This article originally appeared at Places.
My grandmother’s highest compliment for a natural landscape was to say that it was “pretty as a picture.” Even as a kid I remember thinking that this aesthetic was somehow upside-down, that the beauty of art should be judged according to the inimitable standard of natural beauty rather than the other way around. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, well-heeled European travelers toured the countryside looking for views that would be as pretty as a picture — or, to be more precise, as pretty as a painting. And because they had a certain kind of painting in mind as embodying their standard of natural beauty, these early ecotourists often carried with them a small, convex, tinted mirror known as a “Claude glass,” after the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. When a picturesque landscape was encountered — say, the snow-capped Alps — the tourists would turn their backs to the mountains and whip out their Claude glass, holding it up to frame the mountains, which were not only reflected but also color-shifted to a tonal range that made them appear more painterly. And voila! The rugged Alps become not only pretty as a picture, but become a picture, as the pleased ecotourists admired not the mountains but rather the image they had created. But must we turn our backs on the land to see it as aesthetically pleasing? Why do we so often love our representations of the world more dearly than we love the world itself?
You might say that the Claude glass of the 19th century was photography, and that the 20th-century Claude glass was film. These technologies have profoundly conditioned our landscape aesthetics; they have, in effect, allowed us to frame the world. Certainly cinema’s stylized, controlled and color-corrected representations of nature have thoroughly mediated our relationship to the physical world, not only shaping our environmental aesthetics but also implying that a representation of nature may be an improvement upon nature itself. Film has the power to show us landscape in remarkably dramatic fashion; but to see the land in film we must first turn our back on the land itself. To climb up into the bright mountains of the screen, we must first descend into the dark cave of the theater.
From an early age I’ve held the unwavering conviction that musicals — especially movie musicals — constitute the most intolerable and misguided aesthetic form in the checkered history of human civilization. Besides being uniformly hokey and boring, musicals are also cloying and saccharine. I make it a policy never to trust a person who would spontaneously break into song, especially when they’re about to begin a knife fight (West Side Story), adopt an orphan as a publicity stunt (Annie), or confess their unwanted pregnancy (Grease). Clearly the world would be a better place if this upswelling, confessional, tuneful emoting could be soundly squelched.
If I sound testy, I have good reason. As the father of two young daughters, I have in the past several years been subjected to musicals too numerous and nauseating to be enumerated. The most frequently repeated of these abominations is the much-beloved The Sound of Music, whose perennial popularity confirms every curmudgeonly thing I’ve ever said or written about my fellow human beings. Indeed, the National Association of Misanthropes might consider screening this “timeless classic” at its annual convention, if only to reassure members that they really are on the right track. But despite my personal aversion, The Sound of Music, released in 1965, not only bailed out a sinking 20th Century Fox but, adjusted for inflation, has gone on to make over a billion dollars. That’s “billion” with a “B,” as in "Blockbuster," or "Banal" or "Bullshit."
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Photo by the author.