Our Mega Culture

A look at our summer offerings on the big screens can readily point to one fact: Bigger and louder is what we get. Apparently, they seem to be the key to box office sales. After all, aren’t those figures the raison d’etre, the reason why movies are made in the first place?

From Box Office Mojo come these stats: Iron Man 3 ($400m+ domestic box office sales, 8 weeks in release), Star Trek Into Darkness ($200m+, 6 weeks), Man of Steel ($200m+, 2 weeks), World War Z ($88m, 1 week). Don’t think it’s only the superheroes and zombies that dominate, Luhrmann’s spectacle The Great Gatsby rakes in $142 million in 7 weeks.

Here’s the irony: the bigger your city is, the more small movies you can see. And if you’re like me dwelling in one of those hamlets not on the list of ‘selective cities’, then you’re stuck with bigness all summer, like it or not. (This is my list of ‘small’ movies I’m waiting for.)

The French director Jean-Luc Godard once said:

As soon as you can make films, you can no long make films like the ones that made you want to make them.

The legendary film critic Pauline Kael interpreted his statement as follows [1]:

This we may guess is not merely because the possibilities of making big expensive movies on the American model are almost nonexistent for the French but also because as the youthful film enthusiast grows up, if he grows in intelligence, he can see that the big expensive movies now being made are not worth making. And perhaps they never were: the luxury and wastefulness, that when you are young seems … magical, become ugly and suffocating when you’re older and see what a cheat they really were.

Kael wrote that in 1966, that’s forty-seven years ago. How I wish she could be around now. Sure like to hear what she has to say about all the summer blockbusters we’re getting. What we have mainly are sequels to previous blockbusters, their makers hoping the trend would perpetuate. Would Kael revise her view now? Big movies not only are still being made, they have become more and more popular. It seems viewers don’t care much that the emperor has no clothes.

It’s Gatsby’s idea, isn’t it? The grander, louder and more spectacular the party you throw, the higher chance you just might get what you’re looking for. Alas, look at the ending.

Who makes the trend? The marketers of movies would tactfully say they’re just offering what people want. But subtly, or not so subtly, what people want is also shaped by marketers. Mass appeal and popularity have overridden discernment and individuality. Do you find viewers’ tastes have changed over the years? Or, do movie goers nowadays belong to a different demographics than before?

What I’m concerned is the obliteration of the already elusive notion of film as an art form. We’re now too dominated by bigness, and spectacles, and technologies, rather than going into the story, characters, techniques, meaning… the still, small voice of fine artistry.

Star Trek Into Darkness

I’d the chance, ok, my choice, to go watch Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel recently. Interesting contrasts there. I used to be a Star Trek fan. Yes, used to be because the Star Trek we have today is a totally different product altogether, albeit the character names remain the same. This current one looks like school children play-acting… serious pretending, frantic scurrying here and there, and loud blasts into oblivion. The only adult seems to be Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan.

Man of Steel has more mature actors and more serious acting, but the second half is not much different, gratuitous CGI action sequences that are 30 minutes too long, and loud blasts into oblivion.

The constant bombardment of expanded loudness in the theater had only one effect on me, made me turn off my receiver, same effect as somebody wanting to win an argument by raising his voice at me.

Man of Steel 1

Truth be told, because of the cast I went to see this revision of Superman. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark Kent’s earth parents? Who can miss that? Amy Adams as Lois Lane? I’m sold. And, Michael Shannon as the evil General Zod coming to turn earth into Krypton? I must see how he does it.

And the current Star Trek, what strange new world it has gone to where no one had predicted before. My favorite is still the original TV series. As for the movies? It’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). That’s the swan song of the original TV cast and one where Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang recites Shakespeare like he’s at the Stratford Festival. His lines come from The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. If you want postmodernism across the media, here you have a perfect mash-up. Yes, light years away from the Star Trek of Summer 2013, and generations apart.

Steven Spielberg in a recent statement made at the opening of a new USC Cinematic Arts building predicted there would be an ‘implosion’ in the movie industry, ‘where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

He also added we might have to pay $25 to see the next Iron Man, but $7 to see Lincoln. A scenario which George Lucas echoed. Umm… if those are the ticket prices for the different kinds of movies in the future, not a bad sort of a paradigm shift.

***

[1] These two quotes are taken from Pauline Kael’s review of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), from American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Expanded Edition, edited by Phillip Lopate, published by The Library of America, N.Y., 2008.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Our Mega Culture”

  1. The only movies I tend to see in a theater are the big and loud ones. Typically, action flicks with lots of special effects. In order to make the most of these types of films, I feel that they have to be seen in a theater. The other films, the ones developed as an art form… you don’t need to see those in a theater so I think their ticket sales often reflect that.

    I saw Man of Steel and there is no way I’d get the same feeling if I had seen it at home.

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    1. Ti,

      You’re absolutely right about the big screens being the best medium to view big productions. For me, I feel that every movie made for the big screen, be it big or small, should be viewed on the big screen for the effects its maker intended… even ‘artsy’ ones, or sometimes, especially the artsy ones. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life comes to mind. It ought to be viewed on the big screen… the creation of the universe, and the afterlife? Where else should you see subjects like these? This is also a good example to show that, spectacular cinematography and visual effects make a superb medium to portray big themes. And it also shows that, you can instill meaning in bigness. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. 😉

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  2. Whoa! $7 vs $25 for a movie I would RATHER see? A little scary but sweet.

    Seriously, I know what you mean. Summer is really the one season I might have time to go to the movies (well, before retirement when I can go any day! Yay!). And look what there is from which to choose? I remember a few years ago when it was raining at the lake, Rick and I decided to go see “War of the Worlds,” which was the BEST choice of the six movies playing. (Talk about small towns…) Steven Spielberg at the helm? inspiration of Orson Welles? Tom Cruise should have been our first clue that this wasn’t going to be a spooky, creepy, suspenseful movie. We almost left, except that Rick is frugal enough that if he paid his six dollars, he was going to sit through it no matter what (and talk about it for the rest of our lives….)!

    I really don’t mind spectacle. Spectacle for good reasons is wonderful. Spectacle as one-upmanship is getting very boring.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Spielberg also mentioned that Lincoln almost didn’t make it to the big screen but just being left as an HBO movie! Yes, even a Spielberg production doesn’t guarantee distribution. The reasons I suppose are due to the subject matter and its lacking the spectacles of entertainment viewers want. So again, it goes back to the taste and expectations of viewers nowadays. “War of the World”… for $6, I’d have sat through, and I did albeit for a higher amount I think. 😉

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  3. Bread and circuses are meant to be big and loud! What better way to distract a society from the fact that it’s in the process of falling apart?

    Yes, I’m a little gloomy, a little miffed. I really am worried about our country, and I truly fear that a few years down the road (perhaps not that many years) people will be shaking their heads, trying to figure out how they could have been so blind, so easily led.

    When I read that the Obama administration is going to enlist the help of Hollywood to roll out its new health care system, my response was to think, “More propaganda”. Big or small, that’s how I’m seeing Hollywood right now – as a propaganda machine. The last thing I want is Hollywood stars advising me on my health care.

    But, all that aside – I did read Spielberg’s comments and thought of you. Sometime in the past couple of days I heard a report of a movie theatre (maybe in Houston?) that had put together a $50 movie “deal” – film, popcorn, all the trimmings. I can’t find it again, so I’m not at all clear on the details, but clearly there are people who are interested in trying some new things!

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    1. Linda,

      Interesting point about your Mr. President going to Hollywood. First a disclaimer: I don’t know anything about the details of the package he’s selling, nor do I pay much attention to US domestic politics, so I’m just commenting as an outsider. I can see he definitely knows he has lots of supporters in Hollywood, and, things can get pretty big and loud through that machine. Sure it’s propaganda and promo and exposure and support… The point is you have to get big and loud to get attention, and the grander, the more celebrities you can get on your side, the easier you can get your point across. As with movies, we know that marketing is the key to box office sales, not so much the production itself. In our mega culture, nobody pays much attention to the small voices, unless if they are springboards to bigger things.

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  4. Like Tina, I tend to save my theater-going time for the films that partly get their impact from the size of the screen. You aren’t alone in your assessment of the gratuitous second half of Man of Steel — I’ve read many similar remarks along those lines and none that thrilled at thirty minutes of unadulterated CGI.

    I must admit, I seem to enjoy your discussions of film and film making as much as (and perhaps more than) the films themselves given the very few I see per year. And isn’t ironic that I’m in a big city and you are not?!

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    1. nikkipolani,

      O thank you for your kind words. That’s what this pond is all about. It’s for people to stop by and throw their two pebbles in and make some ripples, or make a splash. And I sure understand what you mean by save the big screens for big movies. It’s unfortunate though, that CGI’s, spectacles, and actions seem to become the definition of bigness nowadays. As my mention of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in reply to Tina’s comment, using the cinematic medium can mean more than just technologies.

      As for this ‘hamlet’ of a million population I’m living in… it’s just not big enough to attract smaller independent films like those on my Summer Viewing List. Oh, I might still see some of them, if I’m lucky, and for others, I just might have to wait for a year or two for them to arrive, if they do come this way… or ultimately see them on DVD’s. 😉

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    1. Nioola,

      Kael’s analysis is incisive. This is just one of many sharp observations she made in that article.

      Glad you’ve enjoyed WWZ. If you don’t mind zombies, I’m sure that must be an entertaining movie. 😉

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  5. Thanks for this great post. I’m a professional graphic designer who works for major movie production companies.. work of mine can be found on my blog.. but i find that the ideas in this post are very true

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    1. As I was mentioning about Malick’s film, I’m sure The Tree of Life has its share of visual effects and CGI. I can appreciate how those elements can enhance a movie, esp. one that has a worthwhile message to convey. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.

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  6. Bravo Arti! I agree with every intelligent word you’ve written here. I remember Bill Bryson’s quote about Jurassic Park: $295 million dollars of special effects, $2.95 of thought. I don’t know about moviemakers making films the public want – if there’s only a choice between big and big, what are you going to do? Well, stay home like me, I suppose. When there are so many truly outstanding film actors in our world, it’s a shame not to let them use their full powers on the screen to do more than make the most of a dreadful script and a ludicrous plot.

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    1. litlove,

      Did Bill Bryson say that? LOL! He must be referring to the new Jurassic Park 3D. Anyway, technology can be used for gratuitous end or as meaning conveying tools. Another film comes to mind, and that’s Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Lots of CGI in there, even 3D, but they’re all used intelligently to convey meaning. I’m glad some “small films” are coming my way. So, maybe some review posts on them soon. 😉

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