Posted by Dave Kopperman
My wife and I watched Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver,” last night. One of those odd movies that’s totally enjoyable (if a mite slow) while you’re watching it, and when it ends, you wonder what the point was. I know, Almodovar is a great filmmaker (he is), and maybe there isn’t supposed to be a point, but he plays around with such weighty topics in this movie – GUILT, DEATH, MURDER, SEXUAL ABUSE, ADULTERY – that I can’t let him off the hook for failing to tie it all together successfully. After all, if you’re going to raise big questions, you’ve got to be willing to provide your answers to them. They don’t have to be the answers, after all – nobody expects to have a spiritual enlightening at a Penelope Cruz film, but I think that’s what artists are supposed to do – provide their own answers to the big questions, and then ask you what you think.
That can, of course, backfire. My favorite all time comic – well, it was once and should have continued to be – was Cerebus. There’s absolutely no way I can compress all of my thoughts about this remarkable work into one entry, and I lack the energy to even try today, but briefly: Cerebus is a 6000 pagee graphic novel created by Canadian wirter/artist Dave Sim, which he release in monthly installments from 1977 to 2004, for a total of 300 issues. Over the course of the creation of Cerebus, Sim let the audience know that he intended the work to be a record of his own search for truth.
Of course, by the end of the series, Sim’s own truth led him to become a fairly strident anti-feminist bible/torah/koran thumper (he combined all of the Judeo-Christian religions into one very odd polyfaith unique to himself)- which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing had he not felt the need to bend-almost-to-break the narrative of Cerebus to fit this new world view. By the 285th issue, when he began his own exegesis of Genesis in the body of the comic in 6-point type to run for a full eight issues, it became crystal clear just how dreadful the other side of the equation can be: not only does an artist offer his answers to the truth, but absolutely insists with utmost confidence that theirs are the only answers that are valid.
What does the artist owe society? What does the artist owe their own fanbase? In a capitalist society, whether an artist relies either on one wealthy patron or many smaller ones (Sim self-published Cerebus, and over the course of its run went from over 20,000 readers an issue to closer to 5,000), the point is, their art needs to satisfy a need in an audience in order to allow the artist to continue producing. Almodovar chooses to dither around with the same themes in film after film, and also shows the same endless fascination with women as Sim (pro-woman, in Almodovar’s case), yet refuses to give the satisfaction of a conclusion. Sim is all conclusions, which turned out to be even less satisfactory. If it turns out that the universe is as Sim understands it, it’s a dreary place indeed.
Maybe art is a trick: you imply that you have an answer, but you refuse to give it away. That’s the David Lynch method, whose work is full of signs and portents, mysteries that seem to hold answers of cosmic import. But what it gets down to is his Spielberg-like ability to maniplulate his audience, and to build mountains out of mole-hills (or mashed potatoes), only do it in such a stylish way that no-one ever notices.
Of course, this is a purely academic argument – there are plenty of artists who have no aspect of ‘truth seeker’ to their work, and have had long and successful careers. But. Think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Why is one regarded as a saint among men and the other merely a gifted tunesmith? And why is the saint treated as the true artist while the tunesmith fights for respect?
Art may well be a Rorschach Test, but we revere our artists who give us a hint what we should see. The ones who only ask what we see? They just tick us off.