Friday, November 13, 2009

Yeah, but is it art?

I've been chatting with a friend just recently about a number of ideas related to acting and moviemaking. Among the observations: before they ever start production, Hollywood film companies should pick 50 random members of the adult reading public to critique the script; being able to act well and being able to identify a good script are two very different skills; and if you're making movies so you can keep up with your meth habit, maybe you'd better just stop...

One of the interesting ideas we batted around was Hollywood's uneasy relationship between artistic merit and moneymaking. We're hardly the only ones to have noticed this; it's been a major topic of discussion since before the talkies. (And the whole question of making art lucrative has been around since the birth of human creativity; the more expensive an artistic endeavor is to create and present, the more it must appeal to those who will pay for it. That's why so much high opera has torture, adultery, theft, prostitution, incest, war, bigamy, treachery, boozing, wild parties, premarital sex, slavery, magic, jailbreaks, corruption, blackmail, jealousy, heartbreak, love potions, arson, cruelty to animals, smuggling, fights, rape, a walking talking statue from hell, execution, suicide and murder. Even our man Shakespeare wasn't above playing to the cheap seats. But I digress. Regularly. Anyway) It wouldn't be so bad if Hollywood could land squarely on one side or the other; if they could embrace either MGM's motto of "Ars Gratia Artis" or Gordon Gecko's mantra of "Greed is good," they'd probably sleep better at night. Instead they walk this weird tightrope where they feel the need to describe a cheesy flick wherein an obsessed man amputates a woman's limbs and keeps her in a box as "an art film," where directors refuse to cave an inch on the portrayal of their artistic vision (unless it's for airlines and TV networks), and where there's no idea so fresh and novel that it can't be beaten to death with interminable sequels. There's a reason why it's called Hollyweird.

This dual pull between art and money is reflected, as well, in the attitudes of different actors. Broadly speaking, most actors fall into two different camps of thought: those who think of what they do as craft, and those who regard what they do as art.

A fair number of working actors -- Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, and before he retired, Sean Connery -- seem to fall within the camp that perceives acting primarily as a job. One they love, obviously, and one they happen to do very well, but still a job. As such, part of their job involves not just doing whatever film they're doing now, but setting up for the next one, as they are essentially freelancers; if they don't work, they don't eat. They make lots of movies, some good and some bad, because they don't sit around waiting for plum roles. (This might explain why Connery made Zardoz... except NOTHING can explain why Connery made Zardoz.) They take the best of what comes, make the best of what they take, and because they do this they're constantly working and constantly being seen by casting directors.

Then there are actors who primarily see what they do as art. They will pass up roles they consider to be beneath them. They may not work for a long span of years if they feel they're not receiving roles that are worthy of their time and effort. If they get involved in a film, it has to be for personal reasons -- because they love the story and the message, because they can't resist the part. For them, it's not a question of being seen by casting directors or even by fans, but by peers and by the Academy. They want to be taken seriously as artists. These are the people who are most likely to bristle at Hitchcock's infamous desultory comment that actors are "cattle."

This is not to say that one camp is right and the other is wrong. These are simply two different philosophies about one profession. And during his lifetime, one actor might make the jump from one camp to the other multiple times; often an actor starts out taking any role he can get, and progresses to the point where he can pick and choose, or an actress begins her career in a series of bijou independent films, and over time gravitates to overblown blockbusters. It's a question of what the individual chooses to perceive, how his or her career is progressing, and whether or not the bills are getting paid.

Of course, the differences between high and low art are often blatantly obvious, but there are places where the boundaries definitely smudge. Who determines what is art, and what is craft? The Academy or the box office? Does Kenneth Branagh's dreary, interminable Hamlet have true artistic merit, or do we assign it such merit just because it's Shakespeare? Can a big blockbuster film with showboating stars, flashy special effects and an eight-figure budget have its moments of touching artistry?

I make Lego jewelry on Etsy. (Plug, plug.) I am not fooling myself that what I do is anything other than craft. It is something I thoroughly enjoy doing, and I've managed to make a number of people -- including several sets of brides and grooms and one self-described supervillain-in-training -- very happy with my geeky creations, but I don't harbor any delusions of grandeur about their status. Objets d'art these ain't. But I don't feel the pressing need to describe everything I do as artistic; that's not, personally, how I get validation. With that said, there are a number of people whose work I've come across on Etsy, and their work can only be described as artistic, if not exquisite. And yes, it's also marketable, so it's possible to do both successfully.

Which leads me to wonder just how many box-office failures are propped up as "artistic" simply to assuage the egos of all who worked on the project. Hmm.

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