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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