Culture

Everything's Wrong With Hollywood, But It's All Fixable

If you ever wanted the alpha and the omega of Hollywood’s current state, you’ve got it — just follow the links in this post.

First up, in case you haven’t already read it, is Kyle Smith’s damning portrait of the brain-dead film industry:

Movies suck because:

* Wall Street sucks. There are so many rich jerks making money in hedge funds that the money bubbles up through the dirt in LA like oil in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Hollywood is happy to cash checks from Greenwich horndogs who want to meet Anna Faris. So way too many movies get made. Bill Simmons writes on the online magazine Grantland that, just as Alex Smith has a job because there have to be 32 NFL quarterbacks at any given moment, Hollywood pretends it has 40 movie stars at any given moment. They keep making Jim Carrey movies even though there are no longer any Jim Carrey fans.

“Hollywood knows we’re not paying attention, so they try to manipulate us into thinking Carrey is still a movie star by inundating us with billboards and commercials featuring his mug,” Simmons writes. “After all, he still looks like Jim Carrey, right? Even if we reject the assault by skipping the movie in droves, the movie would have to bomb more brutally than the Situation at the Trump Roast for the star’s career to be threatened. (A good example: Mike Myers after ‘The Love Guru.’)”

Simmons continues: “The truth is, most people don’t know how to define a ‘movie star.’ Take Tobey Maguire: Unless his next movie has ‘Spider-Man’ in the title, are people going out of their way to see it? Of course not. That means he’s not a movie star. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for ‘Ray,’ but that didn’t make him a movie star; he’s just a famous person who acts and sings.”

And don’t forget that:

* Movie stars suck. Every movie star, to some extent, writes the movie they star in, according to Lennon and Garant. Their advice? “Listen carefully, and incorporate all of their notes. Some of their notes will likely be TERRIBLE or half-baked. But guess what — you’re gonna do those notes too. Remember, if you can get a movie star to like your writing and even know your name, you become INFINITELY more powerful in Hollywood.” If you disagree with anything the star wants, you will get fired “before you even walk back to your car.” Movie stars also get to sign off on their directors, and:

* Directors suck. “Director,” say Garant and Lennon, “is the only entry-level position left in the movie business. You can’t START as the property master or sound mixer. Or even as the assistant director. You have to work your way up. The only job you can get on a movie set with no experience whatsoever is: director. So is it like joining the Army and being made a four-star general on the same day? Yes, it is. And it happens all the time.” But even directors have to take orders from studios. And guess what?

* Studios suck. A great script may go nowhere if it doesn’t get good “coverage.” And what is that? A summary of your movie written by a young, entry-level worker, maybe even an intern. Moreover, there’s a reason, as the writers put it, that “You can make ‘The Pacifier’ with Vin Diesel, then make almost the exact same movie five years later and call it ‘The Spy Next Door.’ ” That reason is: Studio executives aren’t worrying about how to make good movies. They’re worrying about how not to get fired, and if they make a movie just like some other movie they can say, “It worked before. Who knew it wouldn’t work again? Can I please stay in this nice comfy office?”

Movies, especially comedies, often sell on the basis of “pitches” — brief outlines that the writers act out in the exec’s presence. Why is the writer’s ability to act suddenly critical to whether a movie gets made? Because executives hate to read. They just want to watch. And the pitch boils down to two things, say Tom and Ben. One is making sure the main character is the kind of flawed but amazing character a movie star wants to play. The other is a new idea that is easy to describe in terms of other successful films: “Invoking the name of a film that has MADE A TON OF MONEY in your pitch is never a bad thing in Hollywood. For example: “It’s ‘Die Hard’ meets ‘Home Alone’ — set at a Chuck E. Cheese. PG. But instead of Bruce Willis to the rescue, it’s an 8-year-old. And Hans Gruber is an animatronic raccoon gone haywire.”

Each studio employs a long line of story-overseeing “executives.” Some of these executives aren’t very smart. Some of them are there solely because their grandfather used to be president of the studio. Most of them are soon going to be fired. Any one of them can ruin your film.

Meanwhile, one blog, which the IMDB recently linked to via its homepage, looks at Gilda, starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, a beloved, but arguably less than perfect film from 1946, and believes there’s nothing stopping Hollywood from recapturing its glory days.

If indeed that’s a phrase we should even use to describe Hollywood’s earlier days:

If a movie tried something like that today, it would be dismissed as a poorly-plotted heap of junk, full of holes and awkward characterisation – relying on contrived circumstance to propel a mess of a plot towards an arbitrary finish line. However, because the film is over sixty years old, it seems to get “a pass.” I’ll be honest, that bugs me – the fact that critics and scholars will point to films like this as “classics” based solely on their age and the talent involved. The fact that these flaws, that would be critical flaws in any modern film, get glossed over because it’s old.

I honestly don’t see the point of that. I think it’s unfair to old films that genuinely are “classics”, like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. I also think it’s unfair to modern films, which are roundly and regularly dismissed for having the kind of flaws that major Hollywood productions always had. It creates and reinforces this notion that the quality has rapidly declined or that the artform is lost. I don’t think that it is. I think that a lot of the structural weaknesses of modern films can be found in many of these classics, we just blind ourselves to them.

I don’t say this to demolish these old beloved films, but to observe how nostalgia taints our perception of cinema. Movie writers and reviewers seem caught in this perpetual fantasy that the past was some magical realm where the streets were lined with gold, and that somewhere Hollywood got “lost” in the way that it puts together movies. I don’t really believe that. Movie studios have always used gimmicks. In the past it was movie stars reteaming on a series of bland attempts to recapture the spirit of their earlier collaborations, and now it’s sequels to beloved movies. In days gone by, Hollywood plundered novels and plays for source material; now they use comics and television and other movies. It’s no better or worse than it ever was.

However, before this seems too cynical, I do feel a little bit of optimism. For if the flaws in modern movies can be seen to descend from those iconic films of yesteryear, then so too can the grace and glory and power reach from there to the modern day. If Gilda can be as flawed as the next bland Hollywood blockbuster, then surely the next great film could be as good as Citizen Kane? I don’t believe the present is better or worse than the past, but I do believe it has the potential to be both. If only we stopped raising the past up on a pedestal and lowering the present in our esteem.

” If Gilda can be as flawed as the next bland Hollywood blockbuster, then surely the next great film could be as good as Citizen Kane?”

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the mental straightjackets that Hollywood screenwriters must labor under today, along with all of the reasons that Kyle Smith gave in the first item quoted above, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another Kane or Casablanca to emerge from the current incarnation of Hollywood.

Anybody want to disagree? I’d love to be wrong on this notion. Jean Cocteau is associated with the phrase, “Astonish Me.” The Hollywood of old routinely astonished its audiences — and at times even made it look easy. But these days, forget being astonished; I’m just happy when a film appears to be competently written and acted.

Update: I’m pretty sure neither of these two near-identical recent films qualify as the next Citizen Kane.