Trojan Tub Entertainment

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Faith-Based Filmmaking, Part 2

Faith-based filmmaking is a reaction to large cultural shifts in our country—shifts in the culture of Hollywood, certainly, but also in the culture at large.

When Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments premiered in 1956, no one thought of it as a faith-based film, at least not in the way that phrase is used today. Hollywood had a long history of making films with Biblical or religious subjects—Demille himself made a silent version of The Ten Commandments way back in 1923—and the public was only too glad to watch another one, especially one starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The same goes for films such as The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Robe, Ben-Hur, and the television mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth.

But our cultural manners have changed, driven by a loss of faith in the Mystery. The change was already well underway when The Ten Commandments premiered, but in recent decades the shift has become more tumultuous, producing seismic effects. To the point where we can no longer say that we live in a culture where our Christian heritage is the dominant ethos.

As the sage said, all conflicts are theological conflicts, and whether it’s always recognized or not, our cultural battlefield is defined by where folks stand in relationship to God. For this reason, the release of any Biblical or religious film is going to be regarded by both sides as a salvo in a cultural war. Exhibit A: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.   

In this social context, it is easier to understand and sympathize with the motives of those Christian filmmakers whom I spoke of in my last post, those who make films for the purposes of evangelizing—or re-evangelizing—our culture. But as I also remarked in that post, the danger in using mass-audience filmmaking as a means of evangelization is that if the work does not meet the highest standards of the art form, the film will for the most part only encourage the choir, and at worst consign Christian filmmakers to a cultural ghetto. Of course, God’s grace can go to work through any faith-based film. Eduardo Versรกtegui, the star of Bella, one of the most successful faith-based films in recent years, reports on his website that Bella has helped prevent over a hundred abortions. Now I think Bella has some drawbacks as a movie, but there are far more important things than movies, and one can only be grateful that such good came from people seeing Bella.    

There is more than one way to form culture. A film can influence culture by being a mere tool of evangelization. Yet a film can also influence culture by uplifting the heart and mind with beauty.

Let us assume that Christian filmmakers, granted their evangelical motives, are also trying to meet the highest standards of the art form and make beautiful works of art. This leads to the question: what are the highest standards of the art form? How do Christian filmmakers manifest the beauty of our faith in an increasingly secularized world?

Art is not produced by following a set of rules. But there are principles, and since the heart of a film, as with any narrative art, is its plot (as Aristotle taught us), I believe filmmakers can learn how to tell great stories by turning to great Catholic writers of fiction—especially those 20th-century Catholic writers who had to wrestle with telling stories in a world in which nihilism, as Flannery O’Connor said, is the gas we breathe.

Let’s begin with a few observations from Miss O’Connor, and in subsequent posts consider some other authors.  

O’Connor writes this about the Catholic novelist in her essay, “Novelist and Believer,” a point that is relevant to all the arts:

Great fiction involves the whole range of human judgment; it is not simply an imitation of feeling. The good novelist not only finds a symbol for feeling, he finds a symbol and a way of lodging it which tells the intelligent reader whether this feeling is adequate or inadequate, whether it is moral or immoral, whether it is good or evil. And his theology, even in its most remote reaches, will have a direct bearing on this.

Part of O’Connor’s point here is that every novelist, every artist, constructs his work from an estimate of what he believes life is all about. So that if the theology, or lack of it, of the artist does not influence the way in which he sees reality, he is not being true to himself as an artist.

But another part of O’Connor’s point is that, even for the believer, great fiction demands something more than belief. O’Connor speaks of the good novelist’s need to find “a symbol for feeling,” a symbol that will bear the weight of the truth that the novelist wants to communicate.

The finding of such a symbol is a matter of craft, not of faith. It is a matter, as O’Connor argues in her essay, of penetrating reality and finding there the concrete materials by which the truth can be communicated in a way that delights the senses, the emotions, the memory, and the imagination. “Ever since there have been such things as novels,” writes O’Connor,

the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.

So the Christian filmmaker has an obligation. His job is not to make his beliefs look pretty or feel soothing, but to get his hands dirty with the way things really are. The Catholic artist has a distinct advantage in this, as his faith helps him see the full breadth and depth of reality. Yet because of this he is even more deeply obliged to look at that reality with his own eyes.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faith-Based Filmmaking, Part 1

The very prospect of faith-based filmmaking by Christians raises a fascinating question: what is the relationship between filmmaking and evangelization?

The question arises with some force when we consider  Christian filmmakers, some of them even Christian pastors, who make films expressly to evangelize.

Consider the new film, The Grace Card, starring Louis Gossett, Jr., about an embittered police officer whose life is changed when he is assigned a new partner who also is a Christian pastor. What I have to say about this film is in no way meant to be a review of it. In fact, I haven’t even seen the film. And the same goes for the two other faith-based films I discuss below. My only interest, for now, is in what the makers of these faith-based films have to say about their motives for getting into the movie business, and the sorts of questions these motives raise.

The Grace Card, as we read on the film’s official website, is the vision of Dr. David Evans, a Memphis optometrist and founder of the faith-based production company, Graceworks Pictures. Dr. Evans also directed The Grace Card and served as the film’s executive producer. The film was made in conjunction with Calvary Pictures, a ministry of Calvary, a Church of the Nazarene led by Pastor Lynn Holmes in Cordova, Tennessee.

The church-as-production company-idea has gathered steam in recent years, largely due to the success of the films made by Sherwood Pictures, a production company associated with Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. The third of Sherwood’s films, Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron, was made for half a million dollars and grossed an impressive 33 million, making it the highest-grossing independent movie of 2008. It was the success of Fireproof that inspired Dr. Evans to make The Grace Card

And Dr. Evans was not alone in being inspired. Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch, is now at work on its own film, Not Today, about a spoiled young American on a trip to India who is drawn into a search for a little girl sold to human traffickers. In an interview with PBS, Pastor Matthew Cork had this to say about the purpose of Not Today:

It wasn’t just to make a movie, because we’re not in the movie business. We’re a church. But as a church we do have an obligation and a responsibility to tell the message, and so we believe that this was the best way for us in what God had gifted us with.

In the same story for PBS, Dr. Evans had this to say about the aims of The Grace Card:

We want, number one, for God to be glorified through this movie. We want to plant seeds that result in people demonstrating forgiveness and extending grace. That’s something we all need to do on a larger scale.

Finally, on the official site of Fireproof—a film about the renewal of a damaged marriage—one finds a page with the title: “5,740 Marriages Have Been Ignited by Fireproof,” followed by a long list of fan comments thanking the filmmakers for helping them  with their marriages or with some other aspect of their lives.

It was, reportedly, Sam Goldwyn who said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Behind this bon mot is the thought that movies aren’t supposed to send messages. They aren’t supposed to teach—even if what they have to teach is something about God, or a grave injustice affecting many innocent lives. The point of movies, Goldwyn no doubt wanted to say, is to entertain.

To which the Christian might retort: Christ himself spoke in parables. Christ himself used stories to communicate his message. So why shouldn’t his followers do the same, and use the most popular modern storytelling medium, film, to do it? 

And in making this point, the Christian would be absolutely right.

Christians shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to use stories to witness to the faith. They shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to glorify God, as Dr. Evans hopes to do with The Grace Card, or for wanting to raise awareness of human trafficking in India, as the makers of Not Today want to do.

However…these good motives should be distinguished from what’s necessary to the craft of filmmaking, in particular, filmmaking for mass audiences grouped together for the purposes of entertainment. For this is the arena that movies like The Grace Card have chosen to enter. Christ told parables, but he didn’t tell bedtime stories (or none, unfortunately, that we know of). Parables such as the Prodigal Son, in other words, were told by Christ in the context of preaching, not in the context of a Saturday night’s entertainment. It’s important to see the difference between these two contexts, because while it’s senseless, even impious, to ask whether Christ might have told a better yarn if he had developed more of the back-story on the prodigal son’s brother, it is not senseless or impious to ask whether a movie made for mass audiences seeking to be entertained, even one made by Christians, is doing all it should do as a work of art.

One of the dangers in confusing the context of preaching with the context of entertainment is that Christian audiences can become rather slack in what they’re willing to accept as a satisfying work of art. For too many, if the film is made by good people with good Christian motives, then they tend not to think about, or not be so critical of, the quality of it. But we should be concerned with the artistry of faith-based films, and not let financial success, or even evangelical success, make us complacent with the way things are done. For again, to make a film for mass audiences, whatever other motives are in play, is to attempt to make a work of art that entertains, and there is no excuse for the Christian to aim at anything less than the highest standards this art form demands.    

Which brings us to the key question: how to do this? How can faith-based Christian filmmakers witness to their faith while also being true to their craft?

Great art is always in the details, of course, but some general principles can be culled from the writings and observations of some great Catholic writers—and that’s what I’ll be doing in my next post later this week, with the help of Dante, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Welcome, Catholic Exchange Readers!

Today is the first day High Concepts is being linked to from the Catholic web portal, Catholic Exchange. I’m very glad of this opportunity to make High Concepts available to a wider readership, and I’d like to thank Harold Fickett, President of Catholic Exchange, for making it possible.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity to introduce readers of High Concepts to Catholic Exchange, a veritable banquet of insightful material on a wide range of topics related to Catholic culture.

High Concepts is devoted to issues in the arts, the entertainment industry, and new media from a Catholic perspective. The best introduction to the blog is the very first post from October of last year, “In Defense of High Concepts.”

To both new and regular readers, I look forward to hearing from you in the Comments box, as well as to our discussions in the days to come.    


Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Men Rich in Virtue Studying Beautifulness..."

One way to celebrate Saint Joseph, whose feast is today, as well as to connect him to the concerns of this blog, is to reflect on the ideas that inspired the formation of the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, a community of artists and craftsmen established in 1920 in the town of Ditchling in Sussex, England.

The guild was inspired by an economic and political philosophy known as Distributism—not to be confused with the idea of re-distributing wealth—whose major proponents were the Catholic thinkers G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.

Distributism is an attempt to put into practice the principles of Catholic social teaching. Distributism’s core belief is that society flourishes best when there is as wide a distribution of property as possible. One product of the Distributist movement in the early part of the 20th century was the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, which sought to retrieve a common life for artists modeled on the medieval guilds. Learn more about Distributism here  and here

The motto of the guild was “Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses.”

Sancte Joseph, ora pro nobis.  


Friday, March 18, 2011

On Wikis and Wonder

One black night G.K. Chesterton knocked his head against a wooden post. The experience led to a reflection upon what distinguished his approach to the world from that of those he called “our contemporary mystics”…

Now what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. When they said that a wooden post was wonderful (a point on which we are all agreed, I hope) they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. “Dream; there is no truth,” said Mr. Yeats, “but in your own heart.” The modern mystic looked for the post, not outside in the garden, but inside, in the mirror of his mind. But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy’s dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards for ever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. And as the mirrors of the modern mystic’s mind are most of them curved and many of them cracked, the post in its ultimate reflection looked like all sorts of things; a waterspout, the tree of knowledge, the sea-serpent standing upright, a twisted column of the new natural architecture, and so on.

And so on…until we arrive at the new business venture of Christopher Poole, the 23-year-old founder of an enormously popular website (12 million viewers per month) called 4chan, which, according to the New York Times, is “one of the largest forums on the Internet and widely considered to be one of the darkest corners of the Web.” What is so dark about 4chan? The Times reports that 4chan is “rife with pornography.” But this is only a symptom. The real reason why 4chan is dangerous is the black and solipsistic “mysticism” in which it trades.

4chan was started by the then-15-year-old Poole (at that time known anonymously as “moot”) as a site on which to discuss the Japanese comic forms of anime and magna. Thus 4chan was a Wiki, a site that enables group creation and editing of any number of different pages or digital entities. 4chan eventually morphed into a site where anonymous users can pursue the creation of various “memes,” units or threads of social “information” passed through cyberspace, which on 4chan include threads both pornographic and inane. Here are a couple of examples taken from the Wikipedia page devoted to 4chan

In 2005, a meme known as the “duckroll” began, after moot used a word filter to change “egg” to “duck” across 4chan. Thus, words such as “eggroll” were changed to “duckroll.” This led to a bait-and-switch in which external links disguised as relevant to a discussion instead led to a picture of a duck on wheels.

In March 2007, the trailer for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV was released. Its immense popularity caused publisher Rockstar Games’ website to crash. An unidentified 4chan user applied the concept of the duckroll to what appeared to be a link to the trailer on YouTube, but instead showed the music video for Rick Astley's 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Thus, the "rickroll" was born. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Astley said he found the meme “bizarre and funny.”

So what’s Christopher Poole’s new venture? A site called Canvas, recently revealed at the South by Southwest technology showcase in Austin. Says the New York Times, “[Canvas] allows people to upload images and watch as other members on the site add to and remix the content.”

A recent popular thread on Canvas featured a cute brown dog covered with snow. Each subsequent image added to the original. One introduced characters from “Star Wars” to the photo, then someone joked about calling in Charlie Sheen to help the dog clear away the snow, a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Sheen’s widely-publicized struggles with drugs.

And so on. “It’s a shared experience,” observes Poole, “knowing that you and several other people are experiencing this and participating in helping something unfold in this moment….That ephemeral nature of that moment is special and will never be repeated in the same way.”

But such digital doodling is much like Chesterton’s description of the dandy’s dressing room: entirely made of mirrors, cracked mirrors, in which real things assume weird and grotesque shapes which amuse for a moment but which are ultimately pointless.

Every art transmutes reality to one extent or another—but if the point of the transmutation is not to go deeper into reality, than what the artist creates is simply a funhouse reflecting the triviality of his own mind rather than things themselves. How sad that Canvas is being backed by several prominent investors and venture capital firms, including Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley investor who was one of the earliest backers of Google. How sadder still that when the 15-year-old Poole created 4chan, he ran it from the secrecy of his bedroom with his parents totally oblivious as to what he was up to.

Ours is a culture created by the minds of 15-year-olds run amuck.

“But I was never interested in mirrors,” continues Chesterton.
that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection—or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Defunding the Arts

In ancient Athens, when it came to finding money to put on a show, one of the city fathers would gently “volunteer” a wealthy citizen to serve as the show’s producer. This producer, now called a choragus or chorus leader, would foot the bill for most if not all of the show’s expenses. In return, the choragus would be honored with a crown and a place in the procession to the theater.

My mind drifts back to sunny old Athens as I reflect on the current debate in Washington regarding the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes under its wing National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). (For a primer on the financial relationship between these entities, see this.) Leaving aside for the moment the issues of defunding the news programming found on NPR and educational programming on PBS, the issue of defunding the arts programming on these networks raises interesting questions about the relationship of art and politics at all levels of government. Current defenses of federal arts funding are the last, fading echoes of the ancient Athenian inheritance. Arts entertainment is for the benefit of everyone in the city (so the argument goes), therefore the city should take responsibility for providing it.

But we need to remember that a trip to the theater in ancient Athens was a very different experience than that of tuning in on a Sunday night to an episode of Masterpiece Mystery. First of all, theatrical performances in ancient Athens were part of a religious festival. That parade to the theater in which the choragus was honored was a procession in honor of the god Dionysius. The plays themselves, moreover, while certainly means of entertainment, entertained by making space for a communal reflection on what was most important in a shared way of life.

This is not the 21st-century American experience. We do not engage the arts from a shared moral and religious viewpoint. Far from it. We live in a fractured moral and religious environment, a brokenness that is reflected in the arts we produce.

A work of art always embodies a philosophy of the human person. A work of art always says something significant about who we are, where we are going, and how we are to get there. But again, in our political community, there is no such philosophy that is communally shared. Instead, there are many philosophies in various stages of conflict and coexistence. In light of this situation, what does it mean for the state to patronize the arts? Whose art is to be patronized? Which philosophy? How are these questions to be answered except by someone in power exerting his or her preference?

Aristotle believed that the state was obliged to have concern for the arts insofar as (1) they provide relaxation (and thus rest for further work and virtuous activity); and (2) insofar as they affect public manners and morals.  

Do these principles apply to our present situation? Well, the private sector does well enough on its own providing opportunities for relaxation. But not (it will be countered) the best kinds of relaxation—that relaxation afforded by works of art that reform the spirit in a rich and delightful way. 

But what works (it will be countered in turn) are those? Who is to decide which works reform the spirit in rich and delightful ways? One federal bureaucrat’s masterpiece is another federal bureaucrat’s piece of raw sewage. A rating system for the movies might be the best we can hope to agree on, and we all know how hopelessly vague that is.

Our political community wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it officially eschews any substantial philosophy of the human person. On the other hand, it wants to subsidize substantial philosophies of the human person as embodied in works of art. It’s an incoherency that is best silenced by cutting the funding that gives it a voice.

But what of this, call it the “national parks” objection: shouldn’t we, as a people, have some beautiful works of art we can congregate around, just as, in the national park system, we commonly enjoy beautiful tracts of land?

On Aristotelian principles, I think the answer is a qualified yes. There should be some works of art that are a product of, and dedicated to, our communal life. But like the national parks, and to avoid the problem of conflicting philosophies, they should be a relative few, and focused on uncontroversial aspects of the American experience. So I’d be happy to see the federal government fund a national Fourth of July celebration on the mall in Washington, a Ken Burns documentary on jazz or baseball, or projects at Colonial Williamsburg. Beyond this brief, I don’t think we need to publicly fund the works of individual artists pursuing their own visions. “I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine,'' wrote the late John Updike, “than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds.” Even JFK didn’t believe that the government should fund symphonies or opera companies, except when they were engaged in cultural exchange programs.   

The philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his wonderful book on these very issues, Art and Prudence, notices that when it comes to the state’s relationship to the arts, only popular art is relevant. If a minority wants to go to the New York Metropolitan Ballet, by all means let them enjoy it. But what matters politically is the art that the majority want to experience. This means that a Harry Potter book, or a film like The Social Network, has more relevance to our communal lives as Americans than most of the offerings from PBS. This isn’t an argument for government intrusion into the film, record, and publishing industries. It is a reminder that there is more than one way for art to relate to the political life.

For consider: there are instances when a work of art brings people together across a fairly wide spectrum of moral and religious viewpoints, and in these instances something like the communal reflection of the ancient Athenian audience occurs. But notice that these instances are customarily not produced by PBS, which offers arts programming of a fairly highbrow sort. Rather, whatever communal art experience we enjoy in this country is provided by private corporations—be they film studios, record labels, or book publishers. It is these private entities that generate works of the widest popular appeal.

This is not to say that all works of popular culture are aesthetically superior to works of so-called “higher” culture. I am not arguing that Harry Potter is just as good as Shakespeare. I am arguing, rather, that in our political and economic situation, private enterprise generates the widest possible communal engagement in the arts. Because of this, our focus should not be on federal subsidies for the arts—but on private efforts to make our popular culture as philosophically rich as it can possibly be. 

I say all this as a fan of many PBS programs. I also say this as one who lives in a town—Waco, Texas—which chooses not to support televised programming at the local PBS affiliate, so that I cannot even see PBS programs on broadcast television. To the persistent objection that without federal funding high-quality arts programming will be put in jeopardy, I reply that such a view is fantastical. We are swimming in privately-funded arts programming every bit as good, and often better, than what we find on PBS. At the same time, there is no reason to think that programs of the quality of many PBS programs cannot compete in this marketplace.

In the end, those like me who want to see a program like Masterpiece Mystery should be ready to pay for it. That is, to volunteer as choragai by reaching into their own pocket.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Comedy and Tragedy of Comic Books

The Mark Harris article that I was reflecting upon in my previous post first came to my attention via Ross Douthat’s op-ed from last Friday’s New York Times. While agreeing with Harris in many respects, Douthat disagrees with Harris’s somewhat fanciful conclusion that Hollywood’s recent storytelling woes can be traced to the success of Top Gun. Here’s what Harris has to say about that movie:

Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-80’s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?   

Here’s Douthat’s rejoinder:

This gets point for creativity, but I’m not sure it’s quite convincing — not least because it skates over the depressing reality that even a shallow, glitzy Bruckheimer vehicle like Top Gun lacks the crucial ingredients that get blockbusters greenlit today. Consider: The tale of Maverick and Goose and Iceman wasn’t based on a comic book, or a video game, or a television show or a children’s fantasy bestseller, which means that it wasn’t pre-sold and branded in the style of nearly every contemporary tentpole picture. Instead it relied on star power (how old-fashioned!) and a storyline that was cliched but also relatively restrained (where was the super-villain? where was the weapon that threaten to DESTROY THE WORLD?). Compared to the umpteenth X-Men prequel and the looming reboot (!) of a Spider-Man franchise that isn’t even a decade old, a movie like Top Gun might as well belong to the golden age of original storytelling. Maybe its success was a gateway drug to our present situation, but I still think that comic-book movies have been the crack cocaine (or “the drug called Charlie Sheen,” if you prefer) of Hollywood’s current mediocrity addiction.

Comic-book movies may well be the most noticeable symptom of Hollywood’s storytelling malaise, but the cause, as I argued in my last post, is Hollywood’s principle of trying to please as many people as possible with the majority of its products (understanding that it’s always easier to please the young and undiscerning).  

But staying for a moment with the question of comic-book movies, what is the nature of their appeal? The obvious answer is that comic books are what Hollywood’s target audience—young men under 25—are reading. No doubt this is largely true. But still I wonder. In early May Paramount will release the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor, based on the Marvel comic book. Now I have dim memories of Thor from my comic book-reading days in the 70’s—what I really remember is Thor being teamed with other Marvel superheroes in The Avengers series—and perhaps it’s just my ignorance of youth culture talking, but I have to ask whether today’s teenage boys and twentysomethings are really that into Thor. He seems kind of an old school comic-book hero. One of the responses to Douthat’s post in the Times made the point that the comic-book movie craze is due not so much to those whose aesthetic was shaped in the 80’s or even the 70’s, but to the babyboomers, whose aesthetic was shaped in the 60’s (Thor, interestingly, debuted in a Marvel comic book called Journey into Mystery in 1962). However, even if it is babyboomer execs with their old school pop culture tastes who can’t stop greenlighting comic-book movies, the fact remains that, translated to the screen, this 60’s aesthetic is enormously appealing to today’s male youth. Witness the success of film franchises based on such 60’s heroes as Spider-Man (who first appeared in the Marvel comic Amazing Fantasy in 1962) and Iron Man (who debuted in the Marvel comic Tales of Suspense in 1963). The question recurs: what is the nature of this perennial appeal? Is it something about the spirit of the 60s? Maybe. But that wouldn’t explain the success of the, still growing, Batman film franchise(s), based on a comic-book hero who dates from the late 1930s.

Perhaps the mystery of the perennial appeal of comic-book heroes and comic-book movies has to do with our natural fascination with hero-based “high concept” fiction. When I launched this blog back in October of last year, I took as a kind of rallying cry the following observation of G.K. Chesterton: “One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar.”

Chesterton made this comment in a marvelous little essay entitled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” published in his book, The Defendant, back in 1901. What are penny dreadfuls? Pulp fiction, cheap fiction, cheap in more than one sense, no doubt. But not in every sense. Chesterton’s essay focuses on the boys’ book—i.e., the story of pirates or outlaws, of Robin Hood and Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine—stories light on literary merit but heavy on excitement. He asks whether boys should be kept away from such fiction. His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.”

The “boy’s novelette,” Chesterton argues, “may be ignorant in a literary sense…but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

Our culture is saturated with high concept fiction of all kinds—not least in comic-book movies. It is tempting to consign all of it to the cultural dustbin. So much of it is vulgar, puerile, cheap. And a lot of it should be kept from the attention of young boys—and old men.

But Chesterton urges us not to discount the importance of high concept fiction for culture. “But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.” 

Why is the need for what Chesterton calls the “true romantic trash” infinitely deeper and more important than the rules of good art? “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton affirms, “fiction is a necessity.” Is this because the need to be amused or distracted is deeper than the need to be intellectually stimulated? Or does it have more to do with the wonder provoked by the high concept—especially when this wonder centers on a hero valiantly taking up arms against an evil menace?

“Ordinary men,” says Chesterton, “will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all.”
Chesterton thus offers the most positive take on the relevance of the comic-book movie for culture. Our eagerness for such movies is an expression of our natural desire for the “heroic truisms on which civilization is built.”

Good. Call this the “comic” take on comic books. But let’s get back to the Douthat piece with which we began. As final proof of Hollywood’s ossifying imagination, Douthat refers to a New Yorker profile on the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth fame. (Warning: del Toro’s language in this interview can get a little saucy). The article recounts del Toro’s epic failures in getting two fantasy movies greenlit: a two-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (now being directed by Peter Jackson), and an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft sci-fi horror novella, At the Mountains of Madness. Douthat sees del Toro’s struggles as the worst sort of fallout from Hollywood’s addiction to the branded and pre-sold (though after Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trifecta, how can The Hobbit be considered as un-branded?).

But what struck me in this lengthy profile of del Toro is how he explains his attraction to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness: “The book essentially says how scary it is to realize that we are a cosmic joke.”

Whether in saying this del Toro is reflecting Lovecraft’s original vision I cannot say—though I doubt it. But I bring this up to draw attention to the modern counterpart of Chesterton’s comic understanding of high concept fiction. What del Toro is pursuing is a “tragic” vision of the high concept, in which the focus is not on the heroic but the horrible, and the horrible understood as an image of the metaphysical black hole in the postmodern cosmos. Our culture is still healthy enough to prefer high concept fiction of the more-or-less “comic” kind. But as our culture declines, stay tuned for more movies that eschew the comic outlook for the tragic one—the comic book for the cosmic joke.    

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement

The title of this post is taken from a 1947 essay by the British Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), an essay Waugh published in the London Daily Telegraph after a frustrating sojourn in Hollywood unsuccessfully pursuing the prospect of a film version of his best-selling 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. Not surprisingly, given his title, Waugh’s essay is a stinging indictment of the film industry in Hollywood. His chief complaint is that Hollywood makes movies to please everyone at once:

A film costs about $2,000,000. It must please 20,000,000 people. The film industry has accepted the great fallacy of the Century of the Common Man…that a thing can have no value for anyone which is not valued by all. In the old days a play which ran 100 nights was a success, a book which sold 5,000 copies might influence a generation. Even now a writer who sells more than 20,000 copies, instead of being elated, begins to wonder what has gone wrong with his work. But a film must please everyone.

It’s interesting to compare Waugh’s essay to a recent essay by Mark Harris in GQ, “The Day the Movies Died.” Both Waugh and Harris declare that Hollywood has reached its artistic nadir. Both complain of Hollywood’s habit of making movies to please everyone (Harris uses the modern idiom of the “4-quadrant movie,” i.e., the movie that pleases men, women, the young, the old). But something happened with the economics of Hollywood in the 60+ years between these two essays. The drive to make movies to please everyone has been replaced by a far narrower concern. Women, so Harris argues, are increasingly considered a niche audience. Those born before 1985 are considered ancient and “more likely…to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie….”

“That leaves one quadrant,” writes Harris,

men under 25—at whom the majority of studio movies are aimed, the thinking being that they’ll eat just about anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants. That’s why, when you look at the genres that currently dominate Hollywood—action, raunchy comedy, game/toy/ride/comic-book adaptations, horror, and to add an extra jolt of Red Bull to all of the preceding categories, 3-D—they’re all aimed at the same ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie. In a world dominated by marketing, it was inevitable that the single quadrant that would come to matter most is the quadrant that’s most willing to buy product if it’s mediocre.

(Harris is joined in this argument about the importance of immature young men to Hollywood by Edward J. Epstein in The Hollywood Economist.)

Yet this shrinking of Hollywood’s concern from 4 quadrants to 1 is due to the same impulse. Waugh calls it “the principle of universal appeal.” In light of today’s Hollywood economics, it might better be termed the principle of trying to please as many people as possible with the majority of its products (understanding that it’s always more possible to please the young and undiscerning). There are reasons for Hollywood to want to do this, of course, not the least of which being the need to offset enormous production costs. But would there be such enormous production costs if Hollywood were not focusing, in the first place, on spectacles for easily excitable testosterone junkies?

Interestingly, both Waugh and Harris arrive at the same lament. They both name the biggest casualty of Hollywood’s perennial desire to please: movies for grown-ups. “As recently as 1993,” notes Harris, “three kid-oriented genres—animated movies, movies based on comic books, and movies based on children’s books—represented a relatively small percentage of the overall film marketplace; that year they grossed about $400 million combined (thanks mostly to Mrs. Doubtfire) and owned just a single spot in the year’s top ten. In 2010, those same three genres took in more than $3 billion and by December represented eight of the year’s top nine grossers.” Harris reflects dolefully on all of this:

Let me posit something: that’s bad. We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific, but the degree to which children’s genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays. 

Waugh was saying the same thing over sixty years ago when he said that Hollywood cannot value anything that cannot be valued by all. Now it would be too much to say that Hollywood is no longer capable of grown-up fare—the recent successes of The King’s Speech and The Social Network give the lie to such a view. But taken together, Waugh’s and Harris’s essays remind us that Hollywood has a long habit of spending far too much time and money on trying to titillate crowds with mindless spectacle.