable world.
Sadly, as a film, Annette is a master class in something I’d like to call artsiness gone bad. That is to say it so revels in its difference that ultimately that is all that emerges. It’s weirdness, it’s strangeness and its sheer differentness becomes its calling card – and its downfall.
Its ambition to out art the artsy works as a kind of creative COVID that virally swallows the whole effort whole, devouring every bit of the essential, energizing life force it might have provided us in trying times like these.
If only the filmmakers had simply told their story and not gotten so artily up our asses in every which way Annette could have really said something about whatever it was trying to say.
Which is one of the issues of art that too stringently aspires to the groundbreaking and mind-blowing. It forgets about the details and intricacies and nuances of the story it’s telling because it is forever trying to top itself in upending our expectations and challenging the status quo with, well…not very much. Or, at the very least, not enough. Or, more likely, too much.
Its star, Adam Driver, plays not so much a character but an idea. A comic who isn’t funny, an archetypal bad boy because he dresses in black, rides a motorcycle and broods. He lumbers and blusters his way through the world but also, quelle surprise, has a soft side.
It’s the same way with the woman he loves except she’s his complete opposite. That leaves its other star, Marion Cotillard, the task of projecting the isolated, sensitive, sweet-as-syrup voiced uber soprano. A beloved public figure that plays a tragic heroine in seriously off the-wall operatic performance pieces that have somehow gained mass worldwide acceptance.
Are they headed for tragedy? Well, what do you think? (Note: Of course, you know what you think without having even seen it).
But even if your response was, well of course I know it’s a tragedy – it’s an opera for god sakes – but it will be interesting to understand the reasons behind all this BEHAVIOR, well, we never do.
Instead, we get events unfolding randomly with no real recognizable humanity or particular point of view. More of a potluck smorgasbord with varied references to the demons of celebrity, the #MeToo toxic masculinity of it all, tropes of romantic codependence and addictive sex, and all the ultimate dissatisfactions to be found in marriage and parenting that one can literally shake a camera at.
And it’s all done in the guise of an opera, or rather opera-light, meaning most of the communication is sung by actors who don’t have particularly great voices even though they manage to get by.
Real opera can get away with archetypal storytelling because we get swept up in the drama of the voices. Movie rock operas like Ken Russell’s Tommy are visual delights that do the same. And hybrid or real-life musicals like Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land spend a lot of time on design, story, character and annoying little things like motivation, back story and logic within their magical realism.
They might seem a little pretentious to many viewers but at the end of the day they have the weight and subtext to back it up.
They might at times alienate us and disengage from us, and annoy us, but we get what the stakes are and who the people are. Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) starring Bjork, another Cannes premiere of a different type of unbridled artsiness that went on to win the top Palme d’Or prize, went out on countless limbs but still managed to give us women, men and show-within-a-show imaginings that always felt living and breathing and fully alive even as it reveled in the artificial.
The best of these art films immerse, challenge and even alternately annoy some in the audience as they push boundaries. But they also try to engage us in stories that go deep into the psyche of their characters even as they exhaustively bend the rules of the worlds in which they choose to exist.
Meaning: they embrace the conceit of artiness without being engulfed by it and thus becoming its victim.
After watching Annette I read almost two dozen reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes (Note: Because what else do I have to do?) and almost half came to the exact same conclusion. Annette is a film that can’t entirely be recommended but, as all of these top critics wrote in different ways, they were ultimately glad it was made because, well, at least it was something different.
The latter is a misleading, partial truth at best and ultimately just plain lazy, which is pretty much the worst you can be as a writer. One can be glad something is different but if one is going to be different and be praised for it (Note: Or do the praising), it comes with the obligation to go deeper and to attempt to be better. Not to simply frolic in a trough of tropes, technical acumen and irresistible actorly flourishes, set to one’s own original music.
And to not bank on the lucky chance that something, or really anything coherent happens to come out. Or depend on the de rigueur praise of desperate critics looking for an escape from what must as this point seem to them to be an inescapable cookie cutter world of commercialized art.
By taking either the uninspired or unexamined way out, artists of every kind relinquish the personal responsibility one takes on when trying to do something big and different, especially when you have huge movie stars, because it makes it that much harder for everyone else following you and rooting for your success.
It’s a special willful ignorance of responsibility, the kind you have to everyone else trying to survive in a creative arena that is difficult enough these days because it exists in an outside world that is nearly impossible to navigate.
In short, it’s the artistic equivalent of choosing to go unvaccinated just because you can.