Defining Extremes: The Modern Chasm of Film Appreciation  by Gary W. Tooze

"Nothing is either good or bad... but thinking makes it so."  Shakespeare


The advent of DVD has allowed me to delve back into film appreciation quite heavily in the past few years. Because of the wide variety offered in this new medium, I have come up with some conclusions about film that may also be accurate for others. In personal film interest, as well as those of friends and family, I have made observations that I certainly believe to hold at least a grain of truth in regards to the two dipolar extremes of film fan types. However, the article will not be long enough to include the multiple varieties floating in the vast sea between these two general and opposite categories.

Although, I realize it is obviously not limited to this, I am classifying these extreme ends of the spectrum with one major distinction; those who appreciate relatively instant gratification while watching a film, and those that garner longer lasting personal responses from cinema. 

I suppose to define the viewers it would first be important to distinguish between the type of films that each tend to gravitate. While searching for specific terms for such a large generalization, I was initially stumped. I decided to utilize the term “Art Film”, although many of the films discussed might not be specifically pigeon-holed as such, the ones I am referring to probably have strong artistic elements. Although the term "Art" is pretty well impossible to define, personally I would state that it would any medium which promotes aesthetic thoughts. I might as well add that I don’t think the conclusions of this type of philosophy are as important as the process of thought that it evokes. For lack of a better term, in the context of this comparison, "Art films" are those which have examinable elements resonating to deeper often indefinable emotional responses.

Canvas art, sculptures, literature, photography could all be said to fit this category. The marriage of expression by moving images and words is continuously shifting. The medium's potential is considered still in its infancy. This celluloid expression has distinguished itself from static, canvas-style art which has the ability to provoke a vast myriad of inter-personal discussions. These are, by definition, more of a subjective, interpretative nature. Film lends itself to a more definitive, conclusive ideal... well, in my mind anyway, but, I suppose, that is another debate entirely.

The opposite end of this generalization I will term as “Escapist”. These films usually stretch far beyond the boundaries of the meagerness of the viewer’s own existence. This need not be exclusive to adventure or action films, but also on deep emotional levels, love stories, human dramas etc...  Arnold Schwarzenegger battling the evil villain or Julia Roberts falling desperately in love are replayed in a variety of story concepts. We can be drawn to situations that we have not (yet) discovered in our own lives or ones in which we perceive as a probable deficiency. As humans we tend to desire this scenario, not only to fill assumed voids, but also it allows us to push our experience boundaries in a safe mode. We may never hang precariously from a floating Harrier jet, but garner a slight representation of that experience while sitting comfortably in front of a home theater. We have an illusion that we are enhancing our lives through this expression. Our sense of excitement gets heightened... physically, romantically, intellectually, sexually, emotionally. Our heart rate speeds up and we can feel exhilarated without the inherent potential associated harm.

Arnold Schwarzenegger 

in Andrew Davies' "Collateral Damage"

François Leterrier

 in Robert Bresson's "A Man Escaped"

The most notable distinction between these two divisions of film seems to be the length of time that any impact lingers. Cinema as “Art” can cause reflection for days, weeks, even years after initial viewing. It can be said to have life-altering precepts. It can cause so much philosophical introspection that it  can effect day-to-day one views the world around us, how we interact with each other etc.. "Escapist" cinema can often be so fleeting as to be forgotten about before one departs the theatre. As my friend Albert states about such a cinema experience: "It barely touches the skin". Combining erupting snippets of drama "Escapist Cinema" has achieved its goal and given you a quick sanitized thrill. It can be compared to watching MTV with its explosive sound bytes, flashes of imagery and whirlwind cinematography. Before you are aware, it ends as a wafer-thin moment in time, without depth, quickly forgotten, the next thrill experience already being contemplated. 

Hollywood is not exclusive to this form of entertainment, but it can be a reflection on much of Western society's desire for instantaneous, neatly packaged self-indulgence. The emotional response from "Escapist" films have little, if any, profound meaning. Violence and action sequences bound together can become mundane after excessive exposure and we are rapidly desensitized. The same goes for the shock value of nudity, swearing, lying, cheating, stealing.... eroding away any expectation of a value system for children or society's most impressionable citizens.

To help separate these two categories of viewers I use a simple test: I gauge the amount of time individuals sit pondering during the rolling credits at the end of a film. For the "Escapist" the thrill is over and they determine their pathway out of the theater as the first name appears on the screen. The "Art" film enthusiast tends to digest the entire film as one large concept, not judging it on any of the individual stimuli which have since passed. Hence, they usually stay, sitting in silence, digesting the essence of what they may perceive as the films meaning... that is, of course, if they perceive it as having one at all. This theory also can extend to the viewing process. The "Escapist" mentally segregates the film into individual opportunities. With such massive exposure to the revolving channels rapidly punched into their television remote controls they have trouble focusing on anything without the adrenaline-inducing, emotion-jolting luminescence that they are accustomed to. Modern attention spans have been diced up as if thrust into latest Ronco kitchen gadget ($19.99 if you act now!). The absorption process for inert meaning can be both lengthy and mentally taxing. The "Escapist" usually finds this process a roadblock to their end goal of consuming the next arousal moment ostentatiously portrayed on the screen.

Sharon Stone 

in Martin Scorsese's "Casino"

Tran Nu Yên-Khê in Ahn Hung Tran's 

"The Vertical Ray of the Sun"

This realm of the "unknown" is especially unacceptable for the “Escapist” viewer. If it is not simple enough to be readily understood, then it is not entertainment. The "Escapist" does not want to think but rather rest his/her mind. It’s that simple… and for the Art film viewer, the opposite holds true. If it is readily comprehensible it must not be Art and therefore not worthy of their admiration. One delivers a product based on a projection of what they perceived as truth. "Art" reflects personal expression and the choice is left to the audience to identify with the film and find any commonality. The "Art film" devotee seeks more and more diverse expressions extending this principle. Often this lends itself to radical and more unique films and storylines, consequently this alone does not make it better, but often, just different.

The converse of this ideal is quite true as well. Over exposure to "Escapist" films can tend to corrupt one's expectations to such a degree that they cannot open there minds to new concepts, plots or presentation formats. They have crossed a boundary of irrevocable adherence to Hollywood's expressed style. This closed-mindedness is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. Not unlike a revelation, individuals will eventually conclude that we are not being shown "new" films at all, but rather the same film with slight differences (interchangeable actors, alternate locations). Sold to us in a creative, novel marketing spin.

The whole maturation process that brought the "Art Film" viewer to establish their (usually) newfound criteria, can also be the dichotomy that constitutes their tragic flaw. They can seek uniqueness to such a large extent that eventually nothing that is not totally fresh can be considered enjoyable. The clandestine nature of their film proclivity can be the strongest part of their appeal. They disregard the "popular" to immediately ensure the ability to continue seeking the eccentric and diverse. Following this theory, they may have eliminated a number of potentially advantageous film experiences believing "anything popular to be mediocre".

The belief is that the "Art film" is said to contain a higher degree of realism as there is more spontaneity and less tampering and over simplification to “dumb down” and capture the masses' hard-earned dollars.  The film endings are not sugar-coated but can tend to be morose. Often the sad truth is more readily acceptable than a happy ending. Why? Is life not like this at times? With the potential for an ending leaving them elated or morose, it brings the conclusion of the film in abeyance, hence making the viewer more keen on the eventual outcome by heightening their suspense. The "Art film" viewer need not be pacified with cloying conventions that appear transparent to the expectant audience it targets.  This does not necessarily make the film going experience a successful one, just rather an unpredictable one. As Montgomery Burns from "The Simpsons" insulting has stated, "Give the great unwashed a large pair of bosoms and a happy ending and they’ll come oink-ing back for more every time.” 

What can be a contributing factor to make the “Art” cinema? “Art” has its own un-definability. If it were readily understood by all, it would have failed in its objective. It is to make you reflect and ponder not pat yourself on the back that you “solved it” like a child's schoolyard riddle. The ‘escapist’ leaves the theater proud and confident in their abilities, “I knew what the "abc" secret was in the first 30 minutes”.


Julia Roberts 

in Gore Verbinski's "The Mexican"

Émilie Dequenne

 in the Dardenne Brothers "Rosetta"

The "Escapist" prefers their characters to be one dimensional, slim and good looking (no blemishes please) and the personal lives of the actors very familiar to them. The “movie star’s” life has been opened up in all of the popular forums, the tabloids and talk shows, and their appearance on the silver screen becomes somewhat of a comfort… we feel we know this person from having the media detail their personal experiences. These are laid bare before us and the rest of the world. As they are aware of what the public at large is drawn to, the characters they portray seem to change very minimally... and we intimate that they are usually playing themselves to some degree. But that is acceptable as we feel we have grown to like and even admire this individual, who, unlike us has money, fame, popularity... immense happiness and the world at their feet, helping yet again to perpetuate our own insecurities. 

The contentment with sameness has become more important than any confusion they might have in a deviance from their norm. They have exchanged the chance of personal growth for the monotony of the "cervellotico" – or the artificial… the contrived. Bruce Willis will not be slain by the obnoxious evil, and the mirror for our world will be content again. The cycle has occurred yet again forming into a vicious circle of blissful conclusions. Unfortunately the culture ends up gaining further avenues into the fraudulent. The ridiculous ideal that we could ever relate to these extravagant characters is a true testament to this "genres" ability to advance our own illusions... and that of almighty power of the advertising dollar. Our "willing suspension of disbelief"  is stretched to its maximum, irrevocably in some cases, never being able to return to the “realistic”. Any cinema devoid of excessive explosions, either physical or emotional, can no longer grasp the attention span of the "escapist" for enough time to complete the viewing of a film. In fact the average length of feature films has decreased steadily in the past 25 years strictly adhering to this adept principle of fiscal marketing. 

"Cinema Verite" (French for "Truth Cinema") is the popular term describing the earthy, realistic, close-to-documentary style of film popular in many European countries. These films are sadly impossible for many "Escapists" to sit through. Without the bombastic explosions, metaphoric or literal, it appears lifeless to them. The common complaint of “boring” can usually be heard echoing about the room. A sad commentary indeed as this is an unfortunate reflection on their own lives, which they in turn must feel is mundane. They throw out the ability of the medium to educate or expands their horizons, simply because it may expose unpleasant truths.

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami related in an interview on the DVD extras of his film “A Taste Of Cherry”: “I prefer films that don’t hold you hostage. You can see a film that almost makes you fall asleep and it can affect you days after… I want to be a filmmaker that causes people to think about my cinema after they have seen it.“

The lover of “escapist cinema” is content to simply use the film as a relaxation tool. There is usually little thought involved and the plot and sub-plots appear formulaic if ever dissected. One can effectively “turn off” after what feels like a lifetime worth of similar viewings. It has comfort in one's expectations being fulfilled… not unlike a swallow of Coca-Cola or bite of a McDonald's "Big Mac". 

Being human, there is much security in familiarity for us, but unfortunately in the history of civilization nothing ever gets created if this were the only standard. This is not meant as a condemnation of what I term as “Escapist” cinema… Hey, I have a few hundred DVDs of this ilk myself. Positively there is a place for it, but I feel it would be an awful waste if this is all that there was. I encourage individuals to venture into the realm of the unique, uninhibited, and at times abstruse cinema. Seek out films that you may initially find “boring”, being devoid of the trappings of the “fast thrill”. The "biologic knee-jerk reaction genre", (my term), causes you to never reach the unique capacity and breadth of the infinitely resourceful human mind. Once you have discovered thought provoking and inspiring principles in this medium you have great difficulty returning. You end up looking at film with new and vibrant observations. "Escapist Cinema" does not seem as worthy of your time now… and it appears hollow…lacking depth… without substance. Of course these qualities may be exactly what you are looking for at any given moment; a dry, empty void to relax your overworked, overtired brain. Does this not make the "Escapists" films inferior?... No, just a simpler, more obvious style. 

In conclusion, both of my self appointed “schools” in the world of cinema do the same job; fulfilling entertainment. Individuals are entertained by quite a variety. Occasionally by unearthing buried emotional responses, laughing, getting excited, relaxing, being educated, feeling spiritually fulfilled etc. No one human response can claim superiority over the other.
The images I have chosen for this article flout some of the most obvious examples supporting my proposed distinctions. There are many other films which bridge the gap much more discreetly, riding the nebulous wire between my generic definition of "Art" and "Escapism". It often appears that the "blockbuster" trends are shifting again. Just as popularity of micro-breweries for the beer drinker are giving the consumer more options. Every week it seems the opportunistic, independent, aesthetic, and free-thinking films are being brought to a larger audience. The medium of Digital Versatile Discs have helped do that for me.    Gary W. Tooze