How much of cinematic critique is hot air? My spring Intro to Film class (holla, film students) posed a question for discussion that I’m still mulling over: when, if ever, is cinematic escapism a good thing?
Here is my conclusion: Escapism is a good thing when 1)the viewer is also aware of realism and real issues 2) the viewer knows what they are watching is escapist.
For point number one, let’s consider two scenarios. In the first, the viewer is living under economic or social (or even personal, for that matter) conditions which are overwhelming and burdensome. One role of story is to bring joy and levity. Hence, I spent most of my childhood reading joke books (and memorized 101 Elephant Jokes…). Laughter is good for the soul. Denial is not. Laughter is best when it brings levity to those suffering from taking life to seriously. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” Whether one needs a dose of reality, or a dose of levity, depends upon individual circumstances. If the viewer is going to see Swing Time, in the midst of the Great Depression, or if the viewer is watching Star Wars in the late 70s, while trying to navigate a social world of moral ambiguity, this dose of clearly good characters and satisfying happy endings can bring hope where it is needed. Case in point: the number of relatively superficial American films that gain popularity in societies with dire poverty. I saw The Prince of Persia (not worth an $8 ticket, trust me) in India. It will do well there.
The second scenario is this: that the viewer is living a life of only relative hardship (everybody has their issues) and few of them are economic or life threatening. If this lucky viewer is aware of their blessings, and is in touch with the social issues that surround us all (I can’t talk about the Gulf Coast oil spill. I can’t think about it or I go crazy. Who needs sea turtles, really? And New Orleans’ economy was just asking for another sucker punch to the face…I’ll stop now.) than they might welcome a way to relax every once in a while, to temporarily (I stress, temporarily) jettison the daily work before them and relax.
If, however, the viewer is clueless that they are watching a fantasy, or doesn’t care (apathy is perhaps even more dangerous than ignorance) then the escapist, fun movie can become a crutch. Another scenario: after watching countless sports movies, a moderately good football player tells everyone that his/her team is going to win the championship, and he/she is going to play in the NFL. Big dreams: that’s great. Hinging you’re life’s fulfillment, your faith in a higher power, and your entire self esteem upon this goal is asking for potential disaster. Sometimes you work and you’re optimistic and the little engine still doesn’t make it up the hill. I think God has that scenario happen to remind us we’re not God.
The other thing the not-so-clued-in viewer ought to remember is the role that movies play. Stories I know and love often require both laughter and tears (see Steel Magnolias for the appropriate quote). Life requires a balance of fantasy, which gives us a goal to shoot for; and reality, which makes us aware of the problems around us, and helps us relate to each other.
So, during my family’s “staycation” last week, my nieces and nephews watched Spaceballs at least four times. How does that fit in to this debate?
I had already subjected them to an Indian movie. They hear rhetoric about eating better (“Aunt Jen, we’re having cake and ice cream…are you going to have any?…I didn’t think so…so why is high fructose corn syrup bad?”) and about shopping local, and about recycling, and about spending tons of time playing video games from me already. In fact, I realized I’ve been a neurotic jerk around my family on a fairly consistent basis. Part of this is my job as the family gadfly. Part of it is just me dealing with my own issues. So, being the person that introduced them to Spaceballs in the first place, I shut up and let them enjoy it.
Sometimes, you just need to be grateful for the joy in front of you. My nephew Dylan loves Spaceballs. We liberally cover up the cuss words by, thank you Wes Anderson, using the word “cuss”. Dylan’s favorite line is “I knew it, I’m surrounded by cuss-holes. Keep firing, cuss-holes!” I’m not sure if part of the thrill is getting to fake swear around his grandparents without guilt, or if he just generally likes the line, but we all quote our favorite parts. Rick Moranis and John Candy are the most quotable in the film (“What? You went over my helmet?” and “That’s gonna leave a mark” are standards). The film spoofs every great space fantasy picture to that point (besides the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek references, there are key homages to Planet of the Apes and Alien, among others). Mel Brooks, the mastermind behind so many cross-genre satires, was in his prime when Spaceballs was released. He took a popular escapist film trilogy and, as is his trademark, mixed the popular genre with wit, irreverent and often immature humor. His films are the textbook examples of the parody stage of genre development: semantic genre details mixed into a standard comedy syntax.
So, in a world of overconsumerism, fascist capitalism, climate change, urban poverty, subverted and ignored social issues, sex, drugs, and arms trafficking, how does one sit down and enjoy Spaceballs? First: you keep reading the newspaper, and you do everything you can about the issues before you. You make it your duty and your job to make the world a better place. Second: you pray. A lot. Third: every once in a while, you take the time to sit down and enjoy something that was made just for fun. You pop the kids more popcorn, you grab you sleeping bag and camp out, you lean close to your niece and say “or Pizza will send out- for YOU!” and you follow the Proverbial advice that laughter is indeed medicine.