“You take chicken, for example: maybe they couldn’t figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything.” -Mouse- The Matrix
My wife and I aren’t regular movie goers. We catch a few of the big new releases during the summer (especially Science Fiction-Superhero releases (I’m a sucker for that)), but we’ll miss a lot of movies and opt to put them on our Netflix queue or just forget about them. So, seeing Hangover Part III, being released recently, we bumped the first movie in the trilogy up to the top of the queue.
Yesterday, we watched it.
We didn’t laugh at all during the whole movie. Yet Roger Ebert (actually a critic I agree with a lot of the time) pronounced, “Now this is what I’m talkin’ about. The Hangover is a funny movie, flat out, all the way through. Its setup is funny. Every situation is funny. Most of the dialogue is funny almost line by line.” So why did Ebert’s pronouncement not agree with our experience? Why did we not find the movie funny?
I suspect that the reason we found the movie not funny is that the premise of the movie — a group of 3 white guys take their friend to Las Vegas for his bachelor party a couple of days before his wedding and chaos ensues (but not told in a linear fashion) — immediately set us off. First, we debated for a couple of years about what type of wedding we should have before, two years ago, getting married on Memorial Day with a some people we knew well and others who happened to come for this camping/rafting weekend because they knew friends of ours. The wedding wasn’t planned, didn’t include bachelor and bachelorette parties, didn’t have an elaborate reception or other trappings of a traditional American wedding, and we decided to get married that morning. It was impulsive, touching, and basically, selfishly, for us. So while we’ve certainly been to planned, elaborate weddings, we tend to think most are a little over the top and thus don’t get what the whole fuss is all about. Second, neither one of us is a big fan of Vegas. Seeing the opening shots of the Bellagio Fountains immediately brought to mind this quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.” And third, the movie could almost be summed up as a sort of every day white man’s version of Fear and Loathing. They go to Vegas, do a lot of drinking and drugging, lose control and get away with it. Of course, the sad truth is white men get away with it all the time. Thus we didn’t find the movie funny at all.
So what does this have to do with aesthetics?
Aesthetics is loosely defined as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” Even more loosely, and for the purposes of this essay, aesthetics is the characteristics that make up something we like and why. Thus, staying with the Vegas example, the aesthetics of Vegas are: loud, flashy, big, wealth, polish, promise and it conflicts with a lot of my own aesthetics: subtle, sublime, realistic, and authentic.
Las Vegas is not subtle. And while watching the Bellagio Fountains is certainly impressive, I certainly don’t think it rates as sublime when compared to the Grand Canyon, Delicate Arch, Monument Valley, even the man-made Hoover Dam. Las Vegas represents, in my opinion, humanity’s arrogance: a sort of flouting of our own command and control over nature such that we can put a city of 1.5 million people in the desert and create a sort of urban paradise where anything can happen. Life is not supposed to be lived this way. Being in Vegas, while fun, certainly doesn’t make me feel more connected to my life, doesn’t make my life any more authentic.
Prior to my making of the Albuquerque Slam Team in 2002 for the first time, I spent a lot of time practicing in my living room. Living by myself, I also hosted a lot of traveling poets, and one of those poets was Buddy Wakefield. One day Buddy arrived when I was performing one of the poems I was thinking about doing at the Grand Slam that year. It was a hard poem to do, and while it ranks as perhaps my best slam poem, it’s a poem I don’t really like to perform. So as I talked with Buddy, I asked, “So do you think I should slam with this poem?”
And he asked one simple question in response, “Is it true?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Then do it.”
It was lesson I’ve tried to keep in mind for years now. I’m not an actor performing works written by other people. I’m performing work I’ve written; work that is authentically mine. So what does it mean when I say that I like art that is authentic?
Authentic art can’t be copied because the connection from the artist to the art is so intertwined that only that artist with their collected experiences, intelligence, and creativity could create that piece. While it’s true that the multitude of variables that go into the creation of any art prevent two pieces from being identical, I’d say that is originality not authenticity. Every poem that I write is original, yet not all of them are authentic. As artists we always create art that is original, and as consumers we consume a lot of art that is original yet not authentic. It’s inevitable. So when Buddy asked me, “Is it true?” he wasn’t passing a judgment on my ability to create an original poem, but he was asking if the poem was authentic.
As I watch television and movies, read books, go to live performances, I get the sneaky suspicion that people, not just me, are missing something. The art that is being consumed doesn’t fill us up most of the time, so we see another movie, stream or make sure we’re home at the right time for another television show, read the “latest” author, parade through galleries and museums, and check off an imaginary list of Broadway shows, plays, and music concerts. We’re routinely being fed a diet of entertainment that is labeled as “Art” when what we want is “Art.” Yet, we don’t really know what “Art” is. So to wrap up part one of this essay, I’ll spell out my first point, “Art is authentic.”