As they lay dying… the pictures, that is!

The latest issue of GQ features an almost magisterial synopsis of the state of the film industry by Mark Harris entitled, eschatologically enough, “The Day the Movies Died.” In it, he recapitulates arguments I’ve heard (and made) for years in an extremely readable, witty fashion.  In summary, he argues that the film industry has developed a financially and artistically unsustainable business model based on specious demographic targeting, and that we, the audience, share as much of the blame as those who peddle the subpar product.  There’s plenty of laziness to go around, it seems.  For the most part, I think he nailed it on the head, but there are a few thoughts I wanted to add shading to what he says, as well as ruminate on connected issues on the periphery.

The 60s-70s Apogee

Harris cites the 1960s and ‘70s as the height of Hollywood filmmaking.  Directors became stars, experimentation flourished, and creativity was fostered by artistry-minded studios for the first time since, like, ever.  Then it all came crashing down with the advent of the Reagan era and a more business-oriented approach to film production.  This is a widely accepted shorthand version of what is unquestionably a great era in American filmmaking.  I’m sure that Harris is just omitting history for the sake of rhetorical convenience, and for all practical purposes, it may not be absolutely necessary to give his readers a history lesson.

And yet.

The apogee of sixties and seventies new wave filmmaking (largely propelled by the first generation to have grown up on modern cinema, the baby boomers) followed a long stint that saw the dominance of much more rigid studio control over the process — an assembly line style of film production that had become formalized in the 30s, and was socially governed by the Hays Code.  Not to mention that cinema had been competing with the burdgeoning television market since the 50s, and all sorts of gimmickry, from 3-D to super-duper widescreen productions and new forms of color film production, had been fashioned into selling points for drawing people out of their living rooms and into theaters.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Before this earlier era in brand marketing, the greatest of all experimental periods in cinema, the 1890s through the 1930s, had seen the very birth of cinema to the introduction of different film stock, synchronized sound, and color.  The studios themselves were constantly being bought, sold, incorporated, or rebranded.  The acceptance of film as an artistic medium is often traced back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which also continues to serve as a useful focal point for investigating the political, social, and ethical repercussions of film art.  You could Griffith’s achievements in this film and its subsequent companion piece, Intolerance, the simultaneous high point and low point of cinema — the ante-apogee.  (Or, you know, you could just let my contentious argumentation slide for the generosity’s sake. I’m trying to follow in the spirit of Harris here, people.)

In skipping over a recap of this incredibly significant period of American filmmaking (possibly because much of it literally precedes the existence of “Hollywood”), Harris ignores the probability that his grand vision of “the death of the blockbuster” is cyclical, like most ideas in art, and dependent upon recurring trends in social organization as much as the criteria that are commonly accepted as defining “art.”

This doesn’t negate the primary points of his argument, but I think it’s important to keep the larger picture in mind.  His ultimate conclusion — that the audience bears as much responsibility for the quality of movies as the filmmaking industry — becomes even more important when we consider that, historically, audiences tend to be behind the times in appreciating art in its proper context.  One of his bigger fumbles in the article is asserting (with a due acknowledgment of his own pithiness) that the people who are now in charge of the studios are the people who came of age in the 80s, and that this is a (sort of) inherently bad thing.  “ Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?”  Top Gun being, in his view, the movie that essentially destroyed the blockbuster.

My counterpoints to his insinuation that the purportedly MTV-addled brains of current studio execs and blockbuster filmmakers (y’know, the guys who think Top Gun is the awesomest thing since awesome) is has a couple levels.  One, the execs who reigned in the age of the Boomer Apogee would have grown up on exactly the kind of conventional and/or gimmicky filmmaking — in spirit, if not precisely in technique — Harris claims have warped current powers-that-be.  Two, Top Gun came out in 1986.  In an industry where the check-signers range from old and cautious to very young and aggressive, it’s unlikely that everyone who called the shots throughout the 90s was warped exactly the same way.  The same people who rubber-stamped Titanic — about as conventional and “classic” a film in conception and execution as they come — are the same people who grew up on Tony Scott’s crack addict filmmaking style.  In the sense that the film is more of a high concept than a compelling narrative, I’m inclined to agree with Harris.  But then, even genuinely classic films can be reduced to a catchy synopsis, and were probably pitched as such.  What is Notorious if not a film about “The daughter of a Nazi who goes undercover to catch a Nazi war criminal… but falls in love with her CIA handler!”?

Then there’s the fact that Harris asserts that “discerning readers” are typically older and outside the demographic scope of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.  But if I was born before 1985 (and I was), wouldn’t I be one of those hapless, braindead zombies who lunched on the unholy descendants of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s 1980s hit parade?  Shouldn’t I be too ADHD to read and understand his article?

Again, I think the ultimate problem that he highlights at the conclusion of his article is that audiences are typically at fault for enabling lazy filmmaking by being lazy viewers.  This isn’t entirely their fault, and I will return to the topic of cineliteracy in future blog posts.  For the moment, I just want to ruminate a bit more on the way that mainstream audiences who aren’t targeted by the blockbusters relate to the film market, and especially ways in which the religious majority in America is in many ways ignored or patronized.

“They don’t make movies for people like me anymore.”

My parents are very conservative; politically and religiously, they are very much outside the mainstream in the U.S., which tends to be more centrist and less dogmatic.  I grew up in a household that was, to put it bluntly, tragically out of step with the mainstream in terms of arts and entertainment.  My perception of the mainstream audience in the U.S., though, seems fairly consistent with the problems a lot of older potential viewers — from across the religious and political spectrum — have with Hollywood product.  As my dad has put it several times, “Hollywood doesn’t make good movies anymore.  They don’t make moves for people like me.”

The liberal intelligentsia of the secular critical apparatus is certainly dissatisfied with mainstream Hollywood product.  Derisive reviews frequently appear on sites like Reverse Shot or in the pages of Film Comment and Cineaste.  On the other end of the spectrum, religious conservatives that take heed of bodies like the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops, which still rates movies like Black Swan based primarily on “moral offensiveness,” may be inclined to shy away from a movie (even a more tame one, as these things go, like The King’s Speech) simply because of a single scene of profanity.  Though films like The Blind Side offer a PG-rated alternative to drama-starved audiences who just want a “clean” film with an uplifting moral message (preferably one that also makes Christianity look good, natch), they are not typically given the kind of big, multimillion dollar promo campaign that will accompany a film like The Dark Knight.  Even when Tinseltown ponies up a middlebrow drama designed to appeal to adults who want a minimum of salty language and fleshly love scenes, movies like Flash of Genius and Extraordinary Measures (the Brendan Fraser flick, not to be confused with the thriller Extreme Measures, where Michael Keaton takes a hospital hostage) barely blip on the cultural radar, so non-cinephile audiences aren’t even likely to know about them.  They typically offer little in terms of outstanding craftsmanship to the film-savvy elite, and if they gain audiences at all, it’s more likely to be on cable, well after the initial theatrical release. And that opening weekend is the single biggest measure that Hollywood insiders use to measure a film’s appeal.

It’s stupid, but it’s how things go.

Instead, movies calculated to sell to “mature” audiences are typically groomed for PG-13 or R ratings and released around Oscar season, as Harris says.  Even the films with less overtly “objectionable” content don’t seem designed to appeal to a “family” audience, per se.  Though adapted from an award-winning and book club friendly book, and passing the MPAA with a PG-13 rating, I doubt that parents were taking their young families of four to see Joe Wright’s Atonement, with its themes of sexual assault, horrific war violence, and the splintering of family bonds.  So people with slightly more prudish sensibilities are relegated to the kiddie flick wasteland or the Hallmark Channel.  Needless to say, even these prestige productions are seldom hailed by educated film audiences, who find them a little too mediocre, middlebrow, and conservative in construction and execution to merit high praise.  In the end, it’s no surprise that the volume of ticket sales continue to fall.

Harris covers a lot of this in his article, but my anecdotal experience gives me an even more cynical perspective on the problems he addresses.  My perception of red state audiences is that they are hostile to even fairly content-friendly (read: films without excessive bad language, violence, or sex) films if those films are purported to contain progressive political agendas.  Leaving aside even the debatable “progressiveness” of such films (which I’m sure a lot of progressive critics would say undercut the progressive politics with conservative techniques; I’d be inclined to agree with them), most people (liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, whatever) are not interested in stories with subtext.  They are interested in stories that tell the audience what they’re about, and they don’t like films to be confusing or terribly depressing.  Sad is okay.  Cute is okay.  “Interesting” is okay (and as a result, it’s one of the most improperly used words in the English language).  Most of all, audiences seem to want to see films that adhere to or buttress their preexisting worldviews.  They do not want to put forth the effort to shape a viewing experience into something that is fruitful for their worldview.  Narratively ambitious films — even those as derivative as Pulp Fiction — often prove to be too much for the average viewer.  I remember throughout the late 90s fielding questions or criticisms from people who were totally baffled by how John Travolta could be shot dead in one scene, and appear twenty minutes later alive and well.

Then you have to factor in the religious factor.  Most Americans identify themselves as religious in some way.  Not everyone one is as doctrinaire or conservative as the televangelists or anti-abortion protestors with which American religiousness is typically linked.  Religious philosophies of all kinds have taken root and thrived in the U.S., and most religious folks have some sort of standards about what is good and proper for family entertainment.  Most of these niche markets (despite their overwhelming prevalence) are underserved by the mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Explicitly Christian content is either poorly coded or amateurishly crafted.  Walden Media’s 2007 adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia featured characters who were identified as Christians, yet largely marginalized this aspect of their lives in both narrative and aesthetic terms, only to randomly make the issue of whether or not non-Christians can go to heaven the emotional climax for the main character.  A tearful breakdown doesn’t mean much when the context for this crisis is almost totally ignored.  The adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia have liberally borrowed from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings aesthetics, but the hamfistedness of the original novels is only accentuated by the broad, Chris Columbus-style delivery.  Glenn Kenny impishly refers to Aslan as “Jesus Kitty,” and the moniker is perfectly apt.  On the other end of the spectrum, The Passion of the Christ was a runaway smash hit, but its (arguable) legitimate artistry was the subject of controversy.  First, the film’s torture porn violence made it problematic as “family friendly” viewing; then, a lot of Christians who deride mainstream entertainment as pornographically violent took their little kids to see the pornographically violent film — simply because it was based on the Bible.  Finally, Mel Gibson’s initially alleged anti-Semitism become confirmed anti-Semitism with his drunken antics, and all of a sudden, the potentially marketable Biblical epic of yesteryear became a potentially catastrophic minefield.  In short, Christians are stuck, for the time being, with smaller, independent films like Fireproof.

Then there’s the overtly political nature of a lot of films.  When people go to the movies to be entertained, they don’t like to sift through the detritus of the filmmakers’ paradigm.  Part of the problem is branding.  When accessible, mainstream, and artistically credible films like Good Night, and Good Luck. or Green Zone are released, they are often publicized partially on the bent of their political slant.  George Clooney is perhaps the classiest liberal spokesperson in the business, and his hagiography of Edward R. Murrow’s assault on “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy was likewise classy and credible.  Peter Greengrass has emerged as one of the finest action thriller helmsmen in Hollywood by elevating the last two Jason Bourne movies and honoring the heroes of United 93 with a film of the same name.  Yet Green Zone was pretty much billed as “that anti-Iraq War film.”  Conservatives slammed the films for their bias, and liberals rallied to the cause.  Both sides ignored that these well-crafted films mostly espoused what should be generally accepted ideals.  Though Good Night, and Good Luck. appeared during the Bush presidency, its reasoned assault on demagoguery and promotion of editorial truth-telling in news could just as easily be adopted by Andrew Breitbart as by Keith Olbermann.  And now with the irrefutable revelation that the U.S. was led to invade Iraq entirely on a lie, Green Zone’s rather exemplary treatment of the armed forces in the person of Matt Damon’s protagonist — who is just trying to do the right thing by uncovering the truth, save lives, and put Iraq on the path to democracy — should have been praised as much by the Right as the Left.  Shouldn’t we prefer soldiers who are as committed to the supposedly American ideals of truth and justice, as opposed to soldiers who unquestioningly follow nonsensical and dangerous orders that threaten the American way?

In such cases, even films with polemical potential are treated as battlegrounds in an ongoing culture war, rather than a common ground where political opponents can toast the accomplishments of gifted filmmakers.  As a result of the controversy, more people are inclined to stay away.  Hollywood generally does a very good job of making people feel that it isn’t making movies for them anymore, because, as Harris says, it really isn’t. It’s in the business of making movies for a totally different demographic, but even the movies made for niches outside that demographic are getting shafted, even if they aren’t able to recognize precisely how.

By their fruits you shall know them

As I said earlier, I’ll be talking more about cineliteracy in the future, but for the moment, let me just ruminate on two specific examples. They’re anecdotal, but hopefully the generalizations I make won’t be too off-the-mark generally speaking.

In 1999, I managed to persuade my father to go with me to see The Straight Story in the theater.  He is not wise in the ways of film criticism, nor has he any desire to be.  When discussing cinema with him, he commonly reasserts that he just watches movies for the pleasure, and doesn’t think any further beyond his enjoyment.  I don’t think he would find it offensive to be classified as cinematically illiterate, since he’s never made any claim to be cineliterate.  Normally, my conservative father would not go out of his way to see a film by a renowned art house director like David Lynch, but the fact that the film was rated G and the fact that he’d read a bit about it led him to conclude that it might be worth his time.

My dad may not be educated about film, but he’s not stupid.  I recall being absolutely stunned when we were sitting in the van on the way back home from the screening and he observed that Alvin Straight had had a lot of time on that slow tractor ride to think about all the things in his life he should have done differently.  In the short talk we had about the film, he demonstrated a firm grasp of the film’s subversive structure and the way the themes are presented with duplicitous simplicity.  Despite having virtually no working knowledge of film craft, my dad understood the film’s depth.  (He’s a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for.)

Lynch is not a Christian, but that particular film is consistent with Christian concerns, without necessarily being a “Christian film.”  It’s mature, contemplative, subtle, technically accomplished, and resonates with darker subject matter without dwelling on it graphically.  Alvin’s drunken, profane rages and violent episodes are implied, and the toll his life has taken on him and his estranged brother is made abundantly clear.  Beyond that, the film’s episodic nature and cosmic coda situates the lesson’s Alvin has learned within the fabric of his society and the (non-)judgment of the universe.  The film is patently transcendental, but questions of how to live, how to behave toward one another, how to endure, and how to reflect on one’s own life and beliefs are all things that reside within the abutting provinces of philosophy and metaphysics.  Christians are just as apt to consider these things from the context of their belief-system as anyone else, and while it was not a big film, and though my dad is not particularly a film buff, I believe that there was a connection formed between this non-Christian film and the Christian worldview of my dad that was stronger precisely because the film was expertly crafted and shaded by his religious views.

Fast forward nearly twelve years.  I recently saw David O. Russell’s The Fighter, and I’m inclined to agree with a critic whose name I most unfortunately cannot recall that it is a good film whose pre-eminence has been artificially inflated due to the dearth of solid, unambitious adult dramas in the marketplace.  It’s a very serviceable rehash of Rocky (as this critic said; I paraphrase again), and it’s certainly not a great film, but it is definitely not mediocre.  I loved the performances — and Kevin Pearson has some fantastic commentary on this at his blog — and I think Russell managed not to overdo the “gritty” in his film.  The Fighter fits snugly into the kind of Bostonian, streetwise genre picture that Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood have shown us in their Dennis Lehane adaptations and especially The Town.  The film is flawed, but worthy.

What particularly struck me about the film was the relatively subtlety with which the film incorporated the characters’ religious faith into their story.  Abundantly Catholic, the film somehow manages to feel more like a Paul Schrader film, or perhaps an echo of Million Dollar Baby, and while it doesn’t foreground faith as a thematic concern, it underlies everything endured by the characters.  The confusion Mickey feels in grappling with his family, his own ambitions, and his romantic love may as well be a parallel for the struggle most Christians have with their religious upbringings, the way they integrate it into their daily life, and the way they almost inevitably fall away from the strict dogmatism of organized religion to a more personal, individualized relationship with God.  That’s not what the film is about, of course, but this kind of resonance is integral to the film’s success.

The film, to my knowledge, has not been widely hailed by America’s religious groups as a worthy film.  Perhaps it’s because of the film’s R rating, due mostly to the salty language.  Maybe it’s because the film doesn’t make religion an explicit focus.  Whatever the reason, it is exactly the kind of film that, to me, seems made “for people like us,” even if it’s, y’know, not.

This brings us back to Harris, who has seen the enemy, and it is us.  A film like The Fighter may be worthy, but the religious audience in the U.S. does not seem to be worthy of the film.  Whether it’s because they’re not really educated in the ways of cinephilia, or because they shy away from R rated dramas, or for other reasons I fail to understand or articulate, a film with this kind of publicity (multiple Oscar nominations, for heaven’s sake) isn’t exactly being undersold by Hollywood.  If anything, it’s being oversold for what it is.  But it is not being sold or branded the right way in order to appeal to the kind of audiences that are likely to wait at home for this kind of drama to show up on HBO or Starz.

Somehow, the film industry in America and the Americans who feel alienated by that industry are failing to connect.  Maybe they’ll reconnect if the mucky-mucks figure out that inflating the budget and special effects work in summer tentpole films isn’t working.  Maybe they do need to return to smaller budgets, better branding, and films with more general appeal, a la the pre-60s studio system, or perhaps give filmmakers greater artistic license, a la the 60s-70s apogee.  Whatever it takes, it is clear that something needs to be done, and it is my hope that the audience — especially those with a spiritual stake in the proliferation of higher-quality films — takes the reins by actively supporting a better brand of filmmaking.

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

2 responses to “As they lay dying… the pictures, that is!

  • Kevin M. Pearson

    Love the post. Really want to consider it more, but what I love about your blogs is that they feel like running dialogues you carry over a conservation. I see a topic though out the whole post, but it steers and sways to different directions. Also, thank you for kind mention. I was surprised and heartened.

    I don’t know if I believe the original premise. He says Hollywood is afraid of Inception. Since many more independent filmmakers are being given huge franchises, I think Hollywood is seeing they can no longer overload on special effects and see the guarantees come in. While this article says it’s his way, I’ve read a few that say it’s turning to the other way.

    My misgiving (if I am correct) is that a good entertainment vehicle by an independent filmmaker is now considered equal to/or better to their projects on the fringe of any social acceptance. I usually find more critical appetite to be had in the independent films, but respectability is the name of the game in what stamp of approval a filmmaker can give a type of film (whatever it may be).

    However, I do believe things are cyclical in Hollywood and big budgets ruin themselves and for a time, everyone in Hollywood learns a lesson. However, I think the one permanent wrench in that system is that it’s now almost more expensive to sell a movie as it is to make one. As people’s attention span for movie selections continue to compact as more modes of entertainment are available to them, they will only notice the bigger films with the biggest advertising budgets. It will only become more harder to sell a movie. I don’t see that wavering.

  • mjschneider

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin. I really appreciate it. I think you’re right that Hollywood may not be afraid of Inception, per se, but I’m not sure they understand why it worked. Harris’s contention is that if you give really talented filmmakers money to play with, you’ll wind up with a few messes, but you’ll also wind up with more masterpieces.

    A point on which I think we both agree, though, is that H’wood is trying to tempt more and more indie filmmakers to come to the big leagues. But instead of just letting them do whatever, they pay them to take run-of-the-mill programmers in the hopes that an “indie touch” will elevate the material. That’s not an entirely misguided theory, but instead of generating original films that are exciting and interesting, it more or less weighs down the filmmakers. It gives the mainstream movies “cred” (so to speak), and it does, as you say, tend to marginalize genuinely original and non-mainstream efforts even more, because the studios can market the imitation “indies” and leave the others to rot by the wayside.

    I also agree that people’s attention spans are getting a bit shorter and more limited, but perhaps that’s a combination of their lack of cineliteracy and the fact that the media is evolving into a more interactive, home use style of arts and entertainment. And, of course, the fact that Hollywood generally doesn’t require viewers to train much attention on their products. Again agreed that the marketing paradigm is slightly different than it used to be, but mostly because film budgets are so high. Theoretically, a smarter, lower cost film would require a smarter, lower cost budgeting campaign. Cloverfield is a great example of this.

    I’m not certain whether the film industry will learn its lesson, but in either case — whether the cycle continues and we see a new renaissance, or it doesn’t continue and we get more crap — it is important for viewers to ask more of the movies, to support better movies, and to educate themselves about cinematic arts. Even if the industry doesn’t make more and better films, at least perhaps we can get more out of them.

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