Letters at 3AM: Fragments of Art, 1995
"Art is a put-up-or-shut-up proposition," my friend Mikey Berger told me when we were 17. Let's add to that a sentence that turns itself inside out (as the best art inevitably does): All art is mass art, all art is intimate. Even the unpublished poem, or the drawing an unknown artist gives to a friend, exists in relation to every other poem and painting ever created, no matter how famous or obscure. Each is a fragment of the other, each extends and amends the thoughts and images of all the others. Every song is part of a larger song, humanity's song, no matter how few sing or hear it. At the same time, even the most popular art is experienced with a privacy that can never be entered or measured by anyone else. In this sense you sit in the theater alone, and every $40 million film is made for you alone. For the experience of art transcends every boundary and category by which we attempt to tame and contain its unpredictable consequences.With all this in mind, we can indulge in yet another year-end round-up: one observer's opinions about something which mere opinion can only temporarily violate.So -- it wasn't much of a year, was it? No friends rushed to me with any newly published novel or poem that burned in their hands so that I simply had to read it. No one dragged me off to a new play, dance, or gallery, as though it were a matter of life and death. (Which is what art is a matter of, when it's for real.) Every year the critics try to inflate the importance of what's current -- but that's just people earning a living. Our lives are the testament of how, in these art forms, nothing much mattered. Again. Well, there are years like that. Even decades.As for music: It's a rough year when the biggest stories are of people who first recorded 60 and 30 years ago, respectively: Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday and the Beatles Anthology. The biggest news for jazz was how Lincoln Center finally admitted that America's greatest original art form is, after all, the equal of European music. (I can imagine Louis Armstrong laughing and Miles Davis sneering, while Duke Ellington smiles with a distant, unassailable irony.) Two new albums churned me up, but they were by people who've been my friends many years, so I can't pretend to be objective: Joe Ely's Letter to Laredo and Jo Carol Pierce's Bad Girls Upset by the Truth. (Rolling Stone and Pulse, among others, agree with my assessment, so I can mention my friends within the limits of journalistic ethics.)Which leaves a list of movies and TV shows -- forms we use mainly to kill time and fill silence, though in rare instances these forms quicken time, and make silence speak.Through last spring, The X-Files was the most original thing on television; but since September, many episodes have been dreck. The show's straining so hard with plot that it seems to have forgotten about character, though character is all that gives plot vitality. NYPD Blue lost its edge when it lost David Caruso's often disturbing intensity; now it could be called "Priests With Guns," or "People We'd Really Like to Be Arrested By." The hospital shows are doctored-up versions of Star Trek: a crew of idealists working with machine-like efficiency, rarely concerned about how much insurance you may or may not have. Law and Order is "Priests With Briefcases." These programs make me think of something William Carlos Williams once wrote: "Either I exist or I do not exist, and no amount of pap which I happen to be lapping can dull me to the loss."One show broke the mold: Homicide -- Life on the Streets. Its characters are troubled, edgy, bickering, overwhelmed. Their good intentions compete with their disillusionment and fatigue. They are too busy and appalled by their world to be always falling in and out of love with each other. I would not want to be arrested by them, so I can almost believe they're cops. And sometimes they share moments of the heart as disturbing as the monsters of The X-Files, moments that test their rarer instants of transcendence. You must go back decades to shows like Route 66 and Naked City to find TV with as complex a sense of humanity.Finally, there is cinema, in which kisses loom larger than houses. Friends urged me to see Seven, but when they described its gruesomeness I begged off -- my dreams are bad enough. And I haven't yet seen Georgia, but mentioning it gives me the excuse to say that Jennifer Jason Leigh is the best actress of her generation. She cuts to the heart of a role with fresh gestures that don't carry over from one of her characters to another -- a great musician of behavior. Which leaves only five American films worth discussing: one masterpiece, one quirky beauty, and three large failures. (Waiting to Exhale is not among them. It's what Hollywood dismisses as a nice little picture -- but it proves the power of cinema when a nice little picture at the right time by the right people can create such an effect.)The mark of a masterpiece (aside from the artistry that great work must take for granted) is that it presents a paradox in all its complexity without indulging the impossibility of some imagined resolution. (For there is no resolution to our lives; there's just our lives.) The last U.S. film to do this was Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Now we have Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, the story of a hooker and a drunk who may very well be doomed, but who yet live out the most sought-for promise of love: an absolute acceptance of the other. Each allows the other to be exactly who they are, without judgment or blame, and without the faintest demand or hope for change. Their surrender to one another is total. In that surrender each finds an extraordinary gift that no one finds alone: the freedom to be, yet to know we are loved. I left this movie shaken and strangely happy, feeling almost as if I had fallen in love: that is, feeling more ready for danger than I'd been in a while. For the greatest danger, always, is to be entirely ourselves; and nothing puts us in this danger more than someone who loves us for ourselves. Leaving Las Vegas shatters every preconception of love in order to find love. And that is the only way.The quirky beauty is Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Smoke. Gentler than Leaving Las Vegas, with its characters perhaps a shade too nice, still its sweetness is genuine -- for it's made of the kindness that people show each other when they are committed to friendship. Friendship is, finally, all that makes life bearable for most of us, thus it is one of the great subjects -- one that most new fiction ignores. And what a fine symbolism: that these characters inhale the deadly smoke of tobacco -- the noxious fumes of the world -- while they look upon each other with such kindness. It's as though without accepting the one, you can't really give of the other. The only difficulty for a smoker like me was sitting through the damn film without a cigarette.Martin Scorsese's Casino, Michael Mann's Heat, and Oliver Stone's Nixon may be failures, but to fail with your whole heart is better than to win with half a heart. What the English critic Dilys Powell said long ago applies to these films: "Once more, in this confident, grandiose, new world cinema, technique towers over its subject, the human being." Each film runs three hours, and to keep a film taut for that length is no mean trick. But tricks aren't enough. Casino never once deals with the motivation of its characters, and without motivation what is character? Michael Mann went for a slam-bang ending in Heat. He got it, but only by sinking into melodrama. The noir directors of the Forties could have told as complex a story in half the time, and -- as in Out of the Past -- make the ending reveal, rather than gloss, the characters' needs. And Oliver Stone's Nixon gives us the smallness of that man without his hugeness. Richard Nixon left his mark on all of us. Stone's reasons for Nixon's lacks are shallow. There are millions of selfish people haunted by the harshness of their upbringing, but how many leave such a mark? It is Nixon's stature, not his pettiness, that is the mystery. Stone would have us believe that Nixon was universally hated, but the man was loved (at the time) by many millions. In 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds could vote for a president, he won the youth overwhelmingly in a landslide election -- another Nixon mystery that Stone avoids. Stone never deals with the genius it took for such an unappealing man to appeal to so many. Like Mann, Stone opts for melodrama -- and that's too flimsy a means to penetrate the secrets of power.But it has gone almost unnoticed that with Nixon Oliver Stone has broken startling ground in filmatic technique. His shifts from rich to grainy color, and from gleaming to grainy black-and-white, all within one scene and sometimes within one speech, are a great leap in the vocabulary of cinema. It's a technique that strips moments to their bone. Yes, this was pioneered in music videos; but Stone has taken what was merely a special effect and made it revelatory, as D.W. Griffith did with the close-up 80 years ago. So while Nixon is a shallow movie about a president, it's still an important moment in film history.We are left, then, with another dilemma of art: how something can be successful and fail at the same time. Which may be art at its most human, for isn't that just like us?