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’…

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm

The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm

Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm

Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm

If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm

Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm

A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm

Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p

Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

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