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[Introducing The 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?
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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