Speaking on BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics programme this morning, Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, made an insightful comment about great art, one that resonated strongly with me – that questions are more important than answers.
The context was what drew her to Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting as the inspiration for her novel (made into a film in 2003). She said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that the painting is enigmatic. The girl is young and innocent-looking, but her slightly parted lips were common symbolism for sexual availability. She is dressed in simple clothes, but is wearing a piece of fine jewellery. And there is no other context – she is painted against a simple black background.
The painting offers no easy readings. It poses questions but does not serve up answers – you need to provide those yourself.
This is what great art does, said Chevalier. With a painting that lays out its themes and ideas obviously, you glance and move on. The paintings that stop you in your tracks, make you stand and gaze entranced, and then stay in your mind, are those that ask, “well, what do you think?”. In that way, you are engaged as a participant, not just a passive observer.
As she was on a music programme, Chevalier suggested that perhaps great music also has this quality. I’m certain that it applies to film.
For me, the most worthwhile movies are those where not everything is resolved, where you come away from the film thinking, “what was that about?” – and continue to ask that question for hours, days and even years after.
Hollywood, especially today’s Hollywood, doesn’t give you space to think or to question. A Hollywood movie hammers home its ideas (what few it might have). You are left in no doubt what the point is – it’s driven into you with expositionary dialogue and imagery. And just to be on the safe side, the music cues deliver the final blows with all the subtlety of a nail gun (“now we’re happy – now we’re sad – this is scary”). It’s like having someone next to you in the cinema constantly shouting, “did you see that?”, “do you understand what she’s saying?”, “do you get the significance of the gun?”. You are there purely as an innocent bystander, and end up as collateral damage of the movie’s blunt trauma. And yes, Michael Bay, I’m looking at you.
Good films don’t do this. They invite you in, encourage you to ask questions, and you don’t always get the answers.
To come back to painting for a moment, I’m put in mind of a recent obsession of mine. Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) was a Dutch painter whose works also offer no easy readings. At a time when most paintings delivered easily consumed narratives, his provided only mystery.
He painted portraits, landscapes and architecture, but often took unusual viewpoints that create an odd tension in the painting.
But for me, the best of his paintings are the interiors, usually with a single person most often seen from behind.
The rooms are generally bare. And while the person in the image is sometimes engaged in activity (writing, reading or playing the piano – although often you can’t quite make it out for certain) there is a profound and pregnant stillness. You find yourself asking whether something has just happened, or is about to happen.
In fact, you can’t help but provide a narrative yourself. In contrast to the artistic trends of the time, Hammershøi is often classed as a non-narrative or anti-narrative painter. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. His paintings are brimming with story – it’s just that it comes from you, not from the painter.
As a photographer, my work has often been about creating images designed to intrigue rather than entertain. In filmmaking, cinematography has a critical role in building layers of intrigue and enticement.
This is not to say that films should be deliberately opaque or confusing. That way lies pretension and irrelevance, although it might win you awards from people who mistake indecipherability for depth.
Rather it’s about giving the audience something to work with – the material from which they can build their own stories and meaning. In the Hammershøi images, to satisfy your curiosity you’ll have to draw on your own experiences, ideas, dreams and beliefs to fill the gaps left by the painter. The story you create will be uniquely yours. And that’s how a painting can become meaningful and important to you. And the same goes for film.
And so, in many ways, a film (or, indeed, any story) is also like a sculpture – what you take away, or leave out, is almost more important than what you ultimately present.