Disposable entertainment, George Clooney and the youtube screening of ’8′

GRR’s TV/Film writer Frank Ready gives his thoughts on Dustin Lance Black’s play ’8′ and last night’s youtube screening.

You’re going to have to indulge me.

I’m sure I just lost a few people right then and there. And I completely understand that. Here you are, taking the time in the middle of your day to read my little article, and already I’m asking you for a favor?

Lame.

But I’m having a crisis of conscience here. Some critical questions about life as a critic that 2 very different jobs happened to bring into focus this weekend are on my mind and I’m looking for a place to share. And I know next to nothing about theater anyway so…

Last Friday I reviewed the film Project X with a colleague. The movie is essentially your typical booze soaked, sex-charged high school party romp on a grander scale. My colleague felt strongly that the movie sent a bad message that priviledged kids could get away with whatever the wanted with no consequences.

I agreed with him that the movie glamorized bad behavior and in some cases seemed to validate some morally murky choices. I gave the film a bad review.

Case closed. Discussion over. Next…

Only… The movie was well made. Structurally the story was solid, the acting decent, and the direction adequate. In fact on that level it was probably better then most of the other movies I’ve seen in the last month. My problem was the message… And at what point does that become solely my problem and not the film’s?

I’ve been trying to reconcile merit vs. meaning without much success. Is a play, film, or television show “good” if carries a significant deeper meaning? Or should its quality be based solely upon the intrigue of its characters, plot and the degree of success with which it communicates its intentions?

I’m uncomfortable dismissing a piece of art because I don’t like the ideas behind it. I want to be able to question things that I think are hurtful, destructive, or inappropriate, but I don’t want to close my mind to things simply because they don’t line up with my point of view.

Pragmatically, I don’t think that Project X was designed with malicious intentions. It was a comedy that was trying to funny and a part that is the requisite happy ending. Do I think that protagonists were likable enough to deserve that happy ending? No, probably not. Would I want my kids to behave that way? I’m not sure I even want to have kids after this movie.

Still, at the end of the day, its just a lark. Disposable entertainment designed to appeal to a younger audience than myself, most whom (at least at the screening we were in) seemed to really enjoy it. Shouldn’t that count for something?

I assumed that my next assignment, reviewing 8, a play by Academy Award winning playwright Dustin Lance Black, would be more straightforward. The thing had prestige out the wazhoo (a technical term we critics like throw around). Acclaimed performers like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Martin Sheen. A solid writer in Mr. Black. And weighty subject material in the Perry v. Schwartzenegger trial that challenged Proposition 8.

These people could have been on stage re-enacting an episode of Happy Days and made it poignant.

And yet…

Taking place almost entirely within a courtroom, the play never really gave us a chance to connect with the characters and who they are outside of the trial. The characters, and to a much larger extent the household names that play them, are vehicles for the issues at hand. Each of them is like a paragraph in well written, exceptionally argued essay in favor of granting gay men and lesbians the same rights that the rest of the country enjoys.

Brief scenes revolving around two of the plaintiffs, a lesbian couple played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Christine Lahti, and their relationship with their teenage sons attempt to address matrimonial issues within the context of family. These moments, while necessary, feel forced. The audience is being asked to examine all of the implications of Proposition 8 in way that’s more analytical than dramatical.

8 had a message that I passionately agreed with but as a narrative was more or less forgettable. As a critic, can I praise the intent of something without actually validating the thing itself? Is it fair to endorse a flat piece of art because I agree with the message?

There’s a difference between liking what something stands for and appreciating the structure of the thing itself. Being loud, blunt and straightforward is good way to call attention to something but I don’t think that it’s a recipe for great art. Culture should offer a platform for discussing ideas but ultimately I think that aesthetics are important.  The audience is being asked to give their attention and in return they expect to have some kind of an experience.

I’m personally thrilled if people tuned in  just to see Brad and George working together and in the process were exposed to some well-drawn arguments about equality, family, and what America should stand for as a country.

But as a critic, I can’t say that it was a good play, even if I do think that it was an important one.

I suppose what it all comes down to is judgement, trying to balance out the good with the bad until I figure out which way I’m leaning. It’s not very scientific, it doesn’t sound altogether “fair,” or even all that helpful…

At the moment, it’s all I’ve got.
Watch “8″ here.

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