The White Rectangle

Posted: March 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now. Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good.

– Susan Sontag

There is, however, one art that, by its very nature, escapes theater entirely–the movies. This helps explain why movies in generally, including frankly appalling ones, are acceptable to modernist sensibility, whereas all but the most successful painting, sculpture, music, and poetry is not. Because cinema escapes theater–automatically, as it were–it provides a welcome and absorbing refuge to sensibilities at war with theater and theatricality. At the same time, the automatic, guaranteed character of the refuge–more accurately, the fact that was is provided is a refuge from theater and not a triumph over it, absorption not conviction–means that the cinema, even at its most experimental, is not modernist art.

– Michael Fried


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  1. Mikala says:

    So, by saying that film is a “refuge” from theater do they mean that we can escape the theatrical elements because it is easier to overlook acting technique in film? Not exactly sure what to make of these quotes just yet.

    • It’s tough to read Fried, because he’s speaking very quickly, quoting everyone, whether he agrees with them or not, and using the same term in multiple ways. But his point here has something to do with Sontag’s contention about film, that it’s a powerful form of escape. I’ll leave you to decide whether Fried considers that a good thing or a bad thing.

    • Not that it’s easier to overlook acting technique. Rather, it’s easiest to overlook context as well as the specificity of the medium and lose oneself entirely in the spectacle.

      • So Fried insists that film is not modernist art, whereas Sontag argues that cinema is the most important of all modern art forms, because the medium of film itself is too automatic and easily absorbed? Is he arguing that cinema desensitizes viewers from the important messages behind the film? From my interoperation of the quotes, it seems like Fried considers it a bad thing that we often use film as a form of escape.

  2. Barbara Camara says:

    I may be misinterpreting this, but what I understand is that Sontag believes movies to represent the best art because they do not seek to be anything more than what is shown on the surface. Sontag seems to make the claim that movies are a living art form because of the freedom to make mistakes; supposedly, the end result is easily palatable. However, Fried’s take on this is that the simplicity of movies sets them apart from modernist art, as an escape from theatre and theatricality. The film industry is somewhat forced to be intellectually accessible to audiences because without that accessibility, movies would not bring in those big bucks. I know that Sontag believes that good art does not need to be explained or overly interpreted, but I do think that the constancy and simplicity of some movies take away from them being a form of art.
    In our society today, I think movies have become too stagnant. People go to the movie theatre, see a movie, and then leave the theatre and go about their day, for the most part, unchanged. Some movies do seek to incite audiences. I saw various independent films at Sundance Film Festival, and those films represented art, in my opinion, because they compelled discussion, both immediately and over the long term. On the other hand, movies based off of Nicholas Sparks novels tend to be too superficial to be art. I’m not too sure which style of film Sontag is describing in this particular quote. As much as I love those Nicholas Sparks movies, they do not initiate the same fervor of thought that other forms of art are able to. Would Sontag prefer the simple arc of movies like Dear John, Titanic, or any other romantic comedy or would she prefer the complexity of movies such as Viva (independent film about the life of a drag queen in Cuba), Maleficent, etc., which utilize symbolism to tell a compelling story, which can incite discussion?
    I’ve gone on and on, but hopefully my exploration of these quotes makes sense.

    • Sontag, as she states in her essay, likes movies because of the unpretentious attitude people bring to viewing them. Even if they are polluted by all sort of tedious themes and big ideas, they nevertheless have the power, at key moments, to deliver us from the oppression of self-consciousness and hyper-intellectualism. They gather us into a world of pure dreams and perpetual motion. You’ll notice that Fried’s essay also discusses the movies. He also approves of them, though hardly without the unqualified enthusiasm of Sontag. I’ll try to get into the specific of the debate in our next session. Please remind me to do so.

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