Talking Movies

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part II

Several months ago I criticised the opening of Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’. In this piece I praise his argument regarding branding, but contradict his valorisation of female cinema-goers by reference to his own telling conclusion.


Harris is brilliant in his analysis of how marketers have steered film-making away from the perils of originality. There never was any point in making a good film that no one would want to go see (Rabbit Hole) but the marketers we have today do seem to be exceptionally lazy in being unwilling to sell a good film unless it’s a brand i.e. someone else has already done all the hard work of creating and marketing something. Harris says no one would green-light an Inception but everyone would green-light an Inception 2, because that would be a brand. Intriguingly Mark Kermode has raised the idea that every blockbuster will eventually make a profit these days, no matter how catastrophic the reception of the film at the box-office, via DVD, games, merchandise and TV rights. Marketers can’t secure a film favourable reviews, but they can turn up the white noise to such an unbearable extent that you see the film just to get the unpleasant task over with it, and, more than likely, so that you can join ‘The Conversation’ criticising it. Mission Accomplished: you’ve just green-lit a sequel to a film you didn’t like, which you knew you wouldn’t like it, but paid into anyway.

I’m sick and tired of the condemnation teenage males receive for ‘destroying cinema’. Apparently they lack “taste and discernment”, which all women possess; which is what makes women such an exhausting proposition to sell to, although Harris puts his case in more grossly anatomical terms. A good exercise with statements like this is to reverse the gender and see if it then strikes you as sexist. It does. The assumption is not that a female audience offers a complementary or an equivalent but neglected taste, but a superior taste. (This also applies to every article claiming that women bankers would have avoided the credit crunch) This reverse sexism is absurd, because of Harris’ own telling conclusion – audiences get what they deserve. Female audiences are not composed entirely of Chekhovians interested only in human stories told well. Men don’t willingly shell out cash to see every bloody Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker atrocity film; they’re dragged to them by their girlfriends… Writing a screenplay, no matter how formulaic takes time and isn’t easy; it’s bloody hard work, even if like John Sayles you’ve got it down to relentlessly cranking out 10 pages a day of a pass when you’re working on formulaic mainstream rubbish for gas money. I think that an awful lot of what comes out in Hollywood these days in particular genres, especially romantic comedy, really is first draft material. Not the real first draft obviously, but the first draft you let people see, where the structure is sound as a bell but it’s lacking a bit of polish in the dialogue, a bit of pizzazz in the action. It’s solid, but you wouldn’t want to start shooting it. But here’s the thing, adding polish and pizzazz will take even more time and effort, and if it’s not necessary why bother? If the audience can’t tell the difference between His Girl Friday and The Bounty Hunter, then there’s no reason to go to the extra effort of writing His Girl Friday for them. Harris dismisses young men as, in studio thinking, idiots, who’ll watch “anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” Well that statement is equally devastating when applied to a female audience willing to watch romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor comedic nor original. Female audiences get the films they deserve – badly written formulaic crap.

Chick-flicks don’t have to be bad. Romantic comedy as a genre can boast some of the all-time classics, including a large chunk of Frank Capra’s back catalogue, as well as laugh-fests by Howard Hawks, and Woody Allen and Rob Reiner at their very best. But the logic of Harris’ conclusion is impeccable. As President Bartlett put it, “Decisions are made by those who show up”, and if you are happy to see The Accidental Husband or PS I Love You then there’s no point in going to the extra effort of writing Definitely Maybe or The Jane Austen Book Club for you. The problem here is one of writing-by-numbers. If the marketers see all the ingredients attached to a movie then they can sell it in their accustomed manner. It really doesn’t matter to them whether the combination of ingredients is producing on this occasion a cordon bleu or a takeaway meal. In this light the increasingly formulaic nature of Hollywood is easily explained but it’s becoming a terrible burden on audiences. At the moment we’re all like jaded restaurant critics reviewing the same bloody dish over and over again; the only things that spark our interest are new ingredients (wonderful supporting performances in a rom-com, two original touches in a comic-book movie), or a perfect rendition of the dish (so that you forget The Dark Knight has a solid three-act structure). Steve McQueen showed with Hunger that a loose sense of beginning, middle and end is really all you need to inject dramatic momentum into incredibly oblique material. Tarantino has repeatedly shown that ‘a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order’, works fine with mainstream audiences. So why does every Hollywood film lately feel like it’s been written by a super-computer programmed with the Three-Act structure and every cliché in the book for bringing it to life, and with a default setting of regarding all cinemagoers as dribbling troglodytes? Every super-hero movie is an origin story. Did Philip Marlowe need an origin story for Bogie to play him in The Big Sleep? Harris asks what we can do about this when we’re to blame by watching films on DVDs rather than putting up with anti-social jerks by watching them in cinemas? Well, the answer is go see the movies that you actually want to see – a new movie by a writer or director whose work you like, a concept that sounds clever, a performance that looks good. Avoid everything that looks like reheated boil in the bag clichés, and never accept that you have to pay into an obnoxious film to somehow ‘earn’ the right to dismiss it. The dream factory can only make the product you want if you tell it exactly what you want…

Every time the lights go down in Savoy screen 1 and the curtains part, I think ‘Entertain me’. My fervent wish of late is that Hollywood would live up to my new request, ‘Surprise me’…

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

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