Sunday, November 4, 2007

Autobots and Art

While watching TV a couple of weeks ago, I noticed they were doing a review of the Transformers movie, which had just came out on video. I didn't see the actual review, but it started me thinking about the movie (which I saw in the theaters over the summer) and whether it should be recommended. My thinking went along these lines:
  • The movie was "ok". Not good, not bad, but ok.
  • The acting was ok.
  • The plot was ok (for your run-of-the-mill outcast human must battle to save the world with assistance from aliens/animals/robots/whatever)
  • The final fight scene was ok.
  • The filming was ok...
  • It was nothing exceptional, but nothing horrendous.
  • I could imagine someone wanting to rent it, but can't see why anyone would need to own it.

Why? Here is where my thinking ranged beyond mere daydreaming. Transformers are alien robots that disguise themselves as cars, trucks, planes, etc. Pretty much the sole attraction of the original cartoon and spinoff toys is the transformation from robot to car (and back again). Converting this cartoon idea to live action has several potential pitfalls, and the transformations would clearly be one of them. So, obviously, a lot of money was spent on CGM to make this happen.

There are many things wrong with the movie, from the so-so plot to the hammy acting, but that hasn't stopped many a summer action movie from being enjoyable. (Think of innumerable James Bond films.) Unfortunately, it is the basic operation of the transformers themselves where this movie lets you down.

The transformations on screen can best be described as a windstorm in a junk yard. Thousands of metallic bits whirling about. I am sure there was someone on set who could have explained exactly where every piece of the automobile was in each frame -- to prove how "realistic" the transformation is. However, despite any technical veracity, the resulting footage has no emotional truth to it. The animation has the effect of masking the transformation (sort of like Superman's phone booth) rather than making it believable.

By the final fight scene, there is so much whirling, clanking metal it is impossible to tell who's fighting who and which piece of disembodied metal you ought to be rooting for.

So why am I classifying this post as poetry? There is an analogy here to art in general, and certainly poetry as one of the arts.

There have been a number of times in the past when someone has explained to me why a particular work of art deserves attention and admiration. You can stand me in front of one of Chuck Close's larger-than-life portraits and explain how remarkable his technique is, and I can admire that technique on an intellectual level. But I just have to turn to look at one of Franz Kline's seemingly crude black & white paintings to realize how big the difference is between respecting the effort and being enthralled by the result. You feel a Kline painting, you think about a Close portrait.

Similarly, I've had innumerable people explain to me why John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is great poetry. So much so, that at this point I have come to despise his work (with two notable exceptions). As gymastic as Ashbery's intellectual efforts are, what the technique does is mask the author's lack of any real feeling for the subject.

Ditto Pound's Cantos. If anything, what I get from reading the Cantos -- instead of awe at his erudition -- is a feeling for how much Pound hates and despises his readers. He literally flings literary and historical minutia in your face in place of any real revelation of emotion.

However, Chuck Close is not a good example -- because in his case, the technique is the primary focus; it is not being used to hide anything. The problem with the Transformers Movie and other works like it is not just an issue of form over function, surface vs. substance, artifice vs. art. The problem occurs specifically when the presentation is used to dazzle and distract the audience from noticing gaps in the argument, whether emotional or intellectual.

Perhaps I am so adamant about this issue because I have been taken in by this trick before. In college I fell for the French surrealists and their antics, several of whom turned out in the end to be more poseurs than probers of the subconscious (with Andre Breton leading the parade). In the case of American poetry, it is often tone or subject matter that is used to stir up the reader in place of any real depth. Diane Wakoski's brash style is very attractive, but in several cases is used to cover an empty shell. (Her long poem, Greed, shows both the good and the bad of this reliance on tone.) The violence of Ai's first book, Cruelty, is captivating. But by the third book, Sin, you begin to doubt the veracity --real or imaginary -- of the feeling. There is only so much imagistic punishment a reader can take before they begin to fight back and say "wait a minute, not everything can be so black..."

As a counter example to Ai, Eleanor Lerman's first two books had that same harsh (yet funny) edge to them. It was 26 years before she published her third book, The Mystery of Meteors. Again you feel the stark, uncompromising view of life. But you also see a woman growing and facing different, sometimes more subtle trials. Here is a true voice bound tightly to emotion, each carrying the other on. They enhance each other and make you feel as if you are seeing a life lived through poetry through the medium of her books.

Perhaps the biggest trap is the use of childhood and illness as fodder for poems. When all else fails, talk about your childhood traumas. I know I sound flippant saying this, but it is a common trap. I've fallen for it; probably every poet has at some point in time. Several poets have made entire careers at this.

Its not that you can't use your childhood as subject material -- everyone does -- but you can't use it as a crutch, as an automatic attention grabber, in place of what poetry deserves. As an example, look at the poetry of Len Roberts. Roberts is a poet I like quite a bit. But he is a good example, since he has both fallen for the temptation and recovered from it.

Roberts' first couple of books were promising. He is a poet of the past, writing autobiographical poems of a tense childhood. And there is a lot of power in those early books.

There is nothing wrong with childhood as a topic. However it is very hard to view your own childhood objectively, and the events that shaped you carry -- for you as author -- immense emotional weight. Roberts' initial poems are brimming with that sense of overpowering emotional conflict.

By his third and fourth books, Roberts starts to move into the present tense. But even when poems start in present tense, they act as triggers for the past:

Pushing the yellow Cougar out of the snow,
its tires spinning muddy slush onto
my good pants, I remember all the men
back on Olmstead Street coming out
at dawn when someone's car was stuck....

-- "Pushing cars out of the snow"

Unfortunately, by now, the past seems more abstracted, more theatrical, more habitual, and its use as an emotional trigger wears thin. The past becomes an easy out, an appealing way to bring a poem to a close with that sense of suspended tension -- an unresolved drama -- as if the lights went out in a theater half way through the last act.

...and I remembered those five a.m.'s when
my father rose to shovel the entire block, his father coming out quickly to join him
moving further and further
apart until they reached the ends of the walk and then,
without one word, without even a wave of the hand, entered their separate doors.

--"The Block"

The problem is that in many cases the drama is not really there. It is imagined, instinctive -- ghostly like pain in a missing leg. And there are only so many times you can leave your audience hanging that way.

Fortunately, Roberts' later poems recover and show less of a tendency to fall for the easy ending, the cliched past tense. He does the hard work that is needed and his poems show it.

As counterpoint, another poet, Sharon Olds, tends in the other direction. Her poems are hewn from the pain, suffering, and terminal illnesses of what seem like an endless collection of family members and other relatives. At first you are taken aback by Olds' frank portrayal of disease and dysfunction. But it doesn't take you long to start doubting everything -- her reactions, the situation itself. There is just too much dissolution and too much hardened angst to believe it would be written this way -- whether real or imagined.

I am not saying Sharon Olds' family hasn't suffered the many mishaps she describes. (I have no idea whether her poems are autobiographical, fictional, or a combination of both. It is not my job as a reader to know that.) I am also not refuting any emotional response she personally may have had to the events described. But as art, the poems rely far too heavily on the reader's visceral reaction to serious illness and drama (and the narrators' reaction to it) and do far too little to weave it into an artistic vision. The poems are blunt, harsh. But their bluntness is the bluntness of a dull weapon, not of raw beauty.

In the end, poetry, like any art, is hard work. No matter how easy the end result appears. Avoiding the quick fix, the emotion-laden set piece, is part of the artist's job, so as not to play fast and loose with the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief".

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