They say art holds a mirror up to society, which means something becomes art when it reveals the nature of society or just nature itself. The classical nude statues are art, rather than pornography, because they are idealized representations created to celebrate the human form. Literature becomes art when it portrays society in such a way that it reveals certain truths about the age. For example, The Great Gatsby is art, because it captures the age and the reality of materialism.
Whether or not movies can rise to the level of art is debatable, as the medium is superficial by design. Another aspect of art is it tempts the person experiencing it to think about things they may not be naturally inclined to consider. Motion pictures are a passive medium, encouraging the viewer to relax and let the images flashing past him do all the heavy lifting. Citizen Kane is considered the best film ever made, but it does not rival literature in terms of artistic impact.
That said, maybe movies should be judged on a narrower artistic standard, in that maybe the best they can do is reflect attitudes of the age. The science fiction shows on the later-50’s and early-60’s, for example, reveal the optimism of the age with regards to scientific progress. Fast forward a generation and science fiction films reveal the fear and disappointment in science. Today, science fiction is mostly multicultural personal drama in space, revealing the feminization of our age.
In other words, like pop music, a movie can be considered art if it comes to symbolize the times in which it was made. The 1970’s movie Saturday Night Fever can be called art, because it reflects the vulgarity of the time. The movie Terminator is a reflection of the anxiety over the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. These movies are not art because they achieve some high technical standard, but simply because they were popular, touching some nerve with the public at the time.
It is a low standard, for sure, but popular culture is a low-brow product made for profit, not artistic achievement. The performers and characters in the business of producing this content can call themselves artists, but in reality, they are just the modern version of carny-folk, tolerated by society for entertainment purposes. The elevation of the profane in the modern age, is itself a statement about the age and the people, who have taken over control of the culture. Our is the age of vulgarians.
Putting that aside, by this standard, Quentin Tarantino is probably one of the great artists of the modern age. His movies tend to reflect some aspect of the times, in an exaggerated and juvenile manner. He makes movies that his ten-year-old self wanted to see, so they tend to lack anything resembling complexity and instead feature exaggerated characters that even a child can grasp. They are morality tales for stupid people, who are not all that interested in lectures about morality.
His latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is a long boring buddy story about a fading television actor. It is set in late-1960’s Los Angeles and references every popular news event of the period. The point of the film is to tell the people, who came of age in that time, especially those who grew up in Los Angeles, that it was a great time to be a young American. It was also a great time to be famous, as you got to party and bang starlets, even if you were a minor television star.
Tarantino, of course, is a meta-movie maker. He tends to make movies about movies and the world around movies. All of his shows are celebratory versions of the B-movies he watched growing up as a kid. In some respects, he is the Gen-X movie maker, in that his stories never end well, but the bad endings don’t offer a larger critique of the times or offer a lesson about the characters. In other ways, they lampoon the long shadow of the Baby Boom culture the 60’s and 70’s.
You see that in his latest film. The people are living in an idyllic time, where they can have great lives with little actual work. That time in California was probably the best time and place to live in post-war America. Yet, the degeneracy of the people and the pointlessness of their existence eventually destroyed that society. Modern Los Angeles is homeless camps and third world peasants. A white person growing up in that squalor will come to hate their ancestors for having created it.
That’s the funny thing with Tarantino. He grew up watching cheesy B-movies and re-runs of 1960’s television shows. Much of that content was science fiction. Yet, he has yet to make a movie about the future or even a B-movie version of it. The space movies of his youth would make good fodder for his brand of film, but instead all of his stuff is set in the past. From an artistic perspective, he is a man backing through life, watching was passes into the fading mists of his age.
Again, whether movies can be considered art is debatable. Art should be lasting and movies just don’t hold up over time. Still, by a lower standard, one that simply relies on cultural relevance, Tarantino would be counted as an artist. His movies speak to a people living in steep cultural and demographic decline. His latest celebrates the memories of a generation who will literally be gone in a generation. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is an epitaph for a generation and a nation.
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