Here are my thoughts on some of the various elements that go into making and responding to a work of art. First, we can cover what drives a narrative or what could be called a narrative if we’re talking about a more pure art form such as music or sculpture. Then we can delve into some specific elements that I want to talk about. Hopefully, you have also thought about these things and will have something to say in response.


Plot Driven


I’m not so sure there is such a thing as an entirely plot-driven story. If you don’t care about the characters, or the subject, then who cares what happens? We’ll get back to this very shortly. Also, there is much to be said about the difference between linear and non-linear narrative. But I’m not the one to say it.


Character Driven


One question which is very easy to ask when watching a film or looking at any work of art is “Do we relate to it? Do we identify with it or with certain elements in it?” Perhaps we relate to a character because we recognize ourselves or perhaps we just sympathize because the character is sympathetic, as one human to another. Perhaps the character is just plain interesting for purely psychological or intellectual reasons, whether we truly identify with them or not.


o       Helium – cute, unconditional love, innocence, round, small shape

o       Meat Wad – cute unconditional love, innocence, round, small shape


Is there a pattern here?


If Eyes Wide Shut fails, perhaps it is because Tom Cruise’s character is not developed properly. I am unwilling to assign blame to Kubrick. It is Tom Cruise’s fault. With his iconic looks and impeccable personal hygiene, how could I possibly get beyond that?


The Usual Suspects was superficially character driven, but ultimately not. The performances were memorable and distinct—Benicio del Toro, William Baldwin, Kevin Spacey. But they were really just caricatures that we cannot relate to on a deep, emotional level. And so it is with most cartoons. Like Tarantino’s films. Story, action and mood drive the narrative. But do you really care? Pete Postlelthwaite’s character was pretty damn intriguing though I have to admit what with that indescribable accent and all. Damn intriguing.


I would like to see a video game which allows you to combine various characters from different films and watch them interact.  I would like to see Julia Roberts (her same character as all her films) attempt to convince Humphrey Bogart that he should stay in an order pizza. I would like to see other things.


Raw Emotion / Depth


I believe sometimes character identification can be manifest in a more symbolic or universal way as opposed to a direct  concern for specific characters. For example, in Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, human beings cannot connect because they are unable to express themselves fully, perhaps because they are repressed. Now be honest. Do you really feel so much for Tony Leung as you do for just the situation itself? As I watch, my heart rather skips right past the person on the screen and goes straight to grieving for all mankind. For my own lost chances. Maggie Cheung suffers. Tony suffers. But we suffer the most because we are totally robbed of seeing Maggie Cheung naked. No doubt, characters are important in this film. But you could see both characters as one, and representative of all who suffer. You need more, don’t you?


The Wild Bunch. Basically a story about a group of men who could or would not change. And they were selfish, and rotten. But ultimately they were able to redeem themselves as martyrs for a larger cause. Again, we have the individual characters that drive the film. But again, it’s more the underlying motives and stereotypes that we are really responding to. Angel, the martyr for a good cause, right from the beginning. Ernest Borgnine, the outlaw with a firm moral backbone (sort of half way between Angel and the others), and then the others. Sure, we are involved with the team and their actions, but we don’t truly identify with the individual characters. It’s more what they represent. It’s more the archetypical theme of how circumstances can lead men to transcend their own base nature. By the end we are rather more excited by the glory than concerned with their fate as individuals. At least that’s how I see it.


Nature Driven


Sometimes artistic imagery seems rooted to patterns in nature which perhaps appeal to us on a very subconscious level. The number of petals on a flower, for example. This is kind of like the idea that the Greeks did well to recognize certain natural patterns. The architecture of Palladio, for instance. And why should we bother to build anything else? And Homer. And so on. It’s all already been done. I think there is something to this commonly repeated notion, but I will need help explaining it more fully. Probably I will need more examples. Probably from Justin.


Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”
Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish—how do you know what fish enjoy?”
Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”
Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish—so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”
Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy—so you already knew I knew when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”


This idea of tapping into natural rhythms can perhaps lead us to a discussion of the business of timing. Timing is nothing if not the harnessing of subconscious rhythms, rooted in the biological or natural makeup. The fact that you can appreciate music without even thinking about it. That you can just know if it’s right or wrong, even if you’re an idiot or a child. Pretty much proves it. We look to Road Runner for confirmation. The timing of each fall. The timing of each gag. This is all the proof we need, to know that when art taps into this current, art does well for itself.


“This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something, or this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” – JLB


The subconscious is smarter than people are aware.




The idea of coherence holds that nothing in a work should be unrelated in any way. Everything should be related. Unrelated parts are an opportunity cost. Anything which does not contribute to the overall meaning of the work is merely a distraction and a detraction.




Authenticity is related to the idea of coherence in that if something is inauthentic it does not truly cohere to the rest of the work, assuming there is at least some authenticity in it. For any failure, it then becomes a question of how obvious or how contrived. Peter Weir’s film The Last Wave (1979), for example, spends a lot of time in atmospheric transition sequences from one scene to another, such as when Richard Chamberlain drives his Volvo to the weird and eerie music. Music which powerfully conveys the strange and ominous weather patterns which haunt and shape the film’s narrative. That would be a success. In Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955), the wonderful Bernard Herrmann score blankets everything in a frisky Autumnal tone which perfectly suits Shirley McLain, John Forsythe’s and basically the entire rest of the cast’s demeanour. Yes. And then we have Coldplay popping up in Igby Goes Down (2002) for no obvious reason other than it sounds groovy. Tacked on. The notion of referentiality could also be discussed in the same way. Whether or not it serves or does not serve the overall coherence of the work.




This is generally taken for granted to be a desirable thing, but I feel that presumption should be challenged or at least discussed. If an artist does something better than it’s ever been done before, isn’t that worth more than doing something new and stupid. Nobody has ever killed themselves by X method. Great. Have at it, genius. But seriously. Should an artist who pioneers something new be praised unconditionally? Or is that person merely fulfilling his role in an inevitable process of evolution—as dictated by the circumstances? Sort of like filling in the blanks on a timeline. If one person doesn't think of it, someone else will, if not today, then tomorrow. This may be more relevant to concept-based art versus pure expression of self. Or perhaps the way to look at is whether the artist is trying to fit into the timeline, or influence a new direction in art or something along those lines, instead of just doing what feels right, without regard to the surrounding world. I think this issue ties in with the question of whether a work of art can be fully appreciated with little or no context or whether it requires a lot of explaining in order to excite the viewer. A little explaining is okay. But a lot? In any case, I think it’s fair to say originality is generally a positive thing from the audience’s perspective because it provides a sense of awakening and avoids stagnation and boredom. I suspect it may just be that simple.


Style vs. Content?


Okay this is a tough one. And perennial. People will never stop loving to argue about this. Even now if you listen carefully, you will hear the dulcet tones, of people fighting over this one. I will try my best to shed some light, but I promise it will be insufficient.


“Yes. My tastes and disgusts have influenced my ten-year long work on Eugene Onegin. In translating its 5500 lines into English I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason.” – Nabokov


But let’s pretend Russians have nothing to teach us, for just a second. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Lenny Bruce or not, but I love listening to him talk. But more than one college professor has argued that Bruce is not so much funny as he is proof that comedy is merely timing and not truly humor. I personally think it depends. I think it is valid to say comedy is a constructed artifice of timing, which can make you laugh even at things which are not funny. But I also think some comedians really are humorous. Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce are two examples. I think the way to make the determination is whether you still find a joke funny after your initial impulse to laugh has faded. And that doesn’t mean the jokes have to be funny when written out. That’s as unfair as saying a translated poem is no good. Because they are designed to be said with a certain feeling and in a certain context. You would have to be able to read a joke and grasp the humor as a musician might read a sheet of music. A highly specialized ability. But even so, if you can laugh at the joke and on further reflection feel neither used nor manipulated, then I say it was funny.




For me personally, imagination is certainly one of the most enjoyable and involving aspects of art. It draws me in. And I don’t think one needs an overdeveloped sense of imagination either. I think most times it’s fairly innate.


“If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.” – Tadao Ando


 “I don’t usually give out advice or recipes, but you must let the person looking at the photograph go some of the way to finishing it. You should offer them a seed that will grow and open up their minds.” – Robert Doisneau, Paris 1987


Getting the audience to imagine. To fill in the blanks.  Horror movies are all about this.  I feel the amount to which you can make your audience imagine horror is more important than just having a lot of suspense. Let’s talk about music.


o       Radiohead – skipped note

o       The Meters – skipped note

o       Csokolom – skipped note


An alternative rock band from the now, soul funk from the 70s, and a modern day Hungarian quartet all have in common the skillful use the skipped note.




Sure, of course. It kind of relates to both the idea of imagination and that of timing. But it doesn’t really have to fit any natural pattern and you don’t really have to have much imagination to be affected by it. I think everyone has a good conception of what suspense is. It’s rather like a tactic in my view. It can be used justly or unjustly, as a tool of manipulation. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of how much is too much. It all depends. Maybe I’ll have something more intelligent to say about this another time.




Contrast is an effective element in any work of art. For one thing it gets your attention. It takes many forms. I don’t need to explain what contrast is, I hope, other than to offer some examples for your enjoyment. I will provide actual links for all of these at some point. One example is the occurrence of humanity or civility in the face of inhumanity or chaos: happens all the time in Kubrick where it is a source of satire, Dr. Strangelove, or bitter irony, Barry Lyndon, the flower plant in the window in The Grand Illusion. In the flash production Strindberg and Helium we have silly matched with over-the-top melodrama. A winning combination. Torture and transcription in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Just as, if not more, disturbing than Brazil is a Dr. Seuss book called Wacky Wednesday. I know this because I don’t tend to remember details from the many children’s books I’ve read. But this one, I remember. I remember how freaky it is to see normal scenes with small abnormalities within. If I smile at you while I stab a knife in your belly, the psychological effect is excruciating. There is also more symbolic and weighty juxtaposition. In Andrei Rublev (1:51), the sound of the church door being battered over the sound of holy music. Very symbolic. Upsetting.


The infusion of retro elements in a futuristic setting fuels the emotional power of such films as Godard’s Alphaville, Kubrick’s 2001, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Dune.  Donald Barthelme’s works abound with bona fide anachronism and flagrant juxtaposition. My lord. It’s awesome. Hayao Miyazaki? Yes. Black and white? In film and in photos. I never left it.


Artist’s Compendium: You can’t go wrong if you do art based on these assumptions.


o       things change, but not that much

o       everyone has something to hide

o       nobody ever really grows up




April 2007