Entertainment… How Much Depth?

Last week I read a review of the new Robert Redford movie, The Conspirator, and ran across the following: “It should be tense and thrilling, full of rich, powerful performances; instead it will make you feel like you should be taking notes in preparation for a high school exam.  And like the last film Redford directed, the terrorism drama Lions for Lambs, it’s painfully preachy and sanctimonious.”

Since I haven’t yet seen the film, I can’t comment on the first part of the above excerpt, but the second part suggests I might like the film, possibly because I thought Lions for Lambs was a good film.  I understand why many people didn’t like it, because it hits perilously close to all too many American illusions and self-deceptions, and given Redford’s choice of topic in The Conspirator [the trial of the boarding house owner who was suspected of helping Lincoln’s assassin], I suspect his latest movie is likely to do the same, if in a historical context.

The review, however, raises a legitimate question about all forms of “entertainment,” a question I’ll put in a satiric form, given my views of most of the most popular entertainment available today.  Does entertainment have to be largely, if not totally, devoid of meaningful content, depth, and questioning to be entertaining to the majority of today’s audiences and readers? 

Obviously, this question and the answer affect me personally and professionally, but they affect all writers, directors, and producers as well.  For years I’ve been criticized, as have Redford and a few others, by some readers for being “preachy,” and it’s no secret that books and movies that raise the kinds of questions we offer seldom, if ever, reach the top of the sales charts.  That’s understandable, and by itself, not a problem.  We all know the risks involved in attempting to make something deeper and more intellectually provocative. But what I’ve also noted is that more and more reviews are defining good entertainment in terms of, if you will, total detachment from depth or reality, and the movie producers are obliging them, such as with new releases that feature almost exclusively car chases, crashes, mayhem, sex, and violence.

Details of actual history, as are likely to be brought up in The Conspirator, can’t possibly compete in terms of instant visual appeal, but do all movies have to have the same kind of appeal, and do movies that don’t have such appeal have to be denigrated because they don’t?

One of the things [among many] that bothers me about the kind of reviews such as the one I’ve quoted above is the implication that anything with detail can’t be entertaining or engrossing, and that anything serious has to be “thrilling” to compensate for the seriousness, as if a quietly taut drama can’t be entertaining.  One of the most “sinister” movies I’ve ever seen shows no violence and contains no direct threats and yet reveals total social control of a family and a society where everyone is perfectly behaved.  It’s called The Age of Innocence.  Of course, just how sinister it appears to viewers depends entirely on their understanding of history and how societies work.

If you want dark and sinister, truly dark and sinister, review the backroom deals leading to the last financial meltdown – no car chases, no shootings, no bombs, no speeches, and no rabble-rousing.  Just men at desks pursuing profit and destroying millions of jobs, thousands of businesses, and creating uncounted suicides and broken homes.  But those details aren’t entertaining… and showing them in a movie would be far too preachy, and definitely not entertaining, or even exciting.

Give us zombies, the living dead, vampires, or car chases any day.  We just want pretend thrilling, not the truly sinister… and that’s fine, but enough of running down movies and books that deal with aspects of reality.  If reviewers don’t like them, they should just say that they’ll bore most people because they’ll make them think too much… that’s if they’ve got the nerve to say so.

11 thoughts on “Entertainment… How Much Depth?”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Your post made me ask: what are the films I have seen that seem to me to capture history: the key issues, and the personalities? Here’s a few I can think of; I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts:

    1. The Lion in Winter. I always thought that this was one of those great Hollywood fictions, until I started reading the history of the era — and then I realized that the writers and actors had pretty much nailed it. Henry really did have that kind of self-obsessed energy, Eleanor was really Hepburn’s kind of glowing, intelligent ruler, Richard really was that kind of self-absorbed semi-gay macho type, and Philip was really that kind of schemer. It’s the end of Norman empire and the rise of France in a day.

    2. Madame Curie, with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. In this one, there is no need to underline the importance of X-rays. Instead, we see an extraordinary woman scientist and her almost-equal who falls in love with her mind — and we see the real gritty details of discovery. This is rightly less about power, and more about how things work when power is not asserted.

    3. The first Elizabeth series from the BBC, with Glenda Jackson. Each episode is a little gem of actual dialogue and music from the era, woven into a theme that is true to the great issues of the age. But what really makes this history is Glenda Jackson, who makes the sheer forcefulness and intelligence of the original Elizabeth come alive. It only works because the issues of the original era were not yet economic or evolution of political institutions; but since they weren’t, it is true to the time.

    Fictional miniatures of important history:
    1. John LeCarre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is less for its accuracy as a representation of cold war spying, and more for its raising of timeless questions about spying and its effect on organizations. And, of course, Alec Guinness as George Smiley, despite the fact that he is not fat and bespectacled as in the books, beautifully conveys the tension between professionalism and psychological health and morality that is at the heart of the books.
    2. The Man in the White Suit. In an easily digestible comedy, it captures technological change in a small town. Alec Guinness as the lead is a wonderful young scientist, but the rest of the characters capture the entire society without quite being stereotypes. It is perhaps the best science fiction film I know of, for that reason.
    3. Schindler’s List. I put this as semi-fictional because I am not convinced that Schindler himself was as saintly at the end as he was portrayed. That said, it manages somehow to convey in miniature the incredible scope of the slaughter by Nazi Germany. And, at the end, at least someone says to himself, “I should have done more.” In any case, both Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth and our favorite Jedi as Schindler manage to capture their characters’ true psychopathy and initial irresponsibility, respectively.

    Almost there: Braveheart. The freedom theme is overplayed, but it really is documented that the Scots in battle did moon the English, and King Edward really was the cold character he is portrayed as. Lawrence of Arabia – just too short to capture the complexity of the situation, but at least it got the scenery and its importance to history right; and Peter O’Toole gave us a Lawrence that at least captured some of the man’s subtleties. I, Claudius. The focus on personality missed all the key changes to the Roman Empire, but did give an understanding of some of the stages of a family-run empire; and at least Claudius is rightly portrayed as intelligent (Augustus is wrongly portrayed as a buddy-buddy type; he appears to have been quite cold).

  2. Daze says:

    This is one reason I was pleased (and surprised) that the Academy chose the complex, difficult and challenging _In a Better World_ (“Vengeance” in the original Danish title) – one of the most thought-provoking movies I’ve ever seen – over the favourite (well-made, but straightforward, violent) _Biutiful_. There most be at least some serious parts of Hollywood hidden out there somewhere.

  3. David Sims says:

    Lots of writers preach, or teach, something alongside of telling their stories. Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, for example, would try to raise a reader’s curiosity about the math behind spaceflight. More than anything else, it was Heinlein’s THE ROLLING STONES that made me want to learn celestial mechanics, so that I could fly spaceships as well as his fictional characters could. Now I can. Or, that is, I could if someone gave me a spaceship. I haven’t managed to make any money off my skill, but it is a fun thing to be able to do.

    When the preaching (or teaching) regards moral philosophy, whether I like it or not depends on whether I think it is accurate and wise, or whether it is misleading or foolish. I approved of Heinlein’s moral pragmatism with respect to natural laws as they apply to human beings. A good example can be found about two thirds of the way into STARSHIP TROOPERS. It begins on page 140 in the Berkley mass market paperback, with the main character thinking to himself “Well, why should I fight?”

    I did not approve of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s efforts to sway me toward an excessively high estimate of the character of women and an exceedingly low estimate of the character of men, best illustrated by those four books I named in an earlier discussion.

    What I consider to be truth pleases me, to read in fiction. What I consider to be presumptuous nonsense or outright deception, dressed up as “higher truth,” annoys me and sometimes makes me angry. When I was younger, someone like MZB would just make me uneasy with the feeling that something isn’t right here, but I can’t quite say what it is. Now that I’m older, I can indeed say what it is, and if MZB were still alive, I’d have a few things to say to her.

    I mean, she -could- write a good story when she wanted to. One of the first things I read of hers was an extension to The Lord Of The Rings, where she shows the last meeting between Lady Arwen Evenstar and her father Elrond. It’s a very good scene that captures the same numinous, mythic sense that Tolkien’s own work did. So I went out and bought her Avalon series and her Darkover series… and so far I’ve been disappointed and worse by most of it, due to her preaching messages that I consider to be untrue, unwise, or both.

  4. David Sims says:

    Mr. Modesitt, maybe those sinister backroom deals, stockholder votes, board meetings, and such might be made entertaining if one of the persons in them were a spy for the good guys. He’d explain what the greedy profit-seekers were doing, and why, and what the consequences would be, in terms more meaningful to the average reader. Maybe he’d construct the evolution of financial systems so that the reader could appreciate why things end up in that kind of nasty mess. If done well, it could be very entertaining, I think.

    Maybe the story could show WHY violence is sometimes the only possible remedy for a society gone bad. It could show WHO the biggest bad guys really are, if they are different than who they might at first seem to be. It could explore WHAT KIND of violence is needful, and HOW a sufficient amount of violence could be organized among people who, initially, have no clue as to why their lives are so miserable.

    All book reading thrills are mental thrills. But some of them (like mysteries) are more complex than others (risky sex and car chases). Moral philosophy, too, can be a source of mental thrill, especially when the storyteller makes it clear why conventional wisdom really isn’t wise.

    1. Nate says:

      This is more or less what Flash is about, albeit with the violence initiated by the “bad guys”.

  5. Bob Howard says:

    I am ever amazed at the poor taste and lack of intellectual curiosity of the average consumer of American popular culture. When the most popular TV shows by far are the mindless drivel of so-called reality programming, is it any surprise that shows with any meaningful depth or complexity are in short supply? Same with popular literature, dominated by Daniel Steele, James Patterson and their ilk.

    But then, that’s been the case since the dawn of human culture, and we can hardly expect the human quest for empty thrills to evolve with no evolutionary selective pressure to do so. I enjoy the occasional thriller, myself–a guilty pleasure only rarely indulged, but still enjoyable. But I’m also increadibly frustrated by the lack of staying power for TV series that try to go a bit beyond the formula; how many of these more intellectually challenging shows have been cancelled, just as they are finding their footing? I’ve gotten to the point of hesitating to commit to them because it seems we’re destined to be disappointed when they are cancelled in mid-stride.

    For literature, though, at least there remains a market, however small, for more complex themes. And I don’t mind being preached at as long as it’s done in a way that is integral to the plot and is not crudely thrown in my face. Case in point on the crude approach is Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series–truly awful, in-your-face preachiness (not made more palatable by the poor writing). Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, mentioned earlier, is somewhat more acceptable, as it is at least well-presented and consistent and delivered in an entertaining package, but still altogether too preachy a polemic for many. My own preference would be Haldeman’s response to that, The Forever War.

    In the end, even the dryest of meaningful content can be made engaging, even gripping, by a sufficiently talented author/film maker. Too often, though, they lack the subtlety and sophistication to put the ideas across without a 2 x 4 to the head. Otherwise, we’ll continue to see a cultural scene dominated by the low-brow popular pablum that has been the case since the days of the Coliseum.

  6. David Sims says:

    I’ve read Haldeman’s Forever War, too. And I still prefer Heinlein’s moral philosophy to his. In STARSHIP TROOPERS, the main character is actually taking a class in the subject of moral philosophy as it pertains to warfare and killing in general. And what he says makes sense, even though it is a digression from the action of the story. But if you approve of rebuttals to Heinlein, another good example can be found in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggin Saga, especially in the later books XENOCIDE and CHILDREN OF THE MIND.

    My problem with Haldeman is his bringing in “gods” at the end of the sequel (Forever Free) to explain that the universe is just a kind of simulation, an artificial construct, that the gods were using as an experiment. Our reality wasn’t the fundamental level of reality, and kind of life would exist or not as the divine programmers saw fit. That whole idea struck me as being contrived purely so that the struggle for survival would seem kind of pointless. I considered it to be a false and unwise notion. The story is a good story, but contrived notions that are unwise and false irritate me for some reason.

    A similar thing goes for the Ender Wiggin Saga, but this time the idea is that there probably isn’t really such a thing as an enemy. No, conflict between races is always based on some misunderstanding or other. Ha! There’s no way I’d accept that idea. Two races can understand each other perfectly well, and still have plenty of reason for conflict. The most common reason being, of course, that one race has something which another race considers valuable, and the other race aims to take it for themselves. I thought that the idea introduced by Card in SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD was likewise contrived, false, and unwise. It irritated me, in spite of the fact that the story is a well-written story with many good things to be said of it.

    Heinlein had it right, and even though STARSHIP TROOPERS wasn’t his best story, the moral philosophy it advances pleases me more than that of those other two stories.

  7. Context is important, though, as is the background of the author. Haldeman was a ground-pounder who lived through bloody combat first-hand and survived severe wounds, while Heinlein was a Navy officer who never saw actual combat.

  8. Alison Hamway says:

    I believe that creative fiction can BOTH have a message and be an action adventure/thriller or fantasy. The advantage to fiction is the author is free to create his/her own world and explore ideas. I can more easily see the other point of view in a fiction setting, instead listening to lectures (particularly in our politically polarized current climate, where reasoned discourse is pretty rare). For movies, I thought “District 9” had a powerful message about the legacy of intolerance and apartheid in South Africa while being a total edge of the seat science fiction thriller, and without ever lecturing.

    1. Mayhem says:

      Agreed. A fictional setting provides just enough distance from reality to allow the author to make a particular argument without involving a reader’s preconceptions.
      District 9 is an interesting example – I overheard a few people on a bus in London talking about how the sets were too obviously overdone, but the sets in question were an *actual* slum in Soweto, cleared of the inhabitants immediately prior to filming.

      A better example would be the work of say Guy Gavriel Kay, who manages to shed light onto all sorts of historical settings by taking those settings and giving them a twist, so that he can compress time and have real events happen faster without trying to force particular historical figures into specific actions they may not have done. The specifics may be tampered with, but the whole rings true to history and the human condition.

  9. Bob Howard says:

    My own feeling on Heinlein’s moral philosophy is that it was simplistic and one-dimensional. Case in point was the reaction of the protagonist to the capital punishment issue while in boot camp. He flashed back to the high school class and analogies about puppy training and corporal punishment, utilizing several false-choice arguments. After much soul-searching, he concluded that one thing was certain, the executed prisoner would never murder another little girl. By setting up a clear, emotionally wrenching case where the accused was certainly guilty, he avoided not only the moral issue of the state’s right to take a life but the more troubling question of such a permanent solution when guilt is not so clear cut (consider the large number of death row inmates later cleared of guilt by DNA evidence).

    I also agree with Mr. Modesitt’s observation regarding the credibility of the author, at least to a point. I was career Army, and do find fault with authors who deal with related topics without benefit of first-hand exposure, but only from a general sense of disappointment when they get key details wrong (guilty pleasure–I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories, but am really irritated by his frequent lapses in portraying Army life).

    Anyway, I’m willing to overlook preachiness in an author fostering a particular philosophical view, so long as it’s logically presented, seemlessly integrated with the plot and not overly in-your-face, but will always be turned off when it devolves to polemic, even when I agree with the author’s view.

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