What About Art at the End of the World?

Homemade (2020)

Recently, when a part of the South Asian Twitterverse was hate-watching a tawdry show on Indian arranged marriages on Netflix— I revisited a quiet gem: a collection of shorts by accomplished voices from Kristen Stewart, Paolo Sorrentino, Rachel Morrison, Naomi Kawase, Maggie Gyllenhal, Gurinder Chadha, Sebastian Lelio and Ana Lily Amirpour.

The pandemic, amongst other things, has activated a legitimate voyeuristic core in middle-class collective consciousness; everything is, after all, being lived through and with Zoom. A picture of this condition: Summer classes are being held and disrupted by spatula-waving mothers complaining of child’s shirking of all things academic while hapless instructor blankly looks on; in another iteration, a little girl saunters in, while now hapless dad cum journalist handwaves her inside to no avail till an even more harried mother rushes in, sweeping the child inside. All of this, visibility wise, extra or essential is, really, a knowledge of framing, and also of consumption. How much of the voyeuristic gaze, as we snatch a glimpse of other lives, is even ethical, but we have far more pressing concerns now.

Netflix’s Homemade offers a rich voyeuristic experience, tapping into this collective consciousness, and then going a step further by effectively inflecting this landscape with that magical question— what is the artist’s inner life or in another vein, what does the production of art entail? It is no surprise that in quite a few shorts, the recurrent subjects around which the question of art is pivoted, most notably in Gurinder Chadha’s short— are children. After all, those who live to tell this tale, decades from now, would be future architects of this historical present. It only makes sense that the future artist’s training begins on home turf. But what about the other kind of artist, the shadow artist, out of depths of sorts in that bottomless pit of everyday social media chatter? What insight can such a rich tapestry of artistic voices provide? To that question, I turn to my favourite— Ana Lily Amirpour’s gift of the art of survival or the art of perception.

Homemade (2020)

Amirpour’s short, titled Ride it Out begins with Cate Blanchett’s dizzying “Once there was a girl,” in a scale between crashing waves and a rave, gently eddying and soaring— “This is her house, this is her bike…as you can see, she is getting on her bike, slowly activating the full sensorium. The girl throws the bag into the carrier, the wheels’ metal jerk into action, clamps the trellised gate shut, and then this girl on the bike is on a wide empty road. The voice accompanies the girl on the ride. The camera pans onto tops of gigantic empty buildings and apartments with low prices for rent stickers. Then she enters a now-empty road through Hollywood boulevard, dotted by shuttered restaurants and people waiting in pre-calibrated boxes to maintain the day’s new rigour— social distancing. The commenting voice now shifts inwards into a meditative pause. Then in strange alchemy, like that of seafloor churning and waves frothing, the meditative sound takes on a haunting tenor as the girl now enters into the esoteric realm. The background score, previously punctuated by the rhythmic scrape of the wheel’s metal on the pitch of the road, now turns into a sad lament— a lament perhaps of the world lost to the virus and the smallness of the human condition. “We are fragile, bending to the whims of the universe. You see, nature can make all creatures small. Even the dinosaurs went extinct”—the voice patiently reminds us. The camera is repositioned. This time, the artist or the girl on the bike is foregrounded as the subject. She then steers her bike into the canvas of art.

The next segment is a profound mediation on the nature of art and, most importantly, the artist’s efficacy at the end of the world. The voice informs us that this is a time for recalibration, gesturing to the immanent quality of art: I interpreted it as, what else, but art can save us in this time of collective denuded ethics? By virtue of its capaciousness, art allows us to imagine possibilities that go beyond the simplistic recording of everyday existence; the kind lived out through tweets real-time. Art is like riding a bike with the uncontrollable urge to wander into less travelled roads. To live through art is to live with fear like the ant who feels small, only when confronted by the world’s largeness. Most importantly, Amirpour suggests, art is about perspective at the service of a greater collective. At a time when an individualistic perception of art in the form of the first-person narrator is often privileged, it is refreshing to see an evocative meditation on art that renders visible the infinite depths of its multitudes, from the perspective of a third-person narrator.

Art, of the kind, considered unequivocally great is an iteration that is radically hospitable— belonging to the hospitable artist who is almost always in a hermeneutic transaction with other artists. In Amirpour’s short, I read an open invitation to you and everyone else to plumb the multitudinous depths within and embrace the life lived through and with art. Above all, this short reminds us of the optimism of extreme artistic will and the pessimism of cynicism amidst collective despair.

This Essay was published in September 2020