a little east of reality

Sunday, April 08, 2007

unsettling art

Fight Club is one of my favourite films. This is NOT because it's a nice film. It's not. What it is though is very thought-provoking. It presents a harsh reality and a lot of ugliness, but not in a useless way that is just about shocking people or pushing the limits of what has been acceptable before. Instead it presents a lot of ideas about uncomfortable or dysfunctional aspects of our culture.

The Fight Club DVD includes an interview Edward Norton gave at a Yale film society night where they showed the movie. In answer to a question about the themes of the film and particularly the violence depicted, Norton said (and I'm paraphrasing a little just to make it more brief) that while some films (and other art forms) are purely for entertainment, it is also the responsibility of filmmakers (and other artists) to explore and expose what is dysfunctional or unhealthy in our culture and present it in a way that provokes discussion on those things. He finds it meaningful to do projects that wrestle around with things that make people uncomfortable and that remain morally ambivalent on those things, so that people do not walk away from the theatre feeling comfortable in having been told what they were to have made of the material. He wants a generation who have had their value systems largely informed by advertising culture to talk and argue and think for themselves how they feel about issues like the displacement of male roles in society or how external things like your home furnishings can offer spiritual calm or be seen as defining your personality, or how attractive the negative or nihilistic can be until you reach a point where you see that what was supposed to free you has a natural limit after which it traps you instead.

I've posted on Fight Club before. What brought it to mind today is that I've been watching the first series of The Boondocks. I always liked the comic strip, but the animated series is disturbing. It's blunt and pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of American society, African American culture and the interaction of African Americans with white America. I was talking to a friend about how I liked Huey and his politics, but that the show often made me cringe. She said something important about it - that the show is specifically designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. Interesting, and it made me mull over again what Norton had said about art and dysfunction. You're not supposed to like what you see. You're supposed to think about what you see. I hate the way black culture is depicted. I see that culture on TV, but it doesn't really fit my reality of the black people I personally know. But that doesn't mean it isn't real. Gang culture exists, drug culture is real, there really are ghettos where people struggle to stay in school and afford decent child care and stay alive. Rappers really are worshipped and the violence they very publically bring with them when they become famous really does make violence look glamourous to the kids who listen to them. And it's still true in a lot of places that a black man doesn't have to do very much in order to be arrested.

Boondocks is kind of an ugly show, but so are the realities it portrays. And we should be talking about those things. So in spite of the cringe factor, especially given how the word 'nigga' gets tossed around like it's okay fifty times an episode, I think I'm going to watch through to the end, not in order to get more comfortable with it. Just the opposite.

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