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In Defense of Irrelevant Films

Focus Features

How many of the last 10 Oscar best picture winners do you remember? And of those you remember, how many could be considered “great” today (let alone 50 years from now)? The answer to both questions is probably few, if any.

Of the last 10 best picture winners—including this year’s winner, The Shape of Water—there are a fair number of good films, but few that are considered great. Several are truly questionable (Argo, anyone?) and most fall in the “one viewing is enough” category. Only three films on the recent New York Times list of “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far” won best picture Oscars (Million Dollar Baby, The Hurt Locker, Moonlight).

Part of the disconnect with “best” not holding up well over time is that greatness is hard to gauge without the benefit of time’s passage. That’s why so many artists don’t live to see their work’s greatness recognized (e.g., Emily Dickinson or Vincent van Gogh).

But it’s also because we live in a society that privileges “timely” and “relevant” to a fault. We are obsessed with what speaks to us now, what captures the moment. The most common word used to describe Oscar-worthy films this time of year is “important.” But is that the best word to evaluate something’s worth?

‘Relevance’ of This Year’s Oscar Nominees 

Best picture nominees are almost always chosen because they are “important” in some way. Consider this year’s crop.

The Shape of Water is a didactic, problematic celebration of intersectional identity and interspecies romance, where the villain is a Trump-esque white oppressor. Get Out is an incisive take on the horrors of the black male experience in America. Call Me by Your Name is about normalizing gay male romance. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is about sexual violence, racism, class, and the collective rage of America in 2017. The Post is about the importance of journalism as a check against government deceit (bonus relevance: it’s also about female empowerment). Lady Bird is less obviously “relevant” in an Oscar-bait way, but its confident depiction of female perspectives (under the excellent direction of Greta Gerwig and the powerhouse acting of Saoirse Ronan) certainly feels timely in the post-Weinstein era.

Only Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and Phantom Thread have little that is obviously “2017” about them. Each of these could have been released 20, 30, or 40 years ago and still been praised and beloved. Their relevance is not in their timeliness but in their timelessness.

This is not to say the other best picture nominees are bad. Many are very good. And I’m not suggesting their “timeliness” is the only reason they were nominated. But timeliness and “importance” are qualities of rapidly diminishing returns in art.

Timeliness and ‘importance’ are qualities of rapidly diminishing returns in art.

A decade from now—even a year from now—we will be evaluating these films on merits that go beyond relevance. Films with staying power are the ones that are great because they are beautiful, true, and good beyond any fleeting notion of “importance.”

‘Phantom Thread’ and Art that Lasts

This is a truth that goes beyond movies, of course, and one that should be understood and heeded by Christians who can be prone to pragmatically obsess about “relevance” while failing to value the things—excellence, attentiveness to beauty, wisdom, patience—that actually foster lasting influence.

Phantom Thread feels like an especially instructive model of a film that I fully expect will be talked about and enjoyed by future generations, long after most 2017 films are forgotten. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making movies (e.g., MagnoliaThere Will Be Blood) that aren’t particularly “relevant” but are inarguably good. He is a master of the cinematic form, an auteur who has true, loving interest in the characters and settings he depicts, beyond their utilitarian value as fodder for the zeitgeist. Like Terrence Malick, Anderson makes the films he wants to make, pointing the camera on the things he finds beautiful and interesting, paying little heed to headlines or formulas or convention. Ironically this is often the formula for lasting influence. It certainly has been for Malick and Anderson.

Writing about Phantom Thread for The New York Times, critic A. O. Scott said:

There are movies that satisfy the hunger for relevance, the need to see the urgent issues of the day reflected on screen. . . . [Phantom Thread] is emphatically and sublimely not one of them. It awakens other appetites, longings that are too often neglected: for beauty, for strangeness, for the delirious, heedless pursuit of perfection.

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times put it this way:

In an era when the rallying cry of #OscarsSoWhite has ceded the social-media spotlight to the #MeToo movement, Phantom Thread’s retreat into a bygone era of haute couture and mushroom omelets feels at once timeless and gloriously untimely.

What is great about Phantom Thread—and what will still be great about it in 2038—is that it is painstakingly interested in human beings, gleefully fascinated by the complexities of human relationships, and infectiously interested in the gratuitous and quirky beauty of the world. Take note of how Anderson’s camera lingers on fabrics, on silhouettes, on coffee and pastries, and yes—especially on mushrooms. It is not unlike how Malick’s camera often lingers on butterflies, prairies, and other things unnecessary to the plot.

These may be “unimportant” things, but they are beautiful, and cinema was made to capture them. Artists exist to take note of them. Christians especially should delight in them: wonderfully superfluous gifts from an exorbitantly giving God.

Christians especially should delight in things that are ‘unimportant’ but beautiful: wonderfully superfluous gifts from an exorbitantly giving God.

Need to Value Unnecessary Beauty

Our culture is obsessed with What’s Happening Now. The instant obsolescence of social media favors the headlines and hot takes of the day. The news cycle is deliriously driven by BREAKING NEWS. It has gotten so bad that when something #important is happening on the internet and you, your publication, or your institution is not commenting on it, you can and probably will be vilified for your silence. But while we are all virtue-signaling on social media about whatever the debate of the day might be, the next Shakespeare is probably off reading Beowulf somewhere. The next Elon Musk is probably surfing or writing songs.

While we are all virtue-signaling on social media about whatever the debate of the day might be, the next Shakespeare is probably off reading Beowulf somewhere.

The frantic, contrived urgency of this cultural moment, combined with its dangerous ahistoricism and chronological snobbery, makes it admittedly hard for people to recognize the value in “irrelevant” things, old things, slow things, and unnecessary things. But we are doomed as a society if we devalue such things, for they are vital sources of wisdom. More important than ever.

We desperately need to value unnecessary beauty. No one needs a movie like Phantom Thread. And indeed, some will watch it and ask the ubiquitous-in-a-utilitarian-society question, “What was the point of that?” But bad things happen in societies that determine value (whether in a thing, or in a person) mostly in terms of usefulness or pragmatic purpose.

Bad things happen in societies that determine value (whether in a thing, or in a person) mostly in terms of usefulness or pragmatic purpose.

None of this is to suggest Christians pay no attention to relevance, timeliness, and speaking prophetically to the issues of the moment and the complexities of specific contexts. But it tends to be true that those who make the most important (and lasting) contributions in the now are the ones who see beyond the now. The pioneers and innovators and entrepreneurs who change the world are more often driven by curiosity and love than pragmatism and utility.

Christians of all people should celebrate the value of irrelevance and the goodness of extraneous beauty. Secular people might be excused for ascribing ultimate importance to What’s Happening Now. But Christians have a much bigger picture, an eternal perspective that puts the fleeting now in perspective. We serve a Savior who slept through seemingly important things, spent a lot of time hanging out with seemingly unimportant people, and preached in cryptic parables when he could have just given bullet-point takeaways. Are these the marks of a utilitarian God?

And we are also people of Sabbath. We work and labor and care about productivity and effectiveness, yes. But we also rest. We celebrate God’s abundance and gratuitous bounty. We don’t (or shouldn’t) exist with a scarcity mentality. We should read fiction. We should appreciate poetry. We should embrace the “liberal arts” and education that focuses on “useless” things like art history and Elizabethan literature. We should savor long meals. And we should appreciate (and make!) gloriously irrelevant movies like Phantom Thread.

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