27 February 2011

Style and content*

*A post with no pretty pictures

Since my previous post about Miss Dior Cherie I’ve been thinking. Chin stroking was even involved. I know, serious, right? And while the Miss Dior Cherie ad is – and possibly should be – the lightest of things imaginable, it made me reflect on the nature of style, and its relationship to substance.

I’ve enjoyed Sofia Copolla’s work since I saw Lost in Translation – a feeling that was strengthened with her screenplay adaptation of Eugenides’ brilliant novel on US suburbia and nostalgic loss, The Virgin Suicides; and yet, I've always had a feeling that perhaps there isn't too much going on beyond the admittedly super good-looking, surface.I may have been mistaken in considering her work anything more than delightfully pretty: what M Seth Jones has called a moving Tumblr.

I may have been distracted by Bill Murray, the foreignness of Japan, by Coppola's particular way of putting things that seemed new to me in Lost in Translation – I may have been distracted by the weight and consequence of the source material in The Virgin Suicides. I may have been seduced by style into considering there was also intentional substance to the work where there wasn’t.

Not that there is anything wrong with a moving Tumblr, a cascade of imagery: there’s a place for the purely superficial. We’ve all been on a serious image binge, haven’t we? (It’s okay you can admit it, we’re all friends here.) Beauty for beauty’s sake isn’t irrelevant, it’s enjoyable. The evidence.

But in life, in movies, in creativity, in art, right now (and this is entirely personal) I want something deeper. In the movies that appeal to me, style and substance are indissoluble – ‘60s Godard for example. His style was unique, enjoyable, beautiful, chaotic; but with specific intention. Existential themes and a break with cinematic conservatism drove Godard along with the rest of the Nouvelle Vague crew to challenge the conventions of cinematic portrayal, and the audiences along with them. This creative propulsion – rebelliousness against the past, a conscious and definite break from what went before, a freeing up of convention, is an artistic motivation and a creative nexus that has always fascinated me: I wrote my thesis on Modernism, I have always had a soft spot for Dada and the Surrealists. They’re boss.

But, on the other hand (there’s always an other hand), maybe it has nothing to do with intention at all – maybe the author is meaningless and it’s up to us, as Barthes said, to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. Yet I like hearing artists talk about their creations, designers talk about their collections, directors talk about their movies. I like to think that creators have a thoughtful, definite purpose in doing what they do. That, in short, they have something to say. The message may be translated differently by each of us – but I like the idea that a drive to communicate meaning, ideas, a worldview, is the impetus behind creation. Does it matter if the author has something to say or not?

Like Sontag says in her essay On Style, there is always style, stylistic choice, it’s essential and ingrained into every creative expression – there’s no such thing as style-less work of art, style is the content.

Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each important writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely “decorative.”

On a personal level, I love pretty shoes and I love post-modern critical theory. These things don’t seem at odds to me at all. Is one more substantial than the other? Maybe I think about shoes more than I think about Barthes lately…and maybe that’s where this reflection for meaning comes from.

And yet – maybe this answers my own question - a 30 second ad that had nothing more to say beyond “buy this perfume/ France is great/ isn’t Portman super pretty” has made me write a post on style and substance, read Sontag (who I haven’t read since uni) and reflect on my own relationship to meaning. Proof perhaps meaning exists where we read it, yes?


  1. I love this. Refreshing. I think there was definitely more to it in Lost in Translation, but perhaps less so in Marie Antoinette and certainly less so in Somwhere. Although I loved it, the point was made very quickly.

    Great post.

  2. Love this, sooo the same wave length I found myself riding after her latest offering of 'somewhere'. An interesting departure from your usual posts (which I like too). Major empathy with the whole postmodern critical theory / pretty shoes trauma as well. I think that the moving tumblr thing shows a nice playfulness with form and substance and i think playing around with that and making it elastic is a good move and paves the way for innvoation but I feel like nothing is really achieved in Coppola's case because it is insubstantial and done without vigour and purpose (as opposed to Dada or something else that goes against the conventions /expectations of the reader). But maybe I think it insubstantial just because I assume a different reading position for film vs. tumblr and I'm burdened by my own expectations?

  3. Oh Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, the names alone brings back a rush of intense uni study memories!

    I love this blog post. Seriously, love it! x