Tuesday, June 29, 2004

THE SALIERI LESSON

Seeing “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” this past weekend was a strong delineation of the difference between competence and artistry -- a valuable lesson for those convinced that “I can do that.”

People have always said “I can do that” or “my kid could do that,” often when looking at modern art. Technological advances, alas, have allowed them to follow through on these threats. Desktop publishing let everyone be graphic designers or news magnates. Now computer graphics programs, digital video editing and DVD burners are turning everyone’s children into auteurs. Recent print-on-demand progress gives the same everyones, especially those in New Jersey, the ability to walk into a store with a disk and walk out with an ISBN, 10 copies of a book and a $150 hole in their pocket. Soon those books will be stored on the Internet for downloading and printing, one at a time, from anywhere in the world. Then, truly, will everyone be a published author, just like everyone I know, among them this guy, that chick or the other person.

But should everyone be able to create whatever they want? In the United States, the first instinct is to say, “Yes, of course, with certain exceptions in the medical and munitions fields.” That’s what freedom means, we think. But some wild-card strain of Mencken elitism should assert itself from our collective DNA to rescue us from the hell of endless amateurism, although it is not difficult now to find examples of even top-paid professionals in various fields who’d do well to retire and spare us their mediocrity. Let the Salieris stay home, leaving the public its Mozarts.

Among the Mozarts is director Alfonso Cuaron, whose work on the third Harry Potter film revealed Chris Columbus’ work on the first two to be agonizing hack work -- so bad that “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” watched in preparation for “Azkaban,” remains the only DVD I’ve ever rented for which I could not bring myself to watch the deleted scenes. The movie was so dull and artificial that merely ejecting it from my player was a relief. Watching it made me feel dirty. Like the first film, it suck-diddily-ucked. Cuaron’s Harry Potter was something of a revelation, though, dark and wonderful.

In short, Cuaron is a director. Columbus has been allowed to direct through a combination of low expectations and good connections. (Although I enjoyed “Adventures in Babysitting” in a cheesy way.)

I first learned the Salieri lesson years ago trying to eat at Tacos Lupita in Somerville. It was closed that day, so our group traveled on to Union Square to try a new Mexican eatery we’d spotted. The atmosphere there was very basic, like Tacos Lupita, and the food was uninspired -- unlike Tacos Lupita, whose solid, savory dishes work the kind of transformative magic native to all good cooking, with every ingredient soloing in harmony. Like Columbus and Cuaron, it is possible to take the same basic ingredients, whether it’s a novel or beans, rice and guacamole, and reveal that some people can synthesize it into something incredible while others will just make a bland mush.

As a further example, the pictures I take with my digital camera range from mediocre to awful, and I acknowledge sadly that an actual photographer, as in someone with the skill to do it for a living, could use it, or a box with a hole in it, or possibly a fish and a paper clip, to make photos ranging from fantastic to brilliant.

There are artists out there. For the rest of us, it may be the most noble thing to recognize that we are not artists -- and let the others take the lead on such things as directing films, cooking or photography.

Applying this philosophy raises significant questions about this blog, of course, but at least I’m not taking food off the table of professional bloggers, or even inflicting it on the unsuspecting for money.

1 comment:

Brian Wanamaker said...

Though the phrase "the hell of endless amateurism" is going into my personal lexicon, I disagree about the concept that anyone is suffering by the plethora of amateurs that are available in the world, and whom are increasingly enabled by endlessly lowering costs of technology. Bad music, bad design, bad art, and perhaps closest to your mark, bad poetry are rife in the world. The marvelous bit is that on the web we can choose to peer at it, as we might a car accident that has occurred on a coincident venue, or we can avert our eyes by essentially entirely and instantly changing our location. But there is also goodness out there in the 10% That Is Not Shit. Shirky's oft-referenced Big Flip is in mid-occurence, whether or not those who would control taste-trends approve or not. So while looking for the non-RIAA
affiliated gems of independent music, of which there are many, we are free to switch our input with greater ease than standing up and leaving a concert.

In real life, in meatspace, some of these are a little harder to overcome. The hack band at the coffeehouse where you only wanted to read and sip some joe, the poorly laid out menu in the otherwise charming mom-n-pop restaurant, or the girlfriend who couldn't make it as a writer-actress, and consequently makes up stories and acts them out for you -- well, yes, these are hazards.

However the on-demand print forum, provided the books are not geas'd in some form or another, are not subject to the on-demanding-read audience. Someone is going to have to sell those books at a minimum US$15 to not lose money (for the minimum order on the run), and that assumes they'll be able to move all ten copies.

I would like to draw your attention to one thing to which I will apply the "hell of endless amateurism": the covers of booksbybookends' books.

Good god, they make me want to claw out my fucking eyes. I have no doubt a first-year design student, or talented amateur could produce more attractive covers than these. And these are the set covers for actual masterpieces, which leads me to instruct you, rather pedantically, back to that adage about books, covers, and judging them thereby.