Talking Movies

December 3, 2011

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

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. 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 problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

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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’…

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

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…

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