Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The beginning of art

In Blockbuster a few nights ago, happened to be browsing along in the same aisle as another customer searching the shelves for a movie he'd once seen starring John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino.

Customer was a young guy, early 20s, dark curly hair, a goatee and long sideburns, an ear ring, black leather jacket and jeans. Without reading the labels on his clothes or having a finer eye for fashion than I do, I couldn't place him by looking at him. Nothing he was wearing seemed to mark him as coming from one background or another. He could have been a grad student, he could have been a mechanic, although his habits of speech were a little coarse and loud, not obnoxiously so, just more like someone used to holding conversations over the thrum of machinery or the pounding of hammers and not in a shared office with a couple of English lit types and a doctoral candidate in Women's Studies.

What I'm saying is that if I had to put money on it, I'd bet that he was a working class kid with a high school education and a blue collar job and not the son of a couple of lawyers majoring in film studies at Bard across the river.

But he was still in his own way an aesthete and a scholar.

There was a young woman with him, a pal, I think, not a girlfriend. Also unpeggable. He was explaining to her why the two movies he'd wanted to rent, and which weren't on the shelves, Casino and Heat were great movies. The explanation was simple. De Niro.

And, in the case of Heat, also Pacino.

Another good one, he told her, and now he wanted to check to see if that one was in, was Carlito's Way. Pacino again, but also John Leguizamo.

The way it is with most people, they latch onto a favorite movie star for the star's screen persona. Somehow the kind of character the star usually plays strikes a chord. The character's an idealized "me," the person they would be if...or the character embodies an erotic or romantic dream, the love they would earn if...

That's how it might have started out with this guy. I can see how he might have been drawn to De Niro and Pacino and Leguizamo because they reminded him of him. Short, dark, ethnic guys, rougher around the edges than other movie stars. They must have struck him at first as transcendent versions of himself.

He even looked a bit like Leguizamo.

But his admiration for them had grown way beyond simple identification.

He admired them for what they could do.

At some point it had dawned on him that movie acting required more than looking and sounding good on film. It took talent and skill and his favorites had more of that than most other movie actors. He started asking himself why that was so, and how that was so. How did they do that? What exactly were they doing to achieve the effects they achieved?

His conversation with the girl was too brief and too often interrupted by one or the other of them picking up a DVD from the shelf that had caught their eye, so I couldn't tell just how deeply or completely he'd answered those questions for himself. But what I overheard suggested the answers he had come up with were pretty good so far. The girl apparently thought so too. She was hanging on his words and had the thoughtful, trustful expression of someone who knew her friend knew what he was talking about. Probably he'd introduced her to movies she'd never heard of before and she'd liked them.

It was also clear that asking those questions had forced him to ask other questions, about how movies are made, about what particular movies are meant to be, the kinds of stories they're trying to tell, the different ways those stories are told, and how actors and their artistic choices fit in with all that.

He knew that good acting wasn't a matter of portraying an interesting character. It was a matter of portraying that character in a way that was right for the story the character was part of and the movie the actor was acting in.

Watching movies had taught him how to appreciate several different arts---acting, directing, writing, photography. He didn't have a chance to get into it, but for all I know he had a lot of interesting things to say about costume design too.

But pop art is the path most people follow to the higher arts.

A young air guitarist listening to his favorite band hears something, a chord, a riff, a solo, that strikes him as different from anything he's heard before, either better or worse, and he asks himself, How did that happen? How did they do that so well? How did they make that mistake? And before long he's not a rock and roll star wannabe, he's a musician.

A junior high school student borrows her parents' video camera intending to make her own episode of Veronica Mars with her friends and suddenly something stumps her. She can't get the angle she needs for a shot. She realizes the mystery her Veronica's solving makes no sense. She points the camera at her friend playing Veronica's dad and thinks, He needs to be bald! She points it at her friend playing Veronica and thinks, She needs to be...different.

She puts away the camera for the night and turns on the TV and while she's watching the real show, it strikes her. The solution. And suddenly she's not a kid playing with a camera, she's cinematographer or a screenwriter or a make-up artist...or all of those because she's a director.

Other kids read comic books, they watch TV, they go to movies, they attend concerts, they sing along to the songs on their iPods, and they don't become artists themselves, but they know.

They understand that some drawings, some TV shows, some movies, some songs are better than others not because they themselves happen to like them better but because they are done well. They are made better.

There's skill, there's talent, there's intelligence, there's discipline, there's work involved. There's intelligence. Decisions have to be made, choices. And there are right ones and more right ones and perfect ones and really, really, really bad ones.

They learn that there's such a thing as art.

And they're delighted. Continually.

A clerk had been helping the guy try to find the movie starring Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino. The clerk came back from the front counter carrying a big red-covered movie guide folded open so that the page with Leguizamo's credits was alongside the page with Sorvino's. The only movie the two of them had made together, the clerk said, appeared to be Summer of Sam.

Nah, said the guy, with the air of someone who knew that movie, knew all Spike Lee's movies, in fact, liked them ok but wasn't bowled over by any of them. The movie he was looking for had bowled him over. Then, as if on cue, he found it on the shelf himself.

It was called Spun. And it wasn't Mira Sorvino, it was Mena Suvari. I get those two confused all the time, he told the clerk, and not just because of the names.

The clerk had never heard of Suvari. (Neither had I.) The guy knew her work well, though. I'm not surprised.

There's another movie, he said to the clerk, a newer one. It's got Sean Penn in it, and Anthony Hopkins.

The clerk knew this one right away.

All the King's Men?

That's it, said the guy excitedly.

Actors he knows. Titles? Not so much.


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