On the Aesthetics of our Snapshots as History Turns
The month of January of course makes me think about the passage of time - both within single eras and from one era to the discontinuous and following era.
Jumpstarted by reading and having done a "Book Lunch" on Chuck Klosterman's " The Nineties", I have been studying the 90s over the past months.
This has taken many forms, notably seeing the work of filmmaker Ryan Murphy,in particular his films Impeachment, The People Versus O.J. Simpson, and The Assassination Of Gianni Versace.
One theme I have returned to repeatedly in these blogs is the craft and art of "recreating" a past time period in dramatic art - to create this thing those of us who are philosophic minded we call "representation".
I am known as a 70s guy, which perhaps too simply put, means that I have an enduring and special place in my heart for that particular decade.
Accordingly I am always keenly interested in dramatic representations of that era.
To name but one recent example which succeeds in my view both as a filmed work of art as well as a document of that era, Mike Mills' "Twentieth Century Women" shows us how deeply interesting that era was.
Like "Licorice Pizza", which was similarly skilled in reconstruction, "Twentieth Century Women" gives the audience a sense of meaningfulness and purpose about historical change (one of the themes of Twentieth Century Women is precisely the passage of time and the changing of norms and mores).
I feel that Mike Mills wants to engage in a poetic and compassionate way with his subject; he goes for a lyricism and care for his figures first before other considerations, say, of fidelity to any one view of history or psychology. It is about the interiority of human experience and not interested in merely covering an era as if by rote. But I realize, as I always remind myself to say, that this too is a style and my preference for it certainly recognizes my preference is not the way many people might want representations to be created. (And I must admit that any movie where two of the characters discuss David Bowie in Nick Roge's "The Man Who Fell To Earth", for me one of the greatest films of the 70s and more is hard for me to not love).
We appear to be in an era of unprecedented interest in dramatizing different eras of recent history. I think one of the reasons for this explosion of historical recreation among various creators is actually a way of coping, in aesthetic terms, with the forced nature of the rapidity of recent changes on all of us though I am not so sure any of these directors or writers would even conceptualize their motives as such were you to ask them - which in no way makes it an invalid reason.
When the world changes radically in so short a time artists are going to be very keen to document all of it in many different ways. And when I use the word change here I do not mean it as any kind of synonym for progress and I do mean to say that even when a change is desired there might be ambivalence on the part of those who desired it the most, to say nothing of the unprepared or resistant and to say nothing of the unintended consequences of any change. By change I mean something very particular: the technological and infrastructural changes that apply to all of our lives on a mass scale.
Most of these changes are wrought because the people with the highest status or most power in society felt at the time that this or that invention or development was simply better than the alternatives on display or offer or what had been routine in the past and thus deemed those from the past anachronistic and thus inferior. And as always the motives for pushing through foundational changes, say the electronic web to name the most prominent example, are multiple; they are never either a simple idealism for perceived progress nor economic profitability but much more than these that we probably don't take the time to investigate.
The motives might encompass everything from simple ambition, security, profit and economic gain, to idealism aw well as expedience and as end results of all of these you get things like the steam engine, indoor plumbing and the interstate highway system and digitization. Ryan Murphy's work is part of a much longer and larger genre that I would locate as having begum in the 1990s, associated with the writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and, among other directors, Milos Forman (Man In The Moon) - a genre that aims to reimagine or creatively alter filmed biographical/costume dramas but using rather recent history, rather than older history, comparatively speaking. (1998 or 2002 as opposed to 1898 or even 1798).
Now if you will recall Chuck Klosterman's theme he gets irritated by peoples' tendency to view the past through an unconscious and contemporary reexamination of that past rather than trying to forget the present self and view in his refrain "how it seemed at the time".
Of course the latter is an ideal since we are always creatures of the present and have many reasons for not wanting to remember a previous self. Still, there is value in reminding ourselves to "own" our changes and acknowledge the passage of time, that is, a fundamental discontinuity alongside whatever there is "eternal" or universal in humanity.
I find these dramatic representations much more fascinating than one would initially realize and
more fascinating than critics quick to attack, say, the casting of Murphy muse Sarah Paulsen as Linda Tripp appear to want to admit. I think part of it is that contemporary things (and by contemporary I mean the post-modern era of which the 90s were emblematic) can be treated in filmed art as if they were older than they in fact are, so that to make a costume drama about 1997 is akin to making a drama about 1897.
There is an honesty in this decision to create more distance because our world has changed much more enormously and in a shorter period of time than is usually acknowledged in public forums. The world of 1985 is much more similar to the world of 2000 than is the world of 2022 compared to 2013 for example.
Of course all of these movies and t.v. shows are illustrations of my snapshot idea of works of art. In the cause of Ryan Murphy, of course, he has all these documented snapshots of famous people from media and popular history and sone of these snapshots consist of attention to or emphasis on the lifestyle aesthetics of the people in question, whether the utilitarian and mass marketed apparel of interns and politicians in the Beltway or gay men in Miami Beach, or suburban soccer moms in the Midwest. Murphy carries this attention to such details much further than most other filmmakers.
In one sequence of Impeachment you get a very accurate look at the aesthetics of some kind hotel buffet of the kind which were so ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s and you get a sense that the prop department and art directors were as specific with a banal hotel restaurant as Luchino Visconti was with portraying the rich in 1860s Sicily, when he permitted Burt Lancaster to have only 19th century underwear and accessories in his wardrobe for The Leopard - even though these would not be seen by the camera.
I think these details are meant to evoke entire lifestyles as much as eras and to call attention to such things is to show that these are choices human societies have made and are not inevitable or eternal, even if we might happen to like it or wish it would continue forever. The effect is identical to how all of us might feel when we look at snapshots of our younger selves in designs that are not currently fashionable or even available. As each year turns into a new one, artists, unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly, are forced to look at the passages of historical time in an aesthetic way. That is, they are conducting experiments with their summaries and representations - whether real and documented or totally unreal and imagined - with some kind of aim of comprehension. I use the word comprehension with a little larger application than it is normally used so that it goes beyond knowledge of facts; comprehension can even include Andrei Tarkovsky’s criteria that the purpose of art is, in his iconic words, "not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
It just so happens that some of these snapshots that make up the artist's toolkit consist of things and people from real life - in the case of the Ryan Murphy film examples, things and places in real life for which the mass public appears to have the most intense emotions and evaluations because they have a shared experience of living with them, public figures of all kinds. This makes the job of someone Murphy the most difficult.
He is as much at the mercy of his own biases and reconsiderations - Presentism is one way of categorizing this dilemma - as well as the mass public who have their own volatile ideas about the famous or infamous that populate his biopics. In this way both the public consumers and the artists who create the works can be thought of as two groups who have their own snapshots in mind. Works of art that are thoroughly meant to represent the present world, or “now” as well as the completely imagined or fictional probably, in our age of internet and social media, have to be created under the same pressures.
And to speak most personally about all of this I must say that I recognize a connection to all that I have been discussing with my musical projects over the past thirty odd years.
The very tissue and cellular material of my musical language is informed by developments in most of the twentieth century; it is what I had been trained in and, frankly, what I have most loved. For me these musical styles are very much alive even though they might be far from original or even innovative.
And last but not least, I did choose music for its lack of time bound specificity.
No passage of music is literally about the flow of an ocean or river or a particular mountain, or this or that battle of a nation or lie of a particular couple. The emotions in music are evocative without being literal and specific and it is for this reason that I find music most interesting.
I will always be very interested in other art mediums of course for what they can do and I will never stop studying them but I hope with these last remarks that the place of music in my life will be given some illumination.