Sundance is weird.
The movies are weird -
you actually have to think about them when you
The delightful critic Miss Spears spoke these words after being spotted slipping out of Robert Downey's new vehicle The Singing Detective only 45 minutes into the picture. Although officially it was a "scheduling snafu," Spears was perfectly willing to admit the real reason for her abrupt departure.
Is this unfounded gossip? The sad result of the American chauvinist mindset? Is it Britney's own refusal to open her mind to thinking? Whatever the case may be, one thing is for sure: weird, dude. Totally weird.
Noted independent filmmaker Michael Moore said of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange: "This stuff can't help but make you think." So is Miss Spears looking for easy entertainment? Are films the appropriate medium for provoking thought?
The obvious answer can date back to even the earliest films. Charlie Chaplin, the actor's actor, America's bad boy and leading comedian, often injected political and social commentary into his movies: from his epic comedy The Great Dictator to his hilarious but accusatory farce of the industrialized workplace Modern Times, Chaplin was never afraid to use more elevated forms of humor such as satire and irony to layer his films with level after level of comedy. Of course, throwing in the occasional pratfall or pie in the face never hurt the business.
Later on, filmmakers would try to portray the human condition, by adapting great works of literature and contemporizing them for a new and open audience. Films such as Gone With The Wind, Orson Welles' flawed masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons, and even the James Cagney gangster film Angels With Dirty Faces all showed signs of subtlety, consciousness, and the ability to cast its shadow into the lives of its audience.
As filmmakers began to understand that films were very unlike the theater - whereas you could design sets and costumes and provide physical directions for dramatic effect, in film, the camera was your eye. You could dilute the truth, amplify it, erase it, distort it. More importantly, your settings could be meager: the life of one person could be shown with white-hot energy to successful effect. Films became the great symbol of expression in America, and several intensely personal films saw the light of day: William Wyler's The Little Foxes, Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, and Marty all exhibited the internal workings of life. No longer were films trying to show the vast universes of time and space; the focus was becoming internalized, forcing the audience to empathize with the lead characters in their struggle to succeed.
As class consciousness, the counterculture, and rock and roll all became mainstays of the American era of the late 1950s and through the 1960s, movies of rebellion and independence began emerging: Easy Rider, Rebel Without A Cause, Blackboard Jungle, and Bonnie and Clyde all used various means and methods to express their distaste for authority. Other movies, such as Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and The Manchurian Candidate, began intertwining realistic settings with satire and intrigue, distorting the lines between reality and fiction. The quality of these movies is not in their thought processes, though: they were truly entertaining movies in their own right, mixing likeable characters, humor, action, adventure, suspense, and romance - all of which require audience feedback to guarantee any palpable effect.
The trend towards independent films which began in the late 1980s has more to do with the economic breakdown of filmmaking than prior restraint. Access to cameras, editing tools, and other important factors in making films became remarkably cheaper. Film school dropouts such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky began pushing their own vision on a lower budget: while their films are certainly original, the thought process for their films are remarkably similar to the earlier works of auteurs such as Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and Milos Forman. Often, the new "thinking films" became deliberately obtuse, attempting to really break convention: Memento and Pulp Fiction destroyed film continuity and chronology; The Blair Witch Project and The Usual Suspects flaunted conventional roles within films and the idea that films require resolution; and Punch-Drunk Love and Welcome to the Dollhouse tended to shy away from the idealized lifestyles of other movie characters, by injecting awkward silences, embarrassing situations, and hurt feelings throughout. All of these films call into question the standard order of things: are these really representative of us? We can now turn this last question mark back inwards towards Miss Spears' remarks.
Empathy is perhaps the most vital role a film can play. Films are stories, and for the most part fictional. Yet we somehow since the realism behind even the most far-fetched movies - why else would Star Wars be the most watched film of all time? Although no one has been remotely close to the farthest reaches of our galaxies (and no one has ever wielded a lightsaber or destroyed the Death Star!) the film still tells the age-old tale of struggling for freedom and redemption, good and evil, love and life and loss. These grand themes are perhaps a bit trite, or at least, require little thought to acknowledge that fighting your father for the fate of the empire might be a tad depressing. Yet it is this vast populism that gives films their duality: the film as entertainment vs. the film as education.
When Britney Spears makes comments that thinking about things is "weird", it belittles both the spirit in which all art is made (of which she is a part of, at least in theory) as well as the search for self-discovery. Perhaps her vast amounts of wealth and general complacency of achievement in the world at such a young age has led her to reject growth: it's not like reading Sartre or watching Malle will help her make better music or more money. Yet it is vital for every human being to recognize the power that a film can have: in its ability to tell a story, it can be entertaining, through fear and laughter and pain and relief; and in its ability to comment, it can be informative, by displaying the subtle creative balance between fiction and our own lives. After all, as the great playwright Shakespeare once said, "Life's a play." Words to heed, Britney; the man knew a thing or two about making people think.