Picture Imperfect: Flaws and Films from a Personal Perspective

'Still life, pitcher and fruit" by Paul Cezanne (1894)

‘Still life, pitcher and fruit” by Paul Cezanne (1894)

When I was in college, I learned to like a painter I’d never much cared for previously: Paul Cézanne. I used to think—in my own deluded, chalk-it-up-to-youth way—his works trivial; those still lifes with mushy-looking fruit didn’t strike me as anything unusual, and I quite disliked his palette … it seemed limited, joyless, plain, without purpose and as dull as a kitchen table. Of course, I was completely wrong, and I didn’t want to admit it until that class at Columbia, where I developed an appreciation of the artist’s skill and insight: things I had no knowledge of (or interest in) before then. The turning point was an observation about some of his paintings that didn’t use the entire canvases; they didn’t need to be fully covered in colour because they were evocative enough as they were, despite the fact that the appeared, at first glance, to be unfinished. Their imperfections were part of their appeal. Their completeness was in their incompleteness.

I’ve been mulling this characteristic while considering the most significant (to my mind) flaw of a movie I’ve loved since I first saw it decades ago: The Godfather (1972). This flaw comes up in an otherwise brilliantly crafted scene in which the furious Sonny Corleone (played to the fearsome hilt by James Caan) beats up no-goodnik Carlo (Gianni Russo) in the street for abusing Sonny’s sister Connie (Talia Shire), who is also Carlo’s wife. The violence of the sequence is incredibly brutal and realistic, and Sonny’s punches all find their mark on Carlo’s person … except one. In the shot, which was left in the completed film, Caan’s avenging brother swings his fist and Russo’s deadbeat hubby dodges, but he does it all too well, and the attack misses its target in a very obvious way, though both actors play it off as if the blow scored a particularly powerful hit: Sonny follows through, and Carlo reels. The battle still continues until the latter pugilist lies prone in a pool of water spouting from an open hydrant. Sonny is triumphant. His adversary has been defeated.

The GodatherWhat about the viewers, though—how do they react? When I last saw The Godfather in a theatre, some moviegoers chuckled at this bit of belligerent chicanery, calling attention to the mistake and making it harder for others in the audience to subscribe to the credibility of the whole thing; they made it clear, with their vociferousness, that they knew it was just a film … surprising for a picture that’s as involving as it is immersive, that brings watchers into its world as much as the greatest canvas by Cézanne.

But this is the funny thing about The Godfather, and it ties in to the aforementioned master painter and his supposedly “unfinished” works: I still find the movie utterly believable, despite the inclusion of this erroneous sequence. And although I don’t consider Cézanne’s uncoloured canvas sections “flaws,” I have to view them in the same light. Because they’re both imperfections that make the whole works of art what they are—even improve them, to a certain extent, owing to their deficiencies. The absence of colour in Cézanne’s pictures and the absence of contact in that fateful punch delivered by Sonny. They’re both in the same mould. They’re both aspects of masterpieces that could have been “fixed up,” but weren’t.

And that’s the way it should be.

If a film is good enough overall to make you subscribe to it completely, a suspension of disbelief is in order to overlook, with as much bemusement as you’d like, any of its minor faults. And believe me, all works of art have faults—even the greatest of them. There are parts of The Marriage of Figaro that I wish achieved the heights of the final act. There are lines in King Lear that I don’t find as effective as others. There are bits in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) that I’ve always thought could’ve been more subtly done. None of these issues, however, lessens the impacts of the works they appear in. They’re still masterpieces, towering, monumental bastions of our cultural history. And to a certain extent, these admittedly minor defects help give them their humanity; they remind us that they were created by people, too, geniuses, of course, but not gods, instead people who lived and died and ate and breathed just like we do. Their legacy isn’t just their beauty. It’s also their capacity to affect people in a personal way.

L'Absinthe

“L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas (1875-1876)

Cézanne isn’t the only one to allow for this kind of viewpoint. Degas’ picture L’Absinthe features tables without legs … which don’t matter because the work, showing a pair of jaded, unhappy-looking drinkers, is so powerful. Still, it’s Cézanne, to my mind, who brings out the lure of imperfection so perfectly in the visual arts, while The Godfather is, for me, its ultimate proponent in cinema. Perhaps the mistake in the fight between Sonny and Carlo nicks the wall of credibility; it doesn’t, however, knock it down. It’s like those purportedly unfinished parts of the canvas in Cézanne’s paintings; you can see them, and you know what you’re looking at isn’t your reality, yet you still welcome the reality that the artist presents. It’s so good that you don’t need another, at least at that moment. It’s so good that you can’t discount the whole for the parts.

That’s how it is for The Godfather—and, to a certain extent, for my life as well. In my youth, I looked at a lot of things incorrectly, and although I can’t say I’ve rectified all of my perspectives at my more advanced age now, I understand much more than I did in the past … and I think my taste has improved since then, too. I’m grateful for the fact that I appreciate masters such as Cézanne today when I didn’t long ago, and I’m happy that I can see movies such as The Godfather for their overall impact rather than their tiny flaws here and there. Maybe I won’t last as long as these works of art have, but I know I’ve made my mark in some way or other, despite my imperfections. That’s given me comfort, quite a lot, over the years, and I’ll take those flaws any day, I will, over the alternative.

Would the greatest works of art be any greater without them? Eh, it’s likely. Would they be as enjoyable for me personally? Probably not.

I have my class back in the day at college to thank for that. After all, experientia docet—or so they say.

I’ll warrant “they” looked at a blank canvas more than once.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

7 thoughts on “Picture Imperfect: Flaws and Films from a Personal Perspective

  1. It’s a great theoretical conversation Simon. I never noticed this about Godfather – I’m eager to use it as an excuse to watch again. When the New Wavers began leaving the “mistakes” in their earliest movies, a lot of people enjoyed the move away from the slick perfect product that Western film had become. (I think it had more to do with the expense involved in reshooting.) but there’s definitely something about being “too perfect.” None of are, after all.

    • Thanks, Jon. The Godfather truly is a brilliant film; it’s worth revisiting for event the tiniest reason. It’s certainly not the only mistake in cinema–and it may be something of a point of pride for some directors–but it suggests to me that the importance of faults may depend on the context and the credibility of the work of art as a whole.

  2. Even watching the clip, forewarned about the missed blow, I wasn’t concerned by the error. I don’t think it detracts from the scene, and I certainly didn’t remember it, from the numerous times I have watched the film.
    Degas’ legless tables are even less concerning, as the character studies in the faces are just perfect. Nice comparison, Simon.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. I agree–even this mistake doesn’t lessen my appreciation of the film. I think that’s in part because it sets a precedent for credibility early on, so we’re too wrapped up in the moment to be thrown off by trifling errors.

  3. Great peice, thanks. I once read an essay by I think Dylan Thomas in which he says what’s missing is as important as what’s there; it creates spaces in the viewer’s mind which the viewer then fills with his own experiences. Perhaps this is analogous? In any case life is full of flaws. We’re conditioned to see that, and perhaps perfection would be uncomfortable.

    • I agree that these small flaws invite us in by allowing a glimpse of the process. Great art can be an intimate experience between the artist and the one sees or experiences it. As you say, something too perfect would be uncomfortable, and I think boring. There’s no surprise.

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