Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wish List for a New Decade

“Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss,” so goes the old Who song.  In the movies, as well as life, the more things change, the more things stay the same.  As I’ve gotten older, I feel less anticipation for the big summer tentpole flicks, and look forward to the films that arrive on the scene with little or no hype, seemingly coming from nowhere.  With the exception of some notable independent productions, there aren’t many surprises.  I’ve probably seen the same movies hundreds of times, albeit with different settings, actors, and slightly different situations.  The old formulas basically don’t change.  Although the technology is different, they’re still pushing the same buttons now as they did a century ago.

Most of the films that come out of Hollywood are products intended for mass consumption.  Generally speaking, the film companies like to play it safe.  By design, not much will change.  Modern audiences still seem to be triggered by many of the same cues that triggered audiences a century ago.  The big budget releases are still populated by pretty actresses and prettier actors, melodramatic plots, and less deserving films will win the Oscars.  So what’s changed in audiences today?  They’re arguably more sophisticated than the audiences of decades ago, with regard to many of the technical aspects that are displayed on-screen, such as sets, costumes and special effects.  It certainly takes more to frighten them now -- rubber suit monsters or simple eye makeup won’t cut it.  They also seem to have shorter attention spans, which explains all the scenes filled with stuff blowing up and headache inducing quick cuts.  Of course, this is nothing new.  Even the major studios can surprise me from time to time.  And let’s face it, my tastes are fairly simple.  Most of the time, all I ask is for them to hit the right notes, which seems increasingly harder to do.  As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, here are a few of my hopes for the direction of film:

Fewer Superhero Movies

Don’t get me wrong.  I love superhero movies in moderation.  I count Superman: The Movie, X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and the first Iron Man among some of my favorites.  I also think that the whole genre is rapidly wearing out its welcome, and in desperate need of a vacation.  It’s an overcrowded field, with offerings from DC, Marvel, and the smaller comic book publishers jostling for filmgoers’ dollars.  This year is shaping up to be no exception, with Green Hornet already in theaters, Green Lantern, Thor and X-Men: First Class slated for summer release, and many others in production or at least in the pipeline to be produced (the Spider-Man reboot, The Dark Knight Rises, etc…).  It’s been said that the superhero movie has become the new western, but like the western, it’s getting a little tired, and due to be reinvented.  I propose a five-year hiatus on the production of any new superhero movies.  Let them come back with something new to say.

“Holy retread Batman!”

More Original Stories

Remakes, Re-imaginings, reboots, sequels.  Whatever you prefer to call them, it’s all the same -- more like retreads.  Why create something entirely new when you can build on what has already been done?  If the movie was even mildly successful at the box office, or if it had a second life in video sales, chances are there will be a sequel.  If it’s a film property from 20 or 30 years ago, why not do a remake?  Practically the entire John Carpenter catalog has been remade or is in the process of being remade -- poorly. 

The last decade saw the term “reboot” enter our collective lexicon.  It’s the studios’ way of saying: “Okay, we admit we screwed up the first time, but we fixed it.  Honest!”
With the misfire of Spider-Man 3, the heads at Sony Studios were determined to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new cast and director.  But does anyone really care at this point? 

Roger Ebert’s Little Film Glossary referred to a sequel as a “filmed deal.”  Most sequels are little more than a blatant money grab, although flowers can still manage to rise from manure.  Of course, the sequel is really nothing new.  Asking for fewer sequels would be like asking McDonald’s to stop selling so many burgers.  It’s a nice idea, but it’s not going to happen.

An Emphasis on Content

Film technology has grown exponentially in the past thirty years, arguably producing a more uniform picture and better sound.  Meanwhile, some movie theaters seem to be following the Alamo Drafthouse’s lead, bucking the cookie-cutter sameness of the local cineplex, and providing a better experience for the filmgoer.  What hasn’t improved recently is the quality of the film product.  Some would have you believe that the filmmakers have more tools at their disposal, but if the minds behind them are bankrupt, these tools will sit idle.

Hollywood is over-reliant on CGI.  Pixar and Weta have shown that it can be a fundamental component or serve to enhance a story.  On the downside, CGI can often look bad, overwhelming the viewer or creating creatures that don’t even appear to be existing on the same plane as the real-life actors.  As Marty McFly commented in Back to the Future II, (the shark) “still looks fake.”  Similarly, the work of traditional matte artists has seemingly gone the way of the dodo, replaced by completely rendered digital worlds that look dead (300 or Gladiator, for example), replete with sterile landscapes and washed out colors.  The digital paintbrush has supplanted the real paintbrush, but with no better results.

Practical effects can look rubbery or move unconvincingly, but you have to admire the craftsmanship.  The amazing work by Rob Bottin in John Carpenter’s The Thing, is one example of effects work at its best.  There’s something to be said for effects that you could conceivably touch and feel, rather than something created on a computer screen.

The stop-motion handiwork of Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts) or Willis O’Brien (the 1933 King Kong), for example, may not have looked “real,” especially to a jaded modern audience, but there is something amazing about it.  The stop motion effects were literally handcrafted and painstakingly animated, frame by frame.  If the creatures were not really flesh and blood, they were the closest thing to it.  We can’t go back, of course.  Filmmaking has evolved to a degree, and so have the audiences.  But we have to ask ourselves, where’s it all going?


Maybe a return to basics wouldn’t be such a bad idea when it comes to presentation.  Every so often, the studios decide that there’s going to be a Next Big Thing, and that filmgoers will want to pay a premium to enjoy it.  This includes the wave of 3D movies that have been shoved down our collective throats during the past couple of years, or turning the cinematic experience into a theme park attraction (D-BOX).  Most of these so-called innovations reek of hollow gimmickry that add nothing to the story and only serve to inflate admission prices.  William Castle would have been proud.

An Immersive Audience Experience – Circa 1903

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