Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema: Art and Artistic Pursuits

Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists.

2011 is already in the books, but it is far from forgotten. As the Academy Awards are just days away, many film lovers are scrambling to catch up on many of the 2011 film they may have missed. Capitalizing on this 2011 nostalgia, and the lack of must see new releases, Andrew from Encore’s World of Film & TV commissioned several film bloggers to partake in his Motifs in Cinema blogathon. Each blogger was given a theme to tackle and was charged with looking to how that theme related to films released in 2011. I opted to tackle the theme of Art and Artistic Pursuits in cinema.

Why take such a subjective topic you ask? Well the easy answer is that film itself is a form of art that has the ability to evoke various emotions. The more complicated response is that cinema saw an artistic resurgence of sorts in 2011. More than any other year, filmmakers really took the time to explore the artistic merits of cinema, literature and visual forms of art. No film exemplified this more than Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a film in which the main characters (played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) debate the importance of original art versus artistic replications. Kiarostami makes the case that art is all about the emotional response and not the form in which it is presented. To emphasize this he structures his film in such a way that the audience is not quite sure what aspects of the interactions are real and what is false? Kiarostami wants to prove that his characters are still engaging despite the way he plays with the audiences’ perception of the events. He wants to break the audiences’ preconceived notion of what they think art should be, and what “true” artists should strive for.

The idea of following the path of what others deem as art is a prominent aspect of several films released during this past year. No one needs to look further than Woody Allen’s charming film Midnight in Paris for an example of this. The protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), is a successful Hollywood screenwriter struggling to write his first novel. Though he makes good money writing scripts for mindless films consumed by the masses, Gil longs to write something on par with the great intellectuals and writers of the past. He views the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein as the benchmarks he needs to achieve. The fascinating thing is that Gil is oblivious to the fact that true artistic success comes from paving your own way instead of mimicking others. This is one of the reasons a film like Hugo works so well.

Martin Scorsese ‘s first attempt at 3D not only plays like a wonderful lesson in cinematic history, but it is also a loving homage to the brilliant Georges Méliès. Embracing his artistic impulses, Méliès (Ben Kingsley) always strived to push the limits of creativity. Instead of trying to copy others, Méliès found ways to bring his visions to life on screen, even if the funds were not always available. Georges Méliès did not care about achieving fame like Paris’ Gil, he merely wanted to share his creative passion with the world. In Hugo, Méliès only reaches his lowest point when it appears that he will no longer be able to share his art with a world that has changed so drastically due to the war.

The fear of the changing world leaving art behind is a theme that runs throughout, Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist. Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Duradin) soon finds his world in turmoil when the studio, that he has made so many memorable films for, decides to move from silent films to talkies. Valentin does not view this new invention as true cinema and dismisses the notion as being nothing more than a gimmick. However, Valentin’s reluctance to change soon makes him obsolete in the world of cinema. What is even more crushing for Valentin is the fact that his protégé, Peppy Miller, becomes a huge star in the world of talkies just as his career is on the decline. The Artist serves as a reminder that embracing change does not have to stifle creativity.

On a smaller scale, several artistic pursuits in 2011 entailed trying to take ones career to the next level. In The Trip, Steve (Steve Coogan) is constantly trying to land that big American role and must conceal his jealousy when long time colleague, Rob (Rob Brydon), seems to be getting more fame than him. Similar to Coogan in The Trip, musician Goh Nakamura plays a heightened version of himself in the film Surrogate Valentine. Reduced to taking a job teaching guitar lessons, Goh struggles to get both his musical career and love life in order. The struggling artist motif is also found, though briefly, in Mike Mills’ film Beginners. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is an artist commissioned to create an album cover for a up and coming band, but his work is deemed too ”out there”. While he wants to do something truly ground breaking, the band wants something simple but effective. At the end of the day it seems that this is something all of these films have in common. All of the characters are striving to create something exceptional in the face of a world that only wants their art to be simple. Though there are many films in 2011 that dealt with family and love, it was the films that focused on art and artists that left a lasting impression.


  1. Good post. Also, good parallels among Midnight in Paris, The Artist, and Hugo in regards to their treatment of creating art. I had drawn parallels among them in regards to nostalgia.

    I had kind of forgotten about the album cover scenes in Beginners, but that it actually a very good example because it shows the artist trying to do something he sees in his head, which is wildly different from what his "audience" wants to see. This is something that filmmakers share with every other art form.

    I've changed my mind. It's not a good post; it's a great one.

  2. Phips7:57 pm

    Nice write up. It was a good read.

    Its very interesting to see so many films in 2011 wrestle with the idea of artistry...and its also interesting to see that 3 of those (Artist, Hugo, and MIP) are all up for Best Picture with the former 2 also heavily nominated.

    Its cool to see that a "theme" like this occurred in so many films throughout the year through serendipitous circumstances.

  3. "All of the characters are striving to create something exceptional in the face of a world that only wants their art to be simple." That line is like a punch to the gut, so true and so...heavy. As I read this I think of the similarities across themes (like Amir looking at fantasy and reality faintly touches the artistic issues at the root of Certified Copy). That desire to create is what often makes artist idiosyncratic, and it's also what makes them such fascinating pieces for cinema, I think. We all hope that there's a little bit of creative worth in ourselves.

  4. Certified Copy has gotten me more disillusioned with my previous concepts of art since four years of art history and F for Fake. I change my mind daily as to whether I like it or not. But it does take art into human form, its characters transforming within as opposed to on the outside.

    And I love your angle on this topic, that the directors are inserting themselves within the work. It adds a layer of audience-ship, if that's even a word.

  5. Yay! And you bring up Beginners, there is so much pursuit--art and otherwise--in that movie. good write-up.

  6. I love that you start with Certified Copy. I don't think I've ever seen a film that has so drastically changed my perception of art. And it's so rewarding on repeat viewing because as you say, the audience is never quite sure what to make out of what they're watching. It's like a never-ending pursuit for authenticity.

  7. Hey, that was a really good read. Maybe one of your best posts ever.

    I thought of 'Super 8' which sort of works on two levels.. Director Abrams emulates his idol Spielberg in trying to convey the rich emotions found in classic children adventures tales while the kid characters in the movie are trying to make the best film they can by finding inspiration in the movies they themselves know (like zombie movies). Provided the work is honest and emotionally genuine, it doesn't matter if it is more of a copy than anything else, it can still be effective.

  8. @Chip Lary - I have to give some of the Beginner's credit to Andrew. He suggested that I consider that film. I had originally only looked at the film from a family drama standpoint. Revisiting the film, the artistic struggle was more apparent.

    @Phips - This really seems like a year where the Academy is embracing anything that represents art in the medium of film. I would even argue Tree of Life being included in the grouping as well.

    @Andrew - The desire to both standout and be creative is in all of us. The question becomes how do we achieve this in a world where everyone seems to be jockeying for the same results?

    @Candice - I find that beginners plays even better upon repeat viewing. Mike Mills did a great job with that film.

    @Paolo - F for Fake is a film I need to see. Heard so many great debates around that film.

    @Amir - Certified Copy was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the piece. I am still trying to wrap my head around all of the ideas in the film. However, it has definitely change my idea on what art is and is not.

    @Edgar - Thanks, man! Means a lot coming from a strong writer like yourself.

    Super 8 is a great example! I cannot believe I forgot that one. As you mentioned it worked well on several different levels.


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