Thomas Wictor

Because they’re not about people

Because they’re not about people

I just read a film critic’s article about how he’s really turned off of movies right now.

“I just don’t seem to care anymore,” he says. “I wonder what’s caused this—because so much of the public seems to feel the same way.”

That’s easy to answer. Movies are not about people anymore. Characters have been reduced to collections of mannerisms. I’ve read that it’s just going to get worse because every movie from now on will be based on the formula presented in Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Film is no longer seen as an art form. It’s primarily a means to get really rich and famous (surveys show that Americans value fame over all else, including health) and gain entrée into exclusive clubs. At the same time, film has become Deeply Important, in the sense that those who make movies and review them want them to be staggeringly profound social commentary. Another film critic recently took the movie The Conjuring to task for being “right-wing” and “woman-hating.”

I haven’t seen The Conjuring, but since I love Vera Farmiga, I’ll probably end up owning a copy of it. She stars in a true masterpiece, Up in the Air, a film that was widely interpreted in exactly the opposite way I perceived it. People called it a left-wing attack on the heartlessness of corporate America. I took the film to be a sort of handbook for how to make the best of bad situations.

The allegedly heartless hatchet man, George Clooney, was—as always—achingly soulful and pained. He also clearly cared about the people he laid off. His problem wasn’t that he didn’t feel but rather that he felt too much and had to insulate himself from his feelings and those of others.

I’m not turned off of movies, but I’m turned off of big-studio releases. All you have to do to see that great films are still being made is compare Capote with Infamous. Both are about Truman Capote, but the indie version is about a million times better. It’s funny, deeply moving, and unselfconscious. The film isn’t trying to make any kind of statement. It’s just telling a story in a satisfying, utterly unpretentious way.

One of the great dysfunctions of American governance is that too many of the agencies tasked with regulating an industry are also supposed to promote the industry. The Federal Aviation Administration is a perfect example. How can you promote an industry when you have to force regulations on it that it doesn’t want? You can’t. The end result is that you overlook violations, and people die.

Hollywood tasks its filmmakers with making craploads of money and creating Deeply Important Social Statements that will earn the studios, directors, and actors accolades from their socially conscious peers. It’s not possible. The end result is movies made for idiots and movies that are so tediously serious that they’re insufferable.

Sometimes these diametrically opposed intents are applied to one movie, such as Adam Sandler’s Click. It’s without question one of the most serious films ever made, but they threw in fart jokes, poo-poo jokes, ass jokes, and Wal*Mart smarm to appeal to Sandler’s audience. They made themselves a catastrophe. It’s such a shame, because in many ways it’s a superb film and contains Sandler’s best performance as a dramatic actor.

The prime directive of appealing to idiots is eroding the ability to make movies for those of us who aren’t idiots. And I’m not convinced that there even is a massive market of idiots out there. People like to pretend they’re idiots, but my experience has been that most people like good stories. If all you have to do to rake in the dough is to make really stupid films, why have so many stupid-film blockbusters crashed to earth in flames?

Obviously because people aren’t as stupid as the studios think. People are interested in other people. The much-maligned Starship Troopers is a great film in part because it’s about people. And I love The Fifth Element. No movie has had more egregious nonsense written and said about it. The performances are uniformly brilliant, and the special effects have a deliberately hokey, steam-punk look that goes well with the world presented.

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong about everything. I never saw Avatar, and I don’t plan on ever seeing it. The trailers were awful. But it was a huge hit. So what do I know?

Currently, I’m working my way through all the smaller films I never saw. I also have copies of films that I can watch over and over. I watch them purely to be entertained. The last time I deliberately saw a “message” film was in 1986, when I went to Salvador. Even back then I found it too heavy handed for my tastes, and my tastes have evolved radically. I won’t bother seeing it again, despite my fanboi crush on James Belushi and James Woods.

For me, movies have become either insultingly simple minded or nagging. I don’t like someone grabbing me by the shoulders and screaming, “THIS IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT! WHY DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT IT?” It’s possible to make a polemical film and keep it artistic. Seconds is one of the most profound movies ever, but so is Defending Your Life. The former is a gigantic downer, while the latter is hilarious. Yet they’re equally valuable and have the same philosophical impact. They’re both about the necessity of improvement.

I don’t like formulas. That’s all. But most studios and filmmakers don’t have me in mind when they launch their project.

That’s fine. I have enough movies on my list to last the rest of this cycle.

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