Talking Movies

March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

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Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

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February 25, 2015

JDIFF 2015: A Chair with Wings

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The programme for the 2015 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival promises a number of international guests, including Julie Andrews, Kenneth Branagh, Russell Crowe, Kim Cattrall, Alan Rickman, Ryan O’Neal and Danny Huston, and intriguing films from diverse countries and eras.

Season_Ticket_FRONT

 

The JDIFF 2015 programme was officially launched this morning by Festival Director Grainne Humphreys, who invoked The Accidental Tourist’s image of travel writing as giving the reader a chair with wings. The ‘Around the World’ programme features nearly 140 films from nearly 40 different countries across 11 days. Humphreys invoked the Festival’s mission to amplify and complement the world cinema which is available to Irish audiences, noting that 70 to 75% of the films screened at the Festival will never be screened again in Ireland. And when such one-off screening opportunities have in the past few years included such titles as the riveting Russian WWII movie White Tiger and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust it only underscores the importance of the Festival.

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The Festival, in response to audience feedback, is expanding into new venues Movies at Dundrum, The Pavilion, and Riverbank Arts Centre, and introducing some double screenings. It is also ramping up its Picture House outreach project in hospitals and care homes, a project whose patron is Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker. A final new venue will be the Bord Gais Energy Theatre which will host the finale interview with Julie Andrews. That closing gala screening of The Sound of Music with Andrews, and Kenneth Branagh’s unveiling of his latest blockbuster directorial outing Cinderella, is indicative of a desire to make the Festival accessible to the most casual of cinemagoers rather than the intimidating preserve of cinephiles.

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Julie Andrews and Kenneth Branagh will both receive Voltas, and there are many other guests in attendance between the 19th and 29th of March. As previously mentioned hereabouts Russell Crowe will be presenting his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, in which his character travels to Gallipoli in 1919 to search for his soldier sons, missing since 1915’s bloody landing on the Turkish peninsula. Another actor-director, Alan Rickman, will present his new movie A Little Chaos, in which Kate Winslet attempts to introduce a little anarchy to the gardens of Versailles under the watchful eye of Rickman’s King Louis XIV. Actor-producer Kim Cattrall meanwhile will give an acting masterclass to the students of the Lir Academy, and introduce episodes of her new satirical Canadian TV series Sensitive Skin co-starring Don McKellar.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

The 40th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon is marked by a screening in the Savoy with both star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan, with Lenny Abrahamson leading a public interview afterwards, while O’Neal will also be on hand for a screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 neo-screwball comedy What’s, Up, Doc? And if all that weren’t enough to get you excited a Talking Movies favourite, the effortlessly charismatic Danny Huston, will do a Q&A after his new suspense thriller Pressure, in which he and Matthew Goode are trapped in a deep-sea station where mind-games soon jeopardise survival.

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A strong line-up of Irish features encompasses genres from horror to rom-com, biopic to gangster. The Festival will be opened by Mary McGuckian’s The Price of Desire, a beatiful and compelling depiction of Irish modernist designer Eileen Gray’s collaboration with Le Corbussier on an iconic piece of archiecture, with stars Orla Brady and Vincent Perez in attendence. Love/Hate actor Robert Sheehan will be attending a screening of his new film The Road Within, and will participate in the Actors in Conversation event, part of this year’s Screen Test programme. Gerard Barret and Jack Reynor, fresh from Sundance glory, will present Glassland, in which Toni Collette’s alcoholism pushes her son Jack Reynor into a clash with the Dublin underworld. Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham lets rip against the Gardai in Brian O’Malley’s tense Let Us Prey, a homage to John Carpenter’s ouevre, while Conor McMahon dispenses with the comedy of Stitches for straight horror in From the Dark in which a couple in a farmhouse are terrorised. Also featured in the programme are Pat Murphy’s Tana Bana, Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal, and Vivienne De Courcy’s colourful Dare to be Wild.

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The Out of the Past season is always a Festival highlight and this year showcases Richard Brooks’ 1967 version of In Cold Blood starring Scott Wilson and Robert Blake as the killers immortalised by Truman Capote’s investigation of their brutal crime, PJ Hogan’s 1994 Abba-loving Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding which made a star of Toni Collette, Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Hiller’s The Americanisation of Emily starring Julie Andres and James Garner in a tale written by Paddy Chayefsky, and King Vidor’s silent classic of urban alienation The Crowd with live accompaniment from pianist Stephen Horne.

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The Reel To Reel documentary strand features a trio of intriguing titles. The Last Man On The Moon will see directors Mark Craig and Gareth Doods in attendence for a Savoy presentation of their account of the Eugene Cirnan, the only man to travel to the moon twice. Fellow NHL fans will be as excited as Talking Movies to see the engaging and moving Russian documentary Red Army, about the greatest ice hockey team ever assembled in the 1980s Winter Olympics and their playing careers in North America. From Germany meanwhile The Decent One unveils the private documents, journals and photographs of the SS comander Heinrich Himmler to present an intimate portrait of a family man quietly engaged in genocide.

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The bread and butter of the Festival is its eclectic selection of features. The prolific and inimitable François Ozon’s latest film is The New Girlfriend, Olivier Assayas follows up autobiographical Apres Mai with the Cesar-winning psychodrama Cloud of Sils Maria, and Wim Wenders returns with The Salt of The Earth. Actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the Old West with some Refn-like brutality in The Salvation, director Liv Ullman takes on August Strindberg’s iconic play Miss Julie, Noah Baumbach addresses the effects of technology on individual lives more successfully than Jason Reitman with While We’re Young, Jason Schwartzman antagonises everyone as an obnoxious writer in Listen Up Philip, and another Bret Easton Ellis 2014 favourite Force Majeure makes its debut here.

The full programme will be available on the festival website jdiff.com at 7pm tonight with online booking opening at 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked at the Festival Box Ofiice on 13 Lower Ormond Quay from 26th February, or at Ticket Offices in Cineworld or the Light House from 14th March.

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…

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “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”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The 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 from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

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