I love award season. I close out every year cataloging my favorite films, books, or video games and then see how they compare against the lists and accolades churned out by every site, critic, and guild. It’s a fun little game to pretend that I’ll catch up on everything I missed even as I spend my free time over the holidays watching whatever atrocity Netflix has foisted upon the tired and drunk masses who just need a minute away from their family. This year it was 6 Underground, which is better than Bright, but only a little better than watching a blank screen or a yule log.
Still, I appreciate films like these. Over a decade ago when I worked at IGN, I was part of a group of editors who would meet weekly to watch movies. It would have been reductive to call the selected films “bad,” but they were far wide of what popular culture would allow in theaters or in the front row at the now shuttered video rental stores. These days there’s a cult of fandom around this type of film, the “so bad its good” category that act as fodder for excellent podcasts like How Did This Get Made or We Hate Movies.
I loved these films for the same reason they generate such excellent content: they are often provocative, unique, and desperate to get and hold your attention. Without using a search engine I can’t for the life of me remember what was nominated for an Oscar in 2006, however, I can tell you that was the year I watched Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Action Jackson. I remember where I saw them, who was with me, and some of the scenes and lines are burned into my mind forever.
Its difficult not to form an instant connection with anyone who’s gone through the experience of watching one of these films, like the stories about victims of a shared traumatic event who are bonded for life. Years later, you might reach out to them during the holidays or send a text when a film dips below 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. “Did you hear about Cats? They say it’s bad but it can’t be worse than Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.”
Great movies can connect us to a higher purpose, an artistic vision, or a shared sense of meaning. Bad connect us to each other. There’s nothing more unifying than a shared outrage, revulsion, or stupefied disgust. That’s why it was extra depressing when in 2019 the entertainment industry and its critics collectively began to bicker over what constitutes true cinema. It’s an argument that repeats itself every few years but this time it was fueled by an old guard threatened by the Disney behemoth and their industrialization of the comic book movie.
Scorsese penned an op-ed in The Times to draw a distinction between “movies” and “cinema,” a million comic book fans yelled at their screens, and for the millionth time since humans started scratching memes onto cave walls a bunch of people argued over what deserves to be called art.
The only thing that changes about this old argument is that over time it becomes more dull. This time around fans and critics quibbled over studio financing, the size of the screen, and the rise of streaming platforms. Rarely did anyone mention the content directly. If Scorsese went off on why two thirds of the Thor movies are useless he would have had my attention. If a critic would have delved into why Scorsese’s glorification of bad white men with slicked back hair is increasingly socially irresponsible, I might have been interested. Instead, like every other conversation in 2019, we got flat arguments from two sides that talked past each other.
In the new years it’s worth a reminder that in the past this argument over the definition of art has spawned valuable wisdom for both the artist and the consumer. You just have to mine it from more enlightened eras.
Baudelaire DESTROYS Photography with Facts and Logic
Even as described by Martin Scorsese the line between movies and cinema is a bit blurry. One might say its nebulous enough that most people can’t, and shouldn’t, care. More than a century ago the schism was between painting and photography, two forms of expression that were distinctly separate but that inspired a divide that held many of the same qualities as our current discussion about film.
In the 1850s photography was undergoing technological breakthroughs that allowed reality to be captured cheaply and quickly relative to an artist’s rendering. This “industrialization” of imagery held wild appeal to the masses. The French poet and foundational art critic Charles Baudelaire wasn’t having it. In his Salon of 1859 he stated, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, that photography is a refuge for lazy artists and only popular because the common person is too stupid to appreciate real art and too vain not to prefer an image of themselves. Check out this slam:
“If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.”
And this tidbit about the photographer and their subjects:
“…our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry-maids in a carnival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the performance, the operator flattered himself that he was reproducing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history.”
Baudelaire probably wouldn’t have been thrilled with Instagram. Or maybe he’d be one of those people that only posts quotes. In any case, his take-down of photography is rife with the same fear and loathing that film (sorry, cinema) purists have for the digital fairy tales that dominate the box-office of the present day and his knee jerk reaction is to call everyone who joined the latest craze an idiot and a charlatan. It isn’t the most nuanced argument, but it is much more entertaining than most of the Marvel vs. Scorsese backwash.
Anyways, after Baudelaire was done calling everyone dumb, he struck upon a more valuable notion — that the real danger of the industrialization of captured imagery might lead people to stop using their imagination. That the masses will be so drawn to photorealistic images that the artist will chase its popularity at the expense of their own dreams.
“Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.”
While Baudelaire’s bits about the designation of true art feel suited to an angry Reddit post, his warnings about the interactions between the artist and commercialism feel prescient. What artist these days isn’t swayed by the algorithms that drive social media success? The art itself is reduced to a post and its value is determined by whatever drives popularity on Instagram, Facebook or Tumblr. It’s true even on portfolio sites like DeviantArt and ArtStation that sort and rate each submission.
What makes Baudelaire’s warning interesting in relation to the current debate over film is that the market leaders that Scorsese excoriates have almost nothing to do with reality. The comic book film is about as close as we can get to a glorified daydream. Whether or not they hold more or less artistic value than the glorification of a bunch of real-life thugs is up for debate, but if I had to pick which film is closer to the dreams of the artist, it would be difficult to discount comic books brought to life.
Tolstoy Makes Us Look Petty
There was a quick line in the 2019 film The Souvenir that caught my attention. The protagonist is struggling to find her voice in film school while weathering an especially dramatic version of a nearly universal formative event: a bad relationship in our 20s. One character asks her if she knows Tolstoy’s definition of art which is boiled down to “you have a feeling and you communicate it.”
I’m not up on my classic Russian literature; these days I’m more likely to thumb through a graphic novel than struggle with the masters, but a quick search led to the revelation that Tolstoy had weighed in to the “what is art” debate with a book by the same name. A concise and excellent breakdown of the work can be found here.
Not surprisingly, Tolstoy attacks the question from every angle, referencing the Greek sages, the church, and the role of the critic in our enjoyment of art. There’s a boatload of preamble, but I found his most elegant maneuver is to toss aside the idea that the medium matters in this conversation. While film nerds pick apart frame rate, screen size, and the method of projection, Tolstoy would argue that none of that is important, not even the moving picture itself. Rather, his definition of art is anything that connects people emotionally. Good art is “infectious” and causes the emotion of the artist to transmit to the viewer.
“If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art.”
Under this definition the type of art is as irrelevant as the subject matter. It’s an inclusive definition, one that disregards the weird semantic gatekeeping that takes an artform and segments it into versions, some of which are real and others which are deemed trash. All that matters are the connections it forms with between the people who experience it.
Tolstoy further defines the quality of the art with three conditions, the most important of which is the sincerity of the artist. If the artist is sympathetic and sincere in their need to convey their feeling, the infectiousness of their art will increase, granting it more power.
This idea wipes away the complaints of Baudelaire against the industrialization of art, Scorsese’s fretting over the commercialization of movies, and flattens the debate over the current state of cinema. All that matters is the sincerity and dedication to convey a feeling. Whether or not you are a fan of Scorsese or the legacy of Stan Lee, their sincere dedication to each of their crafts is (was) undeniable, and it resonates across a fan base that feels connected by their work.
Tolstoy’s definition of art encourages us to focus on art that makes us feel deeply, regardless of its critical stranding or the delivery method. Rather than argue over process, Tolstoy would encourage us to revel in the experience and whether your response to art is revulsion or joy, it should ultimately bring us closer together.