Movies as an art form, for me, are second to none.
With their peerless ability to combine all other human arts, movies remain for me the best lens through which to watch the human parade.
In a good movie, there’s the storytelling sweep of the novel right beside the crackling dialogue and witnessed human emotion performed in great theater. There’s the wordless gusts and fireworks from music’s every genre together with the visual artistry of every kind of photography, painting, sculpture and now computers can create. There are the delighting illusions of even the magician’s arts to create images that don’t even really exist. There is the possibility of going anywhere, seeing anything, meeting every kind of human and witnessing all of it almost as though we were there ourselves.
Laughing, crying, hoping, fearing, excitement and triumph are all there in the best movies. All in about two hours, usually.
The very long, not very good summer
So it surprises me, as more than a few writers I respect (here, here, here, here and here) wring their hands over the year in movies thus far and proclaim something important is dying in movies. The sentiments don’t surprise me, but the realization I agree with them and I am perfectly content.
This weekend seems to be the culmination of the fever with the arrival of SUICIDE SQUAD. For a certain kind of genre lover, this movie was seen as a bright spot on a blotted summer calendar, with the strange political storm of GHOSTBUSTERS and the limp arrivals of JASON BOURNE, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE and X-MEN APOCALYPSE and ten more already behind us.
But SQUAD was met by a cold bath of reviews from a critical press which in May lavished praise on Marvel Studios 13th comic book movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR and DEADPOOL in February. So much for comic book fatigue. The comic book trend is like every other one before it: good movies get love, bad movies get ignored. But I digress.
The rough ‘movies in crisis’ argument goes something like this: Over the last decade, culminating in the 2016 movie season, there’s been a terrible evolution in the way studios are giving audiences bigger and brasher movies, more sequels, more remakes, more spectacle, with less thought, less human meaning, and less adult thought.
Gone are the middle range dramas, the DEAD POETS SOCIETY type films, the RAIN MANs, the BOOGIE NIGHTS and the AMERICAN BEAUTIES. Gone are unexpected delights and surprising comedies, like SAY ANYTHING, FORREST GUMP, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, HEATHERS and a hundred others from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
I’ve heard the arguments, and I find them quiet compelling. They’re probably right. But I come here to say, so what.
Movies are dead, Long live movies.
So what because we haven’t lost great adult stories, complex dramas and quirky, small-audience comedies. We’re enjoying more of them than ever on TV, where they should live.
Almost as if to anticipate my thoughts (they must be in the zeitgeist) in my podcast feed today I hear maybe the most succinct lament on 2016 movies from Chris Ryan, co-host of THE WATCH. What’s more, he seems to see the same silver lining I do.
Something new under the sun
Yes, yes, I remember. I came up in a time where 10 or 20 SPOTLIGHT-style movies would come out every fall.
Now they don’t. Things change, and in this way entertainment and popular storytelling has changed for the better. Modern TV can do what a lot of older ‘grown up’ movies once hand to accomplish, and better. What’s more, today’s big screen movies are better targeted for what movies do uniquely well.
TV has always been a more personal, intimate medium. Spectacle has always been best spread across the biggest screen a building can handle. The age of theaters spooling out MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (look it up, lol) has past, and that’s GOOD.
We are living in the golden age of grown-up entertainment at the same time CAPTAIN AMERICA and DEADPOOL are setting up shop in the same theaters where RAGING BULL and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS once played.
Now, we have the 8 to 10 episode HBO or Netflix season. This is the ideal size and length for surprising, challenging adult fare, and with that many episodes to economize a big investment, the HBOs and Netflixes of the world can spend $100 million on 10 hours where once adults had to suffice with a two hour, $10 million art-house flick. Now we get deeper dives into complex subject matters, and we get higher production values than adult feature films of 10 years ago.
Let’s run through a few though experiments.
Where once clouds of Oscar chatter swirled around courtroom dramas like THE VERDICT, JAGGED EDGE and PRIMAL FEAR, we now have FX to thank for THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON and HBO to thank for THE NIGHT OF. We once had SERPICO as an examination of police brutality and corruption. Now we have seven seasons of THE SHIELD and every delicate shade of nuance in THE WIRE.
Let’s look at historical dramas. There was a time, when GHANDI walked the earth beside BRAVEHEART, when history based entertainments could meld prestige presentations with human storytelling glory.
But let me ask you this: Wouldn’t you rather have Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN as a 10-hour HBO series, one you could binge watch after tearing through Paul Giamatti’s excellently prickly performance as JOHN ADAMS?
Or let me cast light on our glorious bounty in another way, my nerd friends.
Would you prefer the 1990s route for a project like GAME OF THRONES? Back then, any ambitious producer would be doing their best to make it into a big screen movie, a two-hour sword and sorcery epic, directed by Renny Harlin or John McTiernan.
And what would have happened? Ninety-percent of the best parts would be cut out due to studio notes and the ending would be changed because sad endings don’t test well. It probably would have flamed out, and would now be sitting in some dark corner of NETFLIX beside Val Kilmer in THE SAINT and Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger in FREEJACK.
I think, like me, you would prefer HBO’s current achievement where each book in George R. R. Martin’s epic is turned into its own season, and we can enjoy his world spread out over seven kingdoms and eight seasons?
The Coen Brothers offer up my favorite example of how things have changed. Their crime drama, FARGO, was one of the best movies of the 1990s. But on TV, in the right hands, their delightful tone and arched eye for the absurdity of violence and ambition has grown into two seasons of FARGO, based in their unique world, that stand as some of the best drama made in the last 20 years.
Would you rather have a movie like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, or five seasons of BREAKING BAD? The MILLER’S CROSSINGs have given way to the BOARDWALK EMPIREs.
For me, on balance, that’s a much more satisfying world.
And let’s take a look at these big screen comic book movies of now compared to the ‘better’ times of years gone by. What’s better, on any level (acting, story, presentation, tone, anything)… Tim Burton’s BATMAN or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR? What movie examines the nature of fighting and violence? What movie is more fun to watch?
For every also-ran like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE or blimp-wreck like THE FANTASTIC FOUR we usually get three good Marvel movies, and a few DEADPOOL like surprises in the mix.
Put succinctly, movies are doing better what they do, fill a big screen with something big, and TV is doing what does better, bringing people close together over a long stretch of time so we can know them, and see them, in ways even the best movies can match, but rarely beat.
If given the SOPHIE’S CHOICE between THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD… well, don’t make me choose.
And with the way things have sorted out with movies and TV developing as they have, I don’t have to.