(originally written 23 April, 2008)
I was perusing through imdb.com, specifically some trivia on the film director who I respect the most as an artist: Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven are three of my top ten favorite films, Alien is close, I really like Matchstick Men, and I can see the brilliance in some of his other works that I simply enjoy less because of personal taste, such as Legend, Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, and A Good Year—I am sad to say that I still have not seen American Gangster, which I understand is also powerful).
What specifically caught my attention are some thoughts he is quoted to have said:
"I'm not criticizing Hollywood because I work there, I partly live there. But I'm saying this is the way it is, commerce is taking over art. Commerce has become the most important thing in the film industry. Hollywood is an industry, it's not an art form, therefore they have to address the bottom line."
"I think movies are getting dumber, actually. Where it used to be 50/50, now it's 3% good, 97% stupid."
"We're suffering from saturation, overkill. The marketplace is flooded by demand, and there are too many films, so everything gets watered down. Demand is the boss and everything bends to that will. Bigger and not necessarily better shows seem to be the order of the day."
So overall, not that Scott is the one I look to for artistic truth—though I do greatly respect his work (I don't use the adjective "brilliance" lightly), I feel his words reveal some important insights into the current Western, namely American, artistic culture that is in part perceived through the "film industry."
I can attest to feeling numbed by all the poor work out there masquerading as art, especially in the film genre—it seems rare that a true "gem" is created. I actually find myself looking back more and more lately for the "masterpieces" or renowned "classics" of our western film history (and in some cases Eastern in the case of the arguably greatest Japanese film of all time, Shichinin no samurai "Seven Samurai"). When I find a film that I think holds some level of creative and unique brilliance, I desire to own it somewhat like the parable of the farmer who sells his possessions to purchase the field containing a rare pearl. In other words, I will not only purchase the film, but wish for others to share with me the qualities that comprise it and the discussion that it may promote.
So, ultimately, I suppose I encourage anyone to not settle for just any film—I tell this to my high school film studies group—and while there is a time and place for simply "entertaining" films (e.g. personal favorites are the Ocean's Eleven, Jason Bourne, and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies), we must be cautious in labeling one as "great". The amount of money it makes is not necessarily an indication of its worth, nor how much money goes into the film as Scott would attest to, though it would seem natural that people would pay to see the better films. Even Academy Awards, which I often agree with or at least understand their reasoning, are not the best indicators, though I believe perhaps better than the aforementioned money-based facets. Many of the "masterpieces" either seemed to have had an element of controversy to them, more clear with some historical context as to when they were made, or presented a reality (sometimes harsh) of the world. Now, I speak greatly of film/story content, but there is a great deal to discuss, which I will not venture as one less informed here, concerning the actual art forms of directing, producing, casting, editing, music, cinematography, etc.
Now, there is a place for personal taste, of which I have already mentioned in brief, but such topics are beyond the point right now.
In his Star Wars adaptations/expansion trilogy, Timothy Zahn develops an intriguing villain called Admiral Thrawn who studies the art of other races in order to understand their culture, particularly the nature of their war strategies. This is an interesting thought, I believe essentially true, in the sense that art can and does represent a culture's values, etc.
Regarding films, then, what are we condoning as true works of art? In observing the films that are most popular in American, what will the world conclude? An example of our cultural film differences is exemplified in part by comparing the top box office film results between the “USA” and the “World” (which is probably referring to Europe)—there are some interesting differences.
I have no specific answers, but rather more questions and thoughts for discussion.
The most important truth perhaps to take away from all these thoughts is to reflect on how we personally use our time to be "educated" in the arts (I believe film viewing, for example, is a form of art education), and how we understand and thus categorize or set values on each of them. Film viewing is not simply about entertainment, though that should be an element, but about much more—the questions, examples, challenges, etc. offered should be approached as one should or must approach any piece of literature (whether it be the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Donald Miller) or musical composition (whether it be Bach, The Beatles, U2, or Coldplay), or visual art (whether it be Rembrandt, Monet, Ansel Adams, Pollock, or Warhol).
It’s about the responsibility to take time to look beyond the surface. Let us not succumb to or settle with mere commercialism, superficial clichés or perhaps give-and-take formulas, but instead let us seek Truth in order to build a richly united tapestry of relationship, communication, and creativity, in order that they may all ideally come together to offer such Truth to our culture and world.