Talking Movies

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

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I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

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Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

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April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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