One of the life-long questions I wrestle with is “Can Art actually be a force for change?” And I think the answer is yes, but it’s ever-evolving and reinvents itself all the time. I think Art’s biggest power is the ability to educate and evoke empathy. On one level, just the nature of a novel or a film or an album being purely enjoyable has it’s benefits: Relaxation, laughter, entertainment… But then there are the works that, in the words of Gomer Pyle, “Makes ya think…” For me it has ranged from Michael Nyman’s score of the piano (I marvelled at 5/4 time and his pedal use and oh I could go on and on…it’s a brilliant score), to The Grapes of Wrath to The Isle of la Grande Jatte, to Shakespearean banter to Bach Cantatas to Satie’s boundary-pushing. Good gospel choirs make me cry. Not just tear up at the beauty, I’m talking break-down cry. Embarrass people next to me sob. Cathartic heaving. I can’t tell you why exactly. I mean, some people are in awe of 2001. I barely stayed awake. Others love David Sedaris. I think he’s generally snarky and negative. I’m not talking about opinion, I’m talking about effect. What works of art have knocked you on your ass?
It may be, at this point, cliche. But Monet’s ability to blop paint onto a canvas, and create gorgeous images best viewed steps back was one of the first times I remember thinking “WOW.” How did he know that that swirl of pink and white up close would read “lily” from far away? Initially I assumed he taped, yes taped, several paint brushes length by length and painted 50 feet back from his canvas. (I also believed that videocassettes sent a bat signal up to actors who were supposed to perform whatever movie I was watching right at that moment, live. So best not think too deeply on how I explain the world to myself.)
Another moment I remember being shaken to the core by Art was the opening of the musical Ragtime. Scoff if you will, but there is a moment when the large cast has assembled itself into a circling triangle, formed by three groups (African Americans, Whites, and Eastern European Immigrants.) They size each other up so profoundly, and underscored by big sweeping music that is somehow brought in by just a little bit of banjo, I wept and was attached to the end of my seat. So powerful.
Once, when I was in college, I saw the Miami Steel Drum Band perform. By the end of the concert, literally the entire audience was on their feet and joyously dancing through the aisles. I can’t emphasize the atmosphere of pure joy and happiness. From the hammered ends of oil drums.
To me, true Art is exemplified in the parable about the Sun and the Wind. The Sun and the WInd get into an argument about who can make a man remove his jacket first. The Wind assures the sun his power will blow the jacket right off the man. So, to demonstrate, he blows his cold cold air on the man, who in return, despite the blast holds his jacket closer. When the Wind has tired himself out. The Sun says, let me try. So he gently increases his heat, and as the man warms, he removes his jacket.
Now, I used to think of that story as a metaphor for peaceful protest vs. violence, and I still do. But I also think it can apply to art. True, kick your ass art, has to warm from the inside, not be blown at you. I also think it can serve as a metaphor for many other ideas including different forms of education, spirituality. Basically, it’s one of my favorite stories.
Ultimately the movie The Fountain inspired this blog entry. It made me think, “What other movies made me change, if only a little, inside?”
1. John Adams. The miniseries. It so humanized these icons, that it made the idea of citizenry and continuing to build this country seem less intimidating. It also illuminated the idea of marriage through the ages. Not as institution, but as a partnership.
2. Wayne’s World. I’m serious. I saw it as a fifth grader, and it was the first movie I ever saw that made me realized guys with longish hair, ripped jeans, and crappy cars may not actually be bad people. So much so, I married one. It may sound small, but Wayne’s World was truly an epiphany for me.
3. The Night of the Hunter. Another example of the Wind/Sun parable and the true power of good over evil. In a very real sense. It is a divine example of soul strength over physical intimidation. Everyone and everything and every animal and plant deserves a chance.
4. Jaws. Because it scared the bejesus out of me. It was the first movie to keep me up all night. In Defiance, Ohio. In my Aunt Becky’s living room, far from an ocean, convinced that a shark was going to come through the fireplace. At that moment in time, in my mind, it was entirely possible. It was also one of the first times I swore out loud without meaning to. When the head pops out from under the boat…
5. Harlan County USA. The power of protest and people.
6. Meatballs. Because ultimately, “It just doesn’t matter.”
7. Creature from the Black Lagoon. Beauty is found in the strangest places.