Recently, I encountered someone who was clearly disgruntled by the mixed reviews of the movie Fireproof. He responded to the critics’ observations by declaring that reviews aren’t really important… that “the success and value of the film” would ultimately be determined by “ordinary people”… not by those “paid to review the film.” He went on to express disinterest in “movies that win awards,” describing those who distribute film awards as “elitists,” and noting that “hardly anyone has seen” the films that usually win them.

I’m glad to hear that he found Fireproof meaningful. And I’m glad he’s willing to engage in dialogue to defend it. I have no doubt that the film is inspiring people. And I have read substantial evidence of its strengths from moviegoers I trust. But is it flawless? Is Fireproof critic-proof because it affirms values like fidelity and faith? If we take time to analyze it and point out its strengths and flaws, are we being “elitists”?

When I tried to follow this line of thinking, it led me to strange places. If the measure of a film’s merit has to do with how many people see it, and its box office success, well… that means Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third are both among the twenty finest movies ever made.

It also means that I should make my moviegoing decisions based on what is packing the multiplex at the local mall. A subtitled masterpiece from another part of the world playing at an out-of-the-way arthouse theater… well, “ordinary people” wouldn’t bother with it, so it must not be very “valuable.” And an independent film, which cost the filmmakers a great deal, but which lacked a celebrity or some other “bankable” highlight, wouldn’t be worth seeking out because a big corporation didn’t throw enough money at it to win widespread distribution.

I was still thinking about this perspective, and how if I embraced it I would have missed out on most of the movies that have inspired me and changed my life. Instead I would have seen all of the Saw movies, all of crass sex-comedy blockbusters, every single comic-book action flick good or bad.

And then an email arrived that was not a response to that thread. I found it interesting, though, and timely. This writer suggests that perhaps the process of reviewing and analyzing art is not “elitism,” but something else entirely….

I found a good review about Lionel Trilling that you might want to read:

He argues in some good ways for good literature’s refusal to oversimplify human life. (I may have to seek out the book.) A good quote: “Because the liberal imagination needs constant refreshing, it ought to turn to literature, which Trilling called ‘the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.’ At a time when worthy authors offered endless worthy attacks on social injustice, Trilling gave his book a subversive punch line: literature doesn’t need more white hats and black hats, it needs ‘moral realism,’ books that don’t just attack the misdeeds of the bad people but ‘lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.'”

I’m afraid that our culture’s argument for simplicity has degenerated into merely reductionist, simplistic carping. It is refreshing to find someone arguing for the richness of human complexity. The parable of the wheat and the tares comes to mind. Too many Americans, especially American Christians, are too often guilty of busily uprooting the good with the evil. Moralistic religion doesn’t have much to offer; bottom-line economics doesn’t, either. Only true spirituality does — perhaps most clearly in art. But art is demanding and untidy and ambiguous. Why, even the experts disagree, so what are “us ordinary folk” to make of things? I’m reminded of an exchange with a high-school cheerleader many years ago. Before class started, a handful of students were gathered around the podium, talking about a recently-released movie. We were all making observations and sharing ideas. As she walked by and heard the exchange, she huffed, “Why do you have to analyze everything? Why can’t you just enjoy it?” When I asked her if she’d ever considered talking and analyzing as a way of enjoying it, she looked surprised and stumped.

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