I opened my article last week by pointing out that the greatest sin a film can commit is presuming to be more than it is – the most immediate example being the new Dan Fogelman joint, Life Itself. Between Paterson and Paddington, “earnestness” is making a comeback – which means that we can expect a host of cynical studio suits to greenlight films that smack of cheap nostalgia. Of course, Paterson wasn’t kitschy, and neither was the bear movie; Neither property stoops to fellating our more Hallmarkian instincts. Rather, they are honest because their earnest – brief bursts of light from an inspired pair of filmmakers who don’t want to watch the world burn. Their films are what they are, mostly without pretense.
Life Itself seems to think that it’s in the same family, and toward that end Fogelman churns out, somehow, a kind of “Discount Nicholas Sparks” piece. To say that it’s deeply offensive would be an understatement, as the demand for low-key, high concept fare a la Our Souls At Night has so quickly been swallowed up by the pornographers.
But it isn’t just the “White People Drama” genre that’s susceptible: “So many people have called Upgrade a “B” movie,” according to writer/director Leigh Whannell, “that it feels like high school all over again for me.” It’s strange that he would resist such a designation: Few films have better captured the spirit of those high concept VHS-era sci-fi joints than Upgrade – which, like its obvious predecessors, has more on its mind than the butchery we came for. That a bargain store body-horror flick might be might be aesthetically significant and culturally insightful should not be surprising, especially to its screenwriter. There’s no sense demanding that a film be more than it is.
The same phenomenon ran the other way amidst the early “Hereditary Is Actually Bad” hot takes. The backlash hinged mostly on the last 45 minutes, in which the film shifts decisively away from Ordinary People and into more conventional territory. Which is to say that audiences who hated The Babadook for never blossoming into a traditional frightfest hated Hereditary because it did. The director, Ari Aster, eventually succumbed to the racket and attempted to distance his film from the horror genre; like the audiences for whom his film was not sufficiently high-brow, he eventually grew embarrassed that his film wasn’t more than it was.
All of this seems to coincide with a general shift in how we view art. I doubt there was ever a time in which we genuinely valued “art for art’s sake,” but living in the age of The Movie We Need Right Now!, we certainly don’t today. This peculiar syndrome moves us conjure up strange appraisals: during the festival circuit, the Influential Whites™ declared Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a masterpiece, not least because it scratched some itch we thought we had – for “complex” explorations of police brutality and race relations, government incompetence and female rage, which point the cameras at an issue without wrapping them up in an uncomplicated bow. It was The Movie We Need Right Now.
Except it wasn’t, according to most everyone else, mirroring the tepid-to-infuriated response the Sicario films met from critics in Mexico. Outside the largely Caucasian landscape in which Three Billboards flourished, POC critics found little to grab hold of. Martin McDonagh, though generally a good playwright, works better in familiar territory, exploring religion, or guilt-writ-large. Moving the action to the American South, among people he doesn’t seem to understand, against a backdrop of uniquely American pathologies he doesn’t seem to understand, employing predominately American slurs and extrapolating universal moral questions from viscerally American wounds – simply did not play well in the long run.
None of this addresses the question of whether Three Billboards is good art. By the Movie We Need Right Now principle, it certainly isn’t, for the reasons listed above and others. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it probably isn’t. There’s a difference between “morally ambiguous” and “underwritten,” and Three Billboards is the latter well before it’s the former: there are moments of beauty throughout – the hospital, the priest, that stupid CGI deer – but they add up to fairly little. It’s OK art, which plays a bit like Quentin Tarantino sleepwalked his way through filming a screenplay William Faulkner sleepwalked his way through writing. Which is to say that I liked it pretty well in spite of itself.
But it makes a good case study in how our criteria have change. I suspect it would have taken home Best Picture in the late-1990s. The all-white, largely elderly audience at the single-screen art house theater where I first saw it was in stitches throughout. The more diverse group of twenty-somethings at the showing in my hometown were not. Our own kids, and their kids, it seems likely, will understand reflexively what our grandparents do not and which many of us grasp only occasionally – that art is always political, always ethical or unethical; our neoliberal commitment to checking our moral gag-reflexes at the door was always a rather self-indulgent delusion.
The fact that we’re finally – though begrudgingly – beginning to acknowledge as much is a good thing. It’s not that we’ve autonomously begun to grow an “aesthetic conscience,” of course; the internet has largely democratized criticism, and with that the rather narrow experience of the predominately-white, predominately-middle-class critics has inevitably lost a bit of its hegemony; with that, POC critics who’ve long been insisting that art cannot be morally neutral are more easily accessible beyond the pasty clamor of the echo chamber.
One result, naturally, has been that we are now more likely to ask pertinent questions about the films we watch – Who is this for? How am I being taught to view my neighbors? Et cetera. This is its own thing, and it can’t be sullied by the bankruptcy of those who would turn all art criticism – film or otherwise – into a kind of utilitarian calculus in which a film’s merits are the sum of its usefulness in overturning the current social order while inculturating a better one. Of course: films have the power, albeit incrementally, to do exactly this; but to effectively change the consciousness of their audiences, over the long term, they’ve got to be good art before they’re good propaganda.
And Upgrade is already that: it’s weak in the first act, sure, but in all there’s a tautness to it, a euphoric momentum that carries it to its overwrought-but-clever conclusion. It’s the Venom movie that the Tom Hardy flick won’t be, probably, and it’s the other half of a winsome Sunday evening double-feature with that Alex Garland joint, Ex Machina, which hits similar notes but draws from different influences. That film carries the illusion of being “higher-brow,” but the two are of a piece.
Because those films are good art, they can be the sort of good propaganda – on “human specialness,” on “corrosive scientism,” on “the future under capitalism” – that, say, Hotel Artemis and Jurassic World want to but cannot be. This is precisely the reason that Get Out works and Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh positively doesn’t; why Paterson works but not Life Itself. In other words, it’s futile for Ari Aster to be ashamed of having put out a masterful work of modern horror. Hereditary can be that – exactly that, and only that – and be enough.