Monday, June 09, 2008

Even MORE Shameless Self Promotion

This Saturday at 3pm, I am speaking at the Trinity Arts Conference, a conference for Christianity and the Arts.

The second film I will be screening is Sullivan's Travels. This is one of my favorite films ever, so if you don't like it, tough boogers, it is brilliant.

This is the speech I will give before the screening of the film. I am particularly proud of the fact I find a way to talk about pornography at a Christian Arts Conference in a way that shouldn't offend the attendees while at the same time slamming Thomas Kinkade.


I want to talk about pornography for a few minutes. I don’t want to talk about the genre of art, I want to talk about the word “pornography”. Because, like so many words in the English language, the meaning has changed over the years.

Traditionally, the word has been used for material with no artistic merit aside from the purpose of sexual arousal. But more and more often the word is now being used to describe anything that rouses an emotion without any real personal connection or engagement. The viewer may respond, but doesn’t really interact.

For example, when visiting a Mac store I overheard someone describing it as a “home for design porn.” The trendiest club in the trendiest part of town can be dismissed as “hipster porn.” Thomas Kinkade exemplifies “Impressionistic landscape porn.”

I’m talking about this because one of the more interesting film criticism essays I read this past year came from film critic Karina Longworth describing her addiction to, as she put it, Katrina porn.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was and still is a dark point in American history. It is also a very well-documented point in American history. In her essay, Ms. Longworth talks about being glued to the television for days watching the people on rooftops waving for help, the pleas written on bridges and roads, and the bodies floating in the water. She watched and rewatched these images, crying each time. She felt a rush of sentiment and emotion, but yet she did not perform any action except to keep watching. She did not donate blood. She did not volunteer her time or money. She did not help anyone. She just watched.

Once she realized what she was doing, and once she started recognizing what “Katrina porn” was, she decided to go cold turkey and avoid any media having to do with Katrina and its aftermath, lest she fall back into a zone of sentiment, tears, and inaction.

We live in a golden age of documentaries. The cost of gathering up a film crew and going someplace is a fraction of what it once was. All it really takes is determination and work to capture enough video or film footage to coast on a popular subject. And, in a post-Katrina world, film crews descended on a ruined New Orleans en masse.

This posed a bit of a problem for Ms. Longworth. Her job as a film critic was to review and discuss new independent films, but coming down the pike were several Katrina documentaries, some of which followed the documentary tradition of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock – a tradition that involves the filmmakers getting in front of the camera and acting like narrators and guides through the scenes of desolation. Which led some of us to ask this question – “Do we really need over-privileged filmmakers from New York explaining to us how the New Orleans poor suffered?”

Setting the cynicism aside for a second, I don’t really question the high-mindedness of these documentary projects. I believe the filmmakers started their projects with the best of intentions. However, there is a fine line between raising awareness of an issue and exploiting the issue, especially when you take your film to Sundance in hopes of making a big sale.


What does all of this have to do with a screwball comedy from 1941? Nothing and everything all at once.

The title character, Sullivan, starts out as high-minded and sincere as any of the Katrina documentarians. Early on in the film he talks about his next project - a film that acts as a commentary on the condition and dignity of the common man. He then seeks out the horrors of the Great Depression in an attempt to magically transform them into entertainment.

When I heard that “Change” was the theme of this year’s conference, this movie immediately leapt to mind. Like the collection of short films that comprise Paris, je t'aime, this film changes constantly. One second it is a fast-talking, dialogue-driven comedy and in the next it veers into silly slapstick or bedroom farce. But no matter how much the film changes, even when it gets dark, it remains completely true to itself and to the artistic vision of the writer/director, Preston Sturges.

And that is what is so fascinating about the film – no matter how much things change, the truth is always constant.


Courtney said...

Wow, what a great introduction! I now want to go see a bunch of movies. Ideally in Dallas. Bravo!

M. Robert Turnage said...

We are just reaching that time of year where going to the movies is the only thing you can do for fun because it is so hot outside.

This introduction is a reworked blog entry draft for my I'll-get-back-to-it-eventually film thoughts/criticism blog, Not the Younglings!

I'm trying to find Karina's original discussion of Hurricane Katrina porn, but it just isn't happening right now. This probably means she didn't post it on the blog (where she writes) but instead recorded it for FilmCouch, the podcast. If I can find the episode, I'll post a link here in the comments.

Because there ain't no way I'm Googling "Katrina Porn" to look for it.

Oh, and you should at least rent "Sullivan's Travels." It is quite excellent.

Tera said...

Porn talk at a Christian Arts Conference??? Priceless!

I always wondered what one has to do to be a qualified film critic, because so often I love the stuff that gets thumbs down!

M. Robert Turnage said...

All you need to have is an opinion to be a critic. The trick is getting people to pay you for your opinion.