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What are films for?

I wrote an essay on art some years back, which asked what art is. We can often find out what something is by looking at what it does. So what does art do? Tough one, right?

We can say that while art has no useful function like, say, a wheel or a light bulb, it’s value is that it reflects the human condition and character. In that, it can clarify what it means to be human, and (more importantly, perhaps) show us what human are capable of.

Capable of? I mean the worst and the best of what people do. The past and the future. The origins and potential. Evil is a shadow of the past, and goodness a harbinger of the future.

Because the future must be kind, or be nothing.

But this is getting somewhat hifalutin. So let’s pull this back to films. Odeon films.

Popcorn movies that we watch because we want to be entertained.

Even popcorn films can tell us about the very worst and the best of us. In the dramatic structure of most films, someone gets a problem that they can’t solve initially. Through the acquisition of allies and new strengths/talents within them, and perhaps wisdom, they become able to meet the challenge they have been set, and triumph. Is real life like that? Not really.

As you know by now, real life can be impossible to get to grips with, as a nemesis in a film might be. In drama, antagonism is usually personified. Sauron. Anton Chigurh. Hans Landa. Voldemort. Agent Smith. Darth Vader. You get it: We get a bad guy, who acts in opposition to our good guy. Who is the good guy? S/he is all of us. If the drama works, we experience the story as if we are the protagonist. In this way, we can live a life that lasts a couple of hours in which our problems are condensed into a single enemy, which we can overcome when we have become strong enough.

This is the Hero With a Thousand Faces.

In films, we are all such heroes. At least we should be if the film is well written by its author:

The screenwriter.

Finding what films are by finding out what they do thus tells us what screenwriters can do if they are excellent at writing scripts. But only if the people hiring them let them be great. And only if people commissioning the screenwriter can recognise the quality of the screenplay. This appreciation is all to rare, for many reasons. But that’s another story. Another drama.

So … I think that while it’s very hard to say that art and films have functions, I think they instead have value; and that value is extreme. For that reason I think creative quality is essential. Because if we put bad art and bad films out there, people are affected negatively. They can be persuaded to value the human condition less, and thus value themselves and others less. I think this process eats away at the structure of society. Nothing less.

Creative quality is extremely important then – even existentially so.

That’s why I beseech you to focus on quality in what you create. How? By experiencing quality. That means contemplating art and drama that is good. How do you know if it’s good? Your instincts. Trust me. When people look at some ‘modern’ art or a bad film, deep down, they know it sucks. Our instincts can be wonderful tutors and guides. Supplement and enrich instinct with research and practice, and you can do good things that do good things to others.

And that’s a valuable way to live your life.

Happy screenwriting.


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