The other day Vin Diesel got to Vin Dieseling and he said that Furious 7 was going to win Best Picture at the Oscars next year. Everybody - me included! - laughed and loved him for it. And then I got to thinking: why is the idea of Furious 7 winning Best Picture so inherently funny? Besides the obvious real world aspects, of course, by which I mean we all know how the Academy works and what kinds of movies get nominated for Best Picture and that movies like Furious 7 only get nominated for technical stuff… if even that.
But setting aside the reality of the Oscar situation, Diesel’s statement is still kind of funny. What he’s saying is that Furious 7 is one of the best films of the year, and while many of us are looking forward to it (and people who have seen it have reported back that it’s pretty great), we still give this statement that condescending pat on the back attitude - "Sure it’s one of the best of the year, Vin. Why don’t you and The Rock go have a bicep-off?"
Here’s the thing: what if it is one of the best of the year? What if Fast Five was one of the best of its year? What if Guardians of the Galaxy was legitimately one of the best films from last year? Not one of the best blockbusters or one of the best summer movies or one of the best ‘superhero’ movies, but simply one of the best movies of the year? Because that’s how I feel about it. Out of the hundreds of films I saw last year, Guardians was one of the very best.
The chuckling at Diesel’s quote comes from the way we semi-consciously divide up our movies into serious films and not-serious films. Serious films are the best of the year, while not-serious films are not… unless they absolutely transcend in some profound way, basically redefining a genre or being one of the best movies ever made. That’s one helluva high bar for a ‘not serious’ film to clear to even get consideration as something more than a lark.
This isn’t new. It’s been this way forever, but over the last fifteen years as I’ve been covering movies - and seeing genre movies become more and more mainstream - I kept expecting it to change. It has, a little - there’s this thing now called ‘elevated genre,’ which usually means ‘a genre film with many of the genre elements removed.’ Ie, a horror movie without a lot of scares, or a scifi movie with very toned down scifi elements. I like a lot of these films to be honest (go see It Follows this weekend as it expands wide!), but I find it strange that we live in a time when John Carpenter can get celebrated by Lincoln Center for his very mainstream, populist work while a new horror filmmaker basically has to be doing some sort of arthouse spin on what Carpenter was doing thirty years ago to get taken seriously.
Basically if you’re making a big pop movie you’re not going to be engaged with in any real way; there’s an early sense of dismissiveness to how critics approach the work. What’s interesting is that it’s going in an exactly opposite way in the world of music; if you wrote an essay decrying Beyonce you had best be ready to defend yourself not just from fans but from music critics, but writing the 10,000th “Hollywood is making too many superhero movies” piece is a rite of film criticism passage. We all saw this play out with the Grammys this year, as Beck won an award that Kanye West thought belonged to Beyonce; setting aside West’s polarizing personality it was interesting to see how responses to that broke down - many basically agreed, and the people who were on Beck’s side tended to use stodgy, outdated arguments, like complaining about how many writers and producers worked on Beyonce’s album while Beck’s was mostly a one-man show.
(For the record, Beck’s album is a snooze)
Music critics take the big, corporate, expensive, team-produced work of an artist like Beyonce seriously, and there’s no better way to prove yourself a square than to complain about her. In the cinema you can take a big studio picture seriously when it doesn’t hit - congrats, Edge of Tomorrow, an awful lot of snobby critics think you’re criminally underappreciated. But the complex, morally conflicted political thought in the Hunger Games movies is often downplayed because those elements are in a pop movie.
I don’t actually care about whether these films are ‘respected’ or not; the box office take is surely validation enough for Guardians of the Galaxy or The Hunger Games. What bugs me is the bifurcation in our cinematic discourse, the line that separates those who want to think seriously about film and those who want to enjoy big, fun movies. Movies are movies and, low or high art, they should all be approached with the same open-minded optimism. Yeah, a lot of big studio movies are just crass grabs at box office, but I can tell you that plenty of indie filmmakers are churning out stuff they know will make the festival circuit and get picked up by one of a handful of small time distributors, funding their lifestyle, regardless of the quality of the work. One kind of movie is not inherently more deserving of attention, intelligent thought, and appreciation than the other.
This isn’t a finger-pointing exercise. I do the same thing; I try to balance my end-of-year lists with pop movies and ‘serious’ movies. I devalue films that are thrilling and fun and that I love to watch in favor of films that are heavier and more clearly serious and ‘important.’ I default to the idea that a film that comes from one clear vision (supposedly) is always better than an effort from a highly skilled team. I tend to fall into the camp that is informed by a post-70s sensibility that finds any movie made for commercial reasons to be suspect (unless, of course, that movie has aged. Again, see the modern veneration of John Carpenter) while also worshipping at the altar of wildly commercial filmmakers from the 30s to the 50s.
All of this, by the way, is why comedies cannot get taken seriously - they’re not ‘profound’ enough. They need an element of heavy pathos to be regarded as anything more than a time-waster, even when they’re full of social and personal messaging. Sorry, 22 Jump Street, you’re funny and wonderful from start to finish, but we like our comedies to be serious, like Birdman. You’re not saying enough - being incredibly funny isn’t going to cut it. Laughter is a base response. Birdman makes you think, maaan.
The biggest problem with the argument I’m making here is that it’s easy to veer into anti-intellectualism; the critics who don’t take pop movies that seriously (or who demand that pop movies be olympian in quality to be considered) are intellectuals, and they’ll be approaching cinema from a largely intellectual perspective. Anti-intellectualism is the biggest problem in modern American thought, and I would hate to propagate it. But I have to come back to music here - yeah, intellect is great in music, it’s wonderful when a musician is extraordinarily skilled and their lyrics are beautiful poetry, but who is going to stand up and deny that Louie Louie is one of the all-time best pieces of modern music? Who can hear that Kingsman song come on and resist the beat, not feel the urge to sing along with the slurry, incoherent chorus? Sometimes a song needs to be a blast of energy and noise and sex and fun. Music has made its peace with pop - when will the movies?
I’m greedy. I want it all. I want the best movies of the year to be profound, intellectual works as well as fun, adrenalized blasts. I want movies that are so deep and emotionally honest that it’s exhausting to watch them and I want movies that are such a good time I can pop them on whenever I feel low. And more than that, I want to take them all seriously. I want to talk about the intentions of the directors, whether that director be James Wan or Paul Thomas Anderson. I want to talk about the metaphors of the movie, whether they take the form of a hotel in a fictional Eastern European country or a super soldier who is a man out of time. I want all of the feelings, and I dont want to be guilty about any of them. I want to watch a movie and be swept away into the world and the characters and the story and the meaning and not worry about whether it’s a serious film or not; they’re all serious films if they’re good.