(Guest post by Greg Forster)
I don’t get to see many movies anymore – at least, not many by my standards. And when you can only see maybe four to six movies a year in the theater, you’re going to end up seeing the obvious ones - Batman, Star Trek, whatever Pixar does this year, etc.
But there was a time when we used to see a lot of movies. And that meant we had the luxury of picking through the enormous pile of garbage that is the arthouse and finding the few movies that make the arthouse worth going to. So I’m going to start using our Pass the Popcorn feature to show off some of our “finds,” in the hope that they won’t fade too far into obscurity.
The Red Violin stars Samuel L. Jackson as the most badass professional musical instrument appraiser you will ever see depicted on screen. I’m serious, don’t mess with this guy. At one point a clerk fails to deliver an important package to him promptly, and he tears into the clerk so hard I thought he was about to start reciting passages from Ezekiel.
“And you will know my name is the LORD when I lay my violin upon thee!”
OK, now that I’ve sold Matt, here’s what the rest of you need to know.
The movie tells the story of a violin that was created by a Renaissance Italian craftsman as his greatest masterwork. Over the course of the movie, the action shifts back and forth between three storylines.
In 17th century Italy, we see the craftsman’s initial aspiration – to create an instrument worthy of his love for his unborn child, due to arrive any day, to whom he intends to give the violin as a gift. But in a surprise twist at the end, the violin comes to have a different, but equally profound, significance for him.
In our own time, the violin is going up for auction. Everyone else thinks the violin is nothing special, but badass appraiser Samuel L. Jackson suspects otherwise – that it may be the long-lost “red violin” made by that famous Italian craftsman. Once the truth becomes known, everyone wants the violin – but nobody other than Jackson wants it for the right reason, leading to a surprise twist at the end in which Jackson triumphs over the greed and pride of his adversaries.
In between, we see what happened to the violin as it travelled around the world between its creation and its eventual rediscovery. Each vignette in this storyline illustrates the characteristic ways in which different civilizations have responded to the mystery of great art.
18th century Vienna is so obscessed with technical skill that art is reduced to mere performance – the ability to play very complex pieces very fast is valued above beauty. Following this path ultimately leads to the reduction of art into the novelty act of child prodigies – because the younger you are, the more amazing your skill is, and that’s all that counts. Form obliterates matter, and since form can’t exist without matter, it obliterates itself, ending in tragedy.
In Victorian England, by contrast, “art” is put up on a pedastal and idolized. “Creativity” is fetishized to the point where mere novelty and thrill displace beauty, just as mere technique had displaced it a century earlier. Craftsmanship goes out the window in favor of irresponsible artistic self-indulgence. Matter obliterates form, and since matter can’t exist without form, it obliterates itself, ending in tragedy.
In 20th century China, during the cultural revolution, just to have an interest in art as such is a life-threatening proposition. The state holds that art, like everything else, exists only for political ends, so the desire to make art for the sake of beauty is an act of treason against the people. Far worse to make art that has western origins, given the regime’s awkward attempt to fuse its totalitarian ideology with crude appeals to nationalistic Chinese chauvanism. Yet in the end, the totalitarians prove as incapable of eradicating the desire for beauty as they are at eradicating any of the other fundamental desires of human nature.
What do we want beauty for? All answers other than “we want it because it’s beautiful” ultimately prove futile. The goodness of beauty, like the goodness of knowledge or the goodness of virtue, is categorical. Make it instrumental towards some other good and you destroy it.
What, then, should we do with beauty when we find it? To that, the movie has a definite answer, and I think it’s exactly the right one. But to find out what it is, you’ll have to see those two surprise twist endings I mentioned earlier – and I’m not spoiling them for you. Go rent it and find out.