Populist Predictions, by Tyler Smith

In a recent episode of his podcast, commentator Ben Shapiro addressed the controversy surrounding comedian Kevin Hart and his decision not to host this year’s Academy Awards. Shapiro was frustrated with the situation and, in characteristic fashion, chose to make larger points about the Oscars themselves, ultimately landing on the Academy’s tendency to award films that incorporate left leaning politics into their stories. This charge didn’t bother me, as it is largely true. As far back as films like Gentleman’s Agreement and The Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy has attempted to be a champion of films that they see as “important”. Where Shapiro begins to go wrong is in his dismissal of these films on the basis that “nobody saw and nobody will ever see” them. Shapiro cites as proof the Best Picture wins of Moonlight and The Shape of Water.

Granted, this is not the primary point of Shapiro’s comments; he simply brushes past it. He takes it as a given and then moves on. The reason that I mention it is because this is a very common complaint – and a surprisingly populist one – among conservative commentators looking to pick a fight with Hollywood. Their argument, it would seem, is that the only movies that should be rewarded are those that appealed to a mass audience, as though box office is the only thing that matters when discussing a film’s quality. 

Being a conservative myself, this argument makes a certain amount of sense, but only to a point. We tend to believe that the success of a product or service within the free market is proof of its quality. After all, if a company put out a bad product, it’s only a matter of time before word gets out, right? Nobody wants to purchase a bad product, so the company must either improve or go out of business. 

This same principle is often cited when my fellow conservatives discuss art, and I think this is where the thinking starts to go wrong. Art is about expression and its quality is often measured not by its popularity, but by how effective the artist may or may not have been in fully communicating his story or vision to the audience. This can be different from one audience member to the next, thus making art a deeply subjective experience. 

Unless, of course, the point of the art is to try to appeal to as many people as possible. In order to do this, the artist (and, likely, his financiers) must systematically remove any specificity from the project, so as to more fully guarantee a universality of audience experience. As such, films that tell generic stories in a generic way will likely perform best at the box office. Similarly, McDonald’s restaurants are likely more successful than boutique high end restaurants. But it’s unlikely that Ben Shapiro would cite McDonald’s as an amazing restaurant deserving of respect and acclaim. And, in fact, I highly doubt that Shapiro would ever consider the highest grossing films of any given year to be the best of that year. 

So why all the noise about the Academy – an organization tasked with recognizing the artistic quality of cinema in a given year – seldom rewarding those films that most people saw? 

The reason that Shapiro attacks Hollywood in this way is to draw a distinction between the mainstream audience and the “Hollywood elite”, increasingly removed from the tastes and beliefs of the average movie viewer. It helps to create an “us and them” atmosphere when conservatives believe that the purveyors of their entertainment – and those that would champion these films – are seen as out of touch, self satisfied, and perhaps even contemptuous of mainstream sensibilities. 

And so Shapiro and his ilk continue this idiotic refrain, complaining about the Oscars ignoring movies that “people actually saw” and constantly citing box office receipts (while undoubtedly cringing at the popularity of the Transformers and Twilight films). In the meantime, those of us who love film as an art form and are willing to give filmmakers – and the Academy itself – plenty of leeway do not begrudge the existence of popular entertainment nor bemoan the success of it. We understand that, as nice as a good steak restaurant can be, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional Big Mac from time to time. 

There is a long history of great films being ignored, both at the box office and by the Academy. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – currently occupying the top slot of Sight and Sound’s list of the best movies ever made – was a financial flop that received no Oscar attention. But to suggest that the film’s failures in 1958 would – and should – consign it to the dustbin of film history is ridiculous, just as the assertion that “nobody will ever see” certain movies simply because of a low box office performance (though, it should be noted that, despite Shapiro’s misgivings about the film, The Shape of Water made almost $200,000,000 last year). 

We don’t know what movies will and won’t be remembered, but one thing that film discussion has shown us is that it is ridiculous to make such predictions based solely on contemporary attitudes. Even more so when those predictions appear to have a political motivation behind them. 

I like Ben Shapiro. I think he’s absolutely brilliant. He has an extremely logical mind and can more than hold his own in any debate. And, like everybody else, Shapiro sees movies and forms opinions. There is nothing wrong with that. But when he begins to make larger points about the history of film – and, indeed, the future of it – he weaves wildly out of his area of expertise. Even the most brilliant, articulate people can make themselves appear silly when they speak from a place of ignorance or with a political agenda.

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