In the middle of a massive slow-motion explosion of an essay (it's worth reading, get coffee) comes this fine nugget:
DOES TRADITIONAL ARC-BASED STORYTELLING HAVE AN INADVERTENT EFFECT OF SEPARATING US FROM MAKING ANY ACTUAL GROWTH OR CHANGE IN AND OF OURSELVES?
... THINK ABOUT HOW MANY FILMS WE MAKE ABOUT RACISM THAT ARE CONVENIENTLY SET IN THE PAST AND ARE ALL ABOUT WHITE PEOPLE LEARNING HOW TO OVERCOME SLAVERY / RACISM / WHATEVER IT IS. PEOPLE DON'T WALK OUT OF THE THEATER FEELING CONFRONTED BY THEIR BELIEFS. THEY WALK OUT THINK IT "WE DID IT! ISN'T THAT GOOD OF US HOW WE OVERCAME THAT?" WE ACT LIKE THESE FILMS ARE ABOUT CONFRONTING OUR PAST, BUT REALLY THEY'RE ACTUALLY ALL ABOUT REMOVING THE GUILT. THEY NEVER DIRECTLY CHALLENGE THE AUDIENCE (SAVE MASTERPIECES LIKE DO THE RIGHT THING AND, HONESTLY, 12 YEARS A SLAVE DIDN'T PULL A SINGLE PUNCH EITHER). IT ALL MAKES HULK REALIZE HOW MANY MOVIES ARE OSTENSIBLY ABOUT GROWTH AND BECOMING GOOD PEOPLE, BUT ACTUALLY DON'T HAVE THAT EFFECT ON THE AUDIENCE WHATSOEVER.
... PEOPLE WERE UP IN ARMS BECAUSE THE MOVIE [The Wolf of Wall Street] GLORIFIED THE MAIN CHARACTER, FAILING TO EVEN REALIZE THAT THE FILM WAS DIRECTLY POINTING THE FINGER AT SOCIETY FOR IDOLIZING HIM. BUT REALLY? THEY WERE JUST LIVID THAT THE FILM DIDN'T DO THE WORK FOR THEM. PEOPLE DOWNRIGHT EXPECT MOVIES TO DO THE WORK. AND WHEN THEY DON'T? THEY'RE WORRIED "OTHER PEOPLE" MIGHT TAKE THEM THE WRONG WAY. AND IT'S ALL INDICATIVE OF A HUGE PROBLEM.
... WHAT WE WANT OUT OF OUR MEDIA IS SO CRUCIAL TO HOW WE EXPERIENCE THE WORLD. AND HONESTLY, THIS STUFF IS AS MUCH A PART OF GAMERGATE AS ANYTHING ELSE. BECAUSE IT'S ALL BORN OUT OF HOW WE REACT TO THE THINGS THAT CHALLENGE US. THE THINGS THAT FAIL TO GIVE US WHAT WE WANT. HOW WE RESPOND TO IT. AND HOW WE FAIL TO SEE THAT THE THINGS THAT CHALLENGE WHAT WE WANT IN AN EFFORT TO GIVE US WHAT WE NEED IS THE CENTRAL GOAL OF ART.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a great place to start such a discussion, come to think of it, because this is guaranteed to be an elephant of a discussion.
I don't think I'll be ruining much if I talk about the film's closing scene, which is where that societal-indictment message is played off to completion. In it, Jordan Belfort (the "Wolf" of the title), fresh out of prison for fraud, comes out on stage to impart a little of his wisdom about selling to an audience of would-be Belforts. All are spellbound, all are leaning forwards on their chairs to learn his secrets — and the last shot of the film is not of him, but them, all wide-eyed and straining to hear the words of the master.
We would love to be someone like Belfort, if only in miniature, if only briefly, because then we would have easy access to all the things he did — all that callous power, all that easy wealth. There are many of us who want such things and never ask ourselves just how sociopathic we have to be to want them, because deep down we don't believe we can really be that bad, or that it's such a bad thing to want them. Why not? Belfort himself didn't believe any of that. Even if the movie as a whole is a little much (I felt it could have been tightened even further in the editing), that last scene is a masterstroke, because it shows us just how easy it is for popular art to be irresponsible, and also shows us how shocking it can be when someone decides to educate their audience instead of cater to it.
I'm still trying to sort through how the modern crop of superhero movies, for instance, handle all this — I think for the most part they sincerely think they have something positive to say about the nature of power, etc., but the way they go about doing it just sabotages the real meaning of anything they could offer, for the above reasons. They think they're telling us a story about the growth of a character like Superman or Batman, when what they really end up being about is how growth and self-actualization are for the privileged few who can afford it — and I don't just mean privileged materially. It's no surprise, then, that most of the idle talk about superheroes among their fans is about who can beat who in a fight, because that's the level at which this exists for most people: a power fantasy. A few people do walk away from those stories with the right ideas, but it's far easier to pick up the wrong ones, and the wrong ones also self-perpetuate far faster.
But then there are the stories that don't simply give you what you want, but give you want you deserve, and ultimately what you need.
Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru was like that. A while back Roger Ebert wrote an analysis of Ikiru, where he expressed his belief that the movie was one of the few that could get people to think a little differently about their lives. I was skeptical, but I've since seen the film multiple times, and I understand now what he means about how the movie makes us into advocates for the main character's plight, instead of just witnesses to it. We're not allowed to just sit back and watch the guy do the right thing, because the movie's constructed in such a way that we're deliberately deprived of the easy emotional payoff that would go with it. A dying man who wants to do one thing to prove that his life wasn't a waste should be able to do that one thing, but what if no one else recognizes it? Is it still a waste?
Some of this analysis is going to be subjective; I imagine some smart apple out there behind his keyboard could concoct a spirited defense of Man of Steel in that vein. But I do think some creative works pull this off far more elegantly, and with the need for far less justification and spin, than others do. Do The Right Thing frustrated and angered me, but only when I was too young to realize that a "happy ending" to that film would have been the most insulting snub possible to the audience. And while Umberto D. has a happy ending of sorts, it's one shot through with such ambiguity and unease that it might as well not exist — and that, too, is the kind of confrontation a story like that needs to have. We want to believe that a little old man and his dog can find happiness and comfort in this world, because none of us are ostensibly against little old men and cute dogs, right? But we do live in a world where such men and such creatures can find themselves shoved out onto the street and have to eat their dignity and their hats to survive, so, really, what do we know?
Most every work of art I respect, especially the "popular" ones, seems to be tinged with at least a little of this confrontationalism. Every truth is a diamond, not because of its brilliance or beauty, but because of its hardness. Casablanca is great popular art not just because it has Bogey and Bergman, but because it knows better than to give its characters a happy ending that comes at the expense of even a modestly deeper truth. Citizen Kane insists that we cannot ever really know anyone, and that the more famous they are the greater the likelihood we will never know them because of the way money, power, and attention distort our spirits — and that in the end, such people never really know themselves at all, either. Even The Wizard of Oz has a little greatness in it because of this: that as wonderful as a fantasy is, no amount of adventuring in it will mean much unless you can come back home from it, that the point of the dream is to wake up from it, and that the black-and-white world of Kansas ultimately means more to Dorothy than all the glory and color of Oz.
Contrast all that with something like The Avengers, which gives us conflict and sacrifice, but always in terms that are qualified, softened, made easy to swallow and distance ourselves from. Nothing about such a film feels hard-won, and I go back and forth as to whether that's a by-product of its manufacture or a deliberate feature. But by and large that's what people want — the illusion of having been through a transformative or cathartic experience, without actually having the catharsis. That's what art is, anyway — the illusion of it, not the reality of it, right? The real thing is just too painful, too messy, too difficult to grapple with after a day of office politics and being cut off by other drivers on the freeway. Right?
But we have to grapple with it. Doubly so if we create anything, we have an obligation to grapple with it, rather than just swallow it and go for another, like so many sliders in a White Castle sack. We no longer live in a world where anything can be, should be, so casually consumed. Then again, I'm not sure we ever did, and we're only just now waking up to this fact. No wonder some of us are running scared from the idea that nothing is ever just "entertainment".
Other Lives Of The Mind