Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The First Post

(The following essay was written some time last year. It was this essay which led me to thinking about this project – a series of short essays, each one exploring a single idea in around 500 words, which, over time may build to create a coherent critique of contemporary art and culture. It was thought that through the writing of these essays themes would emerge clarifying my thoughts in this area.)

The photograph used to illustrate the story headlined ‘Pakistan to ‘Weed Out’ Taliban Sympathisers’, in last Saturday’s Guardian, struck me for its highly charged dose of drama. I use the word in its literal, theatrical sense. The image, provided by an unnamed photographer at Reuters, shows the immediate aftermath of the bombing of India’s Kabul embassy on July 7th. Everything about this image looks staged. The background - rubble and ruin of a building, teetering telegraph pole, smoke, dust and blanched trees – looks flat, the diffuse light and limited pale desert colours hint toward a painterly backdrop. The six figures spaced across the wreckage strewn pavement are the actors, carefully placed on a stage to emphasise the power and emotional charge of the incident we are witnessing the instant repercussions of.

Regardless of the historical and political weight of the ‘issues’ behind the bombing, what we are watching are the very human reactions to a singular moment in time. These people are not responding as Pakistanis, or Muslims, or Taliban, in some grand, sweeping ‘war on terror’ narrative, they are responding simply as human beings concerned for themselves and for their fellows. The young woman in the foreground right, crying, her only thought is to care for the baby she cradles, her entire focus is on removing the baby, and herself, from danger. The older man in grey, with white beard, behind her, a trickle of bright red running down his forehead, his focus is on the woman. He tries to catch her up, holding out a white shirt, as if wanting to wrap it gently around the woman’s shoulders, to offer support to her and the child, a desire to protect them both from further harm. The other three figures are men, scattered evenly across the scene. They are dazed, each attempting to raise them selves from the ground. Foreground left, a man in green holds his head to stem the flow of blood running freely between his fingers. Centre back, a man in white. He has the most blood on him, highlighted by the whiteness of his clothes. Lastly, on the right at the back, a third man sits in shock. These three, all looking in different directions, are isolated, each submerged in his own disbelief. They are disconnected from each other and the small scale human drama unfurling between the older man, the young woman, and the baby. The brightness of the blood, and the striking green and blue of the woman’s clothes provide the only richness in an otherwise bland pallet. The final details amidst the rubble on the stage are a bicycle lying on the ground (which, if any, of our characters was riding it?), and, on the opposite side, a car fender, hinting possibly at the source of the violence.

The photograph resembles an Old Master painting, where each character and object in a strictly orchestrated scene carries symbolic significance. I am sure this is what every news photographer is looking for, they are, after all, artists, and this is what the anonymous photographer here has achieved. The news photographer at best, like the artist and the dramatist, is themselves a lens, through which reality can be focussed to show the universality of humanity within the tangle, confusion, and drama of everyday news events.

The Shock of the Real

In Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy we witness Matt Dillon as a troubled young junky, holding up pharmacies to feed his habit. I am a fan of Van Sant, particularly his later, more minimal work, but there is something wonderful that happens in Drugstore Cowboy that doesn’t occur in his more unconventional films.

Toward the end, we meet the character who aids Dillon’s to turn against the lifestyle he has been following, and helps to give him the strength he needs to straighten out, before he is ultimately killed at the hands of a previous minor character. It is this final incident that gives the narrative its moral message and completes the tragedy of this young man’s life, but, strangely, we no longer care for the ‘characters’ in this ‘story’. Our belief in the narrative has been shattered by the arrival of the ‘Priest’, played by William S. Burroughs.

As soon as Burroughs, a real life junky and notorious author, appears on the screen, the illusion of the movie is irreparably fractured. The power of this iconoclast’s presence immediately removes the suspension of disbelief essential to our enjoyment of such artificial narratives. We can only enjoy films because for the short duration of our immersion in them we allow ourselves to believe in them. How else could we watch some of the more outlandish fantasies on offer without constantly saying ‘but that’s impossible’? William Burroughs is such a(n) (in)famous cult figure (the world’s most famous queer junky) that it becomes impossible to see anyone else in the film as other than what they are, actors playing roles. The whole carefully constructed artifice built in the previous hour or so tumbles violently to reveal cameras, actors, stage sets: the naked truth. Matt Dillon, when he puts his arm around Burroughs’ shoulder, is nothing more than a star struck actor aware he is in the presence of a man with a talent greater than his, and his hope that by association with Burroughs his status has been raised is clearly visible.

Hollywood spends millions on convincing us of unconvincing stories. How could we believe the handsome, privileged Dillon, could possibly persuade us he is a poor, desperate drug addict? Members of the Hollywood set are ordinary people, and many do have their troubles, their addictions and perversions, yet we still want to believe they are superior to us. Like the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods we place them on a pedestal and, again like the ancient Greeks, we are aware of our gods inadequacies and we love nothing more than to watch them fail and fall. Witness the cult of celebrity that surrounds Hollywood and the huge media industry which follows the ‘stars’ in every aspect of their degenerate and salacious lives.

Gus Van Sant cuts through all this (not necessarily intentionally) simply by placing William Burroughs, a real life iconic junky, in front of a camera in a Hollywood film about junkies. This single act of nihilistic anarchism destroys in a moment the whole edifice of falsity that cinema rests on, ripping to shreds the rules composed over a century of filmmaking. The history of modernity in the twentieth century, of which cinema played a significant role, told us that it is from moments of negation such as this that new art forms can emerge, fresh ideas from the debris of the old. In Drugstore Cowboy Gus Van Sant takes a step away from familiar and classical linear cinema, towards the elliptical, minimal, more avant garde and esoteric style of his later works.