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CAN 5 Exercise 1.1

What does this scene from Goodfellas tell you about the main character? How does it do this? List the ‘clues’.

From the very start of this scene it is clear that our main character is an insider at the Copacabana nightclub, and as the scene progresses we get a growing sense that he is actually someone very special in this swanky environment – a boss or bigshot of some kind. The scene climaxes as we realise that he is in fact a member of a mafia family, and is treated with great respect by other mafiosi.

The clues that provide us with this growing understanding of our character include:
– He doesn’t have to wait: someone else will park his car, and he enters the club through the kitchen instead of the main entrance. “Better than waiting in line,” he tells his companion.
– He passes the car valet a banknote in a casual manner that tells us he has done it many times before and that their relationship is well understood by both parties.
– The music places us in the early 1960s. Everyone queuing outside the club is in formal evening dress, indicating that our character inhabits a glamorous environment.
– He passes the doorman a banknote in the same casual manner. They are on first-name terms (“How you doing, Gino?”) and he is very much at home here (“Every time I come here, every time…”), with access to all areas.
– As he walks through the bustling kitchen, everyone gets out of his way to let him pass. No one is annoyed by his intrusion; they all know him and greet him or smile in a relaxed manner that tells us his detour is not an unusual or unexpected occurrence.
– Many people are working in the kitchen and they are all in bright, clean whites. This is not just some run-of-the-mill restaurant, it’s a place with class.
– When he reaches the clubroom he again walks right past the queue of people waiting for tables. “Anything you need, just let me know!” the front of house manager shouts after him.
– Instantly, waiters are on the scene with a table for him and a place appears in the crowded room for it to occupy. And while everyone else is crammed in, our character’s table has open space around it like an aura, setting him apart both physically and metaphorically from the other guests. We begin to realise that our character is more than ordinary special; he is special special!
– “Mr Tony” gifts our character a bottle, presented by the waiter with a reverence that seems to relate to both the wine and our character, who thanks Mr Tony with “Salud!”, a US Italian slang word with connotations of familial closeness (Vgutzeit, n.d.).
– Mr Tony’s white tie and tinted glasses mark him out as a stereotypical 1960s mafia gangster, literally a “shady” character, pretending to pass incognito and accompanied by his henchmen. He acknowledges our character’s thanks with a casual hand gesture, two fingers up, two down, that is familiar and understated, letting us know that these two people know each other extremely well.
– Our character’s companion knows that the treatment he is receiving is not normal, and is clearly unconvinced by his claim to be “in construction”. We see her trying to read the clues and we follow her lead in piecing them together,

References and resources

Vgutzeit (n.d.) ‘Dictionary Tour: Salud, chindon’, in Italian American Culture. Available at https://italianamericancultureblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/dictionary-tour-salud-chindon [accessed 21.09.18]

CAN 5 Research point 1.1

Do you think there is more to Gregory Crewdson’s work than aesthetic beauty? Do you think he succeeds in making his work “psychological”? What does this mean? What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?

Speaking to John Southern in SCI-Art (2016), Gregory Crewdson says he has an interest in the “forbidden or secret”. He is not interested in the before or after of an event, but aims to make the single moment “as mysterious and beautiful as I can”. He wants the images to feel “ordinary and familiar yet outside of time”, “ordinary but aged down, slightly musty…” He says it is important that everything “feels ordinary and not spectacular” … he’s “trying to create something beautiful out of that”… “using light and colour to transform”. Over time, he says, he has attempted to “drain any kind of literal narrative out of the pictures and have them be more open-ended, more elusive, more psychological”.

What I notice about Crewdson’s images is that many of the women stand naked, parallel-planted feet suggesting inertia, head slightly bowed in what we read as shame, regret or resignation. Interestingly, they look exactly as they would if they were standing on bathroom scales. His male subjects also have this posture sometimes. Indeed few heads are not bowed in Crewdson’s images.

There is often a sense of strangeness or inappropriateness. Children are juxtaposed with adults who are unclothed and preoccupied. Things that usually happen inside the home might take place outside and vice versa – domestic interiors become a garden, lake or lawn, while people stand naked and motionless in the street or sleep on a mattress in the garden.

There is often damage – things are broken and scattered, suitcases have fallen open, cars are slewed across the scene with their doors or boot hanging open, smoke billows in the distance. These features hint at an event that has just taken place and which might explain the apparent motionless posture of subjects – frozen, perhaps, in shock or horror.

The images are rich in metaphor and allegory. We see people’s reflections, dark puddles that might be blood, flowers strewn across a room like dashed hopes, unmade beds that offer nowhere to settle.

The light is invariably twilight, carrying a sense of impending darkness and doom with a long night ahead. Lit windows offer a poignant contrast to, and inaccessible haven from, the unreadable scene that confronts us. Time seems to stretch endlessly in this twilight zone of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the constant… there are no answers to the questions that are raised. This reminds us of the existential void that awaits us when we attempt to step outside of the constructed framework of conceits and habits that support our everyday lives and conceal the ultimate unknowableness of the universe. The niggling discomfort we experience when we look at Crewdson’s images is our higher consciousness poking a finger through the fabric of our “reality”.

What is my main goal when making pictures? My aims and ideas about this have changed a lot since I began this course, especially since I started C&N. Certainly I would like to be able to do work that lingers in the mind of the viewer and prompts them to question assumptions, but I do not yet have the knowledge and experience to do this.

Do I think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? No, I don’t. I believe we are hard-wired to respond to beauty and I don’t subscribe to the view that it is per se an invalid form of expression. If beauty is the only aspect of the work it will be unlikely to sustain the viewer’s interest or trouble their assumptions, but if, like Crewdson’s work and that of others such as Burtynsky (nd), the work’s beauty is part of the expression of an idea in which it plays an active role in engaging the viewer and/or exposing the artist’s point of view it is my opinion that the presence of beauty neither invalidates nor undermines the work. I am aware, however, that many people today hold the opposite view. I had a stimulating discussion on this very subject during October’s Brighton Biennial in relation to Harley Weir’s photographs of the Calais Jungle (Fabrica, 2018) with a photographer who (unlike Weir, who only visited to make photographs) spent an extended period of time working as a volunteer in the Jungle and was provoked to fury by Weir’s beautiful images, which she said bore no resemblance to her own view of the camp. I asked her whether it was possible to unravel her feelings about the images’ beauty from her feelings about Weir’s lack of engagement with the community, and she said it was an interesting question that she was unable to answer.

References and resources

Burtynsky, E. (nd) Edward Burtynsky. Available at https://www.edwardburtynsky.com [accessed 2.11.18]
Diaz, S. (2011) La fotografía surrealista de Gregory Crewdson. Available at https://www.xatakafoto.com/fotografos/la-fotografia-surrealista-de-gregory-crewdson [accessed 2.11.18]
Fabrica (2018) Harley Weir: Homes. Available at https://www.fabrica.org.uk/homes [accessed 2.11.18]
SCI-Arc Channel (2016) Interview with Gregory Crewdson. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jLtNwPB9eY [accessed 2.11.18]

CAN 5 Exercise 2.1

Nicky Bird’s Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status? Where does their meaning derive from? When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now “art”?

Barrett (1997) argues that a photograph’s external context is one of three sources that are available for examination in “formulating interpretations or in adjudicating among implicit or explicit interpretations”. These are “information evident within the picture, information surrounding the picture in its presentation, and information about the picture’s making”, which Barrett describes respectively as the image’s internal context, external context and original context. When an image’s external context is a gallery wall, its status is elevated to artwork, and viewers understand that they are being asked to engage with the image on this basis and ask questions of it that might not arise in, say, its original context as part of a private family archive.

The elevated status attributed to the photograph as an artwork does in theory increase its value, but this will not necessarily be reflected in the resale price, because a considerable number of additional factors will contribute to determining the actual outcome of the auction, amongst them the seller’s reputation if it’s an eBay sale, the extent to which the pre-sale marketing has succeeded in reaching its target audience, and the fact that (as Nicky Bird’s own purchases demonstrate) the actual “market price” of any item is determined by two people – the successful bidder and the underbidder.

References and resources

Barrett, T. (1997) “Photographs and contexts”. An excerpt from Goldblatt, D. and Brown, L. (eds) Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts. USA: Prentice-Hall. Available at http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf [accessed 03.11.18]