Art’s meaning lies in the eyes of the beholders.
But what does a work of cinematic art’s powerful appeal mean?
“American Sniper,” after three weeks at No. 1, finally fell to No. 2 in box-office take last weekend, bumped from the top spot by “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.”
That’s show biz.
Still, the Clint Eastwood-directed epic inspired by the autobiography of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle has generated more than $280 million in the U.S. — and is nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.
The movie’s massive popularity also has induced overwrought, divisive reactions — and a dubious diagnosis from Dr. Howard Dean.
A family physician who was governor of Vermont from 1991-2003, ran for president in 2004 and was chairman of the Democratic national committee from 2005-09, Dean said Jan. 30 on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”:
“There’s a lot of anger in this country, and the people who go see this movie are people who are very angry. This guy (Kyle) basically says, ‘I’m going to fight on your side.’ ”
Dean added: “I bet you if you looked at the cross-section of the Tea Party and people who see this movie there’s a lot of intersection.”
Similar putdowns of not just the movie’s fans but its message have come from some others on the political left.
But plenty of people, and not just on the right, also have stuck up for “American Sniper” — and Kyle.
Among them: Michelle Obama, who said on Jan. 30 that “this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I’ve heard firsthand from military families over these past few years.”
And none of the 15 or so folks, including me, in Mount Pleasant’s Palmetto Grande theater two days ago to see “American Sniper” revealed any outward signs of being very — or even mildly — angry. Though largely pro-American, the film packs plenty of thought-provoking nuance and doesn’t seem pro-war to me.
OK, so there is a scene that made me, and likely many others, wish Kyle would stop stalling, make the hard call and shoot an Iraqi boy he had in his sights.
That’s because the kid had a grenade launcher and appeared primed to fire it at U.S. Marines at any second.
Yes, the al-Qaida in Iraq members whom Kyle is fighting are portrayed as the bad guys. Hey, they, like their radical Islamic State brethren, are the bad guys.
Or as Kyle (played with Oscar-worthy skill by Bradley Cooper) aptly puts it at one hard-edged point in the film:
“They’re [expletive] savages.”
However, after seeing “American Sniper,” it’s hard to see how anybody can see it as a mindless celebration of war in general or any U.S. military mission in particular. Profound crosscurrents flow throughout, including insights on the burdens carried not just by the men and women of the U.S. armed forces but their loved ones — a shared-sacrifice theme that hits home in our community.
Of course, “American Sniper” isn’t the first movie to trigger ideological, social and cultural debate.
For instance, a controversial epic film made its debut in Los Angeles 100 years to the day before my Sunday viewing of Eastwood’s latest. Its good guys weren’t U.S. warriors.
They were Ku Klux Klansmen. And unlike “American Sniper,” D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel and play “The Clansman,” is anything but subtle.
This other unsubtle legacy lingers in mind nearly half a century after the premiere of “The Birth of a Nation”:
The seating arrangements were separate and unequal at my early 1960s as-a-kid forays to see films at the Gloria and Garden theaters on King Street. We white folks sat downstairs. The black folks sat upstairs in the balcony.
Flash forward to these better times: Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” another best-picture nominee, captures a turning point in the national — especially the Southern — conscience. Too bad it unfairly casts President Lyndon B. Johnson as a reluctant civil rights warrior.
Both “American Sniper” and “Selma” earn my two thumbs up. Yet my favorite film of not just the past year but the past several years, is Alejandro Gonzalez’ “Birdman,” also up for best picture.
When Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) takes wing, lots of us go soaring with him.
Again though, different people can — and perhaps even should — see different meanings in the same work of art.
Heck, the same person can see different meanings in the same work of art.
So lest you allow others, including me, to dictate your take on any work of art, remember this note on Thomson’s dressing-room mirror:
“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is email@example.com.