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Tag Archives: postmodernism

Here’s a question to keep film critics up at night: Where does cinema stand in the art world of today? And as a follow-up, what’s the standing of movies?


It poses something of an existential crisis that in the medium as a whole, ‘cinema’, ‘movies’, and ‘film’ are no longer synonymous terms. And though we may use them interchangeably at times, they also carry different connotations. Generally, ‘movies’ are thought to be entertainment, a time-filler distraction to doing ‘real’ work. ‘Cinema’, on the other hand, is a more respectable endeavor, a contemplative, complex medium with the potential for Serious Study. (At the very least, it’s a reason for the Oscars to exist and for Leonard Maltin to get up in the morning.) ‘Film’ floats somewhere in between.         


‘I’m going to the movies’ means the same thing in everyday speech as ‘I’m going to the cinema’. But consider the difference between saying ‘Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is a really funny movie!’ and ‘Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is a great example of American comedic cinema!’ and few will admit the last. Well, personally, I’m inclined to think Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay more indicative of a current trend in comedy sequels. But seriously now:


We may be too quick to discount or deride the fact (and maybe I’m not helping) that popular movies have an impact on modern art discourse, and that they have cultural ramifications beyond the general desensitization and stupefaction of the public.


I think we’d do well as film critics to stop trying to qualify what makes a really ‘good’ film – what separates the ‘movie’ from the ‘cinema’ – and accept the fact that every film, as obviously dumb or pretentious as it may be, is Cinema with a capital C, Art with a capital A and worthy of Serious Study.


Call me a hippy, but I think we need to spread the love a bit thicker. They’re doing it in the other sectors of the ‘serious’ art world and it’s time we followed suit. Now, take this for an example:


In the middle of a grand hall in Versailles, lined with the usual windows, murals and royal portraits, there stands a gigantic magenta balloon dog. It is called, er, ‘Balloon Dog’, and it’s part of an ongoing exhibition there by the American artist Jeff Koons, having stirred something of a controversy in the French art world of late.


Some have taken offense at the display, calling it an insult to the grounds on which it stands, an abomination to artistic integrity. ‘Balloon Dog’ has generated a great deal of hot air with lots of flying adjectives: it’s ironic, yes, and mocking, probably; it’s possibly even beautiful. And whether you think it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art, sophisticated or in poor taste, appropriate or not for the space it’s in, nobody has really tried to contest the fact that it is, in fact, art. It is art because it makes a visual statement.


Now, I’ll spare you another reference to Harold and Kumar, but take the Venus de Milo for a ‘visual statement’. Compare it to Marilyn Monroe over a subway grate in the Seven Year Itch, and what do you get? Two paragons of female beauty from two distinct eras, two visual statements and nothing less than art (I’m being serious).


So now we’ve leveled the playing field of artistic legitimacy, getting back to the oversized balloon: Koons’s work betrays – actually, draws attention to – the transient appeal and significance of visual art displays in general – something, I think, that only cinema gets beyond. The Koons exhibition, along with the ‘Balloon Dog’, will be no more as of December, when it will be taken down for good and the grounds restored to their normal selves. The individual pieces will stay intact, but a once-incendiary display at the home of Luis XIV will be preserved only in memory and pictures. The overall ‘work’ will be destroyed.


This in-built obsolescence speaks to the inherent failure of arts like drawing, painting and sculpture (which are largely stationary), and even theatre (for each show is limited to a single venue, and every show must close) to stay in the public eye. Display art is, by design, inherently inaccessible, that is, for the most part closed off out of public reach. It doesn’t come to you, you have to seek it out.


Cinema, on the other hand, is a mobile art form, but it is lasting, intransient. Movies are transitory, channeled out in every direction to theatres  (which, admittedly, you have to get to first, but at least they come to your general place of being). Movies make an effort to be seen because they want the viewing experience itself to be as effortless as possible. And this has, of course, been facilitated by TV and the introduction of VCRs, now DVDs, into common usage. Cinema follows us all the way home, and now, thanks to technology, we can enjoy it whenever we want.


At the same time, a painting will travel only so far as the gallery to a museum, or a museum to museum, or it will go into private collection. It may undergo transit, like a traveling minstrel show, but it is not continuously transitory in the same way as cinema. A painting depends upon a stable grounding in/on which to exist – to be seen and appreciated.


Images of it may be reproduced, and those images widely disseminated, but they will only stress the importance of seeing the original with one’s own eyes (‘wish you were here’, as the postcards say). The singular work/image is, I grant you, significant in and of itself, but in its place. It’d be sacrilege to say that the ‘Mona Lisa’ isn’t a credit to the Louvre, where it resides. But for years when it was lost, the painting was little more than recollection, a figment of the imagination of an enigma. Now that it has an appropriately prestigious home, really the Louvre is just as much a credit to the ‘Mona Lisa’.


I’ll put it another way: would Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ be anything more than a urinal on a pedestal if not at the Pompidou in Paris? That’s the Dadaist point, after all. Venue is crucial to making an artwork work – that is, a valid, progressive, and meaningful contribution to society. It’s the being simultaneously elusive (that is, far away) and attainable (the destination is, conceivably, reachable) that makes a piece of ‘fine’ art ‘high’ art – high as a sweets jar stored at the top of the press – and all the more intriguing.


Movies, though, aren’t fixed to venue. They can be watched anywhere, without even the actual cinema to enjoy the cinematic work. A film requires hardly any time, money, or patience to watch (relative to the effort it takes to get to most other art venues), yet it satisfies quite thoroughly. Must it follow that in addition to being cheap, such amusement is also worthless?


Cinema, after all that, is like a giant pink balloon dog in the palace of postmodern culture. There may be as much artfulness to film as artistry, as much kidding and deception as there is revelation, but cinema challenges the very practical, fundamental way we look at art: how we get to it and in what surroundings, how often, and how much we pay. Film, cinema, whatever you want to call it, is even more aptly, perhaps, called ‘the movies’, for they move us, galvanize us to pursue art on a monthly, weekly, daily basis, and we only have to move so far as the living room. We forget we’re even being ‘cultured’ – and that is truly genius.