Opinions, Column

That’s Entertainment

Or “Face/Off Is A Better Movie Than The Godfather.” Or “Nicolas Cage Died For Our Sins.” Whichever title hooks people in better.

That’s the thing about entertainment. It’s not that society’s collective gluttony for it creates a culture where ideas get ignored unless they are tailored to meet our fickle attention span—you already knew that. It’s that no one seems to know exactly what entertainment is. The word itself is a conversational catch-all whose definition routinely boils down to “stuff most people like.” Its actual essence remains unclear, and we define it only by its base utilitarian effect on the viewer.

Something close to defining entertainment happens often when discussing movies, but the conversation only goes so far as to place entertainment as the opposite of the even more eternally nebulous term—art. In explaining their relationship to movies they like, many viewers will split the field in two, saying “there are movies, and there are films.” What a convenient system. Whenever you want entertainment, then there are movies tailored for your entertainment, and whenever you want artment, then there are movies tailored for your artment. How, then, to determine which movie fits which category? And what if, God forbid, there’s a disagreement over whether a movie is a movie or a film?

Enter Face/Off. The best movie I’ve seen all year stars Nicolas Cage and John Travolta—the snickering usually starts there—as a criminal and detective who surgically switch faces. Yeah, it’s everything a ’90s Hollywood actioner should be—very ’90s, very Hollywood, very actiony, very very. Apart from being a time capsule from an increasingly bygone era, it has the kind of energy and inventiveness that no Hollywood movie, action or otherwise, has the skill or conviction to attempt now. Many people I know who have seen this movie roundly dismiss it. Some “worsts” even get thrown around.

Disagreement is fine, but how can we discuss a movie when one side calls it entertainment and one side calls it art? In my experience, such conversations tend to carry assumptions like “Well, a movie like X is clearly just made for entertainment.” This is a prickly position to take. It tends to come from a position of stated humility, but is it more hubristic to make a value judgment of a movie’s merits or to declare the purpose for which said movie was made? It goes well beyond the work itself and seeks to state the creator’s intentions, which seems unfair to all involved.

These judgments could be more charitably described as the viewer making aesthetic judgments no different from standard film criticism, but built according to principles of “entertainment,” which seek to protect the casual viewer from being seen as overly critical. This seems truer to his or her intentions—I doubt any proponents of the movie/film duality are really covert film narcissists. This insistence that movies belong in their respective places, though, implicitly reinforces the position of superiority that the viewer takes in relation to the material. From this position, implicit rather than explicit judgments of quality are made, thus reinforcing dominant taste as mass and unconscious. The active eccentrics are shunned.

Unless they’re just the right distance from the mass entertainment ideal where they can be adopted by the true covert film narcissism of the “so bad it’s good.” In this diseased viewing perspective, terrible and great films alike are subjected to a kind of viewing remove wherein the films are held up and pilloried according to the viewer’s infallible conception of how a movie should be. It’s fine to be fascinated by particular examples of cinematic trash, as some movies, especially ones experienced in childhood, can haunt us forever even if the surrounding movie is otherwise poor. “So bad it’s good,” however, never resorts to such sincerity. It is the realm of words like “amazing” and “unreal” and “best movie ever” delivered with smug remove. It is the rotten pit of self-satisfied groupthink at the heart of the casual entertainment impulse—and woe to any iconoclasts who would stand in its way.

Enter Nicolas Cage. Again we are drawn back to Face/Off and the “so bad it’s good” movement’s sacrificial Christ figure. You can find choice bits of his Face/Off performance in the many “Nicolas Cage Losing His S***” videos referenced with a chuckle every time I try to explain to someone how much I respect his best work. But if you were to take Face/Off at face value, you would find that his performance comes together quite well. Cage’s face, fittingly for Face/Off, is a rubber canvas full of wild gestures in perfect harmony with the film’s surrounding madcap energy. It’s not a realistic performance, but inspires awe nonetheless. Like all of his best performances, it stands as a rebuke to the way movies sink into Hollywood-esque realism (i.e. not realism) in favor of the novel idea that movies and performances should be unique and memorable. Woah!

Yet, the culture that comforts itself in middle-of-the-road omnipleasance is easily equipped to toss eccentricity in favor of half-gestures and chilly ironic detachment. Everything “very” about Face/Off is ostracized for not being “middle.” Standard elementary school playground stuff magnified by the self-conscious adolescent impulse to see who can care the least that is habit for our generation. Maybe this is just a symptom of our time, and probably some day our children will scoff at us in favor of their newfound youthful sincerity. And some day that, too, will become equally cloying, as trend-seekers trip over themselves to prove who cares the most about utter dreck. The process is underway—even now, would-be cultural trailblazers are doubling back on themselves to find preposterous movies in which known ham actors swap faces and are singing obscene Hosannas. But for now, we cannot commit entirely, we must still cloak our praise in the guise of a smug, stifling, culture-critic sneer. At least we still have funny Nicolas Cage clips.

Featured Image by Brandon Wade / AP Photo

October 2, 2014