On 'The Greatest Showman', cognitive dissonance, and what movies are for



The Greatest Showman, the Hugh Jackman-led original musical 'biopic' of US circus pioneer P.T. Barnum still smashing box office expectations all over the globe two months after opening, presents something of a problem.

I'll admit, when I first saw the trailer for it, I was initially pulled in by the promise of Zac Efron in a musical again. I'm arguably slightly too old to be realistically considered a member of the High School Musical generation (and that WASN'T EVEN HIS REAL SINGING VOICE ANYWAY), but 2007's Hairspray hit me squarely in the hormones, so my interest was well and truly piqued by the sight of lovely Zac singing his little heart out once again.

Then I read the many, many brutal reviews, and the thinkpieces about real-life Barnum's racism, ableism, exploitation of 'otherness', and felt my excitement severely dampened. No matter how much Zac and Hugh sing and dance, if the film is bad, it's bad (and spoiler: it's bad).

But then I saw this promotional video for the movie, a performance from a workshop for the producers.


It shows the major climactic (Oscar-nominated!) song being performed in New York City by Hugh Jackman, Cynthia Erivo, Justin Paul, Keala Settle and many other wonderfully talented people. Some of them ended up in the film, some didn't, but the exuberant, triumphant, joyful scene I saw in the video persuaded me that it was worth a shot, and I booked a ticket.

As a side note, another big motivating factor for me was that I adore the music of [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul, the composer/lyricists whose songs make up the bulk of the movie. They've been around for years, but they've been experiencing breakout success lately with their musical Dear Evan Hansen becoming a multiple-Tony Award-winner, and La La Land, for which they wrote the lyrics, claiming a handful of Academy Awards in 2017.

So, I went to see The Greatest Showman, very unsure what to expect. It had been criticised from nearly every angle, cinematography to ethics. And as I walked out of the cinema, I was aware of two strong feelings: yes, they're right, this is in many ways an absolutely terrible film, and simultaneously, YES, I loved that film with all my heart and must immediately see it again. I've seen a few other people describe this as cognitive dissonance, and there really is no other way to put it.

Firstly, and most importantly, if you have seen this film and really hated it, that's 100% okay. This film could very easily not be someone's cup of tea, and that doesn't make them wrong, or the film bad. If you don't like musicals it's probably not going to change your mind on that. If you prefer your films to have a heavy dose (or even a light smattering) of self-awareness, intentional irony, historical accuracy, realism, or darkness, it's probably not for you. If you require films to stick to a coherent narrative scene-to-scene, or for characters to make choices that even vaguely make sense within the fiction of the world that's been created, you'll struggle with The Greatest Showman.

I use the word 'fiction' there very intentionally: this is not the story of P.T. Barnum. I am by no means an expert on his life, but from listening to those who are, it is very apparent that the film takes large, not-particularly-defensible liberties with the truth. It takes a story of many different kinds of exploitation and turns it into a body-positivity, all-inclusive, white saviour parable, where this wildly fictionalised version of Barnum is an entirely infallible hero. I mean, he doesn't even cheat on his wife when offered the chance!

As an able-bodied, cis-gender, English-speaking, white, middle class woman, I have sufficient privilege to be able to watch The Greatest Showman and overlook some of these concerns. I acknowledge that the film does a disservice to some marginalised groups, by firstly reframing the story of the exploitation of people similar to them as a positive one, and secondly by casting actors who do not have the same physical features, or differences, as those they are portraying. For example, there is a character with a prosthetic birthmark, and another performer who is given a nonspecific 'unusual' face with prosthetics to play the role of an 'inspirational person' who hands young P.T. an apple when he is hungry (among many other similar casting decisions). These roles could have easily gone to actors who share these characteristics and struggle to get a foothold in the industry, and are a missed opportunity for genuine representation. For more on this perspective, I'd recommend watching this very enlightening vlog from Jen Campbell, a writer and poet, whose personal viewpoint on these issues is much more valuable than mine.

So, there are highly problematic elements, and confusing storytelling choices, and even just a huge amount of cheese involved in this film. But I didn't come away hating it, I came away on a cloud of joy, truly uplifted and happy. I knew what was being said about the film before I went in. I was aware of some of its issues. And I was still willing to let myself enjoy it. After a lot of soul-searching and seeking out as many perspectives as possible, I am no closer to understanding how I am supposed to feel about that.

The only thing I can do is share my own perspective on the film, and why I liked it so much. And full disclosure at this point, I not only went to see it and enjoyed it, I went to see it two further times, and enjoyed them too. What I got from The Greatest Showman was escapism, pure and simple. I know that might sound like a wild thing to say when coupled with the fact that I went in forearmed with knowledge of its problems. How could I allow myself to get carried away by this film which treats marginalised communities so egregiously?

When I say 'escapism' I mean that in the purest sense. I specifically felt intrusive thoughts which came into my mind during the film being literally pushed out by the overblown singing and dancing I was taking in. I adore the soundtrack to this film. I adore the choreography. On an average day I am quite anxious a lot of the time - I feel like there's an awful lot to be worried about in this world - and when watching The Greatest Showman I got to spend an hour and a three-quarters with a blissfully blank mind. The film doesn't demand anything of you. Unless, of course, you are not in a position to forget about its issues.

The stated message of the film is one I can get on board with. It's a mostly happy, mostly peril-free story about working hard, welcoming outsiders, and giving people the opportunity to shine. It includes many wonderful song-and-dance numbers. One song features a woman belting "I know that I deserve your love, there's nothing I'm not worthy of," my favourite moment in the film. With a few storylining tweaks, and removing all mention of P.T. Barnum, this could have been a lovely made-up story about a circus. That film would have had fewer issues, but it would still be looking at history with rose-tinted glasses, and still be fundamentally ignoring the crimes of the past.

I am very comfortable with liking something that is regarded as artless and badly-made. Criticisms of storylining issues or poor cinematography choices don't bother me at all. What has bothered me so much about The Greatest Showman is the question of... Am I the kind of person who cares about the opinions of marginalised groups? I hope that I am. Does it make a difference that I acknowledge the arguments people are making to be valid? I don't know. I understand and appreciate their perspectives. I would never - and have never  - wholeheartedly recommended this film with no caveats. I've always said "it's terrible on a lot of levels, really most levels, but I enjoyed it and the songs are great." Is that enough?

Am I allowed to like something that someone else told me was morally abhorrent? I hate disagreeing with people I basically feel are right. And fundamentally I don't disagree with them, I just enjoyed the film anyway. Especially right now in our cultural discourse, it can feel like everything is black and white, and the fact that I'm not on the side of the people who are offended by The Greatest Showman makes me feel like some kind of monster who'd next minute say something like "we're all offended by everything these days, snowflakes, political correctness gone mad, raah!" And I don't think I'm that. I hope I'm not that. It's cognitive dissonance. It's agreeing with criticisms, and still going to see a movie three times because it made me happy.

I think probably we have to allow for grey areas, otherwise we force everyone to pick a team, and lines are drawn where they don't need to be. I am willing to state for the record that I enjoyed The Greatest Showman, and I'll just have to allow myself that.

This film isn't trying to be a historically-accurate piece. It's not trying to make many political statements. I highly doubt it's trying to be particularly artful. The end screen features a quote from P.T. Barnum: "The noblest art is that of making others happy." And I don't think I can bring myself to disagree with that. Or at the very least, I'd say it's a noble art. Of course, it's also noble to shine a light on injustice, even if it makes some people unhappy. It's also noble to lift up marginalised voices, even if they make people uncomfortable. There are too few films that do that; there should - and will - be many more in the coming years.

The Greatest Showman doesn't further any conversations, or make the world a better place. But it makes me happy for an hour and 45 minutes and sometimes that's okay.

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