Wingtips of Desire

I don’t have time to write too much about The Adjustment Bureau, but I can’t let a pun title go to waste.


The Adjustment Bureau is the best movie I’ve seen based on a Philip K. Dick story. Yeah, I went there.

I haven’t read the story it was based on, but the synopsis provided by Wikipedia suggests that there’s little in common with the movie apart from the most basic premise. And it’s not particularly surprising that Dick in 1954 wrote a story of existential dread, while Hollywood in 2011 made a love story with undertones of a mediation on free will. It may be an example of a new genre: the romantic thriller.

The movie is significantly more grounded, a little less imaginative, and a lot less European than Wings of Desire, but I thought there were a lot of similarities. Angels working behind the scenes — I’m a total sucker for a setup like this, especially when there’s a glaze of old-fashioned sentimentality over the whole thing.

And the romance actually works. The angels in fedoras [note: they’re not overly explicitly called angels in the film] are a neat enough visual, but the movie really depends on the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It really works, and it feels genuine. Even Soderberghian.

Something I’d never quite realized about romantic comedies or dramas in the past: in almost all of them, you’re rooting for the relationship because you like the characters. (Or they’re bland enough that you can project whatever personality you like onto them). But while I wasn’t particularly charmed by either of the main characters in The Adjustment Bureau, I was charmed by their banter with each other. So it’s the kind of couple that you really want to see get together, and then go away and never hang out with you.

Also of note: the movie couldn’t quite decide whether to use John Slattery or Terrence Stamp, so it cast them both. Weird.

Last week my friend Matt Dessem linked to an article by Mark Harris in GQ titled “The Day the Movies Died”, which complains how animation and movies based on comic books are both catering to and perpetuating a market of young males in a constant state of arrested development. As a result, Hollywood has killed the adult drama and, by extension, the entire film industry.

I’ve got more problems with that article than I have time to cover now. All I’ll say is that a movie like this is a perfect example of how the article misses the point. Harris sees a rigidly divided hierarchy of media, in which the highest tier of cinema is being overrun with infantilizing man-child fantasies, driving intelligent films to the wastelands of premium or even basic cable. I see a billion different media channels fighting for my attention, each capable of its own highs and lows. It’s a pretty significant investment to make the trip to a theater except for the spectacle that only a huge screen and overpriced concessions can provide. I’m not paying ten bucks plus parking to see The Kids Are All Right if I can get the whole explosion-free experience on my TV screen.

The Adjustment Bureau isn’t cinéma vérité, but it’s a novel idea that doesn’t patronize the audience, and it’s not overloaded with effects. In terms of fantastic visuals, it’s about on par with an AT&T commercial. But it is the type of story that’s improved by seeing it in a theater. Show me more of that, and I’ll keep making the trip, even without 3D or IMAX.

4 thoughts on “Wingtips of Desire”

  1. Finally, a way to talk about this without a 140-character limit! Look, I will grant you that Harris is unnecessarily condescending toward comic book movies; even though he says that “the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific,” I get the distinct impression his heart isn’t in it—at least when it comes to the comic book part of the sentence. He clearly doesn’t like that kind of movie.

    But he’s not wrong when he writes about the “decades-long marginalization of the very notion of creative ambition.” If you greenlight Transformers, you’re a hero. If you greenlight The Savages, you’re fired. My employer just had news coverage of their upcoming slate, which represents the next couple of years of movies:

    The Hobbit (PG-13)
    James Bond 23 (PG-13)
    Robocop (PG-13)
    Mr. Mom (Maybe PG, maybe PG-13)
    Poltergeist (PG-13)
    The Idolmaker (PG?)
    Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (PG-13?)

    So that’s one original property they’re cofinancing (a shameless, and doomed, ploy for Twilight money) and the rest are sequels and reboots. They are nominally looking at originals but their release schedule has something like two free slots between now and 2014, both for films with a maximum budget of 30M. Which rules out The Social Network, never mind Inception. The only movies they’re excited about making are PG-13, kid-friendly, fast-food licenseable ideas with an existing fanbase. Some of those films could be spectacular, but that shouldn’t be the only thing on a studio’s development slate. (He’s not making up the conventional wisdom that Warner couldn’t get out of making Inception if they wanted Nolan to keep making Batman movies, either, though to be honest, I wouldn’t have made Inception myself).

    I haven’t seen The Adjustment Bureau, but I certainly support anything with “a novel idea that doesn’t patronize the audience.” Harris’s point, and one I agree with him about, is that no one at the major studios cares about “a novel idea that doesn’t patronize the audience”; they care about hitting the PG-13 rating, making back as much as they can from licensing, and getting the opening weekend money before internet buzz kills the movie (they hate Twitter). If Inception hadn’t done so well, you wouldn’t have seen a quarter of as much marketing for The Adjustment Bureau as you did, and remember, nobody thought it was a good idea to make Inception.

  2. Finally have time to respond to this.

    I’m definitely not going to argue that film studios aren’t risk-averse, or that we’re being inundated with poorly-conceived remakes and sequels. What I am arguing against is:

    1) Harris’s tired and lazy dismissal of animation and comic book movies.
    The rest of us had already stopped fighting that battle once Toy Story 2 and X-Men 2 came out, much less Up and The Dark Knight. You’re right that his “oh yeah, Pixar. And Dark Knight, I guess” is a half-hearted afterthought. But I object to how he keeps pounding that idea over and over again: comic book movies are the death of Hollywood. Even though his darling movie Inception would never have happened without The Dark Knight. Anybody with a lick of sense realizes that talent is more important than source material: it’s been proven that good filmmakers can make great movies out of comic books or animation or sequels, time and time again. Harris’s refusal to acknowledge that makes it impossible for me to take anything else he says seriously.

    2) The idea that this is “the death of Hollywood.” It’s Hollywood figuring out its available channels, just as it has several times over (like for instance the first time television “killed” the film industry). He acknowledges HBO’s original series and AMC’s out-of-nowhere successes with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” but he still keeps pounding on the idea that Hollywood is dying. Because, somehow, of Top Gun. But that’s the point I’m trying to make in this post: a theatrical release, and the huge marketing budget that it requires, demands a certain level of spectacle. The Adjustment Bureau, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and even Inception are all improved by seeing them in a theater. The “Adult Dramas” that Harris wants aren’t; we’ve seen time and again that they can be every bit as good on a smaller screen.

    That does not mean that I’m an uncultured man-child, as Harris condescendingly suggests. It means that television has gotten a lot better since the 70s, when it was possible to get people into theaters to watch talky “serious” movies. It hasn’t been the 70s for 30 years, and Harris & the rest of Hollywood need to get over this idea that there’s some well-deserved stigma associated with made-for-TV movies or having to settle for an Emmy instead of an Oscar.

    3) The idea that this is anything new. I only agree with the “decades-long marginalization of the very notion of creative ambition” as long as you mean eight or nine decades. Haven’t you seen Barton Fink? Hollywood has always been a business, and it’s always been risk-averse. And original ideas have always been a tougher sell than whatever the audience has already bought. That’s why there have been trends, from the Noir to the Western, each with its few standout genius works among a sea of crap.

    So basically, I think Harris’s article is shockingly out of touch with Hollywood and pop culture in general. Would it have been so terrible if The Social Network or The King’s Speech had been HBO or even AMC productions instead of theatrical releases? I think Harris is just clinging to this extremely outdated and irrelevant idea of what “Hollywood” is, and he’s insulting all of us animation and comic book fans in the process.

    As for the other article: I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but so far I agree with the bulk of it. Just about any studio that’s getting accused of killing Hollywood with unoriginality has taken a chance on at least one or two original, great concepts recently, and they’ve gotten smacked for it. The audience just isn’t there, and that doesn’t mean the audience is stupid. It just means that the audience isn’t taking the divisions between high art and low art, or the divisions between cinema and television, as seriously as a lot of self-important people in southern California.

    I do think it’s interesting that the discussion about lack of originality and risk in Hollywood would be prompted by a film version of In the Mountains of Madness. Or is it okay to base a movie on a book, as long as that book doesn’t have pictures? Lovecraft has never been a viable Hollywood property — and again, I don’t think it’s the audience fault, but the realization that the appeal of Lovecraft is uniquely suited to prose, because existential horror doesn’t come across in a movie. Why is anyone surprised?

  3. We agree that Harris’s dismissal of comic book movies & animation is, as you say, lazy. And I don’t believe in a high art/low art hierarchy either. But what I do believe in, and what I think is being eroded, is a good art/bad art hierarchy; that’s a hill I’ll die on. There’s a longer conversation to have about this, but basically: if you work for a business that produces bad art that just happens to be in “low art” genres, it is very much in your interest to convince people that hatred of bad art is the same as hatred of low art. Because if you believe that, then anyone who tells you a particular instance of low art is shitty is an elitist.

    And they’ve been remarkably successful at this: witness the response to Roger Ebert’s Transformers 2 review, and the money Transformers 2 pulled in. And that drives me crazy, and it sounds like it drives Harris crazy enough that he’s making category errors, but it doesn’t have anything to do with high art vs. low art per se. From here, the conversation could take us off toward a grand unified theory of American anti-intellectualism, and the people who profit from it, and everything else in our culture that feels like populism but definitely isn’t. But that doesn’t have a lot to do with movies, so let’s table it for now, and say, yeah, Harris is kind of a jerk.

    And since I’ve had some time to think this over (and read the quotes from Selznick in this article), I think you’re right about your third point as well: studio executives have always been popcorn salesmen, as Dixon Steele would put it. 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.

    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.

    And here’s where we no longer agree. 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 demandes a huge marketing budget, especialy 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 saw The Rock a few nights ago; it’s coming up in the Criterion Collection. And I’ll write about it soon enough, but one of my initial thoughts is that people look at it like it’s the opening bell of this round of dumb action movies, but it’s actually more like a closing bell. Because Con Air is the next year, but 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 )G-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.

    Also, a minor quibble, what would The Terminator or Alien, or EM>Robocop, or The Thing—or Frankenstein, for that matter—be without existential horror? It comes across in a movie, if the filmmaker is talented.

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