It’s All Just for Fun: Why There’s No Such Thing as “High” Cinema.
by Nathan Modlin
In a recent post anticipating Avengers: Endgame (2019), Portland Film Review’s own Devin McGrath-Conwell discussed the role of Marvel films in the larger world of cinema. There, Devin argued that it would be a mistake to simply “swear off and degrade an entire genre because you see that genre as lesser simply on principle.” Devin’s comment touches on an underlying issue in film criticism, one that complicates both the film critic and the filmgoer’s roles. This is a question that has frequently come up in film classes I’ve taken and has often plagued me personally: is cinema “art” or “entertainment”?
This question is often asked in contexts when the merits of a certain film are being questioned. “Art,” in this case, is something with aesthetic value, something worth discussing by film critics or in film classes; “entertainment” is something lower, for those average filmgoers who can’t appreciate true beauty, those philistines who watch movies for fun. Bicycle Thieves (1948), Persona (1966), and The Pianist (2002), are all art; on the other hand, Star Wars (1977), Die Hard (1988), and The Matrix (1999) are entertainment. I’m being sarcastic, of course. This division rests on a whole lot of preconceived notions about “high” and “low” art, ideas which stem primarily from the bourgeois need to protect class status. “High” art (like “art film”) is traditionally assigned to forms of entertainment that require a certain knowledge of social codes and access to education (painting, opera, “classic” literature, for example); “low” art (and “entertainment” films) is assigned to those media/genres that anyone can understand (genre fiction, TV series, and certain films).
My contention is that “high” or “art” cinema doesn’t even exist. I don’t think there’s anything that inherently separates films, and the idea of sitting with a stack of DVDs and throwing some into an “art” pile and some into an “entertainment” pile, as if in some film institute’s Last Judgment, seems like a frankly ridiculous concept to me. These sorts of categories are nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse, artificially created by self-promoting critics, passed around by highfalutin film buffs and in college seminars, and propagated online by Reddit commenters, to ignore the fact that at its core, all cinema is entertainment. Those who attempt to preserve the distinction are, in my opinion, afraid to admit that they genuinely enjoy a medium that caters to the masses and not to the select few. This means that films which discuss so-called “intellectual” ideas, or which use the language of the upper class, will naturally fall into the “art” category.
There are some films that, although clearly meant for entertainment, seem to transcend this category altogether and find their place among the “art” films. There, we find Taxi Driver (1976) and Fight Club (1999), anything by David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, and plenty of films by Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, Wim Wenders, Wes Anderson, and Gus Van Sant. The ideology behind the “art” and “entertainment” debate has largely to do with ideas about quality. Such discussions turn quickly to vague comments about the reception of certain works, or to false historical claims about which filmmakers were trying to make “art for art’s sake.” Another common theme is the invocation of “auteur” cinema, François Truffaut’s implausible theory (at best) that the director is the “author” of a film in the same way that a writer is the creator of a novel or poem, and that there is an essence of that director in each film. Although this tenuous theory may be slightly more applicable to the independent films produced during the Nouvelle Vague, it deliberately ignores the work of screenwriters, actors, producers, stagehands, and countless others. If we look closer at the list above, we’ll notice that the common thread is that these are all white male directors who cultivate this “auteur” status for themselves.
Those who cling to the division between “art” and “entertainment” are, in my opinion, mostly afraid that they might have to admit that the films they love are, in fact, part of the same medium that “normal” people enjoy. This is a mistake. Films that don’t offer grand critiques of society, or feature complex screenwriting full of intertextual references to obscure pieces of literature, are just as valid and as interesting to analyze as those that do. In a 1927 essay called “The Mass Ornament,” the German critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer expressed a similar sentiment. Writing that “surface-level expressions…provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things,” Kracauer points out that it is in “pop” culture, rather than “high” art, that we can find the true values of a society. The success of a film is an indicator that the themes and ideologies presented in the work respond to something in society. This means that Avengers: Endgame says more about 2019 than any esoteric, small-release film can. (Endgame, as Kracauer would probably note, shows the current need for the expression of certain themes and tropes: foreign bad guys, acts of terror, the rise of “heroes,” and a whole lot of military spending. America’s status as a superpower is in jeopardy, and the masses are turning to strong figures who can reinforce the myth of American exceptionalism.)
I would like to go a step further than Kracauer. While Kracauer maintains the distinction between the two levels of art (i.e., between “surface-level expressions” and the more “profound” ones), I don’t think these are separate categories, and I would argue that we should eliminate such notions from discussions of films altogether. There are two reasons for this: first, as I have argued, these categories are inconsistent and outdated relics from a time when “quality” was dictated by the whims of so-called bourgeois values; second, they allow viewers to ignore the fact that cinema is meant to be entertaining, and that a certain film doesn’t appeal to a specific audience is no reason to condemn it.
Let’s start with the inconsistent/outdated argument. There are several problems with these kinds of categories that arise simply from the more general issues of categorization. First of all, despite decades of trying, nobody can actually decide which films are “art” or “entertainment.” These are, after all, entirely subjective judgments. Critics and scholars differ on the merits of films all the time––A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Fight Club are notable examples. There’s no objective standard for the quality of a film, and even if there were one, it would become completely obsolete the moment it came into existence. Many of the most influential films––from A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Citizen Kane (1941), and from The Jazz Singer (1927) to Star Wars––are, after all, precisely those films that challenge and expand the traditional limits of cinema. But that doesn’t make those works “high” art. The idea that classic films are objectively better is anachronistic nostalgia. Ultimately, Alfred Hitchcock wanted to thrill his audiences in the most suspenseful ways possible, and in order to do that, he had to come up with new, inventive ways. Sergei Eisenstein’s ideological aims could not have been fulfilled if he hadn’t made films that primarily served to entertain. There are, of course, some films that are less accessible to audiences. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), a slow-paced, three-and-a-half-hour, black-and-white drama about a Russian iconographer who doesn’t speak for the last hour, is probably less likely to thrill audiences than The Dark Knight (2007), but that doesn’t mean that one of these is “art” and one is “entertainment.” Both films are entertaining to certain audiences who turn to these films in order to fulfil certain expectations. It’s possible to like both films (as I do). It’s also possible for a critically-acclaimed, dialogue-driven, “intellectual” film to be hilarious and entertaining. (For this, I’d recommend Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game ).
At any point in film history, discussions about “art” and “entertainment” seem to reassert the legitimacy of certain genres, while dismissing others. Right now, these are mostly superhero films, but if we turn the clock back a bit further, we’ll find that many now well-established genres were once assigned to the lower shelves. A good place to see this is in comedy. Again, I would push back on any definitions of this as a genre, but it’s a useful place to see how film changes. I would assert that there is no fundamental difference between laughing out loud at It Happened One Night (1934) or at Step Brothers (2008). And despite their ubiquity on film theory syllabi and critics’ best-of lists, no one would dare argue that Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton’s films were not aimed at primarily being entertaining. Calling those films “art” now is anachronistic. Even film noir, a genre now largely considered “art,” was once outside the canon. As late as 1972, film scholar Paul Schrader wrote that “film noir is oddly both one of Hollywood’s best periods and least known.” This is obviously untrue today, as film noir has become one of the most-studied periods, second perhaps only to the Nouvelle Vague, (essentially France’s revival/appropriation of film noir, and the first time the term “film noir” was used). The point then, is that critics and scholars’ ideas change over time.
This isn’t to say that all films are equal. There are good films and bad ones, and it’s often the case that the films we now consider “art” fall into the first category. To me, a “good” film is one that entertains me in some way, possesses qualities that make it interesting to dissect and discuss, and plays with my expectations. That’s my definition, and it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. What I’m proposing is that we do away with the outdated, bourgeois categories of “high” and “low” art once and for all, and replace them with a new understanding that all art is, at its core, entertainment. As an amateur film critic who predominantly writes about already canonized films, I’ll admit that I’m a bit hypocritical. But I will say this––I won’t write off a film, a genre, or a director until I’ve evaluated it for myself. I write about the films that stimulate my thought in some way or another, and to me, that’s entertainment.