the difference between art and product

By Katie Davis

Oscar season has come and gone, and taken with it the season of predictions, speculation, and judgment on the motives of the Academy. By this point, it can certainly feel like everything that could possibly be said about the nominees has been said, probably at least six times. We’ve made predictions, commented on the lack of diversity, and collectively wept for the winners of this largely arbitrary award. Since these things have been covered, there’s something else I’d like to dig into. The Academy Awards are supposed to honor the best in film achievement. But is it always artistic merit that drives the production of Oscar nominated films? How can we distinguish from films that were produced by committee with the intention of winning prestigious awards, the Oscars included, and those that were made purely because their creator had to make them.

There’s something to be said for the idea that art cannot be defined. It’s hard to say how the general movie-going public distinguishes between art and mere product. But we can safely assume that most see any best picture nominee as more worthwhile than the average release. That’s not the worst way to make this distinction, but it loses the notion of conscious intention. Teams of executives produce most movies: they sit around a boardroom discussing the most effective ways to pull at audiences’ heartstrings and, most importantly, make money.

However, there are some movies that only get made because a single person is insane enough to get it done. These films may not have the biggest budgets or the most mainstream appeal, but they are driven by artistic belief. And these are the movies I can comfortably call art. They make you truly think about their subjects, inspire conversation, and can actually change the way we see the art of film and the world.

Each of the best picture nominees falls into one of these two categories; either the film was made as a labor of love, or it was a product assembled to sell tickets and win Oscars. There’s art, and there’s business. Both can win Oscars, but only art is memorable, inspiring, and thought provoking. An investigation into this year’s films shows that these categories are more distinct than you might expect. Feel free to use this classification system for literally anything you encounter in your life, because this theory can apply to anything, be it your friend’s crappy painting that she slaved over for a year, or a cute instagram post that you eventually figure out is actually a Nordstrom ad. Just because something looks like art on the surface doesn’t mean it’s art. But for now, the best picture nominees:

Serious Art
Spotlight: This year’s best picture winner is a procedural about a team of journalists examining a child molestation cover up in the Catholic church. It’s riveting and full of people keeping their cool until the designated Oscar buzz scene where they yell at each other. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie, despite what occasionally felt like just a well-made genre piece. It’s thought provoking, and as you’ve heard through the grapevine, the theater will be completely silent when it’s over. The issue I have with this movie is that seriousness isn’t really art. It doesn’t take a position on what happened, how the journalists handled the case, or anything else about the situation. And it doesn’t have to, because nobody disagrees with the fact that priests molesting children is bad and should be brought to light. Yes, it’s a serious subject, but what’s the merit in making a movie where everyone’s reaction is just “yeah, totally”? Well, winning awards, of course. A movie that doesn’t cause debate can (and did) win easily.

Sweet Art
Brooklyn: A period piece about a young Irish woman who immigrates and starts a new life in America. Aside from the phrase “period piece” nothing about this movie screamed Oscars to me, although it did catch one of the largest distribution deals to ever come out of Sundance. The film feels small time—it’s not an epic story, it’s about one normal girl’s experience with her family and with love. It’s beautifully shot and faithfully adapted from the novel of the same name. The question is, who cares? Like Spotlight, there’s not much to think about or disagree with. It simply has the feel of art—in its simplicity, cinematography, costuming, and acting—although it’s not really art. Just a nice story that won’t move mountains, but it looks great and that’s fine.

Terrifying Art
Room: Tied for my favorite best picture nominee (the other is Mad Max and I couldn’t decide because the two films aren’t remotely comparable). Room is based on a book that is based on a horrifying true story about a woman who was held against her will in a dungeon for 24 years. The film chooses to focus less on the abuse Joy endures in captivity, but instead on her relationship with her son and how they adjust to life outside once they are found and freed. You’ll hear this from basically anyone who saw or reviewed this movie, but the performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are incredible. Some said the movie veered into cloying, but I found it emotionally resonant. And the remarkable thing about this is, no matter how you read the emotional timbre, this film created art out of an experience 99.999% of the public has literally zero experience with. It’s not a relatable film, and yet theaters of adults have sat weeping at this gruesome and horrible true story. This is the mark of great art; you don’t necessarily understand it, but you feel it, and it means something to you. It’s quite an achievement.

Dude Art
The Revenant: Leo gets an Oscar for being in the woods! Tom Hardy has yet another accent! It seems like most of the publicity around The Revenant is based on the terrible conditions the cast and crew went through while filming in Canada. In addition, critics weren’t universally in favor of this film—on average it has a significantly lower rating than the other best picture nominees. Still, it’s a gorgeous movie, with breathtaking landscapes and cinematography. Somehow the film seems to treat itself as a passion project, possibly because of its subject matter. As Hugh Glass braved the frontier, so does the film push through all of its harsh conditions and long production time. And director Inarritu is known for his indie-type art films—last year’s Birdman was also in this category. I don’t truly believe The Revenant is occupying the same space, however. Inarritu speaks as though this movie was dragged out from the depths of his soul, but is there anything really revolutionary about it? Gorgeous visuals and surreal dream landscapes aside, we should really just call it what it is: a dude movie. Stories of men being men in the wilderness are a tried and true genre by themselves, and I don’t know that anyone really needed another one.

Sleepy Art
Bridge of Spies: I’m gonna’ be really honest here: I fell asleep. I usually really enjoy this type of film, but something about this one just knocked me out. Bridge of Spies is about a facilitated trade of prisoners during the Cold War. As soon as the group of American pilots was introduced, my partner turned to me and said, “one of them is going to be captured, and they’re going to have a prisoner exchange ... on a bridge.” Bingo. This movie could have done a lot to be a little less predictable, although Mark Rylance was indeed great, and the score (by one of my personal favorites, Thomas Newman) was lovely. This could be called a period piece in the same way Brooklyn is, although there was certainly less focus on the period and more on men doing the decent and manly things. A potentially more accurate comparison would be to The Revenant, except that in this dude movie the men generally try to do the right thing, rather than scalping each other. I might be biased, but I don’t really imagine Steven Spielberg even has it in him to be a creative genius anymore. Someone probably threw the screenplay at him and he was like, “Yeah this seems gentle, ok.”

Great Art
Mad Max: Fury Road: The most exhilarating and downright fun film in the best picture category, Mad Max was the underdog this year, but thankfully still took home the most awards at the end of the day. While it was always unlikely that this movie would win best picture, I think that lots of us had a small part that just kept on hoping. And not that the Oscars needed more white nominations, but what about Charlize Theron? Every awards ceremony needs a gun-toting, face-ripping, feminist hero to shake up the status quo. One of my favorite aspects of this film was the complete lack of exposition. I guess some of that may have existed from the previous Mad Max installments, but Fury Road just started off kicking and screaming and didn’t give a single break. The use of practical effects makes this an amazing old time Hollywood flick, but a big pain in the ass in the eyes of some producers. Talk about a movie springing from the mind of a creative genius. Under no circumstance did George Miller have to revisit some pretty old action movies he made, but for whatever reason, he felt the need to. And the world is like 80% better for it. Anyway, I genuinely wish it had won. WITNESS!

Mature Adult Junk Art
The Martian: I barely even want to talk about this movie. I want to pretend this movie was never made. I wish Matt Damon had stayed on Mars and there was no story to tell at all. I’ve mostly heard good things about the novel it’s based on, and the film itself, but I can’t agree. I’ll go ahead and attribute its popularity to a theory I saw on the AV Club—that The Martian is an example of what they’re calling an adult blockbuster. It’s the kind of summer hit that draws huge crowds of mature people. It makes parents feel smart and hip, but it’s goofy and cheery enough to make people leave the theater with nothing but a nice warm fuzzy feeling. Basically, the movie is all fluff. The disco music jokes, the ultra-famous cast, Matt Damon’s perfectly snarky dialogue—yuck. Perfectly created for the enjoyment of upper-middle class white people.

Great Art that looks like Popular Art
The Big Short: With another big name cast, The Big Short looks on the outside like it might have been another super popular adult hit—some of the marketing reminded me of the previous year’s Wolf of Wall Street. I also had the sense it would be more of a comedy since the director, Adam Mckay, is well known for Anchorman. However, this film is a lot more serious than all that. The morality is complicated, with no character coming out at the end looking like the good guy. It’s all a grey area, and grey areas lead to the most interesting conversations.The film also incorporates different styles of filmmaking, including documentary style footage and celebrity guest spots to explain some of the more complicated financial concepts. This film took what could have been an excruciatingly boring topic and made it watchable, while simultaneously educating the public about the specifics of a pretty important part of the US financial collapse. It appears to be a boardroom movie, but it’s wild, fun, and provoking, and not what you’d expect. For yet another movie where adults deal with Very Serious Stuff, it was so creative and fresh, and really delightful for it.

The prestige of the Oscars is such that these movies will be deemed as great pieces of cinema regardless of their actual quality, and regardless of how they relate (or rather, don’t relate) to each other. To be able to distinguish between movies that someone was desperate to make and movies that were created to sell lots of tickets is significant. It allows us to see past the group of old voters who determine what we view as “good” and start making our own choices. Some of these films exist to be consumed, but some of them consumed the person that made them, and films with such radically different background don’t necessarily belong in the same category. Determining best picture in this way is senseless. Oscar quality is clearly no measure of genuine art, and we shouldn’t be fooled into seeing it this way.

©Katie Davis and the CCA Arts Review

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