Saturday, October 14, 2006


The (almost) two-year old in my house has discovered that those hair-barette-type-things pinch your skin when pressed against flesh. This creates a sensation that can be painful, if pushed, or pleasant, if lightly tapped. When it's pleasant, she laughs as if it's the newest, brightest feeling in the world. Then I realized: For her, it is. (I'm slow with these kinds of dawning realizations, I know; in fact, for me, they don't dawn -- they kind of evolve, or emerge, or melt from intellectual/emotional ice.)

Everything is new. When you're two, realizing that the thing that is shoved into your hair for unknown reasons by known adults can also be plucked against skin is a shocking revelation. Who freakin' knew? What else is out there, she wonders, waiting to be unearthed? Putting your hands in front of your eyes, then taking them away -- that's hysterical! Hiding behind a see-through curtain, then poking back out again -- cause for rolling-on-the-floor hilarity!

The flipside, of course, is that heartache and horror are merely a spilled-juice away. For a two-year old, each day is a constant battle between unadulterated ecstasy and mind-blowing terror. Half the time she looks and acts like Pacino at the end of Godfather III when his daughter's been blasted by the bullet meant for him. The rest of the time she either bounces around like some kind of Filipino sprite, or else hovers in some mystical, practical state somewhere between joy and outrage, perplexed at the unfairness of the world.

It's never fun to watch someone shriek their brains out. Unless they're (almost) two. Then it's not fun, no, but it is kind of funny, actually. Seeing how easily heartbreak can morph into that peculiar form of everyday hedonism reserved only for toddlers. (And madmen, I suppose.)


I just sped-read through a tattered paperback copy of William Goldman's late sixties analysis of the Broadway theatre scene entitled The Season, and it's a fascinating time capsule; Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan are still on the prowl, Streisand is an up-and-comer, Jason Robards a new kid on the block, but what made it truly interesting for me was Goldman's take on critics -- theatre critics in particular, but a perspective that can equally be applied to anyone who analyzes the arts. (Or overanalyzes, as the case usually is.)

Roughly, Goldman argues that in-depth, high-falutin' critiques inevitably serve to foster the critics' own egos, providing an outlet for frustrated artistic ambitions that never came to fruition.

And almost all of it is horseshit, because, essentially, what critics do is try to articulate how well particular artists have themselves articulated the themes of their play. And when you get right down to it, what 'themes' are we talking about here? Think of the best movie you've read, the best movie you've seen, the best play you've watched: the bottom line is, the basic ideas they espouse are pretty, well, basic. I'm not saying they're trite, or unimportant, or not worth stating; far from it. I am saying that good art is clear, and its philosophies are not subtle. (Nothing in life is subtle, if you're paying close enough attention.) Dr.Strangelove, The Thin Red Line, Platoon: War is hell. Eyes Wide Shut, Kramer Vs.Kramer, The English Patient: Love is complex and tragic. A Clockwork Orange, 25th Hour, The Departed: Crime doesn't pay, we're all going down, eventually, and rehabilitation is futile.

You could, of course, substitute your own one-sentence analysis for any of the above flicks, but when you think about it, most works of art, be they comedic or serious, outrageous or solemn, can essentially be boiled down to the essentials: Love hurts, love exults; war sucks; crime is terrible; life is wonderful; life is horrible. That's it.

When we cut down individual works of art, or raise them up with praise, we're basically judging how well, how skillfully, how covertly, they've enacted principal themes of humanity in various elaborate, aesthetic ways. If it's all artifice and obviously manipulated, we scorn; if it's more subtle, we weep. Either way, the themes themselves are always common, ordinary, and, well, obvious.

And critics can rationalize and argue and pontificate all they want, but I'm starting to believe that, in art, and possibly even in life, one of George Lucas's dictums bears repeating: It either works or it doesn't. Period. A zero-sum game. A mathematical equation.

Does it work? Does it make me believe, if only for a modest duration, that life sucks/is wonderful, love hurts/is glorious, peace is inevitable/peace impossible?

It either does or it doesn't.

Like the priest who boils down the essence of his religion to The Golden Rule -- everything else is commentary, he says.

Sometimes, in the arts, we forget that the commentary is just that: commentary. Does it work? That's what we should ask. Did you get the point? That point may be simple or it may be dense -- that's where the fun of arguing comes in -- but if there's nothing there, well, there's nothing there.

That's all you need to ask.

What matters is what's there. What you're left with. The result. You feel good or bad, sad or happy, exalted or diminished. That's what art's there to do; it works or it doesn't.

Like life.

Did the car start or not? Did you get to work on time? Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you? Did you finish the race? Did your son graduate from high school? Did you punch the dude or didn't you? Do you love her or don't you? Bottom line. That's what matters.

All the rest is commentary.

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