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03 March 2011 @ 06:04 am
The Hoard Potato: Blah blah blah Hollywood wah wah wah  

"Hollywood Is Lazy, Unoriginal and Risk-Averse", whines yet another critic.

These columns crop up all the time, and nine out of ten of them give the impression that this is some horrible slide into the abyss from some mythical golden age.

The irony, of course, is that they been appearing since the film industry began.1

These guys forget2 that, as I've mentioned before, the classic John Huston/Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon was the third film version of the story in the span of a decade, and they were all adapted from a formulaic, low-brow pulp novel.

The smart, arty flicks that this particular critic extols have never been a major component of the studios' output. "Risky" movies have always been "risky". The shitstorm that Welles had to wade through to make Citizen Kane is as epic and as well-known as the movie itself.

When Harris holds up "movies based on comic books" as one of his keynote symptoms of this "new" plague of creative barrenness, I wonder if he's including movies like A History of Violence and Shutter Island?3

Really, it comes down to this:
  • Hollywood is afraid to make risky movies because movies are expensive.
  • "Risky", by definition, means "might tank in the box office and lose skillions."
  • This has always been true. The only difference is in the number of zeroes represented by "skillions".
  • DUH.

For every Citizen Kane, there is a Waterworld.4

I should really sit down and write an Onion-style opinion piece lamenting how derivative and unoriginal film critics have become, how they rehash the same column over and over because it's guaranteed to get attention, and how shopworn remakes like "The Day Movies Died" will never be as good as timeless classics like 1963's "Christ, Yet Another Giant Lizard Flick".

Or maybe I already have.

1 Really, they predate the film industry. I've heard both some damned funny riffs and serious laments about the stage equivalent of the "generic formulaic blockbuster" in the eras of Gilbert & Sullivan, grand opera, and Elizabethan theater. Frankly, what I've read about the works of Aristophanes suggests that a good bit of his oeuvre involved similar digs at his predecessors and contemporaries.
2 I'm being generous here. It would be unseemly to suggest that someone who presents himself as a professional film critic would simply be unschooled in the basic facts of the history of the medium.
3Inexcusable Cheap Shot: while Blaming EverythingTM on Hollywood's desire for "known Brands", Mr. Harris says, Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Just because a lousy movie is made doesn't mean the source material is lousy.
4...and an Ishtar, a Cutthroat Island, a Mr. Bug Goes to Town....
cross-posted to KDDR

doc_mysterydoc_mystery on March 3rd, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)

I don't think you would find many persons characterizing Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon as "formulaic" or "low brow".

Re formulaic, Hammett's fiction, including this novel, helped define what became know as the 'hard-boiled' novel. In detective fiction circles he and his derivative works have achieved iconic status.

Re low brow, in 1998 (via by an admittedly unscientific poll) the Modern Library ranked The Maltese Falcon 56th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Pakapaka on March 3rd, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
But, remember Hammett intentionally pulled the tough guy speech at the end of the movie from the end of The Gutting of Couffignal, and I've read someone's suggestion that the way Spade whistles a specific piece throughout the book suggests that Hammett was actually thinking about movie adaptations. I wouldn't call it low brow or formuleic, but I do think by that point Hammett was a known quantity, he knew it, and to some extent he wrote towards it...
Your Obedient Serpentathelind on March 4th, 2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
Hammet was writing in a genre easily dismissed as formulaic and low-brow, even though there were some brilliant writers exploring the form.

This post is a response to someone who sweepingly dismisses the possibility that a comic book could be worthy of cinematic adaptation as anything but a cash cow and a "brand".

I'd elaborate further, but my coffee break is almost over. I leave the rest, as they say, as an exercise for the class!
Tubetoob on March 3rd, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
Bizarrely, I'd mentioned to someone else writing the SAME Onion-style article. "Film Critics Out of Ideas, Hollywood Claims."
(Deleted comment)
Arcaton: jackassr_caton on March 3rd, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
I LIKE Mr Bug Goes To Town.
Your Obedient Serpent: Warning: Macroscale Quantum Systemathelind on March 4th, 2011 03:39 am (UTC)
I do, too!

That doesn't change the fact that it bombed at the box office and took Fleischer Studios down the drain with it.
Pakapaka on March 3rd, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
And the first thing filmmakers did, when they got the technology, was adapt old favorite books to the screen. I mean, everyone's read Frankenstein or Dracula, they ought to be surefire moneymakers, right? Oh damnit, can't get the rights... uh... lessee... another word for a vampire is a nosferatu, right? You notice people went diving for the stuff they were sure everyone read long before they decided huh, a Wuthering Heights movie might be a good idea.

To which I'll add the following interesting cycle;

1. American Graffiti could be made because at the time people thought low-budget films by younger film-makers would be a sure bet.

2. The success of American Graffiti ensured that Lucas was a sure bet, which is why he could get away with Star Wars.

3. The success of Star Wars ensured the production and success of Alien - at the time the studios were desperate to get the next blockbuster sci fi film, and that film just happened to be practically ready to go at the time.

I mean, it makes sense that there's a certain amount of bet-hedging - the guys making Films Which Need Making are the indy film-makers, and the guys making Good Investments are going to by definition be the big mainstream films. If you're going to be innovative, you have to pitch that along with "and this is gonna sell seats because..." Isn't part of the money-making cache with indy filmmakers is that anyone fronting the money knows an indy film will come out of it, and that there is a definite audience for independent films? I'd also suggest that 120 minutes is a really limited framework in which to be innovative and a known salable quantity.
Pakapaka on March 3rd, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
Additionally, thinking about Dashiell Hammett. If you're going for "oh NOES unoriginal!" you notice that he intentionally wrote some stuff to play with conventions that had been established - he wrote a cowboy story, he wrote a Fu Manchu story. Comic books and pulp stories have this huge tendency to be potboilers, or inspire other comics and stories which are a new take on the known potboiler, why should films be different?

Next point. The whole reason for a batch of somewhat formula stuff kicking around on paper and on the screen in the 1930s is that, at the time, things looked crappy. The way a partly-unemployed largely-pessimistic overwhelmingly-low-income public would flock to movies is why you could do things like another remake of The Maltese Falcon. I'd suggest that not only are franchise movies a certainty during a Great Depression, but I'd also suggest that by definition, in among all the unoriginal junk and remakes, we are going to have the next movie to be established as an innovative great... if we haven't already had it.
Kymrikymri on March 3rd, 2011 07:15 pm (UTC)
I'm just going to comment on your footnotes here: I'm a bad guess because (cheese-tacular as it was, I enjoyed Cutthroat Island [just don't ask about the vanishing Man 'o War at the end] and really didn't dig A History of Violence.

As far as Jonah Hex is concerned, the question of whether or not it is a good comic book is irrelevant. The better question would be whether or not it is a comic book suitable to film adaptation. Some things, no matter how good, just don't lend themselves to new mediums very well. (I'm not say this is or is not the case with Jonah Hex, as I have never read the source material, merely making the point that there are two distinct concerns there.)
Araquan Skytraceraraquan on March 3rd, 2011 07:35 pm (UTC)
More generally:

  • Hollywood Business is afraid to make risky movies investments because movies are capital investment is expensive.
  • "Risky", by definition, means "might tank in the box office in the market and lose skillions."
  • This has always been true. The only difference is in the number of zeroes represented by "skillions".
  • DUH.

Hence business tends to shun innovation of any sort, all things being equal. Hollywood is just a special case.

Of course, this doesn't mean that some innovation doesn't happen now and then anyway, or that something cast in the recycled mold can't still be well made, but it does put a damper on things.
Hafochafoc on March 4th, 2011 12:59 am (UTC)
When someone talks about a Golden Age, I think of (cue TV Tropes) "Nothing but Hits."

Why is old (music literature film etc) so much better than new? Because the only old stuff we look at is the good stuff. There was as much dreck then as now, but it's forgotten.

We keep coming up with new classics, a few a decade. I think we'll continue to do so.
scarfman on March 4th, 2011 02:35 am (UTC)

For every Citizen Kane, there is a Waterworld.

Sturgeon would have us believe the ratio is steeper than that.

Your Obedient Serpent: Eye - VKathelind on March 4th, 2011 03:45 am (UTC)
Hence the footnote.

Please note, however, that I didn't invoke Waterworld because it was crud. I invoked it because it was an expensive flop.

Maybe I should have hunted down more examples like Mr. Bug Goes to Town. There have been a lot of expensive flops that were, nevertheless, fun, enjoyable, even high-quality movies that simply weren't appreciated at the box office of the day.

See my icon for one.
(Deleted comment)
Your Obedient Serpentathelind on March 4th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
I haven't seen it yet. I suspect I'll enjoy it even as I facepalm over the liberties they take with the characters.

I was objecting because Mr. Harris took a dig at the Jonah Hex comics—the "brand"—because, evidently, he didn't like the movie.

I seriously doubt he's read the comics, because they're very much the kind of "arty, story-driven" tales that he insists he wants to see come out of Hollywood, and if the movie had been faithful to the "brand", he would have filed it away in his head as something other than a "comic book movie".
SilverClawbfdragon on March 4th, 2011 08:34 am (UTC)
Below, in Italics I had been writing something about why while I mostly agree, but that there were some finer points to be made. However, as I wrote it I realized that I too was missing the larger point which is:

How the hell are we in a dry spell? There have been piles of -great- movies out in the last decade. Too many to even list off of very well made movies from small, medium and large studios alike. Sure, some of the best people out there probably deserve some more money, but hell, just because we don't have 5 awesome new movies out in every theater this instant, doesn't mean we haven't been making good movies.

While I still think what I've said below is true, the fact is it's not a matter of a lack of new, good movies, it's just a lack of -patience-!

I largely agree. However, I do think that there is a bit of a pendulum swing. That is, sometimes it is better, and sometimes it is worse.

Generally, what seems to happen, is that they bank on things that safer and safer until something comes along out of left field, makes a boat load of money. Often times this might be from some small player taking big risks to make a name for themselves. Then all the sudden people are looking for another dark-horse, and money starts flowing again.. they don't necessarily find those bets that pay off, and the money starts to get tighter again.

So yes, it's largely a case of people looking at things with rose-colored glasses. Indeed, even in the best of times, the vast majority of money were going to films that are safe. However, I think it's also fair to say that the studios right now the money going to somewhat riskier things is probably on the smaller side compared to some years.
ebony14 on March 9th, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
To quote my father: "A critic is someone who rides down out of the hills after the fighting's ended and shoots the wounded."

And Sturgeon's Law applies to criticism as well.