Saturday 5 August 2023

High versus low art in film: Lynch vs Spielberg smackdown!

Yin vs Yang

David Lynch is an exemplary film maker, but his work is not for everyone. Lynch's foray into blockbuster territory (Dune) was a bomb (I still love it's weirdness). He has difficulty raising large amounts of cash for his (personal) projects. 

Steven Spielberg is the opposite: the Main Man has his finger on the pulse of the people. His films are colossal blockbusters that have redefined cinema and summer movie going. Studios salivate to fund his films, and spend more, much more, knowing Spielberg is at the helm. 

A Spielberg flick is one of the surest bets you can make in Hollywood. And obviosuly he, too, is an exemplary filmmaker.

So... which is better? 

That depends on your point of view, and what you value. 

From a certain point of view, this article is true.

I’ve been lectured by professional writers that the best films are the ones that make the biggest box office. Studio execs no doubt largely agree: the Hollywood machine is a business, it has a bottom line, and they need to make oodles of greenbacks to fund their lavish lifestyles… and fund bigger and more spectacular films. 

And yet, it isn’t that simple. 

Award season exists, prestige films still get funded, despite studios knowing full well that, unlike Barbie, Women Talking isn’t going to be a global summer blockbuster. But so what?

Populist and elitist streams exist in cinema and they rarely meet. One leans  thoughtful and introspective, the other towards thrill rides and escapist fun. One is in danger of being pretentious, the other of pandering.

But every now and then, the streams cross and you get an instant all-audience classic.

Do what you shouldn't do?

Sometimes this is immediately obvious, as the film generates both box office and critical conversation over pie. Populist films are sometimes re-evaluated in the years, and decades, after release. The initial critical disdain for tropes, archetypes and action gives way to a realization that the film was superbly executed and speaks to the human experience on a level that wasn’t obvious on first viewing. 

Filmmakers like Lynch struggle to find broader recognition. While vetted at prestige film festivals, their sensibility doesn’t resonate with the mass audience. Sometimes, they find their place in genre cinema and successfully dwell on the edges of the industry. Others are ‘artsy’ or intellectual enough to be hailed by critics for eschewing the typical and titillating the elitist palate. 

And I get it. Professional critics prefer the different, because they’re drowning in mass produced typical. They become bug eyed, gollum-like creatures, gaunt and pallid from watching movies all day, every day. Like I did during COVID lockdown.

On top of that, I’m old enough to have seen multiple reboots of blockbusters past, I’m tired of it. Honestly, if you’ve seen ten superhero movies, you’ve seen them all. Same for some long running TV shows that are caught in an infinite franchise premise loop, endlessly recycling a mushy scene and premise puree.  

These are film flavours for the masses, visual equivalents to chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. And they’re great. But after awhile, people crave something… different. Rocky Road or Heavenly Hash.

You’re less likely to be truly surprised by a typical blockbuster than the most artfully crafted of art cinema (but there are notable exceptions that become event cinema, such as we've recently seen). Going off the beaten path will interest those tired of treading the same old same old, but that will annoy the majority who are looking for the well trodden path. We don't always want the unexpected.

Franchises have risen to dominate film and television during my lifetime. What’s a franchise? Take it as a simple outline of what happens… every time. A plucky gang of kids investigates paranormal mysteries and exposes them as frauds, for example. Familiarity is the appeal, so characters tend not to change. We’re not going to see Sherlock Holmes pivot to politics or become a tax auditor. People want him to be a detective, and so a detective he remains. Forever caught in amber, repeating the same loops. Westworld was as much a commentary on robots as it was on franchises and entertainment itself.

There’s a saying: people watch TV for character, and film for plot. I don’t remember a lot of plots from Star Trek, Fringe, Seinfeld (okay it was a kind of anti-plot show), or WKRP in Cincinnati. But the characters? Loved them. 

But.. what if you have a film franchise? 

How much did Indiana Jones change? Dominic Toretto? 

Is Ethan Hunt really any different now? 

They’re essentially huge budget TV episodes on gigantic screens. 

Elitist disdain for populist films compelled Spielberg to stretch into more niche, high brow works, in an effort to get that sweet, sweet elitist recognition. To be recognized by the chi-chi cognoscenti. 

On the one hand, I don’t think he should have felt such a pivot was necessary. Populist art ties into our common humanity, and to do that well requires every bit as much artistry and talent as the so-called high art. On the other, I’m glad he did, because he’s an interesting filmmaker, whatever he does.

The niche and the populist have their place and purpose, and entertainment would be lesser without both.

In this argument, there is no spoon. 

It's CGI, man!

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