We’ve been watching a great deal of movies lately. Good movies, and even a couple great ones. My favorite one of late has been ‘Sunset Boulevard’, the classic and controversial look at Hollywood and the relationship of dreams with reality written and directed by one of the most overlooked American filmmakers – Billy Wilder. William Holden plays the noir-hero Joe Gillis a talented but unsuccessful film writer. Gillis is haunted by creditors and finds no luck while trying to find a little financial relief from his friends. In a minor scene early on Gillis tries to sell a script to a truly sympathetic movie producer, till the script gets shot down by Betty (played by Nancy Olson). A couple minutes later, while trying to avoid the men sent to repo his car, his tire blows out forcing him to pull into a driveway. The driveway happens to be special, and the accident with the tire is the twist of fate that determines the entire movie – but it is not mysterious driveway or its residents that I want to talk about. I am more interested in the writer, and writers in general. Much later in the film Joe runs into Betty again, who tells him that though she doesn’t like most of his work, she finds one flashback sequence very good and suggests making it into a feature film. Joe tells her that the inspiration comes from a teacher he had, and Betty suggests that it is because of the real life experience he had that made the scene good. Eventually they rendezvous late at night to finish the script, and though we don’t know what its about we see that the working title for the script was “An Untitled Love Story”.
Keep in mind also that the entire story is being told to you as a privileged flashback through Joe’s eyes, contrasted with the story that most will read in their newspaper. What is it that the artist experiences? What is his experience of his own artwork? And what is the experience that is shared by those who enjoy the art itself? It’s safe to say that Wilder, a screenwriter before becoming a director, could not have written ‘Sunset Boulevard’ without experiencing the actual Boulevard and the Hollywood culture. And though Hollywood culture unfortunately affects us all, it is also safe to say that none of us have any first hand knowledge of the anything like the events in ‘Sunset Boulevard’.
A very different film that tackles many of the same questions is the Russian masterpiece ‘Andrei Rublev’ by the esteemed Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Rublev’ is a three and a half hour look at the greatest of the Russian iconographers. It is a rather unorthodox styled film however, rarely giving screen time to its title character, and for much of the movie Andrei is under a vow of silence. Instead the movie is formed as a group of frescoes that roughly occur in the life of the artist. The shots are long and meticulously guided. Sometimes the scenes seem buttressed together randomly: sometimes they follow a character’s gaze, sometimes they delve into the thoughts and memories of bystander. As Tarkovsky would explain, the movie is not meant to be plot driven, in the sense of making you want to know what happens next, but rather to make you experience what happens in the moment. The chain of experience is extensive – Rublev sees the world through other’s eyes to make his art (and somehow become enabled to paint the Trinity), Tarkovsky sees the world through his, and we see it through Tarkovsky’s. Yet Tarkovsky would say that one of the things that we should take from the movie was that we must have our own experience and that cannot inherit the experience from others, or from the artist. Yet Tarkovsky also says that the the artist does not operate in a vacuum, that the world at odds with art is also the world that the artist has to operate from. Somewhere between the ugliness of necessity and the artists idealism is the proper setting for art. ‘Apocalypse Now’ nearly killed Coppola, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is nonsensical without WWII, and Tarkovsky himself was constantly censored by the Soviet Union. All this raises a good yet basic question: what is the purpose of human art?
Here’s a clip of Tarkovsky’s interview – with a scene at the beginning from Andrei Rublev where inexplicably one of the characters becomes a reenactment of Christ during the Passion. The film is also sometimes referred to as “The Passion according to Andrei Rublev”.
Kierkegaard said that the Kight would never be able write about himself, for this he needs the Poet. But there is nothing for the Poet to write about without the experience of the Knight. Which is true, the experience of the Knight or the experience of the Poet?