Good Art / Bad Subjects

This article started conceptually as a review/discussion of the movie Nightcrawler, similar to my “review” of Interstellar, but over time I realized that there were themes here that weren’t specific to any single movie or piece of art. What I really wanted to write about was the juxtaposition of high-quality art depicting terrible events or people. It wasn’t just that I wanted to dissect my views of Nightcrawler. Instead, as I contemplated exactly what my feelings were about that film, I realized that the crux of that discussion is really how to deal with art that makes us feel very badly. So let’s begin.


When I talk to people about Nightcrawler, I find myself using one phrase over and over again. “It was a brilliantly made film,” I’ll say, “but I don’t know that I can say ‘I liked it’ because it was so unlikable as a story.” Yes, the technical aspects of the film are done very well indeed. The acting, the lighting, the angles of the shots. I’m not a filmmaker, so I can’t expertly go into detail on all the gritty aspects of filmmaking—on the nuts and bolts and whatnot—but I can say that I “got” the repeated motifs of the city skyline at night/dawn/midday and I thought that many of the sets and clothing selections and acting choices were spot-on. The dialogue was great, the story progressed at a reasonable rate (i.e. it didn’t seem to lag behind where I thought it should be, didn’t seem to skip over anything, developed in a steady crescendo instead of jumping inconsistently to specific plotpoints… which is all to say, I guess, that it flowed). It’s a film I would recommend. But I’m interested in parsing out what it means to like such a film, or to say that I did.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is essentially a character piece. It is designed to show you a specific character whose development is the meat of the film. Instead of a specific event, theme, or story per se, the film’s main character is the story. He’s the big deal. So you follow, in Nightcrawler, a character played by Jake Gyllenhall (to devastating effect, I might add) who discovers that he can make money by becoming a “nightcrawler”—a term that refers to people who capture video footage of tragedies/crimes in order to sell the footage to local media. Gyllenhall’s character is out to make money, out to make a name for himself. Out to succeed. But the problem is that he’s a sociopath. Or a psychopath. Or maybe both. I’m fuzzy on the terminology.

I won’t spoil any of the major developments in the film, but you can basically watch the first five minutes and figure out that Gyllenhall is a monster inside. I don’t know if he doesn’t have feelings, if he’s repressed them, or if he has feelings but they’re just aligned differently than normal folks’. But I do know that every aspect of this film is meant to show his character’s sinister uniqueness. Every aspect is meant to be unsettling. That’s the adjective that most describes this movie. It is unsettling in a way that even most horror films—perhaps even many of the good ones—don’t match. It is lingeringly unsettling. And after months of contemplation I’ve realized the main reason why this is so—why this movie captures something unsettling that I think few other pieces of art have captured for me: it is because it is so well made. That’s the simple reason. Gyllenhall is this character. And the movie is so wrapped up in him, so expertly crafted to make you identify with him (even while not sympathizing with him) that by the end of the film you feel like his mental disorder has reached into you, has tainted you. I walked away from that theater feeling as if maybe a piece of me had become marred by watching it, like a duck that swims through an oil slick and finds its feathers coated so that it can’t fly. The film stuck to me in some way.

What would it mean to “like” something like this—something that effects you in (possibly) seriously negative ways? The film is brilliantly made, I’ll say again, and so therefore do we come away from it having learned something valuable? Have we encountered an evil that we are now better equipped to combat—or does coming into contact with a character like this harm us in a real way, infect us with some of the same outlooks on life? I don’t know the answer, so if you’re looking for one you may want to stop reading. But to explore the issue more, I need to deal with some other artworks and how they disturbed me.

There Will Be Blood

One of the masters of the modern character study is director Paul Thomas Anderson. Although I felt that his recent film The Master was a bit too odd and didn’t “go anywhere” thematically (for me), one of my favorite films of all time is There Will Be Blood. Maybe it’s my obsession with Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe it’s that I watched it as an angst-ridden late-to-post-teen, but something about the film stayed with me. Like Nightcrawler, its main character is not a likable guy. He’s a sociopathic madman trying to get rich. Nobody else seems to matter to him, and it’s not as if the movie ends with some kind of righteous, he-got-what-he-deserved moment. Spoiler: he gets his riches in the end. He succeeds at his goal(s)—virtually all of them. But to me there is one specific difference that makes me feel less marked, less internally messed-about-with, than Nightcrawler.

In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’ character suffers one significant loss. I don’t want to exaggerate it too much and say that there is a sense of retribution by the end. There really isn’t. But the scene in which his son basically leaves him for good has an aura of real, profound loss in it. Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview may act heartless and uncaring, he may have just disowned his son by saying some of the most heart-wrenching, hurtful things one can say to one’s child, but you get a glimmer of an expression on his face that he has just lost someone he actually deeply cared about—literally the only person he actually deeply cared about. This is foreshadowed by the absolutely stunning “I abandoned my child” baptism scene. Both are the kind of scenes that make you pause for a moment and utter curse words in your deepest unconscious.

In Nightcrawler, though, Gyllenhall is a consistent sociopath. He legitimately doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything other than his own desires, his own needs, his own success. There is no scene in which I thought to myself “okay, he’s a monster, but he just felt something profoundly sad there.” He gets upset only when his own goals are undermined, only when his own ambitions are contested. On one hand, it is interesting to me that a film has been made in which the “sociopath” seems to behave consistently as such. On the other: damn, he’s a sociopath. Perhaps it is this very thing that makes the movie so disturbing to me in a way that even There Will Be Blood was not. In Nightcrawler, there is no redemption—not even in the slight, almost subconscious way that There Will Be Blood exhibits.

Incarnations of Burned Children

I’m going to shift to the written word for a second, mainly because I want to deal with how this sort of weird juxtaposition of good art and bad things works differently in different media. I prefer my television shows to be comedic and my books to be sad. It’s the center of a whole personal media-based theory I’m developing about my watching/reading habits. (I can obviously “enjoy” a good melancholic movie [see above], but for whatever reason I don’t like super depressing t.v. shows. Exhibit A: I’ve quit both Madmen and Breaking Bad within like six episodes because I could tell it was going to be too depressing for me—and I DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR THIS.) I don’t know why this is so—I just know that a lot of the books I like are depressing and I’ve even been accused of writing almost exclusively depressing stories.

Even so, there is a limit. Like in the case of Nightcrawler, there is a point at which a story so accurately captures irredeemable tragedy without flinching that it leads me to feel sick to my stomach. My go-to reference for this type of thing is and probably always will be the short story “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by my all-time favorite author, David Foster Wallace. As the title suggests, the story is about a small child (still in diapers, in fact) who accidentally pulls over a pot of boiling water onto himself. The story’s few pages (I just checked and it’s all of like two pages… but even just checking the length made me read a few sentences and now I feel utterly wrong inside, no joke) pack a horrific punch. The language is not just beautifully written—it’s almost perfectly so. DFW’s art is so precise and cohesively thought-out that you feel in the story in a way that few other pieces of literature have made me feel. And he uses this to show you, without blinking or shyly turning aside from the real horror, just how—excuse my language here—but just how fucking horrifying our world can be (and is). You come away realizing within your person that something has shifted, something has irrevocably popped into focus for you about this world. You will not be the same again. You cannot be.

Is this good art? If you’ve read my definition of art in previous entries on this website, you’ll know that I consider “art” to be, essentially, communication—and “good” art to be effectively communicated. In that sense, this story (and Nightcrawler, and all the other examples of nearly pure art that get at something so bleak/sad/terrible that it leaves you sort of stained) is a work of exceedingly good art. But the question I struggle with is: is this good? Like the old adage says, ignorance is bliss. Ought we to remain blissfully ignorant of the horrifying world around us or, conversely, ought we to seek out these life-changing works of art that can show us what reality is like? I mean, we can’t fix problems without knowing that they’re there, right? So in some sense this sort of awakening that I’m talking about is vitally important. It can move us to action. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel too great. I have a strong feeling that I (and other writers/artists/musicians/etc.) make our own depressing art as a method of coping with our own existential pain—often after experiencing personal tragedy or, at the very least, partaking of someone else’s art that, like “Incarnations of Burned Children,” presses our very noses into the bad things of this world. Is this a cycle that is worthwhile? Alternatively, can it be helped? Humans have been making art for millennia as a way of escaping the horrors of the world. It seems to be something ingrained on our very nature.

Dear Zachary

This brings me to possibly the most eye-opening, soul-crushing, I’ve-just-transcended-some-kind-of-collective-malaise-and-have-now-become-a-blubbering-mess piece of art I’ve ever encountered. I won’t go into too much detail (as is usually my wont when talking about these things) for fear of spoiling the experience for someone else. Although, really, the experience itself sort of spoils you, as by now you’ve probably grown tired of me saying. What I’m talking about is the documentary Dear Zachary.

In short, the doc is a filmmaker’s tribute to his friend’s son—because the friend was murdered by the mother of the child. Did you get that? Basically, one man had a child with a woman, who then killed him, and then that man’s friend decided to make a documentary for the child in order to give the child a glimpse of what the father was like. I hope that explains both the general idea of the documentary and why it’s an utter tear-jerker.

Again, what seems to be the crux of my issue here is that what makes the documentary so powerful is how well-made it is. The director expertly maneuvers the elements of the film—its sequence, its interviews, its music, etc.—to deliver what amounts to a spiritual knockout punch. I “recommended” the doc to a friend of mine who we sometimes (jokingly) accuse of being emotionless and his response was basically “why the hell did you do that to me?” It strikes the viewer at one of the deepest possible levels. And I think that’s what I’ve been sort of circulating around in this article so far. What makes these pieces of art so devastating and even more intensely unsettling than a movie like There Will Be Blood (that is, honestly, itself a very bleak and depressing story) is that they succeed at peeling away all of our personal defenses. They get at the heart of us, as cheesy and unhelpful as such a cliché sounds.

This one is a bit different, though, because the subject matter isn’t fictional. This is real. This is reality. Sure, a documentarian crafts his film to make a certain point—that’s what makes him an artist. But the fact remains that this is still the story of the tragic loss of a life that actually happened. And so it goes a step beyond where “Incarnations…” and Nightcrawler can go. Dear Zachary forces us to confront the fact that this isn’t all just some story written down to deal an emotional blow, and it isn’t just a character study in the vein of “what-if.” Rather, it’s a reality. This is our world. This is what it’s like. And that’s why those other works pack the punch they do: they ring true.

A Couple Paintings That Speak to Me on a Similar Level

Don’t worry, reader. I know this has been a longer journey than most of the stuff we post on this website. Heck, it’s longer than most of the stuff I post on this website, which is saying something. But we’re nearing the end. Bear with me for a few paragraphs.

I want to talk about two paintings that, for me, represent the kind of existentially unsettling art that I’m talking about. They are, in order, Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan and Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. See them below:

Now, let’s set aside the facts that (a) a lot of the stuff in this article deals with sons and fathers and (b) I myself am the father of two sons. While that probably makes the impact a little worse for me than it would be if I wasn’t a father, I watched Dear Zachary and There Will Be Blood before having kids and so I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m a dad that makes these pieces of art so intensely unsettling to me. (I’ve decided on that word to describe them all, by the way: “unsettling.” See the paragraphs about this kind of art’s ability to wake you up from what is essentially a slumber, a deadness to what the world is like at its core. We become settled in life, assured of the big picture and our relative contentedness, and then a piece of art like this comes along to unsettle us and make us deal with the horrors that have always been there, masked beneath our ease and comfort.)

What I think is so moving about these two paintings is the respective artists’ ability to capture facial expressions. Look at the eyes of Ivan and Saturn. Look at them and tell me they don’t say “what have I done? What am I doing?” It’s a kind of layered effect, the terribleness of the events in question and the eyes’ remorse. Ivan cradles his son, desperate, it seems to me, to undo the event that has just transpired. Saturn seems caught in a whirlwind of fate—I’ve always imagined his eyes to be the real glimpse into his soul, seemingly saying “I don’t want to do this to my son, but I can’t stop. I can’t stop.” Then you move on to the rest of the paintings with that in mind, and the artists paint the tragedy, like DFW, unflinchingly. The blood runs down the sons’ necks. The fathers clench the sons’ bodies to themselves—one in uncontrollable hunger, one in despair. And I’m left staring at these paintings, my heart in my stomach, knowing that I will come back to these images again. I’ll look at them again. But I can’t say I “like” them. They’ve changed me in a way that I can’t undo, even if I wanted to—and though sometimes I want to, I’m not even sure I should.

This article started out as an attempt to review Nightcrawler. It became something else by its end. A depiction of my struggle with amazing art that, basically, hurts me? A kernel for a discussion on what it means to say we “like” such art? A way for me to ask permission to like them while not liking them? I don’t know. I haven’t resolved anything here. I know I’ll keep reading depressing things, keep watching depressing movies. There is something beyond articulation that draws me to them, some desire for transcendence, for catharsis. But is it worth it all? I’m interested in your ideas, though in reality I’m sure that someone who frequents a website about art/creativity/the soul/spirituality will end up in a similar place, will have resigned herself, as I have, to this dichotomy. What can we say about such things? What kind of box can we put this art in? I don’t have the answer. Maybe there isn’t one.