The New Abnormal
Could we ever have dreamed that the music would stop? That speculative sales would disappear for decades? That sales pitches would virtually die out just as long? That big [movie] stars would lose so much cachet? That the way we put pictures together would change from an age-old “outside-in” (from the talent to the agents to the studios) to the “inside-out” model (from the studios to the agents to the talent)? When the music stopped, there were new classes of haves and have-nots, just like the rest of America after the great [financial] crash.
Lynda Obst’s new book Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business is not a great book or particularly well-written, but if you share Obst’s opinion that movies are “an endangered species,” this book will confirm your darkest suspicions. Obst was an insider of the entertainment establishment. She not only witnessed the rapid changes in the Hollywood she chronicles, she participated in it. In short, she played the game as hard as the big boys she criticizes, making millions of dollars from producing the shallow behemoth movies which still flood the American mall and multiplex. The objective of her book is to chronicle how and why movie moguls deliberately chose to make bad, sterile films.
It’s one thing to have a low opinion about the quality of a motion picture you have just seen. It’s another thing to have one of the successful producers, Obst, explain objectively how to make larger profits from the repetitive, empty films of the last decade. Even more remarkable, it is delicious to discover that Obst and the powerful chiefs of the movie, entertainment and television industries share the same predatory business techniques as the real estate, banking, agriculture and media mega corporations. They even share the same language, law firms and political connections. More to the point, our study suggests that the fine arts and popular culture have been contaminated by the same virus.
Cinema has long been recognized as the most vital artform of the twentieth century. The irony is that the public appreciated the artform long before scholars awoke to the fact. One short example—when John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers was first released in 1956, some film critics were quick to condemn it as crude, racist and conservative. One compared it to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will. Pauline Kael labeled it “corny.” Today, many regard it as the greatest Western ever made. Glenn Frankel, a reporter for the Washington Post, opines in his new book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,1 that it could be the greatest Hollywood film. Obst offers few opinions about the quality of any motion picture, especially the great classics from the golden age of Hollywood (1935–65). Obst’s career began in the 1980s, the era she labels “the Old Abnormal.”
The studio she worked for was the last to switch to “the New Abnormal.” Paramount Pictures was going under by the 1990s, because they still “relied upon people who preferred to make movies that were well crafted, to movies that were marketing juggernauts.”2 The industry changed so radically that Paramount —the home of the old abnormal, films such as The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Love Story (1970), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Top Gun (1986) and Heaven Can Wait (1978)—within the next ten years produced little of merit. Most of the Hollywood studios had already switched to proven franchises, except for a few independent producers. The big companies focused on sequels. The top-grossing Hollywood films of 2011 were Harry Potter (8 sequels), Transformers (3), The Twilight Saga (4), The Hangover (2) and Pirates of the Carribean (4). In other words, Obst explains, movies were now produced primarily from sequels because they made more money, especially overseas. Many of these sequels were sourced from comic books and video games. Judgment, craft, good writing and good casting were now considered irrelevant. One of the largest audiences is China. Another is Russia. Ironically, China and Hong Kong have been producing great films, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).
I am hard-pressed to think of any American film released in the last thirty years that can match the visual beauty of Yimou’s films. House of Flying Daggers is only incidentally a martial arts film. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet story of two lovers from opposing clans, composed with exquisite color and editing. “My concern is how people fall in love, and what we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of love,” explains Yimou.3 Two warriors fight to the death for the love of Mei, in the middle of a ferocious storm. The seasons change from brilliant autumn to cruel winter. As they fight, the colors of nature change from autumnal gold to pure icy white. Despite the fierceness of their deadly sword play, the scenes are as delicately composed as beautiful flowers. Yimou has received multiple honors as director. House of Flying Daggers and Hero were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globe awards.
The old abnormal was about deals, ideals, conferences, research with people who loved making movies, even if they were movie moguls. Now, Obst complains, it has become a soulless production line, like making fast food, devoid of nutritional content. Money has always been important, but now it seems to be all that matters. What is so interesting about Obst’s revelation is that the new movies have so little to do with the craft, the aesthetics of making movies. Obst mentions some great films in passing, but she never explains why they were great. Why are Gone With the Wind, Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia great films? Why have films such as Transformers and The Fast and the Furious, which have made hundreds of millions of dollars, become the new template for today’s Hollywood? Obst calls them the “new abnormals.” This is comparable to an art historian citing Vermeer’s Woman in a Red Hat or van Gogh’s Cypress Tree as masterpieces, but lacking the eye or sensibility to explain why.
The new abnormal motion pictures ignore aesthetic standards, because their intention is focused solely on financial profits. If junk with special effects sells, especially to the overseas markets, that is what the movie studios will produce. Indeed, it has become increasingly difficult to consider American cinema as a serious artform. It’s difficult to find any other industry which so frankly confesses its sins. By September 2013, The Lone Ranger, which cost $400 million to make and publicize, had only grossed $232 million worldwide. $232 million is a great deal of money. Sixty years ago, during the golden age of Hollywood, a $30 million profit was enough to support an entire movie studio. It is not my intention to hypothesize how a movie like The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp, could cost $400 million, or how this mediocrity could sell more than $200 million in tickets (a loss of $200 million), in comparison to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (which barely broke even when it was released in 1958). That would be comparable to describing in detail why and how a plastic figure of Jesus submerged in a bottle of the artist’s urine, or a giant bronze puppy dog, installed on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sells for millions of dollars and garners serious critical reviews and awards from the media. Such works have even won support from the National Endowment for the Arts. There are striking similarities between the games played in the movie industry and the games being played in the fine arts field. A full-page advertisement in The New York Times recently announced that the auction house Sotheby’s was offering Jeff Koons’s puerile, stainless-steel orange Balloon Dog (2000) for $55 million.4
The arts and popular culture shape the lens through which the public perceives the history, virtue, beauty (or lack of same) and civic values of our nation. Over the last two decades, American Arts Quarterly has been tracking new artists who have shaken off postmodern malaise and returned to traditions such as aesthetics, craftsmanship and storytelling. There are signs that those involved in the movies may be, at last, experiencing a similar awakening—or at least recognizing that they have a problem.
Are movies really finished? Of course not. Donald Kuspit considered the malaise in the fine arts world in his book The End of Art. In the concluding chapter, he asks: “Why is Art no longer the truest religion of all? The God that lost faith in itself.” He quotes Vincent van Gogh: “Whatever may be said of the art world, it is not rotten. Painting is a faith. It is not created by hands alone, but by something which wells up from a deeper source in our souls.”5
Missing from movies today are good scripts, meaningful content, stories that make sense, stories about human beings. Not even a great director such as Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down), with all his directorial skills, could overcome the narrative shortcomings of his 2012 film Prometheus, the prequel to his masterpiece Alien (1979). The film consists of terrifying scenes, brilliantly conceived, but it barely holds together as a story. Several versions of Blade Runner (1982) were re-edited and re-released after its initial poor response from the public. One revised version, at the insistence of the corporate executives, eliminated the narrator’s voice. None of these “improvements” worked, but years later the original director’s cut, re-released on DVD, was recognized as the masterpiece it is by a growing appreciative audience. The film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles of the future, as imagined by Philip K. Dick in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? —seedy, perpetually neon-lit and rain-soaked, run-down, over-populated, with a small group of androids, visually indistinguishable from humans. Harrison Ford played the “Blade Runner,” charged by law enforcement and powerful corporations to hunt down the illegal android escapees and terminate them. Philip Dick and Ridley Scott both loved the original cut. Obst never mentions Alien or Blade Runner as prime examples of “the old abnormal.” Perhaps it’s too painful to compare them to the new abnormal junk she worked on later: Bad Girls (1994), How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) and The Invention of Lying (2009).
The serious decline of the film industry began with the writers’ strike in 2007. Initially, the studios and the Writers’ Guild each believed they held the advantage. The writers wanted a piece of the DVD marketplace. The studios refused. Two things happened. The DVD market collapsed (because of the growing power of the Internet), and the studios found a way to marginalize good writers in the production process. As far as the money goes, the studios were correct. The new abnormal studios simply recycled old franchises and sequels, and added the new CGI technology, which blinded kids and the global market to the obvious defects of repetitive scripts. In 1998, Gus Van Sant copied Hitchcock’s great classic Pyscho (1960), literally frame by frame, including the terrifying “shower scene.” The remake was a disaster.
The new abnormal had won, at least for the short time. The big studios were making more money than ever before, at least for a while. In an article entitled “Maybe 20 Years from Now, Tonto,” The New York Times devoted three full pages of analysis to the new blockbuster flops, such as The Lone Ranger, explaining that the “box-office turkey is sometimes the visionary statement in hindsight.” I disagree with A.O. Scott that this current crop of mediocrities (or worse) may be ripe for revival in twenty years, but the larger point is valid, as we have seen with The Searchers and Vertigo. Another recent Times article, “Stop Blaming Jaws,” made an excellent point. Jaws was a blockbuster, but its success was not rooted in the special effects, which were crude, but in an excellent script, strong acting and crisp, suspenseful direction—virtues that do not go out of style.6
Right now, the marketplace is in decline because of the cookie-cutter formulaic scripts. Even kids grow tired of the same old stuff. The animated films created by Pixar, which are charming, entertaining and well-crafted, are an exception to this rule. Before the introduction of television, American families went to the movies almost every week. The movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were sensitive, well-crafted, and addressed real life issues. Films such as A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, Dark Victory, The Best Years of Our Lives and Gone With the Wind are deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. Pulitzer-Prize winning author William Manchester wrote in his war autobiography, Goodbye, Darkness, that American cinema had a lot to do with our victory in World War II. Conversely, the steep decline in the moral fiber and good sense of Americans today may be traced to the failure of popular culture and public art. There is still hope. Actors and directors such as George Clooney and the Coen brothers have risen to the challenge and are making smart, successful movies.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be enjoyed whether or not the viewer recognizes the Homeric source, the cinema history (the title is a play on the film-within-a-film in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels) or the great American folk music score. The film has the added attraction of George Clooney’s irrepressible performance, as the lead singer of the Soggy Mountain Boys (“I am a Man of Constant Sorrows” was listed by Billboard as the number one hit on the 2002 Country Music chart). Clooney is also noted for his directorial and producing skills. Michael Clayton and The American will one day, twenty years from now perhaps, be recognized for their great quality. The public responds to the work of Clooney and the Coen brothers, an indication that intelligent, entertaining filmmaking is still viable at the box office.
3. Sony Pictures Classics Internet Site: House of Flying Daggers, directed by Zhang Yimou. http:/www.sonyclassics.com.