Thursday, May 19, 2011

Missing the Point of a Movie While Searching for It

A little over a year ago, I saw a wonderful little film called Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I thought it was entertaining, creative, funny and smart.  Not everyone I know felt this way.  I was surprised when someone asked "What was the point?"  What was the point?  It was a simple question that might have been looking for too simple of an answer.  I thought being entertaining, creative, funny and smart was the point although there are some real answers to that question.  Does every movie have to have some sort of moral or message and should that message always be easily identifiable?  Once we've wrapped our heads around it, we can leave secure that the movie had a point and our time wasn't wasted.  Does the search for a point lead us to deeper movies or simpler ones?  I worry that often for many, the search for a point can cause them to miss the point or miss having a deeper thought process because they were too busy looking for the movie to give them a simpler one.

Oftentimes the search for a point or meaning in a movie leads people to like worse movies.  A movie can be terrible throughout, but as long as a character monologue at the end explicitly states the Hallmark card moral of the story, people go out with a sense that they watched something worthwhile.  The seal of "meaning" has been placed on the entire proceedings.  With something like that, so naively and transparently preachy, why don't I skip the movie and buy the fortune cookie?  If two hours can be collapsed into a one sentence moral to the story or naive maxim, then what was the point?  None of the pieces have individual meaning or value, they are all superfluity geared towards one shallow idea.  There's a reason that the story of the tortoise and the hare can be told in thirty seconds.  No one should take two hours of story to say that "slow and steady wins the race."  Even Christ kept his parables short, and they are filled with much richer meaning than a Hollywood movie.  Granted, many famous movies have some sort of "master theme," but they are not just that theme.

Sometimes great art is ambiguous.  It doesn't tell us exactly what to think, but sets us on a meaningful thought process.  It is less overtly ideological.  Vittorio DeSica made the film The Bicycle Thief to show what life was like on the streets of Rome.  It has a number of random vignettes of everyday life in postwar Italy built around the story of a poor man in search of his stolen bike.  These don't culminate in some exact theme or idea, but it is an opportunity to look at reality as a viewer as opposed to one living through it.  You could find numerous "points" in this or you could find none.  The teaching element in this is to look at reality as a third party.  A meaningful movie should inspire a meaningful thought process by putting something meaningful in front of us, thus leaving room for complex reflection, not merely giving us a trite message.

Lastly, art is an expression of something intangible and inexpressible.  What is the point of classical music?  What is the meaning of Bach?  Classical music has no message and no content.  It has no meaning and no "point."  It is just the beauty of form.  Would we invalidate classical music because it is inexpressible and doesn't tell us something?  Does a piece of socially conscious modern music outweigh the greatest classical pieces in value?  Can't a movie engage us on the level of sheer beauty and form?  Can't a movie elevate our soul, even without words.  Is that not its own reward or do we also need a "point"?

We have to be careful as viewers not to allow our search for a perceived point to lead us to the need for quick, easy answers.  Great art seldom is this simplistic, but it should elevate our mind or soul in some fashion.  A movie should not go out of its way to show how "meaningful" it is to the viewer.

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