Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Sadly, I didn't get a chance to see David Chase's Not Fade Away during its run here in Des Moines.  I wanted to, of course--who wouldn't want to see the first theatrical film from the creator of The Sopranos?--but it only played here for a week, the victim of a studio that had no faith in it, destined to be just another obscure red Box rental.

Based on even the most sympathetic reviews, Not Fade Away may not have been a total triumph, but Chase's track record--again: The Sopranos--certainly suggests it would be worth seeing.  A personal film that doesn't quite work is almost always more worthwhile than an easy success.

Sadly, easy successes are pretty much the very best we can hope for when it comes to major studio releases: Toothless PG-13 horror movies, raucous comedies, big dumb action movies and endless retreads and sequels.  That they mostly can't even do these things well is beside the point.  Hollywood's blockbuster-or-nothing mentality is like a diet of nothing but frozen pizza and cheap beer.

To this day, plenty of well-informed people lay the blame for all this at the feet of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  The massive success of Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster, and we've been going downhill ever since.

This is nonsense, obviously.  Yeah, many producers great and small tried to chase the success of those films, much as they tried to rip-off earlier blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure, The Godfather and The Exorcist.  You can't blame them, after all.  It's a business.  They wanted to make hits.

But that wasn't all they wanted.  The studios were perfectly content to produce and release mid-level, mid-budget movies that weren't designed to be blockbusters.  Since there wasn't much at stake, they could afford to take chances.  Consider something like The Elephant Man: On one hand, as Oscar-bait inspiring story about overcoming physical deformity.  On the other hand, Paramount Pictures entrusted this story to David Lynch--whose only feature at that point was Eraserhead, for God's sake--and was perfectly okay with his decision to shoot it in black-and-white, to make it as weird as he wanted.  And it paid off: Not a runaway smash, but a solid hit.

 Of course, that was when Paramount was an actual studio, as opposed to being merely one vertically-integrated content provider for the Viacom organization.  Throughout the eighties and nineties, studios increasingly became slaves to their corporate masters, and the people making creative decisions came from the world of business, not art.  This explains a lot of the problems with movies today, but not all of them.

I think the real turning point was the TV debut of Entertainment Tonight in 1981, followed quickly by the print debut of USA Today the following year.  This marked the first time weekly rankings of the top-grossing movies became available to the general public.  Suddenly there was a horse race quality to judging the week's new releases.  Will Movie X succeed?  Will Movie Y recoup its massive production costs?  Nobody but Hollywood insiders cared about this previously, but now it was a thing.  Whereas once something like Howard The Duck would have failed and disappeared, now we could read just how much it cost and how much it lost.

The studios, now aware that people were watching, decided they damn well weren't going to take chances anymore.  They commissioned increasing amounts of polling data, and soon organizations like Cinemascore were asking viewers for snap judgements on movies they'd just seen, a practice that didn't exactly encourage nuanced opinion.  (The Sorrow And The Pity--thumbs up or down?)

All this, plus the rise of drooling fanboy websites like Ain'tItCoolNews and review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, has changed the very way movies are perceived.  Consider the recent case of Killing Them Softly.  While it has flaws--director Andrew Dominik occasionally strains too hard for significance, and some of his musical choices are thuddingly ironic--it's mostly a very faithful adaptation of a terrific George V. Higgins novel, impeccably made and showcasing an ace cast.  And yet upon its release, the only stories written about it stressed its low grosses and Cinemascore rating of F.  As if this movie was made to be a blockbuster!

A similar story played out in the press over the "disappointing" audience reaction to This Is 40.  Whatever artistic ambition the film may have had is beside the point.  It's not making money, and that's all you need to know about it.  In that sense, Not Fade Away was lucky--it was so low profile, there weren't even any stories proclaiming it a flop.

It used to be an insult when a movie was described as feeling like a TV show.  But I hope the next thing David Chase does is for television.  The movies don't deserve him.