(and, really, art in general, and those who make it)
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” I think art, in all its forms, does the same thing, or tries to: to connect humanity, and to remind us of the things that bind us together.
In my sophomore year of college, I took the first part of the British Literature Survey. It went up to the beginning of the romantic poets, and started with Beowulf and things like The Dream of the Rood. One day in class, a fellow student asked why we were studying things written by old—and dead—white men, and what possible bearing this could have on our lives, as 21st century students.
The professor smiled slightly and leaned back in his chair. “What do you guys think? Does this have relevance?”
“Sure,” someone said. “”They’re classics.”
“But why are they classics?” Asked the professor.
“Because they’re good?” Someone else.
“Why are they good? What about them has stood the test of time?” Silence. “Could it be that they speak to some universal human experience?”
“There are no universal human experiences!” said the first student.
The professor lifted his eyebrows. “Really?”
“That’s not true,” I said.
“OK.” The professor said. “What’s universal?”
“Birth. Death. Love. Loss. For starters,” I said. “No matter where we live, or how we live, everyone experiences these things. There may be differences in how we do it, but they’re in every human life. The things that endure touch on these things.”
From the beginning, humans have craved connection. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God says in Genesis. Cavemen drew on walls. Ancient civilizations wrote on stone tablets things that we, so many years removed, cannot decipher. Why did they do it?
The urge to express, to create, is truly a human urge. We pick up pen or paintbrush, or raise our voices in songs or words, to express emotion, to convey our humanity and to connect with others. To capture an ephemeral moment that says, “I was here, and I mattered, and these people mattered, too!” To capture beauty, which is all too fleeting, as Robert Frost noted in his poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
As humanity and technology have evolved, so too have our forms of expression. Movies started as “talking pictures” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No sound, just expressions and movement. It was the birthing of a new art form.
The power of film combines visual art, music, and acting into a powerful whole. The best movies touch something deep inside us, that move us to tears or laughter or to cheer—even when we know the screen won’t react to whatever we do. And the very best movies, like the very best books, change as we get older: our relationship to them changes, and they reveal deeper parts of us.
Few will deny that The Wizard of Oz is a classic film. When I was a child, I watched it incessantly on our VHS player. (This being the 80s, VHS was new technology, and the tape itself probably cost more than the machine—the movie ran about $80!) I’ve always loved its signature song, “Over the Rainbow”, so much so that when my aunts got married (my mom was third in a big family, ergo I had a lot of weddings to attend as a child), my grandfather would ask the band to play the song for me.
But as I got older, I understood the intense longing and melancholy, and even brute sadness, behind Dorothy’s song in the barnyard. It wasn’t just that she was bored, or that Aunt Em was scolding her; it was a deep yearning for a better life. That sort of thing goes over the head of a three year old.
Movies have become a cultural parlance, a shorthand. You know “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” even if you’ve never seen Gone With the Wind. Same with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” or “play it again, Sam” (which is, actually, wrong. Bogart doesn’t say that.)
A lot of movies are based on books, or plays, which can lead some to say, just read the original source material! And, yes, as a huge advocate of reading, I’ll support that. But movies are a communal experience, at heart, that reading just isn’t. Even if you’re watching it at home alone, you talk about the experience later, or go to the internet to read what others thought of it. Movies, like plays, lend themselves to group discussion and interaction, much like music and visual art.
Now, like I said, not all movies are art. That is clearly true. But to disregard an entire art form because some of the pieces are less than stellar is short-sighted. There are many more jewels than fools’ gold in the movie pantheon.
And what about the people who make the movies? Are they just “playing dress-up?” Are they being children? No! They are bringing these stories to us. Like Homer and the great authors, they are storytellers, albeit in a different medium. To call an actor a child playing dress up is like saying a ballerina just twirls for a living, or that Monet just dabbled in paints. To be a good actor requires an enormous commitment to the character and the world the production is creating. To provide good entertainment, and to make good art, is not easy. It doesn’t matter what sort of art it is: a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a ballet, or symphony, a musical. All of these take tremendous talent, effort, and dedication.
Not every movie has a deep message. Not every movie is going to be preserved in the Library of Congress. But civilization is built on art of all kinds and all mediums. It’s what makes us truly human.
So, in the midst of summer blockbuster season, go see a movie or two. Find one that appeals to you, and see what it gives you. Is it a great score? Great special effects? Fabulous costumes? Brilliant scriptwriting and peerless acting? Or maybe just a great, fun story? All of these things are great reasons to see a movie. And when all of these are combined, you have a truly great film.