Friday, February 18, 2011

The Day the Movies Died: We Don't Tell Stories Anymore

Mark Harris has written a detailed, thorough and thought-provoking analysis of why Most Movies Suck. I'll write a more considered response later, but for now I will say this: The article backs up my long-held belief that the studios are run not by entertainers who love movies, but by business majors who love profits.

But there's another key point Harris makes. It's not ALL Hollywood's fault. It's ours too. Here's a link to the piece, and some key excerpts:


The Day the Movies Died: Movies + TV: GQ


For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. Inception, they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. "The scab you're picking at is called execution," says legendary producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, True Grit). "Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint."

Right now, we can argue that any system that allows David Fincher to plumb the invention of Facebook and the Coen brothers to visit the old West, that lets us spend the holidays gorging on new work by Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell, has got to mean that American filmmaking is in reasonably good health. But the truth is that we'll be back to summer—which seems to come sooner every year—in a heartbeat. And it's hard to hold out much hope when you hear the words that one studio executive, who could have been speaking for all her kin, is ready to chisel onto Hollywood's tombstone: "We don't tell stories anymore."

How did hollywood get here? There's no overarching theory, no readily identifiable villain, no single moment to which the current combination of caution, despair, and underachievement that defines studio thinking can be traced. But let's pick one anyway: Top Gun.


It's now a movie-history commonplace that the late-'60s-to-mid-'70s creative resurgence of American moviemaking—the Coppola-Altman-Penn-Nichols-Bogdanovich-Ashby decade—was cut short by two movies, Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, that lit the fuse for the summer-blockbuster era. But good summer blockbusters never hurt anyone, and in the decade that followed, the notion of "summer movie season" entered the pop-culture lexicon, but the definition of "summer movie" was far more diverse than it is today. The label could encompass a science fiction film as hushed and somber as Alien, a two-and-a-half-hour horror movie like The Shining, a directorial vision as singular as Blade Runner, an adult film noir like Body Heat, a small-scale (yes, it was) movie like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a frankly erotic romantic drama like An Officer and a Gentleman. Sex was okay—so was an R rating. Adults were treated as adults rather than as overgrown children hell-bent on enshrining their own arrested development.
Then came Top Gun. The man calling the shots may have been Tony Scott, but the film's real auteurs were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men who pioneered the "high-concept" blockbuster—films for which the trailer or even the tagline told the story instantly. At their most basic, their movies weren't movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.
Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?
....while that bland assembly-line ethos hasn't affected the small handful of terrific American movies that reach screens every year, it's been absolutely devastating for the stuff in the middle—that whole tier of movies that used to reside in quality somewhere below, say, There Will Be Blood but well north of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? It's your run-of-the-mill hey-what's-playing-tonight movie—the kind of film about which you should be able to say, "That was nothing special, but it was okay"—that has suffered most from Hollywood's collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development. If films like The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time define the new "okay," then the system is, not to put too fine a point on it, in very deep shit.
"The sad thing," says HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo, "is that a world has closed to a group of serious storytellers—and there are some stories that should be told in a two-hour format. Our success is a sort of silver lining in a story that's economically driven by what studios are doing to try to survive in a complicated international market. But the losers ultimately are people who are looking to appreciate serious work in film."
Blaming the studios for everything lets another culprit off too easily: us. We can complain until we're hoarse that Hollywood abandoned us by ceasing to make the kinds of movies we want to see, but it's just as true that we abandoned Hollywood. Studios make movies for people who go to the movies, and the fact is, we don't go anymore—and by we, I mean the complaining class, of which, if you've read this far, you are absolutely a member. We stay home, and we do it for countless reasons: A trip to the multiplex means paying for parking, a babysitter, and overpriced unhealthy food in order to be trapped in a room with people who refuse to pay for a babysitter, as well as psychos, talkers, line repeaters, texters, cell-phone users, and bedbugs. We can see the movie later, and "later" is pretty soon—on a customized home-theater system or, forget that, just a nice big wide-screen TV, via Netflix, or Amazon streaming, or on-demand, or iPad. The urgency of seeing movies the way they're presumably intended to be seen has given way to the primacy of privacy and the security of knowing that there's really almost no risk of missing a movie you want to see and never having another opportunity to see it. Put simply, we'd rather stay home, and movies are made for people who'd rather go out.

Discuss. Please.

1 comment:

Allison M. Dickson said...

The adage that the studios are run by accounts rather than lovers of film is also the same in publishing. It's all about accounting.

That being said, there is a lot to dissect here. And I agree with much of it. But here's the one nit I want to pick. If fewer people are going to the movies these days (and the author gives a lot of good reasons why more people avoid the theaters), then the studios need to stop catering as much to the ones who go out. Just because people opt to watch a movie at home doesn't mean they are any less fans of film. Equating "urgency to see" with the level of one's interest is a bit unfair. As the author pointed out, there are a lot of reasons why people can't make it to the theaters these days. Cost is at the top of many people's lists. As well as time. Especially in this economy, where incomes are lower than ever and people are often working two jobs just to stay afloat.

However, they should not be ignored. DVD sales have time and again made middling theatrical releases into cult hits. See: Donnie Darko.

The message I'd like to send to Hollywood is this: We're still here. The people who love good movies are waiting to gobble up the good stuff. Stop ignoring us. Make the films available simultaneously on all formats and let's see who's really paying attention.