There is a long held principle in film criticism that the entertainment value of a movie is in some way set in opposition to its artistic content or seriousness. The label “entertainment” has often been used to downgrade a film’s importance or worth.
Both Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman have made reference to this dynamic in their films. In Bergman’s The Seventh Seal Jons, the squire, confronts an artist in a church who is working on a horrific mural depicting the plague.
Jons: “Why paint such nonsense?”
Artist: “To remind people they are going to die.”
Jons: “That won’t cheer them up any.”
Artist: “Why always cheer them up, damn it? Why not scare them a bit?”
Jons: “Then they won’t look at your paintings.”
Artist: “Oh Yes they will. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.”
Artist: “I paint things as they are. People can do as they like.”
Jons: “Some will curse you.”
Artist: “Well, then I’ll paint something amusing. A man’s got to live.”
When Bergman’s painter argues “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” He challenges the dichotomy between entertainment and seriousness. Sex comedies and romances may be popular but Bergman feels confident that he can offer a weightier alternative that will still draw an audience in.
In Kurosawa’s Rashomon the character known only as “the stranger” asks to be told the story that the priest and the woodcutter are mulling over.
Priest: “A man was murdered”
Stranger: “Just one? So What? On top of this gate, you’ll find at least five or six unclaimed bodies.”
Priest: “You’re right. War, earthquakes, winds, fire, famine, the plague, year after year its been nothing but disasters, and bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire, or war.”
Stranger: “Look here priest, enough with the sermon. It sounded interesting, at least while I kept out of the rain, but if its a sermon, I’d rather listen to the rain.”
Later in the film the same men are discussing honesty.
Priest: “But it’s because men are weak that they lie. Even to themselves.”
Stranger: “Not another sermon. I don’t care if it is a lie as long as its entertaining.”
Both directors reveal the uneasy relationship between an audience’s desire to be entertained and the artist’s desire to address material that might not be seen as entertaining.
The key may lie in how these two directors use drama. Both these directors find emotional ways to speak about abstract ideas. Making a film about existentialism could easily become pedantic, and boring but if a character can be given an opportunity to express his or her desire for meaning in the context of a world we can identify with the audience can be drawn in.
On a basic level we are more driven by emotion than by reason. For this reason commercial films that wish to recoup their big investments reach for the dependable and predictable triggers that will arouse our emotions. A violent death, a steamy sex scene, a man dressed in women’s clothing can be relied upon to produce quick and easy reactions. In some ways entertaining film is one that entertains easily and directly.
Bergman and Kurosawa are concerned with being entertaining, but through the acting out of human scale tension, struggle and conflict they use entertainment to entice the audience into considering larger more abstract ideas. When Bergman says that a skull is more interesting than a naked woman he recognizes that a naked woman is a simple, and easy way to get an audience’s attention but a skull can be even more effective if the skull is tied to an emotional appeal that then leads us to deeper more complex concepts.
Humans and their emotional struggles are more interesting than concepts, or ideas. Bergman once said “For me, the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.” This does not refer literally to nostrils and eye lashes, it refers to the power of a face to emote. Its the power to add emotional content to dialogue and through that emotion get us to identify with the character and listen to what they have to say.
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