Looking for joy

rambling thoughts on film!!!

There currently seems to be a widening gap between “film as art” and “film as entertainment.” Sure, it’s always been there, but as the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm conglomerate is eating up available weekends and available budgets, it starts to feel like there are just two types of films: entertainment and art house. On one hand, you’re not allowed to expect a Marvel movie to rise above its formula, and on the other, realistic and raw is the only ideal.

This is all an oversimplification, obviously, but it has become especially concerning as I think about my position as a woman pursuing a career in the film industry. While representation has become an important aspect of the current cultural conversation, coming with it is a fetishization of what is “real.” On the whole, women’s films that dig into capital-I-issues are vastly more respected than those that don’t do it explicitly. In fact, when women filmmakers have drifted away from reality-first filmmaking, it has come with somewhat disastrous effects (films like Marie Antoinette and Jennifer’s Body were maligned upon release).

So perhaps the separation isn’t between arthouse and genre so much as it is between a film being “happy” and a film being “important.” I was listening to a DGA podcast episode that was a conversation between Paul Thomas Anderson and Barry Jenkins on If Beale Street Could Talk. At one point Jenkins was discussing how he felt it was important to portray joy and humor and beauty within such a tragic story. And he said that it’s been there all along: Joy and love and life has been part of black culture since day one, and all of that happiness is simply interwoven into the tragedy. To contrast that, in another podcast, a film critic said that she felt like If Beale Street Could Talk was too beautiful for the tragedy it was portraying.

I’m trying to distill many big-picture thoughts into communicable terms, but for me it comes down to this:

  1. Suffering is fetishized and trauma-porn is overvalued when it comes to films made by women, POC, and LGBTQ filmmakers

  2. Entertainment-first films are considered unworthy, and combined with their bigger budgets are consequently even harder for diverse groups to break into

  3. Joy and fun are often considered “less than” when it comes to films

I guess my question here is why joy is being discounted. The world is scary and chaotic and tragic— I, a certified buzzkill, am the first to remind you that we’re all going to be dead soon because of climate change! But it is strange to me that at times people feel compelled to poo-poo entertainment and fun at a time when it’s so desperately needed.

People were shocked—shocked!— that The Greatest Showman made so much money and had so much longevity. But of course it did! I thought the movie was mediocre but also it was fun and I saw it twice the week it came out and I still listen to the soundtrack often. The same could be said of Bohemian Rhapsody, a problematic film that made buckets of money because people. like. Queen. And yeah, I kind of hated the movie, but it had me and everyone else bopping to “Don’t Stop Me Now” so it’s not a total loss.

On Film Twitter, an often horrific landscape, people sometimes get shamed or looked down on if they haven’t sought out the most recent tragic, important piece. “If you haven’t watched ________ then you must not care—” etc. And yes, be aware! But at the same time it seems like a lot to ask of people to give up hours of their lives to watch a miniseries about Chernobyl, no matter how excellent and important it is. Personally, finding a balance between watching important films/television and not harmfully triggering my anxiety and depression is a something I constantly struggle with.

Joy is radical in its own right. Schitt’s Creek creator/actor/writer Dan Levy has said that he’s never included portrayals of homophobia in his show because it feels less effective than just showing a happy gay couple (and because there’s always viewers who will side with the homophobia!). And Schitt’s Creek does indeed feel radical. We get to root for David and Patrick with unabashed joy! And Crazy Rich Asians, a fluffy, pastel-colored delight, also felt radical— it was the first major Hollywood film with all Asian leads since The Joy Luck Club!— and it was simultaneously a fun fairytale with fantastic clothes.

And really, for so much of America, movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Greatest Showman are radical. Is it so bad to have people consider, however briefly, what belonging really means? Don’t these films, however flawed, also provide an opportunity for empathy? More widely— can it be enough that Mission: Impossible - Fallout shows an incredible technical prowess without attempting to be important in other ways? And doesn’t discounting these more audience-friendly films turn into a kind of gatekeeping that prevents people from seeing the very “important” films we hope for people to see?

I guess what I am trying to say that there is room for both art and entertainment in film, and one does not need to deride one in order to enjoy another. Happiness and joy should be sought out— they are not lesser emotions, even in a tragic world. And because, as Barry Jenkins says, happiness and tragedy are so interwoven, I would like to see more women, more POC, more LGBTQ representation in entertainment-first, joyful films, and I would like more diversity in making them! I want more like Booksmart and Love, Simon and I want more fun, romping movies a la Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy that represent and are made by more kinds of people.

One of these very “fun but probably not important” films is Rocketman, which I saw an enjoyed a couple of weeks ago. It’s a musical! a spectacle! a romp! I enjoyed it. At the same time, I’ve been struggling with the… flow… in the ebb and flow of depression, and it’s been rough. On a particularly dark day, I thought about Rocketman and so turned on one of Elton John’s albums. And it made me very happy, and even happier to think that Mr. Elton John himself, gleefully pounding out “Honky Cat,” has been through some hard times himself. And no, Rocketman isn’t going to change the course of film history. But it has helped me out the past couple of weeks. And I think that’s worth it.