' ' Cinema Romantico: Movies: Dead, Dying, Or Still Kicking?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movies: Dead, Dying, Or Still Kicking?

(Note: The following is sort of rambling and stream of consciousness that is not really stream of consciousness at all because it is packed full of carefully selected quotes. But still. I don't know. Please bear with me.)

"(W)hen a movie that everyone agrees is pre-sold falls on its face, the dullness of the idea itself never gets the blame. Because the idea that familiarity might actually work against a movie, were it to take hold in Hollywood, would be so annihilating to the studio ecosystem that it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Give the people what they don't know they want yet is a recipe for more terror than Hollywood can accommodate." - Mark Harris

Mark Harris, author of Pictures At A Revolution, recently wrote a piece for February's issue of GQ you may or may not have heard about titled "The Day The Movies Died." It's a funny, fascinating and, frankly, terrifying read. Look, my fellow movie snobs and I are always joking about the idiocy of Hollywood and what we presume to be the inanity of pitch meetings and I still recall how hard I laughed when my friend Brad, a few years ago, sent me this Onion article except then you read Harris's article and realize that Onion article contained more truth than you ever thought possible and that's scarier than, like, Frankenstein's Bride.

The article touches on a great many number of topics, including how the recent box office success of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" has essentially been rejected by studios as a one-off, an un-understandable miracle, since movies - ever since the 80's, which is when Harris pin-points it to - were given to the marketers as opposed to the creative types. Harris writes of films at the mid-point of the 80's: "If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient."

Are these two responsible for the downfall of American cinema?
He goes on to say: "With so much money at stake, the marketer's voice at the studio table is now pivotal from the day a studio decides whether to make a movie—and usually what that voice expresses is trepidation. Their first question is not 'Will the movie be good?' but 'Can it be sold?' And by 'sold,' what they mean is 'sold on the first weekend.' Good movies aimed at adults tend to make their money more slowly than kid stuff, and they're helped by good reviews and word of mouth, which, from a marketing standpoint, are impossible to engineer. That's one reason studios would rather spend $100 million on a franchise film than a fraction of that on an original idea."

Hmmmmmm......I feel like I've heard this sorta thing before......let's see here......

"And so faced with something unusual or original, the studio head generally says, 'I don't know how to market it, it will lose money.' The new breed of studio head is not likely to say, 'It's something I feel should we take a chance on. Let's see if there's somebody who might be able to figure out how to market it.'"

That was Pauline Kael writing for The New Yorker way back in 1980 in a piece titled "Why Are Movies So Bad?", an article that hits on many of the same themes Harris addresses. What's even more interesting is that 16 years before her own article Kael had authored an Atlantic piece titled "Are The Movies Going To Pieces?"

Kael writes: "Perhaps (audiences) prefer incoherent, meaningless movies because they are not required to remember or connect. They can feel superior, contemptuous--as they do toward television advertising. Even when it's a virtuoso triumph, the audience is contemptuous toward advertising, because, after all, they see through it--they know somebody is trying to sell something. And because, like a cheap movie obviously made to pry money out of them, that is all advertising means, it's OK...No wonder that studios and producers are unsure what to do next, scan best-seller lists for trends, consult audience-testing polls, anxiously chop out what a preview audience doesn't like."

This sounds a lot like the ills of today, too, though Kael's 1964 article - which is dense and awesome and has to be read several times to completely absorb - also seems very much a reaction to Godard and the French New Wave and the potential death of traditional storytelling. As in, "The art-house audience accepts lack of clarity as complexity, accepts clumsiness and confusion as 'ambiguity' and as style."

I guess what we could divine from all this is that, simply, the movies always have problems, are always at death's door, are always being overrun with buckets of slop. Heck, in the cinema's infancy movies were slapped together as quickly possible with no regard to quality simply to fill screens for a curious public - supply & demand.

Now, to be fair, Harris is not really arguing that America can no longer make good - sometimes great - films. Quite the contrary, and he specifies this several times. His argument is the majority of the studio system's "unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods" and how "Marketing (is) about looking at what's selling and then selling more of it" and how this threatens the future of, shall we say, quality cinema. He posits that this is a downward spiral, still redeemable these days, but that eventually, as a result of any number of things, including economic pressure, both on the studios and on the moviegoer, this might all collapse on itself. This won't happen tomorrow, of course. One could say Harris is making a cinematic global warming sorta argument - that if these trends continue we might not suffer but our kids or their kids will suffer.

The Greatest Moviegoing Experience Of My Life happened at this theater and now it's closed.
Robert McKee, the famed Story guru (i.e. Brian Cox in "Adaptation") recently said this: "(F)ilm may come and go as an art form, and art forms have come and gone. Opera, more and less, came and went and then just gets revived endlessly. There’s very little cutting edge opera today. There are art forms that rise up and dominate a period of time in human history and then recede. And so film goes though that and recedes. And the medium of the future, I think, is television."

And that frightens me. Yes, I understand TV is doing wonderful things and blah, blah, blah, blah, but that is just not the medium from which I reap the most joy. It isn't and that's just how I feel about it. TV is not the same as what I like to call The Glorious Darkness Of The Movie Theater. The investment level, for me, isn't the same on the tube, whether the time of airing, on DVR, or DVD. I like that straight-through, 90-120 minute ride with a character or characters. I cannot even begin to think about tallying how many TV shows and episodes of TV shows I have watched in my years on this earth but I can say with a certainty that no episode and no series - no matter how well done - has ever even come close to approaching the same realm as what the last 15 minutes of "Black Swan" did to me. You can't give yourself over to TV like you can to the movies. (My colleague Vancetastic just this week kinda addressed this topic in a very interesting post.)

I know, this is a lot of information, a lot of viewpoints, a lot of quotes, and maybe all any of this proves is that the only thing anyone really, truly knows about the movies is what William Goldman said so long ago - "Nobody knows anything", a sentiment which was vindicated for the umpteenth time just recently when Darren Aronofsky declared, upon winning Best Director for "Black Swan" (that's right!) at the Independent Spirit Awards, "People said they would never make money on this movie, and now they are fucking rich."

This quote of Aronofsky's seems to reinforce the notion that the movies, above all else, like anything else, whether we like it or not, are a business, and much the same as any business in our current climate they are doing whatever it takes to survive. Yet, "Black Swan" not only succeeded in making people "fucking rich" but also in making a piece of art that as far as this writer is concerned can stand right there with what Harris terms "the late-'60s-to-mid-'70s creative resurgence of American moviemaking." People are always moaning that movies ain't what they used to be, that back in the late-60's-to-mid-70's the cinema was some sort of Shangri-La where artistic creativity was the only brand of consequence. Except 30 years ago "Love Story" and "Airport", saccharin and bloated, topped the movie box office. There will always be crap mixed in with the good stuff and as the years go by we blot out the crap. Back then the studios aim was money but there were also plenty of mavericks and movers and shakers. It's the same today. I think it will continue into the future. Quality movies will live on. They will survive. But pardon me if I say a brief prayer for them anyway.

Your thoughts, dear reader? Movies: Dead, Dying, or Still Kicking? Don't hold back. This affects all of us, man.


Wretched Genius said...

The Sierra 3 isn't just closed, it's a Gold's gym now.

Castor said...

I think many people are missing a very important aspect (and probably the elephant in the room): The foreign box office has now grown to be quite bigger than the North American box office and it isn't rare anymore to see Hollywood blockbusters make the majority of their earnings abroad.

Now, think of the repercussion this has on the "quality" of the movies produced when you have to make it successful financially while presenting it to such a huge and varied crowd all over the world. You simply have to go down to the most common denominator to make those movies as broadly entertaining as possible.

This isn't saying people abroad are less intelligent. Simply put, everyone understands explosions and pratfalls while the zombie-like state of US surburban life may go completely over the head of many foreign viewers (one of the big reason comedies don't do well outside their home markets)

Nick Prigge said...

Brad: Just kill me now.

Castor: Excellent point. Like "Waterworld", which is always labeled as a bomb in America but brought in so much money more overseas. Give ALL the people what they want.

Wretched Genius said...

It should also be noted that these arguments mainly just apply to high-budget studio films.

I'm not in any way loyal to the movie theater experience. Some of my best movie watching experiences happened on my couch (like finishing Primer, and immediately starting the movie over again so I could study every shot and line of dialogue)(or the time in high school when I watched Clerks, no kidding, 5 times in a row, which marked my discovery that independent films existed). Movies that have real ideas and not just flashy setpieces will always hold up no matter what venue is used to view them. And since ideas are free, those movies don't need the studio's money anyway.

I think what I'm trying to say is this: IFC for the win!

filmgeek said...

I love posts like this. Thanks for the links to Kael etc to look at.

I think movies are still kicking but I'm one of those anal snobs who likes to distinguish between films and movies. I'd love to see a new wave of indies whereby they're as popular as they were around the damn of Soderbergh and Tarantino

Nick Prigge said...

I'd like to think that could happen again. Maybe it could. I feel like there are quality indie filmmakers out there but I just don't know if the mindset or the business is the same anymore to allow them to go that mainstream.

I, for one, am hoping to go see Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather" this weekend as opposed to any of the big name releases. Then again, "Cold Weather" isn't an option in most cities.