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Art as entertainment

Feb 24, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

That's what Oscar night celebrates

Of all the art forms, the so-called major motion picture is the most collaborative form. It's also the one that America perfected first.

Tonight brings the annual American concentration on the best of the motion picture. It's Oscar night.

The great but mercurial actor and director Orson Welles put it, in a great movie "the camera is an eye in head of a poet."

That sentiment can be balanced against a memory that resurfaces this time of year concerns an interview just before the Academy Awards that the comedian Chris Rock, who was hosting part of the Oscar ceremony a few years ago, had conducted in a Los Angeles shopping mall. He was stopping people between stores and asking them to name the best movie of the year.

The five movies nominated for the Academy Award for best picture at the time were "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Ray," "Sideways" and "Million Dollar Baby" (which won).

But when Chris Rock asked the young, female shopper in L.A. what the best movie of the year was, she said "Alien vs. Predator."

The comedian did a long, slow double-take for the camera, then repeated, slowly: "Alien vs. Predator."

Such is the nature of the motion picture's status as both high art and lowbrow entertainment.

In other words, the movies belong to everybody.

The great film historian Arthur Knight surmised that movies were sneaky in that they lured ordinary people into viewing true art without their knowing.

No, that description doesn't apply to "Alien vs. Predator," but it does apply to, say, "The Godfather," which airs with great frequency on assorted TV cable channels but is -- brace yourselves, those of you who watch again and again simply be entertained -- one of the great artistic triumphs of the 20th century.

Relatively few average Americans, even those of intelligence and education, readily could name a "favorite painting" or "favorite symphony" or "favorite poem" or "favorite sculpture." Even picking a favorite novel would stump many of us.

That's because art can intimidate. It can impose distance, erect barriers. It can exclude. It can be used by one person to make another person feel inferior, or stupid.

So, movies matter. Because just about everyone has a favorite movie. For that matter, we're likely to have a top five or top 10. And, for each "Alien vs. Predator" choice on a personal list, there's likely to be something of real value and enduring quality that steals in as well.

The Academy Awards TV show these days largely appears to be about the dresses worn by the stars (see page 1 of this section), about who accompanies whom to the big night, and the opening monologue of the host (good luck, Seth McFarlane).

Less important, it seems, are the movies themselves, which is why it has been good in recent years to see the producers of the Academy Awards television broadcast devote time to thoughtful, condensed compilations of films of the past.

It's important because movies are not an MTV music video, nor a half-hour TV sitcom, nor a blog entry from a "fan boy," or a 9-second clip of the cat flushing the toilet on YouTube. They are, for the most part, lengthy, demanding collaborations, the result of a marshaling of far-reaching and disparate talents and sensibilities, an investment of start-to-finish time which far outstrips all but the labors of the most tempestuous painter or tortured novelist.

Abysmal as it is, the new "Friday the 13th" movie was seen by more people last weekend than personally have viewed "Mona Lisa" in the 500 years since Leonardo Da Vinci's brush touched that thin panel of wood on which the ambiguously smiling woman's portrait was painted.

Luckily, however, similar statistics also apply to "Citizen Kane," "Finding Nemo," "2001," "Casablanca" and "Pulp Fiction." The movies have a wide scope, and a deeper reach, than any other form of either art or entertainment.

"The camera is an eye in the head of a poet."

Right you were, Mr. Welles. Just don't tell anybody. That notion works best when the audience doesn't notice.

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