Sometimes, something like this occurs: The Division 2 gets announced, it’s set in Washington, D.C., and a games critic hears that the developers have said “our game isn’t political,” and goes for a dunk about it.
But I want to try to dig into that a bit further, as someone who is an artist, was a critic, and graduated with three degrees that were all about art, cinema, communication, and creative expression. I feel like I’m pretty gosh darn qualified on the subject, and I’ll do my best to say stuff that, hopefully, you’ve never heard before.
I’m here to tell you that everything you know about how art works is wrong.
Big claim, but I’ll do my best. That said, I want to acknowledge that a lot of people are very understandably defensive about this because they’re trying to talk about the political significance of a work in the face of big fucking idiots online, and when you have to deal with the chuds saying “robocop and metal gear solid aren’t political,” and stalking and harassing you (I mean actual stalking and harassing here, like going to people’s houses or trying to break into their private communications, not “I can’t handle someone disagreeing with me online” complaints. so, please, if you’re thinking “when doc says ‘harassing’ he probably just means disagreements online, i can assure you, i am not. I am talking about people trying to hack my computer and sending me nsfl videos because they were mad i said i didn’t like a video game online once, or trying to intimidate a friend’s family, stuff like that. that shit won’t fly here.), I can completely understand why that would cause someone to entrench in their position. I’m definitely not here to say get ur politics out of my games because I’m not that kind of fucking dumbass. Fuck those guys, we’re doing this shit in good faith.
Like I said, I got a few degrees in this shit. I got some knowledge for ya, and I hope it’s useful.
My Base Assumptions
This is where I’m coming from. I don’t normally do this but politics is a whole shit, so.
Point One: There are people who see viewpoints they don’t share and decide this is propaganda. I grew up in a deeply conservative home; when I was in my early teens, I thought the existence of gay characters in fiction was some part of some “gay agenda” because that’s what my parents and church had taught me. As an adult with distance from that toxic environment, now I obviously know better.
So let’s be clear: anyone who perceives politics as “the inclusion of something outside of my comfort zone” and the status quo as non-political is wrong. I was wrong when I was younger. I am thankful that I’ve learned better since. Hopefully others will too.
Point 2: There are other people who believe that everything is political. They’re nowhere near as bad as angry online pissbabies, but I do take issue with their perspective because of how I grew up. My personal belief is that “everything is related to the cause I care about” is a method of control, often used by fundamentalists, because that’s the environment I grew up in; aggressively religious people made everything about our church. Everything.
I came to this perspective because of poverty — it’s easier for an idealist to see everything as relating to the shit they care about when that idealist has plenty of resources. When you’re poor, you do what you do not out of a political or religious choice, you do it because you just need to get by. Just because some guy is in my church doesn’t mean he’ll be better at fixing my car; he did shoddy work, and I need to be able to get to work so I can make enough money to not starve. My going to an atheist to get my car fixed doesn’t somehow mean I’ve rejected Christ.
People who try to say “everything is about the thing I care about” are trying to make it all about them, because they’re trying to exert control over the situation; they’re trying to make it a home game. Sometimes — often, even, it just fucking isn’t.
Maybe you disagree, and that’s okay. I’m writing an essay that I hope is comprehensive, and I hope you read all of it, and if you want to talk about it later, and I’m not feeling too tired (I’m disabled and live alone and have to do all the cooking and cleaning for myself while also trying to develop a game so I don’t starve! it’s A Lot, even worse with Covid now, and I’m flagging on some stuff. I would like to talk about this, but only in good faith and only when I have the energy to do so!), I will do my best to have a good conversation about it.
Now, Point 3: every work of art has a viewpoint. There are some people who take issue with creators saying “I’m not making a political work” because those people want to have their cake and eat it too — they want to talk about some current events, but they don’t want to say anything at all. This reinforces the current status quo, and if the status quo is bad, that’s, like… genuinely, truly awful. Like, Jack Ryan Season 2 is apparently just a big “fuck yeah America, Venezuela sucks, the status quo here is awesome” and that’s reckless and irresponsible. America is fucking up Venezuela — we’re the bad guys here, even if there are aspects of the Venezuelan government that aren’t good, the only reason America is doing anything to that country is to make a profit about it.
To argue “I can write a work without a viewpoint” is absolutely arrogant and entirely false; everything you say or do is going to be written according to your value system. I know some people who will argue that including Bad Shit in your game is An Endorsement of Bad Shit, and those people are dumb; I need to write a story featuring Hitler so I can show that he was bad. Demonstrating evil isn’t an endorsement.
I know when some people talk about politics, they’re trying to say “why do you want to pretend you don’t have a viewpoint?” and that is, I feel, a completely valid indictment of a creative’s perspective. There are a lot of people who want to pretend they can objectively cover events and they end up not doing that at all, and I don’t think we should let people get away with trying to make their perspective the world’s default, you know?
And now, despite hopefully making it clear I’m not a “get ur politics out of my games” person (I mean, every game I’ve written has elements of anticapitalism in it, for fuck’s sake, lol) I’m gonna try to make an argument that few games are actually political, even one with political themeparking, and I’m going to try to be interesting as hell about it.
A Sidebar: Something You Oughtta Know About Me
I have some issues with speech processing. I have aphasia, I have a really hard time taking thoughts and translating them into words at times, I have auditory processing issues in groups and benefit from using subtitles. After I first got sick back in 2005, I had to relearn how to read and write, and reading still gives me headaches; I do not really enjoy text that much as a medium. Even now, I hear the essay I’m reading you in my head.
I have, at times, moaned, somewhat jokingly, that I wish everyone was psychic so we could just communicate vibes instead of information. I see everything in images and have to try to convert it to text. It’s hard. It often gives me a headache. Writing fiction especially is a process of translating images into text and I hate that.
This impacts my value system. So, hey, keep that in mind. If you get to the end of this essay and you’re like “idk doc i don’t fully agree with you” that’s okay! it’s absolutely okay! we might just have different value systems, and this is where mine comes from: a part of my body that don’t function the way other people’s does.
A Story About Some Art I Made One Time
In 2017, I lost my home.
I knew it was coming, I knew, and I did everything I could to fight it, but in the end, I was powerless to stop it. I failed. I lost my home, and I had to move back in with my family. While there, I had to deal with nearly getting kicked out for various infractions, having my private belongings rummaged through, even being screamed at nonsensically.
It was hard. It was so hard. I had heart surgery that I had to beg people for — I wouldn’t be alive today if the gofundme campaign had failed! I was diagnosed with diabetes. I went through so much, it was a struggle just to keep it together most days. But, hey, I did. I persevered.
I worked on a game during that time, and working on it… I can’t speak for the other people who did, but when I initially conceived the game, powerlessness was a big part of it; most of the scenes I came up with, most of the mechanics, so much of it had to do with powerlessness. I wanted, on some level, for people to see me. To understand what this was like. It was, to me, a very visceral game. While some of my anticapitalist sentiments made it into the game, not all of them did because when you’re making something with other people, there’s always going to be an understandable degree of compromise.
There’s a scene where you talk to a guy at a gas station, and on one hand, he wants to tell you that, like, hey, he loves his home, as dinky and insignificant as it is, and anyone would be happy to live here, but he has to acknowledge, when The Power Company pulled out, the main employer in the area, there weren’t many jobs left. Every playable character in the game is poor or disempowered in some way, though we didn’t always get to get into the why of it. There’s a character who demands professionalism from you — an echo of employers I worked minimum wage for — and uses the word so much because he’s recently been promoted into his position, despite his incompetence.
If you wrote an essay arguing that my game was about anticapitalism… I’d probably disagree with you, even though I’m anticapitalist and my sentiments made it in game.
Think of it like this: in essays, we’ve got descriptive essays, we’ve got persuasive essays, we’ve got narrative essays, and so on. Some of these essays are explicitly designed to make a point about something, but that’s only part of what essays can be. Some essays want to achieve different goals, especially when they’re involved with creative nonfiction; sometimes they want to evoke a mood or a place, tell a story, relay a series of facts.
And sure, we can argue that every work has an inherent point of view and likely shares the values of the person writing it. I know some people will protest “but just because you write someone doesn’t mean you share their values.” Sure, but there’s no way to get outside of your own head when writing a story; you still see them in some way. If I write a story that features Nazis in it, I’m going to portray them as the bad guys — that’s my take on them. That I depict their crimes doesn’t mean I support them. I think any rational person understands this.
But with my game, I wanted to do something else: I wanted to achieve a powerful, emotional effect on the audience. My goal was to help them feel the way I felt. I wanted to give people a safe environment to experience and grapple with difficult emotions, and, hopefully, help them work through it. I believe this is art’s primary function — to help the people who experience it.
I’m using this example of me not to bring up a beef that happened next, but because I think this article will be more persuasive if, instead of getting into the theory bits, I tell you about my personal connection to this thing as well. Originally I wanted to start off with Walter Benjamin and cult value concepts and stuff, haha.
As a game critic, I was always happiest when someone read my work and went “wow! you put into words something I’ve been trying to say!” My belief is that a critic’s primary purpose is to educate; a critic is here to help you understand, to find the answers you’ve been seeking.
There are some critics I don’t really like because I don’t think they accomplish this. They seem to want to write opinion pieces, just saying stuff like “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this.” And sometimes, the real bad ones will simply list features of the work and then say “you might like it, you might not, I’ll leave it up to you.”
No one benefits from that! It’s a forum post! It isn’t educational, it doesn’t answer questions, it’s just you saying “i liked it or i didn’t” at best.
(I’m not trying to call anyone out with this; if you think it applies to you, well, hopefully this essay can help you understand where I’m coming from, and if it’s useful to you, then that’s awesome! But I’m not trying to make anyone feel called out or bad!)
Anyways, a critic who has routinely written things like “you might like it, you might not,” criticized my game. This isn’t about beefs here. There’s a guy who hates the game because “they ripped off Silent Hill,” and I’ve never played Silent Hill but associating “small town spooky” with that series seems like lazy criticism. If I wanted to relitigate beefs, I’d do that. The closest I’ll get is probably ranting in some later essay about how “this thing is like this other thing” isn’t valid or interesting criticism. I just wanna talk about criticism and since I know what I wanted to achieve with the game, I can be a primary source here.
This person wrote their standard “you might like it, you might not” conclusion. At some point, they also remarked “this game doesn’t say anything.”
That’s the one that bugged me.
As a critic, I took pride in helping the audience; a thousand words of nothing about a game just, I don’t know, I always expected more of my peers, back when I was a critic. This was a person not living up to what a critic ought to be; this was a person who wasn’t helping anyone.
My game was not an argumentative essay, you know? Like, I was not trying to specifically convince my audience of something. I was not here to Make A Point. So when someone said “it doesn’t have a point,” as a negative, it was like… well, yeah… that wasn’t my intention. I wasn’t here to argue a point.
Is Political Iconography Political?
Often, when I read a “haha everything’s political don’t try to hide from it,” the dunk is bad. Take my reference to The Division 2 earlier. I saw a lot of people Dunking Online about how “if it isn’t political, then why is it set in Washington, D.C., which is, among other things, the capital of the United States of America?”
Well, I can answer that: it’s my favorite vacation destination.
I love Washington, D.C. because The Smithsonian institution is there (I got chased out by security once lol, funny story), and I fuckin love the museums n’ shit. It is, visually, one of the most interesting cities in the world.
You can’t contain the entirety of a city in a single game, so you boil it down a bit, bring out its character as best you can. Set a game in Philly and it’s probably gonna have a lot of Patriotism Stuff because of the Liberty Bell (Homefront: The Revolution), set it in San Francisco and it’s gonna be All About Tech (Watch_Dogs 2). It’s like cooking; you wanna reduce alcohol when cooking with it so you can get those nice sugars to give the dish a distinctive flavor, so you boil off a lot of the water to leave the sugars behind.
But themeparking, which is a verb I think I made up earlier in this essay, though it’s entirely possible someone else made it up before me, always kinda results in the same thing: when you make a thing, it’s often a cartoonish version of what is.
In games, cities are generally theme parks, often to their detriment; there was one AAA game I worked on where the management was insistent on this really twee theming that distilled a city known for one kind of industry down to another. In a realistic game, this didn’t make any sense, but they had their hearts set on it. The metascore’s, uh, well, let’s say it’s well below 70.
So The Division 2 is set in a really interesting city visually, and yeah, there are political buildings there, but being set in an interesting city doesn’t make it political. If I set a Sherlock Holmes game in London, I’m not doing it to comment on Parliament.
If you really wanted to talk about the squicky politics of The Division, then how about this: Tom Clancy’s work, while right-leaning, would never have supported a secret government police force that can be activated at any time and has the extra-judicial privilege to be judge, jury, and executioner of anyone who looks at them funny.
The Division could be set literally anywhere; it could be set right here in Lawrence, Kansas, and the politics of the game would be the same as they are; being set in Washington means nothing; it’s set dressing, it’s not commentary, and it doesn’t need to be. The game’s already making a comment.
I talked to an AAA creative once while I was doing some work on his game. I asked him why he wanted to make the protagonist of his next game a cop. Like, there I was, thinking that in America, police forces are seen by many as the agents of capital — people who exist to safeguard the power and wealth of the rich. His answer was “we want to frame players as cops so that the players roleplay as good guys.”
If you wanna talk about politics and arguing the status quo, well, there you fucking go: there are people still thinking that life is as simple as a game of Cops and Robbers, white hats and black hats. If you want to interrogate someone’s politics, that is what you want to look at. Saying “haha a game has iconography associated with politics makes it political” is a mistake.
Alan Wake isn’t political because of the inclusion of the National Park Service, y’know?
That Serial Killer I Knew
I think politics is an axis or a lens; it’s a way of seeing the world, but it’s not the totality of it. Sure, I made a game about feeling powerless, and I could make a game expressly seeking to comment on poverty, but I am not here to comment on poverty — I’m here because I want you to feel it. I want to generate empathy within you. I do not want to appeal to the rational part of your brain; I have essays and magazine articles and twitter rants for that.
I want you to feel a feeling because hopefully you either feel empathy for those struggling with it or you have a safe way to work through emotional problems you’ve been dealing with. My belief is that art helps you deal with things you can’t just rationalize.
Poverty was just one of the feelings I had to share. But there was another I wanted to express. In one way, it was about closing out a chapter of my life. In another, it was about doing for others what a silly tv procedural had done for me.
I knew a man who killed people for fun. By the time I met him, he’d been killing people for 30 years. I didn’t know, of course, just like I didn’t know that the reason he showed up at our house so much, dressed in the uniform of animal control, telling us that someone had reported us for animal abuse (while reassuring us that we were good people and he knew it was probably just some grumpy neighbor trying to start something), was because he was making plans.
I certainly didn’t know that when Dennis, the BTK killer, told the press he had found a new target, it was my family.
I found out later.
Emotionally, I never really dealt with the trauma of that experience until a stupid episode of Castle about the 3XK killer happened. I watched it. The characters acted out the fear I had felt. Something inside me snapped. I felt it. I had a panic attack.
Then I think I was over it. Five years after he was caught, a dysfunctional tv procedural helped me deal with the shit that had been weighing me down for such a long time.
My game was, in part, me getting all of that out there (so the fact that the story was never finished is disappointing, but I’m better off now). Closing the book, as it were. But it was also me hoping, you know, like… if I could get across the sensations of it all, maybe someone else could find the relief I found watching Castle one night.
Where’s the politics in that?
Talking Past Each Other
If you take a writing degree, or even just basic Writing 101 classes, you’ll learn, and be predominantly asked to work on, argumentative essays. A Literature 101 class almost certainly will ask you to explain the symbolism and themes of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “What’s it about?”
I know, because I took all those classes, and then I went all the way to the 400 or 500 level classes too.
If you look at media consumption today, so much of it is asking “what’s it really all about?” People want to decode things. My personal belief is that the tv show Lost had a big impact on this; it was a mystery box, and everyone wanted to solve the mysteries, so everything had to mean something.
I think these two forces have created a world where a lot of critics think everything is about something on a purely intellectual level.
So when you have people who believe everything is political and who think every work must have some specific message, argument, or meaning trying to interpret art, and seeing themselves not as a teacher, but as some kind of diviner, someone with a magical power to explain what something really means.
It’s why there are a million YouTube channels dedicated to telling you what “really” happened at the end of most movies coming out these days, no matter how simple they are.
If, as a critic, you asked me of my art had a viewpoint, I’d tell you it does, absolutely, how could it not?
But if you asked me “is it political?” I’d say no, absolutely not, in no way is it art.
Because, see, I didn’t just take the writing classes. I took a bunch of media classes too; I know how to set up movie lights and pick camera lenses and stage actors. And in studying media, especially cinema, what I learned was that “political art” is, very specifically, art that seeks to comment on or make a point about politics. When we studied political art, we talked about a lot of Milos Foreman’s work, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Fireman’s Ball.
Most artists you ask about art know way more about it than you, and when you ask “is your art political,” they reasonably think you mean “are you making art to comment on something?” and not “does your art possess a viewpoint?” because that’s such a pointless, vapid question. Every art possesses a viewpoint. Why are we talking about this?
Art is so many more things than something so small and limited as commentary.
Art is a rhythm, a smell, a taste. Sometimes art is that creeping sense of dread you feel in your heart when the bills are due. It’s heartbreak. It’s elation. Sometimes it’s a way of helping you cry. And that’s just the audience-facing stuff. Art, for the artists, is a release and therapy as well.
If “politics” is merely the word you use when you really mean “worldview” or “viewpoint” then… go… use those words instead. Because most people think — based on how it’s commonly used— that politics means “governance,” and when you ask “is your work political?” when you meant to ask “is your work ideological?” then just about everyone outside of the infinitely tiny circle of “people who write about toys for $200–300 a piece” is gonna think you’re talking about democrats and republicans.
Consider this: when someone says “no religion and politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table,” is the objective to prevent you from speaking at all? No? It isn’t? Well then why the fuck do you think that when someone says “politics” they mean “literally any point of view or ideology.” It’s nonsense. You’re talking critic-speak. You are not being an educator, you’re using a language no one understands and then dunking one people who don’t get your jargon. Talk like a person.
I have a discord channel where “no religion and politics” is a primary rule. It’s because I wanted to create a refuge for people, away from the 24/7 politics of places like Twitter. There are a million places to talk about politics and very few places not to; as someone who lived with a father who constantly told me about how the Deep State was out to kill Trump or whatever, who had to deal with my mother breaking into my room because she thought the reason I wasn’t going to church was because I had porno mags and my soul was in jeopardy, like… as someone who actually volunteered in politics and has almost certainly been more politically active than most of you, back when I could do that (not Twitter or games writing activism, I mean actually going to city hall meetings, talking to representatives, campaigning on the streets, you know, real political activity), I’m so goddamn tired.
I have no interest in making political art. Yes, anticapitalism will find its way into my work. But that’s not what I’m here for.
And frankly, it isn’t what art’s here for either.
That’s right, folks, it’s…
Walter Benjamin was a fuckin commie bastard who wrote a bunch of Very Annoying Text that’s hard to parse, but in so doing, he wrote one of the most important essays of all time, which is called “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.”
Since my goal with writing is to be a friend having a discussion with you in the hopes of digging into something interesting, and not being an Arrogant Bastard Who Thinks He’s Better Than You, I will do my best to paraphrase him instead of simply quoting his hoity-toity bullshit that tries to make you feel dumb for reading it.
Basically, Walter Benjamin had this idea that art would change once it could be reproduced (he was old timey and movies were starting to be a thing). Like, have you ever seen a picture of the Lincoln Memorial? Neat. It’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
But… wow. If you go there. It’s sobering. It’s… majestic, even? Being there is, I don’t even know how to express it. It’s one of the few places in the world that man made to capture the sublime. Cathedrals do it too — those gigantic roofs and moody lighting do wonders for making you feel closer to God.
Benjamin points out that the earliest commercial human art was produced for religious purposes. The sense of awe we feel when looking at Bernini’s David — yes, the chad Bernini’s, not the virgin Michaelangelo’s — is a kind of magic, some electrochemical function in our brain that generates the awe in the face of the impossible. It is literally sublime. And it’s a big reason that cathedrals and temples feel like they do and a little church in a strip mall doesn’t (this is not to argue about the quality of worship, mind you; I’m simply saying that there’s a bunch of shit to do with bigness and sound quality that can create emotions).
So the earliest iteration of art was not to Win You Over or Teach You A Lesson, it was to make you feel.
When we were taught how to make movies, so much of what we did on the practical side was about how to make the audience feel stuff. Our earliest courses required us to shoot black and white stills to learn lighting and framing. Later, we needed to make videos of those stills, but with no music, because music is a crutch.
Seriously, music is immensely powerful; look at the accidentally released Mummy trailer that was missing all its music:
We progressed from there into things like staging, color, editing, and so many other things, and the goal was always the same: how do we tell stories to people that win them over emotionally?
When people act like mystics trying to divine your fiction, when all your work and thoughts and consideration went into trying to create feeling it’s… frustrating.
I learned all the theory shit too; trust me, I can decipher a work with the best of them, I got great grades proving just that, and my teachers wanted me to go for a doctorate in that shit but the cost was insane, the working hours were bullshit, and frankly, I didn’t see any practical use in it. The PhD stuff all seemed like an intellectual oroborous to me, and considering how expensive it was, and the fact that everyone in the doctorate programs was waaaay beyond my economic class, I knew it wasn’t for me.
When you write criticism that a major game studio shares around internally and gleans something from that helps them make their games better, when you help someone discover something new to love and be changed by, that’s when you did something good. Trying to decipher the meaning is pointless.
One of my favorite bands is entirely instrumental. No lyrics. Occasional voice samples, usually numbers or something, but the point of the words isn’t to communicate an idea, it’s to achieve a specific tone. When a band I like samples the movie Contact, they’re not actually trying to tell you something about a superior catalyst for methane, they’re trying to create an emotional affect (the noun affect, not the verb, not the word effect). Sure, everyone loves Big Iron, but not every song needs to tell a story. Sometimes, I just want to listen to Comsat. Yes, Scriabin thought Mysterium would end the world, but, well, it didn’t.
The Great Artists Don’t Work The Way You Think
Known piece of shit Vladimir Tatlin had this wild idea that art Should Exist For A Purpose. He wasn’t the first (remember Aesop’s fables? that very special episode of Fresh Prince, Just Say Yo?), but he was notable for being a piece of shit and founding an entire school of thought (the 20th century is defined by reactionary manifestos where an art school would be around for ten years or so and then people would move on to something new, but then derrida fucked it all up, he’s a piece of shit too, no, i will not explain myself, this essay is 5,398 words long at this point, oh fuck) that was basically “what if all art had to somehow convey an ideal?”
Vladimir Tatlin was not a great artist.
You know who is?
Ursula K. LeGuin, who, as I found out while writing this essay, totally agrees with me in her Message about Messages:
My fiction, especially for kids and young adults, is often reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon (“Growing up is tough but you can make it,” that sort of thing). Does it ever occur to such reviewers that the meaning of the story might lie in the language itself, in the movement of the story as read, in an inexpressible sense of discovery, rather than a tidy bit of advice?
Readers — kids and adults — ask me about the message of one story or another. I want to say to them, “Your question isn’t in the right language.”
As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message. I speak story. Sure, my story means something, but if you want to know what it means, you have to ask the question in terms appropriate to storytelling. Terms such as message are appropriate to expository writing, didactic writing, and sermons — different languages from fiction.
The notion that a story has a message assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review.
If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and plots and scenery and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is the story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make a naked idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easier to swallow? (Open your mouth, dear, it’s good for you.) Is fiction decorative wordage concealing a rational thought, a message, which is its ultimate reality and reason for being?
A lot of teachers teach fiction, a lot of reviewers (particularly of children’s books) review it, and so a lot of people read it, in that belief. The trouble is, it’s wrong.
What about David Lynch? (if anyone has a universally available version of this link, I actually can’t see it in America lol)
SAMMY: Regarding Mulholland Drive, what is the theme of this movie?
LYNCH: Sammy. A film is… when it’s finished, all the elements together in a way that feels correct and feels complete. That’s what goes out. So since it’s complete, in my mind, nothing should be talked about more and it’a a big shame when something is finished and then people want you to translate it back into words, because it never will work, it will never go back into words and be what the film is. It’s like describing a piece of music. You don’t hear the music, you just see the words and maybe conjures up a desire to go listen to that music. Some films may have a theme, but even if it has a theme, it may be a different theme for different people who see it, so it’s better let people come to their own ideas, having seen and experienced the film.
SAMMY: This is a movie which is difficult to interpret or understand. Can you elaborate on this?
LYNCH: It’s a lot like music. Music, they say, it’s an abstraction. It is very far away from words. And a film is a thing that… People want to have an easy understanding of a film, but when it’s music they don’t have that problem. There is not an intellectual thing going on, it’s just an experience. But films have those same elements, just experience. Plus, film can say abstractions that can be intuited, so you use your intuition, and then the understanding comes inside you. I think people should trust the understanding that comes to them from the experience. Now, it might be hard to take what’s inside of you and tell your friend in words what it is, it’s like a dream sometimes: you tell your friend a dream, and you can see in their face that they don’t understand, the words fail you, but you still know inside. So it’s not that difficult to understand if you trust your inner feeling.
Ideas are everything. Nothing happens without ideas. These ideas for Mulholland Drive — for me — are like a blessing because I felt in love with these ideas. Always hoping that others would feel the same thing that fired me up to make a film, so it should be seen as an experience in a brand new world and if there’s problems understanding, it’s the intuition that’s saves us.
He talks about this a lot, actually.
Andrzej Żuławski, director of movies like Possession, which I watched yesterday, was a big fan of the Grotowsky method of acting, pushing the emotional elements of his work to the fore. You could watch Possession and say that maybe it’s about a relationship falling apart, but Anna wants to fuck a tentacle creature. You could mention the crisis of faith, but while this crisis is pivotal, her rambling is meant to prepare you for one of the most horrifying moments in cinema that comes later. It’s an emotional primer. Is it about the cold war, because the war goes hot at the end and because Mark works for the CIA? No. It really isn’t. The movie is predominantly emotional.
If you put this plot in anyone else’s hands, it would be a generic horror movie. Possession sings because Zulawski pushes an intensity in the performances that less capable films like the entire A24 slate, seem incapable of matching (except The Lighthouse). They’re all so muted and dull; an A24 Possession would’ve been unremarkable. Zulawski’s is electric and terrifying.
Here’s Zulawski talking about a film he ended up never making (audio in English):
My dream was to write very simple stories. Not much dialog, not too many complications, but very straightforward… the perversity is underneath.
Being older, I think I need not to analyze but to make synthesis. And this film of… few films about music, it’s a synthesis of… ambitions.
So much of art is about getting you in the moment, in the space. It’s not an intellectual exercise, nor should it be. Artist’s statements became more necessary in the latter half of the 20th Century when people were making abstract bullshit, but very few people engage with art in that way; we look at paintings like Nighthawks or Christina’s World and we feel them. They are not mere arguments or ideas.
But then we get to the grandaddy of them all, the artist who I feel said it best. Andrei Tarkovsky begins Sculpting in Time talking about people trying to decrypt and decode his films. Now an artist myself, I get the frustration of people writing to you to say your movie sucks because it didn’t say anything, and I get the elation at having someone get it, understanding the inexpressible.
Here are a series of quotes from Sculpting in Time. Medium hates me and so I can’t seem to get them to format right so it’s all one block quote, sorry lol:
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all.
Art is realistic when it strives to express an ethical ideal. Realism is striving for truth, and truth is always beautiful.
No one component of a film can have any meaning in isolation: it is the film that is the work of art. And we can only talk about its components rather arbitrarily, dividing it up artificially or the sake of theoretical discussion.
Never try to convey your idea to the audience — it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.
A literary work can only be received through symbols, through concepts — for that is what words are; but cinema, like music, allows for utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work.
My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware the beauty is summoning him.
Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in the artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act?
Bonus: Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish master filmmaker himself, on Tarkovsky:
Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?
But for me, perhaps the most interesting quote is in his discussion on Mirror:
I had the greatest difficulty in explaining to people that there is no hidden, coded meaning in the film, nothing beyond the desire to tell the truth. Often my assurances provoked incredulity and even disappointment. Some people evidently wanted more: they needed arcane symbols, secret meanings. They were not accustomed to the poetics of the cinema image.
Looking at art as having to be about something, or judging it for not being… it’s so small. It’s like refusing to eat anything but chicken nuggets and getting mad at anything that isn’t. There’s a whole fucking world out there for you. To me, demanding that the art reveal to the point or the message is a way of betraying one’s ignorance. If someone demands that art be such a small and vile thing as a simple act of commentary, then it tells me they don’t know enough about art to have anything worth saying about it.
Art is a means of helping others to be better. It is a way of capturing the formless, of sharing that vast ocean of feeling that each one of us carries within us. It is not, nor should it be, merely a crude cudgel for didactism.
This is one reason I identify so much with the Stalker from Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie of the same name. At the film’s emotional climax, the Stalker (Tarkovsky describes him as ‘seeming weak, but invincible because of his will to serve others) breaks down and reveals why he takes on this job:
“I bring here people like me, desperate and tormented. People who have nothing else to hope for. And I can help them! No one else can help them! Only I, the louse can! I’m so happy to be able to help them that I want to cry.”
To me, that is the highest calling an artist can have.
UPDATE: here is part 2: “DOES art say things?” (yes, but not how you think)
as a minor few addendums, i’d request that you read this. and this. look, if artists were here to write shit for you to just treat as a wall to bounce their art off, they fucking wouldn’t. art isn’t a rorschach test. it matters. it was made with intent. it was made with a tremendous deal of effort and skill. it has meaning it’s just… not, u kno, always meant to have an intellectual meaning, because that’s just a tiny fraction of what art can be. you can have broader horizons than this. open yourself up to how huge art can truly be. and hey, consider that some of the best critical writing out there is actually done by artists — who truly get the medium. like lou reed on yeezus.
edit: bonus, yoko taro:
I do understand the otaku mentality that you want to know everything, you want to have everything answered, you want to collect everything, but I don’t see the value in knowing everything. For example, just in real life, you might not know everything about the politics that surrounds the world or even in your own country, and there’s really no point in knowing everything that happens in the world. Maybe a lot things, but not everything, right? What’s more important is how you interact with people around you, immediately around you, and I think that’s the same with video games. You don’t really need to know everything that happens in the world to enjoy it.