Looking back, I'm often amazed at how little of what I learned in film school is applicable to the practical realities of producing motion pictures. I spent nearly five years reading Bazin, Benjamin, Mulvey and Schatz, thousands of hours hearing long-winded cult-stud types get all gooey over D.W. Griffith, John Ford and the French New Wave. Mostly, I heard ruminating blow-hards go on at great length about how the drive to turn a profit corrupts the art of film.
And they are absolutely wrong about that.
The problem with most film critics, most of whom don't even seem to like movies in the first place, is that they implicitly include movies with, as Walter Benjamin called them, the "Contemplative Arts."* They're comparing film to sculpture, painting or live opera. They're trying to judge Birth of a Nation, Chinatown and Jaws against "The Last Supper," "Oedipus Rex," and The Pietà and they always seem disappointed. This is because they have it bass-ackwards.
There's a reason we call it the "Movie Business." Going all the back to Edison, the Lumières and the Nickelodeons, movies were a profit making enterprise first and a means of expression second. That having been said, the art of film is powerful and profound. It's the defining artistic medium of the last hundred years and it is not to be dismissed. We just need to think about it a little differently.
Rather than thinking of film, as most academics do, as an art form that must operate in spite of it's profit motive, think of film as an industry that is enhanced by artistry.
Strange as it sounds, the best comparison I can make is to the automotive industry. The similarities between movies and cars are actually kind of amazing. They're both expensive and labor intensive to produce with long turnaround times and they're both consumed by nearly every person in the United States. They are both industrial-era technologies. They're both innate to the modern American experience and the US has dominated both industries for a substantial part of the last century. Most importantly, they are both an inseparable fusion of art and commerce.
Herein lies the problem; we think about Benjamin Button as if it were a painting by Van Gogh when we should be thinking about it as if it were a Ford Mustang.
Think for a minute about the Ford Mustang, or the Chevy Camaro, or the Volkswagon Beetle or any other iconic car that suits your fancy. It is rigorously engineered and contientiously crafted. It is aesthetically pleasing. It was designed to be admired, to evoke feeling, to create a specific kind of experience. It has huge cache in American culture. It is a work of art in any reasonable sense of the term.
Absolutely no one is under the illusion that Ford is in it for the art. To even suggest so would be ludicrous. The recent tribulations of the automotive industry notwithstanding, Ford is a for-profit enterprise and, though they produce emotionally evocative and culturally relevant pieces of American iconography, no one begrudges them the fact that they are distinctly a business.
We need to think about movies in similar terms. This is the film industry and our imperative is to produce a product that makes money. The fantastic thing is that, like only a handful of other industries, sometimes we produce something really special, something that turns heads, changes minds and that becomes part of history. Mind you, usually we don't. Neither does Ford. For every Mustang, every Godfather, every 2001, there are dozens of Tauruses, Rangers, Tango & Cash's, Species and formulaic sequels that get made because they are as practical and profitable as they are forgettable.
We don't expect every car to be as iconic as the Mustang. Why did my film professors expect every film to be as brilliant as Citizen Kane?
*See, I really did go to film school, in case you thought I was bullshitting.