The Disappearing Line Between Art and Entertainment
Naturally, if I were to say the phrase “mindless entertainment” you’d probably think of the latest quickly produced (awful) action movie, a la Hobbs & Shaw. It’s usually something that requires little to no thought and is quickly branded a “popcorn flick.” This is supposed to alleviate any stress of attempting to truly critique said film and chalking it up as something you’re meant to enjoy on a surface level. Bearing this in mind, I’ve come to notice that this not only applies to the usual slop, but recent art-house favorites as well, so my question is…what’s the difference?
Last year, The Lighthouse opened to widespread acclaim amongst critics and people of the film community, myself included. I felt taken aback that films like that could open at my local theater alongside much bigger (mostly franchise) films. Perhaps it was just that appreciation of the art form that fooled me into thinking I watched something profound, but after a second viewing it dawned on me that it was just mindless entertainment shrouded in a Lovecraftian pastiche. However, since it’s a film of more artistic merit, it generates a parade of excuses and theories that could separate it from what it really is: extremely well-crafted schlock. A popular retort would be to claim it’s an exercise in mood (guilty of this) or something of this nature, but why do we feel the need to sternly defend it? Does the concept of an art-house popcorn flick really have such a negative connotation to it, or would we just like to think it’s much more of a true film? The Lighthouse is gorgeously shot I’ll give it that, but it’s just not something I thought about anymore after I walked out of that theater – it’s innately shallow, just like the average franchise trash.
I had a very similar reaction to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. Initially, I was in awe of the sheer craftsmanship, and that I had the opportunity to sit in a semi-packed theater and watch something so mystifying (especially that finale). I was one of the defenders, saying it had more to say than what was visible on the surface. Grasping at straws I also used the “exercise in mood” defense, but pretty soon it (embarrassingly) faded from my mind completely, and I really had no desire to come back to it at all. Sure, there might be some theories out there that could be valid, but with these types of films there seems to be new ones dropping relentlessly, almost as if people are trying to convince themselves of the presence of a deeper meaning is there when it really isn’t. Like The Lighthouse, I think it’s just really well-crafted schlock, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t think we should continue to try to convince ourselves that art-house films like these have to be anything more.
Lastly, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room, Blade Runner 2049. Although I was very positive on the film initially (at a time where I was very positive on just about everything), I think it’s a prime example of pure spectacle that earned unanimous praise but is extremely hollow. Sure there’s an attempt at depth like most films tend to have, but it’s trivial and the film seems to be much more interested in showing you just how impressive the cinematography is. Denis Villenueve is a hell of a filmmaker, but he’s so interested in the minutiae of the technical aspects of the film that he leaves the narrative to its bare-bones and forgets to add any kind of depth at all. Just like any recent entry of the Marvel/Disney canon it’s more interested in visually wowing you, so you can forget how insubstantial it really is. Truthfully, it’s a big budget blockbuster posing as high art, yet people run to defend it and slap on nonsensical meaning, obsessed with giving it some kind of importance.
To strengthen my case, I could list more films that fit the mold, but I think the true problem falls on the faulty barrier we put up between supposed high art and everything else, so the films aren’t truly at fault here, it’s just the way they’re received. Truthfully, it’s only now starting to dawn on me how many countless art films garner acclaim yet end up being as shallow and meaningless as any entry in the Fast & Furious franchise. Needless to say, I’m not referring to all art films in general (obviously), but you know which ones they are when you see them. Overall, I truly don’t see a distinction between the films I’m referring to and the more widely known films people tend to think of as schlock, and my cynical brain thinks they all deserve the same amount of criticism!
Essays blade runner 2049 denis villeneuve fast & furious fast & furious presents: hobbs & shaw luca guadagnino robert eggers suspiria 2018 the lighthouse
Could it be, in an attempt to jump in and defend these wonderful movies you describe as art-schlock, if we’re to look at films as simply story first, isn’t these differences – arthouse, mainstream, action etc – just a difference in how they are told? The Lighthouse, for example, plays with both form and character beyond the cookie-cutter version of most other films out there. In doing so, the story is presented more like some sort of experiment, or a sort of signifier-breaking mash-up of less obvious uses of the medium; though not exclusively. Therefore, if one is looking for ‘entertainment’ that requires more of a deliberate involvement, one that some might perceive as art theory – than, here it is. If that’s not what you’re after, or indeed willing to at least let wash over you in the name of furthering cinematic experience beyond the predictable, than yes, maybe, duck into a mindless F&F part 6. Just saying.