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December post: On The Quotidian In Art

QUOTIDIAN, adjective: of or occurring every day; daily

ordinary or everyday, especially when mundane

“One of the things that always interested me about Bertolucci’s The Conformist was the ability to use the richness of cameras movement and shot juxtaposition but in the classical tradition of an Ozu, a Bergman, or a Bresson, and that was what we tried to do on Ordinary People.” John Bailey, cinematographer on Ordinary People

“Viking said, ‘Here's why we don't like it. We think this book has great potential for sales among young people. Young people do not like to think of themselves as ordinary people. So could you come up with another title?’ They were very nice, they didn't say, ‘So, we are going to call it this.’ So I spent a whole weekend thinking of a bunch of stupid, pretentious, dumb, unworkable titles. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that my instincts were right, But this is my my first novel, and this is the first publishing com­pany that has ever been interested in anything that I'm doing. So, I'm nervous. I thought. ‘I have got to come up with a good long list of reasons,’ so 1 did, I came up with about thirty reasons. I wrote a letter, a three-page letter. And they just said, "OK, alright’.” Author Judith Guest on Ordinary People

One of the many extraordinary things about the world of art or art and letters more generally is the sheer diversity of the kind of artists that exist as well as the many style and endeavors that are the consequence.

For one example there is Manny Farber who not only was one of the most important film critics of the entire 20th century, working from the 1940s through the 80s, but was also a major painter, I introduce him upfront because he wrote a quite famous essay in art criticism and theory called “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”.

I have taken the liberty of including this classic here.

It is hard to summarize this most important essay but riffing upon it we could say that Farber’s preference for Termite Art was that it had more integrity, was not boastful nor pretentious and seems to honor something about everyday and ordinary life whereas White Elephant Art sucks up all the oxygen in whatever art period in which it happens to reside. Above all, when I reread work like this Farber piece from 1962 I continue to be inspired by the excellence and beauty of its prose, including tone, attitude and overall sensibility.

There is no good reason why writers could not attempt similar projects today.

I have formulated a possibly similar theory as of late which concerns what I am going to call the “quotidian” in Art. Though I am a pluralist I also posses intrinsic and steadfast preferences. And one of those preferences is that I almost always prefer works of art that concern some kind of quotidian sensibility and willfully evade or ignore what we are often told is the biggest and most important story, especially those of the highest stakes and conspicuous emotions and “relevant” drama.

It has been brought to my attention relentlessly that what moves and indeed dominates culture is what capturers the most attention from any “general population” and the most emotional charge elicited therein, At least since the computer has more or less taken over this has been magnified, the inevitable result of the attempt to create a culture in which everybody is literally on the same page, now a screen.

It goes without saying that such a mode will be opposed to the quotidian for more than one reason. A quotidian aesthetics will by definition not be an aesthetics that is emotionally arresting or manipulative; nor will it traffic in the unusual merely for the sake of being unusual. A quotidian aesthetics will ask us to attend to, in a blunt formulation, that which is mundane, taken for granted, and possibly overlooked, while paradoxically asking us to reinvent such things as nevertheless unique and captivating.

Our Internet Age even propagates charmless words and phrases to evoke our present condition, like clickbait and viral. What makes a thing so popular in a statistical sense to be either viral or to constitute clickbait is that it seems to stand out in some way, the precise opposite of mundanity. And of course it goes without saying that the subject matter will be intensely emotional in one way or the other, pertaining to conflict, sexual desires, or assumptions about purity, sacredness and heaven knows what else.

Author Judith Guest and Robert Redford

One of the movies the cinephile in me keeps coming back to is Robert Redford, Judith Guest, and Nancy Dowd and Alvin Sargent’s Ordinary People from 1980. It feels as if practically every cinephile who is my peer goes back to another film from that year, one that it is felt was cheated at the Oscars - Raging Bull.

It is true that the Scorsese drama about Jake LaMotta is incredibly well made and acted. If the film concerned, say, a man who owned a grocer in the same neighborhood rather than a famous and volatile boxer Scorsese’s picture might have begun to approach the quotidian. But, the commonality in real life of the working class and Italian milieu of the picture notwithstanding, there seems something highly dramatic and therefore “unusual” in some sense about Jake LaMotta both the fact of him being a celebrity in the field of boxing and the particular nature of the form his violence took.

Lest I be misunderstood I want to say outright that the scenes of domestic violence in Raging Bull, including the elongated verbal zigzags involving Joe Pesci as well as Cathy Moriariy, are not only among the most emotionally complex in Scorsese’s career thus far but are notable in cinema in general. (As far as Scorsese is concerned, the excellence of which is equalled only by The King Of Comedy and After Hours a few years later).

Raging Bull exhibits an immersive regard for the most difficult subject matter, its treatment of said issues in a style most films are too coy or unimaginative to conceive. Indeed these domestic scenes are far greater than the more celebrated boxing montage set pieces in the same picture.

Thus I am not saying that in some senses Raging Bull was undeserving of any or all awards for which it was in the running.

Robert Redford winning an Oscar for best director for Ordinary People

What I do mean to say is that Ordinary People is a rarer kind of masterpiece and approaches even the filmmaker Ozu in its respect for the quotidian. And although some of the reasons it swept the Oscars might have been the wrong reasons (possible resistance to or repulsion towards the milieu of Raging Bull for example) that the Academy Awards, at least in that year, managed to honor a sense of the quotidian, as expressed in Redford’s picture, as well as to honor the highest possibilities that the quotidian can achieve in art.

Here is the opening of the film.

While not exactly evocative of Ozu in a literal sense; I can’t help but feel that a similar feeling is being achieved as was in the Japanese’s master’s work.

Here is a video of compilation of Ozu's well known shots of places and settings.

Part of the similarity resides in the painterly evocation of the presence of people, places and things in a centered way. And the referent for all of these visual shots is a rather nondescript, upper middle class, suburban community in the late 70s and early 80s. There were so many neighborhoods like this one in this time period. The job the Donald Sutherland character has was and possibly still is a far more common one than a boxer or wrestler to be sure.

Thus, paradoxically, while the affluence of the milieu of Ordinary People on the face of it might be, sadly, statistically rare in one sense, the film manages to make its story literally for everyone, that is, everyone who happens to be an audience for this film. In that one sense it is not a film out of step for the month of December, and I say that as a mostly unsentimental man whose favorite Christmas move is, of all things, The Silent Partner.

The dialogue scenes throughout the film are all of them quotidian affairs.

Of course there are the therapy ones with Judd Hirsch, but above all the supreme meeting between Dinah Manoff and Timothy Hutton in the restaurant - a master class in oblique understatement, and how to represent a sense of common, daily, or as is the case, nightly, conversation. And last but not least there is M Emmett Walsh’s swim coach, Walsh being one of the greatest actors in cinema history.

Every character in Ordinary People is utterly changed or changes, save for the long dead son. Normally this to me is not a virtue in itself but one particular style of dramatic representation, but in this picture it feels most meaningful.

Perhaps the most incredible movement psychologically is the one undergone by my favorite character at the conclusion of the picture - the mom as played by Mary Tyler Moore. (!)

Still image of the film of Mary Tyler Moore

Still image of the film of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland

Her decision to leave her family is all the more interesting in the film since her base level character appears so far removed from who she has been throughout the film, (She says as much earlier in the picture when she complains about her husband’s and son’s fondness for talking about feelings etc.)

I am aware that critics of her character would say she was never “truly” engaged in the family in a meaningful way to begin with, but only the superficial idea or appearance of the family, making her narrative arc not in fact an arc or release at all. This happens not to be my own view and works of art are subject to more than one interpretation - while still being solid enough to not admit of all or any interpretations.

I feel the film’s creators and Mary Tyler Moore truly love her character but it is the kind of love most rare as well as hardest to summon, never mind maintain. (Lest I am misunderstood again, of course her character is structurally an antagonist of sorts in the family as depicted, but she is so much more than this. For one thing she is human, and like her husband and remaining son, has her her own grief over her dead son, though the difference of the form of her grief is one problem for her as much as her family).

Having said all of this, psychology has all the same limitation as does sociology in the comprehension of art.

Works of art are sensual distillations of things found or experienced in life: they concern how things feel as we undergo them. in this one sense alone there is a profound tension between our desire and need to resolve matters as they come to us in life and what a work of art actually does. On the surface a work of art appears to answer some questions, as a narrative does. But in an art work's depths there are only more unanswered questions in much the same way as each of us undergoes life without knowing how it will all really turn out.

This is what German filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder meant, for example, when he said that "People often criticize my films for being pessimistic but I don't see them that way. They're founded on the belief that revolution doesn't belong on the screen but outside in the world."

And as we should all now by now the revolution in the world might be as much a mistake as everything to which it was intended to be the solution.

Of course all of these objects in this particular post are creatures of their particular time, no matter how free they may eventually be from any particular time, even the one of their birth and creation. Raging Bull and Ordinary People are creatures of the 1970s.

Ozu's films are creatures of early to mid twentieth century Japan as well as the Hollywood films he worshiped and emulated, like Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow. The prose of Manny Farber seem to me to have so much of 1962 in them and not only because of the examples that he chooses. If this is true then we are poorer today for not having a posse like his in general circulation.

Both prose and film from any previous time can be imitated of course, and maybe ought to be imitated if they are worthy as models. Unless of course one happens to live in an age in which there is an attitude against any models that are too old and do not emerge from, say. the 21st century.

These are all choices, collectively and individually. If I want to approach works singly as I do in this post it is because of something said by Ron Liebman's Reuben Warshowski character in Martin Ritt’s (and husband and wife team Harriet Frank Jr and Irving Ravetch!) film, Norma Rae.

Liebman says to the title character, when she asks about who Dylan Thomas was and why she should bother to read him: “Love, sex, death, other matters of consequence. You should read him because maybe he has something to say to you.”

All art is always saying something to us and is usually about something of consequence and it never shuts up. It is the special reserve of the quotidian to want to claim that what is ordinarily deemed inconsequential might be, well, at least to some of us, the most important of all.

And all art, good, bad, indifferent has the potential to speak to us all.

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