Speaking as Grandpop Culture, it is my inherent and inalienable right to demand that rotten kids get off my lawn. My problem: Nobody cares to be on it anymore.
I recently did a Google search for “2017 movies.” The resulting list was crammed with remakes (Flatliners, Murder on the Orient Express, Jumanji), sequels (World War Z 2, T2: Trainspotting, Pitch Perfect 3), franchises (Baywatch, Power Rangers, The Dark Tower), and the occasional combinations of all three (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword). That’s not even counting any movie that’s sourced from a comic or graphic novel, of which we can expect approximately 38 this year, or one for every liver spot on my left hand.
This isn’t Hollywood as storyteller; this is Hollywood as business. The only thing better than a sure thing is a surer thing, and what could be a greater certainty than a movie based on somebody else’s work? You lure fans of that original work, and with the right Budding Young Star, you lure B.Y.S’s fans. Cut back on dialogue and amp up the explosions so it’ll work in the foreign markets, and voila, a flick that costs $200 million and makes $600 million. Why bother to lop off that extra zero on the cost and the gross? A forty million dollar profit doesn’t mean what it used to, is what I’m saying here.
I’m a guy who’s all about the story, who’d much rather watch a Preston Sturges movie than a Michael Bay one, who prefers Napoleon Dynamite to any X-Man. I want to see films written by one or two people, not by a committee who feel the need to “fix” that perfect first draft. Jim Bouton once said, “If TV executives ever got Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, they’d say, ‘Ernie, we love it. But the part about the fish is boring. And the man is too old. He should have a girlfriend.'”
I know I’m in the minority here – and that’s the problem, that I know it. I’m too cognizant of what’s come before and its value, and the number like me grows smaller every day. The moviegoing audience of today isn’t as concerned with what went on before, as long as they get their mental sugar rush nownownow. When Hollywood rebooted Spider-Man, telling the audiences that “we needed to tell the origins to those who weren’t paying attention when we told them the origins ten years ago,” and the audiences went along with it, that right there was the line in the sand. I won’t cross that line, which means I’m left alone on my damn lawn.
The ignorance shows its blissful face to me every now and then. Film critic and aintitcool.com founder Harry Knowles told the story of being in an office with a young Hollywood exec who had taken part in a “greatest film duels” poll and was excitedly looking at the results, bragging about how many of the winners he’d voted for. Knowles had also participated in the poll, making Spartacus his number 1 choice. Not only did it not show up until far down in the results, the Hollywood exec pronounced it “Spar-TACK-us.” Under Knowles’ withering incredulity, he said, “I don’t make movies for 1960; I make movies for today.” Knowles then proceeded to rip the exec a new one because he implied that Stanley Kubrick didn’t make movies for all time. Left unsaid: how today turns into yesterday so very quickly, which is why you’ve already forgotten 2013’s top grossers (Hint: two of the top twelve weren’t sequels).
Another furor-inducer: articles that talk about the best-ever this, the greatest-of-all-time that, and then don’t follow through with “ever” and “all time.” I once saw a bracket on best movie deaths of all time, and not one of them took place in a movie before 1980. The Godfather alone had ten deaths that could’ve wiped the floor with any one from the other competitors. Think I’m exaggerating? Check these out: Don Corleone, Sonny, Paulie, Moe Green, Luca Brasi, Sollozzo, McCluskey, Appolonia, Carlo, and the horse. Hell, Bambi’s mother had a worse death than some of those, and she died offscreen.
One more example: A friend of mine tipped me off to an online listicle, “15 Movie Scenes That Should Have Been Deleted.” The first (and far and away the oldest) one listed: HAL telling Dave he wouldn’t let Dave back into the ship in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “… frankly, the focus on him gets to be a bit much,” the author writes. “Most of the three-minute scene is simply Dave yelling ‘HAL,’ and, due to the film’s 161-minute running time, probably could have been done without.” I cannot imagine a more thorough misreading of a scene that ratcheted up the tension so considerably, pitted man against machine, and led directly to the next scenes, where Dave manages to get into the ship and then must disconnect HAL. But now it’s out there as a reference point – the oldest reference point, at that – and people are going to read and digest and regurgitate that opinion as though it were truth.
We live in a country that has a tendency to celebrate ignorance. Remember when presidential candidate (and Penn State graduate) Rick Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!“? Well, he wasn’t the first to hold up a lack of education as an ideal. That goes back beyond him, beyond Brick Tamland, beyond Forrest Gump, beyond Bill & Ted, beyond the Sweathogs, beyond Gomer Pyle, beyond Wrong Way Corrigan if you want to go way back. It tickles the American underbelly to find someone to laugh at, little knowing that doing so makes it less than.
Well, I don’t buy that. I believe that the more you know about your past, the better equipped you are for the present, let alone the future. If there are any young musicians reading this, I’d advocate them not to listen to their favorite band, but to find out what their favorite band listened to and listen to that. It’s just one of the reasons Led Zeppelin is revered and Kingdom Come isn’t. It’s one of the reasons Wes Anderson watched the movie Melody before he filmed Moonrise Kingdom. It’s the curiosity about the past that drives the true artists of the present into the future – they’re the ones who make the stuff that lasts, and there’s less of the lasting stuff made today than there ever was.
I guess what I need to do is to learn how to handle this kind of thing with the equanimity that Billy Wilder did. Or was it Fred Zinnemann? Both have been portrayed as the hero of this particular story. The story works either way – both had won multiple Academy Awards for their directing (Wilder for The Lost Weekend and The Apartment, Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons), but in the ’70s their careers were going downhill as the kids with the beards took over the studios, and the kids’ only interests, in Wilder’s words, were “car crashes and space ships.”
The story goes that Wilder/Zinnemann had a meeting with a young Hollywood executive who started out by saying, “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with your work. Can you give me a brief rundown of what you’ve done?”
The legendary director considered this, and delivered his soon-to-be-legendary response: “You first.”