posted March 27, 2005 05:51 AM
I know the great film director, Stanley Kubrick, thought long and hard about bringing a cinematic depiction of the Holocaust to our living rooms. He wasnt sure whether or not it could be done, or, to the extent that it could be done, SHOULD it be done? When Steven Spielberg released his opus, Schindler's List, Kubrick seemed relieved to consider the business pre-empted, null and void.
But how did Spielberg handle it?
The viewer can certainly judge for themself, but, it seemed to me that, even despite his heart being so nearly in the right place, Spielberg allowed his aesthetic sentimentality to overwhelm, at times, the very sobering reality of the violence being portrayed. For instance, there is one scene where a boy is shot through the chest, and, as the bullet exists his back, we see a handful of feathers pop cinematically out of his winter jacket. Poof! Another where a boy is sniped off-camera, only to be shown face down in the dirt as the camera pans ironically past.
It's the same vibe I get from Natural Born Killers, except the irony there was sincere and deliberate; it wasn't brought in through the back door, half-concealed, like a shameful secret; like the afterthought of an artist who is too pretentious, and too much in love with his own flourishing style to be overly concerned with the substance of his work.
I got the sense that the black-and-white format, for Spielberg, was less nostaligic than it was romantic. The film moved me (I am not made of stone), but I felt I was not meant to forget that it was artificial, a work of art. I have been sickened, and am regularly sickened by violence, but, watching this film, very much inspite of myself, I was more sickened by the impurity of its depiction of violence, than I was by the violence itself. The heavy hand of the artist kept obstructing my third-eye-view, so to speak.
I was unsure of my strong opinions on this until I saw another Holocaust film, 'The Grey Zone', directed by Tim Blake Nelson. This film shook me to the roots. It is not for the meek of heart. (May they be content to inherit the earth!) It's impossible to say how it was accomplished, it is a film more born than created. There is an absolute and horrifying simplicity to it. When a violent image is displayed before the viewer, there is nothing extraneous to get in the way. It comes as a cold, hard, matter-of-fact, fist to the gut. You cant make sense of it, but, at least you arent being impressed with how sickeningly "romantic" it is! Instead, there is a sinking of the heart, and an indescribable moral nausea that fills your bones. Everything is scrap metal and decay. But, when humanity (and human warmth) appears again on screen, it is like the dawning of the age of Aqaurius! Life, love, friendship, intimacy, -- these words are imbued with a profound new significance; they are suddenly so precious, and so precarious; already approaching the abyss.
I feel this is how it must be done. Otherwise, you are just "fibbing" to your audience and yourself, trying to make violence pallatable (even beautiful), whereas honest violence is the ugliest thing in the world. And, still, I hesitate to say that it was "tastefully done". Violence is not tasteful. To try to make violence tasteful is to objectify it, to see it from the outside. Whereas, to truly see violence, it is necessary to perceive it directly, by experience. Granted, this experience may be empathic, or vicarious, but, it will be violent (i.e. distasteful) nonetheless. Any artist attempting to portray violence must be satisfied with some dillution of the truth, otherwise, he/she simply becomes a socio-path. To portray violence truthfully, without compromising, is simply to perform a violent act.
And yet, the depiction must "ring" true; it must pain us, it must torment us, and cry out for resolution. It must emphatically demand an answer, without drowning out the possibility of an answer; as is too often the case in waking life.
And that is the sacred magic of true art; that it manages to create the illusion, not of reality, but of fiction! For, it is only when we think we are a safe distance from the battle, that we begin to discard our shields. Then, the artist must strike for the heart, but, always, with the intention of laying it open, splitting it evenly down the center, exposing equally the shadow and the light. A heavy-handed artist, always quick to tip the scales in his own favor, and to proclaim an easy answer, will never leave a man alone with his thoughts, and the question well expressed.
A true artist will therefor balance, or off-set (but not excuse), the reality of violence with something more encouraging. The only thing that matters, when the artist draws back her hand, is that the scales of justice are evenly balanced, and the blindfold good and fast. Then, the work of art is not a self-portrait, but a mirror reflecting our own free will, for it is we who must tip the scales according to the weight of our own hearts. In this way, it is possible to dispense "milk for babes, and meat for strong men." The artist does not decide who needs milk and who needs meat. She sets them both before you, and leaves you to decide.
But to depict an experience clearly, it is necessary, first of all, to isolate it; to depict the most subjective and characteristic dimension of that experience. Only later do we learn to see its proportions as they relate to a larger picture. Holding the mirror up to evil, the artist must be something of a beautician, if the glass is not to break. Which is to say that a certain degree of detachment is necessary, so as not to become what one sees; so as not to study what one has learned to discard, or revisit what one has put to rest. Violence, then, is reduced to an object, for the sake of perspective. If it is presented at all, it is "presentable", and made-up like a corpse at a wake, for we cannot bear its true colors; we cannot come face to (blue) face with it. Violence, true violence, the subjective and actual experience of violence, is only to be hinted at (even in the goriest details). You can put it out there, leave it there on the coffee table like a smoking gun, and see what the audience makes of it. But you cant show it. You cant shoot somebody. Not if you are a responsible artist.
Which raises the question (and I mean THE question):
Is God responsible? God is, after all, an artist who paints in experience. Life is God's masterpiece. God doesnt tell you about something (violence, for instance), God shows you. So, having made my argument in favor of passifism in art, at least, as far as we mortal artists are concerned, shouldn't I also conclude that God, the proverbial Creator, is not a responsible artist because the world expresses violence? I have faith that God will answer for that yet. Perhaps there are reasons past my seeing, but, from where I stand here on earth, I am not in any position to decide when and where violence can be responsibly expressed, if at all. Now, I do not presume to speak for God, but I have seen, as many of us have seen, how the subjective experience of sufferring can open certain people's eyes (or third eye), at certain times, to the suffering of others, in such a way as to cause them to transcend the lesser virtues of sympathy and empathy (which they may even be relatively unfamiliar with), to arrive immediately at a direct experience of compassion. For instance, a man contracts a disease, or someone close to him contracts a disease, and, all of a sudden, he is the spokesperson for everyone sufferring from that disease! Not only can he identify with them, his sense of indentification is so strong, he is inspired to act on it.
What is the difference between Understanding, Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion?
Understanding is psychic identification with another.
Sympathy is a (common or uncommon) feeling of concern,
which stems from psychic identification with another.
Empathy is a direct emotional identification with another.
Compassion is wanting to bring them peace.
I suggest for consideration, although I do not endorse, the notion that there is beauty in everything (even violence) if we look closely enough. It is for the reader to decide, if he or she is so inclined, - or else, to leave the riddle for God to unravel, - whether or not something which is indirectly beautiful, or beautiful in the abstract, may be found purely beautiful. Violence is indirectly beautiful, because the cessation of violence is directly and purely beautiful. Violence can act like a spike that taps the well of our subconscious, releasing the living waters of true loving compassion; the jab of a needle in the arm of a thick-skinned blood donor. Violence (rudely) wakes the sleeping giant, and he is often gentle.
Inevitably, one man's eyes are opened to affliction by affliction, while anothers' are shut. But, to know whose eye(s) will be opened, and whose will be shut, by such affliction, and why, - that is something I've yet to discover.
In the meantime, I baptize with water;
soda-water (and the occassional creme pie).