Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Re-experiencing Great Art (like Mother)

As I sat in the living room this afternoon, in the the little corner where I usually hunker down with my laptop to do my daily surfing & writing, my roommate put a movie on the big-screen TV, the 52-inch flat-panel monstrosity that has become the contemporary hearth.

This is when I usually get up and head for the den, but the movie was Mother by Bong Joon-Ho -- and I was quickly sucked into it.

Nabokov famously held forth that "all reading is re-reading," meaning that, to truly appreciate literature, you have to read it more than once. In the underheralded novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, John Barth put it this way:
"A story first heard is a virgin bride, who so takes us with her freshness that we care nothing for her style. A good tale retold is a beloved wife or long-prized lover, whose art we relish because no novelty distracts us."
And, I figured this had to be about the tenth time in the last four months that I've watched Mother. But I still got sucked into it. Like the great Almodovar, Bong uses B-movie tropes to create sublime cinematic art, powered by extraordinary acting and a commitment to true realism in all its tragicomic fickleness. It's a thriller that's also an existential crucible, for both the viewer and the characters.

I don't mean to make Mother sound like a complete ordeal, because it's dripping with humor. It's got as many laughs as the typical Will Ferrell vehicle. I'm not kidding.

Since I had my laptop with me, I also took the opportunity to revisit my original review of the movie. If anything, my review wasn't strong enough in its praise. Mother is a real masterpiece. Not only is it a great story; it's a shot-for-shot master class in movie-making.

Now, besides recommending a great movie, my larger point here is that we should recognize the difference between the lesser entertainments we use to fill our idle hours and the art we should be using to inform our lives. And, yes, Mother sits squarely in that latter category.

Maybe, instead of tuning into another re-run of Law & Order or an episode of whatever reality-dreck suits your fancy, you should find something that rewards re-watching. I realize for most of you this would be Star Wars, but I'll take what I can get.

But what the hell. Moderation in all things, right? Even in the things that are good for you? We don't have to spend every single evening with Shakespeare, but it would help if a few more of us would spend at least a few nights with him, in between episodes of "Pawn Stars" or "American Idol."

And just how would it help? I don't want to bog down a mere blog entry with the myriad arguments I could muster, except to say this: art that expands our capacities to both imagine and sympathize helps all of us. To understand what exactly happens in Mother by rewatching it is both instructive and nurturing. In watching this movie, we learn both what truly caused the murder at its heart, and what the real consequences are. Plus we get an object lesson in effective storytelling. And I'll just leave it at that.

However, I surely don't mean that we should cut ALL the dreck from our diets. I'm more of a "variety is the spice of life" kind of guy, and I've been known to chortle and gawk through more than a few of our more crass entertainments, whether it's "The Jersey Shore" or anything directed by Michael Bay. Not to mention all the pulp fiction I've ingested. (It keeps me regular, hardy-har-har!)

Besides, I'm uncomfortable making proscriptions. I'm just about the last guy anyone should go to for behavioral advice. After all, I'm a middle-aged man still living like a starving graduate student.

Just watch Mother. Then re-watch it. You'll learn something, and you'll enjoy yourself. Trust me.

directed by Bong Joon-Ho

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