Appropriately Instructive Movies about the Power of Art


A friend recently emailed me and asked me for suggestions for movies he might show in his composition course, which includes some essays on art--from what I know of the reader our composition department uses, I'm guessing Aristotle's Poetics and the like. He didn't ask me specifically for movies that are about the power of art--rather, he specified that he wanted movies "the artistic powers of which are slightly better than what the students are used to. Yet I don't want to bore them either."

But that didn't matter because I read the message wrong at first--it was first thing in the morning and I was tired--and spent a couple of hours trying to think up movies about the power of art which would please an audience of 18-year-olds.

Two of my favorite movies about the topic--actually, two of my favorite movies, period--are Babette's Feast (in Danish with English subtitles, rated G) and Cinema Paradiso (in Italian with English subtitles, and only a little bit sexy), and it is my unfortunate experience that 18-year-olds don't tend to love subtitles.

There are plenty of movies--particularly of a certain era--about the power of movies and performance: Singin' in the Rain, perhaps, or All About Eve, or Sunset Boulevard. SitR is also one of my favorite movies but I realize not everyone likes musicals (although I also realize that not liking musicals is both a character flaw and a moral failing). I adore All About Eve but some people dismiss it as a chick movie. Sunset Boulevard might be a good choice.... I let students make up missed quizzes and such by watching movies and they consistently remark that SB knocks them out, and they also like knowing where the line "I'm ready for my close-up" comes from.

Another really great movie about the power of movies All About My Mother but it's got that subtitle thing again. And it's really good, but it's a downer--it's one of the few Almodovar movies I really don't want to see again.

In the right mood I might argue that Strictly Ballroom is a movie about the power of art.... but it might also be a movie a fair number of them have seen, since its director, Baz Luhrmann, also directed that nasty business Moulin Rouge.

Then there are always biopics of artists, Frida and the like--there are dozens of those. I can't think of any good biopics of writers at the moment except for Wilde, and the focus of that is the destruction wrought in his life by Bosie. Though that does remind me of a very old black and white version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is about the power of art....

So anyway, I don't very often poll my readers, but I'm asking for your help. I realize I'm framing this question in a way my friend didn't, but I figure, why not illustrate more than one point with the film he shows? So if you can think of a good movie about the power of art--or if you can remember seeing a movie when you were 18 that really knocked you out--please share.


Okay, I'm going to be really obvious here, but "Dead Poets Society" could be one - plus it really knocked me out when I was a teenager. Also "Born Into Brothels" (do documentaries count?), "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Wonder Boys," "Miss Firecracker," "The Piano," "Chicago," "Finding Neverland," "Edward Scissorhands," "Big Fish," "Amelie," "Donnie Darko," "Memento," "The Life Aquatic," "The Sweet Hereafter"... I'm not entirely sure any of these really fit the bill, but I promise there's a justification for listing each of them.

A professor I once has said something to the effect of, "We should treat movies like we treat people - judge each one on its merits. Saying you hate all musicals is like saying you hate all brunettes." That's WAY paraphrasing, but the point comes across. Also, I love "Strictly Ballroom." When they're dancing to "Perhaps" and you see their silhouettes -- sexiest scene EVER.

Well, this might not be about the power of art, but it does have very artistic visuals that shape the overall story as well or better than the narrative: MirrorMask (2005).

Eh, it's a thought

I've just been to see Little Miss Sunshine and would recommend that, along with Big Fish, Fried Green Tomatoes, and American Beauty.

This is a very tough call. I do like all of your choices and I think they would be much more likely to satisfy the “not-boring-to-18-year-old-students” criterion than the ideas I came up with. For the record, the first things that occurred to me were Frida, naturaleza viva, directed by Paul Leduc (the 1986 precursor to the more famous movie with Salma Hayek, which, it pains me to admit, I have not seen yet), and Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers or Prospero’s Books. Frida is a beautiful film and Leduc not only captures the time and Frida’s personality but also the filming itself echoes her painting – but you would have a problem with subtitles and even finding the film now. Greenaway – yes, I know, I can hear the sigh of boredom or revulsion from here – but both of these are also very painterly films.

I also think that the other suggestions in the previous comments from rebecca, heocwaeth, and Janet Kincaid are all more likely than my suggestions to fill this particular bill. Sigh. The reason this question strikes me as more difficult than I suspect was intended by your colleague is that I don’t think we can just rely on the powerful movie to move the students by itself. I teach in the field of international relations and most of the textbooks for undergrads start with the theoretical debates that have shaped the field. This drives me crazy because in my experience, most (though not all) of my first year students are not even sure what theory is, much less are they prepared to consider theoretical debates as leading to anything but common-sense outcomes. But I once used a textbook that tried to teach international relations theory using film. The reason the author (Cynthia Weber – but I don’t have the whole citation to hand, sorry) chose to do this, she writes in her introduction, is her belief that students of this generation are pretty literate in the visual environment and are more likely to “get” the theoretical points if they are explained through visual media like films.

The problem is in the assumption that the students are literate in visual media, and not just competent at navigating it. The movies that moved me, or showed me how powerful an artistic experience could be, were movies like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Buñuel’s Milky Way, or Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The reason these moved me was because I didn’t get them the first time through. Someone had to explain to me, for example, that before Eisenstein, no one had ever thought about how to tell a story using cuts and edits. The medium was still being invented and for the first time the visual artist had to solve the problem of being able to put the viewer into the action as well as outside looking at it; the effect was vertiginous both for the early audiences learning how to look at movies and for me as a student as well, once the point sank in. Then I could also get why I felt so claustrophobic watching Petra von Kant: not only was she trapped in her life, Fassbinder trapped the whole story into one room and a small handful of camera angles.

So it seems to me that your colleague could pick just about any movie (though the ones on your list and in the comments might be a lot less alienating than the ones I mention) and the trick would be not to just hope that watching the film changes the lives of the students, but to help them figure out how the art and artifice are at work. They figure out what they feel when they watch it, then they figure out how the filmmaker did that, then they look at the movie again to see the technique at work, then see how doing the work of reading the film is what conveys the aesthetic power.

If you want to consider music as art, which it is, I'd recommend the movie The Red Violin.

I also love the French movie Amelie, recommended above.

When I was in high school, the film that "knocked me out" was Why Man Creates. It's a discussion about the source of creativity. I showed it in a Western Civ survey course and it knocked out those 18-year olds.

Your colleague might look at Latcho Drom. This film has about ten words of subtitle but the rest of it tells the history of Gypsies, from the Gypsy perspective, through music, dance, and landscapes.

"The Killing Fields" knocked me out at age 17. I don't remember many movies that grabbed me at that age--other than "Sixteen Candles," "Breakfast Club," and "Some Kind of Wonderful" (which I think fall outside the parameters but never cease to charm me).

More along the lines of art and artifice: "84 Charing Cross Road" and "Dangerous Liasons." The latter might be more inclined to keep 18-year-olds awake.

Hey spike - excellent comment! I completely agree that so much of what moves a person about a film is trying to understand it afterwards. I think I've seen "The Sweet Hereafter" three times, and I still don't really get it (ENTIRELY possible that I'm just a moron). I think there are valid points about the power of art (in the message of the film or in the structure of the film) in all the movies I mentioned, but they're also pretty mainstream. I know there are TONS of great (um, yeah - better) smaller and foreign films, but I'm pretty mainstream, so I don't know them. And now I've totally lost any credibility I ever had as an artsy person.

Dirty Dancing. Amadeus. If I can think of any others, I'll post them.
"Talk to Her" is a real movie movie, the best I've seen in years. I adored it.

I forgot to throw in these two: Life Is Beautiful and Baraka. The latter is an absolute must on my list of must-see and ponder motion pictures.

As for everyone else's recommendations, I'm off to Netflix to queue up the movies I haven't seen. Here's hoping they're available.

Hey everyone, thanks for the suggestions! Like Janet, I've got lots of new titles to add to my Netflix queue.

I do want to mention one important movie that Rebecca mentions: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of my all time favorite films. I got our campus library to buy it and I recommend it to students all the time. Most of them are freaked out by it, so if I were to show it, it would be to a class of juniors and seniors. But good god, it's a great movie! Hedwig is one of the best characters ever created. And it certainly portrays the power of music, as art and as commodity.

Spike, your comment raises interesting points.... Though I had heard that "Birth of a Nation" (which I admit I've never seen because I don't want to watch a classic silent film valorizing the KKK even if it is a masterpiece and very influential) was the first film to use unmediated cuts and edits to tell a story? And I think also that your approach is more appropriate to a film studies class than to a composition course. Plus the sorts of films you're talking about often make me want to kill myself.... My stomach clenches in anxiety as I contemplate watching them. I know you watch movies the way many directors wish audiences watched movies, but I can't get on board with that in many ways. I think I understand something about the way artists manipulate a narrative--after all, it's part of what I had to study to get a PhD in lit--but some manipulations seem forced, excessive and too mimetic (like a story about boredom that is itself boring) for their own good or the good of the audience. If that makes me mainstream rather than arty like Rebecca, well, I'll live with that.

When I think of "artistic" films I usually think of directors who have an original aethestic sensibility that is often carried from film to film. The aethetic could be the look of the film, the music, the dialogue, or some hybrid of several elements.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes to mind: Delicatessan, City of Lost Children, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, etc.

David Lynch: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, etc.

Oliver Stone does some pretty original things with different kinds of film stock, edits, and camera angles in films like JFK, Natural Born Killers, The Doors, etc. even if the films themselves have many problems the temper the overall result.

Wong Kar Wai is a visionary genius. In The Mood for Love and 2046 are just gorgeous. Happy Together and Chung King Express are great as well.

Terrence Malick certainly has an original artistic aesthetic, but I have to admit I'm not a big fan of his films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, Thin Red Line, The New World) except for Badlands.

Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" and Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller's "Sin City" are both visually stunning films.

Agree about Pedro Almodovar. Can't wait to see his new one.

From a "dialogue" aethetic point of view, I enjoy the Coen Brothers, Hal Hartley, about half of Woody Allen's films, and the scripts of Charlie Kaufman, especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

I agree with Holly about Cinema Paradiso. Have you seen the 3 Hour version? Not as good as the original version. All of Tornatore's films have a nice look: Malena, The Star Maker, Legend of 1900... though none of them are as good as C.P.

I saw Babette's Feast in the theatre, but haven't seen it since. Liked it, but didn't think it was spectacular. I enjoy movies that surround food though. Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night come to mind.

I can't escape the feeling that I've left out several very important films. Oh well.

Hi rebecca -- thanks for the props!

Holly, I agree pretty much down the line. Well, Frida, if you ever get a chance to see it, won't make you gag, much less throw yourself in front of a train; it really is a beautiful movie. From early days, I realized that my tastes in films were not so much "arty" versus mainstream, as just plain nerdy. And the politics plays a big role, as you could probably tell. I think that the one thing I would really want to shy away from, in fact, would be the idea of a distinction between "mainstream" and art films. You mentioned some of my favorite films that would probably be, or would have been, thought of as mainstream: Sunset Boulevard and Singing in the Rain; we forgot about The Wizard of Oz and, to my embarrassment and chagrin, Casablanca. (Ilsa, I'm not good at being noble...) And for the purposes of the classroom, well, why not "Hush," "The Body," or "Once More With Feeling"? All very powerful, all artistic.

Birth of a Nation was from 1915, so before Eisenstein's films, but I think it is usually thought of as the first blockbuster (no one knows how much it actually grossed when it came out because of the weird licensing deals of the day but it was probably not less than $100 million, a fantastic sum in the day). Of course films had to be edited and there were a lot of technical innovations in Griffith's films, but what Eisenstein did was to show how the collision of contrasting images came to produce a meaning that was not evident in any single image independently. I would have been more on the mark for me to refer to him as a progenitor of montage.

In any case, the reasons why my choices would not likely work for this use are pretty clear now. I think that other than Frida, all of the films I mentioned are pretty alienating, for one reason or another. I do take your point that a film that makes use of the art (or artifice) of narrative would work much better in a composition class than a more painterly one, though I would still say that a film about the power of the artistic experience might or might not have the pedagogical merit of conveying the experience or feeling of that power: it depends on the abilities of the students to read the film. That's why I thought the question was complicated.

But anyway, we'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we'd lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night....Here's looking at you...

What a fantastic list of films you've all mentioned. Requiem For A Dream. That might do the trick.

This is years after the original post, but what about The Agony and the Ecstasy? I remember seeing it as a child and being tremendously impressed by it - enough to recommend it now, and it's been many a decade since I was a child.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 24, 2006 6:46 PM.

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