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.