People read Kafka. and Twain. and Dickens. These are facts of life, like the sun rising and setting with each coming day. Their collective body of work will be read, taught, written on, and scrutinized until the end of time.
These “classics” are (rightly) presumed to have a vast influence on western culture, its authors, and its artists, and as such, are vehemently read.
Despite the fact that the oeuvre of these three individuals are a world’s apart, their work is often categorized within the singular, “classics” section: Huck Finn’s ephebian adventures rests comfortably next to Tolstoy’s complex War and Peace at big box retailers across the US. Obviously, these books do not pertain to the ordinary methods of classification, and deservedly so.
Reading Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, I couldn’t help but delve deeper into this notion of “the classic,” its influence, and its prevalency across various mediums of art.
The Trial itself was a pleasure to read: a good, well-written book with a poignant message. Kafka systematically guides the reader through protagonist Joseph K’s initial clear-headedness and rationality through various stages of baseless paranoia, concluding with the insane psyche of the once-sharp-witted bank clerk.
Obviously, Kafka’s talent lends a serious cause for reverence toward the author himself. Kafka’s prevalent theme, the obfuscation of the modern day man and the society in which he lives, characterize Kafka’s two most famous works, The Trial and The Metamorphosis, and has, in turn, manifested itself into an free-standing adjective.
The sheer quality of literary “classics” allows them to stand the test of time, and in turn, they are continually consumed to this day. This trend carries itself over various mediums, as impressionist painters and classical composers have remained household names as their work is perpetually digested and debated. Their oeuvre, like that of the authors mentioned at the beginning of this post, are not going anywhere soon.
Upon further analysis, I think it’s safe to conclude that film does not follow the “classics” paradigm. Although most people may be able to recycle American titles such as Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, few people could aptly tell you who directed these films, let alone have actually viewed them themselves. Even more disconcerting is the relative anonymity of foreign films and their filmmakers, true artists who have managed to convey overarching themes and ideas through a camera lens. However ironic, George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy, one movie which could be considered an exception to the “rule,” draws distinct plot parallels with Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, a fact acknowledged openly by Lucas himself.
Watching Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Godard’s Breathless, or Kubrick’s 2001, one cannot help but deduce the influence of these “godfathers of film” on modern day directors. It is difficult to conceive why film takes on such a dramatically different cultural role within contemporary society without discounting movie-going today as a largely passive experience. The rabid popularity of ultra-violent, substance-lacking films like 300 and Saw further illustrate this point, without even touching on the current vampire craze.
The open-ended conclusion of No Country for Old Men was almost universally panned, despite the fact the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel strayed minimally from the book (this review describes it as “an unusually tight adaptation.”) No doubt, the two different mediums placed similar expectations towards the two audiences, to differing reactions. Movie viewers obviously wanted an open-and-close two-hour experience, while readers expressed little uproar, as open-ended conclusions subject to debate and discussion are the norm within literary canon.
While one may have no sympathy for my cultural snobbery, the fact remains: movie making is a business. It’s a business that has seen less and less creativity as high-budget, high-risk films have failed to meet their bottom line. In lieu of the recent success of low budget thrillers like Paranormal Activity and Taken, creative ventures like James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Avatar, which the New York Times jokes has audience expectations comparable to “the arrival of technicolor,” are likely a dying breed. Going forward, creative blockbusters like Avatar, Watchmen, and the less-recent Forrest Gump will likely be glossed over in favor of more economically feasible, audience-friendly viewing. (Edit: looks like it’s already begun)