Summer of Our Discontent

Under the umbrella title "Summer of Discontent," the Los Angeles Times has published three articles about the disappointing box office results this year, which is seeing a big slump in tickets sales: "Making Movies by the Numbers" by Carina Chocano, "The Piper's Being Paid" by Kenneth Turan, and "Hollywood's Big Ho-Hum" by Kevin Thomas. (I'm only providing a link to the first of these, but if you go to that article, you can follow links to the other two).

The problem with these articles (as with just about any that address the complex issue of success versus quality in the arts) is that there is no way that the writers can possibly know what they are talking about. Have any of them conducted any nationwide surveys on audience satisfaction to determine why fewere tickets are being sold. You can bet everything you own (and max out your credit line for a little extra cash to bet as well) that the answer is no.

Instead, the writers use the current slump as an all-purpose justification for their own tastes: if only Hollywood would make more movies that I like, then ticket sales would go up. No one quite suggests movies about gay cowboys eating pudding or incisive portrayals of the Pakistani immigrant experience, but they come close -- without any sign of self-awareness that their suggestions are a complete joke.

Of course, the Hollywood blockbuster mentality is decried -- and not without good reason. But nobody seems to realize that without the blockbuster mentality, we would have the three LORD OF THE RINGS films -- they never could have been made properly (with the mammoth budgets necessary) if a studio had not known there was a strong possibility for them to become blockbuster hits.

What no one seems willing to admit is that popular entertainment going back for thousands of years, has been dominated by larger-than-life stories filled with incredible action, romance, melodrama, and fantasy that had little if anything to do with real life experience (doesn't anybody remember THE ODYSSEY?). That doesn't mean the modern version is always good, but it is every bit as artistically valid to make WAR OF THE WORLDS (or even INDEPENDENCE DAY) as it is to make a penetrating examination of the mid-life criris of a boring professor who learns that he has cancer.

Of course director Michael Bay comes in for special scorn, especially because his latest film THE ISLAND has flopped so terribly. "At last," you can hear the critics chortle, "the director who hates critics has directed a tremendous box office dud! Hooray for our side -- this proves we've been right all along!"

The problem here is that THE ISLAND is actually not a bad film; it is probably the best thing Bay has ever done. Moreover, its structre is a bit of a stretch for the action director, taking a half-hour to set up its story and develop its characters before the shit hits the fan (as it inevitably does in his films). This may not be a major advance in the director's career, but it is a move in the right direction. Having seen the film die a sad death in theatres, is Bay likely to continue in this direction, moderatinghis over-the-top action-aesthetic with more drama and smarter stories -- or is he more likely to retreat into simplistic, slam-bang pyrotechnics? The latter seems far more likely, so critics should think twice before cheering for the low tickets sales.

This points to an overall (and quite common) problem in analysis of this sort: the need to fit facts into an established storyline. For critics, Hollywood in general (and Bay in particular) are disobedient children who just won't do what they're told. A box office slump provides apparent justification for feeling that the critics' view has been proven right, so that's the story they write, ignoring other factors that may contradict them.

One refrain heard in the LA Times articles is that Hollywood is doing poorly because they target teen audiences and ignore adults. The problem here is that recent comparisons of tickets sales to DVD sales show that adult audiences don't necessarily come to theatres even when films do appeal to them (for example, RAY did much better on home video than at the box office). And when one of the summer's biggest movies is CHARLEY AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, it's not really fair to say that Hollywood is making only dumb action movies for dumb teenagers.

In short, the Times articles are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yes, Hollywood could probably be much more successful if they did a better job of creating a wide variety of films, instead of slavishly following trends. But even during a so-called slump, there are some exciting movies out there that could not be made without the promise of summer blockbuster success. Let's not forget that, in spite of FANTASTIC FOUR, this is also the year of BATMAN BEGINS and WAR OF THE WORLDS. If the L.A. Times critics had their way, you probably wouldn't be seeing those films, because Hollywood would be too busy making "insightful, mesmerizing, and elegant" works of "art" that nobody wants to see except professional film critics.