Summer Movies

Losing Our Joe-Mentum

Click here to read more from Slate’s Summer Movies.

Well, Joe:

It has been an honor to share an ID box with you, although our dialogue was maybe a tad one-sided. Nevertheless, we are lucky to be able to read you regularly in the Wall Street Journal.

I especially regret your absence because my first thoughts were tentative and crying out to be modified and/or corrected. Fortunately, readers have responded—and, in other ways, this Slate Summer Movies “Issue” has been a fun and, I hope, enlightening exercise.

Let me clarify my earlier remark about Don Simpson as a catalyst for the “changeover” from the idiosyncratic zeitgeist movies of the ‘70s and the formula pictures of the ‘80s. Some people (among them Alex Hicks and columnist David Poland) consider Simpson-Bruckheimer Go For It template movies like Flashdance and Top Gun merely later expressions of an already entrenched sensibility. But in writing about Simpson I also meant to invoke his time as head of production at Paramount in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when he began his crusade against riskier, ‘70s-style projects and helped to create an assembly line that included marketing executives at the earliest stages of development. I remember at the time that columnists pointed to Paramount as a harbinger of things to come—and, sure enough, Disney quickly embraced the same mentality.

But 25 years ago, this was a shock. The other night I talked with James Toback (always a colorful quote), who recalled an early ‘80s meeting that he and Warren Beatty took with Michael Eisner, in which Eisner defined a good movie as one that made money and a bad one as one that didn’t. Period. No other criteria. Obviously that kind of thinking has always existed in Hollywood—studios couldn’t stay in business if they lost money. What was novel was the frankness of the expression, in a room with two very pretentious (by their own admission) artists. What was also new was the amount of money that studios—indeed, all U.S. corporations beginning in the ‘80s—strove to make, and the amounts suddenly paid to CEOs. It was a short step to studio heads speaking openly of “franchises.”

David Poland also points out that DVD changed the equation: “The lure of the video (and then DVD) dollars in a way that was predictable and which could be used to project and boost quarterly earnings launched the shortening of the video window, which led to the hyper-obsessive focus on opening weekend, as the window for theatrical shortened dramatically.” Alex Hicks uses the term “Kidpix” to define more specifically the category of Jaws and Star Wars: “They vitiated the plus side of The Godfather as a commercial influence, taking the art out of the Blockbuster, and killed the New American Cinema of Bonnie and Clyde through Three Women.” That’s right—The Godfather was a blockbuster, too. But it obviously wasn’t influential in the same way. The formula was harder to replicate and mass-produce.

A final note about my editor Bryan Curtis’ assessment of Michael Bay in Slate. I think Bay generally gets a bad rap: There’s even an admittedly hilarious song about his suckitude in Team America: World Police. He’s hardly my favorite director, but he knows how to shape and cut an action sequence, and parts of The Rock and Armageddon are entertaining on their own dumb, Bruckheimeresque terms. My choice for the worst “blockbuster” filmmaker in Hollywood (apart from Roland Emmerich, a throwback to the clunky anonymous directors of ‘50s sci-fi, albeit with a thousand times their budgets) is Stephen Sommers, of The Mummy and its sequel and Van Helsing. This man has armies of brilliant special-effects artists at his disposal and seemingly all the money in the world, but there is no feeling for pace, no decent staging, no honest storytelling, no room for actors to give any kind of performance (watch Hugh Jackman’s hat register more than he does in Van Helsing). Sommers’ films are the embodiment of the bludgeoning Miracles Are Cheap genre that lures the kids and all their disposable income.

Needless to say, the people who ruined the movies will be an ongoing topic—hell, it’s the topic every summer. But I’m delighted that, in addition to writing about Batman Begins this week, I’m also writing about Miranda July, with thoughts still to come on the lovely lesbo pictures Saving Face and My Summer of Love, The Talent Given Us, The Heights, and many, many more. The block might be busted in the vicinity of the multiplex, but in smaller quadrants of the movie galaxy, the ground is happily solid.