A Thought on Art and Entertainment

The last two movies I saw were Captain America: Civil War and The Lobster. If you were to ask me to describe the movies, I would say that Captain America: Civil War is a movie that I largely forgot upon exiting the theatre but would agree to see it again if asked. The Lobster is a movie that I am still processing and thinking about for days, but have very little desire to see it again.

The Lobster is the English language debut film by Greek auteur Yorgos Lathimos. The world of the movie is one where people are required to be in romantic couples as soon as they turn 18. There are no alternatives. Colin Farrell plays a sad-sack architecture professor named David. His wife leaves him for another man. Ruefully but dutifully he packs himself into a bus with his dog and heads to the Hotel. At the Hotel, we learn that guests have 45 days to find a mate. You can be heterosexual or homosexual. The bisexual option has been cancelled because of complications. Guests who fail to find a mate in the requisite amount of time are turned into animals. We learn that the dog traveling with David is his brother. David chooses to become a lobster because they live to be over 100 and are blue-blooded like aristocrats and he likes the sea. David thinks this is a good idea until another guests reminds him of the likelihood of being boiled alive and served with butter.

Another iron-clad rule of the universe in The Lobster is that people have a defining characteristic and couples need to have an identical defining characteristic. The characteristic can be neutral or positive but the overwhelming majority choose a negative characteristic. David has back-pain and his short sighted. Another guest at the hotel suffers from chronic and unexpected nosebleeds.

The only dissenters are a renegade group known as the Loners who live in the woods. Loners are hunted and captured by guests at the Hotel. Bagging a Loner gets a hotel guest an extra day to find a mate. The Loners have their own adamant rules against anything that could lead to human affection including an iron-clad rule of only listening to electronic music on discmen because electronic music is the only music suitable for solo dancing. This leads to what might be one of the best visual gags ever made on silent discos.

Yorgos Lathimos creates a total and complete world to serve his movie. The film is shot in muted and cold colors. Even the bright sundresses that women are required to wear at the hotels look cold and unappealing. The dialogue is purposefully delivered in a flat affectation and always sounds like formal yet desperate first-date talk. Even married couples living in the City can’t seem to get over their formal dialogue. Everyone wears business clothing at all times.

The Lobster raises deep questions about society’s need to make everyone feel compelled to be in a romantic relationship by taking the compelling to a natural conclusion of making it law with consequences. There are also deep questions on the notions of sincerity. No one is allowed to fake a relationship in The Lobster. You have to have a sincere relationship or be turned into an animal. Despite the oppressiveness of both official society and the strong rejection by the Loners, attraction cannot be stopped. David’s wife leaves him for a man she loves and is attracted to more. The Loners flirt with each other despite the significant and painful punishments that they can be subjected to if caught. You would think that in a universe where not being in a couple had serious consequences, people would find ways to fake it.

The complete and bleak worldview of The Lobster is what makes the film so compelling and successful as a piece of art but also makes it hard to watch multiple times. There are funny side gags like seeing random animals stroll on and off screen (presumably former humans). But overall the film is dark, uncomfortable, and largely filled with unsympathetic characters.

Captain America‘s plot does not leave men thinking about the nature of love or anything else for days except that it is seemingly setting up a trillion more franchise movies filled with CGI and spectacle. But it was overall more entertaining and Tony Stark at his most stubborn and arrogant is probably better company than the characters in The Lobster – even if The Lobster‘s characters were representing human desperation at its worst.

What is a movie, TV show, book, painting, etc. that you recognized as a great work of art but did not want to see again? What is a piece of fluff that left your head as soon as it was finished but you could watch again?

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43 thoughts on “A Thought on Art and Entertainment

  1. I’m dating myself (though I was two years younger than what was legally required to see it. I sneaked in with a group of older friends)

    Apocalypse Now

    When the lights were turned on at the end, the threatre was eerily silent. No one in a crowd of a couple hundreds wanted to be the first to move out.

    Afterwards, over hamburgers, one of my friends said he wanted to kill himself at that moment.

    It is an absolute masterpiece. And I can’t bear the idea of seeing it again

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  2. On a similar note, I find Madame Buttefly so heartbreakingly sad I cannot see it, hear it, or watch derivative works like M. Butterfly

    Madame Buterfly was the first opera I saw, aged 14.

    I wonder about this weird allergy I have. Seeing posters of that opera wets my eyes.

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  3. Most of the latter works of Thomas Hardy are like this. Very beautifully written but so tragic and sad that you don’t want to go through them again.

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  4. There’s a perennial plan used in SF:
    Imagine the world if one or two fundamental things changed.
    Write a story set in that world.

    That’s exactly what The Lobster is, with the changes being what Saul describes. Unfortunately, it was at least 30 minutes too long; after the first hour or so it had said everything it had to say, and since none of the characters were interesting or sympathetic, I didn’t care what happened to them; I was just hoping for it to end soon. And then the ending was a complete rip-off of the last episode of The Sopranos.

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    • There’s a perennial plan used in SF:
      Imagine the world if one or two fundamental things changed.
      Write a story set in that world.

      That’s not really a ‘plan’, that’s literally the definition of SF. Although sometimes the ‘fundamental change’ is that it’s the future and, consequently, a lot of other things have changed.

      That said…this is the sort of SF that’s really dumb. I know almost nothing about this film, but here are the things that have actually changed, based on the description given:

      1) We can turn people into animals.
      2) We can tell when people are legitimately in a relationship.
      (We’re not quite sure how either of those work, but soft sci-fi is allowed to just handwave that, so whatever.)

      The first thing…does not seem to be explored in any useful sense. Can people be turned back? Can normal animals be turned into humans? In a world where people can be turned into animals, wouldn’t we mark them in some manner as to not eat them? SF is supposed to *explore* the effects of the change.

      Also, doesn’t it not seem flatly insane to use this as punishment?…and it’s at that point that the story goes off the rails, because of the *nonsensical* change, which isn’t some sort of technological advancement, that we’re forced to accept:

      People are required to be in, and stay in, relationships, and punished with a functional death penalty if not.

      This…is not how any human society has ever been set up. This does not appear to be any sort of side effect of the two technological advances listed…it *couldn’t* work without #2, but ‘requiring relationships on penalty of death’ hardly seems any sort of logical outcome to it. (There are interesting stories to explore with a ‘relationship measurer’…in addition to it removing all bogus relationships, what about someone who can’t ever seem to get, assuming a scale of 1-10, above a 3 or so? So everyone assumes they’re faking it, or not putting in as much effort, but in reality that’s just as high as they go…etc, etc, and I literally just thought of that *while* typing this post, surely, a SF writer in such a universe could think of more.)

      So the movie is just an allegory. It’s what you get when you have an allegory, and then try to make sci-fi around it….except it’s a pretty strange outcome. If the allegory is about ‘People are forced to find relationships’, why are people being turned into animals? What the hell does that have to do with anything?

      I’m not the greatest storyteller in the world, but you give me a device that can tell if people are legitimately in a relationship, and tell me to create a universe where society *requires* relationships…I have no idea why I’d include ‘turning people into animals’ in it.

      …although I’m not even sure that is actually needed to get across the message in the film, apparently. You want to get across the message ‘attraction can’t be stopped’, you simply make the movie ‘GATTACA for dating’, where everyone is matched up with their perfect match…and it doesn’t quite work right. There. Done. Not only do you not want to turn people into animals, the story probably works better if you *can’t* tell if everyone is faking it, and the implication is a lot of people are sorta subconsciously faking it, because this is their ‘perfect match’.

      So the premise here, as it often is, is actually: ‘What if people made completely insane laws that no humans would ever do, without any justification of *why* those laws would exist?’

      I’m not quite sure what to make of these weird moralistic ‘people are completely stupid in this universe’ tales that sci-fi often turns into. The entire *premise* of SF is to make changes, and then explain the changes in society, not to be a handwave justification *for* changes in society.

      The Purge was much the same way…and it wasn’t even technically sci-fi! At least the Hunger Games attempted to justify what was going on.

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      • As far as I can tell, you can’t turn back once you are an animal. The Manager of the Hotel tells David not to despair turning into an animal because it means another chance to find love/mate.

        Humans seem to be able to tell or guess which animals were former relatives. The movie opens with a woman driving into a field a shooting a donkey at point blank range. Another guy talks about how is mom turned into a wolf and he would visit her at the zoo. He jumped into the encolsure and was mauled by the wolves except for one or two. He guesses that one of the wolves who held back was his mother and her new mate.

        I think Tod hits on the sadism element well. The film maker wanted to hit the question of enjoyment and whether we can enjoy anything along with socities relentless push on coupling.

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      • Also, as we saw with Margaret Atwood, and to some extent the early work of J.K. Rowling, sometimes creators get an idea that carries their work into a genre that they are unfamiliar with. Then, not being intimately familiar with the conventions of that genre, they either painstakingly work out everything from first principles, or, conversely, fail to follow up on things that should be obvious.

        Like some people think their comedy is Pythonic just because they have odd wordplay and an absurdist ethic, not realizing the deep veins of allusion, the classical techniques, and shout-outs to (then) current events and fashion – just because the originals made it seem effortless, while it’s anything but.

        Creators who don’t fully realize that they are making SF don’t fully grok the process, don’t know the expectations – so you get ideas (each of which might, individually, be brilliantly SFnal) thrown willy-nilly into a melange which just doesn’t work. And that’s the fundamental lesson of the creative process within SF – regardless of the brilliance of your conceit, if the society doesn’t function given the attributes of the people you put in it, it’s bad SF full stop.

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        • I think Yannos was making his movie for an audience that is generally not SF but art house friendly. As such they were willing to accept the rules but wanted to see the human relationships and consequences

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          • Yannos was making commentary on how modern Western society is obsessed with relationships. Adults not in relationships or who have never been a romantic relationship are seen as odd. He is also commenting on how people get reduced to algorithms in the age of on-line dating, the obsession with finding the perfect match rather than good enough. Note, I’m getting this from reviews rather than my watching of the movie.

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          • I get that there’s a fine line between allegory, magical realism, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. It’s not even a pure dividing line – it’s possible for a work to legitimately include tropes from more than one category. It’s possible for a work to be in more than one category.

            I dragged in Atwood for a reason. It’s possible for your work to cross that line without realizing it. It’s possible for your work to cross that line without your intending to, or even realizing that you did. Dante’s “Inferno” didn’t have to obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because he made his intentions clear and avoided feature creep. Niven and Pournelle’s “Inferno”, however, did have to obey it, because their world was (explicitly) SFnal while Dante’s (implicitly) wasn’t.

            Also, Death of the Author. “The Fifth Element” gives the impression of being one of the top SF films of all time, but reads like a twelve-year-old French boy’s fever dream. Besson doesn’t get a pass because it actually was (inspired by) a twelve-year-old French boy’s fever dream.

            Basically, it’s complicated.

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      • That’s not really a ‘plan’, that’s literally the definition of SF.

        There’s all sorts of things called SF. Those intended to explore specific extrapolations is a small subset, certainly much smaller than adventures stories In Space!

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        • I didn’t say anything about explore specific extrapolations in my definition.

          SF is literally just changing a few fundamental things from the ‘default’ setting. (As is fantasy and alternate history…they just change things in different ways.)

          It can then explore what those changes cause, or it can just use that as a setting to tell stories and sorta ignore the change. I.e, a time travel story can be used to explore the ramifications of introducing actual truth to history and religion, or it can be used to explore the ramifications of knowing what the future is going to hold (In either a fixed timeline or when that knowledge changes things), or it can be used to tell stories in which our heroes get to be cowboys in the old west, or it can be used to tell a modern day fish-out-of-water story with people from the future or past.

          The point is, to be classified as SF, there are a few fundamental changes.

          Now, some people might take issue with the word ‘few’ there, but even something like Star Trek is not that different than reality, setting-wise.

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  5. The play Caligula. It was mesmerizingly acted and had a clever conceit in that the roman togas were merged with Victorian era business attire. Caligula is a meditation on nihilism with the purported answer being absurdism and I found that disturbingly lopsided in favor of the former. I found it very thought provoking but would never want to see it again.

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    • Do you mean the Camus play?

      I have never seen it played, but I have a well read copy. I like Camus

      On second though, my teenager/young man know-it-all loved Camus and his idea that we are all alone, and we (each one of us) is all there is and all it will ever be, and that when we die, what we leave behind is worthless.

      It’s the same mid frame as that of the five-year old child that thinks candy existing before he was born is a complete waste.

      But I still find Caligula and The Stranger (they come together in my copy) cool reads. I’d love to see it played.

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      • Yes, precisely. It was a play based on the Camus work. The play version I saw was powerful but the playwright’s attempt to answer Camus’s Caligula was manifestly inadequate. The old master’s character simply blew away the newer additions that sought to answer him. Disturbing to say the least.

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  6. Leaving Las Vegas.
    Ugh. “Here. Watch a guy commit suicide for two hours! Bonus: he’s charismatic!”

    Pan’s Labyrinth.
    Here is a meditation on war. It’s got some fairies in it, old school, “tell your kids if they don’t listen to their parents, they’re going to die” fairies. The fairies aren’t the point, though. The point is about war. Well, monsters. It’s about monsters.

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  7. I have been slowly watching the episodes of the Decalogue and yes, it is exquisitly acted and directed and yes, it will leave you thinking for several days after, and yes, the emotional levels that it can take you to are often quite painful, and not something that one casually desires. So, I do want to see it again, but only if I mentally prepare myself and look forward to the pain.

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  8. I went and saw The Lobster last weekend, and for all that I loved about it, there was much that troubled me. And I’m not talking about the troubling world that it created, but the filmmaking itself.

    I think I went in as the film’s ideal target audience. Almost everything about it was wonderful: The world it created, the quirky humor, the deadpan dialogue, the cinematography, an allegory which is at once both obvious and hard to pin down what, precisely, it is an allegory for.

    And yet...

    The film was made with a kind of unrelenting and purposeful sadism that made me question what I felt about it afterwards.

    The movie reminded me of one of some alternative-world’s media that you read about in satire — some kind of not-that-far-off-future where the entertainment reveals the society’s rot. Like the TV shows-within-the-movie in Natural Born Killers, which acted as a vehicle for community that lived inside that fictional world to get together and celebrate sadism and cruelty. Except rather than make the vehicle a sitcom for the rubes, The Lobster makes it an art-house film for the high brow set. And rather than an unseen audience within the movie appreciating the sadism, it’s the actual people who go to see the movie and then rave about it to other consumers of high-brow cinema.

    I’m still trying to process what I think of a movie that does that.

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    • My reaction to the Lobster on facebook was “The Lobster was a film. Now time to process.” A friend from college told me that if I really wanted to punish myself, I should watch Dogtooth.

      Unrelenting sadism is a good observation. It reminds me of something Hanley said when I was discussing art v. entertainment with him. Artists are interested in pushing boundaries and making people think, possibly about uncomfortable things that we don’t really want to think about. Audiences (even highbrow ones) are not always into this. Most people just want to see the good guys defeat the bad guys and that is it.

      There were a lot of really funny moments in the Lobster but the unrelenting sadism of the movie also made you feel kind of bad for laughing at them and this might be the artist’s intent but it can kind of make me see why people dislike artists.

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      • It also brings up the constantly debated issue of whether artists should be held to the standards of conventional morality and behavior. Many of our most beloved artists were very difficult people to be around with a few exceptions like Andy Warhol or Keith Herring, whom seem to have been very kind men. Yet, if artists were not transgressive in their personality behavior than would they be capable of arts?

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        • It also brings up the constantly debated issue of whether artists should be held to the standards of conventional morality and behavior.

          I thought Woody Allen answered that one in Bullets Over Broadway. (A mobster helps fix a play, and seeing it being ruined by the awful actor that was cast so her boyfriend would back it, decides to murder her.)

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        • I’ve never understood this debate. Being an artist doesn’t give a license to be a jerk. Why should it? In the first place art isn’t always transgressive nor does it need to be. If people think being an artist gives them freedom to be an Ahole, then that is likely the reason they are an artist, just to be a jerk with the art as distant second. Seeing art as transgressive makes some people into suckers for anything that just spits at other people. Sure sometimes being transgressive leads somewhere, but plenty of other times it just leads into the bin.

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          • The question is who gets to decide what is and what is not jerkiness and unallowable. Was Mapplethorpe an asshole for publishing deeply homoerotic photographs at a time when homosexuality was still largely rejected by the American population or did he help normalize and defend homosexuality? Was Aristophanes a jerk for questioning the Athenian lust for war against Sparta?

            I generally lean on the side of the artist in this debate.

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            • The question is who gets to decide what is and what is not jerkiness and unallowable.

              Doesn’t everyone get to decide, according to whatever good or bad reasons they choose?

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                      • Oh yeah, anecdote time. I’m in a bar reading a book, and this cute boy notices and asks, “Is that a calculus book?”

                        I’m like, okay so someone is asking me about my math book. As a rule I never assume people are stupid, but nor do I assume they’ll know a lot about what I’m reading. So I’ll always try to give a good layperson’s summary. I say, “No, it’s optimization theory. Like…”

                        He jumps in, “Like for finance, portfolio stuff?”

                        “Nah. I mean, not only that. It’s just, you have a big set of variables and some constraints and you want to find the best set of values.”

                        So he goes, “Oh, you mean operations research.”

                        Heh.

                        “Yeah. That exactly.”

                        At this point he went from “cute boy” to “mega hawt cute boy.”

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            • People can make whatever art they wish. If people call them jerks for doing outrageous things that goes with the territory. Being an artist is not an excuse or an out. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make what they want, it just isn’t a reason why they aren’t a jerk. If you dont’ want to be outrageous or court opprobrium then don’t do that. If can’t handle that, then don’t do it. If your art is important enough to you then go for it and cope with the slings and arrows.

              For every Mapplethorpe, whose work was powerful, there were probably a hundred people whose work nobody cared much about then or now but reveled in treating people crappy based on being an artist.

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            • Producing homerotic art at time when most people were homophobic isn’t exactly what I was talking about. I was talking about much more basic transgressions that would come across as jerky at best under most ethical systems like abandoning your family to live on a tropical island and paint or relentlessly making fun of anybody seen as middle class.

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        • As we learned more about Michael Jordan’s personality and personal life (which he kept very guarded (no pun intended) during his professional career for business reasons), we learned what a grade-A asshole he was. He mercilessly taunted his opponents, punched his own teammates, and alienated damn near everyone he came into contact with. But much of what made him an insufferable fuck off the court was what made him transcendent on it.

          So would you extend the same latitude to athletes? Or not because they create something athletic instead of artistic?

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          • There is an actual related element to athletes and really anybody involved in the entertainment industry. I’m actually ambivalent on the issue of whether we should give license to artists to break conventional morality because it might be the source of their art.

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  9. “What is a movie, TV show, book, painting, etc. that you recognized as a great work of art but did not want to see again?”

    Schindler’s List is what immediately came to mind. Also, there was a documentary on the initial stages of the Iraq War (whose name escapes me at the moment) that I found powerful but which I can’t watch again, because it showed footage of kids who had been torn up by cluster munitions and shrapnel and shit, and I’m not normally one for crying but that made me weep when I saw it.

    “What is a piece of fluff that left your head as soon as it was finished but you could watch again?”

    Good question. As someone who always tries to dissect this stuff in the immediate aftermath, I’m kind of at a loss to think of something that would qualify. Maybe The Dark Crystal?

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  10. What is a movie, TV show, book, painting, etc. that you recognized as a great work of art but did not want to see again? What is a piece of fluff that left your head as soon as it was finished but you could watch again?

    For the first question, I might say “No Country for Old Men.” I tried rewatching and just couldn’t.

    For the second question, it’s harder. But I’d say the movie “Disclosure” with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. It’s a horrible movie for so many reasons and its premise, while not at all ludicrous, is so ludicrously played out that I can’t call it a good movie. Even its supposedly tantalizing scenes aren’t that tantalizing. and in fact they’re so tedious that I have to fast forward through them. Yet I enjoy rewatching it every once in a blue moon.

    ETA: This post is an example of your writing at its best. Thanks for writing it!

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  11. Saving Private Ryan and Life Is Beautiful for the first one.

    I’m never sure what’s fluff. I guess just to be sure to get most of the elements right I’ll say The Bourne Identity on the second. It’s definitely fluff and I’d definitely watch it right now if you wanted to. Only problem is it didn’t really leave my head; I could probably recite it for you. Ok, not quite. But I could probably just about list the first seven or eight scenes.

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