Tag Archives: art

More White Male Protagonists in Scorsese’s Silence

I went to see Martin Scorsese’s Silence the other day and was curious about others’ reactions to it, especially considering the way it discusses Christian faith (and I am a Christian). Reactions to the movie were not hard to find, but scattered among these were many who pointed out Scorsese had made another movie about white male protagonists. And honestly, the movie is about Japan from the point of view of two Jesuit priests–this cannot be denied. However, I think to reduce it to that would overlook some of the value of the movie.

Very often other cultures are only shown in movies through the eyes of someone ‘western,’ and it’s an issue when cultures are portrayed as helpless until some ‘white saviour’ comes along. You can argue Silence avoids this issue by having its protagonists fail in the saviour role they attempt to take on, but let’s leave aside that for the moment. Let’s consider that this was originally a Japanese novel, written by a Japanese man with something to say about how white male protagonists appear from a Japanese point of view.

We should be open to stories from the perspectives of other cultures, but we should also be open to hearing what other cultures tell us about how we comes across to them. What they’re telling us about ourselves.

And I really think Silence is trying to show us ourselves from the perspective of another culture (and yes, I’m including myself in the group addressed because I come from North America and am a Christian, even though I’m female).

You might say, well, this was distorted by the fact it’s Scorsese who does the retelling. And I am sure Scorsese does not tell the story in exactly the same way the author, Shūsaku Endō, would have. However, I personally would have never heard of this story or Endo’s novel without this film. And while watching it I was confronted with the Japanese perspective on these Jesuits who’d come to Japan. And this movie has something to say to people like me, who live comfortably in North America and don’t always realize own our pride. It asks me to re-evaluate myself.

In other words, I’m not entirely sure Scorsese’s direction completely erases or cancels out the novel the movie was based on.

We should listen to what other cultures tell us about themselves, but if we close our ears to what they’re telling us about us, we’re missing the point. We might have very good words to wave the message aside with (‘just another story about white men’), and never hear the message it’s assaulting us with.

So yes, make more stories from the perspective of other cultures about themselves. But at the same time, consider some stories about us ‘North Americans’ are attempting to open our eyes to how we appear to others. Allow ourselves to think about it.

 

Side note(s):

There’s much more to say even about the Japanese perspective represented, as one person never speaks for everyone anyway.

When it comes to Silence‘s deeper messages, especially when it comes to faith, I appreciate some of it with reservations on the rest. I certainly appreciate it as a thought experiment, and the portrayal of one potential personal journey (which glosses over some aspects of reality).

Also, yes, I do go home and research everything I can find about a movie I just saw, or a book I just read, or a speaker I just heard. I hoard information like a miser hoards money. Who doesn’t? 😀

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When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Is Rebellion Necessary for True Art?

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“Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion”

Leon Trotsky

Whoa, here I go quoting Leon Trotsky, of all people! Don’t worry, I haven’t turned into a Marxist/Trotskyist/whatever-type-of-communism-is-currently-fashionable. I’ve always resisted the idea that art is always about rebellion, while at the same time always maintaining that an escape from everyday reality is an important part of enjoying good art or good writing.

But what Trotsky is saying is that this act of escape is, in itself, a rebellion against current realities. I don’t like the idea that all art is rebellion because not everything needs to be rebelled against, or is worth rebelling against. Sometimes the good can be celebrated too. But most art does point to something lacking in the human reality, even if it’s just in a tragic way (like The Great Gatsby – I just watched the new movie version, by the way!)

So can art be an expression of what reality is lacking? Definitely. Does that mean art is rebellious, since it is pointing out the flaws in reality? Well then, maybe there is an aspect of rebellion to all art after all.

Here’s what I believe, in the end. Humanity is looking for a harmonious and complete life. But the barrier to gaining that kind of life is not class divisions, as Trotsky says above, but ourselves. All of our individual stupid shortcomings and flaws, repeated on a grand scale throughout the whole human race, resulting in everything we know is wrong with the world – war, hatred, evil.

Sometimes we need an escape from this kind of petty reality. Sometimes we need to use art to point it the bad stuff. Either way, creativity and artistic production is important for humanity.

 

 

What do you think – does art have to have an aspect of rebellion to it? What should art rebel against?
On a related note – ‘Something Like Friendship,’ Chapter 5 of my Why Polly? serialized novel comes out today! Click here to check it out. Or you can read Chapter 1 free here.

 

 

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A Call to Creativity

What, no power tools? Those humans were crazy {PD}

What do the pyramids, the MineCraft Earth, and my short stories all have in common? Hopefully they’re not all insane projects, though piling virtual block on top of virtual block inside a video game is only slightly weirder than piling actually physical blocks into a tall, pointy shape. They’re all made by people, of course. They’re all attempts by people to shape the world around them – some of them with more of a point than others, of course (whether my short stories have a point, I’ll leave to the reader to judge). But it illustrates a natural human drive that people have displayed throughout history, one mark of what it means to be humans. We feel like we have to create. We have to produce something, even if it’s just stacking enough Oreos on top of each other until the tower is high enough to get into the Guinness World Book of Records.

This is what draws me, and probably many other writers, to writing. Because you can create to the extent your creative mind will let you. You can design worlds totally different than this one, and you can produce door-stopper novels that strongly indicate you’ve done something in your life. But you don’t realize how strong this drive is until you really think about it. How many hours of free labour have been poured in Wikipedia, do you think? Or the sprawling world of TVtropes? Or even the internet itself – a whole new frontier for virtual creation?

I had a history prof who once built his own Messerschmitt airplane out of scrap metal in his backyard, which is a highly cool project, but also somewhat useless when you think about it. In the first place, Messerschmitts have already been invented, and are way out of date, and in the second place, one built out of scrap metal won’t even fly (even though he did actually mix up jet fuel for it at one point). So why on earth would anyone put in the hours and hours of manpower to piece one together by hand? One reason is, probably, just to prove he could do it. Another, to have a Messerschmitt in his backyard. And another, to show the limits of human ability are not as narrow as we sometimes think – we can piece together amazing stuff if we try. (And if you don’t believe I’ve had a prof who actually did this, check out the article here).

In our industrialized world, we have lost some of the creativity that comes with handcrafting. The majority of us don’t have to produce our own fashions, and regularly churn out artisanal bread. But the benefit of our modern world is that our technology frees us up to pursue creative ideas that actually jive with our interests. Throughout history, people such as Marx have lamented the effect of industry on human ambition, but people have also started movements that react against it. I love hearing about the Arts and Crafts movement in England, because some of their handcrafted designs are so neat (like this table, and this ‘Dragon’s blood’ red lacquered dresser). And today, this handcrafted movement has been strengthened by the internet – check out Etsy, and the hundreds and hundreds of sewing blogs. The act of creation is not dead yet. And more than that, people now have new ways of showing off their creations to one another.

Unfortunately, the modern world comes with its own distractions, which is why I waste far too much time on the internet and TV, when I could be writing. So this post is not only a celebrating of the amazing reach of human creativity, it is a call to action. Our society has probably the greatest amount of leisure time of any society ever. What are you doing with that time? How many of us are ignoring our drive to create something?

Go out and do something cool. Don’t worry about exactly how it will benefit the modern world – after all, we all agree the pyramids are great, even though we don’t use them for anything. I mean, don’t worry about it too much, though try to pursue something that’s a little less of a waste of time than watching TV 24 hours a day. The thing with creating (especially creating art) is that you can’t always foresee how it will impact the world, but it could be in ways you never imagined. So take a movement and listen to that drive to create.

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