On my first day of editing class in grad school, the professor asked everyone what their favorite movie was. There were a lot of Citizen Kane fans and anything-Scorsese answers. To a man, everyone listed heavy dramas and art films. And then there was me. I said my favorite movie was Transformers (yes, the 2007 Michael Bay version). My professor looked so disappointed. Now, before you throw the book at me and stop reading in disgust, hear me out. I think we’ve developed an extremely strange attitude towards movies, and in my opinion, it’s killing the fun of film.
There is little question that Alfred Hitchcock is one of the paragons of American cinema. He was one of the most prolific, critically acclaimed, and inventive directors the film world has ever seen. But for him, cinema was not a slice of life so much as a piece of cake. He delivered to the masses exactly what they wanted—thrills, suspense and murder. When asked what makes a good movie, his statements were usually flippant. “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder,” he once quipped. Though film is frequently touted as a fine art form, and Hitchcock as one of the giants of the art, he himself did not approach it in the way one would expect of a serious artisan. He was a self-proclaimed entertainer, not a creator of art.
When you get right down to it, while the medium of film has been used to create fine art (right along with toilets and tin cans, mind you), film arose primarily as an avenue for mass entertainment. The earliest films were found in coin operated nickelodeons and existed simply to amuse passers-by. Early innovators attempted to create a life-like experience recording trains, paper boys, and exotic dancers. These filmmakers were trying to bring a novel excitement to everyday life. As editing became more and more a part of the filmmaking process, stories became more complex and fanciful. Directors like George Melies began experimenting with more fanciful stories (if you haven’t ever seen A Trip to the Moon, you owe it to yourself to do that ASAP).
Skipping ahead a couple decades, the Hollywood machine emerged to crank out movie after movie, creating a new industry based around getting butts into the seats of bigger theaters. Hollywood even created a narrative of real life glamor to match the fanciful stories they brought to the screen. The Golden Age of Hollywood drew people to the silver screen through the the fairy tale of rags-to-riches movie star personas, as much as through the movies themselves. The pageantry of big name performers helped bring the entertainment and magic of the movies into real life.
Many of these early films have been committed to the National Film Registry as part of our national cultural heritage. Some of these are unquestionably artistic, and a few of them amount to flat out experimentation with either the visual medium of film, or narrative structure and the way we tell stories. But, with a few exceptions, the movies we have enshrined in the National Film Registry as most important to our cultural story are critical, entertaining box office hits. From Birth of a Nation, which tells the fanciful (and fictitious) story of the glory of the KKK and the Confederacy, to Toy Story, which tells the fanciful (if true to life) story of the glory of childhood and growing up.
But if you read the blogs and listen to the critics, apparently movies now suck and the art of film is dead. Transformers: Age of Extinction has a whopping 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, in spite of generating over $1Billion in world wide revenues. Everyone who has commented seems annoyed that Michael Bay is still making movies with thin plots about giant space robots in an epic battle over Earth. That boggles my mind. If you didn’t want to see a fluff piece about robot battles why did you buy that ticket? It’s not like Transformers was an unknown quantity by movie #4.
The exact same phenomena happened to Amy Schumer’s debut summer comedy, Trainwreck. Since opening weekend, the backlash from the Amy Schumer fan base has been loud and bitter. It seems that the entire world expected her to somehow re-define rom-coms forever as a first time feature film writer. Well, Schumer and her team did put together an off color story about one woman and her weird, normal life. And yes, to the horror of many feminists, it ended up with Movie Amy donning a cheerleader’s uniform and dancing an apology to Bill Hader. Lets be honest—Schumer looked hot and the number was hilarious. She had decided to do something meaningful for the guy she was falling for. It wasn’t “a win for the patriarchy.” It was one person doing something sweet for another person. I don’t think that is a terrible note on which to end.
The point is: let’s just go to the movies again. They are there for us to enjoy. That’s literally what the studios make them for. Even the 43rd Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper vehicle is there to let people swoon over that super-star duo. There is plenty to love, and plenty to hate. But it’s about time we stopped going into an action movie and being mad that it wasn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey, or going to a summer comedy and expecting Annie Hall. It’s time American theatergoers embraced the true legacy of film. It’s an art form expressly developed for the communal delight of ordinary people. You may be one of those people who fills your Netflix cue with documentaries and anything-Scorsese, but when you need to relax or be cheered up, there’s nothing like a “Transformers” to do the trick.
What’s your actual favorite movie? Be honest.