I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.


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.

Dumbed Down

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment.  He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of print media and news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products.  And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news and papers such as USA Today have become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies.

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who have been brought up by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused. This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America and it may go a long way toward explaining why Americans could care less about their government’s ongoing violation of the fourth amendment.