State of cinema

I wrote about the Mark Harris piece “The Birdcage” a few weeks ago, noting that the major U.S. studios were playing a dangerous game of higher and higher stakes poker by going all-in with franchises, or at least with a healthy portion of their annual budgets.

Richard Brody makes a great point, though, that judging the state of cinema by the output of just the six major U.S. studios is a silly thing in this age we live in, when we have increased access to a greater selection of movies from all over the world, from this year or throughout history, at our finger tips. In fact, it's likely never been a greater time to be alive as a cinephile than today.

But Mark Harris, one of the best film historians and industry analysts around (he’s the author of “Pictures at a Revolution” and “Five Came Back”), has written in Grantland about large and negative changes that he perceives in the film industry arising as a result of changing practices at the “studios.” He hangs his argument from the talons of a mediocre movie, “Birdman,” in which an actor who is frustrated by his enduring identification with a superhero role attempts to remake his career by means of serious theatre. Harris writes that “Birdman” “is a good movie, but the type of good movie it is has nothing to do with what the movie industry is about.” What the industry is about, Harris asserts, is the program of thirty-two superhero movies that were announced this year, for release between now and 2020, and the seventy “sequels and franchise installments” in preparation for the same six-year span.

As a result of this concentration of effort, Harris writes, “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business.” He’s being impressively hyperbolic: non-franchise movies (such as “Birdman”) are being made by independent producers. What’s more, this hyperbole is metaphorically useful only in money terms: there aren’t more franchise films being made than independent ones, they’re just much more lucrative. Franchise films get most of the investment and take most of the box office. But this is neither a big deal nor even a problem—because the movie business isn’t all that matters in the world of movies. McDonald’s does a lot more business than Per Se, and John Grisham sells a lot more books than Marilynne Robinson, but a book critic wouldn’t evaluate the state of literature through best-sellers any more than a food writer would use fast food to gauge the state of cuisine.

As I noted the other day, the receding power of the studio system from its heyday led to lots of hand-wringing in its day, just as the declining influence and fortunes of media stalwarts has today. But just as I think journalism as an institution is overall in a better place, so is cinema as a whole, on an absolute basis.

What many considered to be the genius of the system (the studio system, that is) was likely just the genius of the geniuses involved; the studio system just happened to be in place and captured the credit.

As Brody notes:

Harris’s argument is a familiar one; it comes every few years. Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, and Ross Douthat made it in 2010, and Harris himself made it on Twitter earlier this year. (I wrote about it then, too). The argument is a twist on the long-standing lament for the death of the “midrange drama” or the “adult drama,” and it’s an essentially reactionary, anti-artistic conception of cinema, in two different ways. In decrying the separation of leading directors from the studios, it comes down to a “genius of the system” argument, an assertion that movies come out best when directors’ inclinations are harnessed and channelled into the high-stakes commerce imposed by studio budgets and studio politics. It’s praise of industrial product in lieu of personal creation—praise of the business in place of the art.

In decrying the great success of franchises and the modest success of the humanistic movies that he admires, Harris seems to be writing in an echo chamber—as if a movie that doesn’t open on three thousand screens, doesn’t cost a hundred million dollars, and doesn’t make a hundred million, doesn’t really count. He’s wrong. What counts is the movie, whether it’s seen by a few thousand viewers or by millions, and what makes a movie count (whether it’s seen by millions or thousands) is the critical judgment that asserts that it counts and shows why it counts.

Critics and journalists often make the self-serving yet self-defeating mistake of writing mainly about movies that reach (or are likely to reach, or are designed for the purpose of reaching) the widest audience, on the assumption that they thereby insure their own popularity and centrality.

So next time you want to make a proclamation about the state of movies, don't just count the movies that played at your multiplex, most of it the output of the six major studios. When people discuss their access to information today, they don't just count what they can get via snail mail and/or from the big old media institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, et al; everything on the internet, from blogs to social media and elsewhere, counts. Look at many people wrote “best things I read in 2014” lists this year instead of just “the best books I read in 2014.”

The same should apply to movies. I still love going to movie theaters, and many of my favorites of the year were seen there. But some of the best movies I saw this year were streamed online from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, or rented on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, and I've never had access to as many of them as conveniently as today. I judge the year in movies based on the best movies I saw in a year, regardless of source, and by that measure, the past few years have been amazing and rich.

Vive la revolution.