Popularity is Amoral

Many authorities seem to believe that if something is popular, it is therefore low quality. This is particularly true when it comes to works of fiction.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of popular works of fiction which are also good.

Inception. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. (Both the books and the films.)

Likewise, there is plenty of tripe out there which is enormously popular.

Twilight. (Both the books and the films.) Fifty Shades of Grey. (Ditto.) Most Adam Sandler movies.

The exact opposite of these two parallels are also true.

There are works of artistic genius mostly ignored by audiences (Twelve Years a SlaveLincolnHugo) and equally obscure works of utter hackwork (Dylan Dog: Dead of NightRepo Men).

In the end, popularity (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. It’s amoral, like money. (See 1 Timothy 6:10).

The only thing that matters is why something is popular.

The Dark Knight was popular not just because it was good (that’s what made it memorable) but because it had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

Similarly, the Twilight movies were popular not because they were good (they weren’t), but because they had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

The principle of popularity being amoral can be seen everywhere. The films put out by Marvel Studios are generally mediocre aesthetically, but people do go to see them.

The late Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the 2011 Thor movie:

“Thor” is failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.

On the other side of the coin, Marvel’s Netflix properties, such as Daredevil and Luke Cage, are both television masterpieces and smash hits with audiences.

As I discussed a few months ago, more genuinely good artistic endeavors would be financially successful if one or both of the following were true:

  • If people had more disposable income.
  • If more artists had an entrepreneurial mindset.

The political economy of the arts and entertainment industry, it is definitely more feasible at this moment for artists to hustle up and market the heck out of their art rather than to wait around for a more forgiving economy.

Until then, rest assured that popularity neither certifies a film as good nor condemns it as bad.

It just is.

Note: I realize that in a past postArt Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)“, I stated that popularity “generally” denotes quality, in that there must be a good reason for many people to pay for something. I now realize, in keeping with the subject of this post,  that this reasoning is crude, if not without merit. I intend to expand on this point in a future post.

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Casablanca: Old Hollywood’s Take on Being the Good Guy

I recently watched the 1943 film Casablanca, as part of my current preoccupation with old movies.

Set during World War II, it depicts the struggle of an American expatriate (Humphrey Bogart) who runs a Moroccan nightclub when his long-lost lady love (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly shows up with her husband, attempting to evade agents of Nazi Germany.

What interested me about Casablanca was how it presented a world far more tangled, wretched, and realistic than any modern depiction I can recall. Inception and The Dark Knight are creampuffs in comparison, even losing in terms of how tight their respective plots are.

At the same time, however, this mature, flesh-and-blood cinema manages to do all this without sinking into the thrall of violence and profanity. It tackles mature content with class.

Most importantly, it elevates the values of an older class of hero. This isn’t done to mockingly kick him from his pedestal, but to present him for serious study and reflection.

Casablanca provides a window into the world of the Greatest Generation, a world far more complicated that today, contrary to those who have inherited Hollywood might say.

To begin with, this film was created in the thick of an event which defined the twentieth century and continues to reverberate into the twenty-first. The Second World War influenced our art, our economy, our foreign policy, our manner of education, and even our eating habits.

For too many people my age it is little more than a mythical backdrop to the careers of Captain America, the Flash (Jay Garrick, that is) and Indiana Jones.

But when you realize that every piece of art reflects the worldview of the artist, as I believe Francis Schaeffer noted, you must conclude that the opinion of artists about that time concerning the war will color every form of art, including film, created during that time.

Suffice it to say, Casablanca firmly plants its feet not in the camp of the Allies or the Axis, but in the camp of Good as opposed to the camp of Evil. It is decidedly apolitical in a context and narrative backdrop where contemporary politics is pervasive.

To say this may sound strange, considering that in this case, Good is clearly personified by the Allies and Evil by the Axis, particularly the Nazis.

But when I say that Casablanca is apolitical, I only mean that it would make no difference whether the Allies or the Nazis won the War, either within the realm of fiction or in reality. What matters is that one side was Good and the other side was Evil, and the identity of both is obvious.

Rick, the protagonist played by Humphrey Bogart, emphatically cracks down on “politics” in his bar. But he unreservedly sacrifices his own personal happiness to make sure his former lover and her husband, an anti-Nazi journalist, can escape to safety.

Later, his reward is to join the fight against the Nazis on the side of the Free French, along with the lovably corrupt Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who turns over a new leaf in the final minutes of the film.

Columnist Mark Tooley wrote in a 2010 piece in The American Spectator about the differences between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. According to Tooley, “Old Hollywood privately misbehaved but publicly was glamorous and classy. New Hollywood is proudly trashy.”

Casablanca is very much a product of Old Hollywood. I’m no scholar of film history, having only the most rudimentary knowledge of the subject. But as I understand it, Old Hollywood knew that it’s easy to be decent when you inevitably get the girl at the end.

But when being good means not getting the girl, not coming home covered in glory, and not getting the commendation of your peers and mentors, it’s a little harder.

Casablanca plainly tells us that if you keep deciding to be one of the good guys until the end, despite all that, you’ll at least be one of the good guys. And that’s it.

As a Christian, if one translates “being one of the good guys” to “trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation,” then one’s eternal reward will be far greater than anything that I just described.

Aesthetically, the film is stunning. Morally, the film is saintly, perhaps in the manner of David, in keeping with the Jewish heritage of Michael Curtiz, the director.

Most importantly, it’s a film that every man, woman, and child should see, and that is final.

Image courtesy of irishnews.com

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