Thursday, November 28, 2019

Meandering thoughts on the consumer-art relationship, glorification vs depiction, etc

Parvathy Thiruvothu’s contribution to a recent Film Companion conversation has drawn a lot of attention.  The link is here, and below (the relevant bits are around the 18.30-min and 26-min mark):

I have been a Parvathy fan for a while: based on the few films of hers I have seen recently (Virus and Uyare among them), she is one of our finest performers and by all accounts she makes careful, conscientious choices about what sorts of films to be associated with. That is a valid personal choice, one that might go some way towards improving overall standards in the industry, and more power to her for it. And it’s easy to see why, in an industry notorious for bandying together, patting each other on the back and copping out of conversations about responsibility or ideology, her blunt statements – about the relationship between a society and the art it creates or celebrates – should come as a breath of fresh air.

But without denying the validity of anything Parvathy said in the interview, the broad topic is a more complex one than can be summarised by a well-articulated sound-byte during a conversation where a number of people sit down together and talk past each other. So here are a few complementary thoughts:

– In the increasingly heated, ideological conversations that take place around literature and cinema these days, questions like these get raised a lot: “Did the director/novelist/scriptwriter intend to glorify this problematic character or simply depict him without endorsing his actions?” “What is this writer’s/novel’s/film’s own position or ‘lens’?”

These are treated as urgent and essential questions, but here’s a proposal: they often don’t have straightforward answers – and sometimes they aren’t answerable at all. (We like to pretend they always are, so we can affirm our own value systems and maybe feel superior – and, if we are professional critics, so that we can get a piece written for a tight deadline without agonizing over it too much or arguing with ourselves.)

But many – maybe most – good creative works are the result of an artist (consciously or sub-consciously) engaging with human contradictions and the endless messiness of life, rather than setting out with a clear moralistic position and figuring out how to implement it through their work. And during such a process, if a writer or filmmaker lives – at least part of the time – in the head of a problematic character, there inevitably will be a certain degree of empathy or understanding involved; this in turn, when presented on screen, or on the page, might easily be read (by those who approach the work from a specific ideological perspective) as blanket “glorification”. 

I had a conversation about related matters with the writer Devapriya Roy a few days ago, and one of the things she mentioned was that the creative process has a weirdly alchemical side to it: a serious novelist, in the process of world-making, often enters a space where one is not consciously thinking about morality or message-dispensing, where those things can even become irrelevant; one is simply in the head-space of the characters and their actions, working out what drives them to those actions, and the prose one will use to recreate that universe. “Endorsing” or “not endorsing” are beside the point when one is grappling with the difficult enough business of trying to be true to a particular world.

– Parvathy implies that a litmus test can determine what the filmmaker’s intentions were. Does an audience applaud and whistle at problematic behaviour (or leave ugly YouTube comments hero-worshipping the protagonist), or is the audience invited to introspect about what is going on?

This sounds good in theory, but in actual practice it isn’t a useful way of looking at the relationship between art and its consumers. With some works, yes, the gratuitousness or the catering to the “lowest common denominator” is relatively easy to see (an obvious example: a rape scene filmed for titillation); but in many other cases these things are much more muddled and subjective. (Parvathy herself says, with some confidence, that Joker didn’t have the “visual grammar of glorification” that Kabir Singh did. But many of the negative responses to Joker – many of them from thoughtful, sensitive viewers – have accused that film of glorification too. The history of cinema and literature is chockful of examples of passionate arguments being made from both ends of the spectrum, either defending or denouncing a controversial work.)

In any case, like it or not, even when a filmmaker or novelist sets out to depict a character as problematic or an episode as condemnable, there will STILL be viewers or readers who celebrate the character or the incident – or return home with a takeaway that the artist never reached for. There is no foolproof way in which audience/reader response can be used to determine the objective “intention” (again, assuming there is such a thing!) of a film or book.

– Bad people do routinely get away with doing bad things in the real world. So what does it mean to say that a creative work, to avoid charges of “endorsement”, must always depict the comeuppance of a problematic character? That it must clearly spell out to its audience, much like an anti-tobacco ad, that bad behaviour is punished in the end? (Interestingly, such demands are frequently made by the same “liberal” critics who celebrate realism in cinema and decry escapism. I propose that if you really want art to be “realistic”, you might need to allow some space for nihilistic art that says: there is no hope, evil always has been and always will be more powerful and more effective than good, bad people rarely get their just desserts; lump it.)

– Even the best of us have very complicated reptile brains, and the relationship between our realities and our fantasies can’t be neatly codified: it is possible for someone who leads a mostly “moral” life (whatever that might mean within a given context), someone who would rarely cause harm or hurt to another person, to be stimulated on some level by a creative depiction of such harm or hurt. (I know how much I relish certain forms of gore and violence in both literature and film – despite having experienced domestic violence firsthand as a child and having a visceral reaction to real-world violence. I also know – and strongly disagree with – many people who think that if you enjoy a “tasteless” joke about a topic That Must Not be Joked About, then it means that you are insensitive to the real-world implications of the thing in question. Nope. Doesn’t necessarily work that way.)

The third season of The Crown has just been released, and once again I am seeing responses from friends and acquaintances who are a little puzzled by their own interest in the show: they hate the idea of a monarchy in today’s world, are contemptuous of or just plain indifferent to the actual royals, and yet they have been stirred, moved by the show’s dramatised representation of these lives.

What does this mean? Could it be that our relationship with the creative works we consume, the relationship between our stated values and our inner lives, is more complex than we admit? Does any viewer who enjoys The Crown become a secret supporter of colonialism or feudalism? Is it possible to hate Winston Churchill for the role he played in the Bengal Famine of 1943 (and in the imperial project more generally) while also feeling a measure of sympathy for the old man in the Crown episode “Gloriana” who realises that his obsessive painting of a pond on his property was linked to his grief over the death of his three-year-old daughter? I know what my answers to these questions are, and I don’t want to impose them on anyone who might have different answers – for example, someone who has a more personal and immediate relationship with the 1943 tragedy – but it is worth raising the questions anyway.

(More on this soon, perhaps in a column. I also want to grumble a bit about this too-often-expressed idea that a swell of rousing music on the soundtrack associated with a particular character necessarily means that the film is celebrating everything that this character does.)

No comments:

Post a Comment