The Deep End: The Art of Irony

To those who don’t spend several hours a day debating whether Godfather was better than Godfather II (it is), and an entire day watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a personal challenge, the idea of film as literature probably seems radical.
By  · Published on October 8th, 2008

A few years back when I was still in college and, therefore, still theoretically literate, I told a class that I thought films would be studied in literature classes of the future, and I was laughed at. I can understand why. To those who don’t spend several hours a day debating whether Godfather was better than Godfather II (it is), a few more hours trying to understand the nature of the R-rated comedy, and an entire day watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a personal challenge, the idea of film as literature probably seems radical.

I know it has to do with the word – literature means books only. But even though film is the crossroads of visual art, music, acting and writing, it’s most closely related to books because its primary concern of storytelling. And when literature classes of 2108 A.D. buckle down to study the literature of our time, it wouldn’t hurt them to watch a Jarmusch film after reading David Eggers or Chuck Palahniuk or whomever will pass for classics by then.

In a recent issue of First Things, author Roger Kimball expounds on the topic of the end of art. His piece goes off the philosophical deep end (appropriately for a religion and philosophy journal), but the opening paragraphs make a strong claim against the direction art has taken in modern times. The problem, essentially, is that art has abandoned a pursuit of beauty, emotional impact, and spiritual penetration to aspire to irony instead. To make a statement. To be “oppositional” is the current goal.

Kimball seems to speak specifically about the visual arts, although literature is brought up more than once, but when I started thinking about how his argument might be applied to movies, I fell short. There is no large scale avant-garde movement in films. An avant-garde movement exists certainly (see Andy Warhol’s Sleep), and elements can even be found in mainstream filmmaking (see Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation), but for the most part, no one has hung a urinal on the big screen and called it art – unless you count Meet the Spartans.

I believe that the lack of irony comes from the structure of the medium. In visual art, an impact is made immediately, a story told as soon as the viewer gets within range. As such, a piece of art only has a few seconds to produce a statement or story. A girl holding an umbrella that’s raining on her. A canoe sculpture made out of lead. A can of an artist’s bowel movement labeled “100% Pure Artist’s Shit.” Anti-art is a far cry from something purely beautiful like the Sistine Chapel. The beauty of these pieces isn’t entirely dictated by the message, but it’s a major part of it. For film, a particular scene can have a strong, immediate impact, but artist’s have anywhere from twelve minutes to three hours to create beauty.

And the creation of that beauty comes from different facets. Where visual art has one primary beauty-delivery method, film relies on set design, editing, acting, dialog, shot-framing, costuming, direction, makeup, and special effects amongst others to create a story and an artistic statement.

Even if some filmmakers are making completely ironic films, there’s a whole host of filmmaking that sticks to genre, sticks to classical methods, pushes boundaries in other directions, or avoids irony altogether to give audiences a choice. While your favorite local artist is showing his anti-art film at the local 20-seater, Beverly Hills Chihuahua is playing down the street at the mega-multiplex.

It’s also just not as celebrated in filmmaking as it seems to be in the visual art world. A debate over artistic worth sprang up over at Aint it Cool recently when Quint made Salo his movie of the day. It’s difficult to claim Salo as a purely ironic film – although I wish it was for the purposes of my point – but it certainly eschews the norms of film to create a singular statement about fascism by displaying the most profane sequences possible, all without the benefit of cause, context or character. It also earns the same types of arguments that anti-art does. Either it’s genius and misunderstood or it’s completely exploitative. Whichever the case of its art, I think it would be difficult to claim that it requires any technical skill or craftsmanship above mediocrity. This, too, it shares with anti-art.

That lack of technical skill is probably what hampers a true avant-garde movement in film from gaining the type of strength that its scene in the art gallery world. Audiences demand strong craftsmanship from filmmakers. Movies are as much about execution as they are about idea, and if someone applied the same artistic skill level it takes to throw paint randomly at a canvas to filmmaking, they’d never get tickets sold on a major level. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what the cinematic equivalent to Jackson Pollack is. I’m not sure there is one.

All this to say that I’m glad filmmaking hasn’t become completely ironic. I can enjoy an ironic film as much as the next person, but they usually involve a message of some sort. One that’s delivered in a smirkingly clever way that requires little in the way of talent. I’m glad there are a lot of options out there for movie-lovers. I’m glad that one has to accidently go to the Modern Art Museum to see Warhol’s Sleep being screened. Plus, if I wanted to be lectured to, I’d just go back to college.

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