Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why Movies Matter

A couple weeks ago, the TV preview issue of Entertainment Weekly featured an interview with Sally Field and Rachel Griffiths, two of the stars of ABC’s drama series Brothers and Sisters. Most of it was what you’d expect, but there was a telling moment when the interviewer asked both of them how the show would affect their film careers, and neither of them cared; Field even talked of film work as standing around and not acting. The subtext, of course, was plain to see; these are award-winning (in Field’s case, twice) or award-nominated (Griffiths) film actresses who, essentially, were turning their backs on film because TV was more fulfilling, and not just because film had turned its back on them. Now, one might argue this is simply the product of ageism and sexism, except it’s not just women who are feeling this way. Jason Isaacs, for example, is part of one of the most lucrative franchises in movie history – the Harry Potter movies – and yet he said in an interview that he took the Showtime drama series Brotherhood because it allowed him to play a three-dimensional character, which he said he didn’t get to do in movies. Unlike Field and Griffiths, Isaacs isn’t turning his back on movies – there are, after all, two more Harry Potter movies to go, and his character figures in one of them – but he’s clearly getting more out of TV.
The fact television has grown beyond being the ugly stepchild of movies, of course, has hardly been news for the last few years. It’s been no secret that the best TV right now – Brotherhood, Weeds, and my personal favorite, The Wire – has been better than 90% of the movies out there now (and in case that brands me as a TV snob, let me also add that such “low-brow” fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars is also more entertaining and fulfilling than most so-called entertaining movies). Field, Griffiths and Isaacs aren’t the only actors to find more freedom on TV, network or cable, than movies. And while as recently as 10 years ago, directors and/or producers like David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Robert Altman (Gun) and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street) could count on plenty of network interference and/or indifference, today the strong showrunners can count on more creative freedom from TV studios than movie studios. All of this, like I said, comes as no surprise to those following movies and TV for the last several years. I even wrote something similar to this in a fanzine almost 15 years ago, though I miscalculated somewhat; at the time, when HBO was turning out stellar made-for-cable movies such as Barbarians at the Gate, And the Band Played On, and Doomsday Gun (and Showtime, then HBO’s ugly stepchild, even made The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom), I thought TV would compete with movies over movies, not with their own TV shows over movies. And now some are feeling triumphant over the fact TV is winning over movies, but I’m not one of them.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ll take good art wherever I can get it (I’m using art in a general term to mean any of the so-called performing arts), and if a great episode of a TV show can give me a feeling similar to what I felt when watching The Godfather Part II the first time, or listening to Quadrophenia the first time, or reading The Sun Also Rises the first time, I’m all for it. And it could be argued TV supplanting movies as an art form is simply the natural evolution of things. And in doing what it does best, TV is demonstrating what it can do better than movies can (developing a character, telling an ensemble story). And finally, the fact there’s still crap, formulaic TV around doesn’t negate what TV has accomplished – after all, no movie lover can deny there have been enough crap movies made to fertilize several thousand gardens.
But I feel a special connection to movies. I grew up with them in a way I never grew up with TV (of course, this was all pre-Internet, but still). When we first got a videodisc player (think of them as the movie equivalent of record players), my father would bring home a new movie every night (or it seemed like that) for us to watch. Sure, they were mostly old movies (with only a few exceptions, my father didn’t like movies made after 1965 or so), but they instilled a love of movies that has lasted in me to this day. And then I started going to the movies on my own – the summer before my sophomore year in college, I saw 17 movies in the theater, and the year after that, 18. And it was the big hits like No Way Out and A Fish Called Wanda, not the “esoteric” stuff like the latest Kubrick (well, okay, I did see Full Metal Jacket in the theater, but you get the idea). And I’ve been going, with others or alone, ever since.
I bring up the “big hits” line because, as a critic (albeit an amateur one), I’ve either been accused, either in general terms or specific terms, of only liking the “esoteric” stuff, and being asked, “Don’t you just go to movies to enjoy yourself?” I find that question irritating, because I always go to the movies in hope that I’ll enjoy myself on some level. It’s just what I enjoy now is different than what I enjoyed back then, in many ways. Part of that is the natural progression of growing up, and part of that is the natural progression of seeing a lot of movies. But there’s more to that as well. I am not a huge fan of Dead Poets Society, but there’s one scene in the movie that always resonates with me. It’s the scene where Professor Keating (Robin Williams) has his students tear out the introduction to their poetry books, not just because the art of poetry is described in such a pedantic manner, but also because he thinks poetry matters for much more, as he goes on to explain:

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Substitute “movies” for “poetry” and you’ll have an idea how I feel about them. Yes, it sounds pretentious, but I honestly couldn’t care less. Movies are an art form. Let me repeat that. Movies are an art form. Yes, movies can and should be entertaining – few movies were as purely entertaining this year as Hot Fuzz. And yes, movies, like any other art form, depend on money, which depends on putting people in the seats. But there’s no reason a movie can’t be made just to entertain and still have an intelligent plot, intelligent dialogue, and well-written, three-dimensional characters. There’s no reason a movie can’t be entertain and still confront the world we live in, or our lives on this earth, in some way. And there’s no reason to treat movies as a product in the same way as you would a tube of toothpaste (or to paraphrase Dead Poets Society again, we’re not talking about laying pipe, we’re talking about movies); as purely a product to be sold like anything else.
And the reason why movies matter to me, and to others I suspect, is no matter how many bad movies get made, there are always movies that do touch the soul, confront the world around them, or are simply well-crafted on the highest level. At the end of almost every year, I still have problems weeding down my top 10 list for that year because there are more than enough films to qualify. Yes, when it’s good, TV can have deeper characters and more complex and satisfying storylines. But movies can still bring the goods. And it’s still a relatively young format. There are more good movies to be made, and I, for one, hope I’m not the only one eager to see what they are.
Coda: this essay talked about movies on a purely artistic level, and not the experience of actually going to see one, but that is also worth touching on. There are all kinds of legitimate complaints to be made about going to see a movie today: the cost, the condition of the theater, the endless commercials, the rude behavior of others at the movies, and so on. And thanks to Internet communities, viewing parties, and the like, TV has also replicated, in part, the experience of actually going to the movies, and you don’t have to spend as much money. But there’s still nothing like seeing a good movie on a big screen with an audience that’s as appreciative as you are.

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