Film and the Burden of Success
by Andrew Swensen
Film has come to be one of the dominant art forms of our time, and yet it has to struggle with a problem: success. Our society so indulges in film that it has become a lucrative industry, and what a strange burden that is. Opera, painting, dance, and classical music struggle day in and day out to make it work – yearning for the audiences, the foundation grants, and the philanthropic gifts. Film, on the other hand, is big business — big bucks spent at our local multiplex, on Netflix, for premium channels, and on pay-per-view purchases.
So with all of this money pouring into an art, what could possibly be the problem?
Film really exists in two parallel universes of entertainment and art (as do contemporary music and literature, but we will save them for another day). There is nothing wrong with making some shallow adventure pic that earns billions. It is the visual equivalent of riding Space Mountain or some thrill at Six Flags – fun but not necessarily enduring art. Sometimes even a great film also translates to a financial bonanza – and there is nothing wrong with recognizing the greatness of The Graduate while it sets Dustin Hoffman for life.
The problem of course is the obvious: Financial success is not the same as artistic merit. Before the accusations of elitism come, I want to be clear on one very important point. Financial success does not reflect an absence of artistic merit just as it does not reflect its presence. Many great artists have also made a good living while practicing their art. I would include Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro in the ranks of our great artists, and I would go so far as to argue that Raging Bull, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia and Manhattan are among the finest artistic works of the twentieth century. In the meantime, none of these artists is struggling with their next grant proposal to get a project made, or is making an donation appeal from the stage – while their artistic counterparts do in the worlds of sculpture, ballet and theater.
Enter the film festival.
When an artistic director in drama or music spends their summer reviewing scripts or scores, or when curators review possible works for exhibition, they make judgments based on institutional mission and artistic merit. Often very difficult judgments for which they are exposed to painful scrutiny. Then we as an audience attend the performance or gallery opening in order to be exposed to new art. A film festival more resembles this model of other art forms than it does a commercial cinema – or a theme park in Orlando. The festival programmer places a work on the screen because of some perceived merit, and then it is up to us to commit to the festival as a venue for new arts.
Yet the eternal challenge of the film festival, and arthouse cinema more generally, is that it does not have the big marketing budgets and flashy trailers to which we are so accustomed when it comes to making decisions about movies. Some festivals have crossed the divide to tremendous success. Cannes and Sundance certainly come to mind, and SXSW (typically written as an abbreviation but spoken as “South by Southwest”) has been making quite a surge in film and new media. Yet we also need to support film as great art in the festivals of our local communities.
We need to support the breadth of cinema beyond just big budgets and big stars.
Many of our finest arts curators are working in film houses and film festivals, in order to present work that we never would have known otherwise, and they are committed to the artistry of film in all forms. Some of the finest films that I have seen have come at festivals, and they include often-overlooked genres like documentary and film shorts (those “other” categories during the Oscars that actually have to adhere to the 30-second rule for acceptance speeches). Take the plunge. Go to a festival in 2012, and pick five films to see, works that you never will find in your local movie theater. See a documentary or a shorts program. Whatever you choose, be sure to savor the breadth of cinema in all its artistic glory.
For information on film festivals in the Pittsburgh area, and also nationally, click here for a list of resources.