Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In defense of the blockbuster, part 5: Conclusions

So, you've read my points. You've (hopefully) considered my points on everything from popularity to the economics of big movies to the increasing amount of racial and gender diversity and how the quality of modern-day blockbusters might just be better than ever...

So, what can I conclude now that I've spent over two months and four previous blog entries defending big, mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Well, here ya go!

1) The way we're framing the conversation about blockbuster movies is wrong, and it needs to change. 

When I started writing this blog series, a friend reached out to me and said the following:
"[I'm] intrigued to see what your arguments in favor of blockbusters will be! I probably won't disagree with you entirely because I still see blockbusters but I am definitely more choosey about which I see and the more I learn about the business and talk to those involved, specifically independent directors like Jordan Vogt-Roberts of The Kings of Summer (we had lunch... and he gave a very strong argument against modern blockbusters) who still hold cinema to be something sacred and are trying to break into the scene apart from studios, the more I agree with what you would call the cynical opinions. I think they simply may be more aligned with reality. But I do want to hear your opinions before I say anything else!"

This was my response:
"I think part of the problem that I'll talk about is that the whole conversation we're having about blockbusters is askew. I think it boils down to a very "us vs. them" argument, and that's not the way it should be. There is this idea either that you go see the latest Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Lars Von Trier, etc. movie or you go to the multiplex, but that there isn't any overlap, that film fans have to ultimately pick a side. I don't want to discredit your film director friend, but there's this whole idea that Hollywood is a system, and only the best directors go "outside the system." Well, that seems a discredit to directors that started indie, then moved on to bigger movies (like Chris Nolan), or directors who switch it up between big movies and smaller, more intimate dramas (like Spielberg). I think indie film fans are likely to paint all blockbusters as dumb, over the top sensory overload products all directed by Michael Bay (which discredits Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, etc.) while fans of blockbusters are more likely to paint indie film fans as hipster, out-of-touch, artsy, and pretentious (which is a wide brush to paint fans of any genre, nonetheless something as broad as independent cinema). The reason I'm writing this is because I think the way we're framing the conversation is wrong, so I wanted to clarify some things and hopefully get people to reexamine the conversations we're having about film today in new ways."

This conversation summed up what I hoped to accomplish with this blog series, and I hope maybe I've gotten you, most wonderful reader, to maybe reconsider a lot of the anti-blockbuster sentiment that's going around today. But I think that there do seem to be these two camps in terms of a lot of discussion today among film aficionados. One of the camps is very much in indie film tradition. These are your art-house friends that roll their eyes when you mention the latest Marvel movie but can't wait to talk about the Palme D'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival. This camp watches a lot of independent and foreign cinema, perhaps exclusively.

"Why, yes, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is so MUCH better than Blue Is The Warmest Color. The work of  director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul is just truly sublime!" *snobby laugh*

In the other camp, you have most of the general cinema audience. People who shell out money for big blockbusters without thinking about problematic issues in the work of directors like Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Brett Ratner, etc. You got fanboys and fangirls who practically worship the big franchise movies that come out, kids who enjoy big action that's a little thin on story... and good dialogue... and good themes. But a lot of them are just regular people who want a 90-minute to two-and-a-half-hour break from their everyday lives. People who want to turn their brain off and be entertained by something on a big screen surrounded by a bunch of other people who also want to turn their brain off and be entertained by something on a big screen. 
The revolution will not be televised. It will be projected on a giant movie screen. IN 3-D!

Then you have people that fall into the middle, a group of which I consider myself to fall into. These are people who can go and appreciate something as goofy, but well-made like Pacific Rim but can also appreciate indie, foreign, and other acclaimed movies. I think a lot of fans of genre cinema, cult cinema, and other smaller niches fall into this category.

People in the first camp I mentioned, let's call them Camp A, are more likely to depict Hollywood as a sort of system. It's institutionalized, it's incorporated, it's about profit margins and never about the art, they argue. Only the best, most creative filmmakers go outside the system so that they cannot be hindered by a corporation in terms of their freedom of expression, they would also say. 

Well, "best" is a relative term for directors that go outside the system...

...Well, I for one think that's a fallacy of an argument. It's the old "reductio ad absurdum" argument, reduce the other side of an argument into its silliest, most absurd qualities, and exaggerate truths and in some cases make up lies and have people believe they're truths in order to paint their side as wrong and your side as right. First of all, no one is arguing that Hollywood isn't a system. But system makes it seem rather Matrix-like, a giant conspiracy of higher-ups all scheming and plotting against creative types. It's a business. This is America, a capitalistic society. And like any business, Hollywood needs to take risks, make money, hire people, fire people, maintain growth, and any other term any other econ major can rattle off. 

As for the idea that only the best, most creative people are people "outside the system," well, that's kind of an insult to any number of famous directors I've mentioned in previous installments. Let me just say this right now: no director, living or dead, would turn down the opportunity to have millions upon millions of dollars, the biggest stars, the Hollywood hype-and-publicity machine, and cutting edge visual effects at their disposal to help make their dreams a reality. Even the most guerrilla filmmaker would be unlikely to turn down such an opportunity, even if it meant potentially compromising his or her own vision. And that's the thing. Hollywood looks at breakout hits from indie and foreign directors, and offers them opportunities to work in tentpoles and franchise movies where their unique vision is likely to succeed. To talk about going outside the system seems to say that there's no opportunity for advancement, no opportunity for a unique, quirky director to resonate with mainstream audiences, and film history has proved time and time again that isn't the case. 

"That quirky Lucas kid that made American Graffiti a few years back? He'll never make another movie, I'll count on it..."- a movie executive circa 1975

Certain prestige pictures are always lifted up as pinnacles of achievement on film, just as the case is with any major medium of art. There's an obvious difference between reading Shakespeare and reading Danielle Steele, but Danielle Steele readers don't seem as heavily chastised in literary circles as Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay fans are in film circles. It's unfair to criticize a certain model of film-making, in this case blockbusters, for simply catering to the middle, and not trying to reach the pinnacles of a certain medium of art. As I pointed out before, even the late, great Roger Ebert didn't believe that there was anything wrong with film as "pure entertainment." And as I also mentioned before, not every movie can be a black-and-white French existential masterpiece. I think most of us would want to see an action movie, or a horror movie, or any genre movie every once in a while. Not every movie has to be amazing art, well-made entertainment can be value enough for a lot of these movies. 

I might venture to guess that a lot of anti-blockbuster sentiment is fueled by a sense of jealousy. Blockbusters tend to make tens to hundreds of times what most small indie films make. And sure, fans of these smaller movies are perhaps rightfully peeved when a well-directed, well-written, well-acted film only grosses a fraction of a percentage of what a bigger movie grosses. But that seems to deny something I hold to be true: films always find the audiences they were intended for. Maybe big blockbusters do appeal to the masses, but that does not discredit the achievements of smaller movies. Blockbusters open across thousands of locations at once, have months, if not years, of the active Hollywood publicity and hype machine at their disposal, and are carefully crafted to appeal to most moviegoers. There's no way a small indie could compare with that, nor should they. A film should be taken on their own respective and individual merits, whether it was financed by a big studio or a quicken loan, and while popularity should be a part of that, it shouldn't be the ONLY factor the equation. 

So there you have it. I believe the reason that there are so many negative perceptions about mainstream Hollywood blockbusters is because they are a part of a larger cultural conversation (or perhaps war is a better term) about high-art vs. not-high-art. But while I'm all for larger cultural conversations on anything, particularly when it relates to film and art in general, this does not need to be a conflict between two dueling sides. There are plenty of ways to compromise For people who distrust Hollywood, this means not automatically dismissing something because of its higher budget, attraction of big stars, special effects, etc. For mainstream film fans, it means owning up to the fact that a lot of blockbusters are brainless entertainment, but that there is plenty to analyze and consider in watching these films. It could even mean opening yourself up to new genres and new types of films, not exclusively watching whatever is playing at the multiplex. 

Or, to put it another way...

I don't see a reason why blockbusters have to be constantly chastised time and time again by film aficionados. You can judge an individual film based on its individual merits (or lack thereof), but to chastise an entire style, an entire genre, an entire system of movie-making seems detrimental (and I'll get more into that a little later with my second point). 

But let me clarify this: smaller films and larger films are not at odds against each other, despite what you might have been told or believe. Whether or not the latest superhero film does or doesn't do well does not. DOES. NOT. impact in the slightest whether or not the next Wes Anderson, or Terrence Malick, or Alexander Payne, or Lars Von Trier film gets greenlit. Creative people and artists, whether they have budgets of $100 million, $1 million, $10,000 or $1 will always find a way to distribute their films if they are passionate about it. In our age of digital revolution, the Internet and things like Youtube and Netflix are revolutionizing and challenging regular models of film distribution. The Coen Brothers will get the chance to make another movie because of their previous track-record. It doesn't boil down to some stereotypical Hollywood exec smoking a cigar and deciding what gets money, despite what the people in Camp A will tell you. If anything, having "indie" (I have that in quotation marks because how indie can something truly be if it's financed by a major studio...?) movies that are financed by major studios legitimizes them in a sense. It gives them credibility, Oscar buzz, critical acclaim, which often (but not always) leads to success at the box office or on home video. These are the movies that are much likely to be timeless, much more to get on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, much more likely to be remembered for generations to come. Why would a studio want to throw that all away for the sake of what Brett Ratner wants to do...?


In this era of the Internet, where any regular person can have a platform to speak, many people have made their anti-blockbuster sentiments known to wide audiences thanks to video blogs, articles, forum posts, etc. And I've noticed a lot of these people that are cynical of modern blockbusters are products or children of the New Hollywood era of the 1970s or the independent film movement of the 1990s. And sure, when these people were coming of age and first getting into film, there were renaissances in both film as art and an emerging market for indie film, respectively. But Hollywood has changed, but I would argue (and you can read my previous installments to see why) not for the worse. Basically, these cynics are controlling the conversation, and treating an entire, major subset of films being produced today as worthless. If we want rational conversation about blockbusters, which includes focusing on individual films rather than making generalized statements about the entire American film industry, we need to change the conversations. Blockbusters aren't always bad. Blockbusters aren't inherently evil. Blockbusters are not inherently in conflict with smaller films. It's time that we started to change the conversation, because if we don't, we're just going to be debating the same issues over and over again, and we'll never reach a resolution.

2) "Never hate a movie."

This is a quote attributed to director Quentin Tarantino, and it's one I use and reflect upon in discussing film. (Actually, my knowledge of this quote comes from an article written by the online blogger known as Film Critic Hulk. He makes some valid points, but man, is that caps-locks/talking-like-the-Incredible-Hulk grating!) Basically, the premise is even in bad movies there is something to take away. Bad movies can inform you as to how to make better movies, but more than that, I think (and perhaps I'm way off base here) that it is also saying that no film has no redemptive qualities.

So ever since reading that, I've become a lot better about hating movies. I don't think I hate any movie. Sure, there are plenty of movies I dislike, and I can go into depth about why I dislike them, but I don't hate any movie. I even look at my least-favorite-movie of all time not as some sort of pinnacle of human failure, but as a failed comedy that went over-the-top in trying to appeal to as much of the culture of the time as possible. You might have gathered from these entries, or knowing me generally, that I am not a fan in the least bit of the film Prometheus. As much as I dislike the narrative structure of that film (and how it completely ruins the canon and themes of the Alien movies) I can appreciate the visual style, the performances (especially Michael Fassbender's) and the direction of the movie. Even a movie I strongly dislike is not totally beyond redemption in my eyes. There's a lot there that can be and should be admired.

It seems like so much of our discussion of blockbuster movies stems from misplaced hatred, and while each of us is free to dislike or like whatever movie we want-

Except this movie. No one can like this movie. NO. ONE.

Hating something just goes beyond that. And what movies are more hated than blockbusters? Even the most ill-respected indie movies still have the "indie movie" credibility aura around them. They're still screened at festivals, they're still talked about as something "underground". Even the indie movies most likely to isolate or confuse audiences still has this aura of credibility because they're outside Hollywood.

Meanwhile, it's easy to get on a bandwagon of hatred, especially towards our biggest and popular of movies, the blockbusters. And perhaps it is well deserved when it comes to something like The Last Airbender, hating something and dismissing that it has any redeemable aspects to it is a bad habit to get into. It dismisses the work and talent that went into making the movie. It dismisses the artistry and the effort that went into orchestrating the film, designing and producing various aspects from the design to the actor's performance. No movie is totally beyond redemption. Hating a film robs you of the opportunity to analyze both pros and cons, what works and what doesn't. As I mentioned before even with the films I most dislike, I try to look for something redeemable, something positive that the film did well. 

For example, something I liked in The Last Airbender was when it ended...

Recently, there's been a lot of negative buzz about The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And I can understand where a lot of that comes from. The villains are not fully realized, it suffers from a confusing plot and muddled character motivations. But there are a lot of standout moments. The movie might actually be one of the best performances of Spider-Man on film, thanks to the energy brought to the role by Andrew Garfield. And while the action pieces leave something to be desired, there's a very tender moment between Aunt May, played by Sally Field, and Peter. She gets emotional in asking why Peter wants to know about his parents, when she was the one who was a mother figure to him for years. She ends this by stating "You're MY boy, Peter!" It's a raw, emotional moment, something never before seen in a Spider-Man movie, something that adds to the character, and perhaps even goes beyond what the original incarnation in the Marvel comic books ever did. There are certainly admirable aspects to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which include the performances, some of the dialogue and more emotional scenes, and that amazing risk of an ending (I won't go into spoilers). Sure, there's problematic aspects to the film, and those should not be completely ignored. But I don't hate The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and neither should you. However, it has been hated on and hated on, with some people comparing it to Batman and Robin for some reason...?

Unless I missed the cameo from Coolio in Amazing Spider-Man 2, I doubt that comparison is apt...

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has become the latest victim in our hatred-fueled, social-media driven, snarky, banal analysis of blockbusters. Even our critics, who are supposed to be fair in their reviews and weigh the positives and negatives of a film, seem to be fueling this trend. A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times, got a lot of heat for his review of The Avengers back in 2012, and rightfully so. In the review, he says things like "the light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre" and "In Germany, [Loki] compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and The Avengers, which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience." Long gone are the days where a critic like Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel would like or recommend a movie for sheer entertainment value. Our critics have been replaced by the more snarky, more cynical people like Scott, or Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter (whose review of Les Miserables still remains one of the snobbiest things I've ever read). The fact that our critics have different, contrasting opinions about defines a film's value drives home to individual movie-watchers that there is a lack of consensus. 

In our social media driven culture, where everyone has a soapbox, it is easy to get wrapped up into a particular argument or way of thinking without examining it or analyzing it critically. So many times, I have seen this phrase on Facebook or Twitter: "THIS IS THE WORST MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!!"

If that's true, you haven't seen that many movies, because I don't care how bad it is, it's not Birdemic bad...

There's too much petty hatred in terms how we as individuals view art. Even as disappointed as I was with recent blockbusters Iron Man 3 and Maleficent, I tried to think of things the films did well, and that helped quell a since of deeper hatred in my reviews of them on both Facebook and Reddit. I'm not saying you have to like everything, just try to have an open mind, and don't give into a particular sentiment about a group of movies simply because you were told to. Never hate a movie. 

I think people are attracted to the opinions of a Todd McCarthy or an A.O. Scott, or RedLetterMedia's online show Half in the Bag, or other Internet-exclusive video reviews like CinemaSins or YourMovieSucks because they are so critical, they are skeptical and cynical about blockbusters. People love a good narrative about an overarching power structure keeping the little man suppressed. Why not turn Hollywood into that villain? It's easy to get so wrapped up in their particular perspectives that you forget to take a step back and realize that, as I hope I have laid out in this series, there are plenty of admirable aspects of our blockbusters that are so often forgotten in our discussions about them. So next time someone tells you they hate a movie, particularly if it's a blockbuster, ask them something they liked, something they thought was done well, or just one good thing about it that they can think of. Never hate a movie. 

You'll make these guys very proud.

Tarantino would say that you can take the aspects you like of a movie you didn't like, and utilize those positive aspects to craft a better movie if you are trying to be a filmmaker. Blockbusters often use experimental techniques to display action, and directors like Tarantino have utilized various techniques they've learned from even the most reviled blockbusters to do it better the second time. Blockbusters have sort of become the testing ground for issues like how to display, edit, and film action scenes. As despised as he is, even Michael Bay has vocal supporters ranging from Oscar-winning director James Cameron or film theorist Jeanine Basinger or even the Criterion Collection. (Yes, THAT Criterion Collection. I'm just as shocked as you are.) Their praise isn't about things like acting or story, but moreso on the way Bay frames shots and films action scenes, which has actually been hailed as very inventive. (You can read more about it here.) And sure, while it's easy to dismiss Bay for lowest-common-denominator stories, even he that is considered the Master Of All That Is Bad About Modern Blockbusters, can't be dismissed entirely according to some of the most respected people and organizations in Hollywood. Never hate a movie.

Tarantino's message is one I think we as film aficionados and fans should get behind. He actually made waves a few months ago for putting such critical disappointments such as Kick-Ass 2, or flat out box-office bombs like The Lone Ranger on his list of favorite movies of 2013, alongside more mainstream fare like This Is The End, Gravity, and The Conjuring. He has become a voice for reexamining blockbusters, through this "never hate a movie" mantra. And we, as film fans, should embrace that message. It took a long time for cultural enthusiasts to embrace the idea of film as art. What service are we doing if we dismiss such a broad amount of popular films every year simply because of what they are, or how large a budget they had, or that they were studio products? Are we drawing a line around what is good and acceptable and what isn't? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it seems our society has embraced this type of movie as a whole. For all their issues, for all the criticisms, they can't be easily dismissed. They shouldn't be easily dismissed. They are just as much a part of cultural dialogue as any other piece of art, any other thing that is produced for the masses. They are a product of our times, yet perhaps some of them will outlive us all. They shape the imaginations of the young, provide entertainment to the masses, and not all of them, but most of them are creative works made by passionate people who collaborated together to make something great. Never hate a movie.

So you want my advice? Go see blockbusters. Analyze them. Question them. Love them! Like them! Dislike them, but never hate them! Don't listen to people who dismiss them. Don't listen to rants about the "Hollywood system." Like what you like, dislike what you dislike, and see a lot of movies and see a lot of blockbusters, because whether good or bad, they will teach you something about how to (or not to) make a movie, or just entertain you, make you think, make you laugh, or anything in between. These are movies, and these are why people love them.


This concludes my "In defense of the blockbuster" blog series. I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. And while it might be a while before I try something this ambitious again (two months on a blog series... I need a break), definitely keep on the lookout for more blogs on a wide range of subjects coming soon. Stay tuned, and thanks for stopping by!