Cinema in new lights: where tolerance and art meet face to face

There are two primary reasons I find cinema fascinating. (1) As different art mediums come together in cinema, the limitations it places on those artists forces a particular sort creative thinking; and (2) since film is multi-faceted, people will love and approach it in unique and personal ways.

The Wizard of Oz, 1939

 

First: Putting boundaries on the artist

While I love to write, and I love photography, I think the cinema has become my favorite art medium. It is so limited, and yet so free. In the greatest pieces of cinema, actors master their particular art (whether film, television drama, sit-com, or documentary) while weaving together the skill of writing with the beauty of the visual art. All artists can come together in the cinema. It is so more limiting than designing clothes for a model, paintings for a gallery, or music for a symphony. There, the art is allowed to reach whatever heights the artist can imagine. The endless possibilies are incredible. Here it is restricted. It must be applied. The artist must bend to the purpose. If the artist can bend to the purpose, while still remaining true to the art, while still keeping the highest quality, here I think the artist has also achieved something incredible, in a different way. Both are necessary. The ability of any artist to adapt from an environment of total creative freedom to an environment filled with boundaries shows the adeptness of the artist.

Time and again 1939 is considered the greatest year of cinema. It brought us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Princess, Midnight, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Women, and Wuthering Heights. The list goes on and on. What happened that year? The production code began to be enforced. Censorship was on. The writers and directors had to make appealing art within the limitations of that production code and it is known for producing several of the greatest movies of all time.

The Women, 1939
The Women, 1939

 

 

Second: A multifaceted medium

What interesting things happened with an art form that has so many facets? People approach it from different directions.

To be specific, I am not a fan of the Disney machine. I think that is primarily because I am sensitive to psychology, perspectives of culture and marketing (from a psychological perspective) and what message is given through those lenses. In my opinion, Disney uses consumers to make a profit. It frequently sends a message of the uselessness of fathers and the requirement of either a passive female or aggressive, who needs men, feminists. Complementarity is not explored. Religion is excluded. Costumes are sold. Princesses engineered to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. As the culture has changed, Disney has changed.

Snow White, 1931

 

Frozen, 2014

 

I spoke recently to a lover of the theater. Her view is totally different. Why wouldn’t it be? Other than Rogers and Hammerstein, in the past 50 years who has brought theatrical music to the general public? Disney. She thought the music from Frozen to be of incredible quality, harking back to the Disney Renaissance.

Since I approach the film differently, I see different things. Neither is right or wrong. Just as life is made better by the variety of worldviews, so we can take what we want out of a film and enjoy it in our own personal way.

Going further with the concept of the personal, there are limitations beyond the creators’ control in film. With a painting, the artist places’ his stamp on the image of the model. So in a way, it is the painter we see, even though he sought to represent the model. In a novel, the reader places his own image on the descriptions. Readers are either delighted or angered by the choice of actor to play the role, or the manner of the actor depending on how it aligns or disfigures their mental image of the character.

This brings us to the point. Like photography, cinema brings us real people. We are drawn or experience aversion to people and their manners. For example, I an a fan of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” I love the courage and desire for personal development of the main character. I love the subtle and over-the-top humor, the multitude of cultural and iconic references. I love the strength of the female lead, whose existence is not dependent on other male characters. It’s a great piece of television in my eyes. A friend who also loves cinema dislikes the show because of the main actress. That happens. Not all personalities can be attractive to everyone. If they are, that is when you end up with mega-stars.

This is also experienced in theater, Even in theater, an actor who is more than just “a body with a voice,” viewers creates the character in his or her image. My husband and I have watched a filmed theatrical version of Into the Woods and really love it. We watched the recent film by Disney, so ready to love it, and were sorely disappointed. Why?

Into the Woods, 2014

We had in our minds the portrayal, energy and comedic timing of the theatrical actors. Disney movie just did not compare.

Into the Woods - into-the-woods Photo
Into the Woods, Original Cast

Does that make less of the experience of someone else watching it?

No, not at all.

Might one be objectively better?

Possibly. But also possible that it was our personal experiences that led to enjoyment or displeasure.

Conclusion

The discussion could go on and on. Cinema provides us with a special place, wildly boundless and yet full of boundaries for those who help to create it. It is deeply personal from the personhood of the actors to the personalities of the viewers. There is something for everyone.

I might have actually liked Frozen…

Have you seen this song “Life’s Too Short” which was created but then cut from the movie Frozen? There were many paths considered for the plot of the movie Frozen. This was cut as the story was developed. Please watch it and read on.

I think I would have really liked Frozen if they had gone in this direction. If you follow this blog, you know I’m not a fan of the movie. Here are the reasons why “Life’s Too Short,” a song full of deep and complex ideas and interpersonal dynamism, made such an impression on me.

Reason 1: I think this song demonstrates what strained sibling relationships are like.

Good movies/stories show insight into relationships no matter how fantastic the setting. Poor story telling either doesn’t go deep enough or makes caricatures of those relationships and the people in them. Is it realistic that Anna and Elsa should not know each other at all, spend six, eight or ten years separated by a door, unwilling to play, even after their parents who separated them died? Is it realistic that Elsa should be crowned queen after being locked up in this way?

It is more realistic that they would know each other, have some relationship, albeit is a very strained one. There is the desire for a relationship but an inability to quite connect because they don’t fully know or accept a part of who Elsa is. So as it is, is it really a happy ending the way the movie goes? They still don’t know each other but they’ve finally become aware and acted on their love for each other. Then what? I think the next step would more likely be what this song portrays. Just as I dislike movies where we spend one and half to two hours waiting for people to date, I disliked this movie. The real drama happens when relationships start.

Reason 2: If a person decides to take the “screw you, this is my who I really am” approach to things, there are some very real and painful consequences for everyone involved.

Elsa left her responsibilities as queen on her coronation day. In the song she will be only happy if Anna joins her in her new life. She won’t back to a life of hiding. It’s Anna’s mistake to think the only way Elsa can return is through hiding (wearing the gloves) but it’s the mistake of Elsa to think the only other alternative is to leave entirely. This dichotomy hurts people. The interaction reveals assumptions and expectations. Elsa’s choices and Anna’s ultimatum (which is really just a lack of understanding) damages relationships.

Number 3: Good stories commit to who their characters are, for good and ill and allow consequences to their faults/virtues to develop.

If we consider the musical Into the Woods (I have not seen the film, I am referencing the musical), the Baker’s Wife is basically a good person, but she has utilitarian beliefs (willing to lie to get the cow because have a child is a greater good than a boy’s friendship with a cow). That utilitarian belief leads to her dismissal of her unfaithfulness towards her husband with the prince as just a moment in the woods. There are consequences for her perspective.

Frozen does not commit to its characters. Elsa let’s go of all she has known, she’s a liberated person and there are no personal consequences that move the viewer. Personally, I believe Disney did not want to make her a real villain, even for a little while (reconciliation could still be the ending, sprinkling in conversion), because of the marketing opportunities to having two new princesses.

With this song, Elsa becomes the villain because she prioritizes her freedom over everything else, without regard to what or who she left behind. It’s implicit in the story as it is, but you have to search for it. By and large, she is treated as good and and as a victim without negative emotional weight to her choices.

Good stories have complicated people, good and bad, which is like life. This plot direction would have made the favorite song, “Let it Go,” a deeply complex song, sung from Elsa’s perspective but ultimately shown to have disastrous consequences when seen from a broader perspective. “Life’s Too Short” causes us to feel more for Anna when juxtaposed against Elsa, although it still succeeds in making us feel the hurt of both sisters. It makes that goal of the movie more successful by casting a little more judgment on their choices.

Number 5: Lastly, from where do we take our identity?

Who am I? Does my value come from my athleticism? What happens if I get injured, lose a leg, or my ability to run because of a heart condition? Who am I then? Sometimes when a person has been told to hide who they are for so long, they ruminate on that feature and it becomes a defining characteristic. I’m an artist! I’m a lesbian! I’m a Democrat! But these are features of our personality and parts of our life, very important features and important parts, but parts nonetheless. Our wholeness and value come from something permanent and lasting, from being made in the image of God as human beings. Seen in this framework, we can negotiate the rest, make it work, see where it fits.

Have you ever seen the stop animation film, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? You can still have the misunderstood villain by having a real villain who experiences a conversion. Sure, it’s simplified here, but the concept is important. It’s a concept mostly lost in modern storytelling.

I’m not saying Elsa should put on the gloves. But a resolution of this crisis might show that she repents of her choices to abandon everything, return and work through both her feelings of rejection (while others learn to accept who she is) and also learn to use and adapt her powers to her frame of life. It has less an “us against them” feeling and more “us against ourselves” which is something the greatest dramas in history portray.

Some thoughts on the overexposure of children to Frozen

Instant gratification occurs sometimes out of love and sometimes as a quick way out of a difficult situation, be it meltdown time at the grocery store or Christmas time when we’re lost on what to buy our children.

We live in an age of instant gratification. For the purposes of this post, instant gratification is defined as the moment when a child expresses a desire for something and gets it immediately or when a child has their frequent requests for the same thing reinforced. My proposal is that children are being gratuitously gratified in the arts and entertainment.

There is great artistic potential in cinema and television. They also contain great lucrative potential for their makers. Where the movie meets the screen you have a dynamic meeting of artists (those who draw, write, imagine, create), producers (the ones investing and looking for a return on investment), marketers (those responsible for making this thing catch), parents who choose what is good for their children to watch, and the children eager to consume the media.

In my experience, children are fascinated with the movement on the screen. My eldest child is in preschool. Her entrance to preschool coincided with the onslaught of the Disney machine’s exploitation of Frozen. Everywhere we go we see Frozen paraphernalia. The endless exposure makes Frozen the first thing on a child’s mind, or second perhaps, to Santa. So when asked what they want, or when they point out the things they see in a store, it’s Frozen. Perhaps the parent buys it or plays it because they see it makes the child happy. What if the child would be happy with many other options, but lists Frozen items because they are always in the forefront.

I don’t have many problems with the movie Frozen. I personally dislike it because I think her abandonment of the throne, the difficulties of a town suddenly frozen would have been more interesting to examine rather than her joy at escaping repression. I don’t begrudge those who do like it. I find the famous song out-of-sync with the wider context. It celebratory style misses the fact that she is a newly crowned queen abandoning her kingdom. It is said that part of the attraction is you cannot quite determine if it’s a villain’s song or princess’s song. I dislike the movement of misunderstood villain’s. It doesn’t make for good story-telling. It makes for weak, confused story-telling that often whitewashes the impact of the misunderstood villain’s actions on others.

Back to topic: perhaps it would help our children’s imaginations to limit their intake of favorite media as you would with favorite food. It seems harmless but children easily become closed in on certain things. “Do it again”…you know the mantra. Eventually the parent needs to say no and take a break from paddy-cake. This is good for children.

I believe it is important for children to be surrounded by beautiful things: paintings, music, and literature. Variety is important too, balanced with the familiar. How often do we think of the quality of the media they consume? Do we continue with trite tunes and cartoons because they’re “educational” and children like them? Studies have found that those who read more classic fiction showed greater empathy than those who read less classic fiction. Education can also take place through conversation when encountering art, whatever form it may be. I do not know at what age the child starts talking back when the characters on children’s shows ask a question, but mine have yet to do it.

We are called to elevate our senses above the brute beast. Art has a transcendent quality we desperately need in this busy, anxiety-laden culture. Art points us to God. It shows us something an animal could never organize or create. If you want to give your children, Frozen, do it, but also consider sitting them down to Ernest and Celestine, a French film whose animation is like a moving water-color painting. If you love Idina Menzel, Broadway singing, or R&B singing, fine. But also consider giving them “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” without words (called Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”). Have children’s songs but consider orchestral arrangements. If children’s music makes you crazy, as it does for lots of parents, consider oldies. “We all live in a Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles or “The Watermelon Song” by Tennessee Ford are great for children’s appetites but adult friendly. When children ask for endless repetition, just say no and offer them something new. See what happens.

Why lower our offerings for children? Let’s elevate it and in their growing ask them to grow in appreciation of the things we chose to expose them to. Hard to think of what to use? That is the Disney machine’s marketing arm’s goal. If you don’t know they can tell you, then buy their product.

Don’t let your culture be determined by advertising and what the store’s say it’s time for. We can do more! And I believe it will help our children just that much more to thrive, imagine and create.