Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: The New Yorker

The Artist vs. The Art Itself

Richard Brody makes an odd claim in this month’s issue of The New Yorker.  He posits that because Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial technique was a direct offshoot of his “own ugly fury,” that it should be less revered by current directors and critics, and that the admiration of Hitchcock’s craft is a dangerous affair.  He writes:

The cult of Hitchcock, which presses directors’ ideas and critics’ taste toward his hyperrational craft and conceals his tormented frenzy, tends to thrust some filmmakers’ impulses, and the critical response to some of the best modern films, to the sidelines.

A pretty bold – and completely unsubstantiated – assertion.

Regardless, it raises an interesting question: should an artist’s personal life influence the way we view the art itself? 

I like the art of Jasper Johns, but I know nothing about the artist.  Not a thing.  Perhaps I should, and perhaps I’d be better for it, but would anything I discover change the painting that I admire?  It would still be the same art, the same use of colors, the same shading.  My perception of the artist might change for the better or for the worse, but I would hope not my admiration for the art itself.

I heard Beethoven’s third symphony for the first time in 1986 and over time began to admire it greatly (as a young rock and roller, classical pieces sometimes took their time).  Later, I learned that it had originally been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte for his anti-monarchy idealism, only to be withdrawn.  Should this matter one iota to my admiration for the piece?

I think not.

Awards for art, movies and books should be viewed in a similar light.  Casablanca isn’t a better film for having won Best Picture, and Do the Right Thing isn’t a worse film for not having won the same award (or even nominated!).  They are both brilliant in their own right.

Then again, I can think of examples when my admiration for a song was actually enhanced once I learn the story behind it.  There’s no way you can tell me that Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” isn’t that much more beautiful, compelling and heartbreaking when you learn that it was written for his dead son, or that Lyle Lovett’s wonderful album, The Road to Ensenada, isn’t given a bittersweet tinge after learning that it largely chronicles his breakup with Julia Roberts.  One of my all-time favorite songs, Jackson Browne’s ”I’m Alive,” is even more compelling to me when I consider his breakup with Daryl Hannah. 

What can I say?  Pop music for me is sometimes a substitute for People Magazine!

On occasion I learn about the inspiration behind a song only to wish I hadn’t.  I recently read about the Ben Folds song, “Eddie Walker,” a wonderful tune for which I created my own story, and although the true inspiration for the lyrics isn’t in a completely different universe from my own interpretation, it still clouds the mental image I’d formed and will probably do so forever more.  For this reason, I admire artists who let songs be once they’re composed and refuse to offer insight into their origins.

And then there’s the ugly side.  Hitchcock’s purported sexual harassment, for instance. But many artists have an ugly side, and it would be silly for us to view their art through that lens. Roger Waters has said some pretty controversial and stupid things over the years, but I still think The Wall is still brilliant.  John Lennon used to hit his girlfriend.  I still love “A Day in a Life.”  I haven’t spent a penny on Elvis Costello since he told an audience at The Chicago Theater to “fuck off,” but I certainly can’t claim that I don’t still love his music.  Hell, you couldn’t pay me to see a Mel Gibson movie, but there’s no denying the fact that the guy can act and direct.

My father and I recently corresponded about this subject, and he wrote: “Does it matter what Brahms' psychotherapist thought was behind his compositions? Was Shostakovitch mentally ill or sexually repressed?  Who cares?  You love his 5th Symphony for what it is.  And Wagner: let's not even get into his politics.  Too much analysis and not enough appreciation and enjoyment.”

Too much analysis and not enough enjoyment.  There you are.  

Perhaps Richard Brody should do as I did two nights ago and rewatch Vertigo – perhaps with his daughter as I did – and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly-executed telling of a creepy story.  If someone thinks it’s the best film of all-time, fair enough.

Getting Lost

One of my favorite books is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a tale whose premise seems almost quaint these days: a group of people are kidnapped and taken to the mysterious and hidden city of Shangra-La deep in the Himalayan Mountains. That such a land could be unknown to the world must have seemed like a very real possibility when the book was first published in 1933, but in 2015 it seems absurd. Today, surely even a hidden city would be viewable on Google Maps with Yelp offering a list of hotspots.

I thought about this recently as I viewed a map of the world that showed city lights illuminated at night across the globe. Sure, there are still some dark spots in remote areas, but places that were once unexplored or unknown to much of the world are now lit up like Christmas trees, and I imagine that a person filled with wanderlust in the 21st Century might conclude that he was born a couple of centuries too late.

Earlier this year Tim Wu of The New Yorker wrote about how technology has pushed us closer to Never Lost Land, where even an exploration of wilderness is coupled with our ability to know our exact coordinates at all times via GPS – not a very interesting scenario for a would-be explorer. But the author also rightly points out that our dependency on technology could lead to much more severe consequences than a couple of decades ago:

It is, after all, much more dangerous to be lost in the wilds with a dead G.P.S. than with a map and compass. We’ll be never lost until we lose our tools, and then we’ll be much more lost than ever before.

I suspect many of us have fallen victim to this when we’ve been unable to make a phone call, find our way in a city or even look up a vocabulary word due to a power outage or a drained battery. @@Going off-line for even a few hours at home might seem more isolating than being stuck on a dessert island with unrestricted Wi-Fi.@@ Ask a child to look up a word using a real dictionary, and she’ll need extra time to figure out how to navigate this relic of days gone by. Hell, I used to know every phone number of most of my friends and family members. Today, I think I can accurately recite three or four phone numbers.

If one ever pines for the days of driving somewhere and having no clue where the journey will end, take note that you might be in luck, for some of us can still get lost even with a working phone. A few summers ago my wife typed a downtown Chicago address on her phone and started driving, only to find herself thirty minutes later on a rundown street in an unknown part of the city. She called me in a panic and asked, “Where the hell are the big buildings?” I asked her if during her drive she happened to look up. After all, the Willis Tower is viewable even from our hometown of Elmhurst eighteen miles away.  She hadn’t, apparently.

Which just goes to show you two things: 1) reading a map is still a valuable skill even with GPS; and 2) getting lost will always be possible for the directionally challenged.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved