There is an old adage that great art comes from deep pain. I’m pretty sure this is bullshit. It sounds like a pretentious attempt to romanticize depression, as though depressed people are the only ones who truly feel and understand life. While I acknowledge such a thing as an artistic temperament, I have more respect for happy artists than suicidal ones. Despite my attempts to separate artists from their work, nothing taints an artist’s oeuvre for me like suicide.
There is another dubious adage that runs along these lines: “Creative inspiration comes when limitations are imposed.” While this is still mostly bullshit, I understand the thinking very clearly. Having been a part of two independent feature film productions, I understand that you never have the money, time, gear, and (sometimes) talent or technical know-how that you want, and this forces creative problem solving that can be inspirational.
In 1995 a group of Danish film directors decided to emphasize effective storytelling by limiting their productions to a stringent code of “film ethics”. They authored the Dogma 95 Manifesto in which they set rules to strip film-making of its ‘artificiality’. Here are the first three rules:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
The films do not allow murders; the director must not be credited; no special lighting may be used; and finally the director swears to no longer be an artist, but a conduit of truth. It’s an interesting ideal, but to my mind, it hurts film-making as a whole.
Films are one of the best, most recent products of technological innovation in the arts. The entire process depends on technology and always has. And technology evolves, as always, by intelligent design. This intelligent design is almost never useless; practicality is the ideal, and scientists should always strive to make our everyday artifacts more efficient and less taxing on us and our environment.
So why should these Danish filmmakers fear innovation? Understandably, technology brings about completely novel possibilities which are open to abuse of unseasoned artists. Anyone today can buy what they need to make an amateur movie at Best Buy and post their movie on YouTube, so technological development has been accompanied by a surge of lesser quality amateur works. But should this degrade the work of true artists, like Dogma 95 Manifesto scribe Lars von Trier?
Dogma 95, like any religious dogma, attempts to create a static set of values in perpetuity. But nothing is free from change. If values are not adaptable to the world and the people they serve, they become a hindrance. Belief systems ossify in time, leaving followers ill-equipped to deal with reality.
Speaking as a lover of movies and a long time fan of Lars von Trier, I believe artificiality is part of the art form. The whole kick of a movie is getting to observe a reality that is not our own. Locking an audience into a perfect observational trance was achieved masterfully in The Element of Crime, but much less so in The Idiots. Dogma 95 was an interesting experiment, but I’m relieved von Trier has returned to his roots, pushing the technology to create something previous impossible.
Lars von Trier has always worked on dark subject matter. Especially in recent years, with Antichrist and Melancholia, he has shown his mastery over the art form. But I don’t believe his public neuroses and obsession with darkness are necessary to his success as a filmmaker. Considering the trajectory of his recent films, I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t find out on Twitter some day that he decided to end it all.
On the other hand is David Lynch. Lynch’s subject matter often brings us underneath bright, shiny surfaces to reveal devastating chaos and darkness below. Themes of mental anguish, of unreality, and succumbing to dark forces run through his filmography from beginning. Meanwhile the man is bright, happy, and currently operating The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education.
The two have often been compared for having a similar aesthetic and dealing with similar subject matter. And in recent years, each has given us one of the most horrifying films of all time, Antichrist, and Inland Empire (don’t watch Antichrist if you’re not willing to plumb the depths of human sadness and self-hate, and don’t watch Inland Empire if you are concerned with losing your mind). But the two men seem worlds apart. Even if I could truly separate the men from the work, I have always felt much more connected to Lynch’s films.
Great art does not require great pain. Great insight into pain is helpful in art and in life, of course. But being crippled by self-loathing and depression can only diminish your capacity as a person. I believe we all have the ability to live creatively. And I believe that ability is free of charge.
P.S. Thomas Pynchon deals with the technology question in his New York Times article “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” Take a look.