Art and Otherness: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Lives of Others”

January 29, 2008

Watching the State of the Union tonight last night, I realized just how arbitrary our units of measurement are. Why should the President address the country every year? Why should he do so with such pageantry? Now, when this last year is so insignificant, with this president appearing so bereft of ambition, is their any good reason that he should be given such a forum for his increasingly diminuted ideas? Especially when he has the right to interrupt all regularly scheduled programming whenever he sees fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he only addressed America immediately after an election? (Please, no one suggest the constitution as an answer.)

We spend a lot of time talking about this year‘s Best Picture, but one year is just as arbitrary a time-span when evaluating movies as it is with evaluating presidencies. Nothing points out this arbitrariness like foreign movies. With different release dates in different countries, it’s not uncommon to see some foreign movies nominated in different years. The most recent test case for this is The Lives of Others, which was nominated at the Bavarian Film Awards in 2005, the German Film Awards for 2006, last year’s Academy Awards, and this year’s BAFTAs (more on this great movie in a minute). In the art world, the best works are frequently displayed at a Biennale, (or Biennial if you refuse to inflect your English with loan words. Mon Dieu!) and other exhibitions are self contained and last only for short periods of time. The reason I bring this up is our bizarre appellation of some movies as “Art Movies.” While this mostly refers to their stylistics (often disparagingly), it begs the question, do these movies have a qualitative connection to art?

It goes without saying that, as a mass produced object, movies lack the uniqueness of art. As Geoffrey Hartman wrote in his autobiography modern movies also lack the eventness of art:

For all my adolescent years…the movies remained a special treat, a near-festive occasion like somone’s birthday…Now, every day, every hour, I can surf several channels as well as visit the big screen. The result is indifference to what used to be a magical occasion, a typical blunting toward the often frenetic realism of the medium, so that little of an early eagerness is left.

It is no great claim to say that movies exist on that boundary between “high” art and popular “low” culture. Or, that their very existence probably proves that there are no such categories.

I ask the question because The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists. The movie’s cinematography and bravado editing demand that we consider the film as art. It consistently plays with questions of color, perception, and placement and the artist-director Julian Schnabel described the film by saying,

“It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I’ve been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation,” he says. “How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?” (source)

The film’s primary artistic technique is one of defamiliarization. Schnabel takes shots that we’ve seen before–the first person perspective–and makes them unrecognizable in their size. We’re used to seeing the first-person perspective for a minute, maybe two or three, and only in certain situations. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists on the perspective for thirty, forty minutes at a time, in unrecognizable situations. Somewhere I saw the term “schnabelize” (though google shows no hits) used to describe his artistic technique: Schnabel adopts the standard conventions of a form than demolishes them in their use, in their size. The Diving Bell suggests that filmmaking is merely another extension of painting for Schnabel, another type of art for him to inhabit.

With its unique visuals, non-sequential narrative, and juxtaposition of languages, the movie is almost the platonic ideal of a parody of an art film. There are even odd montages ala American Beauty. Yet somehow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly works. The cinematography is at times exhilarating, and the music serves the film perfectly. The movie excels as art, as performance. I’ll never forget the fact that no-one at my screening left their seats during the credits. We had sat through something so different that no-one even knew where the most familiar element of the movie, the end credits, would take us.

While the movie may succeed as art, I’m not really sure if the movie succeeds as narrative. The movie wants to make a statement about interiority, about being “locked-in,” but the movie is really about the opposite: the struggle for human connection. Surely, a worthwhile theme, but one almost too limited for the unique visual language that Schnabel had created. Why use such a new device to tell such an old story? Why rush to Bauby’s communications with the outside world when there’s so much new ground to explore in his inner world?

Earlier I brought up the case of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), which was probably the best film of last year–in any language–and arguably the best movie of this year too (I think I’m partial to There Will Be Blood). Like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Others explores the self via the other. Unspoken and unknown connections are formed, and change is effected. The shifts, when they occur, are beautifully subtle, but become transparent over time. Yet in some ways, the movie is the opposite of Butterfly: a traditionally told story of the self told through complete focus on the other. A brilliant film, if not a brilliant work of art.

While I’ll strongly recommend both movies, I’m recommending The Lives of Others as film and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as art. Both should be seen, both should be experienced, but only one is a true literary statement.

2 Responses to “Art and Otherness: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Lives of Others””

  1. furrypaws Says:

    Which term came first – art films or art house? I’m figuring one informed the other.

  2. Isaac Says:

    You are now the only hit on the internet (according to Google) for “schabelize”… that’s pretty awesome. It’s almost like Google-Whacking!

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