Not the Oscar Wilde play but the actual importance of being earnest.
I was thinking about why I find Ed Wood watchable. And then about how I find the blaxploitation flicks of the ‘70s so entertaining.
And I think it sums up as: earnestness.
Earnestness is the opposite of camp, snark, irony, hipness. It’s meaning what you say, without regard for triteness or unintentional humor. It takes a kind of courage to be earnest, and a particularly in this post-modern era of deconstruction and over analysis.
One could, were one so inclined, analyze the national election in terms of earnestness versus camp. You might say the Reps tend to favor earnest candidates suspiciously, while the Dems earnestly favor hip candidates. But I won’t say that here.
Earnestness, of course, is no guarantee of quality, as Mr. Wood, Jr., clearly illustrated, along with the dialogue of the ’70s flicks about “the Man” and white and black prejudice. But it’s almost always entertaining, if not in the way the creators intended.
The original Evil Dead, for example, has many moments of unintended comedy mixed in with some truly scary moments, reflecting Sam Raimi’s youth and intensity. By contrast, Spider-Man 2 has a few scary moments that Raimi cribbed directly from his earlier film, and which are almost intense enough to push the movie into R territory.
We see from these two films, that it is possible to maintain earnestness even while raising quality. The second Spiderman movie is probably Raimi’s masterpiece, completely committed while technically brilliant.
But very often, earnestness is lost in the perfection of craft. I like Spielberg, and am not inclined to bashing him, but I think since about Saving Private Ryan, he’s lost a lot of the earnestness he used to have making popcorn movies. (He even mentions it in reference to Jurassic Park 2. His heart just wasn’t in it.)
Earnestness can become strident proselytizing, too. When I consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its message of non-nuclear proliferation (or…non-solarinite proliferation), I see a movie that’s a movie first, where the message of peril is meant to give some underlying resonance to the story, rather than a story dedicated to pushing that message. And I’d still rather watch it than The Constant Gardener or any of the anti-Iraq movies that have emerged in the past five years, regardless of “quality”.
Religious movies can fall into the same trap, of course. But you don’t get many religious mainstream movies these days.
I’m not a big Peter Jackson fan, but he kept the snark out of Lord of the Rings. You can’t do “epic” without earnestness: Things have to matter, while the whole of being hip, cool and camp is that nothing matters–and very often that nothing is really very good. Or, rather ironically, that “very good” = “very easy”. (That’s a kind of modern art conceit: You can’t write a song in C or make a representational painting like the old masters. That would be too easy.)
Earnestness, like being plainspoken, reveals how we actually feel and think, of course.
This requires a degree of vulnerability.
Which, in turn, is what makes art dangerous to create and even, in a way, to enjoy.