Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On Moon

This Rumpus piece on Moon is a great read. It's a glowing review, followed by an interview with the director, Duncan Jones. I especially like the line, "He's like a cuddly David Bowie." Being a cuddly David Bowie is an achievement in itself.

We saw Moon on DVD about a month ago, and my first reaction was, you know, it's pretty good. Better than average. Plus it has Sam Rockwell, who makes everything he's in at least better than average. I would watch him in anything; I would watch him leaf through wallpaper swatches. For hours.

But I have to say, I didn't really get the movie. There were a lot of obvious quotes of famous science fiction movies--most obviously 2001, but also Silent Running, Alien, and others. These moments seemed intended to be obvious--because the ripoffs were just so blatant, they would otherwise seem almost criminal--but they didn't do much for me at the time. They stuck out, and thus "kicked me out" of the story, as we sometimes say in writing workshop. Also the lunar vehicles were clearly miniatures. In reality they were no less artificial-looking than CG effects, but in a different way. The fact that I saw the miniatures as more obviously fake just tells me that CG is now the custom in science fiction movies, and I've trained myself to look past (somewhat) the excessive smoothness of those images. The currently accepted convention has a better chance of disappearing. This is also true, I'd say, in literature, but that is for another post. Anyway, the miniatures also kicked me out.

In short, I wasn't bowled over. Then we watched the Bonus Features, which included several interviews with Jones. He said pretty much the same things as in the Rumpus interview, the upshot being that Moon is a manifesto of sorts for returning to classic science-fiction filmmaking. Silent Running and the rest represent the kind of films Jones wants to make, which are focused on character rather than effects. The miniature aesthetic is a feature of those types of films. Miniatures and human actors (some, anyway) are both cheaper than massive CG effects. But the cheapness is ultimately a bonus of that approach, rather than its cause. In other words, Jones would rather make films about people anyway, and the cost savings just happens to be a perk. (For his next film, he'll likely get a lot more money, so we'll see if he sticks with this aesthetic. I hope so.)

After watching these interviews, I came to think of Moon as brilliant. Now that I've recognized its "manifesto" aspect, I see it as a (please bear with me) post-post-modern work of art. Like po-mo, it points out its own tropes, but unlike that exhausted style, it then reaffirms those tropes instead of blowing them up. The quotes aren't ironic, but a way for the film to include its own history as a film. You could say the movie has a backstory, just like a character. This makes the movie itself seem alive. And so the film's been lingering with me these past weeks, in the way that only a few truly special works have done.

Yet. I have often complained when authors (on Oprah, say, or in a foreword) tell readers how their books are supposed to be read. A work of art should stand on its own, I've said. Also, I've said, once you publish it, it's ours, or at least no longer yours as such. If you didn't convey what you intended, that's your problem. Let us find our own way through the work. I will leave aside the real possibility that I was not smart enough to get what Jones was doing on my own. (And that is a sad commentary, for I am a fully trained and certified post-modern critic, albeit one who has abandoned the trade for the even more lucrative field of fiction writing.) The question is--does some art need to be accompanied by critical commentary, either by authors or others--in order to function, as it were, properly?

I'd now say the answer is a qualified yes. There's a difference between explaining what you meant (because you didn't get it across) and providing a cultural or historical context for understanding a work. We weren't all born with the ability to get, say, Gravity's Rainbow, and the world would be poorer without it. There is a crucial role for critics and teachers, which is to clear space for diverse forms of art not only to appear, but thrive. So now I say to creators of difficult works*--and their interpreters--get out there and tell us how to read! Don't be shy! We'll complain, but we'll thank you for it later!

Hey, I think I just wrote a manifesto for literary and cultural studies.

*Moon is not so difficult as Gravity's Rainbow. At least I don't think so. In this case the problem was really me and my cinematic naivete. But then again, I feel it bears more consideration...another sign that this movie is great.

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