Sometimes I think that maybe it's just me....
I love movies, and I have loved them since as far back as I can remember. I have spent a lifetime watching them, thinking about them, writing about them, and reading reviews and other movie-related articles. Slowly over time, I have built up my own aesthetic, supported by the opinions of professional critics I have loved and followed, honed by discussion and debate with friends and other movie-lovers, and borne out of a growing confidence in my own critical tastes and instincts.
And of late, it all seems irrelevant. Is my kind of film becoming extinct? Has my feast become the few rich crumbs the film industry condescends to throw my way? Has my cup of tea dried up?
Actually, millions of film-goers might disagree with me. For them, moviegoing is supposed to be fun, that's all, and they have voted with their time and pocketbooks for the kinds of movies they want to see.
It wasn't always so. Mainstream movies, while always meant to entertain, had during my formative years also become experiences of great aesthetic pleasure, artifacts and reflections of history past and present, and a way to look at and make sense of the troubled eras that produced them. These films played on screens all summer long. And teenagers and college-aged students attended again and again and made them hits.
Does anyone else feel that something has been amiss with the summer movie season, especially this summer? Am I the only one feeling left out? Is it just me?
Well, after doing some reading in various journals and on-line publications, I discovered that I might not be as alone as I thought I was:
--On August 9th, local NPR station WBEZ aired a brief interview with Kim Masters, journalist with the Hollywood Reporter. She discussed a paradox this Summer: While box office was up, actual attendance was down. She explained that the reason could be both the cost of tickets and the lackluster quality of movies overall. When given a choice audiences are choosing the 2-D over the 3-D version of the same films. The old "franchises" that have spawned numerous sequels are becoming tired. Only three movies were mega-hits, which may account for the inflated box-office figures: "Transformers", "Harry Potter", and "Pirates of the Caribbean". As Masters put it, "You notice there aren't a lot of smart movies for grown-ups to talk about this summer."
--Leslie Stonebreaker of the New York Press broke down the season by film, with each film's budget and box-office to date, and brief representative clips from reviews of each film. By her count, the big movies, defined as having opened in over 3.000 US theaters and had budgets of over $100 million, included: "eight...action films, six...sequels, four ...based on comics, and three.. animated." She goes on to comment, "Most haven’t yet made back what was invested in production, and few will be remembered by the end of August. Was it worth it?"
One of the more interesting analyses of how moviegoing has changed, and why that change has made the big films underperform was written by Darren Franich of EW.com's PopWatch. He describes the change as a "culture of leaks". At one time movies like "E.T." would appear in theaters, and people would go, and talk about them a year later. Now, official, stage-managed "leaks" by ComicCon and others, or accidental, unofficial leaks (by paparazzi, TMZ, etc.) give movie fans so much minutiae about films before their release (he discusses "Dark Knight Rises" as a current example) that the result is that the movies hit the screen,they are duly attended, and that's the end of the conversation. Enthusiasm is already hot for next year's summer blockbusters, rolled out in the trailers.
According to Frainch, "This is why the blockbuster season of 2011 has felt so particularly uninspired. It’s not that the movies are necessarily worse than they were 10 years ago (although nothing released 10 years ago was even half as bad as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). It’s just that very few of the movies were even half as interesting as the chatter that led up to their release." Studios must realize that there is so much built-in attention to these movies before release, that there is little incentive to create something memorable, because interest in them naturally falls off once they hit the screens. Or, as Frainch states it, "...It helps to remember that, in a weird way, the biggest movies of summer 2011 aren’t coming out until 2012."
Finally, there's a fascinating debate by two tech-savvy members of the "golden demographic" (once again, Darren Frainch, film loyalist, and Adam B. Vary, videogame supporter,) who, in another awesome EW.com PopWatch essay, debate the future of movies, and whether video games are already supplanting movies as THE pop-culture art-form.
The essence of this debate is something I have noticed for years, most evident since the release of "Lord of the Rings": Movies are trying to look more like video games, and video games are trying to adopt the realism and storytelling aesthetic of movies. Here's a fascinating quote by Vary, who defends the future of videogames, as he comments on the satisfactions of "old" movies vs. current ones:
"...if you press me to stack up my favorite videogames against my favorite movies, not only would the movies pile be much higher, just the act of stacking them would cause me to get misty...What Vary is championing is the aesthetic satisfaction of old movies, satisfactions he sees are being infused into his favorite games. He laments the insignificance of today's films.
But you know what else is true about the films in that pile?... A lot of them are really old. (But) I... am talking about the movies of today. What big, non-Pixarian film of the past three or four years could you honestly add to your Favorite of Favorites?
Of course, there are small films like The Kids Are All Right or Beginners that still captivate me. But if I’m being brutally honest, even a movie as satisfying as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 is still a shadow of the experience of reading the book it is based on. I feel like such a fusty crank saying this, but the vast majority of mainstream movies today truly are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. They are racing to see which one can be the most like, well, a videogame.
Videogames today, on the other hand, are in a really interesting place. Yes, they are imperfect. ...But I can see them striving to give us something we’ve never experienced before, to hook us into a big story, and to reinvent how we absorb that story. In some ways, they feel like the movies of 100 years ago, as early filmmakers figured out what the visual grammar of cinema would be. So, really, videogames are trying their damnedest to be more like movies."
I believe the motion picture industry, while trying to pander to viewers like Vary, (who willingly empty their wallets for the sake of thrills, peer pressure, or habit), is actually harming itself. By not crafting the kinds of films that used to provide artistic and intellectual excitement (while remaining entertaining), Vary and his peers will continue to turn to videogames...which I believe can never replace the unique pleasure that a great film can deliver. Hollywood can manage the "leaks" with quality films, and get future film-buffs interested.
And when young viewers become disenchanted with the fare they are receiving at their local theaters, Hollywood has forever lost a loyal base of film enthusiasts for future generations.
Film critics can be a big part of the solution...in my Part 3.