Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another useful New Yorker article

The New Yorker has lately been a great source of material that talks about engagement with a medium and the human drama of aesthetic production. Besides the article on Garry Kasparov that I wrote about recently, this week (the Oct. 22 "Arts" edition) there's an article (by the unfairly talented Adam Gopnik) called "The Corrections (abridgement, enrichment, and the nature of art)". It talks, among other things, about DVD commentaries where film directors shed light on the often minute (to the viewer) choices they made. E.g. the following about the director's commentary on the movie "Hollywoodland":

Barely audible sound clues are minutely parsed for their implied significance; it turns out that the extras, looped in post-production, were allowed to murmur only about timely subjects from 1959. Every moment in the mix, every change of light (from the "fading Kodachrome" look of the Brody story to the saturated look of the Affleck bits), every discreet genuflection to another movie is lovingly catalogued. ("Just a bit of an homage to a great cut in 'Chinatown,' one of my favorite edits in all film.") We learn that the longest lens in the Adrien Brody sequences is the same length as the shortest lens in the Ben Affleck sequences. We learn that the director drew up a "flow chart" of gum-chewing, marking the dramatic trajectory on which the Brody character does and does not chew gum, and thereby revealing his moral growth.

It's this kind of thing, that I experienced even as a novice filmmaker and film student in college, that got me into the whole question of looking at the connection between aesthetics and ethics in the practice of making some kind of artistic object, especially when you intend it to be engaged with by other people. When you're making something you really care about, you get deeply involved in all sorts of nuances of form and meaning and effect, some of which you may plan in advance but many of which occur spontaneously in the act of making ("if I just move the camera like *this*, it will make the actress's choice more XXX").

The same thing can happen when, as an observer or audience member, you look really intently at a scene or a painting or whatever, you start seeing things at a much more fine-grained level of nuance than the usual, just letting it wash over you kind of spectatorship. It takes a deeper engagement than normal to do that. That kind of engagement comes more easily and naturally in the act of making, whether you're aware of it consciously or not, but it can also occur from the audience or participant perspective, with enough effort and motivation.

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