Wednesday, June 01, 2011

What Maya Angelou Said

A few weeks back Jessica and I were watching the old boob tube. Flipping around, we (she) eventually landed on the Oprah Winfrey Network, which was airing an interview with Maya Angelou. I heard a very powerful thing then, though I don't have the quote verbatim. Angelou was saying that no matter what she sees another human doing, she must accept the fact that she herself is capable of doing that.


This is something like total empathy. It's much different from saying "I can understand where that guy was coming from when he embezzled a million dollars from needy orphans." It's saying "I am entirely capable of embezzling a million dollars from needy orphans." In essence, she's saying we're all human — all this depravity, violence, greed, etc. in the world is shared completely by everyone on the planet. She didn't go into much more detail on this, but this small bit is enough on its own. Because it's easy enough to vilify someone — it happens every day. If we vilify someone, it creates a distance between us and them and it comforts us to know that their "evil" is unique to their being and so we're safe. This is a psychological safeguard.

While logging on this morning to compose this post, I noticed a quote on Facebook that someone attributed to the Dalai Lama:

Each one of us is responsible for the whole of humankind. We need to think of each other really as brothers and sisters and to be concerned for each other’s welfare. Rather than working solely to acquire wealth, we need to do something meaningful, something directed seriously towards the welfare of humanity as a whole.
-The Dalai Lama's facebook post today.

A good tie-in, no?

I suppose I started thinking about Angelou's quote again this morning after (1) viewing Blue Velvet this past weekend and (2) reading David Foster Wallace's take on David Lynch in his (DFW's) essay entitled "David Lynch Keeps His Head" (the link is to the Premiere magazine article version; I had read the extended version in Wallace's book A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again).

On viewing Blue Velvet: It was a movie I didn't really connect with emotionally. I felt the cliché-like atmosphere, the campy old timey detective stuff, mixed in with the starkly portrayed sexual depravity and violence to be, in short, disturbing. I didn't feel like the movie said much to me — I felt it was awkwardly paced and trying to hard too be symbolic.

Wallace argues that the disturbing nature of the movie is what makes it so great. Lynch doesn't vilify Frank Booth. He gets the audience to see the sexual depravity through a naive, young man's (Jeffrey's) eyes, and then Lynch shows that this young man is also capable of this depravity and violence. And since Jeffrey is the main "eyes" of the film, this means the audience is implicitly capable of this depravity and violence.

Wallace is particularly focused on his own emotional involvement with Jeffrey's participation in sexual battery and in the scene where Frank Booth sits in the front seat of the car, turns towards the camera (AKA Jeffrey AKA the audience) and says "You're just like me." There is much more analysis in Wallace's essay, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

Wallace argues that the disturbing nature of the film goes against the typical Western narrative of "bad" bubbling up from underneath some dark dank orifice and "good" rising to the occasion to defeat it. He's saying "bad" and "good" work in tandem in the film, even after (spoiler alert) Frank Booth is shot in the head and Jeffrey gets the (good) girl in the end.

So maybe the disturbing stuff I felt during the movie was more of a need to vilify and distance the evil from myself. I felt a similar depravity throughout Funny Games which, I think, was more depraved and more meta and less artistic than Blue Velvet. I wonder what Wallace would have thought of that movie.

In the end, I think it comes down to what you experienced during the art. I'm very interested in the experience of art and what people like and why and why people continue to go see certain types of movies (books/plays/etc.) and not other types of movies (books/plays/etc.). Kanye West, at one time or another, more or less yelled out "Well, did you like the song or not?!" (Which, I think, is [justifiably] every artist's basic response to professional critics.)

You can judge the effectiveness (and maybe even the "goodness") of a piece of art based solely on your emotional/visceral experience. But be reminded that intellectualism is also part of what it means to be human — this is why Maya Angelou must constantly remind herself that she is capable of doing anything that any human does. She must tell herself this because she doesn't naturally feel this (but she knows it).

What I mean is that you might think a movie is trash, which is fine. But then if you read about the movie and see what other people got out of it... it complicates things. And maybe it changes the way you respond to art. And I suppose this is why professional critics exist — to give the intellectual side of the art, however pompous and ineffectual that is (compared to the art itself) in order to deepen the experience of the art.

I'm an artist and a critic myself and I've been wondering for years what role critics play in everything and why criticism is needed. And I didn't know it when I started writing this post, but I think I just figured out a little answer to that.

1 comment:

  1. That point of Angelou's is indeed an excellent one, and something I'm always reminding myself of, though I find that really few other people believe it the way I do. Because people don't want to believe they're capable of the things that they are. It's not just a defense mechanism, it's a challenge to their very conception of humanity and of reality.

    As for Blue Velvet, you're reaction is interesting too, because I spent much of Blue Velvet annoyed at how little it disturbed me given the hype. I went into the movie with the sort of things DFW wrote about it already in my mind, as the conventional wisdom about it 25 or so years on, and just found that instead the whole thing came across as camp. I was so distanced from it that the violence actually didn't affect me the slightest, and the very things that were I think important about it at the time have themselves been drowned in cliche.

    It's not simply that it was "bad" art, or that I didn't like it, but that I was incapable of experiencing it without a kind of intellectual mediation that ruined my ability to even take it for what it was. I had expectations.

    This is not at all to say that Moff's Law is wrong - quite the opposite. You're absolutely right about the role of criticism, and moreover I agree that creating criticism is itself an important and often fun way of engaging with art. It's more to just say that disaffection is another thing that people do.

    (And since you mention Funny Games, I imagine that movie was made for people like me, because as was mentioned, artists are, almost inherently, people who would would rather be hated than ignored.)