Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Yeah, The Context Of Art Matters

So the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby has been quite a hit and has provoked a variety of responses.  One thread of criticism that I find troubling was recently voiced by Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic and echoed by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
To this end, [director Baz] Luhrmann turns every dial at his disposal up to 11. His colors are as bright as those in a detergent commercial; his musical choices as intrusive as the exit cues on an awards show. The camera ducks and swerves like O.J. Simpson on his way to a car rental, and the cast all share a slightly vibratory, methamphetamine sheen. Topping off such excesses of cinematic technique, this Gatsby is rendered in 3D, an innovation only moderately less absurd than presenting Moby Dick in Sensurround, or Cannery Row in Smell-O-Vision. In short, although Luhrmann's film mostly adheres to the letter of Fitzgerald's novel, it would be difficult to envision a work less in keeping with its wistful spirit.
Now it's clear that choices like 3D and contemporary rather than period music are profound choices for a classic American novel set in the 1920's, but perhaps that is entirely the point.

Some background in case Orr forgot, while not that popular when it was intitally published, after Fitzgerald's death The Great Gatsby became one of the most widely read novels in the American cannon.  The fact that it was read by generations upon generations of high school students, didn't hurt.  Accordingly, it's been adapted four times for the screen already.  In 1926 as a silent film, in 1949, in 1974 as a Robert Redford vehicle and as a television film for A&E in 2000 that in my opinion keeps truest the the letter and spirit of the novel.  This is on top of numerous adaptations for radio and theater.  So while it may be true Luhrmann has gone in a different direction with his version, it's not necessarily because he has, as Orr puts it, "a skill-set tailor-made for comedy that he insists on squandering in ill-fated attempts at tragedy."  Indeed it could be because he's interested in making a movie that is different than the last adaptation that came out 13 years ago.

Let's review the film industry too.  Film makers make movies for all sorts of reasons, but the reason they tend to get huge amounts of money from big companies to make them is to...make money for the big companies, and you make money on a movie by making it popular.  So while making a movie that succeeds in "keeping with its wistful spirit..." may be what Orr wants to see, ticket sales are what others want to see most, and since the "wistful" movie was already made 13 years ago, and this novel's previous adaptations as motion pictures have been less than successful, going a whole new route rather than being some sacrilege might actually be a good idea.  Indeed 3D visuals and a modern hit soundtrack might in fact be a way to get people aren't obsessed with American literature or who don't criticize culture for a living (like Orr) to go see it, and maybe just maybe, get them interested in a great American author.  What's so wrong with that?

I think the problem here is that a lot of "pop-culture commentators" don't know about, or chose to ignore, the very real institutional and structural realities in which the media the criticize (the vast majority of which is negative) is actually created.  It's as if someone wants to write about health care policy but doesn't even know what a hospital is, or how health insurance works.  Such a person could write a lot about doctors they think are friendly or how it feels to have the flu, but it wouldn't be very illuminating about how the system works or what makes a hospital terrible, okay or great.  It wasn't always like this, if you go back and look at some of the great commentary about art from long ago (1980) you find a discussion both about art, and the context in which it originated.

I recently came across a great exchange between cultural commentator Alyssa Rosenberg and Game of Thrones executive story editor Bryan Cogman that illustrates this problem.  I really like Rosenberg but she seemed to have been laboring under false assumptions about how this show is written, or how good drama in general is written, for quite some time:
[Alyssa Rosenberg] I was curious about something I hope you won’t think is too cheeky. Your episode this season had both a lot of equal-opportunity nudity and consensual sex. We haven’t had a lot of the latter on the show for a while. And I was curious as to whether the nudity was a response to complaints from some critics about the presentation of women on the show in previous seasons?

[Bryan Cogman] The equal opportunity nudity just happened to be what was required for the story in that episode! I just got to be the one who wrote it. I mean, look, there could very well have been conversations amongst the producers about that, but I wasn’t privy to it.
So the story drives the writing, rather than some rubric with check boxes to insure "equal-opportunity" in the sex scenes.  Umm yeah, that's how you write a good TV show.  It's great that so many people want to write pop culture commentary, but if this commentary is not going to based on the reality of the media being used it's not very useful.  Instead its a collection of things that annoy you, which far to much of cultural commentary is already.        

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