Not just a great escape
Forget the film festival stars, forget the flacks, what do we really gain from watching a movie? Last Sept. 11 brought a chorus of wrong answers to that question, writes RICK GROEN
By RICK GROEN, The Globe and Mail
September 6, 2002
The space was packed, the audience hushed, every eye locked on the screen in rapt attention. You would expect all that from a film festival. Except the festival was in Toronto, a morning in September of last year, and the screen in question was not large but small - a TV monitor poised on the wall of the press room, telling and re-telling its horrific tale. The journalists there, some of them from New York City, were stopped in their tracks. Around them, the movies stopped too and then the entire festival shut down. Both would continue, but reluctantly, quietly, in a pale shade. In that morning moment, and long after, life had swallowed art.
At least, it had seemed to in the minds of many. In tone no less than time, Sept. 11 bisected Toronto's 2001 film festival. Before: Movies were important. After: Who cared? Obviously, this initial reaction was perfectly understandable, almost laudable. But its residue appeared to linger, and later to expand beyond the film fest into other artistic communities. Presumably, post 9/11, plumbers returned to their jobs without doubting the integrity of an elbow joint, accountants without questioning the utility of the bottom line. Not so among art-lovers and even artists themselves, where the aftermath prompted much hand-wringing and soul-searching, all centred on the question of the "relevance" of their work, the value of art itself.
It was as if the crumbling towers had shattered the foundation of their self-worth, and had realized their worst fears - that the so-called Philistines were right, that art and entertainment were well and good but, in essence, really no more than frippery and distraction, marginal to the substantial business of any society. So irony (a crucial building block in art) was pronounced dead, and an old subtext emerged: A nation has its swords and its plowshares - what real need, especially in times like these, for its poems and its pictures?
Now there are two ways of interpreting such wavering belief. One is that their artistic convictions couldn't have been very strong to begin with. But the second, and more intriguing, is that those convictions were already built on an erroneous assumption: that art is an enclave separate from the rest of the world. In other words, the artistes were shaken because, although disagreeing vehemently with the Philistines on the pleasures of that enclave, they did tacitly agree on its inherent separateness - never more so than in periods of significant "real" events.
This is a common misconception even among people who genuinely adore the arts and popular culture. For instance, Piers Handling himself imagines his film festival as an "oasis," not just from our humdrum existence but also from the humdrum realm of commercial movies - an oasis within an oasis, then. Admittedly, Handling is trying to suggest that the festival is a source of refreshment, comfort and solace. But his choice of metaphor reinforces this notion of art as a separate entity, a means of escape. In that sense, he's just the artsy version of the average moviegoer who uses films to get away from everyday life, the one who "just wants to be entertained" - to enjoy a giggle and a laugh.
Ironically, both Handling and our Friday moviegoer are selling themselves short along with the films they're watching. The guy who just wants a giggle from a flick isn't escaping life at all. Quite the opposite. He's re-engaging with it, reminding himself that life is more than a dull job and a mortgage cheque - that there's laughter in it too, and he can share those laughs.
Handling makes the same mistake. The festival's organizers are forever boasting about its international character - so many films from so many countries. But they may not realize the full implications of that boast. Taken collectively, and to the extent they're any good, these movies do precisely what Northrop Frye suggests - they're the art that swallows life. In doing so, they are anything but an oasis in the world - they are the world.
Of course, this isn't the world that we see around us or on the evening news. The job of the artist is not to reproduce life but to re-imagine it. That's why their re-imaginings, their art, can only be judged aesthetically. To impose a political or moral judgment may have some truth, but it's a truth irrelevant to the merit of the art itself. And to the merit of the artist. Given their personal beliefs and habits, you probably wouldn't want T. S. Eliot running your country, or Dylan Thomas teaching your kids ethics. But if it's sublime poetry you're after, they're your boys.
Which brings me to this year's festival, and its wish to commemorate Sept. 11. Included in the anniversary efforts are 11 short films by 11 different directors, each committed to interpreting that fateful day - again, an international cross section. This compendium hasn't yet been screened here, but it was in Paris recently and instantly generated controversy, being stamped by one critic as "stridently anti-American." True or not, that's a political judgment and, thus, beside the point. All that matters is whether they're good art, good re-imaginings.
Will they be? Perhaps. From Shakespeare and Tolstoy to Kubrick and Coppola, conflagration has often yielded superb art. In this case, however, it's interesting to read a set of interview questions addressed to the 11 participants, especially this interrogative plum: "Can cinema function as an instrument of peace?" Stooping to niceties, fumbling with clichés, the directors were all completely flummoxed by the question, and rightly so. World peace ain't their purvieu; cinema isn't utilitarian in that way - it's not what art does.
Instead, what it can do is wonderfully evident in a film called Divine Intervention, a festival entry from Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. This movie is a perfect example of how "art swallows life." Suleiman has swallowed outright the chaos of the Mideast and spit it back to us not as a social/political tragedy but as an absurdist black comedy. His re-imagining is delightfully funny; as important, it's also humanely instructive - every bit as instructive as another hunk of analysis from international-relations expert Janice Stein. There are laughs to be had in this picture, but viewing it is no more an "escape" than reading tomorrow's front-page news.
Yet what do we really gain from watching Divine Intervention? For that matter, what do we really gain from watching any worthwhile movie, or reading a novel, or taking in a play? Precisely, this: By participating in the re-imaginings of others, we begin to educate our own imaginations. Fine, but what does that mean? This: We learn a little better to speak and understand the language of art, which is the universal language of human nature, which is, in Faulkner's great phrase, the sound of "the human heart in conflict with itself."
Sure, most movies speak this language badly. Yet some, a precious few, are eloquent, and well worth the wait. But what if we can't be bothered to wait, and close our ears to the eloquence? Frye again: "If we shut the vision of [art] completely out of our minds, or insist on its being limited in various ways, something goes dead inside us, perhaps the one thing that it's really important to keep alive."
Forgive me for returning to Frye. I know he's out of fashion (although fashion was never a concern of his). But, when fatigue sets in and boredom threatens, he helps me understand why the films in the film festival - not the directors or the stars or the flacks or the press - are worth our time and attention. And, if you insist on "relevance," he reminds me how the best of those films, regardless of their subject matter, speak quite directly to the events of Sept. 11.
In fact, his reminder is astonishingly specific. It turns out that Frye himself wrote about the fate of the World Trade Centre and its connection to art. He did so, with prophetic brilliance, almost 40 years before the tragedy happened. Please indulge a lengthy quote, because every word counts. This is a rare critic ascending to the language of art:
"The particular myth that's been organizing this talk ... is the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single world-wide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it's really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears. What the myth tells us is that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. All had originally one language, the myth says. That language is ... the language of human nature, the language that makes both Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer to heaven, and that it is time to return to earth."