Monday, August 10, 2009
Are things worse now, or is revisionist fogeyism in full effect up in this piece?
The inescapable promotional campaigns for Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, etc. this summer (coming soon, McDonald's French Fries: The Movie, starring Don Cheadle, Shia Labeef, and Rue McClanahan) have made me even more painfully aware of the huge chasm between the movies I see and the movies most people see, even people I know and love who are infinitely curious about music and the written word but who only see recent movies with huge promotional budgets or have given up on movies entirely for television. I tend to idealize past decades while bemoaning the current era, but I secretly know I'm full of shit. For one thing, the present is always pretty mediocre. The era-specific mediocrity tends to fade away over time, and, although plenty of fantastic pieces of art remain unfairly obscure, the worthless shit we waste too much time on mostly goes away or is reevaluated as the kitsch or nostalgia of tomorrow today it always was. Complaining about the kids these days, or how mainstream taste is worse than ever, is mostly just fogeyism, with tiny flecks of truth.
Roger Ebert's recent essay about adolescents' lack of interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow's excellent The Hurt Locker as symptom of our increasingly stupider film culture and just plain culture is easy to sympathize with and my initial knee-jerk response is to agree with him, but I tend to side with Glenn Kenny on this issue. Kenny has a worthwhile essay on his blog in response to Ebert's essay called "Young and dumb versus old and in the way," and I think he's mostly right, especially when he says, "The kids of today didn't invent dumb. They inherited it." More evidence of meet the new boss, same as the old boss came from an unlikely source. One of the numerous scanned pieces of memorabilia included as a part of Neil Young's Archives Vol. 1 box set was a list of the top 50 grossing films for the week of 1974. Young's part exciting concert film, part biographical collage, part dated and overwrought heavy symbolism potfest movie, Journey through the Past, was one of those 50 films. I think of the 1970s as the last decade in the United States in which serious, talented filmmakers could get bankrolled by major studios and enjoy wide distribution while making personal, artistic films with a surprising amount of freedom, and possibly have the chance of getting their work seen by a large audience. The truth is a lot messier. On this list of 50 films were a whole lot of bad, mediocre, and prestige Oscar-bait movies. Same as now.
However, here's where the messier part of the-truth-gets-messier comes in, and where those tiny flecks of truth in the otherwise fogeyist things-are-stupider-now theory appear. I think pretty much the same amount of good-smart, bad-smart, good-stupid, and bad-stupid has always existed in mostly the same ratio, but I think the amount of space advertising fills in our lives has become far more consuming than it ever has before. Every rock band in the country is willing to sell their song to McDonald's or Chevrolet or Old Navy and no one worries about how that cheapens and devalues music. Movie theaters used to play only trailers before a film. Now everyone is forced to sit through 20 minutes of product placement featurettes and ten minutes of commercials for soft drinks, cars, and cell phones before the movie trailers start. Commercials are talked about more than movies around the office, not just the day after the Super Bowl. Teenagers are just as wonderful and awful as they always were, but two things are strikingly different about the age they're in. They are constantly being targeted by a never-ending barrage of advertising, and they rarely spend a minute without an electronic communication device in their hands. Teenagers are bombarded by advertising images, and they're less sophisticated at navigating through, ignoring, laughing at, or even recognizing the extent to which they're being manipulated. However, I don't blame them at all. Could I navigate through all that fucking noise? I, and my peers, had a lot more space and gadget-free time. They're just inheriting our dumbness, and our dumbness is a lot more technologically advanced than it used to be.
Anyway, the current manifestation of the ever-present, infinite shitty now has damaged the film world more than any other artform. Yes, most of those movies on that 1974 chart were bad, but the ones that were good were amazingly good, and the ones that were bad were still trying to achieve something, and almost all of them were made with care. And the list was varied as hell. It included drive-in exploitation movies, music documentaries, porno movies, independents, Hollywood garbage, Hollywood gold, and the occasional cynical money-grab waste of time. Look at the top-grossing list this week. It's a little more varied than most of the rest of the year, but it doesn't even go to 50, and every movie on it is a massively expensive, heavily advertised, hype machine created by mega-corporations based in Los Angeles. Also, nearly every movie on the August 2009 list is incoherently shot, edited, and scored. Times change. Fogeyism. Et cetera. But, goddamnit. People are just getting a sliver of what they used to get. And that sliver is 100 times shittier than the shit-slivers of yesteryear. No wonder people who aren't film buffs but like to watch things mostly watch TV now. The pay-cable channels have cornered the market on intelligent, mainstream entertaining art for adults with their Wire Soprano Office UK Curb Your Enthusiasm Ali G Conchord Mr. Shows. But I like seeing moving images on a big screen in the dark for longer than an hour. And so, if I was a moderately interested fan of the occasional quality movie instead of the maniacal film buff I am, and I lived in a non-urban area, I would be fucked. The Hurt Locker, an intelligent and highly entertaining film made by the intelligent and highly entertaining Kathryn Bigelow (of Near Dark and Point Break fame), a film with explosions, suspense, humor, gun battles, and fistfights, for fuck's sake, at the height of its run, played in 525 theaters in the U.S. Transformers, at the height of its run, played in 4,007 theaters. Fuck. That is sort of what's wrong here, and worse than it used to be. A movie with a tremendous amount of audience appeal is being marketed as an "art film." Bigelow is an artist, and the film is art, but it's also a very accessible and entertaining movie. It would have been released much wider 10 years ago.
Bigelow's screenwriter, Mark Boal, attempted to get some technical assistance for The Hurt Locker from the U.S. military but was turned down, even though they gave an unprecedented amount of technical help to Michael Bay for his sequel to his movie about a toy. A senior military official told Boal that Transformers was extremely accurate in its military detail. When Boal asked him what was accurate about fighting aliens, the official said, "If we were going to fight aliens, that's how we would do it."
Joe Dante is one of those guys who is both a great artist and a great popular entertainer. He's directed the following films:
The Movie Orgy aka Cheeseburger Film Sandwich
the best segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie
Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and a lot of great TV work.
He gets at a lot of the problems I have with current Hollywood filmmaking and distribution in a great interview on the film site, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I'm just going to quote a few things verbatim because he puts it better than I can with my dumb angry ranting:
(When asked about the mentality a lot of audience members have that a movie is old if it came out in 1990:)
"I know. And unfortunately, the people who make the movies also are illiterate in that way. It becomes more difficult to communicate with younger executives about points that you want to make by illustrating some great, classic moment in some movie that, unfortunately, they’ve never heard of. And sometimes they get a little annoyed, as if you’re trying to one-up them. That’s not the intent, but you find that you have to find a slightly different level of discourse with these guys."
(On the negative audience and critical reaction to the 'burbs and its better reputation in the present:)
"It’s context—what people are seeing at the time, what’s cool, what’s in. All that is ephemeral. It passes. And what’s left is the movie. The advertising is gone. Nobody remembers the trailer, the TV spots, the reviews, but the movie still lives and speaks for itself."
(On seeing movies more than once:)
"It has to have personal meaning to you, and I think that people in the culture in general are encouraged to not see films as having personal meaning, but instead as something disposable, something to pass the time, to be hip about, but without any real bearing on your life."
"So many people I know who are my age can’t get work. People you would know who have made movies and TV shows you would recognize can’t get arrested because the studio heads don’t know who they are and their movies didn’t star Tom Cruise. They’re expected to put together MTV-like seven-minute reels that show people scenes from their movies. But if they put together these reels with lots of music and visual pizzazz and there’s still no famous movie star faces in there—“Why should we hire this guy when we can hire this music video guy?” The guys that green-light movies aren’t interested or passionate about movies, they’re interested in the bottom line. They’re interested in tent-pole movies, sequels, remakes, anything people have already heard of. They’re remaking Drop Dead Fred. They’re remaking Adventures in Babysitting. And they’re remaking them because, gee, we don’t even have to read the scripts, all we have to do is watch the movie! There’s nothing literate involved."
(Asked about handmade special effects vs. CGI:)
"Well, I’m not saying all these new techniques are better. Unfortunately, you can’t go home again, and it is difficult to make films using the old technology. I’ve seen a couple of pictures in Europe when I’ve gone to festivals where they have carefully tried to use the old Rob Bottin-Rick Baker school of do-it-in-the-camera, and it’s often very effective, but those movies often don’t get released anywhere because they’re not CGI, they’re not what people expect. I mean, love it or hate it, CGI is here to stay— the trick is to find a way to work it so that it doesn’t look as sterile and mechanical as by definition it is."
"...In the current incarnation of what are known as popular movies that are supposed to be enjoyed by kids, the amount of effects work and the number of “highlights” in the movie are astronomical. These pictures go from climax to climax to climax to climax, any one of which would have been good enough on its own for a movie made 20 years ago. But now they’re strung together one after the other and they all become kind of meaningless. No matter how technically proficient they are, no matter how spectacular they are, there’s a brain-deadening quality to them, and after a while it becomes just a bunch of visual noise. I think what modern filmmakers have to guard against is making these nonstop Hasbro toy commercials that are—the only word I can think of to say is soulless. They are showcases for the greatest technology we’ve ever had since the movies started, and yet the one thing that made the movies great, which is telling stories and having characters that you could relate to and be emotionally moved by, that’s sort of gone on the back burner."
Finally, I'm going to close with two comments from Glenn Kenny's blog that illustrate my uneasy ambivalence about the whole worse vs. same conundrum:
Commenter Dan Yeager (though he uses the word "natch," which I hate with a burning intensity, I find his comment very useful in illustrating my problem with movie talk in the '00s):
"Welcome to the '50's, Glenn. I arrived seven years ago, so let me tell you of a moment in my youth that for some reason still sticks with me. A good friend shared with me and another his enthusiasm for the movie he had seen the night before. It was A Woman Under the Influence. Now this friend was no budding cineaste, probably didn't know Bunuel from Bergman, but he raved about what he'd seen. It was also playing at the local movie theater, not some art house venue. Now jump cut to a few weeks ago and you'll find me sitting down to lunch with a number of colleagues - ages ranging from 25 to 45 and what movie do they bring up and describe as 'awesome'? Transformers, natch. Yeah, from time to time I get my dander up when pondering such things but it usually eases into 'what the hell' and a shrug of the shoulders. Life's too short and, hell, I can see what I want and if I like it pass it on to the few I know who may appreciate it as well."
And that fucking oldster Socrates:
"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."
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