Great art often times is born out of pain. Likewise great art can also inflict pain with its insight and eye (and wound) opening familiarity.
A good example of both is one of my all-time favorite CDs, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. The music portrays Lennon's feelings about the Beatles breaking up, the need for the Beatles to break up, his alienation about the world's rejection/revulsion of his relationship with Yoko Ono, and the after effects of his recent Primal Scream therapy where he literally tried to scream out the demons of hurts past- going all the way back to the death of his mother in his childhood.
It's an emotionally searing CD, difficult to listen to in life's lighter moments and as deeply personal and painful as the music is, it ultimately always leaves me feeling like I do after a long cry- sad, drained but somehow refreshed at finally letting out (and go) of some of the pain. Lennon screams and whimpers (and whispers) his way through music used as a cathartic device. The songs aren't as universal as say Lennon's best Beatles work like "In My Life" or "I Should Have Known Better" yet it is a fascinating study of an artist using his art to painfully express himself.
I kept thinking about this while watching Mike Nichols' new film Closer. The movie is not a pleasant viewing experience. It's basic purpose seems to be to make the viewer feel uncomfortable as we watch four not so nice people manipulate and hurt each other in malicious ways.
These people know the concepts of love and intimacy yet they don't seem to believe in the benefits of either.
I went to Closer with the New York Bound Blue-eyed Editor and she of course was the most appropriate one of my friends to go with since one of the great things about our relationship is the ability to talk about the relationships in our lives. After a tasty sushi dinner at the impressively refurbished Sakura in downtown St. Paul (where she made the observation the restaurant was full of very old people and very attractive young women) we were off to the movie.
Closer isn't exactly a date movie, more of a cinematic portrayal of what Liz Phair sings about in her "Divorce Song." "It's better to be friends than lovers/And you shouldn't try and mix the two/Because if you do it andyou're still unhappy/Then you know that the problem is you..." except one could argue that none of the characters in the film is a friend of any of the others.
Just like the state of the fish I had just eaten- the movie is full of raw emotion as two couples (played by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen) screw with each other both literally and figuratively. Based on a play by Patrick Marber- Nichols' doesn't quite successfully transfer the story on to film- it feels staged and the dialogue driven story makes it feel like these actresses and actors are acting their brains out making us care even less about utterly unlikable characters.
But Closer is well made, thought provoking and ultimately a movie that etches its way into your psyche and irritates as it enlightens. Maybe none of us is quite capable of behaving as cruelly and selfishly as these characters yet there is something ever so recognizable about our ever present ability to hurt (and devastate) those that care about us most (and vice versa). Closer clearly cements the point that some people tell the truth in difficult circumstances despite the fact it will hurt another, others do the same precisely because they know it will hurt the other. And the consequences can be equally severe. Any revelations gained by the characters comes way too late. Or as Roger Ebert accurately writes in his thumbs up review of the movie, "Is there anything more pathetic than a lover who realizes he (or she) really is in love, after all the trust has been lost, all the bridges burnt and all the reconciliations used up?"
A better example of art as a painful experience is the BBC television series The Office. The 12 episode show is a devastating portrayal of human behavior in the workplace setting of a paper merchant.
Having heard and read great things about the series (including glowing recommendations from the Reporter and her husband The Attorney and also David Letterman who said that after having watched the show he didn't need to watch any more TV since nothing could ever be better), I have to admit my high expectations were not met by the first few episodes.
My measuring stick for television excellence of course is Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Office as clever as it is, doesn't have the emotional layers of the best Buffy episodes. The humor of the show (brought out effectively by the pseudo-documentary style) is based on how unaware human beings can be of the way others truly view each other. Ricky Gervais plays the manager of the office, David Brent, note perfect as David who thinks he is beloved by his staff couldn't be a bigger putz. The rest of the cast of the show is equally stellar, particularly Mackenzie Crook who plays the militaristic Gareth Keenan, Brent's assistant manager who is perhaps the most likable TV creep of all time.
The Office isn't exactly situational based comedy as the storylines are organic and subtle. Rather the plots are character driven often times based on the childish observations of David and Gareth. Yet it isn't exactly humor based on stupid behavior; instead the show makes you uncomfortable at how utterly clueless the characters are about their own behavior. The show doesn't seem to want to make you laugh comfortably but rather laugh nervously as you cringe at the dynamics of the interactions of the workplace.
The heart of The Office comes from a not to be, and at times painfully mis-timed romance between the two most sympathetic characters, Tim and Dawn. Tim sits next to Gareth and spends half of his time egging on his co-worker's worst tendencies and the other half of the time astounded by Gareth's sometimes rather psychotic thoughts. Dawn, the receptionist seems at a loss at what to do about her life, her relationships (she's engaged to an obnoxious warehouse worker) and her feelings for Tim.
The show's funniest moments are when David does something he thinks will make him more liked, but his behavior is absurdly inappropriate and the others in the office just stare at him in disbelief. The show is good at bringing the viewer into a familiar place htat exists in a thousand other places yet turning the situation on its head and deriving laughs from how painful human interaction (and the lack thereof) can be.
My favorite of the twelve episodes (not counting the superb finale) is an episode where David is hired to be a motivational speaker for those looking to get ahead in business. He says all the same mumbo jumbo business speak that is spoken at every business seminar held anywhere in the world but as he tries to work the stunned audience up with his brand of humor and entertainment he just leaves everybody's mouth agape at his ever so terribly misplaced energy.
Yet the serie's big payoff is extremely effective because the humor is so deeply rooted in pain reminding us of the close relationship between tragedy and comedy. We laugh because the alternative is to squirm. Thus in the final moments as a light bulb illuminates in David's heretofore clueless mind, it truly is a touching thing to watch and feel.