Art is Hard

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Avant-Garde Film

At Sea Peter HuttonMarcel has writer’s block. And so do I. Like I have stalled on my blogging, our protagonist is stymied in the progress of his “great work.” He has befriended Bergotte, the author whom he has long revered, and is finally a regular guest at the Swann’s home. Yet he laments that all this headway into the literary lifestyle has not actually been conducive to the creation of art:

Unfortunately the next day was not that vast, extraneous expanse of time to which I had feverishly looked forward… To my parents it seemed almost as though, idle as I was, I was leading, since it was spent in the same salon as a great writer, the life most favourable to the growth of talent. And yet the assumption that anyone can be dispensed from having to create that talent for himself, from within himself, and can acquire it from someone else, is erroneous…

In many ways I think that Marcel is correct. One doesn’t become a better artist by following other artists around. If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if reading Proust were easy, everyone would have done it already. But the world isn’t exactly full of people who have read all seven volumes, and sometimes I need a reminder of why hard art is, at the end of the day, the best kind of art.

My Proustian progress hasn’t exactly been breakneck. Within a Budding Grove, which I really am enjoying, sometimes feels too cumbersome for my morning subway commute or too intense to eat up my precious work-free hours. My life is busy, and Proust demands a pace to which I am sometimes unwilling to adapt. But there’s a reason we’re doing this, and a reason we will stick it out.

This evening I went with one of my friends to a screening of two silent films by Peter Hutton at Union Docs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The filmmaker had been her professor, while I had seen (and loved) some of his films in a class I took at Hamilton with the remarkable Scott MacDonald. Mr. Hutton showed two of his films: Images of Asian Music and At Sea. The venue was small, the chairs were uncomfortable and the temperature continued to climb as the night went on, hour after hour. When it comes to avant-garde film, the physical experience of watching often seems to be as challenging as the subject material itself.

“It’s okay if you fall asleep,” Hutton said, before launching us into 90 minutes of silent cinematography. Life is stressful, he assured us, and if all his films did was give us a moment of peace, then they had done their job as far as he was concerned. Of course, the films far from put me to sleep. As I sat there, watching images of breaking waves and shipping yards, I found myself thinking back to this project.

Proust’s writing is avant-garde in much the same way Hutton’s films are. As Proust meanders through his prose and sensory language, Hutton’s films present portraits in single shots that refuse to adhere to a singular narrative, then scale to shots of the moving horizon or giant ships sitting like statues. His are not easy films to watch. But because they ask so much of you, they are able to provide that much more in return. In addition to meditation, his films are an interrogation of the experiences of traveling, aging, laughing, dying.

So, sweating in a dark room in Williamsburg, I thought about how film and literature are reflective surfaces in which we are forced to see truer projections of ourselves. As Maeve and I write about Proust, and our changing post-graduate lives, we are continuing to think in ways that, absent of Proust, we might forget to. I am happy to have Proust to remind me that the appearance of your life is not the actual measure of your success. We are all easy victims of superficiality, but as Marcel illuminates, pretending at art won’t make it come, and there is no permanence in a glamorous veneer. And while there are easier things to do than slog through thousands of pages, and quicker ways to make blog fit for mass-consumption, there is no substituting for art that truly makes you think. A silent film makes us more aware of the subtleties of sound and motion, and a novel about time and memory makes us study our own memories and impressions. What are the keys to my memory? How much do I base my reactions upon my expectations as opposed to the gravity of my own emotions?

Right now, for me, reading Proust isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about remembering to keep asking the questions–the hard questions–that only good art can bring to the surface.

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