A pirate walked up to me in the mall this holiday weekend as I was loitering outside of Anthropologie, waiting with only moderatre patience for The Artist. “Hey big man, I’ve got Pirates and Shrek 3 on DVD. Twenty bucks.” I shooed him away with a suave “belay me buck-o, and be about yer business.” But I also found it strange to be offered a pirated Pirates of the Caribbean – for which I’d laid out considerable scratch at the local cineplex two nights previous. Then again, perhaps twenty bucks was a bargain. Why shouldn’t the Motion Picture Association endorse pirating a movie that glamorizes rapine plunder?
Pirates3 gets a sad thumbs down from this reviewer: it’s too long, too unemotional, and too driven by computer graphics and a thick and clumsy plot (if it can be called that at all) that had me trying to fathom the many competing pirate curses that seemed to spout up like stranded whales as excuses for some battle or swordfight. A huge Hollywood mess, in other words – one that will rake in tens of millions of dollars (a success!) and satisfy audiences’ desire for a big, sweeping epic. Problem is, this thing screams “big sweeping epic!” without actually providing the sweep. Or for that matter, a single convincing character…save one.
And I’m not talking about Keira Knightley, though her presence – all angular profile and Oxbridge enunciation – is one of the few reasons to sit through the flick.
There is a scene in The Plague, the relentessly grim post-war novel by existential icon Albert Camus, that still shocks: the hopeless, tortured death struggle of a beloved child – made worse by his father’s plea to the protagonist Dr. Rieux to “save my boy.” It’s a scene (and I say “scene” because I find Camus to be deliberately cinematic) that does not dissolve; it remains with anyone who reads it.
The wrestling match with mortality drew me back to Camus recently, perhaps by my own creeping middle age and perhaps by the events of recent years. The war is endless, yet soldiers perservere. They serve and die. Why? This question is at the center of The Plague, where the death count is not man-made at all, but just inherent to the imperfection of life. The standard view of Camus always comes back to this question: if we’re all fated to die anyway, what’s the purpose, what’s the reason?
But that’s too simple, really. It neglects all the flavors of experience in The Plague, which features a wide and interesting group of characters, all trapped in plague-ridden Oran for months. The North African city (as yet unblemished by the violent Arab revolt and French reprisals of a few years later) turns inward upon itself as the bacillus spreads and kills. Camus makes wonderful use of architecture and weather, using the layout of the city to create a vivid portrait of a closed port with armed guards on the city walls.
Further, The Plague is so clearly a post-war work – indeed, it is often at odds with purity of philosophy in Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus essay, which was published in 1942. The long war and its mass murder revelations made the “purely absurd” view of human existence seem frivolous; this is my view, Camus never said it. But there is no view of the trial of Oran’s disease-stricken citizens that suggests pure absuridity, pure existentialism. Indeed, human love is a strong motivator and some characters chart a noble path of sacrifice. Even religion is not entirely mocked; the pompous priest still achieves some respect.
It’s not that Holland Cotter is routinely deranged; the Times art critics wrote a wonderful piece debunking the common myths surrounding Islamic art a while back, and maintains a healthy distrust of the invesstment-fueled “art market” as a driver of real taste and value. No, Cotter is solid. He did, however, become conspicuously unhinged and scatter his critical parts like some culturally-disjointed Mr. Potato Head all over the Times‘ art section last Friday.
Holland Cotter, it seems, reveres not the accomplishments of Edward Hopper.
Ostensibly, Cotter was criticizing a retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, but his real target was Hopper’s reputation as a master of American art. Cotter attempts to tear Hopper down, remove that master tag, and relegate him to the dreaded status of “clever.”
To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot Ã¢â‚¬â€ no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on.
Get the hint? Hopper was “shrewd” and did a lot with a little talent, by using cinematic suspense; he borrowed the flourishes of others like some velvet-Elvis-painting crafts show salesman moving twenty-dollar units out of the back of his minivan at the flea market. Sniff-sniff, not real art at all.