The American Film Institute released another one of it’s top 100 lists a few weeks ago - 100 Cheers. It’s supposed to be the most inspiring 100 films of all time. I’ve recorded my progress on the list at Lists of Bests. 80 out of 100 movies seems pretty good to me.
The presence of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at number one makes me imagine an alternate world in which the copyright on the movie hadn’t expired during the 1980s and the movie hadn’t become the holiday movie staple that it became. There was a window of a few years when each December I would make it a challenge to find the maximum number of simultaneous showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” I could find on television. There were some weeks, usually the week before Christmas, when I could watch the movie on three channels at the same time. I’d change channels back and forth between them just to practice the dialogue.
Spielberg sure did well. Three movies in the top 10 - Schindler’s List, E.T. and Saving Private Ryan. Better marks than I would have chosen. Spielberg is the perfect example of my conflict over whether art should be ‘morally uplifting’ or inspirational. “Schindler’s List” was almost a perfect film except for two parts that stuck in my mind as being too over the top - the girl with the red dress who is killed in the ghetto, and the ending when Schindler emotes about how he could have done more. And these two items pushed me from enjoying the film to almost loathing it. I could appreciate the technical artistry, but the message became too preachy. There was no subtlety in it.
Over the many years that I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” I’ve had a series of different reactions. When I was a teenager I felt it was mostly a positive message about the value of friendship and the positive impact we all have on each other’s lives. In the last few years I’ve looked at it through a much darker lens. The stifling of all of George’s dreams to travel and study become more prominent. And the black and white cinematography of the final sequence when George sees the world without him stuns me. It’s bleak. I haven’t rewatched “Schindler’s List” recently, but I somehow don’t think I’ll be seeing new things in that movie.
So how to describe this difference in how movies teach or inspire us. The perspectives of both the viewer and the movie makers need to be considered. I can think of three possible attitudes toward movies or any other art form.
- Art should be realistic. No forced happy endings or silver linings. Film Threat blog has a reaction that’s close to this. The mimetic tradition.
- Art as fantasy and escapism. We use art to get away from our real lives. Don’t bother us with depressing movies with messages.
- Art as educational and moral. Art should be used to teach us to be better people, for whatever the director’s definition of better happens to be.
I should look into Frank Capra’s biography to find out just how conscious he was of making movies with messages. Hollywood had a different perception of itself during the height of the studio system. I think message movies were more prevalent then. According to the AFI press release 1939 was the most represented year on the initial ballot of 300 films. I’m not sure if that balance carried through to the final list.