In the art world, I use a term called “idealistic art”, which in my mind, would refer to idealized paintings of portraits, landscapes, sculptures, and of religious and mythological scenes, which tended to make their subjects look more beautiful than they might actually have been. Basically, idealistic art refers to classical paintings, and at this point, you might be wondering what paintings have to do with films. For me, films are essentially an art form, thus they tend to fall into similar trappings. Thus, in the world of cinema, it is common to find idealistic films in the market, and many of them end up being quite popular.
To put it simply, the idealistic film is the cinematic equivalent of the idealistic painting, in that the purpose of an idealistic film is to present an idealized version of real world situations. Generally, the idealistic film would consist of comedy films (especially romantic comedies like Liar Liar and How to Be Single), teen films, family films, children’s films period dramas, historical films, epic films, religious films, superhero films, some action films (like London Has Fallen), sometimes biographical films, and any film that is essentially oscar bait (including almost every Steven Spielberg film).
I’ve found that a lot of those films share many similarities with idealistic paintings. Like the paintings, they all offer pretty pictures, though the vast majority of them are quite boring. Also, nearly all idealistic films and paintings aim to express some social or moral ideal, and its usually a form of conventional or populist morality. In addition, many idealistic films and paintings centre around white characters, and are often whitewashed. The film industry is notorious for whitewashing ethnic roles, and many of the films perpetrating this are idealistic films (by my definition, Aloha, Pan and Gods of Egypt all count as idealistic films). Whitewashing has also occurred in classical paintings, especially in religious paintings, where many Biblical characters, often Semitic in origin, are cast as white characters. And of course, nearly every depiction of Jesus since the medieval era has cast him as a brown-haired white European, even though he might actually have been a black-haired man of Semitic ethnicity.
Going back to the topic of film, Hollywood is littered with idealistic films, mainly because that’s all they seem to make. It’s been like this since its early days, but in my mind, idealistic films, or at least in the way I would define them, were perhaps most prominent during the era of the Hays Code, a moralistic set of rules that governed film production from 1934 until 1968. Written in the early 1930’s by Will Hays, and enforced by Joseph Breen until 1954, this code made sure that film-makers could not openly mention or depict anything related to sexuality. Thus, many films intended as sex comedies wound up morphing into sappy romance films (one film was changed so that it would end with a tacky wedding scene). Almost every film that wasn’t a horror or crime film was pretty much guaranteed to be an idealistic film, as each one presented ideal people in ideal situations (the idea of the sex symbol is a very idealistic one). Perhaps the worst offenders of that era were the historical films set in the Old South. These films often presented life in the Southern states in a painfully idealistic light, and often painted a positive image of slavery (in fact, some of these films were accused of having racist overtones).
For me, the all-time biggest example of the idealistic film you could possibly find has to be Forrest Gump, and I’m not just saying that because it was basically shameless Oscar bait. It centres around a naive protagonist who stays that way for the whole film, it presents an idealized view of the world and of people, and it’s extremely heavy-handed in the delivery of its “stupid is as stupid does” message. The worst part about it is that the majority of people ate it up like kids in a candy store, to the point that it garnered a total of 29 awards, and to this day still receives unquestioning praise from around the world. That’s the trick of the idealistic film – if you present the audience a pretty picture with an agreeable sentiment, they’ll clamour for more every time.
Through all of that, I aimed to illustrate the concept of the idealistic film, and hopefully explain why such films are so prevalent in the world of cinema. They serve the same function as the classical paintings – offering pretty pictures to people who don’t understand art. But, like those paintings, they have little meaning beyond the idealism they are designed to communicate. Perhaps that explains why they’re so boring and bland most of the time, and yet because they’re agreeable to a mass audience by design, people will always fall for the act, and thus producers will never stop making them.