Thursday, 30 September 2010

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

My review of Roger Scruton's book, Beauty, has just been published in the online art periodical, Artfractures Quarterly: Summer 2010. There's lots of other stimulating essays and reviews in there as well. Do have a browse.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Winter's Bone

Sometimes a film come along, like Winter’s Bone, that just reminds you how important cinema is. Unlike any other medium, the cinematic experience gives the viewer the psychic space to imaginatively explore the lives of those that they would never encounter in normal circumstances. But, this is more than an education in neo-realism. There is a certain moral position informing such film making that aims to exercise those faculties of empathy within us. Watching films that are more than entertaining distractions but have a serious intent enables us to imagine in a vivid way something of the invisible darkness in others.

Set in the Ozark mountains of rural Missouri, Winter's Bone follows 17 year old Ree as she searches for her father who has disappeared on bail after having put up their family home as a bond. If she does not find him within the space of a week, she, her catatonic mother and her two younger siblings will be evicted. The film is a chase, race-against-the-clock movie but elevated to something more profound by the rawness of impoverished lives drawn with a visual acuity and poignancy.

These American backwaters are not unfamiliar to film goers. John Boorman's 1972 film, Deliverance, starring Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds, presented the inhabitants of these peripheral sub-cultures as backward hillbillies, emotionally ruined by lines of familial consanguinity and intent on making city-dwellers squeal like a pig. The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men suggested that the contemporary cowboy landscape had lost its John Wayne values and become an amoral wilderness. Again, Ang Lee mapped this territory in Brokeback Mountain but, in that film, the landscape became a metaphysical backdrop to suppressed passion and eventual violence. In Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik avoids any consoling lyricism or horror film clich├ęs in order to consider the grinding effects of poverty on a community. These are people who have aged before their time, the lines in their faces etched by the toil of eking a living from a barren land or surviving their loneliness by snorting lines or firing rounds into each other.

Winter's Bone possesses all the menace of any good thriller but the film’s real achievement is to place these thriller motifs within a domestic context. In between playing Nancy Drew, we witness Ree's effort to look after her family. Where ends cannot meet, she survives on the food handouts from neighbours or the hunting of squirrels for a stew. Played by Jennifer Lawrence with impressive emotional commitment, Ree combines gritty resilience with the awkward vulnerability of any teenager. Her world is one of trailers, cabins and anorexic dogs tethered to long chains. Yet, she accepts this stark, unforgiving existence for the sake of keeping her family together. When her brother and sister ask her if she is going to abandon them, Ree replies “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.”

Yet for all the emotional and visual austerity, this film does not succumb to fashionable nihilism. Winter’s Bone is a more nuanced project and seeks a kind of ambiguous redemption. Even in an hermetically sealed environment where the laws of barbarism and vengeance shape social attitudes, the possibility that individuals will choose generosity and goodness breathes hope across this tortured landscape. This hope may look grimy and weather beaten but it is still something recognisable as worth living for.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Lady Gaga and death

The Lady Gaga phenomenon seeps incontinently into every crevice of popular culture. She is, in the words of Madonna’s song, Vogue, on the cover of a magazine or, more correctly, every magazine. She has become a “living sculpture” that claims to fuse raunch, mortality and violence into an art form with its own pop soundtrack. At first glance, she and her arresting visuals look like performance art but, on closer inspection, they are too self-conscious, premeditated to be anything more than an exercise in crepuscular camp. With her Marge Simpson wigs and “look at me, look at me” shock tactics, the Lady Gaga brand has become as ubiquitous as Nike trainers and McDonalds. You can sneer at her, but it is hard to ignore her. She has become the Damien Hirst of the music industry, a headline junkie.

“Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F. Gonzales-Crussi explains, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” Lady Gaga’s striptease creates an aesthetic of the funeral parlour. Her walk-in freezer complexion and cat suits that give her an anorexic silhouette locate her inspiration in the mortuary. The Jacobean revenge narratives of her videos (that involve male models being burnt and poisoned) are meant to reveal “the skull beneath the skin”. Recently she has captured the headlines by wearing a dress made of proscuito crudo. Remember man that thou art meat. The more twisted and macabre, the better in this weird carnival of death. The cultural commentator, Camille Paglia writes in a recent article for The Sunday Times Supplement:
At last year’s MTV awards show, Gaga staged a barbaric spectacle where she was seemingly crushed to death by a falling chandelier, after which her bloodied body was hoisted up to dangle limply above her piano. On her current tour, she appears to be killed by a psychotic stalker, who gnaws her throat as the blood pours down her chest. Monster claws and other horror-movie regalia are a Gaga staple...All the frantic, flailing arm moves imposed on her by professional choreographers can’t disguise her essential depressiveness and spiritual paralysis...

It's not clear what Paglia means by “spiritual paralysis” but she captures the idea that something innate to the human person is damaged by such nihilistic preoccupations. This is the soul of man dragged through the sewers of the imagination or what the American art critic, Adam Gopnik, describes as the High Morbid Manner:
A detached, distanced, oddly smiling presentation of violence – a pageantry of violence – is, as every evening’s television and every summer’s big movie demonstrates, as much the popular fashion as the avant-garde one...The shock of the new, which for most of the century could reside as much in a black square as in a slit eyeball, isn’t available any longer. It’s not possible to shock any more by being new. The only way to shock is by being shocking.

Lady Gaga may dress as if she is the high priestess of the avant garde but she is simply appropriating the ambient culture around her – the torture porn of horror films and the drive-by fantasies of Grand Theft Auto. Her music sells because she can write a hook. She sells because she has tapped into the maggot infested corners of the contemporary imagination. "I want your ugly/ I want your disease," she sings. Disease and ugliness is what we get. The pursuit of Beauty is forsaken.

Without any eschatological hope or reference point, the secular mind ekes out a little comfort from futile distraction. With annihilation offered as our ultimate meaning one endures this living death by downloading Bad Romance and dancing like zombie.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Is the internet playing with our minds?

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr

Did you get to the end of the above quotation without pressing a link or playing the video? Reading anything on the internet is full of distractions, pop-ups, siren voices inviting us to click, link, search and surf. Unless I make the effort to print an article from the internet, I invariably don’t read it from beginning to end. Online I’ll skim read it and if it doesn’t hold my attention or I find it too difficult, I’m back to the Google search engine. Even when I am reading, I catch myself taking sneaky glances at my e-mails, Statcounter, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. I am snacking or grazing on information, images and ideas. I have the suspicion that when I log into the internet, I am logging out of my usual ways of thinking. Reading a book and reading a blog or an article on a website feel like two cognitively different experiences. But, are they? And if they are, does it really matter?

Of course, the fact that all this immense store of data on the internet is just a click away is widely accepted as having radically benefited mankind. This is hard to dispute and only the Luddite would argue that we would be better off without the internet. When Tim Berners-Lee composed the code for the world wide web, the way human beings collected and transmitted information and ideas changed for ever. Now, with a quick Google search, I can find out within seconds that, for example, A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. No more traipsing to the library and wandering the stacks. For cherry picking information (the way I mostly use the net) I find the internet invaluable, but there are moments when I wonder how helpful it is if we want to think a bit deeper about things and ideas? How is the internet affecting our cognitive faculties and our ability to think more seriously?

One of the criticisms of this blog is that it is not bloggish enough. It’s not punchy, pithy or journalistic. It’s not angry, opinionated or flashy. The paragraphs are too long, the language too literary and rhetorical, the ideas too culturally arcane. These criticisms are spot on. But that’s the kind of blog I chose to create. Yes, there are links and videos, but I wanted to see if it was possible to put ideas and their expression at the centre of this medium in a way that was less feverish and less about convenience. I wondered if the effort and patience that have been essential requirements when reading a book could still be part of reading a blog? I’m not sure. And I become positively pessimistic when I read the pathologist Bruce Friedman, who also blogs about the use of computers in medicine, admit, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” I am beginning to suspect that this experience is not uncommon.

I think something is happening to our minds (or, at least, to my mind). We appear to be moving from a linear, narrative processing of information (largely influenced by the book) to something more staccato and disjointed (largely influenced by the Internet). A more contemplative, focused reading of material is being replaced by a hurried, superficial reading that fillets essays and articles for the “essential” facts and discards the rest as superfluous waste. We are becoming, in the words of one commentator, “skilled hunters,” butchering the involved, challenging argument for the gobbet, soundbite, snazzy snippet.

It appears I’m not the only one that has these concerns. In his book, The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr examines similar anxieties but places them in a broader technological context. He argues that there is growing scientific evidence which shows the internet is changing the way our brains function and that for all the benefits of the internet, there may also be real losses. Like the computer, HAL, Carr suggests that our minds may be going and being replaced with a radically new synaptic organization:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenburg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Books, London, 2010