Movies suck!

If you see a lot of movies, you will come to the inevitable and dispiriting conclusion that most of them are awful. The strange thing is that we keep coming back for more. For some reason, as viewers, we’re willing to cut movies a lot of slack. We really want to like a film; after all, we’ve taken the time to go see it, rent it, pay for it. The lights go down. The previews make all the films coming up look awesome.

Then the film comes up and, what, 9 times out of 10?, the film is bad. So why do we put up with it? I don’t know. Movies really test our patience for stupidity. I was watching 3:10 to Yuma last night, and, I guess I could see how you could get into it. But it was just so silly. All the guys were so tough (except that they’re not), drinking whiskey and shooting fast. The dialog was extra silly, especially littered with historical facts that seemed like they were there just to prove the writers had done some research. The plot was silly. Why did Russell Crowe stay behind and wait for them to catch him? What did they expect to happen when they got him on the train, for all the bad guys to just go away? The twist at the end made no sense at all. The whole film was full of stuff like that.

It’s weird. I mean, Russell Crowe was good. And Christian Bale was good. Didn’t anybody notice that the stuff they were saying was ridiculous? Or that, I don’t know, the guy that got shot in the gut is better the next day?

You could say this about most films. You could just pick them apart and wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. Not just Hollywood films. Indie films and foreign films are just as guilty at this stuff. For some reason, we’re willing to shrug off the stupidity and unconsciously reason, “it’s just a movie”.

It’s hard making a movie. There’s a lot going on and a lot of things have to be reasoned out, tones have to be set, etc., and it only takes one of those things to kill it, or at least wound it. These things have to be thought out thoroughly.

So how is it that some filmmakers always (or at least almost always) get it all so right?

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A little about writing scripts

I thought I’d change the subject as I’m starting to think I’m repeating my rants about Hollywood’s domination of the multiplex.

I like to bake bread. The other day, a friend said to me, in that derogatory voice that I’m sure writers hear all the time, “not everyone has time to bake bread”, the implication being that I have all the time in the world because I’m not working, I’m just doing nothing all day. Well, fuck you too, I thought. Everybody except Bob Iger has time to bake bread. It’s something I do in my spare time instead of, I don’t know, watching TV. (She sure has time for that!) Baking bread is easy and I like it, so I do it. It is something that you can only really do if you work at home, though. Because, while it only takes ten minutes to mix up a batch of dough, after a couple hours, you have to deal with it again in some way, or bake it. It’s something you have to be around for, but it doesn’t take any time.

I think anybody who works at home is doubly fucked. First of all, everybody thinks that this is what they want. It’s nice to be around the house to bake break, but it’s a drag when dinner needs to be cooked for the kids. Second, it’s really hard because you life gets in the way of your work in ways that people who go to a job can’t imagine. Basically, people think you aren’t doing anything important, and sometimes it feels like you aren’t.

Writing scripts is an extremely temperamental business. It’s not like writing a book, where you can get lost in the words or go off with a character. Scripts are intense things that seem to work on a strange ethereal level: there’s not a lot of words on each page, but there’s an awful lot of information there. Sometimes you’re not even sure how it gets there. Sometimes it doesn’t get there. Sometimes you work for a week trying to get a two page scene to work, only to release that the scene is dumb and shouldn’t even be there. Sometimes you spend six months on a script and realize you’re not going to be able to finish it. Then, of course, all that work goes in, and, you finish, and then – that’s just the first step to making a movie! What a load of suck that is!

On the positive side, you spend a lot of time with characters you really enjoy spending time with, listening to them in ways that you never do with your friends. A lot of your work is just sitting around thinking, which, once you get used to the idea that doing that actually is work, isn’t so bad. There’s an intensity to the emotion that goes into scripts that you really don’t find in real life; it’s there, but it’s watered down; in a script it’s concentrated.

There’s good things and bad things to be said about the amount of time you spend alone or the amount of time you spend in your head. There’s plenty of people who get lost in there and never really come back, some of them famously. Not everybody can do it. There’s people with great ideas that just don’t have the temperament to sit on their ass all day, by themselves, and force themselves to stop surfing for porn and gadget news.

I love writing. It’s a good job, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Baking bread is just a hobby, and I’ve gotten pretty good at that too. I wish I had time to do something else too.

The abandoned audience

Forget about indie film. Hollywood has essentially gotten out of the film business. The studios have made it crystal clear that unless you have a brand or a franchise they are not interested in making your movie. For the foreseeable future, Hollywood will only make films for people under 25 that have some marketing value outside of the film itself.

What happened to films for adults? Forget it. It’s not worth their money. So even though State of Play brings in 36 M dollars at the domestic box office, it didn’t perform well enough for them to make money. Or enough money, because Hollywood has different expectations when it comes to profitability. (The overseas b.o. brings it up to nearly 60 M, about the budget of the film before P+A, reportedly.) Never mind that this film was undersold and then taken out of theaters two weeks after its release. Never mind that while this film cost 60 Million dollars, it didn’t have to cost 60 million dollars, and it probably shouldn’t have. They made the TV show it was based on for much, much less and that was six hours long. Of course, that didn’t star Russell Crowe.

From where I’m standing, 36 M looks like a pretty big audience. Or, at least, it looks like an audience.

So, the audience is there, it’s just not the audience that Hollywood is interested in anymore because they can’t make films like that and make money. But you don’t go to McDonalds for sushi, so why would you go to a Hollywood movie expecting anything other than the Big Mac Movie. Just because Hollywood can’t make money on these films, doesn’t mean that no one can make money on them.

Hollywood controls the distribution networks that put out their films, so getting different films to these unserved audiences will require creating an industry from the ground up. Where is the movie theater that charges less? Where is the movie theater that shows grown up films? Sure there are a few indie theaters around, but what I’m talking about is a wider audience; basically the multiplex audience that has been abandoned by the multiplex. Where is the Target of movie theaters? Or the Toyota of movie theaters? This business needs to be recreated from the ground up, with lower costs along the entire system.

Thoughts on piracy

I used to see piracy of film as an unstoppable force headed to the film world that had to be fought on its own terms: ie. it had to be competed against in an open market, which meant that you had to compete against “free”.

I’m beginning to realize that that is not a workable business model, no matter how many ways you frame it. But it hard to imagine turning the clocks back to a time when people actually obeyed the law. I would never have gone into a record store and stolen a box set of The Rolling Stones, yet I have no problem downloading the entire discography for free. I don’t feel too bad about it because, I feel, The Rolling Stones have gotten plenty of my money over the years and most of their records I’ve bought at least once before. But, really, what kind of logic is that?

But that is part of what led the music industry into its current catastrophe. The music business was a cartel, dominated by a few huge record companies that controlled the market at every stage, from development to M+A to distribution. They consistently put out crappy products and rammed them down our throats with payola deals at radio stations and by dominating shelf space at record stores. They consistently stiffed their musicians, loaning them money that was nearly impossible for them to pay back, while at the same time overcharging for their product and taking what they could when they could get it. In short, they ruled their world with the greed and ill-will of a unpopular dictator. So when the option of downloading stuff for free popped up, no love was lost in robbing these people of their stuff. It was like looting Sadaam Hussain’s palace.

What followed was the near total collapse of the record cartel’s revenue stream. But it was also a collapse of their domination. Good things have come from this collapse.

The best thing is that more music is available now than ever before. There is a diverse range of stuff, catering to many tastes. It’s hard to imagine someone like MIA or Little Boots, as pop as they are, finding an audience within an old school record company.

Another good is the instant access convenience. I wanted to hear some Gene Chandler the other day. I did a quick google and found some stuff and was listening within half an hour. I can’t imagine trying to find a Dukay’s record back in 1990. In fact, sometime in the 90’s I basically stopped buying music. I was disappointed too often when I bought new stuff, and the old stuff I wanted was never available. Plus, how many times was I expected to buy The Pretenders first album?

So there have been, from the consumer point of view, some real advantages (I didn’t even count the fact that it is all “free”).

The film industry is headed in the same direction and has generated plenty of ill will for all the same reasons. It seems to have learned absolutely nothing from the music industry, which is incredible considering that most of these are the same companies.

It is this ill will, this animosity between the consumer and these huge conglomerates that is their biggest obstacle when it comes to enforcing the laws that protect their revenues. They need to overcome that, an impossible task, if they ever want to convince lawmakers to do something about piracy.

To do this, they need, among other things, to start treating the consumer of their products with respect, not just like a monkey with a dollar. But all the evidence is that they are trending exactly the other way. They are tightening their grip on the market place, instead of giving the consumer any options. They are interested only in films that make huge amounts of money, instead of ones that make a decent, but smaller, profit. Yet they are the only ones that have to financial power to do anything about piracy. It’s an ugly situation, so we have to look at the positive, but the truth is, that when the cartel of the Hollywood studios collapses, we will all starve.

Pace and budget

I saw a German film the other day, JERICHOW, which I liked. It really highlights how different American art house films are from their European counterparts. First of all, it was refreshing to see an experienced film maker making a mature film. I’d seen his last film, YELLA, and that was even better. This film was essentially POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but it never felt like a remake and it wasn’t quite the same.

Jerichow has what a critic might call “deliberate pacing”. When I read this in a review, I usually translate it as “slow”, but it doesn’t always mean that. The real masters have a way of using longer takes and simple set ups, of knowing exactly what they need and not wasting any time. Look at Almodóvar films, which no one would call slow. They are full of life and he doesn’t need a lot of shots or cutting or even coverage to fill them with that energy.

A film like Jerichow is a little slower than Almodóvar, but it isn’t boring. There’s always something going on. It takes a little adjustment to the pacing, because my film diet is predominantly American these days (not by choice, mind you.) Also, the interests are different: there isn’t this obsession with “tight story” or continual twists. He takes a moment with a woman sitting in a car, and lets your emotional response be your guide; we know what’s going on, the actress is great, it’s just not something that would be given a chance in an American film. There’s plenty going on, but most of it is under the surface.

There are not a lot of shots in a film like this, and the results are a film that does have a more relaxed pace than anything you will find in an American film.

Less shots equals less money. This film had a German star, but I doubt it cost more than a couple million and it could have cost less than half a million. It’s a real testament to what you can do for little money.

Why is it that in America, when they have a limited budget, they resort to that handheld, fake naturalism that you could pick up watching CSI? I don’t think there was a handheld shot in Jerichow. The camera didn’t move much at all and when it did, it was very transparent, you didn’t notice it. Yet the film had a style. It had direction. You always felt that you were in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. It never seemed generic, which is what I get from someone using that unimaginative handheld look.

I’m always amazed when I see one of the great European films from the late 60’s or 70’s. Look at BLOW UP. It’s got such a cool, laid back pace. It didn’t cost anything. It’s arty and the characters are cool, there’s hardly any plot. It’s not paced or cut dramatically, or over-dramatically, you might say.

So maybe there is a tie between the big budgets that Americans need to make a movie and the their need to hyperventilate and keep pace with Hollywood. When you think about, isn’t that frenetic American style the equivalent of an actor overacting?

Keeping up with Hollywood, rather than separating itself from Hollywood, has led to the many of the problems indie films are having today. Maybe part of the problem is the films themselves.