Artifice or Fantasy: Part I
So I came up with this formal concept back in my early film-buff days, and it hung around in my belief system ever since then, without being particularly useful. The concept was that all films contain both realistic and artificial components, and that art happens on the interface of these components. And further, that it didn't really matter how realistic or how artificial a film might look to us: that the interface would always be there and would always operate in the same way. The same vocabulary of realism and artifice could be used for Farrebique or Tales of Hoffman.
You'd think that I would have some problem with the "realism" half of the formula, as that term is so embattled. But I'm a Bazinian, and have therefore had to consider what kind of meaning that word might have - and Bazin himself is much more helpful on that count than his detractors would have it. So I actually felt capable of some nuance when discussing realism and its value.
The problem was with artifice: not so much in identifying it as in figuring out how it worked. When was artifice good and when was it just phony? Thirty years later I was still dancing around that issue. Sometimes I would get pleasure from blatantly artificial elements, and I would vaguely attribute these artistic successes to some formal subtlety, some question of balance or proportion. Which I realized was just hand-waving, as we used to say in math. Other times I would criticize films for not being real, and my irritation would hide from me the obvious question: why do I consider this film false, where instances of artifice in other films seem to get a pass? Clearly I lacked a theory of how artifice might work or not work.
A few months ago there was a break in the case. And, like so many developments in my thought in the last ten or fifteen years, it can be traced back to my increasing adherence to a Freudian, or perhaps a psychoanalytical, mindset. A big current of psychoanalytical thought involves looking at old complexities in a simpler way, and realizing that we didn't light on the simple theory immediately because it was undesirable, because we didn't want to hold that belief. Why do we have nightmares? Maybe part of us likes the nightmare. Why do we have incest taboos? Maybe we think of family members in sexual terms. The problem of evil? Maybe people like to hurt each other. Etc.
So, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that maybe I liked some artifice because it fulfilled some fantasy of mine, and disliked other artifice because it pressed some button of mine. Forget for the moment considerations of craft, artistic balance, and so on. Maybe the artifice in art is, at root, just wish-fulfillment.
This was not the belief I wanted to have. Early in my film-buff life I had decided that fantasy and wish-fulfillment were incompatible with art. That was not just a way of rejecting the happy-ending ethos; it was a way of drawing lines between art and pornography, art and violent fantasy, art and anything that seemed too primal and powerful to allow delicate formal issues to operate.
This new belief was letting in all this stuff that I'd been excluding for years. But maybe it was worth giving it a spin, theoretically speaking.
So: instead of an opposition between realism and artifice, I tried thinking of art as a balance between realism and fantasy. The idea clicked immediately. As a filmmaker, I knew full well that I was drawn to some subjects and not others for pre-artistic reasons - that there had to be some powerful, primal motivation that would keep me working on a project. So I might be drawn to a sexual theme, and then complicate and distort it until it could be no one's fantasy: no matter, there was an element of fantasy that gave the project a juicy, desirable feeling in my mind. Surely film appreciation worked in the same way.
I saw the big advantage of the new realism vs. fantasy concept. It's always been painfully obvious that, as much as film buffs like to theorize about what makes films good or bad, we all like different things, and our reasons for liking and disliking are often blatantly linked to our personalities. We have a lot of trouble grasping why everyone doesn't love Film X, or hate Film Y; something about us really wants to believe that the issue is purely aesthetic, despite the screamingly obvious subjectivity of all parties.
By substituting "fantasy" for "artifice" in my formula, I was losing the idea that artifice was a formal element that could be manipulated well or poorly. But this idea had never done me much good anyway, had never developed over the course of my intellectual life. On the other hand, I was gaining a view of film appreciation that allowed for the subjectivity that so badly needs to be acknowledged in film theory, the elephant in the room that we all ignore. Our pre-artistic preferences could now be, if not actually theorized, at least inscribed in a theory. And the new formula also allowed for realism as a purely formal element that could be used to shape, oppose, redirect fantasy in ways that could challenge us, and that could be analyzed. I was already down with the idea that realism was formal, was something that the medium gave us, something that was bigger and less controllable than any fantasy. Now I had a new way of thinking about "the ontology of the photographic image": it's the part of cinema that the artist doesn't just dream up, that necessarily contributes more than the artist can intend.
A checklist for Part II of this post:
- Discuss how this dichotomy might be adapted to other art forms.
- Discuss why we want art to be more than pure fantasy, and whether that was always the case.
- Acknowledge the problems posed by this new formula. In particular: does realism always come from the nature of the medium? (Plainly not.) Can the artist introduce it as a kind of nega-fantasy? (Plainly.) In that case does it work the same way as medium-based realism? (That's a tough one....)