Grab Bag: Bite Your Tongue, Movies Turn Dumb

In “Summer Fading, Hollywood Sees Fizzle,” published in the New York Times on August 24, Sharon Waxman discussed the decline of ticket sales in the context not of a shifting economy or social landscape but instead of the increasingly lacking quality of mainstream movies. The piece was a helpful reminder to discontented viewers that they are not alone. This may seem silly: many of us hear our friends bitching and moaning about movies all the time, but we also hear our friends bitching and moaning about the current state of the government, about obesity in the US, about cultural appropriation, about any number of liberal topics met only with clichéd observations and statements of the obvious. But while our government continues it spiral downward with increasing momentum, while obesity climbs, and while kaballah water is sold at Wal-Mart, Waxman’s presentation of a panicked film industry provides some hope that perhaps America is finally taking a stand against the monolithic empire of Hollywood. It is no longer the white elephant, but an issue in which the industry must respond to money, the thing that whispers throughout its collective home with deadly quiet and unnerving interminability.

That a slow in the flow of money has worried the industry of course comes as no surprise, but what seems to be happening is that excuses are wearing thin. No longer are studios entirely attributing dropping ticket sales to dvds, tv, home entertainment, bad weather, good weather, higher gas prices et cetera. Instead, the industry appears to be finally looking inward to reassess its product.

New Hollywood movies seem to suffer from several problems, some superficial and some more fundamental. The superficial problems lie in the changing conventions of the industry. While conventional formulas still shape movies, they are increasingly muddled and—oddly—simultaneously too specific. The crossbreeding of genres has spread conventions so thin that meanings can be confused or even contradictory. For example: Mr. and Mrs. Smith as an action movie sets up, plays out, and resolves glossy and unemotional violence in a typically Hollywood way, with predictable style and visual effects. As a romantic comedy too, the film uses a well-worn and well-known vehicle, a couple is living a static and cold life that is re-impassioned through some kind of hardship or trauma. The blending of these two systems, however, resulted in sloppiness all around: the movie didn’t have to have well choreographed or stimulating action sequences because of the romantic subplot while the romance didn’t have to be explained or even make sense because of the action.

Similarly, a movie like the Fantastic Four was enough of a comedy that its cartoonish CGI wasn’t as glaringly offensive and yet it was still at its core an action movie and so its comic simplicity was permissible. These constant justifications leave most mainstream movies that try and blend genre more a hodge-podge than an interweaving and we are constantly distracted from our questioning through the inclusion of more disconnected plot material.

My constant and first complaint when leaving new blockbusters recently has been about questionable logic. I am perfectly happy watching movies that are silly, ridiculous, fantastical, and minimal as long as there is some internal logic and consistency. New movies, though, are breaking standards of providing background information and causality that fifty years ago would border on avant-garde. But in today’s movies there are no ends to this choice. There is no refutation or exploration of narrative convention, no tongue-in-cheek homages or implicit criticisms in the oftentimes bizarre flow of plot information. Even in a pseudo-documentary like March of the Penguins, so many details of the story were left out, so many questions went unanswered, and so much of the film relied on picturesque imagery that I left the theater more confused than when I arrived about the subject. Of a documentary.

Film has successfully, since its beginnings, built a language around itself through which it expresses a kind of reality that the spectator not only observes, but engages with as well. We are asked to accept non-realistic sound and image as realistic, and we do so because we are so used to it. Editing is a typical example: while we don’t see the world through a series of edits, we never question this basic mechanism when watching a movie. Space is disrupted, it is extended and contracted, but we are never disoriented while watching it because we are a part of a larger cinematic reality, which we perceive differently. There are countless other examples of this same operation in film—from framing to sound use to camera angle and color manipulation—that all together build a basic vocabulary of the medium.

Genre takes the notion of vocabulary and hones it so precisely that it eventually functions as an equation into which each film provides variables, essentially introducing to the vocabulary a syntax that organizes the smaller formula-parts. Within this tight-knit code meaning is created through small changes. Take a standard horror plot but instead of the blob make the bad guy a space-monster, and suddenly the allegory shifts from fear of consumption to one of xenophobia. This same plug-in method exists in most genres, for example the feminist—albeit old-fashioned—western 40 Guns or the homosexual twist of the melodrama Far From Heaven, both of which heavily rely on the spectator to know the formula and thus understand the significant changes.

Over the course of the last century then, the silver medium has developed specific genres and specific stylistic conventions that have, through their repetition, crafted the ideal audience. New blockbusters, though, are losing this consistency by changing this vocabulary, partially by tying it in more closely to television. The difference between the two can be difficult to isolate, but it certainly has something to do with the cadences of dialogue and comic delivery, the “situational” humor. Likewise though, tv has become more cinematic, especially seen in the HBO series shows such as the Sopranos and Entourage. Whatever the difference, going to the movies has begun to feel—to those who have experienced it—like watching television for the first time in months and months: you are utterly disoriented in a world that you know you should “get,” in which every allusion and every reference soars above your head. Unlike television, however, film is not serial (sequels excluded), and the same modes of storytelling cannot be adapted to both.

Ultimately, it seems as though the language of cinema has finally begun to get ahead of itself, that the very formulas it established have been abstracted to a point that is so basic that the spectator is either bored by it or, in my case, dumbfounded by it. Film has almost followed the same, albeit more condensed, trajectory of other visual arts: from a time of documentary realism to increased experimentation and ultimately visual language built upon a foundation of conventional symbols. This language, however, has begun to grow incomprehensible to the very audience whose continued acceptance of it allowed its conception in the first place. The industry then has to take a more theoretical approach to the problem and figure out a way to re-connect to the audience not through the stories it tells, but by the way in which it expresses those stories. Generic and visual conventions need to return to an earlier state in which their very clarity generated interest, in which stories were easier to understand and in which language was not always foreign.

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