Making Movies Matter

Each Spring, I am invited to help judge a media festival held at one of my alma maters. It is great fun. Lots of coffee and lots of pizza and lots of long and short movies made by aspiring graduates and undergraduates, many of whom are doing remarkable work. But one thing usually gnaws away at me. My former school emphasizes responsible media, and so in addition to judging the entries on technical competence and creative originality, we are asked to judge them on the loosely defined standard of "making media matter." The problem is that with the exception of the occasional documentary and overt public service announcements, I have never judged a movie that I thought met the "making media matter" criterion. The fiction films have at times been outstanding. But did they matter?

This cuts to the heart of a dirty little secret that lives in the souls of many artists, with film artists standing at the head of the line. How much do frames of light projected on a screen with corresponding sound really matter in our world? Have those of us who have devoted our lives to film merely been playing in a sandbox while the real world and its real problems chug past us? I remember preparing a lesson on techniques for good film dialogue in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Just last week, I was writing a blog post on Alfred Hitchcock's best movies as I sent my son back to college in St. Louis, where citizens in Ferguson were in the middle of fighting battles far more substantial than anything Jimmy Stewart encountered in Vertigo.

In 2012, New Yorker film critic David Denby published an excellent examination of the current film industry called "Do the Movies Have a Future?" In it, he shares both good and bad news about the challenges 21st century film faces. My friend and colleague James Curnow, who runs a kick-ass film site in Melbourne, Australia, eloquently addressed this issue in the essay that greets you when you log onto "I Believe in Cinema." ( James is younger than I am. And more optimistic.

I fear very much for the future of movies. I don't fear that they will disappear overnight, or that their ability to entertain will diminish significantly. But I fear that their impulse to take risks, to cause revolution, to matter (as my alma mater would like them to) is draining away year by year and dollar by dollar.

There have been works of art throughout history that have mattered. One hundred years ago, both Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, shook up the respective worlds of music and painting to the point of riot and protest. More recently, artists the likes of Richard Serra and Patricia Piccinini, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, Amiri Baraka and Eve Ensler, have challenged the prevailing cultures in sculpture, photography and theater. They have mattered.

Where are their film equivalents? I don't mean to suggest that no one is attempting to stir things up cinematically. In a world where Lars von Trier and Jim Finn can exist, there are notable efforts. I mean to suggest that such would-be revolutionaries are having zero impact.

There was a time when Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game earned stern rebuke for satirizing the manners of the French elite prior to WWII. People rioted. More than a quarter of the film was cut. It was banned by both the French and the Nazis. Last year, an acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film dealt with a similar theme - how out of touch and frivolous the elite in our modern society have become. But The Wolf of Wall Street didn't provoke riots. There were some complaints about it which quickly vanished. A year later, it is hard to see any cultural or political impact whatsoever. This is a sign of the times. Rules of the Game was a finely tuned comedy of manners, grounded very much in a realistic portrait of its characters and their foibles. The Wolf of Wall Street, made by Martin Scorsese, universally recognized as one of the most important directors in American film, is a broad farce. A caricature. A cartoon. Well made, but a cartoon nonetheless.

Movies do not have to be political in order to be successful. Film as sheer entertainment can matter. Film as entertainment that gets the audience to see the world a little differently, to think about something new, to reflect on how the story relates to real life, can matter a great deal. And film that can instigate genuine change can be transcendent. But the modern film world is not set up to generate that type of movie. It is an expensive medium, driven by profit, and catering to the simplest levels. It has elevated spectacle above story. It has become ever more derivative of past success. It has become a new opiate of the masses.

That phrase, whether you attribute it to Marx or de Sade, or to anyone else, was famously paraphrased by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he declared that modern Western music "dulls the mind ... similar to drugs." The Ayatollah was either unaware of, or more likely not attuned to, the revolutionary modern punk music being created by teenagers throughout the US and UK alike. I don't mean to argue with him over the relative value of the Bad Brains or the Buzzcocks. I refer to Iran because I think it happens to be at the center of several recent movies which illustrate my fear.

In 2013, a story about the 1979 hostage crisis, Argo, won the Best Picture Oscar. Another movie about American involvement in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty, was nominated. The fact that I think Zero Dark Thirty was the better of the two doesn't really matter. A lot of people loved Argo. I liked it quite a bit myself. But understand what it is. It is a big budget, feel-good movie that champions American (and Canadian) ingenuity and bravery. I have no problem with that. It also treats our enemies, when it bothers to treat them at all, as scary but easily-duped. That is one of the reasons I rate it below Zero Dark Thirty, which at least in its early stages, treats the "enemy" as a real human being. But what I find most remarkable about Argo is its unabashed belief in the power of Hollywood. It has to be the most self-congratulatory movie Hollywood has ever produced. Wag the Dog, which operated in similar territory, was a satire designed to poke fun at and raise questions about the very nature of Hollywood mythmaking. Not so with Argo. A movie - even a silly one - could outwit nameless Muslim revolutionaries. And even though John Goodman and Alan Arkin were wonderfully entertaining, the screen time given to the Hollywood part of the story took screen time away from the hostages themselves, and I feel that hurt the movie for reasons that get a little too "inside baseball" to describe here. (Feel free to ask me about that the next time you run into me.)

Argo is a good movie. I'm glad Ben Affleck made it. I'm glad I saw it. I just wish it wasn't held up as the best we've got to offer because I think it represents a trend away from meaning and toward opiate. But I recognize that Zero Dark Thirty is not to everyone's liking, and I don't mean to say that movies have to make political statements in order to be "meaningful."

One year before Argo and Zero Dark Thirty came out, Asghar Farhadi released A Separation. It is the best movie thus far made in the second decade of the 21st century. It is also among the most meaningful. It is not political, though some can read a political statement in its story. It is a relatively simple story of a group of ordinary people, constrained by culture and religion, beholden to societal pressures, driven by personal weakness and desire. It articulates through tense drama how certain cultural mores - in this case those of modern Iran - can lead to unintended tragedy. For non-Muslim audiences, it gives an all-too-rare glimpse into the life of normal people who face the same struggles, though perhaps dressed in different clothing, as the rest of us. For Muslims, it presents a melodrama that does what all great art does: it stretches genuine conflict to a dramatic breaking point so that we can reassess the ethical assumptions that underpin our daily lives. It makes us feel and it makes think. It matters. Movies have always been capable of that. But of those three recent, Oscar nominated films, which have you seen?

There was a time in this country when prize fighting and horse racing were the dominant sports. Now they are relegated to the sidelines, the pay per view special. The agate type. If you think Hollywood-style movies can't follow the same path, I'd suggest you check out Twitch, the game-streaming website that Amazon just bought for almost one billion dollars. Twitch allows users to watch video games being played by others, and it gets more peak-hour traffic than Hulu or Facebook. The vast majority of its users are young. Movies have had a good run over the past century, but video gaming is hunting them down as though on a quest to free young viewers from the passivity of redundant super-hero sequels. If Hollywood wants to matter, if movies do indeed have a future, the industry does not have to stop making Argo, or even Captain America 3 (due out in 2016). It just has to find a way to simultaneously develop and promote more movies like A Separation.