Judith Martin, more popularly known to the reading public as Miss Manners, has a long and varied list of accomplishments. One of these was reviewing movies for the Washington Post once upon a time, and one of the movies she reviewed was The Empire Strikes Back.To call "The Empire Strikes Back" a good junk movie is no insult: There is enough bad junk around. And surely we're getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can't be appreciated, often be the same people.
But when light entertainment is done well, someone is bound to make extravagant and unsupportable claims for its being great art. You will hear that this sequel to "Star Wars" is part of a vast new mythology, as if it were the Oresteia. Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner's complete Ring Cycle.
Nonsense. This is no monumental artistic work, but a science-fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its own predecessor. A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn't be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn't.
This is a distinction that is too rarely made when dealing with movies that touch, however peripherally, upon matters of philosophy or theology. I recall when the first Matrix movie came out and friends were encouraging me to see it. "It's deep!" someone exclaimed. "It's really a very Catholic movie, and it deals with the whole question of reality and philosophy. I think it's my new favorite movie!"
Now keep in mind that we are speaking here of The Matrix. This is the movie in which Keanu Reeves ran around looking tousled and dazed and uttering lines that, when analyzed, generally carried a subtext of "Dude!" It was entertaining, and perhaps could serve as a glossary of various popular existential ideas, but it was by no means highbrow or great or even memorable for anything besides the shooting technique bullet time. And even that has lost its novelty, since every action movie since has parroted the style. The Matrix was a junk movie -- entertaining, superior to many other junk movies in style and concept perhaps, but junk. You want a good movie dealing with heavy intellectual discusion, look for Copenhagen. If you you're seeking a movie to assure that perhaps your lousy day job is just an illusion after all, that's where the Matrix comes in handy.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Rerun: The Miss Manners Guide to Junk Movies
I've been reading Miss Manners lately, and it's inspired me to recycle this post from 2006: