Deserves Got Nothing to Do with It: The Enlightened Morality of Wonder Woman

Note: the following essay contains spoilers.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, tells the story of Diana. Her story begins on the island of Themyscira, where her mother, Queen Hippolyta, rules over the Amazons. Queen Hippolyta has become cynical about the outside world, stating: “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within.” Thus, she has enacted an isolationist policy to protect Themyscira. It is hard to fault her for this, especially with the First World War raging beyond the mystical shield that keeps Themyscira hidden. But nothing stays hidden forever. Steve Trevor, a spy trying to escape back to London in a stolen plane, ends up crashing in the waters off of the coast of the island. He essentially finds himself a refugee, washed up on the shore and in need of help. But Hippolyta does not wish to give it to him because of the danger that will undoubtedly follow him. And danger does indeed follow him, as a German fleet soon discovers Themyscira and attacks.

Diana, unlike her mother, and unlike many nations today, welcomes Steve Trevor. She rescues Steve before she even knows whether or not he is a danger, and in spite of whatever might be following him. She does this because she believes it is the right thing to do. Her personal morality is informed by a broader view of humanity — she values life above all else, as well as love and peace between people, regardless of country of origin or any other areas of difference. She sees the larger world beyond Themyscira and sees that she is a part of it. She cannot keep herself isolated on her mother’s island when she knows there is good and important work to be done abroad. So she decides to leave with Steve in order put an end to the war.

In the film, Diana’s morality is juxtaposed against the ideologies that govern men and their institutions. These ideologies take physical form in the person of Ares. Diana originally believes that Ares is corrupting the souls of men, whom she believes are inherently good. She is wrong about this, as she comes to see (and as Ares informs her while held by her lasso of truth). However, like any ideology that finds its way to vulnerable people in search of meaning, Ares is still a corrupting influence. He represents every ideology that keeps groups of people alienated from each other, distrustful of each other, and at war with each other. These ideologies are essentially religious in nature, which is why it makes sense to embody them in a god, and why the title of “Godkiller” should fall to Diana, whose most durable weapon is her aforementioned lasso of truth.

But the revelation about human nature leaves Diana in a difficult position. Should she continue to fight for humanity? We are not inherently good by most traditional moral standards. The concept of the “noble savage” is a blatant falsehood. We cannot escape our brutish natures, and yes, this might destine us to destroy each other. So perhaps we do not deserve Diana’s help, as her mother tells her before she departs Themyscira. Perhaps we do not deserve to be saved. But, as Diana learns from Steve Trevor, the “deserve” part does not really matter. When she witnesses Steve’s sacrifice, in which he gives up his own life to save others and end the war, she understands this. Thus, Diana does not abandon her morality; she simply strengthens it into one that is arguably more enlightened than archaic retributivism. She still sees the value in human life, and she decides to save as many lives as she can. Whether or not the people living these lives deserve her help, whether they are good or bad, is immaterial; she will fight for them regardless.

When Diana finally vanquishes Ares, it is a powerful, awe-inspiring moment. But it is also symbolic. She does not end the war, but she symbolically destroys the ideologies that fed the war. With Ares defeated, the men who were fighting against each other embrace, as if finally recognizing their shared humanity. It is a moment of relief. Their ideology might have given their lives meaning and given them a sense of purpose, but it was illusory – something that can be destroyed, as they witnessed. But love, peace, and understanding between people – these things are real (or at least Diana makes us believe that they are).

Throughout the course of the film, Diana fights against all manner of ideology. She challenges the isolationism of her own people, the Amazons, as well as the toxic nationalism prominently poisoning the world around her. And she has no patience for the deeply ingrained systems of oppression that hurt, limit, and ruin people, like the sexism that prevents women like her from having a say in Britain’s government, or the racism that negatively affected the lives of her companions, Sameer and Napi. She is not interested in any ideology that divides people and makes them see the world through a myopic “us and them” worldview.

Some have criticized Wonder Woman for not being patriotic enough, but that criticism misses the mark completely. Diana is not an American hero; she is an international hero. It is no accident that she knows all human languages, for language is one of the oldest barriers that can exist between two groups of people. Diana is here to destroy those barriers.

In this age of Trump and Brexit, of splintered coalitions and communities, Wonder Woman gives us a hero who offers a better way forward. Her message of love might strike some as too idealistic, but without it, we will forever be at each other’s throats.

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A. O. Scott and the Role of Free Will in Criticism

The following piece was completed on May 23, 2016. I do not recall why I chose not to post it at that time, but I am posting it now in its original state (aside from minor edits, like changing “last week” to “last year,” due to the delay in publication):

On March 11, 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing New York Times film critic A. O. Scott talk about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge (an event organized through the Harvard Book Store). During the Q&A portion of this event, Scott fielded not one, but two questions about the role of free will in film criticism. On hearing the second question, Scott even quipped about whether or not there was a Calvinist convention in town. What sticks with me, however, is not the answer Scott gave on this particular night at the Brattle (in which he responded that free will may, perhaps, have a role to play), but the answers that Scott gives in his book, a book in which Scott claims quite early that criticism—the act of passing judgment—is something that humans do out of necessity. As Scott writes: “We can’t help it.”

The free will debate, long relegated to the halls of academia, has been gaining much mainstream attention as of late. Sam Harris published a slim volume on the subject in 2011. More recently, James B. Miles published his thorough and carefully researched The Free Will Delusion. And just last year, in The Atlantic, we saw a piece entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Will.” So it’s not surprising, then, that people would be curious about whether free will can exist within the creative arts, despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. And it’s not surprising that A. O. Scott would actively wrestle with the question in his work.

Early into his book, Scott discusses the job of art, which he sees as being “to free our minds.” The job of criticism, then, is “to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Scott even states that “we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices.”

Can art truly free our minds and unshackle us from our prejudices, remove us from the chain of cause and effect to which we all belong? The answer is yes, maybe, if we are already predisposed and open to the possibility of art changing us. But art itself then simply enters the chain of cause and effect, becoming, in the process, something else to which our present state is beholden. A better wording might be that art does not free us so much as change us. And criticism is our attempt to account for the change (which occurs unconsciously) in rational, communicable terms.

The capacity for change, as well as the change itself (whatever it might be), is also predetermined by one’s taste—the acquisition of which we are also helpless to control. Of taste, Scott writes:

Taste, we assume, is innate, reflexive, immediate, involuntary, but we also speak of it as something to be acquired. It is a private, subjective matter, a badge of individual sovereignty, but at the same time a collectively held property, bundling us into clubs, cults, communities, and sociological stereotypes.

All of this, to my mind, is true. Taste is acquired but involuntary; it is subjective but collective. More specifically, it is predetermined. The circumstances of a person’s life (the previous art to which he or she has been exposed, the society in which he or she was raised, the education which he or she has been fortunate enough to receive, etc.) will determine the person’s taste.

But Scott seems to deny this. If taste were predetermined, he writes, it would be “a matter of prejudice and conditioning and therefore not really taste at all.” Scott fails to make clear, unfortunately, why taste would be devalued as taste if it were predetermined (which it is). But he does try to account for his own taste. He writes:

It would be foolish for me to deny the determining facts of my generation, class, education, and background. I don’t make the mistake of supposing that my feelings and perceptions are either uniquely mine or somehow untethered from influence and circumstance. Nobody floats above the common run of tastes, plucking only the most exquisite posies on the basis of pure intuition. It’s always contingent, always relative, always a matter of who and where you happen to be.

Thus, Scott does recognize the extent to which his tastes have been predetermined. However, he continues:

Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstance beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.

How can determined beings also be free agents? Here, Scott attempts to adapt a compatibilist view of free will, though it remains unconvincing. We can see this again as he continues:

Sometimes we react the way we do because of birth or conditioning, sometimes because of a more mysterious force, sometimes by the operation of our will.

I appreciate that Scott is trying to address the question of free will in his book, but I find it hard to look past the obfuscations (mysterious force?) and contradictions. For example, even though he brings up the “operation of our will” in the above passage, Scott once again, not many pages later, seems to find himself adopting the determinist position:

We can’t, after all, escape from the facts of language, geography, class, gender, and belief that condition what we see, any more than we can will ourselves into another time.

Because of statements like this, I cannot help but view Scott’s position as anything other than softly determinist, despite his compatibilist leanings. With that in mind, I think we can see that there is no actual role for free will in criticism.

To highlight an example, I will turn to Ratatouille, as Scott himself does at the end of his book. At the end of the film, when the food critic Anton Ego eats Remy’s titular dish, something happens to him. He is transported back to his childhood, where he would eat the same dish in his mother’s rustic kitchen. This singular moment from his childhood determines Ego’s reaction to Remy’s dish. Ego’s immediate judgment, therefore, is involuntary, subjective, and predetermined by his past. Free will plays no role in Ego’s judgment.

But what of his criticism—the measured, rational response that he writes much later, after his meal has already been digested? Can Ego distance himself enough from his immediate experience to offer up an impersonal and objective assessment of Remy’s ratatouille?

It is worth noting that Ego does not mention his involuntary transport back to his mother’s kitchen in his review of the dish and the restaurant. Why? Because criticism remains a post hoc attempt to account for something to which we have no control, to rationalize a response hitherto devoid of reason. Can free will play a role in these rationalizations?

Again, the answer is no. Because even our ability to craft criticism, our authorial voice, our skill with words, and our personal and creative motivations—these, too, have all been predetermined, bound to us by a past to which we remain forever, inescapably, and sometimes unfortunately, tethered.

Further reading:

Sublimation and Repression: Inside Out, Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk, and The Babadook

Inside Out

Note: the following essay includes spoilers for each of the works under discussion.

In his essay “Freud and Nietzsche on Sublimation” (The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 38, Autumn 2009, pp. 38-59), the philosopher Ken Gemes discusses the difference between the psychological concepts sublimation and repression. “Sublimations,” he writes, “involve integration and unification, while pathological symptoms [i.e., from repression] involve splitting off or disintegration.” Pete Docter’s Inside Out is an excellent illustration of these concepts as defined by Gemes. In the film, we see not only the dangers that repression (or the splitting off) of a specific emotion can present within an individual but also what happens when the goal of sublimation is reached: when all of a person’s emotions are integrated into a unified self and are working together toward the same goals. Though perhaps one of the best films yet to tackle these ideas within a narrative framework, Inside Out is not the first piece of art to do so. The Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” for example, examines quite literally what happens when the self is psychically split into two parts. And two works that take these ideas a step further by exploring what happens when repressed traumas cause the self to splinter and disintegrate are issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and the Australian horror film The Babadook. Let us examine each of these works in turn.

Joy and Sadness

As hinted above, Inside Out is a narrative film which also happens to present a philosophy of mind that is both cogent and coherent. It envisions people as each governed by a group of five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. These emotions take turns driving a person and coloring the person’s memories, which are then stored away to be recalled when needed (or eventually relegated to the subconscious). Some of these memories become the core memories, which power a person’s islands of personality. With this basic structure of the mind on display, the film offers a philosophically mature look at the self as a multifaceted and mutable concept. For the core memories and islands of personality are not permanent fixtures; they can be altered by other emotions or replaced as a person’s life experiences and interests change. And that is exactly what happens throughout the course of the film.

Our focus is on an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. In Riley’s mind, Joy is the dominant emotion. She gets nervous when the other emotions are in control of Riley for too long, and she thinks that the majority of Riley’s memories should be colored by her. Joy is particularly uncomfortable around Sadness. In one scene, Joy even tries to remove the influence of Sadness by drawing a chalk circle around her and telling her she must remain within it. She wants to deny that sadness is a part of Riley, a part of life. This is a typical model of repression. Gemes writes in his essay:

Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its immediate aim and is then split off from other drives in the sense that its aims are not integrated with the aims of other drives and it must battle, often unsuccessfully, for any opportunity to achieve expression.

This is the position that Sadness finds herself in at the start of the film; Joy rarely allows her an opportunity for expression.

Later in the film, after Riley’s life is turned upside down by a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Joy and Sadness are both accidentally transported from the headquarters of Riley’s mind and must work together to find their way back. It is on this journey that Joy begins to see how Sadness can be valuable. For example, while comforting Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, Sadness demonstrates how she can connect with the pain of others through empathy. Also, she is the only one who can help Riley express the feelings of hopelessness and despair that are bound to crop up on occasion. At the end of the film, when Riley is literally running away from the things that are challenging her, Sadness is the emotion that helps her turn around to confront her parents with all that she is feeling.

This demonstration of the psychological importance of expressing sadness is consistent with the way in which we see the other emotions not as negative aspects of Riley’s personality, but as equally vital to her sense of self. Fear, for instance, keeps Riley safe. Anger helps her be an aggressive hockey player. And Disgust helps her with aesthetic choices and with navigating nuanced appearance-based social circles. Riley lives with parents who want her to be happy all the time. We, too, live in a culture that paints emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger in a negative light. Inside Out proves that all emotions, even joy, can have their downsides, but that does not make them negative, bad, or shameful things to be excised or repressed. They can be harnessed, sublimated, and used toward positive ends. Ideally, these emotions/drives will work together, creating (as they do at the end of the film) memories colored by input from each of them.

The Enemy Within

In the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (Richard Matheson’s sole writing credit on the show), Captain Kirk finds himself in a situation that addresses the same issue of sublimation as Inside Out. At the beginning of the episode, after a planetary expedition, Captain Kirk beams aboard the Enterprise. However, there is a transporter malfunction. The Captain is seemingly OK, just a little lightheaded. But then, when the transporter room is unattended, another Captain Kirk beams aboard the ship. This version of the Captain appears maniacal and unhinged. While the first version of the Captain feels weak and returns to his quarters to rest, the second version immediately seeks brandy from sick bay and attempts to sexually assault Yeoman Rand. There is an obvious temptation to view the first version of Kirk as good and the second version as evil, but as the episode progresses, we see that it is not that simple. The following exchange between Spock and Dr. McCoy explains why:

SPOCK: We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.

MCCOY: It’s the Captain’s guts you’re analyzing. Are you aware of that, Spock?

SPOCK: Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

Indeed, the first version of Kirk is weak, tired, unmotivated, and ineffectual as a leader. At his own admission, decisions are becoming more and more difficult to make. The second version of Kirk, while certainly impulsive, lustful, and aggressive, is also quite fearful and pathetic. In other words, neither version of Kirk is ideal on its own. As the first version of Kirk says when he first confronts his double: “Don’t you understand? I’m part of you. You need me. I need you.” Just as Joy realizes that Riley needs Sadness in Inside Out, we begin to see that Captain Kirk needs both sides of himself, even the part that seems on the surface solely negative and evil.  The lesson of both the Pixar film and the Star Trek episode is the opposite of the famous Christian idea of removing those parts of us that cause us to sin (“So if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”). We cannot simply cut away those parts of us that we find unsavory, negative, or evil. Rather, as Spock says, and as Joy learns in regard to sharing Riley with Sadness and the other emotions, our dark sides and personal demons, “properly controlled and disciplined,” are essential to creating a whole and healthy psyche.

This exchange between Kirk and McCoy captures this message perfectly:

KIRK: I have to take him back inside myself. I can’t survive without him. I don’t want him back. He’s like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, and yet it’s me. Me.

MCCOY: Jim, you’re no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human.

At the end of the episode, with the transporter fixed, Kirk is able to integrate both sides of himself into a single entity again.

The Incredible Hulk 377

In issue 377 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk (written by Peter David and penciled by Dale Keown), Bruce Banner is psychically divided in a similar manner to that of Captain Kirk in “The Enemy Within.” As the issue begins, we see Banner’s therapist, the gamma-powered Doc Samson, sitting with Banner and two separate Hulks: the so-called grey Hulk and the green, savage Hulk (who amusingly refers to the grey hulk as “Fake Hulk”). Using post-hypnotic suggestion, Samson has gathered these three parts of Banner together in Banner’s mind for one purpose. Samson tells the two Hulks: “You’re going to have to come to terms with each other because you’re all tearing this man apart.” It seems, just as Kirk could not exist as only one side of himself, and just as Riley could not exist without all of her emotions working together, Banner is also going to be unable to exist as a whole, healthy person if he remains splintered in three parts, each trying to gain control by destroying the other two. But what is keeping these three parts separated?

As the issue progresses, we learn that there is a monster lurking in Banner’s subconscious, one that even the two Hulks cannot defeat on their own. This monster, we find out, is Banner’s abusive father, Brian. We see the monster attack and kill Banner’s mother, with Banner watching as a child, unable to save her. And then, in a scene that will feel particularly resonant in relation to Inside Out, we see Banner realize that his younger self never really came to terms with what happened on an emotional level—because he was taught that emotions were bad:

BANNER: Cry, show some emotion.

YOUNG BANNER: Emotion’s bad. It hurts people.

BANNER: Not all emotion. Cry, blast it. Cry big racking sobs.

After Banner finishes pleading with his younger self, the green Hulk is released. We see now what the Hulks represent to Banner: the unleashed emotional and passionate parts of himself that he has always denied proper expression. It took a gamma bomb to unleash them, and even then, Banner tried for years to “cure” himself of them, to cut them out of himself. The reason his psyche is so splintered is because he had repressed his sadness at the time of his mother’s death. Samson’s goal in this particular therapy session is to get the pieces working together, not against each other any longer. He tells Betty Ross: “If we integrate the personalities, as I hope to, what we will get is a whole Bruce Banner, for the first time in years.”

Later, in another scene in Banner’s subconscious, we see that he carried his denial of emotional expression through even his college years. Here, we see Banner with a young woman who wants nothing more than to make love to him, but Banner responds: “I just have work to do, that’s all. This is college, not a playpen.” In this instance, it was the grey Hulk whom Banner was repressing. To return to the Gemes essay once again, he writes:

Aggressive drives, which are not viewed as acceptable, typically because acting on them would exact a painful retribution, are repressed to the point that one does not even acknowledge that one has such drives.

Due to his traumatic past and the strong repression of all of his emotions and passions, this is the situation in which Banner has found himself and which ultimately proved fertile ground from which to birth his Hulk personae.

Finally, toward the end of the issue, Banner confronts the monster in his subconscious: “You got so mad and I saw what emotions did and I…I was so…af…afraid…of buh-being like you.” With this admission, the monster begins to shrink and take the shape of a man—Brian Banner—before finally disintegrating. Now, Banner’s mother appears in his place and tells the two Hulks: “He needs you now. No more fighting.” They are hesitant, just as the dark half of Kirk was hesitant to be put back together again. But in the end, they concede. When Banner comes out of his post-hypnotic state, he is unlike he ever was before: finally, with all parts integrated into one, with Banner no longer repressing his emotions and passions, Banner has become a new merged Hulk—a super being with the strengths of all three parts, including Banner’s intellect, working together.

The Babadook

In the film The Babadook (written and directed by Jennifer Kent), we are faced with a protagonist, much like Bruce Banner, who has repressed a past trauma to the point that it is tearing her apart. Amelia (Essie Davis) is the widowed mother of a six-year-old boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We eventually learn that Amelia’s husband, Oskar, was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. And we soon discover that Amelia has never truly come to terms with this trauma and has repressed it (indeed, she even keeps all of Oskar’s possessions locked in her basement). Samuel sees that there is something going on with his mother, something changing within her, which is why he spends time developing weapons to use against the “monster” that he keeps thinking is going to get them.

This tense home life is complicated by the fact that Samuel’s birthday is coming up, a day that Amelia looks at more as the day her husband died than the day her son was born. Samuel has never even been allowed to celebrate his birthday on the actual day. Amelia does not do well around this time of the year, as a neighbor points out. And as her sister reminds her: “As soon as anyone mentions Oskar, you can’t cope.” But Amelia tries to hide it. When a co-worker asks her how she is doing, she says she is fine. He replies: “You don’t have to be fine, you know.”

We have already looked at the importance of allowing yourself to grieve in both Inside Out and The Incredible Hulk, but Amelia’s repression seems to be too deep. And just as Banner’s repressed feelings eventually forced themselves out as the two Hulks, Amelia’s repressed grief finds its own outlet for expression: a children’s book called The Babadook that Samuel asks her to read to him.

In the book, the titular Babadook is a dark figure with long fingers, a long coat, and a creepy hat who knocks on the door to a house demanding to be let in. Samuel is rightfully frightened by the chilling imagery, which seems to hit too close to home for him. Amelia is also disturbed and tries to get rid of the book, first by hiding it, then by ripping it apart, then by burning it—but it keeps coming back.

Finally, while looking at it again, she reads the line: “You start to change when I get in, the Babadook growing right under your skin.” And the Babadook does get in and change her. She starts lashing out at Samuel and threatening him. When Samuel tries calling their neighbor for help, Amelia cuts the phone line. She even snaps their dog’s neck. At this point, the Babadook is in complete control. But Samuel is prepared: he fights the Babadook with the weapons and traps he has prepared and helps his mother expunge the monster. But when it finally seems to be gone, Samuel recalls another line from the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Amelia has a final showdown with the monster in which she faces it in the same way in which Banner faced his monster in his subconscious: recognizing it for what it is. Ultimately, she makes peace with it, allowing it to remain alive in her basement where she can visit it and feed it. Of this ending, Jennifer Kent has stated in an interview:

We had many people fight the ending. I had to really defend that ending. To be perfectly honest, if I had to have killed that thing I wouldn’t have made the film. You can’t kill the monster, you can only integrate it. Even with Amelia, she can’t ever forget that her husband was killed in a car crash, that will never go away. So yeah, it’s the most crucial thing, to keep that thing alive on some level.

Like the other works we have discussed, the goal for Amelia in the film has been to face her repressed trauma and grief and sublimate it, to make it an integral part of herself. She can actually learn a thing or two about this from Samuel. At one point in the film, he learns about his neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease when he inquires why her hands shake. His mother is upset that he would have pried about this, but the neighbor says, “He wanted to know, so we talked about it.” And at the end of the film, when Amelia is meeting with government employees about Samuel’s schooling, and Samuel tells them about his birthday being the same day his dad died, she says: “Sam’s just like his dad, always speaks his mind.” The lesson for Amelia, then, is to talk about things and speak what’s on her mind, not to repress her feelings and pretend that everything is fine when it is not.

In her essay “Hannibal: Bedelia’s Dream and the True Face of Lecter,” Priscilla Page uses a quote from Joseph Campbell that is equally relevant to our discussion of sublimation and repression:

In the Greek, the demon is that unconscious impulse that is the dynamic of your life and which comes to you in vision and in dream, but in the Christian interpretation, it is a devil—all that a devil is is a repressed demon: one who has not been recognized, one that has not been given its dues, who has not been allowed to play into your life and so becomes a violent threat.

We have seen in The Incredible Hulk and in The Babadook how repressed demons can indeed become violent threats if not recognized and integrated via sublimation, and we have seen in Inside Out and “The Enemy Within” how seemingly dark, negative aspects of a person’s mind, if successfully sublimated, become positive and essential. But more importantly, I think these works can teach us to recognize these sorts of things going on in our minds and the minds of others. With any luck, they will help us sublimate our own monsters and demons into energies that we can harness and put toward positive and healthy ends. Because, as we have seen, we can’t kill the monsters; in fact, we may actually need them.

Further reading:

Tim’s Vermeer

Camera Obscura

Last week I attended a screening of Penn & Teller’s new documentary Tim’s Vermeer at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of their Talk Cinema series.  This screening (and the discussion that followed) was hosted by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.

As Burr warned us before the movie began, there would be a lot to talk about.  He was right.  But let’s take a look at the film first.

The film follows the inventor and engineer Tim Jenison as he attempts to recreate The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer using optical devices and mirrors that he believes (along with artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman) Vermeer must have used to obtain the photorealism present in his paintings.  There has always been a mystery surrounding Vermeer’s work, especially the fact that there are no signs below his paint that he was working from sketches.  Was he simply able to paint photorealistic paintings from memory?  Could he have had superior eyesight that would allow him to capture visual anomalies in his work that are normally hidden to the naked eye?

There has been a tendency throughout art history to romanticize Vermeer as a genius but never attempt to understand why he was a genius.  This is exactly what Tim sets out to understand in his experiment (which the film traces from conception to conclusion).  Though Tim is enthusiastic about proving his theory, there has been hesitation in academic circles to accept the theory popularized by Hockney and Steadman that Vermeer was aided by optics.  The reason for this is the increasingly outdated belief that the worth of an artwork is dependent on the amount of traditional skill and effort used to produce the piece.  Even though abstract and conceptual art have been dominant in the artworld for well over a century, this belief persists.  It still accounts for negative reactions that some people have toward art they do not understand, exemplified by the common reaction, “My kid could paint that.”  So why is it that people seem so unwilling to see technology as a useful aid to artists and not a dirty trick or a cheat?

Teller addresses this issue in an interview with The Village Voice, which Ty Burr also quoted from during our discussion:

I blame it on academia. Academics very often don’t have to do the art that they write about. They also don’t have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they’ve never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, “OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?” If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they’re not woofty. They don’t view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that’s in your heart to the heart of someone else.

What I noticed at the screening of the film at the Coolidge was that the audience was overwhelmingly open to accepting Vermeer in these terms.  When Ty Burr asked whether the use of technology should change our view of Vermeer as an artist, or if the technology is a “cheat” and makes Vermeer “lazy,” the audience responded “of course not.”  They reiterated a point made in the film that even Renaissance artists were aided by technology (e.g., the algorithm behind perspective) in their effort to increase the level of realism in their works.  It is a point I have often made in defending electronic music against accusations that the artists are not using “real” instruments: if that is your belief, you do not understand the meaning of the word “instrument.”  What Tim Jenison proves in the film is that there is still a lot of skill and effort involved in creating and manipulating the technology that one may use to create art.

That said, I am still not entirely comfortable judging an artwork based solely on the quantification of skill and effort supposedly put into it.  I would hope that the finished artwork ultimately matters more than the methods used in its creation.  Duchamp’s Fountain is still an important work, regardless of how “easy” it was for him to throw together.  Leaving Vermeer’s painting skills and use of technology aside for a moment, his paintings are still miracles of composition that can be appreciated aesthetically as masterpieces of 17th century Dutch art.  In other words, I think we can look at Vermeer as a proto-camera and judge his paintings by the same standards by which we now judge photographic art.  However, if your appreciation of these works is dependent on a romantic conception of Vermeer as a man struggling with just his brush and without the aid of any other tools to achieve his artistic goals, I would suggest that you are only appreciating a mere expenditure of energy and not necessarily the actual paintings.

With Vermeer’s legacy safe, at least among my fellow audience members, Ty Burr asked: “Is Tim an artist?”  One woman answered “no,” because Tim produced a copy of an already existent work.  I find it hard to argue with that point.  But I would like to add that, based on what we see of Tim’s methods in the film, he certainly can be an artist if he were to apply himself toward the creation of original works and submit them to the artworld for evaluation.  (Actually, the film asks what I find to be a more provocative question: “Is Tim an inventor or an artist, or is that distinction important?”)

Finally, “Is the film an artwork?”  In the same interview referenced above, Teller talks about the process of finding the film’s story from the 2,400 hours of footage that was shot:

I like that term, “narativizing.” It’s exactly right because, in real life, you don’t know the story of your day. If you get to the end of the day, and you get to your diary entry, you know what the story of your day was. We had four years of undifferentiated human experience that included a lot of technical stuff, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of dull stuff, and we had to go into that and say, “What is the core of the story?”

In finding the narrative, the form of a story within the chaos of footage, Teller, narrator Penn Jillette, and editor Patrick Sheffield clearly create a work of art.  The story is smart, moving, and funny, and it is scored elegantly by composer Conrad Pope.  The filmmakers even utilize Lightwave, a technology created by Tim’s company, to craft illustrative animations, proving that artists today are still using whatever means necessary to make the best art they possibly can.  Not only is Tim’s Vermeer such an artwork, it is also one of the standout documentaries of the year.

In closing, despite recent attempts by people like Leon Wieseltier to keep science and the humanities separate, as if the humanities were somehow threatened by science and technology, the relationship between science and art remains a fruitful one.  This film, and the work of Vermeer at its heart, are a testament to that.

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