Whether or not we care to admit it we’re hooked on movies. We’re slaves to the taste-makers. Considering how pervasive the propaganda has become and our inability to stop ourselves from seeing just one more movie in spite of the increasing number of recent disappointments, perhaps movies should be added to the Controlled Substances list.
Whatever your reasons for going to the movies happen to be, the movie better be entertaining enough to overcome your expectations or you won’t feel very satisfied when it’s over. The resulting cynicism seems to be having a nasty effect on our collective psyche.
Demystifying the process
A few years ago, the more information available about a film, the more convinced the astute moviegoer could be that the studio had a turkey on its hands. But now, since the budget for even a “smaller” movie is around $45 million it’s become increasingly difficult to figure out what the publicity mavens are trying to conceal. Aside from the already ubiquitous magazine stories and chat show appearances, most studios also trot out a behind the scenes documentary either on the networks or on cable. By showing us what’s just out of frame, such as thirty five people standing around watching a couple of hotties faking sex or corpses risen from the dead earnestly discussing the next shot with the director, we’re not just spectators. Charismatic actors telling charming anecdotes are meant to make us feel like we’re on the inside but often they have the opposite effect.
Attracting attention to matters outside the story, such as how the special effects were generated or squabbles on the set, pull the viewer out of the moment, which is fine for the geeks and aficionados, but for the rest of the population storytelling should be seamless and believable. Unless you’ve actually worked on a feature film, it’s impossible to accurately portray the vast amount of talent and personnel it takes to put so many far flung moments together to tell a coherent story. Why diminish it with a bunch of spurious rumors?
If you’re Steven Spielberg there’s an even more insidious way to get what you want. Most likely, Spielberg’s main ambition is simply to tell stories. But if the world were a Twilight Zone episode, he’d be that little boy who would do unspeakable things to anyone who wouldn’t let him have his way.
There’s an anecdote about Tom Hanks insisting on the deletion of a self-aggrandizing speech from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which subtly ends up ennobling not only Hanks, but the Hanks character in the movie. So even before you see the picture the impression of the ordinary guy as war hero has already made its mark. But while watching the movie, one loses count of the self-aggrandizing speeches. And just when you think they couldn’t possibly cram in another one… Was this an accident? My cynicism suggests that the mavens conducted a study on how these stories translate into ticket sales.
Sometimes it bites them on the ass.
Beware of reviewers. If you usually agree with Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert, go ahead and follow their recommendations at your own risk. They are mainly trying to handicap what they think you’ll like rather than describing their personal take in any given review. If you want the real skinny, you have to read the trades or do yourself a favor and read Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER. He’s the straightest shooter in the bunch and he’s funny. Here’s a pointed sample from a 1997 review of BATMAN AND ROBIN: “I thought I smelled something truly corrupt in this film: its expectation of what we expect from movies is so low and snarling that you come out feeling not just swindled but mildly humiliated.”
Here is one way we do it to ourselves:
The cut of the director
We have set up various relationships with directors we admire and go see their latest efforts with a set of expectations in mind. Even if we can’t articulate those expectations, we know what we felt before. Kind of like, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like.” Even if we don’t know exactly why we like the Coen Brothers, we have to see their latest film because they are writing the funniest scripts in movies today. We went to see EYES WIDE SHUT, in spite of a misleading ad campaign, because of the legendary status of Stanley Kubrick. Some directors, like Paul Thomas Anderson, have the critics ascribing genius to the point where we just have to see for ourselves. If we come out scratching our heads, we only have ourselves to blame.