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ART v. ENTERTAINMENT

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: While promoting his upcoming film ‘The Irishman,’ filmmaker Martin Scorsese stirred up some dust in an Empire magazine interview where he said of the Marvel superhero movies, ‘ … that’s not cinema.’ Various movie folk have been defending Marvel and others have been thoughtfully examining Scorsese’s discriminatory view of ‘movies’ vs. ‘cinema’: ‘Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’ Coincidentally, I stumbled across a story I wrote for the Deseret News headlined, ‘Artsy or not, all movies are works of art,’ published June 13, 1980.’ The titles change but the arguments remain the same.

Movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have. … — Pauline Kael

The term “art,” when applied to film, causes the public to avoid theaters as they would a boring acquaintance.

“Art films” have a bad reputation among average moviegoers, justified by the notion that if a film is artistic, it has to be boring, dull and symbolic to the highest cerebral degree. It’s not that we don’t like to be made to think, it’s just that when we’re polishing off a hard week’s work with a night out at the flicks, we want to be entertained — and we’ve somehow come to believe that if a movie is going to make us think, it won’t entertain us.

So “Star Wars” and “Superman” and “Every Which Way But Loose” break box-office records, and lesser-known quantities that may be equally entertaining but aren’t quite as simple-minded fail to break even.

There’s nothing wrong with such lightweight, creampuff fare, but sometimes it’s nice to have some meat — or at least some form of protein.

Of course, we never know how we will perceive a film until after we see it, and if our moviegoing is limited we want to see something we are fairly sure we’ll enjoy, regardless of its artistic merit. But it is possible to have it both ways.

Let’s clear up the misconceptions first.

Because a film is foreign does not mean it is more artistic than domestic products. Too often we feel that if a movie comes from France or Germany or Italy or Sweden or Australia or Japan, it is automatically “deeper.”

Remember, however, that in addition to “Seven Samurai” and “Ugetsu,” Japan also gave us “Godzilla” and “Mothra.”

Nor should a movie qualify as art only when it is praised as such by a film critic, when it takes an underground popularity — or because you don’t think you really understood it.

 

In the end, our perception of art is based on our own experience — and who’s to say what’s right or wrong? Even highly trained arts critics disagree on the merits of specific paintings in a first show, and time often restructures how an artist is judged.

So it is with film. Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel and many other “classic” or “artistic” filmmakers who are secure in their reputations have often had their films panned by critics in their own countries and ignored by their own public.

Are they really any more artists than Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford or Frank Capra, who have reputations as craftsmen who catered to the public? Are Sam Peckinpah or Arthur Penn or Robert Altman, whose occasional triumphs (“The Wild Bunch,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “MASH,” respectively) are often surrounded by works no one can endure (“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” “The Missouri Breaks,” “Quintet,” respectively), really the innovative experimentalists they are reputed to be — or did those triumphs merely give them blank studio checks that they egotistically misused?

Does the American press really misjudge the work of Jerry Lewis, who is hailed as a “genius” in France?

Why, in 1979, was Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu,” with its moody, somber (some would say plodding) design and atmosphere, any more artistic than Frank Langella in John Badham’s romanticized, exciting (albeit slick) “Dracula”? It was, of course. But why? Because it had subtitles? Or because it probed deeper into the inner soul of this pathetic creature and made us see something of ourselves in him? We’d like to be more like Langella but perhaps we feel there is more of us in Kinski.

Another misconception about movies is that if they’re a foreign product, they will be a mite more obscene. To use the ratings system as a common denominator, “Dracula” carried an R, “Nosferatu” a PG, and “Nosferatu” was much more the “adult film of the two, but even more adult is the Australian film “My Brilliant Career,” which carries a G rating.

The latter film, which did great business in Salt Lake City recently and can still be seen this week, is an excellent example of a very simple storyline carried to its highest quality. A young girl, who considers herself plain, dreams of an artistic career but must carry on with her difficult daily existence. Art? I think so, but it’s also very entertaining.

You really care about her by the time the film is over, and as you leave you find yourself wondering what became of her later in life. It’s an Australian film — no subtitles.

No less a film is last year’s “Hair,” which is purely American. Based on the 1960s stage play that caused so much scandal, it could have been a pale reflection of the tumult of the Vietnam decade — but in the hands of Miloš Forman it became an exuberant dazzling, sharp-edged musical that underplayed its message and entertained as much as any movie in recent years.

 

The films that cause the critics to take sides can be seen with an assurance that there will be at least moments of brilliance, films that cause extreme reactions in both directions, such as “The Shining,” “All That Jazz,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Alien,” “Starting Over,” “Yanks,” etc.

Some of these movies will pop up from time to time at art houses around the country in coming years, just as Hitchcock films, the “Godfather” movies and all kinds of foreign films now pop up at Salt Lake repertory houses.

The Avalon, 3605 S. State, is now showing “My Brilliant Career” and owner-manager Art Proctor says he is planning a Hitchcock festival for July, though he has not secured any titles as yet.

The Blue Mouse, 260 E. First South, has “Hair,” “Nosferatu,” the two “Godfather movies in a double bill, and a number of foreign and domestic gems on its current calendar for the next three months.

The Elks Cinema, 139 E. South Temple, is showing foreign and art films exclusively now. “Dark Star,” the satiric predecessor to “Alien” by John Carpenter (“Halloween”) and Dan O’Bannon (“Alien”), is there now, and upcoming are “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” the Oscar-winning documentary “Best Boy” and “Don Giovanni.”

It might be fair to say the opening sequences of James Bond excursions (the free-floating dead astronaut in “You Only Live Twice,” The ski chase in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the free-fall fight for a parachute in “Moonraker”) qualify as moments of action or “pop art” — but a “Black Stallion” every once in a while is necessary to remind us of what can really be done with the medium.

It’s a visual medium, enhanced by a darkened theater and a hushed crowd. It’s the hush being broken by laughs or cheers or gasps of fright. And it’s the quiet mutual enjoyment felt with a group of strangers; silent, unspoken joy or mind-boggling special effects or thought-provoking sadness.

It’s the movies, and it’s an art.

ENDNOTE: Sadly, all of Salt Lake’s art-house theaters listed above are gone now. But we now have the Broadway Centre Cinemas and the Tower Theater and occasional revivals and documentaries at the multiplexes to counter-balance all the noisy comic-book movies that now dominate the cinema scene.