This is in response to my friend Matt Dessem’s comments on another post, but it got too long for a comment box and stopped being about The Adjustment Bureau, so I’m starting a new one. Read the comments for context, along with the article that started the conversation: “The Day the Movies Died” by Mark Harris.
First off, I think the fact that The Rock is coming to the Criterion Collection is more evidence of the death of Hollywood than anything else. (I actually liked that movie, for what it was, which was Sean Connery chewing scenery and Nicholas Cage before he totally lost all his appeal. But it is most definitely the lowest of low art).
I’m not saying that I want the theater experience to go away completely, because even a mall multiplex gives a movie the feeling of an Event, even when there’s nobody else in the theater. But I do believe that a movie’s got to “earn” it. If it costs me $25 to see a movie in San Francisco (including parking and such), then I’m just not going unless it’s got lasers or Coen brothers. (Or both, which would be awesome).
You could make the case, as Mark Harris tries to, that that means I’ve given up on entertainment as Art. That I’m a man-child who’s abandoned any pretense of quality and am complicit in the death of movies. (Based on what I’ve been watching and reading lately, you could make a pretty convincing case). But I say that I’m just acknowledging that the media have changed in the past 30 years. It doesn’t make sense to cling to this outdated notion of a hierarchy of entertainment, with cinema resting comfortably at the top both in quality and in revenue.
Here are some of Matt’s comments, out of order:
And we agree that the most interesting work in drama is being done on television, and the audience is there in that format. I’m not going to get all weepy about the communal experience of going to a theater (I guess I will if pressed) but okay: drama’s still there, and TV has an unecessary stigma (although it’s not just self-important people in SoCal: remember that HBO’s slogan is still “It’s not TV. It’s HBO”). Of course, Mad Men, a pretty expensive TV show, has a budget of less than $5 million per hour; AMC couldn’t produce The Social Network if they wanted to. Not without a theatrical release, anyway.
Although it may sound like it, I don’t want to lose the communal experience of going to a theater, either. I just think that the idea of the cinema being the pinnacle of entertainment, with everything else being inferior, is an idea that needs to die.
Why couldn’t AMC have made The Social Network? I haven’t seen it, but I’m pretty confident that it didn’t have a super expensive post-production, or any particularly exotic locations. I think that it’s all based on inflation — it’s expensive not because of anything inherent to the movie, but simply because it’s a movie.
So many people in Hollywood and observing Hollywood seem to take this as a given, but then go on to make arguments about quality as if it were somehow related. But a movie like Avatar would be expensive even if James Cameron weren’t attached. A movie like The Social Network is expensive only because David Fincher’s attached. (And, I’m guessing, Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake and even Aaron Sorkin now that he’s not slumming in television).
For that matter, Transformers was an inherently expensive movie. But the thing that all of us hate to acknowledge is that it made all its money back. (According to IMDB). I agree that Transformers — and I’m assuming the sequel, although I didn’t and will never see it because the first one was such an abomination — was a steaming pile of shit. (It’s a little surprising that Michael Bay and Shia LeBeouf both thought the sequel was crap and perversely charming that Bay sees it as a misstep in an otherwise artistically valid franchise). But I disagree about what it says about the movie industry:
You write that “a theatrical release, and the huge marketing budget that it requires, demands a certain level of spectacle.” I think you have it exactly backwards: a certain level of spectacle demands a huge marketing budget, especially when the film has nothing else to recommend it. It costs a tremendous amount of money to convince people, even for one weekend, that chicken shit is chicken salad, and that money crowds everything else out of the theaters, because every other movie has to open wide, and there’s no way to get the kind of press you need without spending a fortune, and an actor who’s just been paid $20 million to be in a film that they knew was shitty might take less to be in a great film… but not much less. It’s a positive feedback loop, and it’s not just crowding out dramas, it’s devouring its own tail.
I think you’re overestimating the box office draw of quality, and even overestimating how much power marketing has over audiences. Few things annoy me more than the “you just have to turn your brain off” defense of movies, but again, that’s talking about quality, which is near irrelevant to a discussion about the Bay-Bruckheimerization of Hollywood. People start off with a valid complaint about these movies as being assaults on the very notion of goodness, but then they invariably throw in money as if the two ideas were at all related. I think that a lot of the complaints about Bay being a shitty filmmaker are actually complaints that he’s such a good businessman.
I will definitely agree that Hollywood has become too obsessed with judging success/failure on the basis of first weekend box office, but I don’t agree that spectacle necessarily obviates quality and therefore demands a larger budget. Your Transformers 2 example proves that, in fact. The people who went to see Transformers 2 didn’t want a good movie; to hear some of them talk about it, they would’ve been distracted by a good movie. They wanted cars and hot chicks in cut-offs working on cars and robots fighting and helicopters and explosions. That stuff attracts audiences to theaters, but it’s expensive.
I don’t believe that the marketing money was designed to convince audiences that Transformers 2 was a good movie; I believe it was to tell audiences that Transformers 2 exists. To drown out the billions of other things fighting for their attention, to say “hey look lasers and robots are here.” If anything, it was for the studio’s benefit, not the audiences’. The studio spent millions on the lasers and robots, and they’re going to spend millions to make sure that nobody blames them for not marketing the movie sufficiently.
And I actually think it’s more condescending to say that Hollywood is tricking audiences into believing that “chicken shit is chicken salad,” than it is just to acknowledge that there’s an audience that just plain doesn’t care about the distinction. That doesn’t mean that that audience is stupid — many of them are, surely, but not $400,000,000 worth. But to claim that they’re being hoodwinked into watching cars turn into robots assumes that they are all stupid enough not to see through the marketing hype, even though everyone our age and younger has been trained since adolescence to pride ourselves on seeing through marketing hype. I think it’s a lot more reasonable to assume that you’re just underestimating the inherent draw of cars turning into robots.
For all I know, 90% of the audience left the spectacle they paid good money for, and went home to finish reading Infinite Jest. A novel I could probably have finished reading in the time I’ve spent complaining about how dumb it is for people to pay to see Transformers 2.
…by the time Bay is making Armageddon, the economics are such that you can’t make an R-rated spectacle film, not if you want to make your money back. Big spectacle movies are crowding out other big spectacle movies. You couldn’t make The Rock today, which is no great loss, But you also couldn’t make Alien, or Aliens, or The Terminator or any of the big scifi films of the 1980s (except for the ones with Jedis). You’d have to make them PG-13, and that’s new in the last fifteen years. You don’t get to make In the Mountains of Madness, the screenplay for which reads like an 80′s horror/sci-fi film. I’m not surprised, but I don’t like it.
But here’s the thing that so many of us forget, because the world in the 1980s is so alien to us now. I can still remember in around 1986 when I first went into a Blockbuster video — there was only one in the metro Atlanta area, and it was a good 20 miles from my house — and it absolutely blew my mind. They had hundreds of movies, and I could take any of them home to watch as much as I wanted for two whole nights!
Now, of course, I’ve got 10 movies I’ve ripped sitting on a hard drive waiting for me to watch them, plus a DVD from Netflix that I’ve had out for over a month, plus about 8 movies from HBO that I’ve got sitting on the DVR yet to be watched, plus all of Netflix’s Watch Instantly catalog, plus a few DVD’s that I’ve bought and are still in the shrink wrap, plus Amazon and iTunes and Xbox and Sony all trying to get me to download more. Not to mention the five channels of HBO that are showing full-length unedited feature films right now, while I choose to read and write plain text on a 15″ laptop monitor.
Also: the Video Toaster wouldn’t be released for another few years, and that would be the first exposure anybody in the consumer market had to “industry-quality” CGI. Now, people are throwing The Last Starfighter caliber effects into YouTube videos. Hell, I’ve got a still camera that shoots HD video. And people with talent can produce stuff to rival Hollywood of 5-10 years ago, at least, on a meager budget.
So the stuff that was inherently expensive about making Terminator or Alien (if not Aliens) is stupid cheap now. And there are dozens of channels to distribute it, not just a wide theatrical release. So is the problem really that you don’t get to make it, or is it that you don’t get 50 million dollars from a studio to make it?
That’s what I mean when I say that these are complaints about money disguised as complaints about quality. You can indeed make a good, intelligent R-rated sci-fi film these days, if you’re dedicated to what you’re making. And it’ll most likely barely recoup its cost. And you can blame that on its getting crowded out by higher-profile sci-fi movies, or poor marketing from the studio, or the fact that it was an R-rated movie, or that audiences were too stupid to appreciate it.
Or you can acknowledge that theater audiences weren’t in the mood for late-70s style psychological science fiction. But it would’ve been an amazing TV movie for the cost of what you quote as one episode of Mad Men. Or hell, Charlie Sheen’s salary alone for 5 episodes of Two and a Half Men. I think the audience is totally out there; it’s just not in the same place it was when Terminator got released. (Not to mention, of course that Terminator is a better film in a lot of ways, as well as being an easier sell. As lackluster as James Cameron’s post-Aliens movies have been, you have to admit the guy knows how to put a movie together).
Being risk averse isn’t new, the 70s were an anomaly, and in twenty years the only movies from 2010 anyone will know are the great ones. I do think it’s funny that you used Barton Fink to illustrate that it’s always been this way, because I don’t think that movie gets made today. The Coen Brothers directed 10 original features between 1984 and 2003. Since then, they’ve directed two more original features, but also two remakes and one adaptation of a novel. Their next film is a remake. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great remakes and adaptations, but still.
But still… what? While I disagree with the idea that wide-release film is the pinnacle of entertainment, I can at least see where the idea’s coming from. But the notion that adaptations, sequels, and remakes are somehow inferior to original stories is one I just don’t get at all, and it keeps getting trotted out as the downfall of the medium.
Just for the Coen Brothers: O Brother Where Art Thou was an adaptation of The Odyssey, and apparently Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski are loose pastiches of Raymond Chandler stories.
Almost all of Hitchcock’s best movies (except North by Northwest) were based on books or short stories. One of his best movies was a remake (of his own movie, sure, but it still counts).
11 of my 25 most favorite movies are either remakes, sequels, or adaptations (or some combination thereof). (I’m counting Airplane! and Young Frankenstein because they’re both parodies of other movies). And 9 of the 16 runners-up are, too. Take a look at the IMDB Top 250 and as far as I counted, it’s got a pretty similar ratio. Most of the other “best movies” lists I’ve been able to find on the internet (apart from Roger Ebert’s, which only has 2001: A Space Odyssey) are the same.
There’s nothing new about remakes or adaptations, or even having a rash of them in the same year. Granted, the current trend is to have a glut of them, most of them unnecessary, but Hollywood does trends. We all know that. The tornado fad was short-lived, the Western fad lasted forever, luckily we all survived the first fad of disaster movies and later the subsequent remakes. In Barton Fink it was boxing pictures, if I remember correctly.
And it’s no secret that I think the Coen Brothers are the greatest living filmmakers, but they’re also my go-to example of why we should be optimistic whenever anybody talks about the death of cinema. Because they prove not only that talent makes all the difference, but also that having enough talent and business sense can prevail in a business that doesn’t particularly care about quality.
I’m assuming that making a successful adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel is what allowed them to make their Existentialist Midwestern Jewish Dread movie. But True Grit doesn’t feel like they sacrificed anything at all. It’s not just that it’s a better movie than the last adaptation of the novel; it’s that it’s so good, it makes the last movie seem laughably unnecessary and even makes the book it’s based on feel like a novelization. Seriously: it is such a Coen Brothers movie that I still have a hard time believing the book was written in 1968. (And based on the very little I’ve read about Portis’s other books, I feel as if I’ve stumbled onto a treasure trove of unfilmed Coen Brothers movies).
And if you were to tell me that Raising Arizona was based on a book or was a remake of some obscure European comedy, it wouldn’t do anything to make it less of a brilliant movie. So great filmmakers can make great films out of just about anything, even comic books.
So maybe the argument is that in today’s Hollywood, studios are only willing to invest in the known selling power of remakes and adaptations, and even proven geniuses like the Coens aren’t immune to the system. But: we’ve all heard of the John Wayne True Grit, but is there some big-market draw to Gambit that I’m just not aware of? Or for that matter, The Ladykillers? After The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Hudsucker Proxy, I’m more inclined to believe they’re methodically working their way through all of the film genres that they love, and whether or not there’s actual source material is kind of an afterthought.
I can believe that Barton Fink could get made today. A Serious Man — another weird, R-rated, high-concept, hard-sell movie — got made two years ago. For that matter, Black Swan got made last year (although, granted, the promise of Natalie Portman making out with Mila Kunis probably helped with the marketing). The only part that worries me is that the Coens already, back in 1991, ruthlessly mocked the idea of the tortured cineaste fighting valiantly for Art against an industry that only cares about money (and they were making fun of themselves!), but we still react as if it’s a tragedy when people try to sell a product that no one wants to buy.
Every few years I read an article about the imminent death of the movie industry because of insert current trend here. And every year there are unique movies that somehow get made, but they’re either not mentioned, or they’re treated as a fluke. A fluke that repeats every year. I’m no Hollywood insider, but the only trend that I see as permanent is that wide-release theatrical movies are getting more and more expensive to make. (Big surprise there). But it’s not a crisis, because wide-release theatrical movies don’t have the monopoly on entertainment — filmmakers have the option to fight the system or work within the system to champion an idea they believe in strongly enough, or to get over their egos and release it on a channel with less resistance.