As I enjoyed dinner with my wife and some friends, we ended up having an interesting exchange. My friend mentioned the fact that Die Hard 5 is coming out on Valentine’s Day, and referenced the original Die Hard semi-jokingly as “the most important action film every made.” My wife then remarked that she had a hard time thinking of any film as being “important.”
This led to quite the extended conversation – about whether film can in fact be considered important, or whether certain movies could be regarded as important, or just even what we mean by the word “important.” That definition turned out to be critical one to discuss, as different understandings were largely what led the initial differing points of view. For instance, my wife’s sentiment was that things like trees and medicine are important, but movies are not. Because if we’re going to just call everything important, than what’s the point? We all pretty much agreed with that, but also talked about the fact that “important” can mean a lot of things.
Generally speaking, as much as I love (some) movies, I shy away from talking about a specific film as being “important” because to me that’s pretty pretentious. It’s usually the sort of thing you hear when an industry is talking about itself (ie at the Oscars). So overall, in the grand scale of human existence and creation – I do think movies are pretty unimportant. But yet I like them, people spend a lot of time and money on them, we even sort of idolize the people who are involved in them (not to mention that a bunch of people find their livelihood from them), so simply by talking about prominence in our society and potential influence (even if a lot of that is negative), I guess we have to say they kind of matter.
But are individual films every really important? Again, there are many thoughts depending on what the word means. I suppose their are films that play a genuinely key role in impacting society and people’s real lives – either by teaching, enlightening, informing, drawing attention to issues, and even mobilizing action. In our conversation, my friend cited Schindler’s List as sort of the classic possibility of this, but you could argue the category includes films like Blood Diamond, Philadelphia, or even Dances with Wolves.
You could also talk about “important” as it refers to how it impacted the film industry itself. Both Jaws and Star Wars are “important” because they taught the studios just how much money could be made from one movie, and helped to bring a permanent change to the sorts of films they would then focus on, how & when they were released, and so on. I’d put Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Avatar under a similar heading, regarding the way special effects and 3-D can be integrated (or overwhelm) a story. And in reference to “action films”, this is what my friend was basically saying by his original inspiring comment (Die Hard changed what sort of action films were being made, what sort of action heroes they featured, and so on – something that again I agree with).
This overlaps a bit with looking at “important” as referring to how the movie influenced the development of cinema as an art form – stretching the possibilities of what cinematic language can say and how it can say it. If I’m talking about a film as “important” than this is what I probably mean, and this generally include the movies I studied in college, such as M, Rome Open City, or Citizen Kane.
And we can get more and more subjective. There are those films that are particularly important for me, because they helped to shape how I see things, especially film and storytelling. At a quick thought, that would have to include stuff like 2001: A Space Odyssey or, improbably, the last 15 minutes or so of Cooley High (I’ve never seen the rest of it). Or there are films that are important to me just based on the shear number of hours I’ve spent watching them, like Singin’ in the Rain or Summer Time Machine Blues (I know, you’ve never heard of it).
So yeah, it’s a funny word, “important.” As we reflected on it later, my wife and I agreed that even if movies can feel trivial, and can often have more negative influence than positive , their broader category of art and beauty and aesthetics do truly matter. While art won’t necessarily cure someone’s diseases, for example, it will, when done well, help to bring attention to the fact that there is beauty in creation around us. And that’s significant for people to understand and learn to appreciate for their mental and emotional health. Even in eternity, beauty will always play an important role, while medicine may not.
However, in our original conversation, the general consensuses we developed were perhaps not as mature, though no less profound. We decided, by and large, that trees, because of their role in ecology and the environment, were more important than Die Hard. However, Die Hard in terms of its popularity, influence, and role in society, is perhaps more important than most individual trees. And even perhaps small groupings of trees.
We also agreed that it was an absurd conversation.
And we never even got to dealing with whether Die Hard really was the most important action film ever.