Whilst Bridget Riley's Op Art looks to be utterly abstract it was, for Riley, grounded in real life. Following John Lancaster, Wikipedia defines Optical Art as "a method of painting concerning the interaction between illusion and picture plane, between understanding and seeing", but for Riley the first "picture plane" was the eye and it was immediately offered illusions by the world itself. Bend close to -- and concentrate hard on -- grass bending in the wind and, to be honest to reality, to paint what you actually see, you'll have to create something that looks a bit like Orphean Elegy I. It would be merely an amusing taxonomical gesture to rebrand Op Art as Realism, but it would perhaps be a useful reminder that the concomitant gesture, that of refusing to see Realism merely as Ideology, is an absurd taxonomical rigidity we'd do best to overturn. To think Realism is real -- or even a particularly good representation of it -- is a very major category error.

All art, sometimes despite itself, is symbolic, but mistaking the real for Realism is madness. In Wallace Stevens' Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself a sound is heard, "a scrawny cry from outside / Seemed like a sound in his mind." There is a dialectic between inside and outside, a dialogue, a tension: art negotiates that, plays with it. What a piece of artwork is, or represents, always ends up representing something more than itself: a picture of lines is really a picture of grass is really about nature or the world or perhaps something more political like "women and nature" or "women and nature and the world" -- this is an almost inevitable critical drift, one that we should be aware of and very cautious about. Note the way the drift occurs: seamlessly, what a picture is, or could be, becomes what it is about; representation is always already symbolism (as they'd no doubt say in the University seminar room). The smallest part -- that blade of grass, Whitman's or Riley's -- can refer to, can stand for, the whole; but, in truth, the pressure is too much to bear: it can't be the whole, and the whole itself can never be represented, so the urge to create is the certainty of failure, but also the very reason to carry on creating.

Writing in the Guardian, Damon Wise called Charlie Kaufman's new film, Synecdoche, New York, "an epic, wilfully obscure, splurge of surrealism." Central to the film is its meditation on art. After winning a MacArthur 'Genius' Grant, playwright Caden Cotard hires a huge, empty warehouse and begins to recreate in the minutest detail his own life (fans of Tom McCarthy's Remainder will, of course, be struck by how close Kaufmann's film is to that novel). What we are shown is that, taken too literally, mimetic realism slides fairly quickly into the surrealism that Wise bemoans. Indeed, what is noteworthy is that Cotard's re-creative drive, by being so devoted to Realism, loses all realism and cannot ever satisfy him of its truth. His attempt to get at the raw truth of things (too much Kant, not enough Nietzsche; arguably the opposite of the film's director!) by staging as event what happens to him in his life as accident makes his art -- and this film -- peculiarly preoccupied with death. Cotard's Realism produces non-realistic art that ruins his increasing unreal life. In the film, Samantha Morton's plays Hazel, the most important woman in his life. She lives in a house which is perpetually on fire. The symbolism is heavy-handed, but ambiguous -- like the film itself.

Coincidentally, Morton's directorial debut, The Unloved (a "film that gives a child's eye view of the U.K.'s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger") was on the television last night. It is a wonderfully moving drama (and great to see the gorgeous music of Colleen used to such brilliant effect) set, mostly, in the realist mode. Indeed, at times it was filmed to look like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. What made the film far more affecting than the usual "bleak, powerful, truthful, brave" (insert adjective of choice) drama of this type, and such programmes have a history going back forty years to the landmark screening of Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, was its willingness regularly to slow the pace of the narrative right down and focus on a face, a tacky statuette of the virgin Mary, dust motes shining in a shaft of sunlight. (Morton is surely taking a directorial lead here from Lynne Ramsay in whose film of Morvern Callar she appeared in 2002.) The narrative of The Unloved was itself wilfully told only from the central character Lucy's perspective, so that much of what happened -- as it would have been to 11-year-old Lucy herself -- was ambiguous, odd, inexplicable. The film, then, was at its strongest when its realism was at its weakest and thus when the Real, in all its strangeness, was allowed room to show itself for what it was.

Readers Comments

  1. Matthew Tiffany Monday 18 May 2009

    When I first heard about this movie, the similarity to Remainder was the first thing I thought of, and was excited to see it. Local theaters didn't carry it, but you've reminded me to move it to the top of my Netflix list.

  2. BookRambler blogging at Monday 18 May 2009

    I agree with your observation about Realism not being real. And your use of Wallace Stevens is sheer brilliance and very apt. How about 'The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain'? Part of the problem, I think, is brought by 'reality' tv, which, of course, isn't any more real than a documentary. When you include cameras and directors the 'real' people become actors. Novalis was right: 'Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history' - in other words, we need story - for novels, replace with filmscript or tv script. This is why The Unloved is so much more successful at conveying the shortcomings of the care system than a report giving the 'real' facts. That is why it is so powerful. It's in the telling.

  3. Brilliant piece, Mark. I shall read and reread the second paragraph for a long time.

    I too thought of Remainder, and was interested in the other parallels which Philip French raised in his review in the Observer. I've been surprised - disappointed I suppose - by some of the critical reaction to Synecdoche, as it's madness not to give Charlie Kaufman the benefit of the doubt on the strength of all the interesting work he's done even before this.

    It's in my local cinema but I have little chance of getting to see it, what with being under baby-imposed house arrest from 6pm to 8am. One for DVD maybe, as it'll likely need several viewings anyway.

  4. Have you been reading Simon Critchley again, Mark? ;-)

    Great post! More please.

    Lee Rourke

  5. Nicholas Murray Tuesday 19 May 2009

    Sorry to strike a dissenting note (not from Mark's excellent discussion of realism etc but from the movie itself). I salute Synecdoche's surrealism, ambition, inventiveness, defiance of Hollywood norms etc etc and I found the first two thirds brilliantly witty and original but the last third I found increasingly portentous, stretching its fine nuanced beginnings to a point where it lost its momentum and needed to stop. Ambition is great but so is achievement.

  6. Thanks for these comments all (and, yup, Nick, I think the film drifted and lost its way a little towards the end too).

    @Lee -- hehehe: no, not read Simon for an age (although, you know, I should read him again as he's always a stimulating pleasure), but as you bring his name up it is worth referencing his Wallace Stevens book, 'Things Merely Are', which, if people don't know it, contains an excellent, if sometimes a little instrumentalist, reading of that great poet.

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