Dramatizing morality

At the start of MIkhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun, the Great Hero of the Stalinist army appears to a platoon of soldiers as himself, barely clothed — he’s just run naked out of his bath, throwing on his pants to save the local peasants from some Stalinist ukase-from-afar. The soldiers don’t recognize him until he grabs a soldier’s army cap and mugs his famous profile for him. It’s the adorable hero as genuine and authentic as well as modest, courageous and good-humored, saving everyone from disaster through his simple honest speech borne of his unalloyed dedication to his country, his people and his army that he believes defends them.

In a moment, the villain of the piece will appear not as himself, but in disguise, lying, playing, charming, insinuating, seducing  — he’s an artist, a musician, a far cry from an honest, simple soldier of simple skills and simple sentiments. He saves nothing and no one. He comes to serve himself regardless of its harm.

Yet who can resist his art? He has them all dancing, like a marionette master. And always dressed, even when swimming, the devlish dandy, even in the bath! His past is riddled with all sorts of whoring jobs, serving any local master, and always playing a double role — a triple role: his local boss, the Stalinist government as an agent, and, of course, himself. No integrity, no authentic public self, no honor, no dignity; all show, all artifice.

This portrayal of villain as brilliant, manipulative artist appealed to me most in this movie. The indictment of the artist is close to my heart. The artist seems to me exactly that: a manipulator, a charlatan, a self-promoter who seduces you to love and adore him, despite your not at all knowing who he really is.

And that is, perhaps, all he is. From the 19th century notion of the artist bringing gifts of the gods, redeeming vile reality, justifying it and comprehending it, here is discovered the vilest motives: seduction, deceit, distraction and distortion.

The artist appears here like a Shakespearean or Commedia dell’Arte villain: Edmund gets up in front of the stage and explains exactly why he’s going to be a villain, with full intent. Of course, evil isn’t like that at all — it’s the paltry acts of selfishness and the little lies one tells oneself, or the rage of anger, Schiller’s bastard Franz in a fury of bitter jealousy that he can’t escape from. Evil, as a friend once joked, doesn’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and, stroking his mustaches, say to his image, what evil shall I do today?

Except the artist. He wakes in the morning and wonders, how shall I manipulate the world today? The artist as criminal. One needn’t look as far as an Eric Gill, a Gesualdo, a Caravaggio or a Jack Abbott. The art itself is the crime.

Towards the end of the film, the artist salutes the colossal image of Stalin — the evil which has enabled his plans and in which he has thrived and succeeded. The film wants to blame it all on Stalin. I wonder if the drama would have been more effective without the convenient blame. Blame leads to an anodyne of self-satisfaction in the audience and is more suited to melodrama than tragedy, where blame is fixed squarely on the hero himself.

This movie was poised between tragedy and a melodrama sanctioned by its anti-Stalinism (as Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s melodrama is sanctioned by the evil of the plantation), but for this presentation of the artist I can forgive much. There’s also a wonderful depiction of the comfortable Russian household (very much more Russian than Soviet), and a priceless subplot — like one of those tiny little folk parables that Dostoevsky occasionally would insert — prefiguring the entire story in low comic relief: The ludicrous house servant is devoted to taking imported (like socialism and communism?) herbal remedies, scarcely knowing herself what they (like socialism and communism?) will do for her. A couple of meddling babushki dump her herbs into the river — for her own good, so they think. When she discovers it, the poor thing lies on her bed crying. So much for grand tragedy, how the great have fallen!

I mention this here on the blog because I am continually puzzled by my own inability to keep apart the art from the artist. In the rest of life, we can judge action and agent on the same moral grounds of the various notions of justice. And I have no problem responding to immorality in the arts — we judge or value art on its effectiveness, not its justice. But I am inclined to admire and love the artist, regardless of the artist’s moral mettle, and that’s a double standard that I’ve never resolved. It’s a moral challenge and then some.

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