Film As Art

I remarked in passing on a recent post that there is a basic difference between film regarded as art (as it was in many countries other than in this one at least until recently) and film as entertainment (which is what it is regarded as in this country, for the most part.) I think this distinction warrants development and some support. Besides, I am sick and tired of writing and reading about the current political race!

Years ago I was director of a Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux.” (It is not important to know when this was, let’s just say it was after the Flood.) At that time we used a number of films as points of departure for discussion in small seminars after the film was shown. Note, please, that the film was not shown in class time. The topic for that term was ‘Good and Evil,” a broad topic, you will agree. A good friend of mine in the theatre department who knows everything there is to know about films recommended “The Shop On Main street” and that was shown to the Freshman class in several showings at the Campus Religious Center. I was present at the first showing of a powerful film with subtitles about the deportation of Jews during the early 1930s. After the film had been shown, I heard one young man turn to his neighbor and say: “Subtitles suck.” That was his assessment of the film, a film as gripping as any I have ever seen, before or since.

The young man, who shall not be named, had confused film as art with film as entertainment. He came to the show expecting to be entertained. Instead, he was asked to pay close attention, read, and think about what he was seeing. Apparently, he could not do the latter.

I don’t want to pick on that young man. He might have simply tried to be funny. I clearly am not to know. But the remark does raise the issue I want to discuss: how does film as art differ from film, as entertainment? The answer is deceptively simple: film as art requires the engagement of the spectator’s feelings along with his or her whole mind, intellect and well as imagination. It demands their full attention. It raises issues and requires that we make an effort to connect and interpret. It doesn’t reward a passive audience that simply wants to sit back, stare, and eat popcorn.

The implication, of course, is that film as entertainment does do the latter. And that is all that it does do. It hands the spectator a finished product, complete with special effects and noise enough to drown out any ideas he or she might have about what is happening away from the screen. It makes few, if any, demands of the spectator.

Think about Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” where the line is thinly drawn but still apparent. The shock of the ending is suggested rather than shown. This is key, as it is in almost all art. Hitchcock still, at that time, required of his audience that they participate in the making of the work of art, which was the film. They never saw a woman stabbed in the shower or a madman/madwoman attacking the hero at the end off the film. But they thought they saw it, and if they had any doubts the music helped them out. They put the pieces together and made up these scenes for themselves. And in the process they were involved in the horror that was “Psycho.” From that time forward, in American film history (with a few exceptions — by such film makers as Woody Allen) — the films became more graphic and less taxing on the audience. As the American audiences became more and more jaded and used to the sensational it became imperative on the part of filmmakers to become more and more vivid in their presentations, demanding less and less of their audience. That was that way the audiences wanted it. That was what we gradually became used to. We became lazy and easily diverted. Film had become entertainment. We got what we wanted.

The interesting thing to note in this process is that it parallels the gradual immersion of the American public into electronic media and the rule of thumb in television and movie theaters everywhere: give them that they crave. Give them all our production crews and special effect people can give them. This was a breath of fresh air to the special effects people who were learning new tricks at every turn and were perfectly capable of scaring the pants off every passive spectator in any theater anywhere in this broad country. I daresay it became something of a contest, with the winner taking home the trophy. And if today’s tricks didn’t work, there’s always tomorrow. The sky’s the limit! And the audiences paid large fees to be entertained and came back for more. In the meantime, their imaginations wilted and the true film makers, who shrank in numbers, played to smaller and smaller audiences.

This brief history is somewhat simplistic, but essentially correct, I think.

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6 thoughts on “Film As Art

  1. Professor Curtler,

    Your most recent post brings to mind a somewhat similar experience I had teaching a first-semester honors course on the same topic, “Good and Evil.”

    As part of this course, we discussed aspects of the Holocaust and showed “Triumph of the Will”, by Leni Riefenstahl. The film was shown full length — about two hours. The film was followed by discussion, both immediately after the showing and during the next class. Students were asked to share their thoughts both verbally and in writing.

    Responses varied. However, almost all students complained about the length of the film. They simply couldn’t see the point of “all that marching!” This from students who will spend many hours on video games and other visual entertainment. The key, as you say, is that they EXPECT film to be nothing more than entertainment. If film is more than entertainment, it typically will disappoint. (Most students, it seems, have the same view of the written word, of academic lectures, of television programs, etc.)

    To appreciate “Triumph of the Will’, students first would have had to change their attitude about film itself. I can report that after viewing the film, several students changed their attitudes about “watching movies” — but it took considerable discussion and effort. Most students, even in the honors class, were untouched intellectually by the experience. insofar as I could determine. I don’t have an easy solution to the general tendency to view the world at face values, as “entertainment”, though it does explain a bit about the current presidential campaign.

    I would pose this question, however: Where are young people actually encouraged to view their world in a reflective manner? I suspect the answer would be in a college class here or there, but even in universities I have detected little support for developing thorough-going reflection on matters of importance. To be fair, I would also have to say that colleges and universities are the ONLY place I have found ANY support for the development of critical thinking.

    Indeed, one of the first times I was asked to deal with difficult moral and ethical issues was in a class called “Ideas in Flux” and in a philosophy class on ethics, both of which I took in the late 1960s at Southwest Minnesota State College. As you say, it was after The Flood, but just barely.

    My, how time flies…

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments.

    • As you suggest, it would take a Herculean effort to change the prevailing attitude toward things intellectual. We live in an anti-intellectual culture in an anti-intellectual age. Sad. Thanks for the excellent example. Interesting that even there honor students failed to connect to such a powerful film!

      • In the context of another first-year-student program, I incorporated film study into a course syllabus. I found the film-related attitudes of “regular” first year students to be similar to those in the honors class I described.

        Honors student are bright, diligent,and generally compliant, but their intellectual attitudes and orientations are not fundamentally different from those of other first-year students. Given the high school experiences they typically have had, I am not at all surprised by this similarity of attitudes. I have found, however, that honors students do seem more willing to grow and develop intellectually and that almost all students are capable of doing so, given time and effort.

        I still think colleges and universities remain the last, best hope for the development of thoughtful disposition, yet this requires small classes with demanding and skillful teachers. The the prevailing trends in higher education — at least in the public sector — do not augur well for those prospects.

      • From what I have read and heard the situation is not much better in the private sector. The formula is to give the students what they want, not what they need. And increasingly higher education is becoming a business and the student is the customer.

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