What we Tend to Say About Entertainment

We live in an entertainment age, consuming ever-increasing quantities of divertissements. Going to a movie or hosting your own Netflix House of Cards (2013-) fest[1] might help you forget your troubles, but it can also be celebratory. Increased leisure time since the Industrial Revolution — at least for most of us — has to be filled with something. And so entertainment beneficently, elegantly, waltzes in. But don’t mistake the movies and television shows, let alone video games with the production values of blockbuster movies and YouTube shows that make celebrities out of food tasters, for mere entertainment, mere distraction, mere mindless and mild pleasure. Doing so may be detrimental to your intellectual well-being.

Many of those who create, produce, and distribute film and television have a penchant for alternately disavowing responsibility for the content they put out — it’s mere entertainment, after all — and taking credit for creating something “important” and “meaningful.” Thus the apparently execrable Dude, Where’s My Car (2000) may be excused, and Taken 3 (2014) allows us to simply marvel at how 63-year old Liam Neeson continues to achieve physical feats that would be impressive at any age. Choose either of the other two Taken films or other massive moneymakers like Jurassic World (2015), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), or Furious 7 (2015) — audiences of these films might marvel at the technical prowess and vision exhibited by the special effects masters, editing gurus, and ringmaster directors, but they are never meant to walk away wondering if, like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “You must change your life.”

On the flip side of the coin, those who dismiss poorly made or merely spectacular films can, by contrast, laud and bestow awards on “important” works of art like No Country For Old Men (2007), which dwells on such existential crises as whether or not evil is possible in a world without meaning[2], or more recently Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), which forces its audience to consider incredibly discomfiting thoughts about pedophile priests, abused children, and the betrayal of a fundamental trust. Consider, too, the crop of films on our collective mind as awards season approaches. Among them are Beasts of No Nation (2015), Bridge of Spies  (2015), Brooklyn (2015), Carol (2015), Chi-Raq (2015), The Danish Girl (2015), Inside Out (2015), Room (2015) and Steve Jobs (2015).

These films make us — children and adults alike — want to think about and answer emotionally or even intellectually difficult questions. If most of your family has been slaughtered in a civil war, do you have any choice but to become a killer, too? What does revisiting our Cold War fears teach us about our current anxieties over terrorism? Is our identity tied to our heritage? If we have “inappropriate” feelings, how do we deal with them, especially when they could hurt people we love? What does a classic Greek play tell us about violence in 21st century Chicago? If society won’t allow you to be who you really are, what are you willing to risk to live out your life as your real self? Are we our emotions? If your whole life has been spent inside a single room, what do you do when you get out? If you see a future no one else can even guess at, how do you make it a reality?

So, what is it about these and similar films that make them “art” or important — or more than simply entertaining? What gives them the gravitas that earns awards while other, only entertaining films, do not? There is no single answer. One can enumerate factors like writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, sound, and so forth. All that is true enough, and we have reason to admire the tremendous skill, craftsmanship, and artistry required to make acclaimed works, as well as their thematic and philosophical ambitions. But, however obvious it seems that these films are art, they are also popular with audiences because they are entertaining. (There are plenty of obscure and challenging art or experimental films that, to most audiences, are not traditionally entertaining and therefore do not receive the attention of a Beasts of No Nation or a Carol.) Indeed, the question is perhaps not so much what makes these films art while others are simply entertaining, but instead, why we should think so little of entertainment. Surely, you cannot say that these films are “entertainment,” used as a term of disparagement, although they are entertaining. But should we let slide those films we find less lofty as “only” entertainment?

Almost without fail, when an entertainment product is accused of negatively impacting society in the form of mindlessness, or of having little to no artistic or craft value, the criticism is dismissed by studios and filmmakers alike with the “It’s just entertainment” line. This is a cynical sleight of hand that attempts to distract the critic from the issue, like the wife who dismisses her husband’s complaint about her extra-marital affair by saying, “It didn’t mean anything,” as if that somehow excuses a monumental breach of trust. Similarly, the fact that films are rated by the MPAA suggest to us that we worry not merely that some films are devoid of quality but also that they can perpetuate harmful ideas.[3] Consider the ways in which propaganda films advanced a political agenda during World War II or the ways in which particular moralities are advanced or assumed as true in popular films, thereby inculcating a generation to ideas about how to view others and themselves? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t say about one film, “It’s just a movie,” while saying about another, “It demeans women” or “It shows us how awful war is."

Although people may disagree over the quality of a given film or television show, album or video game, few seem to take issue with calling these things entertainment. There is no doubt that these activities are “for fun,” for fleeting enjoyment and pleasure, described in phrases connoting something flimsy, insignificant, trivial, and without lasting value. A common dictionary definition of “entertainment” implies diversion and distraction, not to be taken seriously — it’s not real, right? Why is it, then, that what we see in films and on television becomes part of our collective consciousness or at least past of the popular culture vernacular? My childhood was formed in by the likes of films such as Star Wars[4] (1977), Airplane[5] (1980), The Elephant Man[6] (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark[7] (1981), Fast Times at Ridgemont High[8] (1982), E.T. (1982)[9], Scarface (1983)[10], and The Breakfast Club[11] (1985).

Why do we mark periods in our lives by our favorite songs, movies, and television shows? Do we really believe that we did not learn things, positive and negative, from what we saw on television or in the theaters? If we play games repeatedly, do we not begin to form beliefs about the content of these games, beliefs that are then generalized to “real life”?


What Entertainment Actually Is

For centuries, how to live life, how to understand oneself and the function one fulfills in society have been conveyed in stories and myths. Before Homer’s epic poems, The Odyssey and The Iliad, there were Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, and the Mesopotamian-era The Epic of Gilgamesh. In all these classics, we find prescriptions for how to live one’s life, how to fulfill one’s role in society, and so forth. Later, plays performed a function similar to that of the oral stories. We need only look to Aristotle’s Poetics — his analysis of story and rules for storytelling — to recognize the importance of stories to personal development. His tragic hero, for example, is able to facilitate a catharsis for the audience because he is like us, and we recognize ourselves in his downfall. Among other things, he’s got a significant flaw or makes an error in judgment; his weakness is hubris; he experiences a negative turn of fortune brought about by these things; and he recognizes that the reversal was due to his own action. The audience’s fear and empathy are aroused by the fact that the flaw is not in the hero’s control and that his fate is worse than he deserves. In other words, when Aristotle writes about tragedy, he writes about what he takes to be central to a true imitation of life.

The Greek tragedies themselves allowed the audience to investigate the human condition in a way that could transform them — without ever having to actually kill one’s father and marry one’s mother. In the spectacle before their eyes, they saw themselves or archetypes that reflected aspects of themselves and how they should or could be. Conflict and competing claims got their due. Antigone, the titular character of Sophocles’s play, defies Creon’s edict that her dead brother, Polyneices, will not be honored with burial rites. Who is correct? Is justice on Creon’s or Antigone’s side? The answer is not intended to be clear because our lives are full of contradictory truths and opposing yet equally valid motivations.

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, held that art is dangerous precisely because it is mere imitation. As such, it is twice removed from Reality, the realm of Truth. Nonetheless, Plato’s dialogues are themselves works of art meant to bring the reader, little by little, to rational contemplation of Truth. In fact, the medium of entertainment, of metaphor making, arguably allows avenues for thinking in ways that direct communication does not. It certainly allows for empathizing with others to a degree that other mediums cannot enable. To disavow such opportunities to explore ideas, stories and people by disparaging "entertainment" as something lesser and separate from art dooms entertainment to fail when its role in our lives is indeed gravely important.

It’s not just that movies overtly tackle important or interesting questions and problems. It’s also that they make assumptions about what we take to be good and real and true — tropes that teach us as much about who we think we should be as who we are. Kids who grew up watching classic Disney animations and the ABC “Afterschool Special” or now watch technologically spectacular features, like Monsters, Inc. (2001) or Big Hero 6 (2014), are always acculturated into a set of values.

This process of acculturation happens with all media, even any mainstream Hollywood film. Transcendence (2014), which received a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 19%, is an adequate example for this purpose. A computer scientist’s consciousness is uploaded into a computer from which he (it?) can access the Internet — and presumably limitless intellectual growth. The film attempts to ask some interesting questions about the intersection of computing technology, what it is to be a self, evolution and “strong” artificial intelligence (that is, computing intelligence equivalent to human intellect).[12] Along the way, it deftly avoids really addressing these questions — it’s meant, after all, to be a moneymaking thriller, not a scholarly conference among scientists, philosophers and theologians. Nevertheless, it not only asks some of them despite itself but also assumes certain values that drive the story forward. For example, the movie makes the assumption that morality is fundamentally about human emotions, and, since what separates humans from machines are these emotions, it follows that machines can’t be moral, etc., end scene. That sort of platitude tends to win the day, rather than the filmmakers’ considering, for example, a theory of morality that is rooted in rationality rather than emotion.[13] (Of course, that conversation could lead to questions about how we distinguish reason from other aspects of our embodied selves, but you get the point.)

The film also makes an assumption — again, not investigated — that any kind of groupthink is bad. There’s a scene in which it becomes clear that some characters are effectively networked by Johnny Depp's character’s computing mind to become essentially a single consciousness, thereby eliminating those individuals’ autonomy — something we individuals in the U.S. tend to revere. Transcendence doesn’t do a terrific job of tackling the interesting questions and problems it raises, or following them to their conclusions, but it’s clear that the movie, while defining itself as a fun thriller, has a point of view and set of expressed beliefs about the world to which the audience cannot be immune.

Even when the subject is not profound, the medium of its dissemination is. Human beings rely heavily on our senses for information and the construction of knowledge. For the sighted, the visual sense is perhaps the most significant. As a general rule, we believe what we see even when our judgment becomes more perspicacious than our sight. Children, for example, find it confusing when asked to distinguish what they see on a television screen from what they are told is real. For years, I thought The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) was a real family who happened to be on television. (Silly me for not foreseeing the reality show boon. I could have made a bundle!) Similarly, adults have difficulty separating the images they see from, say, social expectation. It is no wonder, for example, that two films released this year — Carol and The Danish Girl — are about gender, but are set, respectively, in the 1950s and 1920s. With the social and legal progress made in recent years on gender identity and marriage equality, we likely take a dim view of those eras’ attitudes toward homosexuality and transgender identity. Looking back at those periods, it is easier for us to distinguish between the characters and the pressures of their social environments, whereas we might struggle more to separate our personal social influences from the same story in a contemporary setting.

In any event, audiences are not simply watching pretty pictures. But let’s suppose that were the case. Let’s suppose people think they’re merely watching pretty pictures. Even at the core level of the experience, however, we’re taking in sensations and organizing them into a perception that becomes coherent and makes us feel something. That’s not mere diversion. Psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers of mind and those of similar ilk are all interested in what it means to talk about “experience” or, more narrowly, “perception.” One can’t avoid taking in something.

Even if “entertainment” were circumscribed to fun and play, there is still no way to avoid its deep significance. Indeed, even if entertainment were exclusively fun and diversion, it would still provide human experience with stimulation similar to what play is for children. Entertainment is no less meaningful as play than are ideas which engage us in thought about who and what we are, what the world is, what is real, what is meaningful, why some things are funny, what humor is and how it is important to human life. When people in the entertainment community, from actors to studio executives, claim on the one hand that film and television are “only” entertainment but on the other to be interested in “important” projects, they show clearly how little they understand about what it is they do.

On the other hand, we humans are meaning makers and meaning discerners. Our world, and everything in it, has meaning. There is nothing we can cast aside, nothing about our experience we can demean in such a way as to render it meaningless. Consequently, entertainment has an inherently meaningful function in our lives, and those who make it cannot divest themselves from the power of their creation.


[1] I call it “festing.” While everyone else seems to call it “binging,” I find that usually leads to purging, which I’d rather not do.

[2] Of course, there’s a lot going on in this film, and I don’t pretend to know the minds of Cormac McCarthy, from whose novel the film is adapted and who also co-wrote the screenplay, or the Coen brothers, who consistently make films that make us think through difficult ideas.  So, I could be wrong about what "Country" is really about, but that’s hardly the point here.

[3] This is most definitely Plato’s view of art, although there is arguably some subtlety in his thinking on the topic in connection with his metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical views.

[4] During which I think I had my first thoughts about the nature of justice.

[5] Which reinforced the intellectual power of word play — I’d already long loved Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”

[6] Where I learned I was just as prejudiced and discriminatory as anyone else in the face of the “Other.”

[7] After which my father and I engaged in a heated discussion about religion, thereby boring the pants off my friends, who were stuck in the car with us on the way home.

[8] In which I first learned about misogyny by way of how most of the female characters were treated, and, it seemed to me, how the world would view me. I think I was 12, and if I wasn’t already, I was ashamed of and humiliated by my body. Of course, reading Judy Blum’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret did not help.

[9] After which I realized how awful I’d been to Dorothea Horton when I was a small child. If you’re out there, Dorothea, I apologize.

[10] Which first taught me about how deeply disturbed I could become by random violence.

[11] In which I learned what it would take to be one of the cool kids, or at least how to get my prereqs in for one of the pigeonhole categories. Nobody, nobody ever gets to be themselves until at least age 35, but I believed the lie because I believed all of John Hughes’s lies. I wanted to. I needed to.

[12] Consider, for example, Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” John Searle’s “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” and Derek Parfit’s “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons.”

[13] Take, for example, the difference between David Hume’s moral theory, and that of Immanuel Kant.