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What makes art?

| Friday, September 7, 2018

When I first read about a new Oscar category for “best popular film,” I was indignant. Creating a whole new category for “popular films” seemed ahistorical and cynical at best. Popular films, like “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” have swept the Oscars in years past. Films like “Avatar”, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Gravity” defied genre bias and won multiple prestigious awards. But what truly annoyed me is the implication that there is a line between pure entertainment and art.

There are films that sincerely aim to simply entertain the heck out of its audience. I’m speaking of “Baby Driver” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” of course, but also of “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” and “Paddington 2.” These are films that work best on a moment-to-moment basis, as a collection of stand-out, jaw-dropping sequences of craft and ingenuity designed explicitly for a maximum dopamine rush. The squealing tires synchronized to sound in “Baby Driver” and the adrenaline-rush helicopter scenes of “Mission Impossible — Fallout” are among the most impressive sequences I have seen in cinema, and these sequences emphasize film’s intrinsic strengths as an art form. It is not just sight or sound but the juxtaposition of these, through editing and direction, that coalesce into an exhilarating combination.

In addition to blockbusters aimed at men, musicals aimed at women and adventures aimed at children also contain such cinematic sequences. “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” explodes with earnest musical numbers, extravagant in color and movement; even my disdain for its simplistic plot and characters couldn’t stop me from smiling during “Waterloo.” “Paddington 2” throws its ursine hero into increasingly ridiculous comic set pieces, each more entertaining than the last. These films are not just “popular,” although most did quite well at the box office; these films realize the full potential of the art medium.

This is, of course, not to say that only blockbusters are cinematic. “Moonlight,” a recent Best Picture winner, utilizes the full force of cinema to paint an expressionistic portrayal of a place and time many viewers have never experienced. Director Barry Jenkins crafts images so indelible that, after a single viewing, I will never forget them. Obviously, what “Moonlight” aims for is very different than, for example, Ryan Coogler’s entertaining “Creed,” but both are exceedingly well-crafted and products of the same medium. So how should we determine what is the “best picture” and what is the “best popular film”?

The Oscars have always, and will continue to, pit incredibly different films against each other for “Best Picture”; “Star Wars” lost to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” and “E.T.” lost to “Gandhi.” I believe that so-called “popular” filmmaking should not warrant its own award because the general purpose is the same: evoking an emotional response from an audience. Just because “Spotlight” expertly induces dread and concerns itself with serious subject matter does not automatically mean it is “better” than “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Quite simply, there should be no line between entertainment and art because truly great entertainment is its own kind of art.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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