[Introducing Fourth Wall, a new CHIRP Radio series featuring discussions about movies and other things worth talking about. The first conversation is by CHIRP Radio volunteers Clarence Ewing (listen to his radio show on Sundays form 2pm-4pm Central Time) and Kevin Fullam (film blogger and podcaster extraordinarie).]
CE: Hello, Kevin! Here it is, our new series where we’re going to talk about the movies. Many thanks for conceiving of this idea. I feel like, in our own small way, we can carry on in the Chicago tradition of Siskel and Ebert and, through conversation and kicking around ideas, gain some insight into a subject we enjoy.
I thought we could start things off by talking about movies in general. There was a time when I was almost as obsessed with movies as I was (and still am) with music. I even got THIS CLOSE to getting my own film production company off the ground a bunch of years ago. It fell apart like most startups with no money tend to do, but I learned some valuable lessons from the experience, as well as an appreciation for how hard it is to finance and make even the smallest, lowest-budget project.
I heard somewhere that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference. I’m definitely not indifferent toward motion pictures. But at a time when movies are bringing in all-time high revenues for the people who make and own them, I feel movies have also never been less relevant to American culture.
The major studios seem to be trapped in an endless cycle of Sequels, Remakes, Reboots, and various combinations of the same. Meanwhile, it seems like “serious” filmmakers who want to tell actual stories have as good or better chance of finding success on television than the silver screen. Directors like David Chase (The Sopranos) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) would have been dominating Hollywood studio lots forty years ago.
I don't think everything's terrible. My NetFlix account and Tivo box remain vital parts of my life. Documentaries also seem to be a prominent source of important entertainment. Three amazing films I’ve recently seen come to mind: O.J.: Made in America, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and I Am Not Your Negro. These are classics in every sense of the word.
And of course, rays of sunlight always shine through, usually with minimal marketing and distribution. Every year there’s always a Moonlight or Hell or High Water somewhere in the mix, movies that don’t just entertain but also manage to use art to tell us something about the world we’re living in.
So that’s where I am in 2017 – I still believe motion pictures are the most powerful communication tool ever invented by man, but I’m also now a middle-aged jaded crank who’s bitterly disappointed in what Hollywood has offered in the past 20 years. How about you, Kevin? What’s your story? What’s the state of your movie-going world at this time?
KF: Great intro and welcome, Clarence!
In contrast, my own interest in the big screen has grown mightily over the last couple of decades. I grew up largely on the standard fare of '80s and '90s cinema, but towards the end of an aborted PhD adventure in political science, I became fascinated by the intersection of politics and film -- in particular the ability of mass media to impact our thinking on issues. I later hosted a radio program that examined these sorts of questions, and also taught a course on this topic at Loyola University. However, the kinds of stories that play into grand, sweeping themes... well, I don't find myself watching many of those sorts of tales these days, and thus am currently much more interested in the micro rather than the macro when it comes to storytelling.
I certainly sympathize with your gripes about the current state of franchise-crazed Hollywood -- I often wonder how many fantastic new concepts never see the light of day because of the reluctance to stray from already-existing properties. If a young James Cameron were pitching The Terminator today, would any studio listen?
Some of the blame also needs to be placed at the feet of global audiences; blockbuster films often now generate up to 2/3 of their gross from overseas markets, and those have tended to reward the sorts of dizzying, sensory-overload, popcorn spectacles that are long on CGI and short on plot. (I'm looking squarely at you, Michael Bay.)
At the same time, I feel there's lots to love on the independent circuit, and it's also possible to bypass the primary channels of distribution entirely. We're fortunate in Chicago to have access to a number of theaters which specialize in independent and foreign fare, but even out in the sticks, anyone with an internet connection and/or postal address can enjoy the same films, if not the big-screen experience.
You mentioned documentaries -- OJ and Going Clear (two of my favorites as well) were backed by major networks ESPN and HBO, respectively, but with the rise in quality of both cameras and digital-editing software, docs are cheaper to make today than ever before. And I'll add three recent picks of my own: Red Army, The Gatekeepers, and Meet the Patels, the last of which was very much a DIY project on a shoestring budget.
Though, about that distribution I mentioned -- uh, am I the only one left who still gets actual, physical DVDs mailed to my abode each week? I find that 90% of what I want to watch isn't available on Netflix's streaming service, and given the choice between hunting down a particular film through other avenues or watching what's promoted on streaming services, I fear most folks tend to take the path of least resistance. Maybe there's a music analogy here with regards to the aficionados who used to hunt down records at second-hand stores? Ha.
Clarence, even though your production company didn't come to fruition, that's still a mighty impressive undertaking. What sorts of films were you aiming to make? Were there any particular inspirations? And very true about the migration of talent toward television over the last couple of decades. What are your thoughts as far as the sophistication of modern audiences?
CE: I also prefer DVDs to streaming, for the same reasons you mention. Tons of great movies just aren't popular enough for distributors to justify re-releasing (and in many cases, remastering) them. And I'm glad to live in a city with places like Facets and the Chicago Film Society where there are opportunities to see some of them on a big screen.
As for my dabbling in film making...Ah yes, those were the days! Personally, I was very much affected by the '90s "indie" film movement, when movies produced by people outside the Hollywood machine like Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape became huge successes and it seemed like there was an avenue for hard-working, unconnected people could get into the business. Of course, it was the Dot-Com era and there was oceans of money around for anyone who wanted to start any kind of startup business.
My goal was to produce mid-range priced dramas and thrillers. By the time I found partners, one of whom had sort-of written a script, the Dot-Com bubble burst, financiers stopped throwing cash at anything with a pulse, and all of the major independent companies either went out of business or got bought by a major studio to become their outlet for "prestige" pictures. The whole story about that era hasn't been written yet, in my opinion, but to me it remains a fascinating time for the history of American film making.
I think audiences are more sophisticated and demanding than ever before, and I think all of it has to do with a desire for Authenticity. I think there are parallels in music as well - if you're not "real" with what you're doing, there's something wrong. For a lot of movies, being "real" means being accurate. I remember seeing the Sandra Bullock film Gravity a couple of years ago, a film with an intriguing story structure and amazing visuals. I looked around the Web for discussions of it, only to find heated debates about how the movie didn't correctly represent the physics of orbital movement...! Director Alfonso Cuarón's failure to accurately re-create the laws of nature was a huge point of contention for commentators. Over the past few years a whole cottage industry of video essays has sprung up whose only purpose is to point out different movies' flaws in logic or representation or whatever, as if the sum of the mistakes and inconsistencies somehow factors into whether the movie is "actually" good or not.
By the time the average American reaches their late teens, they've seen and heard just about every mainstream entertainment story arc there is to tell, they know all the clichés, and they've seen all the tricks. Technology tries to stay ahead of the game - special effects get ever more realistic to the microscopic level. Even this week critics are lauding the latest X-Men movie Logan for how realistic the violence and blood are in this work of complete fiction.
Meanwhile, comedies tell their stories with an ironic wink and nod to the audience, as if to acknowledge that everyone involved gets how artificial and dumb it all is. The funny thing is, even in this era of advanced visuals and anything-goes titillation, mainstream movies still operate comfortably within the confines of the Hays Code. You can hack apart bad guys or destroy cities with laser beams all you want, but do you want to build your film around two guys in love, a sympathetic depiction of a prostitute, or an unsympathetic depiction of American combat soldiers? The studio execs would like a word with you.
You mentioned earlier an interest in the intersection between politics and film. Do you think it would be possible to depict our current political climate on film, as a documentary or work of fiction? The recent Hillary Clinton "doc"/political hatchet job flopped...would it be even possible to conceive of a believable Donald Trump character?
KF: Would it be possible to depict our current political climate on film? Absolutely. Would such a movie be polarizing as hell? Almost certainly. I think it's incredibly difficult to do overtly political films in general without coming off as preachy, and given the current national mood, studios would likely be especially wary of election fatigue with the masses.
To this day, I'm amazed that the Oliver Stone film W got made with Bush still in office! Who was going to be the target audience for this film? If you liked GW, you weren't going to want to watch director Oliver Stone do a hatchet job on him, and if you hated the administration, would you really want more of the Bush experience after enduring eight years? With Trump dominating the current news cycle to an even greater degree, I'm guessing that most moviegoers would seek refuge from that world, not embrace it further.
[Predictably, W didn't fare well at the box office, but I was surprised (and impressed) at how Stone handled Bush. It wasn't a smear by any means, and Stone managed to paint the president as a bit of a sympathetic character.]
A filmmaker might have a better shot at addressing our politics via humor -- there's that famous line from Oscar Wilde, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." This was an angle that documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore adopted at the start of his career, and while his politics weren't necessarily mine, he was a master at couching his arguments via biting comedy.
As time went on, however, that veneer seemed to slide away, and a polemicist who ceases to make you laugh is far less enjoyable. Case in point, that Hillary's America doc you alluded to, the brainchild of commentator Dinesh D'Souza. However, it didn't flop at all, and was actually the highest-grossing documentary of 2016 at over $13 million! It was panned even by conservative critics, but I guess D'Souza knew his audience and gave them the red meat (no pun intended) they wanted?
My favorite political films have been those which don't take sides along the left/right ideological spectrum, but instead provide meta-commentary on our political system as a whole. Robert Redford's The Candidate is a classic that I've showed to my students; Bill McKay's upstart senatorial campaign crests right as television and marketing consultants emerge as political forces, filling McKay with such mindless platitudes that he can't remember why he even decided to run. The documentary Street Fight is a brilliant look at mudslinging in a modern mayoral campaign, and a few rungs up the ladder, the recent film The Ides of March describes the chess game at the presidential primary level. "Abandon all hope (and your souls), ye who enter here..."
You mentioned modern audiences' familiarity with clichés -- I'm a devout reader of TV Tropes, and it's wild to consider just how many plot devices are recycled again and again. But, as the website argues, all stories have them, it's simply a matter of employing them effectively. Honestly, I don't know what to make of audiences sometimes. We can devote countless hours to dissecting the ending of The Sopranos in minute detail... but still spend billions of dollars on schlock-ridden stories about Battling Robots*? It's a big world out there, though, and more media content translates into more stratification as well. So I can accept the fact that America wanted a dozen seasons of Two and a Half Men as long as Richard Linklater still gets to make dramas.
[*No joke -- the Transformers series is closing in on $4 billion at the box office.]
We might have to rumble a bit about your Hays Code argument in the future, though! Wasn't Brokeback Mountain a huge financial success? Ditto with the slew of Vietnam War films about mentally-shattered soldiers? And as for sympathetic prostitutes, check out the long list of tales featuring the Hooker With a Heart of Gold trope. (My favorite? Marisa Tomei's Cassidy in The Wrestler. Wonderful character in an amazing, heartbreaking film.)
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