Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.
Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.
Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?
The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?
Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.
Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…