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Cinema as Art and Entertainment

by Benedict Laub 2 years ago in movie

A Response to Scorsese and Coppola

Recently, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese unleashed a torrent of controversy with his scathing criticisms of superhero films. He compared comic book movies—which have rose to a position of great visibility in the New Hollywood since about the turn of the millennium—to a “theme park” or an “amusement park.”

“They're taking over the theaters,” the director complained. “I think they can have those films; it's fine. It's just that that shouldn't become what our young people believe is cinema. It just shouldn't.” Another legendary director, Francis Ford Coppola, seconded the motion by calling the comic book movies “despicable.”

The comments provoked a broadside of retorts from directors and actors involved in making superhero films. While most were measured and evenhanded, and carefully hedged against savaging directors still seen as Hollywood legends, some comments went further. For instance, Natalie Portman, prominent in the early Thor movies, said that “there’s not one way to make art,” and that “there’s room for all types of cinema.”

Of course, the entire contretemps could have been avoided if filmmakers, and the public, better understood the basic distinction between art and popular culture. It’s a common-sense delineation well known to most academic researchers who specialize in the arts.

Pop culture entertains for profit. It follows formulas, usually deals in standardized and simplistic themes such as good vs. evil, and appeals to animal instincts such as lust and aggression. Its trappings are spectacle and excess, special effects, and choreographed fight scenes.

Art is done for higher purposes, such as making a political or social statement, expressing thoughts or feelings, or creating a work of aesthetic value. It might gently probe the intimate details of a romantic relationship, shine a satirical beam on some neglected social ill, or render a complex idea into a dazzling array of images and melodies.

The distinction arose in the late 19th century and became more pronounced with the rise of commercial mass media in the 1920s. It’s typically easy to see when you know where to look. For instance, a symphony orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s "Symphony 40" or a production of Die Walkure are art, while hiphop and pop music are popular entertainment. Rodin’s The Thinker and Picasso’s Guernica are art. Norman Rockwell drawings are (nauseatingly treacly) pop culture.

Of course, art doesn’t always succeed and pop culture doesn’t always fail. For instance, Andy Warhol remains an intensely polarizing figure among art aficionados. Some still refuse to accept repetitive graphic representations of Campbell’s soup cans or Marilyn Monroe as art. And some attempts at art are just plain bad.

On the other hand, pop culture, at its most creative and intelligent, can be an absolute thrill. It has given us the elegant music of the Beatles and classic shows like The Sopranos, which came close to doing on TV what Coppola and Scorsese have done in film. It has given us the satirical wit of The Simpsons and the immortal velvet of Frank Sinatra’s voice.

At its very best, some pop culture transcends its own limitations to become nearly art. Tolkien’s long-lived Lord of the Rings books and the successful trilogy of movies Peter Jackson directed based on them are a pertinent example.

One does, in fairness, run into a bit of a problem in the world of film. The line between art and entertainment was never drawn quite as explicitly in cinema as in most of the other fine arts. Many of the films considered classic even by film critics, such as King Kong, Star Wars, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, really fall more on the pop culture side of things. On the other hand, a lot of serious art films—including Scorsese’s and Coppola’s—ruled the box office for a time and remain widely popular to this day.

Ambiguity notwithstanding, the distinction is an important one for avoiding confusion and conflict. While it should be obvious that finely calibrated explorations of the human condition such as The Godfather and Goodfellas are profound in a way that no Avengers film could ever be, just as art in general is more valuable than popular culture, it should likewise be obvious that popular culture is not wholly devoid of value.

To reiterate, popular culture entertains for profit, and sometimes it does it very well. A lot of popular films succeed at what they set out to do, which is to help the audience escape from reality for about two hours. It may not be as deep or as moving as a well-crafted gangster movie, but one simply could not watch art movies all the time without going mad.

It would be like solving quadratic equations as a pastime or sleeping in a suit. We need our flash-in-the-pan action films, our sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters, our superhero films and adolescent coming-of-age comedies, at least some of the time. (In fact, I believe that the ribald, slapstick, and politically incorrect movie Airplane remains one of the funniest films in history, surely.)

On the other hand, we need art, too. Pop culture can be absolutely vacuous, and overdosing on it can stifle personal development. It would roughly be the equivalent of a banana split for dinner every night. So Scorsese's basic point, that there should be some space at the theater for art film, is impossible not to concede.

Entertainment is fun, and we all need some fun in our lives. You can’t be on all the time. In point of fact, since most directors simply lack the ability to successfully execute art film, I’d rather that effort be entrusted to the hands of a smaller number of master craftsmen such as Scorsese, Coppola, and their successors in the indie and foreign film worlds.


Benedict Laub

"Art for Art's sake" is my credo.

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