One of the things that unites left-wing film critics like the Chicago Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum and right-wing film critics like Movieguide‘s “Dr.” Ted Baehr is their conviction that the problem with movies these days is the studios, the studios, the studios. If only the studios didn’t put their awesome powers of promotion behind such schlocky movies, or if only the studios advocated traditional morality, etc., etc., then all would be well.
I have never really bought this approach, and I have insisted from the beginning — along with writers like Pop Culture Wars author Bill Romanowski — that a truly redemptive approach to the cinema will require audiences to change as much as the studios do. And I sometimes think that critics like Rosenbaum and Baehr underestimate the degree to which audiences do have power over the studios, and the degree to which they use this power.
Case in point. Mark Steyn has just re-posted his review of the first Harry Potter movie, and while it includes the usual snarky Steyn-ish asides (e.g., “the cast looks like a Bafta awards ceremony where none of the American winners have turned up, leaving only the British presenters”), it also includes this bit:
[The box-office success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is] a monument to the great vitality of capitalism. The wonderful thing about American showbusiness — as opposed to, say, Iraqi showbusiness, where Saddam Hussein’s musical (really) is the non-surprise hit of the Baghdad season — is that Oprah can make a movie like Beloved, command untold magazine covers and TV tie-ins, and the thing is still a dud.
Meanwhile, some loser somewhere in Scotland is writing some goofy kid’s tale on the back of paper napkins in a greasy spoon (or whatever; I always doze off round about the second paragraph of J.K. Rowling profiles) and five years later she’s got a boffo movie — made entirely on her own terms! Those who marvel that Warner Brothers haven’t gone in for a lot of promotional merchandise for the film are missing the point. The film is the promotional merchandise. It exists to protect and enhance Miss Rowling’s franchise.
This bit reminds of a passage from an essay by William Paul called ‘Charlie Chaplin and the Annals of Anality,’ published in the book Comedy/Cinema/Theory, that I sometimes quote:
In Hollywood the collective enterprise engaged in making movies is known simply as “the industry.” The appellation was perhaps inevitable. In creating a mass audience on a then unheard-of scale, the movies also made money in a way that could not have been previously imagined. From the romantic period on, the notion of the artist has been cultivated as someone in opposition to the dominant mores of society and certainly opposed to monetary motive by the nobility of his or her calling. In this context, the very profitability of mass art forms has in itself probably been sufficient to render them suspect to guardians of culture.
And yet throughout Western history there has been art offered to the people for consumption, art that very definitely has existed as economic production. It has included the traveling theater troupes of the Roman Empire, jongleurs, minstrels, troubadors, commedia dell’arte, and the fairs of medieval and Renaissance England with their theatrical spectacles and puppet shows in which were “inserted as many extravagancies, vulgarities and obscenities as the play would accommodate … even when the story was drawn from the Bible.” The one characteristic that all the items in my list have in common is that they represent arts of performance, and the most popular of the popular arts have all been performing arts.
Performing arts could be taken into the high culture only when forms conformed; theater could be made acceptable by being made drama to be read. The most apparent difference among the ways various manifestations of culture are held may be seen in contrasting the history of theater with the history of drama in the West as both are taught and written about: the history of Western theater — that which is performed — presents a continual flow from the Greeks onward, whereas the history of Western drama — that which is printed and read — moves along in bumps and starts, with some gaps lasting for centuries. Performing arts are by nature transitory, disappearing in the very act of performance, and this at least offers a reason for the privileging of the printed over the performed in the records of Western culture.
Perhaps the most radical change opened up by the invention of film was its ability to record performance, to transform the transitory into permanence, and in the process to grant a performing art an unheard-of claim to importance by a durability that could match John Keats’s Grecian urn and in the case of the new electronic media probably surpass it. Until this century we have been able only to read about the great clowns of the past, but now thanks to the invention of film we are blessed with a durable and extensive record of Charlie Chaplin’s achievements as a performer. Of course, film enabled Chaplin to become something else as well, but it is the performer that we first get to know because it is the performer who most directly communicates with us.
For most of the performing arts, money is at least the spur if not the driving engine of the art. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste the Clown, a one-man show who works outside any theatrical institution, generally earns money through witticism; in fact he’s not beneath asking for payment in return for a witty remark. Even though none of the arts and artists I have mentioned could approach the scale and economic ambition of film — and I don’t wish to minimize the effect that scale could have on the works produced — most nonetheless existed within as precisely a defined economic context as movies have in this century. In the understandable desire to look for what was newest about the new forms of popular culture that the twentieth century has offered us, we have tended to overlook what was oldest about them, losing sight of powerful continuities between past performance and present practice.
These are, in short, art forms that speak, as Mikhail Bakhtin has aptly described them in The Age of Rabelais in “the language of the marketplace.” As Bakhtin uses the term, the marketplace represents a culture that belongs to the people and is set against the Middle Ages official culture of high seriousness: “The marketplace was the center of all that is unofficial; it enjoyed a certain extraterritoriality. In a world of official order and official ideology, it always remained ‘with the people’” (153-154). The art of the marketplace is the art the people choose by purchasing it, not the art that guardians of the state and culture impose on them. As such, for Bakhtin, marketplace art can become a tool for freedom.
Of course, freedom isn’t an unalloyed good — liberty can all too often descend into libertinism, as it were — but the fact is, people won’t buy something they do not want, and massively hyped movies and artists have been known to flop, while smaller ventures have been known to build up buzz. And thanks to the emerging DVD market, it is becoming easier and easier to see films — old films, foreign films, offbeat films — that people once only had a chance to hear about. These, I think, are good things.