Is Film More Art or Literature?

filmI’ve been thinking about something today and I wanted to throw it out to you guys for discussion. Lately I’ve seen a lot of bad movies and it’s got me asking  question-

Is film more art or literature? With some of these bad movies it’s tough to make the case they are either (I’m talking to you Adam Sandler!), but some like Alice Through the Looking Glass have decent artistry but are still failures. So it got me thinking…

Let me lay out the arguments on both sides.

The Case for Art

There’s obviously a visual component to film which places it in the art category. Photography is clearly art and film is basically moving photographs. However, there are very few films that can exist on the strength of the art itself. Don’t you think art needs to be somewhat self-sustaining?  Like when I go to a museum and see a statue I don’t need lots of text about said statue to appreciate the art. It’s a beautiful statue. I look at it and know that to be a fact.

However, with film that is usually not the case. With the exception of a Fantasia or a Terrence Malick film, a movie must be more than just pretty images to be appreciated and enjoyed. You could have the most beautiful imagery ever put to film and if the story is weak the art is a failure. I can’t think of any other artistic medium where that would be the case.

Perhaps you could make an argument that ballet is a visual art that requires context but even then I think the individual dancers mastery can be appreciated in a ballet. I certainly appreciate Gene Kelly’s artistry in his ballet in Singin’ in the Rain that has nothing to do with the plot.

All that said, when I think of my favorite movies the artistry is so obviously there- especially in animation. A film like the Little Mermaid had a million bubbles drawn by hand. How can that not be art? But then again I certainly have favorites like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail which aren’t significant art films.

But I look at something like this it is so clear- film is art:

The Case for Literature-

Let’s be honest how often do we get a Tree of Life, a film which is so clearly art?  Most of the time it is much more muddled and commercial. There is a strong case that film is much more literature than art.

If you think about it the basis of most movies is literature- a script or screenplay that tells a story. Most people don’t consider a play art and yet how is that different from a movie? Sure the sets might be considered art in a play but not the play itself.

Most movies require dialogue and a story to be effective. You can have the most beautiful imagery and if the story isn’t good most of the time the imagery won’t be appreciated.

Many people would consider one of the great American movies to be Paul  Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood. While there are many striking moments in the movie most of the gripping scenes involve the dialogue and the insane performance from Daniel Day Lewis. Look at this scene. It’s just 2 men talking in a simple room:

Combo Films

Of course you have those films that are so clearly a merging of both art and literature.  I think that is why so many people loved Birdman. It satisfied the artistic impulse with the long tracking shots and visual style while having a story that many could relate to with its critique of superhero fandoms and celebrity. (I am not a Birdman fan but I did like this aspect of it).

But I think most of us lean more to one side or another- we see movies as art or we see them as storytelling. This impacts our enjoyment of certain films that lean more heavily to one side or another. I personally tend to see it more as art, so a movie like Boyhood doesn’t have a complex narrative it doesn’t bother me. I focus on the small moments and the way the images are teaching me about life rather than fixating on the everyday story.

I certainly can appreciate a dialogue heavy film but if I had to pick one side I’d go with art. Of my favorite movies (Up, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Little Mermaid are my top 3) they aren’t the most amazing stories in the world but the characters and artistry I love.

You might not think it matters but I think it does. It impacts what films we are likely to see and appreciate. Again Boyhood is an example. Last year’s Carol or The Revenant also come to mind being artistically bold but not the greatest stories I’ve ever heard. Even a movie like Avatar, those who see film as art are more likely to appreciate it than those on the literature side. Wall-e is another film that those with more artistic interests tend to appreciate more than plot-driven moviegoers.

We could even make that argument with this year’s superhero  movies. Those who see film as art more likely to go with Batman v Superman. In contrast, those that see film as literature more likely to go with Captain America: Civil War with it’s witty dialogue.

What do you think? Is film art or literature? What side do you land on?

10 thoughts on “Is Film More Art or Literature?

  1. I thin it is art because art is an expression of human skill that can be appreciated for it’s beauty or emotional power. And, yes Adam Sandler films are art, they’re just not good art.

    1. or are they bad literature because the script is usually the main problem? Ha.

      1. Yes but the bad writing is art because you are reacting emotionally to the writing of which some-one has wrote. I just thought I’d say that even in bad art there is always one brush-stroke, one small detail, that makes you go, yeah, that’s pretty good.

      2. And that’s true about usually being something in there to praise.

  2. Interesting debate. I feel there has to be some sort of mixture of both for a film to be good. Not necessarily a 50/50 mixture, but a mixture nonetheless. Then again, we have films, like you’ve said, that are just one or the other and still good. 12 Angry Men is an awesome film, but much more literature with no real artistry involved. So, I dunno. Maybe a film needs to have at least 70% literature in order to be decent.

    1. Interesting to hear your perspective on this as I know really artistic films typically aren’t your thing.

  3. This has really made me think. It feels like a cop-out answer, but I can’t place film in one category or the other. On the one hand, when I go to the cinema, I’m looking for a good story more often than not. On the other, it’s more artistic films that often have an especially big impact on me, like Before Sunrise: I felt like that one was a work of art by my own definition, because it was beautiful and I engaged emotionally with it, and that was more to do with the acting, setups and dialogue than any real story. I don’t always need a great story to enjoy a film, but I usually want good characters and dialogue – do they count as literature or is that just the story itself? Ultimately, I think film stands on its own – there are so many different approaches, that’s what’s great about it.

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