By Vivaan Shah
I will talk to you of Art,
For there is nothing else to talk about,
For there is nothing else…
Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride
On the omnibus of Art.
Burn gas, buggies and whip your sour cream of circumstance
And hope, and go ahead and sleep your bloody heads off.
Creation is, all else is not.
Creation is graham crackers;
Let it all crumble to feed the creator;
Feed him that he may be satisfied.
The Artist is, all others are not.
A canvas is a canvas or a painting.
A rock is a rock or a statue.
A sound is a sound or is music.
A preacher is a preacher, or an Artist.
Where are john, joe, jake, jim, jerk?
Dead, dead, dead…
They were not born before they were born,
They were not born…
Where are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ludwig?
Alive! Alive! Alive!
They were born!
Bring on the multitudes with a multitude of fishes:
Feed them with the fishes for liver oil to nourish
The Artist, stretch their skin upon an easel
To give him canvas, crush their bones into a paste that he might mold them.
Let them die,
And by their miserable deaths become
The clay within his hands that he might form an ashtray
Or an Ark.
Pray that you may be his diadem:
Gold, glory, paint, clay,
That he might take you in his magic hands
And wring from your marrow wonder.
For all that is comes through the eye of the Artist.
The rest are blind fish swimming in the cave of aloneness.
Swim on you maudlin, muddling, maddened fools,
And dream that one bright, sunny night the Artist
Will bait a hook and let you bite upon it.
Bite hard and die!…
In his stomach you are very close to immortality.
Charles B Griffith
(The Poet prince of Poverty row)
Cinema unlike most art forms is a collaborative medium. Needless to say, in music one needs an instrument, in painting a brush and paint, for sculpture a mound of clay, for writing a pen and paper, for dance you need a space, but in the art of the cinema the canvas consists of hundreds sometimes thousands of salaried employees whose primary concerns are not as much to do with artistic pursuits as they are to do with the earning of their bread and butter. Hence metaphysical yearning can only come into the picture once one’s basic needs have been fulfilled as has been taught in psychology with Maslow’s Need Pyramid. Hence, the essential question: does art spawn business or does business spawn art? I am quite certain our corporate friends in their white collars would think of it the other way around, but what about the other end of the social spectrum? What about the labourer lifting a 25 kilo light and shifting a reflector in the sweltering sun. What is art to him? Or what is he to art? To him the creative process consists mainly of obeying orders and commands from his superiors. It consists of subordinating his personal thoughts and better judgment to the discretion of those more capably equipped.
So what is art? Is art a committee or an extension of an individual? Is it a product for the Bourgeoisie to be served at tea carved out of slave labor? Is art meant to reflect or transport? To appease or incite? To create or destroy? The watching of a film too sometimes can be a collective process or it can be a fiercely individualistic one. So what distinguishes going to the cinema from going to a party? Is it a peer glitter event, the in-thing to do, or is it for the outcasts and the ignored?
Taking the example of the textile business, let us suppose I am in the practice of manufacturing textiles and garments and have a load to produce to send to the market for retail. Does the inclusion of the assembly line in my creation hinder creativity? Can I pour my heart and soul into every piece of cloth that I make?
Some are meant for mass consumption, and some for the tyranny of good taste. Some are merely for covering and sheltering a body, whereas others are purely for ornamental value. Suppose there are a billion people in this world and I have to clothe every one of them. Will I spend equal time, energy, money on each item? Absolutely not! I would only do so for the ones that pay the best. Does that make it a business? Is the act of creation dependent on the business? But what happens when the business is dependent on the act of creation? Hence, without business the artist would not have clothes to produce, and without art we would not have clothes to wear and we would all be naked. If I could create solely for myself to wear what I wish when I wish and to display to the world proudly and proclaim my identity fervently, is that artistic? Perhaps yes, but then I would require some other means than the textile business to sustain my income.
Hence art is for the naked, the nomads, the ascetics, the Sufis, the ones devoid of worldly desires, for the homeless wandering the barren earth in search of a messiah. It plays Iago to your psyche.
In the words of William Ernest Hawking in his book, Strength of Men and Nations in a chapter on art he defines art as: “Art is life plus! Life plus caprice! Where the simple declarative sentence becomes a line of Shakespearean poetry, where a couple of musical notes strung together become a Beethoven sonata, where a walk done in cadence becomes an exciting dance. That’s art!”
With all the mystery and hocus pocus and hoohaa surrounding art, we tend to fail to recognize the way art affects our everyday lives. When we walk out of the house in the morning we are looking at architecture, we are looking at people doing things that are essentially themselves and what they are doing should be of great interest to us from an artistic point of view. Because if we are looking at it in that way, then we are holding the wonder that we were born with! Sure there is a mystery to art but it’s as much of a mystery to the one that’s doing it as it is to one that’s looking at it.
What is the hardest task of art?
To clear the ground and make a start
‘Midst wooden head and iron heart;
To sing the stopp’d adder’s ear
To tell the tale with none to hear,
And paint what none else reckon dear;
To dance or carve or build or strive
Among the dead or half-alive
Whom greeds impel and terrors drive.
Now you, my English dancer, you
Began our English joy anew
In sand with neither rain nor dew,
Dance was once despised and held in shame
Almost something not to name
But that lovely flower came.
Oh, may you prosper till the race
Is all one rapture at your grace,
And England beauty’s dwelling place.
Then you’ll know what Shakespeare knew
That when the millions want the few
They can make heaven here-and do.
There is really no end to the amount of adjectives one could use in describing a movie from the past. I am often asked what draws me to the old movies. My only reply is that to me the difference between the movies of then and the movies of now is the difference between painting and photography. Both exist in their own respective realms and domains and both are perhaps equally expressive and require technical means and a certain non-artistic proficiency in able to achieve expression. Yet both are art forms in their own right, and equally beautiful to the eye.
Photography consists primarily of composing an image in time and space and distilling it to the point of expression whereas painting entails creating an image out of thin air, from scratch. Inventing it, rather than filling it with invention. Hence in photography you photograph the reality whereas in filmmaking as Kubrick said you photograph the photograph of the reality.
In painting you do not as much capture reality as you do a version of reality. That version or that image could not have come into fruition and could not have possibly reached its means via any medium other than the artist. In photography the image already exists in the real world, whereas in painting the image can only come into existence in the real world, otherwise it would be nebulous, devoid of form, existing solely in the mind of the artist and not in any physical form, invisible to the naked eye. In photography where the image does exist in a tangible form, it can only reach the level of expression via the manipulations of the artist. Painting is more kinetic, photography more plastic. Painting is dance, photography is sculpture. Photography is distortion, painting is realization. Photography is architecture, painting is the building block itself.
In this day and age where the dilemma of cinema being an art form as opposed to a business or a business as opposed to an art form is becoming increasingly problematic and a matter of considerable concern for artists and businessman alike, it would be interesting to rewind, go back in time and start from the beginning from the Birth of a Notion (pun intended).
There is certainly no doubt about the fact that the cinema was invented with a scientific spirit as was the telephone or the electric bell; with a tangible purpose, either for documentation or communication, not yet for expression. There’s the famous story about how when people saw the first piece of film ever exhibited (which was a shot of a train coming in towards camera), they ran away from the theatre, thinking it was coming at them. This anecdote should give us an understanding of the potential that cinema holds towards the viewer. It is more a participative medium than others. Less passive and more inclusive, where the viewer becomes a part of the activity, and not just a casual spectator. Which is perhaps why the medium then progressed to a Nickelodeon novelty and was displayed in various fairs and carnivals and was equivalent to the experience kids now have at an amusement park or in a video game.
The one man who transformed the medium from a form of entertainment to a form of expression was D.W Griffith. He came from a literary tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy and hoped to imbue in the medium the same sociological, cultural and historical responsibility prevalent in other art forms. He made sure that cinema was not just the illegitimate offspring of the theatre. But like most visionaries his life and career was fraught with turmoil and difficulty, and his story is both in equal parts inspiration as well as a cautionary tale.
The most apparently un-artistic of films in the history of cinema were the B-movies. This however was quite a different world and requires a more serious examination. It would be very easy to dismiss a lot of these films on the ground of taste, but the emergence of this new realm of exhibition at Drive-Ins and so on and forth was a whole new challenge to the establishment. Explorations could now take place entirely on their own terms and by their own hideously conceived merits. A smaller budget provided greater freedom and more often than not, you could find a far deeper plunge into the wounds of the cultural fabric in a B-film than you could in the more prestigious A-pictures. Often times it was a dissection of an issue or even an exploitation of an issue, as practiced by Roger Corman. The injecting in of an issue or a statement of some kind into a routine story or sometimes an absurd premise sometimes heightened and even invigorated the story itself. The storytelling process began to break down. The de-construction of cinema was still a little far ahead, but you could feel it cracking at the seams with the B-movies.
You could now perhaps tell a story in a completely different way, often going on tangents and digressions all at the cost of the one punch you had to deliver, like brief displays of nudity, or car chases, to keep the younger audiences pouring in. It seemed like a pretty swell deal.
The realm of the B-pictures produced a fair share of artists within its exaggerated canvas such as Ray Harryhausen, the revolutionary visual effects creator and monster maker, George Pal, the animator and producer who foreshadowed the more advanced special effects we were to later witness. In Japan, there was Ishiro Honda, also known as the father of Godzilla, and, in Britain, the Hammer studios were churning out a disturbingly alarming rate of films. One of the strangest auteurs of the B-film was Ed Wood, who perhaps transcends conventional standards of good and bad and whose films have to be viewed on a purely subliminal level.
This movement however was detached from the avant-garde movement of the time with the experimental shorts of Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Amos Vogel and the features of John Cassavetes, but it had a strangely symbiotic relationship. As one often finds with great artists they do their greatest work when they are not in desirable circumstances. Discipline in some cases stimulated creativity and productivity as opposed to hindering it. Be it the auteurs of the A-pictures or the B-movie maestros, they took chances and expressed themselves on the screen not despite the commercial constraints, but in spite of them.
The Eisenhower 1950s were a particularly complicated time for America. Although on the surface things appeared to be hale and hearty – the flowering of Americana and suburbia, the Cadillacs, ducktails, and doo-wop – the notion of a post-war booming economy as a paragon of normalcy, was beginning to be questioned. Television was competing with the movies, music was becoming more raucous, fashions almost verging on the burlesque, and the dark shadow of HUAC still lingered over the decade. Enter Roger Corman – chronicler of the newfound American disease.
It is still a matter of bafflement to me as to why there has not been a serious assessment of Corman as a director, not as a producer. You find people waxing eloquent about his contribution to Hollywood, his nurturing of talent, his filmography which gives new breadth and meaning to the word prolific, but you will seldom find him being regarded on the same terms and turf as fellow auteurs of the time and genre such as Mario Bava, Jacques Tourneur, Curtis Harrington, and others. In fact, his compositions can be more graphic than Bava, his mise en scène as fluid as Hitchcock, his use of music as haunting as Herrmann. The exotica artist Les Baxter often used to score his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. But the somber deep bass sax of A Bucket of Blood (courtesy Paul Horn) in many ways is a precursor to the collaboration between Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard or the Branford Marsails Quartet, where jazz is utilized as an instrument of contemplation of brooding and mourning, sometimes even of terror. The score in A Bucket of Blood, especially in the opening recital of the aforementioned poem, is haunting and hard to describe accurately. It almost verges on the abstract, the expressionistic. There’s a moment in the film when our protagonist Walter Paisley is at home unravelling a mound of clay that reminds one of Tim Burton’s and Danny Elfman’s kooky collaborations. The score honks and groans, finally sidling into sadness, as Walter starts to dig his hands into the clay looking on at a photograph of the object of his affections – Carla.
The premise is deceptively simple: A bus boy Walter Paisley (played by the iconic Dick Miller in his finest role) who works at a Bohemian Café amongst bums and beatniks, harbours artistic aspirations. He goes home every night to a mound of clay, unable to mold it into anything resembling a face. ‘Be a nose’ he instructs the inanimate formless mound. After accidentally killing a cat, he awakes in the middle of a night of mourning, with the words of the poet laureate of the Café Leonard echoing in his mind. He had earlier cried at the sight of his unwitting murder and the corpse of the cat lies forlornly on his table aside the mound of clay he had endeavored to shape – he now glares at them both with painful resolve and horrific sincerity, chanting the words as if channeling the poet’s most insidious meditations.
Next day he shows up at the café with a sculpture of a cat, which everyone fawns over. He now becomes the toast of the beatnik bylane – an artistic sensation but an artist in the worst sense of the word; the catch being that he has to murder in order to create so that he may cover his corpses in clay and display them to the amusement and astonishment of his audience. Clocking at just under 80 minutes this obscure little B-movie is as profound a statement on the artistic process as one is likely to find. It would make a great double bill with Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah or David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch. Written by the one and only Charles B Griffith, one of the most astounding talents to emerge out of the B-movie scene, this film is at once satirical, at once grotesque and every bit playful and humorous. It is also eerily evocative of the time and has moments of genuine visual poetry. For my money this is one of the finest usages of black and white I have ever witnessed. The writer Tim Lucas has compared Charles B Griffith’s writings to the work of Thomas Pynchon; Tarantino has hailed him as the father of redneck cinema. The films he wrote such as Little Shop of Horrors (another classic), Creature from the Haunted Sea, and Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype are imaginative and impulsive, lurid and laser sharp, provocative and pure. What’s fun about his writing is the made up quality of it. His vivid conceptions are startling. People tend to forget that the fun of art is in the act of making stuff up – Imagination, a quality this film and almost of Corman’s and Griffith’s works have in spades.
Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently, he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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