The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the film The Shawshank Redemption. It’s focus is on the continued revenue stream the film provides for the studio that owns it. What’s more interesting is how a movie is released, is pretty much ignored by the movie going public and then lives on as one of the highest rated films of all times.
This has happened before with films like Citizen Kaen and Casablanca. These movies came out and no one seemed to care that much. But they go on to entertain generations.
In the WSJ article they mention that the film may have been overshadowed by Forrest Gump at the box-office which was the BIG movie the year it was released. Forrest Gump was an enjoyable film, but when I watched it again a few years ago it seemed pretty forced. The truth is that Forrest Gump has not held up very well through the years, while Shawshank has.
This same situation happens with books. There are of course mega-hits right from the start. But often those works hit so big because they channel some moment of cultural zeitgeist perfectly and it resonates. Like a flashlight bouncing off mirrors, it can light up an entire room. But ultimately it’s only got a triple A battery behind it. It doesn’t last.
The strength that comes from perfectly capturing the moment can make the work feel flat and dated in a short time. For me TV shows, especailly sitcoms, are the most obvious examples of this. (with a few notable exceptions.) If you watch the most successful shows from the past, say 1956 or 1973, it quickly becomes obvious that they are badly dated in both big and small ways. Watching the show becomes an exercise in irony.
Even the shows that were tops in 1982: Dallas, Three’s Company, Joannie Loves Chachi – ouch! Yet, at the time they commanded huge numbers of viewers.
This is just a permutation of the debate on commercial art vs. fine art. Is what we’re creating going to stand the test of time? Does that issue matter since we can’t consciously control that aspect of our work anyway? Do we too often make alterations to work to feed into the current trends and desires vs. making something that might resonate with a deeper sense of ethos, pathos and logos?