25 février 2011

GQ vs Hollywood (Harris)

The Day the Movies Died
by: Mark Harris (GQ, Février 2011)

I wonder why it's GQ that dares to tell Hollywood how it really is. What's the use of running an "independent" cinephile publication if you don't have the balls to give an honest and insightful scrutiny to the majors who suppress independent cinema... I guess GQ has bigger balls than the NYT (who bows to digital distribution and 3D barnum) or Film Comment (who is too busy sabotaging the festival circuit)... American Fatalism will never die, the American movies will. You gotta sacrifice quality when you desperately want to be #1 in quantity. And even the "film critics" (I'm hesitant to use this word in this case) are willing to play their part to make sure foreign cinema abroad, and independent cinema at home keeps the head under the water.

"It has always been disheartening when good movies flop; it gives endless comfort to those who would rather not have to try to make them and can happily take cover behind a shield labeled "The people have spoken." But it's really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success [Christopher Nolan's Inception], when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don't mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide."
This is the reason why you must be cynical about the way movies are made in Hollywood. I can not dellude yourself in thinking the few decent blockbusters that come out of this marketing factory were made ON PURPOSE. Filmic art in Hollywood emerges in spite of the system, when it's lucky enough to infiltrate incognito all the barrages!!!
Though, when a dude in GQ charges on Hollywood to defend an half-assed blockbuster like Inception (ranked above any foreign masterpieces in the American top10 lists!) taken as an exemple of cinema's ultimate greatness... you know the American film culture is deep up its own ass.

Scott Rudin (producer of 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."
Meanwhile there are still critics who believe that the "genius of the system" is the key that produces great mise en scène in today's commercial movies... WTF?

"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?"
The follow up question would be : Who would you rather have in charge of an institutional cinephile publication (i.e. Sight and Sound),  someone whose definition of a classic is Inception or someone whose definition of a classic is Citizen Kane?

"In some ways, the ascent of the marketer was inevitable: Now that would-be blockbusters often open on more than 4,000 screens, the cost of selling a movie has skyrocketed toward—and sometimes past—$40 million to $50 million per film, which is often more than the movie itself cost to make."
The problem with American businessmen, is that either a movie can be sold on 4000 screens, or it's not even worth trying. They don't know the concept of parallel circuit, or niche market, or Long Tail consumers, or slow distribution. They do extensive production, just like they do their corn, never under 9 digits a head. Someone need to tells all the wannabe producers to stop trying to be #1. Every other country in the world produces and distributes dozens/hundreds of successful and quality movies, popular or artsy, without the gazillion dollars pumped into Hollywood. So I'm pretty sure if they took a class in cost-control, they would find a niche market at appropriate size for their capability (instead of aiming at what their overestimated ambition tells them to)

"Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. [..] Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure."
Hollywood is definitely run by publicists, like they are given CREATIVE POWERS. A populist melodrama is bad enough, appealing to the lowest instincts and Pavlovian conditionning of basic emotions. But there is something that makes more money than that, turning cinema into 90 minute long commercials. The biggest worry is not actual product placement (for incidental product sales), the movie has now become a tautological selling argument, self-alimenting itself, swallowing the hypnotized audience and the complacent reviewers who all love to be part of this big shiny Zeitgeist bandwagon untill they are directed to the next big thing.

"[..] can't-miss movies miss all the time. But when a movie that everyone agrees is pre-sold falls on its face, the dullness of the idea itself never gets the blame. Because the idea that familiarity might actually work against a movie, were it to take hold in Hollywood, would be so annihilating to the studio ecosystem that it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Give the people what they don't know they want yet is a recipe for more terror than Hollywood can accommodate."
If Hollywood was only mercantile, we could accept their business model, the economical logic of their choices... as long as the mass wants more of it. But that's not all. Hollywood is also stupid at its own game. They make BAD BAD BAD commercial products all year long, based on ultra-safe formulaic recipe. They are bad at being businessmen! They are wasteful maniacs. Because they make such indecent amount of money when they do succeed, they don't even care when they fail again and again, hoping for the magic blockbuster, like compulsive gamblers. Unfortunately they don't take risks with creative filmmakers, to discover the future infatuation of mainstream taste (like fashion designers would do for instance), no, they keep repeating the past safe recipe, copying eachothers, stealing formulae, ripping off, spining off, revamping, recycling... Frankenstein movies that only have the empty shell of what once was a "movie"!

"[..] the degree to which children's genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays."
How I wish film writers in the specialized cinephile press were half as concerned as this guy...
Meanwhile smartasses declare that "Dude, Where's My Car?" or "Stuck on You" or "Wall-E" or "Toy Story 3" or whatever Jackie Chan does... should be on the same level as high-brow art, alongside the achievements of Kiarostami, Tarr or Lynch. That's so mature to make immaturity sound like serious cinema... Not. Grow up! It was smart to pick Hitchcock, of all Hollywood employees, within the commercial system... but today's kid's movies are nowhere near Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford or Chaplin! 

"In a way, that kind of thinking is just the terminus of a decades-long marginalization of the very notion of creative ambition by the studios. If in the 1970s making good original movies was a central goal of the men who ran the studios, by the 1980s that goal had devolved to making good original movies to release at the end of the year, for Oscar season. In the 1990s, as the boom in American independent filmmaking began, the idea of a "good" movie, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has pointed out, eventually became a niche that could be outsourced—first to self-made moguls like Harvey Weinstein and then to boutique divisions of the studios themselves. "There was a moment a few years ago," says Schamus, "when studios said, 'Hey, all of these specialty companies seem to be taking up all the seats in the front row at the Oscars, so if they can do it, we can do it—we'll just throw money at them!' "
Get real already. Visit the world, get familiarized with what the word "independent" stands for outside of the USA (where words have longer objective definition).
Read what was written about the Hollywood fare back in 1931 by Philippe Soupault ! The production was already profit-driven. You would think that after walking around knee-deep into shit for the better part of a century, American Film Critics would eventually rebel and contest this mentality, support the emergence of a non-blockbuster market... That would be underestimating American Fatalism. Deep in shit, they got used to it, they love it, they wouldn't exchange their place for anything, not even foreign masterpieces!  

"[studio executives and marketers] They're philistines, foes of art, craven bottom-liners, vulgarians."
Don't worry Hollywood, you will always find smartass wannabe-critics who find cute and hip to rebel against the "overrated establishement of high-brow art". Easy to find them, they are the ones who didn't lose their job in the press! They think bashing elitist art is the most revolutionary thing they can do in this mercantile era. This is so "subversive" to love Hollywood when nobody, really nobody, gives Hollywood the attention it deserves. Really? History will remember them... not in a good way though.

"And overseas markets are becoming less predictable and more insular—Schamus points out that Japan and Italy have taken a pronounced turn away from Hollywood films and toward homegrown fare, a trend that's likely to spread around the globe. (And adult dramas play particularly poorly abroad.)"
OK. Now I stop to concur. The fact that foreign markets bend over to Hollywood in a predictible pattern is one thing. But deciding that BECAUSE they begin to buy less Hollywood crap equates to "even abroad they don't make/watch adult drama" is bullshit. Since outside of the USA we do not know how to make epic superhero blockbusters or 3D spectacles... I garanty you that dramas with actual storytelling skills, aimed at a mature audience (rather than saying "adult drama" like if it was "porn"!) is still selling pretty well, in France, in Italy, in Japan, in the UK, or pretty much anywhere else. See, if Hollywood didn't make such dumb movies... the world would probably not watch any.

"Put simply, we'd rather stay home, and movies are made for people who'd rather go out."
You're a bit presumptuous there! Do you think Hollywood is worried that the movies they make will be sold on DVD or on VOD rather than the big screen? Before the technological upgrade of TV sets to the 16/9 aspect ratio, Hollywood shot their films on 16/9 film for the TV 4/3 aspect ratio, by leaving no meaningful details or characters in the side margins. Now that 16/9 home-video settings exist, they still shoot for the 4/3 to cater to the consumers who kept their old TV. That's not what I call "making films for the big screen". When films used to be letterboxed, rather than pan-and-scan, yes films were made for the cinemascope screen; not anymore. 3D cinema is probably the only specific technique that shows Hollywood wants to make movies that are best seen on the big screen. But Hollywood already tried 3D in the 50ies, it's not a new fad.

Ball in your court so-called "thought-provocating film press"

Actually, there is an article somewhat critical of Hollywood in a recent issue of Sight and Sound (I don't remember which, February?, and they don't even have a full table of content on their website), what a shocker, they woke up from their complacent hibernation. That's a start.

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