Art and Ideology By Thomas Rothschild
At the International Film Festival Festroia in Setúbal, this year’s national spotlight fell upon Poland. The homage offered audiences the opportunity to see the short films of Roman Polanski, among them the legendary Two Men and a Wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafa). Precisely thirteen people made use of this offer.
Two Men and a Wardrobe was made in 1958, exactly 50 years ago. The film still “works”. But at its time, in the beginning of Gomulka’s liberalization in politics and culture, it represented a dual provocation: First, it stood against the conception of realism, and second, against the dogmatic demands of optimism. Both were essential elements of “Socialist Realism”. Polanski’s film, which applied Beckettian absurdity to cinema in an expression of extreme pessimism — depicting a world that offers no place for the two men and their wardrobe; they emerge from the sea and ultimately return to it — can be regarded as the complete opposite to official standards in the Soviet Union of that time.
No one declares him- or herself a follower of Socialist Realism nowadays. But the truth is that the concept always conformed with the tastes and opinions of the majority of naive consumers, and not only in Eastern countries; the movement still lives on, more or less, in the criteria of ecumenical juries … and, unfortunately, even in the aesthetics of certain critics and festival programmers who pretend to serve cinema as an art.
But art and ideology are two different things. Art has no obligation to make life easier. As a matter of fact, it has no obligations at all. In an interview at Festroia, Handan Ipekçi, the Turkish director of Hidden Faces (Sakli yüzler), said: “We can have the idea that a movie can help solve the problems, but it isn’t that easy; it’s impossible, in fact. A film won’t solve world problems.” True. But then she added: “But I think it would be good enough that men, after seeing this film, became aware that honor killings are not a good thing.” How many men who think hon our killings are a good thing will see Handan Ipekçi’s film? Does she really believe she can do more than preach to the saved?
Art has its own rules. It doesn’t have obligations — it doesn’t even have to be truthful. Homer’s “Iliad” doesn’t deliver a factually accurate picture of the Trojan War, but it is a great piece of art. Is Shakespeare’s “Winter Tale” any less artful because Bohemia does not, in fact, border to the sea? And do we have to abolish Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) because the revolution of 1905 didn’t look as it does in the film?
Reality is no measure for the quality of art, and one doesn’t need the common excuse that real life is hard to accept downbeat endings. “Hamlet” ends in catastrophe, and so does “Anna Karenina”. Does anyone question their value as literature? It should be considered a human right — and even more so for an artist — to be pessimistic. And no one is forced to agree. You don’t have to share Tarkovsky’s extremely reactionary views of the world to recognize his craftsmanship; you don’t have to be religious to love Bresson’s films. You can be disgusted about the way John Ford treats Red Indians in his films, and still accept them as great art. On the other hand, one needs more than a message worth considering to create art. If one doesn’t want to accept this, one should become a priest or a censor — but not a film critic.