I make my living as a Photoshop retoucher. Much of the work I do is celebrity related, and often involves those showy magazine spreads where a B-list celebrity shows off his or her home. It’s MTV Cribs for older generations (in other words, those who still read). What I often find in the photos are startling similarities in artistic taste.
Seemingly every one of these celebrities has the same coffee-table book collection, including books on Picasso, jazz, and Man Ray. It’s as if the photographer carries a satchel of the same books to each celebrity’s house simply for the automatic class boost they provide.
It seems impossible to me that so many people actually have those books because they enjoy the artists’ work. A friend of mine brought up the cynical idea that this is what you get when you allow the masses access to art — great works often become, in effect, filler. The coffee-table book industry is, in many ways, a seller of white noise, used by individuals who hope to give their home an aesthetic boost.
While this isn’t far from the truth, I can’t help but be reminded that my own home contains some of these elements. I’ve collected numerous statues of the Buddha, mostly as gifts I’ll admit I’m guilty of encouraging, even though I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. While I try to adhere to the tenets of Buddhism, I do much the same with the teachings of Christ. Why then do I happen to have no pictures of Jesus in my home? The Buddha and the Christ both preached similar ideas, and each one’s life path followed the other one’s fairly closely. The only reason I encourage Buddhist trinkets is because I prefer the aesthetic the Buddha’s image creates.
Film is a genre that’s often pulled between the two sides of this argument. Recently, I had the pleasure of watching the Soviet World War II film Come and See (1985). It’s not a particularly abstract film, as set by the standards of most Russian movies. It contains some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen, and also some of the most haunting imagery I’ve ever witnessed in a war film. Yet if you were to recommend it to a group of average American filmgoers, e.g. those who think Saving Private Ryan is the greatest war movie ever made, many of them probably wouldn’t watch it. Why is that?
To start with, Come and See is a subtitled movie. People don’t particularly like to read during a movie, and I don’t disagree with that sentiment. It can be difficult to follow the action on-screen while reading dialogue. It can also detract from the immersive experience intended by the filmmaker. That’s one major strike against Come and See.
It’s very rare for a foreign film to have much impact here in the States. The most recent one I can think of is 1998’s Life Is Beautiful, which came out a few months after Saving Private Ryan and features a clownish Roberto Benigni doing his best “Italian Robin Williams” impression. (He quickly wore out his American welcome at the Oscars with an over-the-top acceptance speech for Best Actor.)
Recently it was announced that this summer’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs now has the third-highest worldwide box-office grossÂ of all time, behind Titanic (1997) and (2003). So you see, America doesn’t have the only audiences who would rather watch talking animals than something of greater artistic merit.
So why doesn’t this frustrate me as a filmmaker as well as a fan of great filmmaking?
The simple answer is that not everyone can be expected to understand great art. That’s often precisely what makes it great. The Picassos of the world have always been misunderstood in their time, long before they ended up as coffee-table coasters. In fact, my source of frustration with the same 15 coffee-table books stems from the fact that many of those artists have never spoken particularly loudly to me. I know, as an artistic individual, that I hear music differently than others, I judge art based on how it stimulates my own mind, and I watch movies based on my very own set of standards. To wish upon the world that everyone would understand my favorite movies would be to strip away what’s special about those particular films.
So the next time you find yourself in an argument with someone over a film, try to remember that the very reason you appreciate it is because it cast aside the white noise of your daily life. Expecting another human being to respond to it in the same manner is like expecting everyone to have the same favorite food or to fall in love with the same woman. That would lead to a very boring society, and would remove exactly what it is that’s special to you about that work.