When Samuel Goldwyn led MGM studios, he reportedly told one of his producers, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."
That's all the explanation that is necessary for the poor box-office showing of a number of Iraq War films. When people go to the movies, they want to be entertained, not depressed or lectured. Goldwyn understood that; many in Hollywood today do not.
It's not uncommon these days for a film to enthrall the critics while failing to attract audiences. It's not uncommon for films that the critics disdain to make a lot of money. The true function of the movies is the same as that of the circus — to thrill us or make us laugh.
After all, those who like garbage can go to the local dump and look at it for free. Those who are fascinated by psychotics and neurotics can volunteer at a mental hospital. Those who want to see stories about bad people competing with other bad people can follow American politics.
The fictional hero, a concept that has been cheapened by airheads on television claiming that every person who wears a uniform is a hero, serves a useful purpose. Human life can be difficult and frustrating. We don't always attain our goals. We sometimes find ourselves in unpleasant situations.
To see a story about a heroic figure, even if fictional, inspires us. It reminds us that humans can be winners, that evil can be overcome. Humans need role models, and failures, cowards, psychopaths, killers and criminals don't make good role models.
The author Ayn Rand believed that all works of art were a reflection of the soul of the creator. On a television show, the host asked her, "Well, don't you think people of whom you disapprove have the right to produce their own works?" She replied, "Of course they have the right, but if I had a garbage can for a soul, I wouldn't want to put it on public display."
A great many people in the so-called creative-arts world today do have garbage cans for souls, and they do put them on public display. In most cases, the public demonstrates better tastes than the critics, the museum directors and the grant-givers. Who but an idiot would consider a crucifix in a bottle of urine as art?
Art is a form of communication, and therefore if it is neither intelligible nor beautiful, it is not art. The political concept of egalitarianism doesn't apply. One painting is not as good as any other, and the same rule applies to movie scripts, plays, performances, sculpture, photography and novels. Great art has always been the difficult and the exceptional. It is never the commonplace.
Movies, being a collaborative form of art, are especially difficult. The contributions of so many people have to mesh perfectly. It doesn't occur all that often, despite the best efforts. To see the magic created when everything does mesh, check out the old Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront.
A good test of any art is, do you feel better after experiencing it? If not, why bother? It's quicker to hit your thumb with a hammer than to spend good money and an hour and a half of your life watching a message picture that tells you the world is ugly and hopeless.
The world is not ugly and hopeless. It is beautiful, and life is a grand experience. There is so much beauty to enjoy, and hope never dies if nourished by courage. Happiness is often more of a choice than a circumstance. The world is as it is, but it is our reaction to that world that determines whether we are sad or happy.
December 29, 2007
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.