I don’t know what directly inspired this post, but I feel like it has been building within me for a long time. Maybe it was Steven Soderbergh’s recent keynote address, or my reading of Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, or the death of Roger Ebert, or the fact that I am graduating high school in a few weeks. Regardless of the initial cause, I believe these feelings are worth discussing and maybe, if I’m lucky, they will spark a new conversation. So here it goes.
Why don’t people care about things anymore? As both a critic and a person in general I’m wary of the collective nostalgia our society obligatorily feels for every scrap and kernel of history, yet I have to ask, has it always been this way? And if not, what caused our apathy and lack of passion? Who should we hold responsible? Was it Nirvana, punk rock, or Vietnam? Was it Marshall McLuhan, reality television, or Watergate? And if none of these things, then what? I don’t mean to descend into a rhetorically-questioning rant, but I just need some answers.
These thoughts really came to fruition while I was sitting on the toilet thinking about Iron Man 3. I’ll be honest, that’s where I have most of my best thoughts, but that’s beside the point. Mostly I was asking myself what purpose Iron Man 3 serves, and if it even deserves to exist. I don’t know if it does or not. I don’t even know if that’s for me to decide. There have already been two Iron Man movies, yet somehow there has to be a third one- all the laws of nature seem to be in agreement about this. For some inexplicable reason it is a fact of life in 2013 Iron Man 3 has to exist, and no one questions its purpose, or its existence, or why it is here. Somewhere in the stars the ghost of Isaac Newton has scratched out a fourth law: “For every two Iron Man films, there must be a third and equally dull Iron Man.” The Iron Man franchise is like soil erosion: constant, accepted, and greeted with no more than a general shrug by anyone except for soil erosion experts.
Now, I’m stating my thoughts on the Iron Man films as an outside observer, as someone who despite his love for the comic book character has no immediate intentions to see this new movie. There are many people who are genuinely thrilled for its arrival. But I still have to ask, how many of the thousands who this weekend will take in the new adventures of Tony Stark actually need to see it? How many will have their lives changed by it? Would the world still spin on if it was not here? Robert Downey Jr.’s pockets might be a little less padded and Walt Disney’s post-mortem laugh might be a little less maniacal, but in my assessment, I don’t think life would be that different.
Of course, this brings up a point Steven Soderbergh gently nudged against in his recent speech, which you should probably read if you have not. In a world with so much pain and suffering, what purpose do the movies really have? For something like Iron Man 3, the oft-toted answer is escapism. But in my personal opinion, these blockbuster escapist fantasies fail as legitimate “escapism.” They may provide a temporary numbness to our wounds, yet the counterfeit euphoria they supply does not offer a legitimate solution to our problems. I know I’m drifting toward elitism, but a fear of strong opinions is something that weak entertainment like the Iron Man films has indoctrinated us with. Because these movies do not engage our real emotions, we think these sentiments inside of us are weak and invalid, or worse, something to be afraid of. Modern movie marketing has convinced us that the dangers of emotion lie out there, in the real world, and that these difficult feelings are what we should be escaping from. But that isn’t true at all. In this modern world oozing with apathy and cynicism, the genuine emotional respite provided by the cinema is one of the only true forms of escapism left. We need to escape to emotion, not from it, as the land we are fleeing from is starving from a lack of sincerity.
We’ve been led to believe that the only things worth concerning ourselves with are superheroic fantasies, or narrative intricacies, or photogenically-enhanced bodies gallivanting across a green-screen fresco face. One way in which this has occurred is an overemphasis on “spoilers.” The internet is all tied up with the yellow caution tape of “spoiler alerts,” and it’s even begun impacting the way we converse with one another in person. I enjoy a good surprise as much as the next guy, but that’s not why I go to the movies. When your only motivation for watching a film is to find out about the rumored killer plot twist at the end, you know something is wrong.
Let me use an analogy. If you are a newly-converted Christian reading the Bible for the first time, would you be angered if someone spoiled it for you? Most likely you wouldn’t, because you aren’t reading the Bible to hear a good story. You are reading it for religious and/or spiritual reasons. This is why I watch movies. Many times to hear a good story, yes. But mostly for religious and/or spiritual reasons. The movies are my religion and the cinema is my temple. I know that regardless of where I am in the world I can step into the quiet confessional of a dark theater and have my soul cleansed. But this religion is under attack- from people who want to pepper it with an assaulting amount of advertisements, from people more interested in profit than poetry, from people afraid of their true emotions.
Maybe I sound like an old crank. Maybe I sound like an elitist, too. I think, however, that many of misunderstood words like “elitism” and “pretentiousness” are bastardized vocabulary terms that we have been taught in order to avoid engaging with our emotions. Most of the time if you start talking about feelings in a pitch meeting, your potential investors will get real scared real fast. We have heard time and time again that emotions don’t sell. But why should film above all other art forms be interested in “sales”? Yes, it is an industry, but it should be one made of artists, of people who love what they do. To paraphrase the Soderbergh speech, you may know how to drive, but you wouldn’t tell an engineer how to drive a car.
I find it incredibly depressing when a truthful, honest, and beautiful film like Jeff Nichols’ recent Mud, a movie which by the way could be sold very easily to a mainstream audience, is overshadowed by Iron Man 3 just based on the fact that the latter had an onslaught of advertisements in its arsenal. We have become forced into being interested in products and commodities instead of transcendence and epiphany. While many people might not be interested in these things, they can still have their lives changed by them. Their emotional quality of life can be improved by a beautiful film. I know mine has.
I’ll try to wrap it up with a few final thoughts. I have a friend in film school who recently made an absolutely beautiful short film, yet the teaching assistant in his class says he may not make a good grade as it does not have clearly-defined character motivations or much plot. Since when did these become the most important qualifiers in what makes something good or bad? I think there should be one qualification for what makes a film good and one alone: does it move you or does it not? I have no interest in films that do not at least try to move me emotionally, as what I am looking for is not to escape from my emotions, but to escape to them. I do not have time for anything not interested in doing that. Before you cry elitist, I recognize too that one can be moved by almost anything. I have been touched by Demolition Man and shed a few tears during “Come Sail Away” by Styx, so I’m not alien to engaging emotionally with culture that may on first glance appear to exist without merit. So maybe I shouldn’t write off Iron Man 3. Maybe the worth of its existence is for you to decide.
Movies are my one true love and passion in life. Some of the most beautiful memories in my life have involved movies, and many times I have sacrificed people in favor of films. This probably makes me a terrible person. I once had a friend say that my archnemesis Quentin Tarantino loves movies, not people. Maybe I have more in common with Quentin Tarantino than I initially thought. But at the same time, I don’t. Godard said that he loved women, not movies, because you cannot caress a movie; however, I believe that you can in a way caress people through movies. So maybe I’m not terrible. What I mean is that you can express your emotions for others through films, you can affect them and yourself and venture to a higher place. The cinema moves and takes us to somewhere we cannot reach on our own. It is a place of beauty and ecstasy and truth. Anyone who aims for less than that needs to go home and rethink their life, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once wisely told a Coruscanti drug dealer.
I might just be overzealous, but I think that what this world needs most of all now is passion. It needs dedication, sincerity, and honesty. It needs movies like Mud and people like Steven Soderbergh, not Tony Stark or Iron Man 3. I strongly believe that going to the movies can help us re-discover these ideals we seem to have lost touch of. At the same time, however, we also need to realize when to turn off the television or step outside of the dark theater and embrace the real world. Movies are a start, but it’s up to us, the audience, to finish the story. The emotional escapism provided by true cinema can begin in a theater, but we can carry it in our souls for the rest of our lives and use it to improve the world around us. If Iron Man 3 will change your life this weekend, then go see it. But if not, find something else that will. Find something that will send you in a better direction with increased understanding of life and how it works. Find something that will truly impact you. Find something that makes you want to care.