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I went and saw The Constant Gardener today. Summing up the film doesn't do justice to the experience of watching it, but I'll do it anyway: it's about the quiet, unambitious man, Justin (Ralph Fiennes), who after the death of his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and friend, Arnold (Hubert Koundé), begins down a path of unraveling the details leading up and beyond that event. It's a mystery set in Kenya, with a backdrop conversation about the aid crisis in the country and the responsibility of First World Countries, and also about trust between lovers. It's directed by Fernando Meirelles, whose previous film was City of God, which I never saw, but always wanted to, and which I shall, now. The Constant Gardener is a beautiful, taunt piece for the most part, with fine performances, but more than this, it's a culturally important film.

It's time to stop being nice about this. We're about one week from the release of King Kong, made for something around the two hundred and eighty million dollar price tag, and it's time to address the misdirection of our talents and abilities as artists and, from an audience point of view, what kind of artists we want. There is absolutely nothing that King Kong can do to justify its price tag. Nothing. I'm saying that right now before I've seen it. Nothing. Not one fucking thing will justify that movie. It's appalling. Superman, made for something over three hundred million, is the same kind of shit. But it's more than just this cost, it's the waste of the talent involved. Jackson is an intelligent director who can make good films, but he wastes his time making these films that are, essentially, cocoons of isolation for us wealthy First World people to fall into. These are films that entertain, and that is fine, and I am not, in any position, claiming that it is wrong to make them... but, at the same time, they are not as culturally important as a film like The Constant Gardener. This is not a question of skill, of ability, or of the end product. The Constant Gardener is not a perfect film, and will certainly not go down in my movies I must rewatch list. It's simply a good film, which is rare enough these days, but what makes it an important film is that it is engaging its audience in a dialogue about the world. It is not telling the audience that, for the next three hours, they should forget that they live in a world, that that they should cocoon themselves in this make believe bubble that aims to immerse you in a world where morals and situations you should be aware of will never exist. Gandalf fought the Balrog in two films and that spoke to what, culturally? Always carry a sword to stab demons?

There is not, as I said, anything wrong with this. Why should there be? I'm certainly not going to tell you that it's wrong to be entertained and, y'know, I like a lot of things that I can cocoon myself in. But. But. We have elevated being an artist (director, writer, whatever) to being culturally important because they cocoon us. The films that make huge amounts of money, that leave traces across our cultural psyche, have no conversation in them. Lord of the Rings does not aim to enter into a conversation about our culture. One could be laid over it, sure, but that's a different position to occupy, and you can read something into anything, if you try hard enough. Likewise, Harry Potter films, Star Wars, Sin City, whatever was big this year... none of them conversed with our culture. George Lucas emphatically denied he was doing it when it was bought up about Revenge of the Sith. Search the majority of what you saw and read and ask yourself how much aimed to give you a cocoon for a few hours, before you returned to your day to day life?

Now, ask yourself, how many films like The Constant Gardener, which used real world concerns to motivate its plot, which entwined these things into a conversation with the characters and outcome of the film, did you see?

There is, of course, a contradiction. No matter how much the film entered a conversation, I didn't run out of the theatre and sign up to do aid work. That's not my kind of deal. Likewise, I don't march in protests. I don't donate money to Greenpeace. I'm hardly a humanitarian, here, so it is, in a very open and easy way, to dismiss my opinion because I do not go out and bang drums and whatnot. But, against this, I believe--believe--that art is a powerful influence on the social consciousness of our society. Art can change things. Writing, in particular, is a dangerous medium, because it reaches right into you and twists your consciousness. Those conservatives who go around trying to ban books are right: books contain ideas that can change you and if you don't want people getting that sickness, then you stop them from reading it. That these conservatives spend their time on J.K. Rowling just goes to prove that wanting to ban books means you're poorly read. My point, however, is this: I might not protest, I might not donate, I might not sign up to go and build fucking huts, but when I sit down to write, the majority of the work that comes from me aims to enter into a conversation with you. I do not want to cocoon you. I do not want to immerse you. I want to probe, to stick, to stab and challenge. I will not be passive. This is how I do the things that I view important and, if that means ending up unpublishable, isolated, fucked off at the end of the world and read by two people, then so fucking be it.

But we, the First World People who can read and write and who have rights and more of an ability to change the way the world is, we want to cocoon ourselves. We feed our kids, our students, our society--we feed them bubbles to go into and be immersed. We elevate the artists who do this for us, where we can cocoon ourselves in their lives, while we leave those who do not in quiet dusty corners, their conversations with ten, instead of ten thousand. And on a scale system, a pure scale system of measuring worth, a system that speaks of our morals and what we hope to achieve in our society, this is wrong. No maybes, no, oh, but what about Veronica Mars, Ben,* no oughta woulda shoulda whatever. Three hundred million dollars on Superman is stupid and insulting and wrong. Three hundred million dollars on a film that explores the misuse of Third World Countries by corporations in the First World, well, that's insulting too, but it's insulting for different reasons, because that amount of money on a film is absolutely obscene when there is, y'know, an AIDS plague in Africa and your three hundred million dollar film uses that as part of the plot, when it could have made it for much less and kicked that money to useful things, like medicine.

But that's another post.

EDIT: As always, I write the blog posts with the idea in the start of my head and let it go from there. It's just all a fall out fromt he head and, maybe a few hours later, I agree with bits, regret bits, like it all, all sorts. But the result of this is that, naturally, things get over simplified and things should be added and, in case you don't read the comments, here's one I think I ought to have had that rozk pointed out:

"'Constant Gardener' feints at significance, but, because it is a Hollywood movie, ends up oversimplifying issues around generic drugs, the epidemic and Africa in a way which is far more culturally imperialist than anything Jackson does. It ends up saying things that the most corrupt envoys of Big Pharma will be happy with, and reinforcing denialist politicians like Thabo Mbeki. It may not mean to, but it does - it is still a good film, but it is highly problematic politically and should be watched with this in mind."

As I said, I'm not in favour of stopping escapism films (or, you know, cocooning yourself), but benpayne puts it in succinct terms:

"Escapism, to me, is a matter of context... if someone, to take an extreme example, is an aid worker working in Bagdad, I don't have a problem with them going home and watching some mindless escapism. In less extreme terms, everyone's entitled to some escapism. The problem is those people who don't also engage with real world issues.

So I guess I think we need both, but you're right in promoting the latter, because it's in the most danger or extinction."




* And Veronica Mars is shit. It has a ridiculous voice over. It has dumb ass flash backs where her dead friend says appalling dialogue like, "I have a secret, Veronica Mars." It has a ridiculous idea of class systems--Veronica is lower middle class like the world is flat. Her date rape experience that ends with her waking up in bed after being drugged, and then picking up her clean, unwrinkled and very white underwear, is idiotic. It has a stupid motorcycle gang. Sorry, the motorcycle gang. But most of all, it had Paris Hilton in it. No show that uses Paris Hilton is worth my time. Ever.

Comments

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bodhichitta0
Dec. 8th, 2005 11:57 am (UTC)
I completely agree on the cost of movies. It's just wrong. I have no plans to see King Kong in the forseeable future. It sounds like "Constant Gardener" does the same sort of thing "Hotel Rwanda" did. I'm not entirely certain everyone who saw "Hotel Rwanda" didn't already know what happened but I remain hopeful that maybe a few people had some epiphanies.

That being said, I am very guilty of wanting to be entertained by escapism. Bury my head in the sand. I do give money and write letters and I'm not exactly sure yet of what kind of conversation my work has about it. That's all muddled up for me. But I agree that art is powerful. And that powerful and commercial don't always mix.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:54 pm (UTC)
nah, i didn't see hotel rwanda. not sure why. i did hear it gave a very glossy sheen to what happened, however--but as i say in the comments further down, i'd rather that than more inward turning worlds.
rozk
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:28 pm (UTC)
The trouble with this is that it oversimplifies in a number of bizarre ways. I note, for example, your assumption that, in those parts of the third world where people have occasional access to cinemas, big screen escapism is not crucial to the endurance of existence. I know for a fact - from e.g. anthropologist friends who spent time with tribal people in Papua New Guinea - that not only are Hollywood movies and trash TV, Xena for example, a significant part of the village week, but that they are the one place from which those people get values other than the vicious Pentecostalist nonsense which has largely replaced their original culture.

We could all give up all our luxuries and donate our money to the poor, but we do not in fact do this. Until we do, and this would involve not using money talking to each other on line, beating ourselves up about watching Hollywood movies is just straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

'Constant Gardener' feints at significance, but, because it is a Hollywood movie, ends up oversimplifying issues around generic drugs, the epidemic and Africa in a way which is far more culturally imperialist than anything Jackson does. It ends up saying things that the most corrupt envoys of Big Pharma will be happy with, and reinforcing denialist politicians like Thabo Mbeki. It may not mean to, but it does - it is still a good film, but it is highly problematic politically and should be watched with this in mind.

And I am sorry you don't like 'Veronica Mars' and some of the points you make are of course valid. However, a strong case can be made for it formally as a TV series which plays with the tropes of teen movie and detection. Also, reductive plot comments and describing things as 'shit'?
Probably not helpful in persuading people who don't agree with you.
lokilokust
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:35 pm (UTC)
' Also, reductive plot comments and describing things as 'shit'?
Probably not helpful in persuading people who don't agree with you.'
.
i didn't get that was trying to convince anyone, simply stating his own feelings on the subject.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:57 pm (UTC)
i didn't get that was trying to convince anyone, simply stating his own feelings on the subject.

i was, and it's cool you saw it that way, but the other point's valid, too.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC)
The trouble with this is that it oversimplifies in a number of bizarre ways. I note, for example, your assumption that, in those parts of the third world where people have occasional access to cinemas, big screen escapism is not crucial to the endurance of existence.

sure, but i wasn't looking at it from that point of view. in fact, i rather reduce the whole third world to being nothing but a charity case in the post, which isn't right at all. but i was interested in the way we weight the importance placed on escapism here, so i was running with that, which of course meant a whole lot got lost and over simplified. (and another one i do in the whole post is the idea of escapism bad, non-escapism good, which wasn't much my intent, but i just like to let the blog post go and see where it ends. occasionally it's more interesting, occasionally not.)

We could all give up all our luxuries and donate our money to the poor, but we do not in fact do this.

that's not really what i'm suggesting, either. and we don't, and it wouldn't be much helpful. but it'd be cool if the idea of having a conversation with the world in film was given more importance.

'Constant Gardener' feints at significance, but, because it is a Hollywood movie, ends up oversimplifying issues around generic drugs, the epidemic and Africa in a way which is far more culturally imperialist than anything Jackson does.

yeah, but film does simply its drug issues, but that's kind of a given with narratives. i get the culturally imperialist thing, too, but i tend to think if you place something like lord of the rings against this, you end up with a series of films that were unable to move outside themselves. they were, i think, very stuck inside themselves, and became a set of inward looking worlds. whereas constant gardener, for all it does over simplify, for the ways it doesn't explore the AIDS epidemic, it is at least outward looking and isn't stuck within itself. even though at the end it offers no real amazing thoughts on the subject, i still value that it attempted that, more than the inward turned world.

It may not mean to, but it does - it is still a good film, but it is highly problematic politically and should be watched with this in mind.

very true. i probably should've said it in the post.

Also, reductive plot comments and describing things as 'shit'? Probably not helpful in persuading people who don't agree with you.

nope, probably won't.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:56 pm (UTC)
er.

any large typos in there, my fault. sorry.
angriest
Dec. 8th, 2005 03:15 pm (UTC)
I've got to say, I've got a pretty broad taste in television and thus far Veronica Mars isn't impressing me at all.
I think the biggest problem is that so many people told me it was brilliant before I watched it, and then when I did it just seemed generic, poorly written and more than a trifle dull.
lokilokust
Dec. 8th, 2005 12:36 pm (UTC)
interesting, and something i would tend to agree with.
(more later when i'm home!)
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:04 pm (UTC)
cool.
frogworth
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:27 pm (UTC)
All I wish to say is: And you were thinking of stopping your LiveJournal?!?
Thanks sir. Please don't go.

One day I will watch some Veronica Mars and decide whether you are right or the others are right. And will discover thence whether being a huge Buffy/Angel fan does imply liking VM or not.
Probably not so much.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 09:05 pm (UTC)
And you were thinking of stopping your LiveJournal?!?

i can't imagine my messy, off the top of my head rants would be missed overly. but, that said, i always tend to lose one or two people off my friends list round this time. local scene spec fic authors, mostly.

you know, i like buffy and angel, but veronica mars is just plays too much off it. it's stale in that way. but the biggest problem is that it's very teenagerish and not very well written.
sonanova
Dec. 8th, 2005 05:20 pm (UTC)
At the beginning of October, after a particularily horrid viewing of yet another Hollywood hyped film, I vowed not to set foot into a movie theater until after January first.

Sadly, it hasn't been hard for me to keep this promise. Nearly three months and I don't feel like I missed a thing.

Of course, going back to Chicago for the holidays may spur me to one of the art houses, but I should be able to hold out until the first.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 09:06 pm (UTC)
you know, before this film, i hadn't seen one in a cinema since the end of september. i like films (i even like the communal aspect of going to the cinema), but man, so wasn't difficult not to go. i only really went today cause i just wanted to get out.
shawn_scarber
Dec. 8th, 2005 05:38 pm (UTC)
Great post, but...
Man, there are so many things I'd like to converse with you on in this post. I just don't have the time to lay it all out. But here are a few things to think about and I'll try to expand on them soon or in reply. Ideology kills art. Once you start trying to engage people ideologically through film you no longer have art but propaganda--and most people won't pay money to be preached at unless the preacher is saying what they want to hear (think Ayn Rand). Three billion is justifiable for a film because the investors know it's pretty much a sure thing and they'll earn that money plus some back. Sending three billion to Africa doesn't offer high enough returns--oh, yes, that sounds evil, but that's just the way it is. The three billion will be recovered from all the people who buy tickets and movie merchandise, but money spent on poor people in poor countries doesn't offer any incentive for profit. Rationally, you just can't compare what a business spends on a business venture with what charity spends on a charitable venture. They're two different worlds. I do agree that we as artist have a responsibility to engage the human spirit and shed as much light as possible on the injustices of the world and the way we treat each other. Maybe instead of art promoting ideology it would be better to create art that promotes civility, and I don't mean false Victorian civility, but the type of true caring where humans are willing to put the needs of others before their own and discover the rewards of the heart given to those who do. I believe--and this might seem a bit naive--humans who have that type of understanding will learn to empathize with those outside their cocoon.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 09:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post, but...
Ideology kills art. Once you start trying to engage people ideologically through film you no longer have art but propaganda--and most people won't pay money to be preached at unless the preacher is saying what they want to hear (think Ayn Rand).

nah, i so don't agree with that at all. ideology makes our best art, i think. it doesn't have to be propaganda, though if you listen to george orwell, all art was, in a form, because it was trying to make you feel, think, react to something. but an ideological piece of art doesn't have to be like ayn rand (which i'll return to in a moment). it really doesn't have to shove thoughts down throats, or even make people uncomfortable. these things can be worked into the tapestry of a work of art, sifted through the background. DARKNESS AT NOON, for example, is a novel with a hugely strong ideology in the background, but since koestler remains with the characters, it is not jammed down your throat. sure, you could hate the book and everything it stands for with a passion, but is that such a bad thing?

back to rand, though. rand's book is still in print, still read, still found. so are BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SATANIC VERSES, and so on and so forth.

Three billion is justifiable for a film because the investors know it's pretty much a sure thing and they'll earn that money plus some back.

sure, on paper it might be, but you reckon it's justifiable morally?

i agree that charity and business are different worlds, but not hugely. charity is a business, after all. but more than that is, i think, that we allow different codes of conduct to be applied to each and justify it under different rules. which is fair enough, i suppose, but even when you ignore the crisis of the world, i can walk into my local shopping centre and find people with health care cards who are buying medication cheap cause they can't afford it... and they will probably go see SUPERMAN, which cost over three million. i dunno, man, you're right it's maybe not comparable, but it's not justifiable, either, for me.

Maybe instead of art promoting ideology it would be better to create art that promotes civility

you reckon? that pretty much justifies big fantasy, then ;) but i dunno, it strikes me as being simple--and, as with the question of big fantasy, civil to what? race, economics, these things are much in that genre. they are often civil to people, i guess, which is fine.
bodhichitta0
Dec. 8th, 2005 10:01 pm (UTC)
I hate Ayn Rand.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 10:04 pm (UTC)
lot of people do.
bodhichitta0
Dec. 8th, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC)
Did I mention she makes me want to puke?
shawn_scarber
Dec. 8th, 2005 10:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post, but...
The reason I say that ideology kills art is that most ideologist who go about creating an ideological piece of art do end up writing propaganda precisely because they do take such a one sided approach and don't thoroughly explore the argument; I grossly generalized with the statement that ideology kills art. More precisely, most people with an ideological slant attempt to create art, but fail to do so and only really create propaganda.

Now the question of 'is it moral?' That 3 billion is a number that could only exist for the purpose of those films. It's not 3 billion that could exist for any other reason. What you're doing is assigning a Value (in here I mean a subjective cultural and moral Value) to that dollar amount after the money was spent and assuming that the dollar amount could have just as easily come into existence to fight AIDS. You're looking at that dollar amount like it's a piece of the pie, when there is no pie. If that 3 billion not been spent on that film it would have been spent on some other money earning venture because that's what the people who owned that money chose. So is it moral for a collection of individuals to decide what to do with their money? Yes, it is, according to our cultural concept of morality. Is it the right thing to do with that money? Well, if every investor stopped investing and gave their money to charities instead, yes there would be a momentary influx of support for thousands of various charitable causes that need help. But eventually our economy would grind to a halt and there would be no money for anyone. So yes, 3 billion spent on King Kong is economically and morally justified in its own sphere of existence because you can't really compare the money spent to make the film on money that could have been spent on some other possible reality.

And - it strikes me as being simple - well, it is, to a certain extent.
benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 10:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post, but...
More precisely, most people with an ideological slant attempt to create art, but fail to do so and only really create propaganda.

sure, it happens, but i think the work that is more interesting and lasting manages to do it without propaganda--but then, even the propaganda work still sticks round. i mean, think of ANIMAL FARM. it's a piece of propganda, really, but a lot of people also think of it as art. but i think maybe we're just going round in circles on it, myself. i see your point, but i also see how a lot of examples prove the opposite.

you've a point on the three hundred million for king kong. but, me, i still think the cost is too much.
ex_benpayne119
Dec. 8th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)
Escapism, to me, is a matter of context... if someone, to take an extreme example, is an aid worker working in Bagdad, I don't have a problem with them going home and watching some mindless escapism. In less extreme terms, everyone's entitled to some escapism. The problem is those people who don't also engage with real world issues.

So I guess I think we need both, but you're right in promoting the latter, because it's in the most danger or extinction.

You're right too, to suggest that the amount of money spent on Hollywood movies is obscene. Sarah Mclaughlan made a film clip called "World on Fire" which listed all the things that could be paid for in the third world for the cost of an average music video clip. It was truly disturbing.

I like Veronica Mars, so far. Not love, but like. We'll see how it goes. Paris Hilton isn't in it as much as the adds suggest, thankfully.

benpeek
Dec. 8th, 2005 09:25 pm (UTC)
So I guess I think we need both, but you're right in promoting the latter, because it's in the most danger or extinction.

yeah, i liked that, and added it to the original.

any paris hilton is too much paris hilton in my mind.
ataxi
Dec. 9th, 2005 12:11 am (UTC)
"There is absolutely nothing that King Kong can do to justify its price tag. Nothing. I'm saying that right now before I've seen it. Nothing."

The justification is the return on investment. The problem is the moral paradigm which provides that justification. Your problem is that your morality differs from that of the movie execs; or rather your happy luck is that your morality differs from that of the movie execs.

As a writer your worldview may have to interact with the movie investors' worldview at some point. Same goes for directors, actors, and crew. I wonder how Peter Jackson feels about working on such financially bloated projects? He says he feels great.

benpeek
Dec. 9th, 2005 12:23 am (UTC)

my worldview has to interact on a level where i can live with it, but i'm sure the interaction won't happen much, if at all. and you are, perhaps, right, with my morals being different fromt hose of big business movie execs. i'm good with this, however.
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