“What we’ve got here is…a failure to communicate.”
The line was first used to crush Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but it may just as well describe how we as a culture watch our movies. There is a phenomenon so many in film criticism instinctively avoid, a dirty little secret we must suppress if we want to remain a part of the club: that there is a disconnect between the critic and the public, the acclaimed and the commercial, the academic and the mainstream.
Critics may deem this disconnect irrelevant, that it shouldn’t matter if a film is entertaining, that art is art. To them, a film’s greatness is determined by detailed analysis, where metaphor matters, mise-en-scene dictates, and subtext is king. There is no room for “entertainment” in any serious study of the film medium; it’s secondary, an opiate for the masses, allowing an apathetic society to further dumb itself down. For all this, critics look at the public and lament, “If they only had a brain.”
Meanwhile, the public believes the opposite, that it shouldn’t matter if a film is artistic, that entertainment is entertainment. To them, a film’s greatness is determined by first impression — that innate ability to connect with audiences, provide an escape and send us out of the theater having felt something. There is no room for “art” in any real-world enjoyment of movies; it’s secondary, an opiate for the academics, allowing snobby eggheads to make abstract connections about minute details that may not even be intentional. For all this, the public looks at the critics and says, “If they only had a life.”
So where does that leave us? Unfortunately, with much head scratching as we retreat to our respective corners of film elitism and film ignorance. If you ask me, each is equally dangerous. Show me a “great” art-house film, and I’ll show you a film that only a sliver of the population will ever see. Show me a “great” box office success, and I’ll show you a film that could have been so much more.
To the public: How many of you have tried watching a critically acclaimed film, only to fall asleep in boredom? How many can’t understand why your own favorite movie is bashed by the critics? How many follow fan polls more than online reviews? And how many trust the People’s Choice Awards more than the Oscars, Cannes or Sundance because they better represent your popular point of view?
To the critics: How many of you have watched box office receipts roll in, only to roll your eyes at the lazy product on screen? How many have screened a masterpiece in your film theory course, only for your students not to “get it?” How many get upset when the latest blockbuster reboot launches to the top of the IMDB charts, surpassing films you’ve spent your entire life studying? And how many see the results of the MTV Movie Awards and grow increasingly concerned that a generation raised on 3D and CGI does not get, and does not care to get, your carefully trained point of view?
Rather than butting heads from here to eternity, we must ask ourselves a question: why does this divide exist? The answer, I believe, is because academics rarely speak the language of the mainstream, and because the mainstream, through no fault of its own, is not yet equipped to digest the academic. Yet.
Enter The Film Spectrum. Here, we’ll help you navigate the two extremes: the pretentious and the ignorant, the engaged and the passive, the elite and the mainstream. Martin Scorsese called it the “eternal battle between personal expression and commercial imperative,” while critic Pauline Kael, who once got fired for bashing a blockbuster, admitted, “There is so much talk now about the art of the film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”
Our reviews will thus take academic classics and explain them in laymen’s terms, while taking mainstream classics and explaining them in academic terms. Our tone will be candid and conversational; our commentary packed with pop culture and laced with listology. If a professor can learn to laugh at Animal House, and a frat guy can learn to love Citizen Kane, our job is done.
Have no fear: we will not dilute the study of film criticism. Bad movies will always be bad movies. We’re simply looking to bring more people into the conversation. In a global 21st century, where information is instantly available to all corners of society, the time is ripe to shatter the barrier between the elite and the ignorant once and for all. To do so, we need the biggest tent possible.
Let’s face it. When the credits roll, we as an audience are often as divided as our politicians during a “State of the Union” address. One side gives a standing ovation, while the other sits on its hands. Did we just watch different movies? Clearly not. It’s how we interpret what we see that forms our opinions. We must reach across this aisle because it perpetuates our society’s broader failure to communicate. So, in the words of Orson Welles during his 1975 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award:
“Let us raise our cups then standing, as some of us do, on opposite ends of the river and drink together to what really matters to us all … To the movies. To good movies. To every possible kind.”
This is our Citizen Kane “Declaration of Principles;” our Animal House rallying cry. For in the end, we all sit in the same seats and stare at the same screen. It’s our obligation to challenge ourselves with the patience to learn the art of cinema and the humility to admit our gut reactions; to seek a day when audiences expect more from our filmmakers, and filmmakers more from our audiences; to find purpose in knowing that a well-rounded film culture will make for a well-rounded society; and to find inspiration in the hope that the “perfect” movie is still somewhere out there to be made.
I’ll see you in the aisle.
The Film Spectrum
Across the Aisle / Above the Fray