Light and Dark in the Arts: What’s Your Pleasure?

A small group of us was discussing possible movie choices for the upcoming weekend a few nights ago when one person floated the possibility of “Chesil Beach,” the adaptation of a dark Ian McEwan novel about a rapidly failing, misbegotten marriage, almost shocking in its misery. Someone else, a psychotherapist who spends his days listening to those and many other such woeful tales, brightly asked, “Why would you want to subject yourself to that?”

Now, the therapist can most certainly be excused for abstaining from the prospect of extending the rigors of his day job into his leisure hours. (And paying to do so, no less.) But his question reflected a kind of fundamental “There are two kinds of people in the world…” issue that has always been of great interest to producers of art and entertainment.

Dark or light? Sweet or sour?  Frothy or strained?

Serious and sober or witty and weightless?

Or the choices before us these past few days, “Chesil Beach” or “Oceans 8?”

Do you come to art for release from the cares of your day or for a projection screen upon which you can cast those cares and examine them in the larger context of the human struggle for self-understanding?

As it happened, my partner and I scanned the movie section yesterday and discovered “First Reformed,” a brooding Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”) film about a self-loathing, hard-drinking pastor in a tiny failing church in the desolate landscape of Albany, New York. The pastor, played by the deeply furrow-browed Ethan Hawke, encounters an eco-terrorist who is despairing so severely about what he sees as the inevitable environmental suicide of the world that he urges his wife to abort her pregnancy before turning his rifle on himself in a public park in a bloody scene to which he has summoned the pastor via text message just moments before pulling the trigger.

We just could not get to the theater fast enough.

But before we did, we had another friend of longstanding over for an impromptu dinner, and we asked her if she wanted to accompany us.

“What’s it about?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

After we proffered her the capsule summary, she smiled beneficently and said, “I’m so glad you’ll be going and enjoying yourselves.”

The conversation then led to her distinct literary preference for mysteries and her love of Harry Potter movies.



Sure, some people bounce back and forth, depending on the mood of their day or time in their lives. Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and that whole band of morbid Russians in the winter, leavened in summer by a deep dive beach-read into every last Sue Grafton mystery, A to Y.

Vive la variation!

But on the whole, I think the “two kinds of people” distinction holds pretty much true for taste in the arts. Heavy/light, high-brow/mid/low-brow, literature/“popular” fiction, Shakespeare/P.G. Wodehouse.

And, in a more fundamental sense: immersion or escape?

Do you come to art for release from the cares of your day or for a projection screen upon which you can cast those cares and examine them in the larger context of the human struggle for self-understanding and a hard-won wisdom of the heart?

Some people get all the struggle they can glimpse (and the misery they dare not personally ingest) in the course of their day as therapists or by staffing a suicide hotline. These people may long for nothing so much as a sand chair at the beach with a cool adult drink in the cupholder and a trash novel in their hands, drinking avidly from both.

Others get quite enough struggle in their daily lives, aren’t given to reflect overly much on it themselves, and simply don’t cotton to seeing even deeper or more explosive struggles portrayed on screen or the page. They may not even read at all, spending what there is of leisure hours with television comedies or the big budget mass entertainment movies down at the cineplex rather than checking on the latest small-budget French art house movie that takes in $800,000 from its entire American run after its sparkling debut at Telluride. (Where it earned the “Critic’s Choice Award!”)

It’s not that I’m against mass and, let’s face it, mindless entertainments that even their fans and producers acknowledge as such.

Escapism is not a bad thing, a supposition that is reflected (and fully supported) by the liquor and pharmaceutical industries, which depend on those deeply held yearnings to make themselves and their shareholders wealthy.

It really does come down to personal tastes and dispositions, and those often tend toward the unpredictable. The hyper-intellectual and waifish novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates is a fierce boxing fan, after all, and tastefully dressed matrons of a serious bent have been known to swoon over the mostly light-hearted absurdisms of David Sedaris.

The human soul has many mansions, St. Teresa told us, and not everyone is inclined to occupy every one of them on their journey to the beyond.

The travails of Pastor Toller, which, among other gasp-worthy Schraderisms included a kind of imitation of Christ via a barbed wire corset, had me riveted to my seat for two hours and made for great conversational fodder in the bar afterwards. (Where else were we going to process what we had just seen—the amusement park?)

I tend to want my novels serious, my paintings bright and flower-strewn, and my movies thought-provoking at the very least. If I’m not still thinking about it and feeling slightly seared from the experience days later, having run a kind of emotional gauntlet, I fear I may have wasted both my money and my time, and since both are diminishing resources in my life, I am not given to part with them frivolously.

But I do recognize that serious is not everyone’s cup of tea in the arts. Drop me a line sometime if you’d like to engage in some serious talk on the matter.

For those of a particular sensibility…


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13 comments to Light and Dark in the Arts: What’s Your Pleasure?

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:


    I’m not sure I can categorize the movies I have really liked, as they are quite different. Some examples are Pulp Fiction, A Few Good Men, and more recently, The Shape of Water. My criteria have to do with the acting, the writing, and as you stated, the impact it has later.

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    You are never short of provocative subject matter. This philosophical conundrum has been a part of uncountable numbers of discussions I have had on this topic, especially as it relates to movies, perhaps more than other art forms. I believe there is a gray area, at least 50 shades of it, in between the extremes of the two positions you posited which is rather extensive. But if forced to I have never had a problem taking a position.

    In film, at least, I have always subscribed to the philosophy of film producer and director Keenan Wayans. He said, “life is so difficult, challenging and unrelenting that when I go to a movie I really do not want to pay for two more hours of depressing catharsis. So when I go to a movie please do one of two things, either make me laugh or blow something up”. This is not to say that I have not seen many of the great films on the AFI top 100, a list which is not overly populated with films subscribing to Wayans’ philosophy, many of which I love. Yet another reason why I contend your initial proposition is too black & white (NPI). Nevertheless, I still subscribe to his philosophy, if given only those choices.

    I was an English major in college and Shakespeare was my area of focus so I expect I have probably read most of the plays, and besides Hamlet, I like the comedies & the histories better than the tragedies. So I guess I am consistent and I expect the 16th Century equivalent would be make me laugh or get somebody married.


  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Gerry, those all look like pretty serious titles to me, though “Pulp Fiction” had those dark crazed laughs particular to a Tarantino film.So I’d be inclined to categorize you in the “serious” camp!

    Bruce, you’re quite right, these binaries do not fit every person and preference all the time. Like all generalities it leaves out too much in the variable, spectrum-y middle. Nevertheless, I do think the broad tendencies hold up pretty well, and that most people would readily enough identify themselves and their intimates as more along one end of the spectrum than another (as you have done about yourself, with some notable reservations).

    And thanks for the funny Wayans line, which made me laugh and thus fulfills the very criteria he is citing!

  • Al Haas  says:

    I LOVE dark movies and I HATE happy endings. One of my favorites was “Monster” with Charlize Theron which depicted human suffering with no redemption. I loved it because it expresses one of the TRUTHS of our human condition. My dear wife was ultimately convinced to see “Book Club” with a friend which I understand has a typical Hollywood happy ending. Movies that contrive too hard to entertain and make us happy end up like artificially flavored candy, pleasing to children but leaving adults without real nourishment and a strange aftertaste.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Al, you sound like the perfect candidate for “First Reformed.” So giddy on up to the theater for a look and let’s talk about that ending, which has generated some pretty good discussion regarding its possible meanings.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Film is a chameleon. Different moods different colors. If you feel that the world is on the brink of destruction, you might want to shelve Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove for another day. If you need to see good prevail over evil, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront might do the trick. If you just want to enjoy two hours of romantic comedy, rent Harry Met Sally. If you only desire laughter for laughter’s sake, sit down with a friend and watch Airplane. If you have a flight in the morning, don’t watch Airplane. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, the choice is an easy one. If you just want shots oozing with beauty, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a must. If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, Sophie’s Choice could very well be your “last picture show.” Of course, there’s the ubiquitous “too” category: too violent, too pornographic, too sci-fi, too mushy, too stupid, too scary. Most of us have a “too” genre. Although I can’t recall the name of the first film I ever saw, I do know that it was the “beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for that little tour through cinema history, Robert. As for the “too” category, mine definitely became “too violent” maybe 10 or more years ago, when I just couldn’t look anymore at the graphic mangling of limbs and bullets tearing through flesh, etc. that left zero to the imagination. After a while, it seemed like an indulgence and cheap sensationalism on the part of the filmmaker, rather than well-crafted movie-making that suggests all manner of mayhem and horror without having to shove the imagery into your brain.

      I addressed that topic very early in this blog’s life, which engendered some good conversation both here:

      …and in a followup here:

    • Bruce Curran  says:

      Fabulous comment and spot on. You have more than accurately described the gray in the artistic space between “Harry Met Sally” & “Virginia Woolf”. I am also partial to your references because “Casablanca”, “Strangelove” and “Kane” are three of my five favorite films. I think I will go on Netflix this weekend a “round up some of the usual suspects”. Thanks.


  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    These comments are as worthy as your essay Andrew. Thanks everyone. Does a marriage of a serious movie-lover with a zombie-lover have much of a chance? A friend wanted to know…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Joan, regarding, “These comments are as worthy as your essay”—well, we can’t be having that. I’m going to require these folks to tone down their brains; it’s making me uneasy… :-)

      And I find myself dying to hear YOUR views on the serious/zombie movie lovers’ marriage. Been conducting some research, have ya?

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    AH, In answer to you about the Zombie issue: Seems a though Zombies can represent the fears and anxieties of modern life. Or all the folks we see who are sleepwalking through their days. Or a way to deal with our fear of death. Or they can just be absurd and kinda funny.
    It seems that serious viewers can take them–in small doses.
    More as my research progresses…..

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Joan, Stanley Kubrick, a never miss selection on most people’s greatest film directors’ list, selected W.C. Field’s Bank Dick as one of his 10 favorite movies. Moreover, he also mentioned in one publication (the name of which I’ve forgotten) that he thoroughly enjoyed the Jerk and White Men Can’t Jump. (Naturally, “serious” films like Chaplin’s City Lights, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Antonioni’s La notte and Welles’ Citizen Kane also made the cut.)

    If George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead partners with Fellini’s I Vitelloni as two of your favorite movies, you’re not unlike Mr. Kubrick. I suppose it’s kinda’ like a kid going into the most lavish candy store in the world and struggling with his/her final choice. Would it be KnipschildtIt’s Chocopologie or Mars’ Snickers?

    As a final note, I look forward to reading Andy’s diverse reflections in Traversing. Not just because he’s such a good writer or we’ve been friends for over 55 years, but rather because he’s created a place for people like me to exchange ideas/thoughts civilly with people like you and Bruce.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Glad you feel welcome in that way, Robert. This space was always meant to be much more a dia/multi-logue rather than a monologue.

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