The Life of the Easily-Distracted Mind

Thoughts about high art, low art, and false populism in the movie business.

Barton fink beach
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 It doesn’t make sense to cling to this outdated notion of a hierarchy of entertainment, with cinema resting comfortably at the top both in quality and in revenue.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.

7 thoughts on “The Life of the Easily-Distracted Mind”

  1. One more thing:

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

    (You’re aware that one of those is a remake and one is an adaptation of a book?)

    Yeah, I worded that wrong; “existential horror” is my lazy go-to phrase for “I don’t have the vocabulary to explain it.” But I do believe that Lovecraft (what little I’ve read) is one of the few things that I’d categorize as “unfilmable.” I’m reluctant to call it that, but there’s just so much evidence.

    I’m less convinced of the connection with The Terminator, Robocop, or Frankenstein, because they’ve got the “unstoppable” part but not the “unknowable” — we’ve got a clear idea what created the problem, even if we’ve got no idea how to stop it.

    Alien and The Thing are almost there, though: that sense that there’s something out there that we don’t understand and can’t control, but it wants us dead for no particular reason we can identify, and if we go up against it we’re basically screwed.

    Still, the greatest things about Lovecraft are the things that make so many people believe it’d be perfect source material for a movie, and conversely fall apart as soon as you try to make a movie out of it. Most obvious is that the horror can’t be seen: as soon as you show the monster, it becomes this enemy you can start to figure out and try to kill. Movies don’t do shapeless dread very well. Second is the scale: you’ve got to get the sense that the creatures are everywhere, and larger and more horrifying than you can imagine, and that we’re so insignificant in comparison that our only hope is to not know of them. Anything you try to show cheapens that.

    And the stories I’ve read all have an “empty” protagonist, not that interesting on his own. So you don’t see it as a story that’s happening to someone else, but as a situation that you (or “humanity”) could find yourself in if you go looking for stuff that’s best left unknown. As soon as you show a protagonist in a movie, though, it becomes a story about that guy. Even if he is dull enough that you can project yourself onto him.

    Obviously I’m at a disadvantage for not having read the screenplay for In the Mountains of Madness (or read that book; I’ve only read the stories), but based on what I know of Lovecraft and del Toro, I’ve got a pretty good sense that it’s one of those ideas that seems amazing in theory but would actually fall apart in practice.

  2. Yeah, that’s a little long for a comment!

    There’s a lot to think about here. But the first thing is: The Social Network is a really amazing movie. If you feed it into one of the countless media pipelines in your life, it won’t disappoint you.

  3. I’m sure The Social Network is good, but it’s like a perfect storm of people and topics that annoy me: Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher making a movie about Facebook with Jesse Eisenberg? I’ll probably get around to it eventually. Maybe I’ll even “Like” it. I’M SURE NOBODY MADE THAT JOKE BEFORE.

    Incidentally: in case it seems like I’m trying to promote my comment to Special Featured status, remember that hardly anybody reads this website. I think I’ve gotten to like the Tumblr philosophy to comments overall: chains of interconnected blogs instead of an “owner” blog with a comments section. (But then, I’ve been lucky that the comments are always pretty good on this one).

    Also: reading over the post again, I realize it sounds like I’m defending art-as-commerce, or saying Bay & Bruckheimer can be excused for making shitty movies because they make a lot of money. Of course I’m not; I’m just starting from the assumption that that’s kind of a tired and lazy argument. Plus it doesn’t do any good. If anyone’s going to accuse them of ruining the industry, he has to explain how and why good movies continue to get made every year; clearly, there are still people who understand the balance of quality and profitability.

  4. For what it’s worth, The Rock and Armageddon were first released on Criterion DVD – and complained about as the downfall of cinema – about 10 years ago. If they’re coming back around, it’s just a Blu-Ray reprint or something.

  5. Okay, in no particular order:

    The Criterion editions of The Rock and Armageddon go back to the laserdisc days; it’s just that I’m finally getting around to writing about The Rock. My thoughts on Armageddon are here. Re: The Social Network, this is as good a defense of the film—and description of the way it feels to watch it—as any. I don’t think you’ll find it annoying.

    You’re right about the Coen brothers; it’s not like they got forced to make Garfield movies (even if Bill Murray thought they did). That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out thing for me to have said.

    But let’s talk economics, because I still think you’re underestimating the costs of making a one-off two-hour movie. If we’re going to talk specifically about The Social Network, well, David Fincher does spend a surprising amount in post for things that don’t look like they cost anything (e.g., the almost-entirely-CGI San Francisco in Zodiac, or Armie Hammer playing both of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network). There are certainly cheaper ways to do these things, but it’s not just built-in price inflation because it’s a feature. And the minute you tell Fincher he can’t have his tilt-shift helicopter shot you’re making a different movie than The Social Network. That doesn’t address your larger point, that I’m disguising arguments about quality in arguments about economics; I’m just saying that the cost of that particular movie isn’t entirely because of overpaid actors, directors, &c.

    I also think it’s easier to do a high quality production if you are working in episodic TV instead of making a made-for-TV movie, and this skews some of the perception of how good TV drama can be. There are one-time costs (character models? animations? I don’t know anything about computer game development) that Telltale spreads over six episodes of an episodic game, right? The Mad Men producers only have to build the Sterling-Cooper set once, and they can use it for years; the same goes for the boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire. I still think for a two-hour, one-off story, television alone doesn’t yet offer enough revenue to do a really quality production. I could be wrong about that, but stigma or no, I have yet to see a made-for-TV feature-length film that really floored me. (Episodic tv, yes, yes, a thousand times yes). Maybe that’s a function of lagging economics and it’ll change. I hope so!

    One other thing: the studios don’t just judge the films based on their first weekend, they’ve structured their deals with movie theaters so that they make all their money on the first weekend. For large openings, they can get as much as 100% of ticket sales from the theaters for the first weekend. After that, the theater gets to keep a steadily increasing percentage of the ticket revenue, more each week. So a movie that opens badly but has great word of mouth and runs for months doesn’t make the studio as much money a movie that everyone sees in the first week but everyone hates. The economics favor movies where the studio can get as many people in as quickly as possible, no matter how bad the movie is, and to hell with the next weekend. That means spectacle films, and films targeted at audiences that will go see a movie opening night, not two weeks later, which means young people. If the ticket revenue were evenly shared for however long the film ran, I think you’d see (more) different kinds of films getting made.

    Re: chicken shit & chicken salad, I guess I phrased that badly. I don’t think that people have been tricked into thinking Transformers 2 is a good movie. I think they’ve been tricked into thinking it doesn’t matter. (Honestly, it’s part and parcel with what you talk about when you say we’ve all been trained to see through marketing hype: see David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction for more on that. I definitely see the difference between a movie that tries to tell a story and a thrill-ride; I wrote about it when writing about Armageddon. I just think if that’s what an audience is looking for, they should at least be looking for a good thrill ride. I get a lot of people don’t care whether a movie is any good (the box office results would seem to indicate this), but I don’t feel bad about being condescending about it. If it’s not stupidity, it’s in the same ballpark. Incuriousness?

    But your larger point, that I’m ignoring the fact that good movies keep getting made, and that a lot of what I’m saying amounts to whining that people aren’t buying tickets to the kind of movie I like, you’re absolutely correct—point taken. I expect there will be movies I’ll love this year, just like every year before.

  6. Ah, I must’ve known that The Rock and Armageddon got Criterion treatment and blocked it out of my memory. Maybe they were just being ironic?

    And that Salon article about the rowing sequence was enough to convince me to see The Social Network. (Although it’s also a scene with no dialogue, so no guarantees I’ll be able to make it through).

    Definitely excellent points about the economics of episodic vs features, points you’d think I would’ve picked up on. I was just wondering why all the standout TV-are-as-good-as-movies-now examples were series instead of feature-length, without even remember three years spent trying to think of how to reuse sets without its seeming like reusing sets. And it’s the built-in marketing, too: part of the economics that makes episodic appealing is the potential for building up buzz the longer the series goes on.

    Plus after seeing a couple of made-for-TV movies (like Temple Grandin and that one about Jack Kevorkian) get so much critical praise but not a ton of buzz otherwise, I’m skeptical that Social Network could’ve recouped its investment.

    And I definitely agree that spectacular movies could stand to be smarter. That’s kind of the point I keep trying and failing to make: the notion that “thrill ride” and “story” are mutually exclusive is just lazy false cynicism. Harris’s article is full of it. It’s the conventional wisdom: Hollywood execs only interested in the bottom line, complaining that all these great ideas are too smart for the lasers-and-robots crowd and insisting on dumbing the movies down in favor of more spectacle, and audiences just lap it up. I’m skeptical.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that no Hollywood exec has ever complained about a screenplay that reads over a 4th-grade level is too high-brow. There are lazy execs just like there are lazy filmmakers, and lazy film industry observers. And the easiest thing to do is mis-read an audience who says (either with box office or focus testing) that they liked the lasers and explosions and interpret that to mean they’re too dumb to appreciate anything else. And when you’ve written a scene that’s dull and talky, the easiest thing to do is to complain that the audience just doesn’t get it.

    But I don’t see how that has anything to do with Top Gun, or how movies like Transformers are keeping better movies from getting made. I really believe it’s just that making a profitable movie is easier, and therefore more common, than making a good one. People see the correlation between spectacle and crap, and they assume that means causation. But there’s plenty of contrary evidence: all three of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were hugely expensive and marketing-driven, but one of the three was actually good.

    I’d still like to believe there’s a viable venue for feature-length movies outside of theaters. Maybe not if a movie about Facebook costs 40 million dollars to make, though.

  7. Miller’s Crossing is a loose retelling of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (and a far better movie than the “official” adaptation starring Alan Ladd). But…I quibble.

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