Tag Archives: Editorials

Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.

Highly Anticipated – How Hollywood Manages Hype in a Fast Paced Online World

It already feels like it happened so long ago, but the D23 Expo for 2017 still has left some lasting impressions on me two weeks out.  Namely, it was the impressive big presentations in the main hall that left the biggest impact, because it gave those of us lucky enough to get in an exclusive first look at material that the rest of the world won’t see for months or even years from now.  Not only that, but they treated all of us to seeing people involved in the making of these movies come out on stage and show their own enthusiasm for what’s to come.  The interesting thing to think about in retrospect with all of this is what the ultimate purpose of all the exclusivity means in the end.  Yes, seeing all the Avengers cast on stage and viewing the first look footage was thrilling and a high point for me at this year’s Expo.  But, there were also the incredibly stringent measures taken by the Disney company to ensure that nothing shown at the Expo’s big presentations ever gets leaked out into the public.  Before each show, we had to turn off all of our electronic devices and have them sealed up in special bags.  And throughout the presentation, security guards were constantly walking through the aisle to make sure no one took any recording device out, or else they would be escorted out.  Why would such measures need to be taken, if some of this material will be visible to the public eventually?  The answer is that Disney was ensuring that two things would take place in that hall.  One, that they themselves would maintain full control over who sees whatever top secret material they are working on, and two, that by making the material exclusive, they increased their audience’s enthusiasm for what they’ve just seen, and in turn have generated word-of-mouth excitement coming out of that show building up what the true intent of what the show was meant to create; hype.

Hype is practically everywhere in the film industry, because it is the essential way that allows anyone to have a movie made nowadays and ensure that it is seen by the largest audience possible.  It goes far beyond just marketing a movie.  For a business as massive as this one, it becomes essential to know how to manage hype around a project just as much as it does knowing how to make a movie to begin with.  From inception to completion, a movie has to generate interest in order to survive.  For anyone trying to sell a script to the industry, they must understand that a certain level of hype is required to give investors the desire to want to read what’s been written.  After given the green-light, then the producers must generate excitement over what’s being made, preemptively stoking audience interest while the project is coming together.  This can be accomplished by spotlighting any celebrity names attached to the project, or giving details about the locations and/or production design being used to to make the movie.  Then, marketing gets involved with trade ads, trailers, and all sorts of cross promotion in order to make the final sell to the public.  From all points, the level of hype that a movie generates for itself will ultimately determine how well it does in the long run.  But, the hype machine’s existence as a part of the Hollywood industry is not the thing that fascinates me, since it’s always been a part of the industry from the very beginning.  No, it’s the complexity that it has evolved into overtime, and the varying degrees of success that have come out of it that fascinates me.  There are many fascinating avenues that Hollywood has gone down in order to generate hype for their movies, and they haven’t always turned out well either.  And given the fast paced world of the internet that we now live in, hype sometimes turns into this overwhelming thing that can in turn destroy the very thing that it’s trying to help.  That, in the end, becomes the fascinating aspect of hype in Hollywood.

From my experience in D23, I saw first hand how a company takes charge of generating hype for their projects.  They put on this massive show, involving incredible logistical wrangling to get the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Jon Favreau, Mark Hamill, Robert Downey, Jr. and pretty much half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on stage for a single two hour show, and have it only be seen by 8,000 people at most.  Of course, they released press clips thereafter, but the entire experience was witnessed by a lucky few.  All of that, just to get those 8,000 in attendance excited for the future of the company.  But us 8,000 spread the word out afterwards, exclaiming about the incredible things that we saw and in turn making those who weren’t able to see the same show envious of our lucky break and intrigued even more about what we saw, an that in turn gets the hype train rolling.  It’s a balancing act, but one that pays off in the long run.  Disney is not unique in this either.  San Diego Comic Con has been in the business of hype for decades now, and they in turn have become an essential part of the business as the biggest possible venue to generate excitement for fans, with everything from exclusive content to cross promotional goodies available to everyone.  What D23 and Comic Con has shown us is the level to which hype has grown as a part of the business.  Marketing a movie now has to be bigger than the movie itself, and in some cases that is true.  Some marketing budgets do exceed the budgets used to make the movie.  But, a well managed hype campaign can also make it possible for a movie to succeed without millions wasted on marketing that never hits it’s target.  And in such a competitive, fast-paced world as unpredictable as the one we live in now, finding that right level of hype can prove to be elusive and even sometimes well out-of-reach.

The answer in understanding how Hollywood uses hype to their advantage comes from observing how it has evolved over the years.  For as long as Hollywood has existed, so has the marketing used to sell it’s product.  Print ads and posters were the start, and then with the advent of sound came the preview trailer.  But, a new level of hype began to become elevated once celebrity culture developed in Hollywood.  Soon, hyping the talent became just as essential as hyping the story, as more and more people became fascinated around the world about this little community called Hollywood.  This in turn spilled over into the way movies were developed.  A turning point came with the highly anticipated adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even before the book hit the shelves, producer David O. Selznick began hyping up his project once he secured the rights and pushed interest into the public’s eye, ensuring that his movie was going to be nothing short of the biggest movie ever made.  Polls were taken from the public asking who they saw as the ideal casting for each character; an unheard of tactic at the time, but one that has since become a popular tool for other hype driven marketing campaigns in the future.  With audience awareness at an all-time high, Selznick’s gamble paid off and Gone With the Wind indeed lived up to the hype in the end.  Another turning point that caused a change in the industry was the release of Psycho in 1960.  Not only was it a smash success, but it even changed the way that people watched movies in a theater.  Alfred Hitchcock made it clear in his promotion of the movie that this was a film that needed to be seen all the way through in order to appreciate the mid-film twist.  Up until then, people came and went as they pleased when visiting the movie theater, as it was a continuous presentation throughout the day with shorts and news reels in addition to the feature presentation.  Psycho changed that and for the first time ever in the industry became the beneficiary of one of the most useful forms of hype; the word of mouth campaign.

Since Psycho, audiences fell into the habit of experiencing films as a whole, rather than just as part of day at the movies.  Word of mouth worked hand-in-hand with what advertisements could sell about a movie. And from that, the industry learned what effect audiences could have with giving these movies a boost.  But, with an external force like audience driven hype helping to boost interest in their films, the industry also opens itself up to external forces out of their control to affect the reception to their movies as well.  Controversies become an issue that affects the anticipation levels of a movie sometimes and how well a movie does in the long run is determined by how well a company can manage to weather a storm surrounding the flick.  Torrents of political fervor sometimes drives hype around some films, either making them essential viewing for the moment in time or works so dangerous that they must be seen in order to be understood.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) saw heavy criticism from one side, critiquing it for presumed Antisemitism and ultraviolence, while the other side saw it as a faith-affirming work of art, and both camps end up making it one of the most talked about and highest grossing films of it’s time.  Documentarian Michael Moore likewise drove up plenty of controversy for his agitprop doc Fahrenheit 9/11 (also 2004), and it too rode a wave of interest towards increased exposure and box office numbers.  But, success from controversy is not always a guarantee.  2016’s Ghostbusters reboot really mishandled the controversy surrounding the casting of an all-female team, seemingly courting the controversy by giving credence to the opinions of some despicable, online misogynists, and in turn, it turned all audiences away.  Controversy is an unreliable and sometimes treacherous way of utilizing hype to sell a movie, and it often takes an expert hand to make a film live on through those troubled waters.

But what usually becomes the biggest challenge of managing hype in the industry is the speed under which it operates.  The internet and social media are changing audience tastes and attitudes at an alarming rate, and what once was a sure thing several years ago may no longer be reliable at the moment.  That’s the danger that some of these long-gestating hype trains are running into now.  For a while, thanks to Marvel Studio’s success, it appeared that the future of blockbuster film-making was going to revolve around the creation of cinematic universes.  In time, we saw every studio in the business come out and announce that they had a bold master plan to create universes that would rival Marvel’s and become reliable revenue generators for their companies.  The only problem with making these bold plans is that you’ve got to anticipate what audiences will think in the long run about your plans.  Promise too much and deliver too little, and the hype will die out too fast.  Universal Studios is witnessing such a result right now.  They hyped up this new venture called “The Dark Universe,” which was going to be a shared universe that would combine all of their gallery of famous  movie monsters, each played by a marquee movie star.  The only problem is that they put so much emphasis on selling the idea of this shared universe that they forgot to make worthwhile movies that could live up to the promise.  The first film released, this summer’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, was met with such disinterest from the public, that it quickly disappeared from theaters, flopping at the box office, leaving the future of the “Dark Universe” in serious doubt.  Sadly, by being so determined to hype this cinematic universe and reveal so much of their future plans, Universal is now locked in a situation where they are going to lose money if they continue or look foolish if they quit too soon.  Thus we see the faults of trying to overreach when it comes to hyping something big.

That’s why it helps to know the kind of audience that you are hyping to and how best to reach out to them.  It also helps to be creative as well.  In the age of the internet, the target audience may be ever changing, but a thoughtful, unique hype campaign can bring that into focus.  The comic conventions in particular do a lot to generate hype in ways that trailers and advertisements can’t.  They create experiences that stick in the minds of viewers and make them interested in seeing how the final result will turn out.  In the internet age, sights and sounds make a bigger difference more than ever with generating hype for a movie, and we are seeing film companies bringing more of an outreach into the fan experience than ever before; sometimes in some very unexpected ways.  It’s seen in moments like Johnny Depp appearing in character as Jack Sparrow within the actual ride of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland in anticipation for the new franchise movie.  It’s seen in the placing of a giant inflatable King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building in anticipation for the original film’s then 50th anniversary.  The internet also becomes a breeding ground for generating more hype for a film, by allowing interactive experiences to enrich the deep lore behind a film’s narrative.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) revolutionized this idea, creating a website specifically to explain the fictional “Blair Witch” myth and make it feel even more authentic, driving the fan explosion that the original film benefited greatly from.  Similar guerrilla style marketing has since become mainstream in the industry, like the fake Harvey Dent campaign website for The Dark Knight‘s (2008) promotion, and it’s usually effective in sparking more interest from the public.  But, it’s also an avenue of hype that also needs to be well handled.  Sometimes, it might come off as a shameless marketing ploy, like the despised website plug at the end of the horror flop The Devil Inside (2012), or the mishandled tie-in to a fake Walt Disney related backstory as the inspiration behind Tomorrowland (2015), but using creative means to generate hype for a film project is never a bad idea.

What I most like to see is when hype is used well by Hollywood.  My D23 Expo experiences are prime examples of that, and it gives me great joy to spread the hype around when it’s something that I believe in.  Hell, I devote an article at the end of every spring and summer giving you my picks for the must sees of the season, with the hope that it will make all of you more aware of them too.  Not every project needs my help, and my voice is still a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things, but I still love being a part of the hype.  Is it deceptive sometimes; absolutely, and I for one am not above admitting when I’m wrong about a movie.  Still, the many interesting avenues in which hype takes it’s form is something worth analyzing.  I am still amazed how so much thought goes into such things as exclusive presentations at Comic Cons and once in a lifetime experiences, just as way of marketing to a larger audience and get them psyched for something that won’t be complete for some time.  It backfires quite a lot sometimes, but a well executed attempt at generating hype can even outlive the production that it was trying to sell.  I like to know what goes on inside the brainstorming sessions behind these moments.  Who makes the call to say that they want every Marvel Avenger on stage together and how do they maneuver things around to make it a reality.  More importantly, how do they keep some of that planning a secret.  It all comes down to a lot of forward thinking and excellent logistical planning.  Hype is a powerful tool, and it has it’s downside too, but when done well it can be just as enriching as anything it is meant to sell us on in the first place, especially in the world of entertainment.

From Mockery to Moonlight – The Long Road for Queer Identity in Cinema

The month of June holds the now honored position of being devoted to celebrating Pride for all members of the LGBT community.  It’s a celebration that is largely about coming together as a united community, with both those who identify as gay or straight expressing support for one another, but it’s also about looking back and honoring the progress that it took to achieve not only an identity in modern society, but also a level of respect and recognition.  The sad reality is that for far too long, homosexuals were ostracized and marginalized by society, and were often actively suppressed by the powers that be; and still are in some parts of the world.  The largest part of the LGBT struggle is to find that fleeting level of acceptance, both on the personal level and on the societal level.  It has gotten better over the years for some, as most stigmas surrounding gay people have thankfully been disappearing and people are finding broader acceptance from friends, family, and society in general.  But there is still a lot more work to do before the gay community can finally gain full acceptance.  And a large reason why there is still a ways to go is because gay people are still struggling to find a level of dignity surrounding their representation in society.  A lot of gay people unfortunately still fall victim to certain degrees of misrepresentation, and remarkably it stems from a source that has also long been an ally of the gay community; Hollywood.  While movies, television, and other media has been helpful in changing peoples minds about the gay community, and the Hollywood industry has shown strong support to gay people through their charity and support, the industry is also still responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misconceptions as well.  So, while Pride Month is a source of celebration for many, it’s also a reflection over what still needs to be done, and an important aspect of this is finding more progressive ways to represent themselves in media in general.

A more dignified representation from Hollywood is certainly something that the gay community cares about, because so many within the community are avid fans of cinema themselves.  Even when there was still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in the culture at large, a lot of gay people did manage to find a sense of community around their love of cinema, and it was a unifying element that helped to connect one another around something positive in a time of overwhelming prejudice.  But, due to restricted cinematic representation for so many years, few if any queer role models emerged in order to make gay individuals feel included as a part of society at large.  For the longest time, gay men often found their role models in iconic Hollywood actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and in particular, Judy Garland, because they appealed so much to the community’s attraction to the glamorous, the extravagant, and also the camp in cinematic art.  But, the gay community’s attraction to this aspect of cinema was largely a result of the lack of any other representation for the longest time.  Lesbian and Trans people have had even less in the way of respectful representation or role models.  Because of social stigma, the only times Hollywood would touch upon the subject of homosexuality in movies or other media would often fall into the categories of exploitation or ridicule.  It actually is only a recent phenomenon that queer cinema has actually achieved a true mainstream acceptance in our culture.  Until now, the notion of queer cinema has either faced ridicule, misunderstanding, or just complete ignorance.  But, the question remains is how decades of misunderstanding affects queer film-making and representation going into the future, and how does the gay community resolve their changing identity in cinema after defining it for so many years on the fringes.

For the longest time, the biggest struggle for the gay community with regards to cinema was just achieving an actual identity in general.  Because homosexuality was a social taboo for so long, Hollywood either tip-toed around the existence of gay people in society, or just ignore it completely.  It’s not like there was no gay people around in the early days of cinema, but because the studios knew that they often had to market their movies to middle America and Bible Belt audiences who take a very hard-lined stance against homosexuality, there was a concerted effort at the time to exclude openly queer characters in their movies.  Sometimes a queer character might appear on screen, but it was often either to act as a foil for the hyper macho marquee star (the effeminate tailor from James Cagney’s Public Enemy), or there to act as a clown to humor the audience (the photographer from Ginger Rogers’ Lady in the Dark).  The hyper puritanical post-war years nearly wiped away any queer representation in cinema completely, as religious leaders became more involved in the control of content coming out of Hollywood.  The Hays code put strict restrictions on a variety of taboo subjects, but chief among them was any reference to alternative sexual identity of any kind in society.  Even sympathetic films aimed at normalizing queer characters in movies had to do so in a way where they couldn’t outright address the issue.  The 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Deborah Kerr, attempted to touch on the issue, but it instead depicted it’s central character of Tom Lee (John Kerr) as “sensitive” and not gay.  Though things did loosen up during the end of the Hays code era and the beginning of the counterculture 60’s, the damage had already been done to the gay community, who for the most part, had largely disappeared from cinematic representation entirely.

The unfortunate result of any attempt at the time to reestablish a queer identity on the big screen was that it was often met with instant ridicule.  Because of little to no exposure for so many years.  Gays had become so marginalized that any exposure in society at all was a foreign concept to audiences unfamiliar to it.  When social taboos started to break down, gays were once again acknowledged on the big screen, but in a way that often pointed out how novel they were.  Oftentimes, it would manifest in some not so positive portrayals of gays meant to generate laughs from audiences (like the ballroom dance fight from Blazing Saddles) or generate unease from a deep dive into the seedier side of the community (the leather bar scene from Cruising).  The unfortunate result of these types of portrayals was that it perpetuated the idea of homosexuality as being not normal in society; that it was a bastion of the weird and the perverted in contemporary culture.  Though gay people benefited from actually being acknowledged again as real people once again in cinema, they unfortunately had to contend with this new identity as being seen as “the other” in society.  The sad reality is the misconception on Hollywood’s part in thinking that this was actually a progressive move on their part.  But what they saw as inclusionary, the gay community saw as exploitative.  Their culture was not one to be singled out for intrigue and mockery, but one that should be seen as legitimized as part of the normal human experience.  It was insulting to think that homosexuality was just something that people on the fringes of society indulged in.  When one of the few queer themed films made by Hollywood at the time ended up being the Redd Foxx film Norman…Is That You? (1976), where the comedian plays a father attempting to set his openly gay son (played by Michael Warren) right, then you can see why the gay community felt frustrated with the industry that they held close to their heart for so long.

Thankfully, at the same time, an underground independent queer cinema arose to fill the gap that Hollywood was leaving empty.  Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Waters arose to create what we know now as early Queer Cinema, creating movies that finally not only touched upon issues pertaining to homosexuality, but openly celebrated it as well.  Not only that, but their movies also purposely pushed many buttons, establishing a new defiant identity for the gay community.  Their films came at a time when the Gay Rights movement began to gain exposure in American society, and their movies were perfect expressions of a class of people who were fed up with being ignored.  You can clearly see this in John Waters’ first couple features, Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), both of which are visceral attacks on all social norms and a defiant defense of the weird and perverse to exist freely in society.  In his way, Waters made social progress by relentlessly assaulting the notion of normal, and questioning whether or not one thing is ever worthy of that mantle.  His movies also made the first real concerted effort in cinema to give identity to trans people as well, with drag queen Divine becoming a surprising breakout star from appearing in Waters films.  But, even still, Waters and others like him worked on the fringes of Hollywood, having to work independently in order to remain true to their visions.  But, through underground success, Queer cinema did get embraced and Hollywood did take notice.  Waters did bring his camp filled vision to the mainstream with Hollywood productions like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), which somehow maintains the director’s style despite a toning down of his more vulgar indulgences.  It helped to convince Hollywood to take a chance on queer themes in the future, which thankfully pulled away from the depths of ridicule.  Unfortunately, Hollywood still had a way to go before it would fully understand how to speak to and accurately address the concerns of the gay community fully.

During the 80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit it’s high point, and that led to a crisis of identity for the gay community going forward.  Just beyond social acceptance, gay people now had to contend with the added stigma of living with a widespread disease that was unfairly blamed on them.  Again, the stigma of being social outcasts was laid upon the gay community, and the struggle to tell their story became even harder.  One common unfortunate result of the stigma placed on the gay community was that there was a growing disconnect with regards to the view of masculinity.  During the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, hyper masculine males were seen as the ideal in Hollywood, with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominating the box office.  What this, pressure was put on actors to adhere to this ideal, whether they were straight or not.  It was not a new ideal, but one that hit an apex in the blockbuster era, and in this time, it put enormous pressure on Hollywood to keep the status quo going.  But, with the AIDS epidemic, you saw a crack in the macho image that Hollywood was perpetuating, when masculine actor Rock Hudson suddenly died from the disease, and it was discovered that he had indeed been a closeted homosexual this whole time.  This exposed Hollywood to a new awareness of how poorly they had been looking at the gay community, showing that they themselves had perpetuated the damaging stereotypes and misrepresented the community as a whole for far too long.  In time, they began to listen more to the complaints of gay audiences when they objected to how they were portrayed in the movies.  After complaints about the representation of a transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme chose to make amends with his next feature Philadelphia (1993), a groundbreaking and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man living with AIDS, and fighting for his dignity after losing his job because of it.  It was a small gesture, but a move in the right direction, with Hollywood finally showing a true, un-filtered portrayal of real gay people in society.

The road to acceptance has been steadily getting better ever since, though not without some unfortunate roadblocks in the way.  You still get the occasional tired and cliched “gay panic” routines in some lazy comedy movies (particularly from Adam Sandler’s repulsive Happy Madison productions).  There’s also the occasional “coded queer” sidekick character that is mainly there for comedic effect in some movies.  I honestly don’t know if anybody finds them that funny anymore.  Truth be told, recent years have finally made it okay for gay characters to not only exist within a film, but to also to be considered as part of the normal fabric of society.  Regular occurring gay characters are nothing but a positive now in movies, and even better, are now expected.  There is still an issue, however, of Hollywood trying to understand the best way to address the troubled history of queer representation in cinema.  Sometimes it even manifests in too much acceptance.  There have been some Hollywood films that go too far the other way, and portray queer characters as these fragile little things that need their protection.  That is clearly not how gay people want to be treated in society.  Gay people want support and acceptance; not pity.  It’s an aspect of some so-called “progressive” films made within the system that I find troubling, culminating with Hollywood’s biggest attempt at Oscar-baiting the issue with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a topic that I want to address separately in an article in the future.  Where Hollywood’s efforts are best served is in supporting not just a queer identity on the big screen, but also within the community at large.  Whenever a queer actor or actress wishes to live openly, support that, and don’t marginalize them by defining their careers by their sexuality.  Also, allow queer filmmakers to be as flexible as they want.  It’s a strong sign where gay filmmakers like Bryan Singer can work queer themes into unexpected areas like superhero movies (X-Men for instance) and have it feel natural.  Hollywood should know by now that society’s attitudes have changed, and part of that evolution is and has always been within their power.

What ultimately shows us today that things have changed for the better is how mainstream queer representation has finally become now in modern media.  No more are we seeing gays ostracized as something abnormal, but instead, just as common as every other grouping in society.  You sometimes lament how much of film history was wasted trying to ignore the existence of homosexuality in general, or trying to put it down as something out of the ordinary.  But, given how some parts of society are still actively trying to hurt the members of the gay community, it’s nice to see that they have a committed ally in Hollywood.  I think there is no better sign of progress than the unexpected triumph at this year’s Oscars for the film Moonlight (2016).  Though made by a heterosexual filmmaker, the film nevertheless represented the best mainstream portrayal of the internal struggle of identity that gay people face when growing up that we’ve seen from Hollywood to date.  It didn’t try to do make any other grand statement other than helping people understand the psyche of the every-man gay person in society, and how often the internal struggle manifests into negative actions due to having such a fractured and marginalized identity.  I think that the subtlety of it’s message helped to keep it underground for so long, and that’s why it’s win at the Oscars took so many by surprise; even to the presenters themselves.  Moonlight‘s win was so rewarding because it didn’t feel like an empty gesture on Hollywood’s part; it was genuinely earned, beating out the heavy favorite La La Land (2016) in the process.  Moonlight’s Best Picture win is the best sign yet of Hollywood finally showing full, dignified acceptance of queer cinema, but there’s still a lot more to do.   At least now, there are plenty of cinematic portrayals and role models to satisfy those who have struggled to become comfortable with their gay identity; including yours truly (sorry for burying that lead).  It’s been a long road to reach the end of this rainbow, but as we look back during this Pride Month, it’s clear to see that Hollywood has made considerable progress in giving their devoted queer fan-base the support and dignity that they deserve.

Chasing the Dark Knight – How DC’s Blockbuster Left a Dark Shadow on Cinema

Movies go through many different phases as the years go by.  As changing attitudes evolve in our culture, cinema reflects back those changes in the market place.  And usually what prompts the changes in the market is the presence of the unexpected blockbuster.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that end up being big hits that fall into the expectations of the audience and the industry itself.  But, then you have those other blockbusters that become unexplained phenomenons, tapping into a previously unseen element that ends up making the rest of the industry take notice.  These are the benchmark blockbusters that create a tidal wave of new perspectives within the film-making community, and with them, a slew of imitators and copycats, all trying to capitalize on what this new film has done.  You see films of this kind emerge in every generation and they are often what ends up the generation of cinema that follows in it’s wake.  Star Wars (1977) is a perfect example, because it’s the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster that would dominate much of the 1980’s, and a good part of the 90’s.  Before that, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather marked the beginning of an era where auteur driven, counter-culture cinema was dominate.  In the 90’s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) created a boom for the independent cinema market, as well as sparking interest in a lot of dialogue driven action films.  Every era seems to have that one defining film that changes the direction of the industry, sometimes for the good and othertimes not so much.  The era we live in now is dominated by comic book adaptations, as well as the concept of shared cinematic universes.  And the movie that clearly turned the tide in this direction more than any other would be Christopher Nolan’s iconic Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008).

The Dark Knight is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece, not just of it’s genre, but of all cinema as well.  Made as a sequel to the also highly praised Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight continued to build on the Batman mythos through the unique and ambitious style of Christopher Nolan.  Up until this point, superhero films had been largely hit and miss as a viable genre in Hollywood, with some hitting the mark like Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989), while others failed miserably (the Ben Affleck headlined Daredevil from 2003).  After achieving modest success with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan set out to create a Batman movie that fulfilled the full potential of the character, and he not only managed to do just that, but it blew away everyone else’s expectations.  Pitting Batman against his archnemesis, The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger), had been done before, but never depicted in such a visceral, grounded way as seen in this movie.  Nolan’s Dark Knight transformed the genre, stripping away the comic book campy-ness that had come before and made his Batman feel as authentic as possible.  It was a bleaker, more complex superhero movie; one in which the stakes felt very real.  As a result, people responded to the movie very well, seeing it as a revelation compared to what they were used to from the genre.  Grossing half a billion domestically alone, The Dark Knight became one of the biggest success stories of it’s era, and when the smell of big money out there, you know that Hollywood will begin to swarm in.  Since it’s debut, The Dark Knight has since been imitated not just in the comic book genre, but in other unexpected places as well.  Hollywood seems to believe that the key to it’s success was a grittier style and bleaker story-line.  But, as we’ve observed over the years, what works for Batman might not necessarily work for everything else, and that has unfortunately led to a not so positive legacy for this groundbreaking film.

But, to understand what led to The Dark Knight’s bold statement, it pays to look back on what preceded it.  For years, comic book movies had been more or less been undervalued by the industry.  Studio execs recognized the potential of comic book characters as viable big screen icons, but never quite understood how best to translate them from the page to the screen.  Oftentimes, you would see a lot of compromises being made with regards to the characters.  Costumes would be altered to make the superheroes seem less campy and more “realistic.”  We have yet to see any of the X-Men don their brightly colored gear from the comics in any of their film adaptations for example.  Sometimes, the characters would luck out and be matched up with a filmmaker who believed in authenticity with the characters, like Richard Donner with Superman (1978) or Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (2002), but even their movies felt compromised in other places.  For most of the time, comic books and superhero movies never felt liked they belonged together.  This became particularly true with the Batman movies, which felt closer to being realizations of their director’s visions rather than a faithful adaptations of the comics.  Tim Burton’s style was serviceable enough for Batman, but once Joel Schumacher stepped behind the camera, Batman was buried underneath a colossal neon, overproduced mess.  After hitting rock bottom with Batman & Robin (1997), the Batman franchise went through an identity crisis, ultimately leading to the hiring of Christopher Nolan.  Nolan, best known then for gritty thrillers like Memento (2001) and Insomnia (2002), brought the character back to his roots, taking inspiration from Batman’s darker tales like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series.  He in turn created a more acceptable, grounded version of Batman, which would hit it’s full potential in it’s middle chapter, The Dark Knight.

And while the success of The Dark Knight was warranted and deserved, the industry unfortunately took the message in the wrong way.  The movie was perhaps too good of a course correction for the genre, making it appear that the only reason that it succeeded was because it was a darker movie as a whole.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Yes, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had a darker tone than anything we’ve seen before in the genre, but it was a necessary change that needed to be made specifically for this character.  We had all but lost faith in the caped crusader because his last few outings had turned him into a cartoon character, and not a threat.  Christopher Nolan brought the character back to his roots; a crusader shaped by tragedy destined to right the wrongs of the world.  It also helped that Nolan’s re-imagining looked outside of the superhero genre for inspiration.  His movies are heavily influenced from crime thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; in particular, the films of Michael Mann.  Just look at the opening bank robbery scene with the Joker, and tell me that doesn’t remind you a little of the movie Heat (1996).  It was a perfect way to revitalize the character for a new generation, and most importantly, it made Batman a character worth taking seriously again.  But, there in lies some of the issues with how the industry responded to the character.  Hollywood looked at the new Batman and believed that this is what they needed for their own franchise characters.  In the decade since it’s release, we’ve seen The Dark Knight become the inspiration point for what many call “gritty re-imaginings.”  But, not everything needs to have a gritty side to it, and yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from taking the opportunity for a cash grab.  All of this has led to an unfortunate legacy for this iconic film.

This kind of “following the leader” mentality has resulted in some unusual decisions in franchise reboots.  Did you ever think that goofy brands like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers were in need of darker tone?  Yet, somehow, we’ve seen these once colorful characters re-imagined in grittier, more action packed visions from the last couple years.  No where is this more evident than in the same comic book genre that The Dark Knight has risen out of.  To follow in the footsteps of the blockbuster film, several other studios have tried and failed to give their own characters a darker tone as well, including DC, the same people who started this in the first place.  Many people have complained that DC’s insistence of riding the Dark Knight coattails with regards to tone has zapped out all the fun from their favorite characters.  Many want a more warm-hearted version of the beloved Superman, but with Zack Snyder at the helm, DC seems to not only desire to move the Man of Steel closer to their Dark Knight, but also make his world even bleaker.  It’s even worse in other studios who completely miss the mark.  Sony failed to relaunch their Spider-Man character with their Amazing Spiderman series.  The problem with their adaptation is that they thought focusing on the character’s tragic backstory would deepen the experience, but instead it just made Spider-Man a moody and unsympathetic loser.  Even worse, however, is Fox’s tone deaf re-imagining of Fantastic Four (2015), which remarkably managed to be the most dismal and bleak super hero movie ever made, using characters that are by design supposed to be colorful and heartwarming.  If there is anything that all of these movies prove is that darker doesn’t always mean better.  It’s too easy to just look at Batman’s success and instantly think that it’s the magic touch to renew interest in your franchise.  Batman is dark by design.  The rest of these franchises shouldn’t have been so eager to rewrite the book in order to follow The Dark Knight‘s example.

It’s not only in tone where we see a long legacy of influence that The Dark Knight has left on the industry.  If there is any one thing in the film that you can see imitated the most throughout the industry, it is the depiction of it’s villain.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is iconic in every way possible.  He not only blew away our expectations and silenced naysayers who objected to his casting with his performance, but his Joker has since gone on to become the high water mark for all future comic book villains on the big screen.  His untimely death before the film’s premiere also raised the iconic stature of the role, and he earned a posthumous Oscar as a result.  This, however, has led many in the industry to view Ledger’s Joker as a template for creating the ideal, iconic villain.  The Joker in the Dark Knight is defined primarily by his nihilistic nature, as well as his obsession with Batman himself.  Not only that, but he is also characterized by his unhinged, demented state as well, and his ability to rationalize his insanity with meme worthy philosophizing.  Ledger redefined the character for a new era, but that unfortunately led to a slew of imitators; some of who are re-imaginings themselves.  Sometimes you would find an interesting imitation, like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall (2012), creating one of James Bond’s most interesting and dangerous foes.  And then other times you get the re-imagined Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), whose Joker like motivations feel slightly out of character based on past interpretations.  While not every version of this type is bad, it nevertheless feels like Hollywood is lessening the power of these villainous characters by sticking too close to the Heath Ledger Joker model.  The reason his role was so iconic was because it was so unpredictable.  Now, with the recent stream of imitators, nothing seems as random as it used to, making these villains feel far too familiar when they shouldn’t.

It’s one of the reasons why The Dark Knight’s legacy has become so problematic; because all the imitators are sapping the original film’s impact by reusing it’s formula way too much.  This is only just compounded more now that a different model has emerged in the last couple years.  If there has been any company that has bucked the Dark Knight trend, it is Marvel Studios.  While most Dark Knight imitators strive to be grittier, Marvel is embracing it’s more light-hearted tone; which has benefited them very well.  Still, Marvel isn’t immune from the same kind of pitfalls that has plagued the fallout of The Dark Knight.  With so many different companies now trying to launch their own cinematic universes to compete with Marvel’s, your seeing a new troubling trend of diminishing returns in it’s wake.  DC contains the worst of both trends right now, trying to play catch up to Marvel with their own cinematic universe that unfortunately is still adhering to the Dark Knight formula.  One would hope that Marvel is not undone by it’s own success, with audience fatigue setting in over time with the market continually being over-flooded with new cinematic universes being launched.  The only thing that helps to overcome this feeling of fatigue is variety.  As long as new films take inspiration from things like The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but puts their own spin on it to make it still feel original, audiences will embrace it the same way.  In the end, the biggest problem is the lack of diversity in too many of these imitators.  The Dark Knight’s legacy was perhaps too strong for the industry and we found ourselves too overwhelmed by such a quick succession of imitators.

If anything, I think that the one negative outcome of the post-Dark Knight is that it created a generation of unnecessarily bleak and dark movies.  For a while, movies forgot how to be fun and entertaining.  That’s not to say that The Dark Knight ruined cinema as a result.  The movie still stands as an unparalleled masterpiece that holds up to this day.  The problem lies more with Hollywood, and how it responds to success.  What they thought was the key to The Dark Knight’s success proved to be exactly the wrong thing to exploit and that was the darker tone.  The Dark Knight, by design, is perfectly matched with a grittier tone, and trying to shoehorn it into other types of media only ends up leading to disaster.  Not every imitator fails, but to see the industry return to that well far too many times makes the original impact feel much less effective.  We don’t need to see a tragic, brooding backstory for every hero.  The villain doesn’t always need to be this unhinged psychopath with an unhealthy obsession with the hero.  It would also help if some of these movies added a little color to their design as well, and not have everything washed out in grays and dark blues.  Thankfully, companies like Marvel are proving that the flip side of the coin also works wonders for the genre, and hopefully this direction can help bring some balance to a super hero genre that’s still hung on trying to figure out the Dark Knight’s formula.  Overall, The Dark Knight is a great film that unfortunately has to be associated with a terrible legacy, none of which is it’s fault.  Hollywood should understand that movies are meant to entertain, and that entertainment doesn’t always come in one size fits all packaging.  The Dark Knight had grit, but the way it used it was what ended up entertaining us.  If you try to force a similar entree into a meal that doesn’t support it, then you ruin all of our appetites.

It’s Not Easy Being Green – Hollywood’s Lack of Compelling Environmental Movies

Today is Earth Day and for many of us it’s a day where we take time to actively do our part to help keep the environment clean and healthy in some way.  But, at the same time, it’s also a time where we worry greatly that not enough is being done to keep the water and air clean and the resources that we live on sustainable.  For many, getting the message out that the Earth needs saving is a chore in of itself.  At a time when a few people out there are less willing to accept scientific consensus about the state of our world today, we are finding ourselves in a perilous situation where ignorance is the biggest threat to our world.  But, how do you convince people of the facts when the science may sometimes be too complex to understand or the message too dire?  That’s when you call upon entertainment to help out.  Environmental issues have long been an important subject in the mediums of art, song, and film, and sometimes they have effectively managed to move and motivate people to want to take action and do what’s best for the planet.  The only problem is, when relying on forms of entertainment to get the message across, environmental movements can sometimes run the risk of minimizing their cause by turning it into a cultural fad rather than a lasting legacy.  Entertainment politics have just as much of a sway on the effectiveness of an environmentally conscious program as it would on any other subject, and it wouldn’t be all that crucial if the message weren’t so important.  When it comes to environmental issues as entertainment, we unfortunately have a very inconsistent legacy that sadly undermines the message in a way that in some cases does more harm to the world than good.

Not that it’s a bad thing that Hollywood tries at all to make environmentally conscious films.  Not trying at all to address environmental issues would be even worse.  What specifically is the problem with some of these so-called “green” films is that they have to adhere to commercial appeal in order to be made in the first place (especially if they are backed by a studio) and in the process, they unfortunately find themselves compromised.  This can happen in a variety of ways.  Either the message of the film becomes diluted down so much to childish simplicity that it no longer has any weight at all, or it is exploited in an effort to satisfy the studio or filmmakers’ own agenda.  As a result, few if any quality films are made that take environmental issues as seriously as they should.  There are many degrees in which a lot of environmental films fall short, but I think the greatest problem overall is that too few of them actually hold their audience to task for the problems they are addressing.  I know that few people want to go to the movies to be lectured to, and it’s often a sure fire way to turn your audience off to a film, but what a lot of filmmakers who take environmental issues seriously need to know is that their audience needs to feel the importance of the issue; not just have it presented as a story point.  An audience needs to relate to an issue just as much as it needs to relate to the characters.  It has to hit them personally, and make them see that the problem won’t be solved until they make the move to change it themselves.  Now, one person motivated like this may not be the agent of change, but a whole bunch of people can and that’s why it’s crucial to get the message right in a film.  And even more importantly, it’s crucial to recognize where the message is effectively getting through and where it is not.

Environmental issues on the big screen has been a long evolving thing, changing very quickly over time to observe the changing attitudes in society as a whole.  Social films have always been a part of Hollywood, but they were more centered on human conflicts and despair rather than dangers facing the world itself.  You can see this in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which brilliantly documents the hardships facing a family of migrant workers heading to California after being displaced by the Dust Bowl of the Midwest in the 1930’s, without ever discussing the environmental factors that led to the famine in the first place.  Postwar Hollywood took on environmental issues more definitively in the 50’s, but it was from a place of Cold War paranoia, where nuclear annihilation was seen as the biggest threat to the environment.  Even still, environmental consciousness became more important in these years, and likewise, Hollywood found stories worth telling that could motivate millions of viewers to take action.  You can see this in allegorical sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), where an alien visitor warns the people of Earth to take better care of their world, or else face annihilation themselves.  It was pointed, but in a way that made audience take note that keeping the world a clean an orderly place was the best way to make their progress society as a whole.  You can also see this reflected in a slew of PSA films that were produced around this period, which among other things taught people how to keep their homes sanitary, how best to dispose of hazardous material in a safe way, and also how to avoid environmental hazards in their own backyards.  Some of these were pretty naive and sometimes completely absurd (“duck and cover” as a response to a nuclear blast for instance), but, Hollywood was finding out with these movies that taking on such issues in their movies could indeed affect social action.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s when Hollywood’s message machine and the call for action on environmental issues finally coalesced into one.  It was an era when it came abundantly clear that the Earth’s environment was in danger and that action needed to be taken.  Even President Richard Nixon, of all people, saw the importance of doing something to save the environment, which led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Likewise, Hollywood made an effort to state that environmental issues were no longer just a minor thing, but instead the most important thing and that we as a species could no longer just ignore it.  In this time, you saw a lot of movies that discussed the effect of pollution in our air and water, the clear-cutting of forests, and the negligence of industry that allowed for environmental degradation to happen.  What is special about the movies from this era is that they weren’t afraid to be bleak, which surprisingly proved to be a more effective tool in getting the message across.  With Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you had a noir thriller centered around a real case of corruption in Depression era Los Angeles, which showed how manipulation of resources could degrade a once vibrant landscape and destroy the livelihood of those who worked the land.  The China Syndrome (1979) showed how corporate negligence at a nuclear power plant could lead to a possible destruction of a city within the blink of an eye, and show that maybe nuclear power wasn’t the best option for our energy production.  And there was also Soylent Green (1973), a disturbing dystopian look into a future plagued by overpopulation and food shortages compounded by pollution.  It’s a film where even the solutions to the problem are the stuff of nightmares.  But, what each of these films managed to do was to wake up the population to issues about the environment that were starting to affect us.  For a while, people did make an effort to consume less, hold corporations accountable, and do their best to improve the environment.  But as society changes, the message also changes, and newer messengers don’t quite have the same urgency to get the message out as before.

Since the 70’s, new facts have about the environment have made the issues more complex and as a result, far more harder to stress to a larger audience.  As a result, a new trend of environmental films have arisen that unfortunately dumb down the issue in order to make it more appealing to a general audience.  In some cases, filmmakers come across looking like they don’t care about the issues they are addressing and just want to make it appear like they do care just so that they can win some credibility points from environmental groups.  Unfortunately, if the whole project becomes disingenuous, it trivializes the message as a whole.  Case in point, the films of Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich is a filmmaker notorious for making shallow statements in his films on a variety of subjects, but none more so than with his environmental films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).  The reason his films come across as shallow is because it’s clear that he’s ignoring scientific reality in favor of creating his own outlandish scenarios in order to add extra spectacle to his films.  That’s how you end up with preposterous segments in his movies like John Cusack outrunning a supervolcano explosion in a Winnebago from 2012, or Jake Gyllenhaal literally being chased down a hallway by the effects of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow.  I don’t think that Roland Emmerich isn’t concerned about the environment, but his shortcomings as a filmmaker only makes the message in his movies seem ridiculous and as a result, easier to dismiss; and that in of itself is a big disservice to environmental causes.  If you want to help the environment, you need to deal with it honestly, and not trivialize it with your own indulgences.  It’s sadly something that far too many filmmakers do nowadays with environmental movies.  Spectacle only makes the issue seem smaller, because you are associating real environmental problems with Hollywood magic, and reality has no magical solution.

An even worse problem with environmental movies today is how they are sometimes exploited for the purpose of a different agenda.  In particular, one thing that I have noticed with some environmental movies is that they scapegoat all environmental problems on some corporate entity.  Sure, many corporations over the years have been contributors to environmental degradation, but taking an anti-corporate stance in your movie is no solution to the problem of fixing the environment.  As a result, you have a movie that is undermined by it’s own lack of urgency and it’s insistence of shifting the blame to someone else.  By doing so, you creating a sense in the audience that they themselves no longer have a responsibility to the environment, because they only see the evil corporation as the offenders and not themselves.  For an environmental message to work, it must put the responsibility on the viewers shoulder to do something about the issue, and not let them off the hook.  That’s why conventional black and white morality in environmental movies makes the message far less effective.  You can see this in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), where he trivialized environmental issues by creating this corrupt straw-man corporate entity as an obvious antagonist within his story.  Had he presented a more even handed portrayal of the corporate characters, showing the complexity of their dilemma as well, then you might have had a more reasoned examination of the issue, with the environmentally conscious side standing up to scrutiny.  Instead, it just appeared that James Cameron wasn’t interested in a two sided argument, and that he wanted his beliefs presented without impediment.  Sure, he still managed to deliver a billion dollar hit movie, but it’s not the environmental arguments that we remember, and  it led to a less motivated audience because they were never able to connect with the issue.

There are many right and wrong ways to deliver an effective environmental story, and sometimes the best way to do it is to not appear on the surface like you are an environmental film at all.  That’s what made the films of the 70’s like Chinatown and Soylent Green so effective because they were compelling stories on their own that just so happened to involve environmentally relevant issues.  What I think to be one of the greatest environmentally conscious movies of all time does this perfectly; the Pixar-created animated film Wall-E (2008).  Wall-E is primarily just a love story between two robots, but as the story goes along, you see that it has a profound statement to make about man’s responsibility to his environment.  In the film, Wall-E the robot travels to the far reaches of space, and finds the remnants of humanity living on a space cruise ship, confined to lounge chairs and absorbed into distracting social media.  And all the while, their home planet is a garbage filled wasteland, which Wall-E has alone been tidying up.  If that’s not a compelling statement on our societal problems contributing to environmental degradation, than I don’t know what is.  And the movie has the intelligence to not let the viewer off the hook and asks us what is in our best interest going forward with environmental issues.  Contrast this with Illumination Entertainment’s adaptation of The Lorax (2012), which took every bad environmental movie cliche, and distracted it’s audience with trivial nonsense while at the same time pretending like it cared.  Dr. Seuss’ original story was about the dangers of over-consumption and it taught it’s audience to be more responsible with a compelling one word warning: “Unless.”  The CGI animated Lorax instead proved to be the most hypocritical of films by minimizing Seuss’ message and shamelessly cross-promoting itself with corporate sponsors, effectively promoting more consumption, which is an insult to Seuss’ intent.  This shows that a movie that sells itself as environmentally conscious may in fact not be, and that the more unexpected the environmental message the better it will affect it’s audience.

Overall, environmental movies should not be taken as just light entertainment, because the real problems we face are far too important to ignore.  For the most part, it’s a problem that is more closely associated with fictional environmental films than say something made in the non-fiction medium like a documentary.  But, even in the documentary field, it’s important to have a clear message that connects with the audience and makes them want to take action.  For Hollywood films, it matters to make environmental issues relatable, and that means not being afraid to take a few risks no and then.  I’m sure viewers became more concerned about the preservation of wildlife after they saw the death of Bambi’s mother from a hunters gunshot.  And I’m sure that Soylent Green made more people aware of their daily consumption, and that it was perhaps better to hold back a little, or else far worse things could happen.  Essentially, good stories told well can deliver a strong message on environmental issues, but the real change comes from not holding back and putting a sense of urgency into the minds of the audience.  When you trivialize the issue by mixing it too much with Hollywood style entertainment, then you create a passive indifference in the mind of the audience, leading them to take the issues facing the environment less seriously.  We’ve seen before that it can be done, but it must respect the intelligence level of it’s audience.  An audience will want to make a difference only if they’ve been moved and inspired.  And you can find far little inspiration in a movie that treats global catastrophes as spectacle, or presents a scapegoat that let’s the audience off the hook.  And you’ll find no more insulting environmental message than the Lorax hocking “green-approved” cars and IHOP pancakes.  Seriously, shame on that movie.  With our world growing increasingly fragile, it’s more important that we make environmental films that get real results and motivates more people to do the right thing.  It’ll be good when the fact that they are entertaining as well can be the only real by product in the end.

A Fool’s Game – The Ever Changing Face of Comedic Films

Our traditional April Fool’s Day usually has us working towards making a fool out of someone else, whether it be through a cleverly worded joke or through an elaborate prank.  Regardless of the outcome, most of the fun comes from the realization that something genuinely hilarious has happened, and one hopes that the humor in each situation is shared by all.  Sometimes a joke will go too far, and then other times, a joke will not have gone far enough, and the end result of no one finding it funny may be the worst result of all.  What proves to be the best scenario for April Fool’s shenanigans is if both the fooler and the fooled both have a healthy sense of humor.  And in our culture, we have the movies to thank for giving us foundations on which to base our senses of humor.  Everyone may not be able to pinpoint what their favorite comedy might be, but they can usually draw upon their favorite moments or funny phrase as a demonstration of their comedic tastes.  How many of us out there have bopped their head to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ever since first seeing Wayne’s World (1992)?  How many of us have used Bill Murray’s “Final Hole at Augusta” monologue from Caddyshack (1980) when playing a game of golf?  How many of us have at one time uttered the word “Ni” just to annoy our friends, or welcome them to join in?  Comedy has, more than probably any other genre, soaked itself into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where we think about a funny moment from a movie sometimes without knowing where it originated.  But, comedy in movies is also a constantly changing thing that sometimes remains strong for years or can sometimes fade into obscurity.  For a comedic movie to have staying power, it first of all must stand out in the field, have character to it, must have something to say, and most importantly not just be comical for comedy’s sake.

Despite being ingrained in the culture, comedy also runs the disadvantage of falling victim to shifting, and often unpredictable attitudes.  What was considered funny yesterday might not be considered funny today.  Sometimes the changing responses to comedy are necessary, as different values become more important all the time, and it becomes understandable when one joke has lost it’s impact as a result of the change.  But, to disparage a comedy because of it’s outdated content isn’t a healthy attitude either.  Comedy over history is defined by how it has evolved with the times, and while some jokes of the past may seem quaint or even offensive to those of us watching today, understanding their context allows us to see how it has shaped the sense of humor of our culture as a whole.  Comedy has been around since really the very beginning of cinema.  You can see it all the way back to the short vignettes of the very first film images created by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, who often called upon vaudeville acts to perform in front of the camera.  Since sound film had yet to be invented, you can understand that the dominant form of comedy in these days was physical in nature.  This was the era when slapstick and visual gags ruled.  In this era, you saw the emergence of the first true comedic movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  Silent comedy had it’s limitations, but remarkably it has proved to be one of the most resilient and influential forms of comedy in all of cinema.  You can see the influence of all these pioneers in slapstick comedy today.  Some of the performers most outrageous stunts even hold up as remarkable feats so many years later, like Harold Lloyd’s harrowing dangle from a clock face in Safety Last (1923), or Buster Keaton’s stunts on a real moving train in The General (1926).  Talkies of course would take the comedy genre in a different direction, but there would always be a place for physical comedy in the years ahead thanks to these pioneers.

With the use of sound, comedy became more reliant on tools such as wit, innuendo, and word play to generate laughs out of their audiences.  But, there was still a place in Hollywood for both the physical and the verbal to coexist in comedy.  The 30’s saw the rise of the screwball comedy, with comedians performing on screen who both excelled at physical humor and joke telling.  In this era, you would see the emergence of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and most successfully the Marx Brothers, who managed to get away with more in their comedies than most others could.  Screwball comedies were so popular at the time that they even managed to attract performers not normally known for their comedic chops, like Cary Grant and Kathrine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941).  As films became more sophisticated over time, so did comedy.  Preston Sturges not only created comedies that were humorous, but were also socially relevant, like with Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  Comedy evolved even further in the 50’s and 60’s, with shifting social attitudes making an impact.  You had more comedies that addressed topics like sex (1967’s The Graduate), war (1964’s Dr. Strangelove), and even fascism (1967’s The Producers).  The 70’s in particular was a era when comedy was all about pushing boundaries, with filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python comedy team consistently testing the limits of broadness and taste in their films.  The 80’s began the era of satire, where self reflexive comedies like Airplane (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988) emerged.  By this time, television has left a strong influence on cinematic comedy, with a lot of crossover stars coming from shows like Saturday Night Live.  And all through these different eras, you can see a strong through-line of different generations inspiring what would come after.  All comedy in one way or another has shaped what we now find funny today.  And through the best of them, we can see what has worked over time, and what does not.

What is apparent from all the greatest comedies from film history is how well they stand apart from the rest of the field.  Despite the influence that comedies have on the culture and the business of film-making, it should also be understood that there are ten times more failures in the genre than there are successes.  Comedy has the disadvantage of being a heavily derivative genre, with so many copycats emerging in the wake of a success in the field.  The key to comedy is the element of subverting your audiences expectations and making them react to an unexpected and hilarious result.  The best comedies are all defined by how well they make their punchlines land.  Unfortunately, when another movie tries to copy that same formula, it doesn’t have that same impact, because the audience will already be aware of what it’s leading to.  Other times, some comedies just don’t even try to do anything special, and just coast along on the premise alone.  It’s the reason why you see something like a 21 Jump Street (2012) succeed and a CHiPS (2017) fail.  Even people who have succeeded with a comedy before end up failing when they don’t adapt their style.  You could see this with the comedic team-up of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who landed a huge hit with Wedding Crashers in 2005, but failed to see the same repeat when they re-teamed for The Internship (2013).  We even see this in drawn out, tired franchises like The Hangover series.  Extra effort is what makes great comedies great, and the ability to share gags and jokes that no one has heard or seen before.  But, doing so comes with a lot of risk and Hollywood tends to not put their money behind unproven potential.  So, for any new progress to be made to change the face of comedy, it has to be something that stands out and hits hard with every punchline, and that’s why only the best comedies last throughout the years.

Another thing that helps comedies along on their road to greatness is in how well they are defined by their character.  Comedy falls into several subcategories, all of which have their own best and worst examples.  You’ve got the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the satirical comedy, the gross-out comedy, and even the dark comedy.  This all helps to make each type distinguishable from the others, so that there doesn’t have to be a set standard for all comedy.  But, even in the sub-classes, comedies still need to define what they are in order to stand out.  So, it helps for them to play around with genre tropes in order to either subvert them or conform them to a new direction.  You can see that in characteristically unique comedies like the original Ghostbusters (1984).  In that film, you had a mix of comedy and terror, mixed together in a surprisingly effective way.  The scary moments are genuinely scary, but they are punctuated by the witty sarcasm of Bill Murray or the goofy nerdiness of Dan Aykroyd.  Through that mixture, you get a comedy that by it’s very unique character is able to stand out.  Utilizing the comedic style of it’s creator, a comedy can also stand out.  You can see how the movies of Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks stand out from the crowd, because they are so tied to the comedy that those men are known for.  You can also see this in the work of directors who are comedians themselves, but are so comfortable working in the genre, like Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright.  Edgar Wright in particular has that special talent to make very similar movies, but they all feel fresh and hilarious, because he only ties them together by style and not by the routines; although a few running gags permeate his entire filmography.  Relying on your performers is also essential to finding the character of your comedy, especially if they are a scene-stealer like John Belushi in Animal House (1978).  You can see where a lack of character can sink a comedy, which can happen from miscasting a performer to just not finding an interesting angle to hang your jokes and gags on.  Comedy needs identity and the more broad it is, the better it will be able to make us laugh.

Having a statement in your comedy is also a helpful tool.  Movies have always been a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and affecting cultural attitudes, but no other genre manages to make a bigger impact in that regards than comedy.  This is especially true in the way that comedies often use their medium to attack authority figures through the power of mockery.  Oftentimes, the targets of comedy have been especially deserving of ridicule.  Charlie Chaplin famously attacked the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany with his film The Great Dictator (1940), which chronicled a buffoonish despotic dictator not unlike the Furher himself.  Chaplin’s response to Hitler was especially savage after the liberal-minded filmmaker learned that the notorious ruler had shaped his own mustache after Chaplin’s.  Stanley Kubrick addressed the absurdity of Cold War politics in the only way he knew how, with a screwball comedy where a cowboy hat wearing soldier rides a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it’s dropped from the sky.  Mel Brooks tackled racial tensions from the 1970’s in a western spoof called Blazing Saddles (1974), where every racial and ethnic stereotype is lampooned relentlessly in often hilarious ways, all with the purpose of showing how ridiculous racial bigotry is.  Does every great comedy need to have a profound statement behind it?  Not necessarily, but it can help it stand out as a strong statement of it’s time.  That’s not to say that every comedy that tries to give themselves a political or socially relevant message works either.  I don’t know what the point behind George Clooney’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) was, but I know for sure it didn’t make me laugh.  Still, for a comedy to be remembered for more than just it’s jokes, it must also have something interesting to say, or push forward an unconventional idea that can have a profound influence.  Whether that ends up lasting long after remains to be seen, but a comedy will be notable nonetheless for doing it.

Also, it may be redundant to say this, but a comedy must try it’s best to be funny.  You would be surprised how few films actually accomplish this.  True, comedy is a subjective medium, and what’s funny to one person, might not be funny to another.  But, there are several so-called “comedies” out there that don’t even try to attempt to reach all audiences with their style of humor.  Oftentimes, there will be several comedies that are so insistent on throwing anything at the wall to see if it will stick.  You see this a lot in the spoof movies that have followed in the wake of Scary Movie (2000), all of which have the mistaken belief that movie and pop culture references equals comedy gold.  Probably the worst offender of the “kitchen sink” approach to comedy however is Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production comedy.  Sandler seems to believe that rehashing the same tired comedy routines through consistently dumb premises is enough to leave your mark on comedy.  Well, it does, but probably not in the good way that Sandler believes is owed to him.  There was a time when Sandler’s comedic style was funny, but that was the late 90’s, and it’s now been 20 years since Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) managed to make us laugh.  What these movies demonstrate is that a comedy can’t just work on routine alone.  It has got to earn our laughter.  When you have Sandler movies that just poke fun at a character’s ugly appearance, or has animals defecating on another character, or throws in outdated and offensive tropes like gay panic or ethnic stereotypes, then you’re doing nothing to broaden your appeal as a comedic talent.  It’s cheap and lazy comedy, and audiences are too discerning today to fall for tricks like that anymore.  Just because these comedic bits have worked before doesn’t mean they’ll work for you again, and it’s a bad sign when 20 plus years in the business only leads you to do the same bits over and over again.

We all know which comedies we like and which ones we don’t like.  The only thing that remains to be seen is what we may find funny years from now, because comedy is a constantly movie goal line.  Our attitudes as a culture evolves and puts new values on things, so punchlines that made us laugh when we were young might not make us laugh when we are old.  It’s especially more difficult when we try to provide our own input into comedy as well, because not all of us find the same things funny.  And yet, some comedy does stand the test of time despite all the change.  Chaplin an Keaton still are praised as comedic geniuses, and it remains a marvel to watch modern audiences still laugh out loud watching comedies made nearly a century ago.  Some of this comedy does benefit from nostalgic value, but there are others like Blazing Saddles and Dr. Strangelove that still carry a punch to this day.  The biggest mistake that a movie can make is to chase after a punchline that no one will like.  And in a world that’s grown increasingly absurd, and where more and more people take a punchline way too seriously and miss the point entirely, finding comedy that results in a positive change is becoming harder to come by.  In the end, we need the positive influence of substantive comedy that’s not afraid to step on a few toes and mock those deserving of ridicule.  In troubled times, comedy is the best weapon that a culture can have.  And yes, there is even value in tough times to seeing absurd things like Bill Murray hunting down a puppeteer-ed gopher in Caddyshack (1980), or Adam Sandler fighting Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, or Steve Carrell getting his chest waxed in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).  There is no better feeling at the end of the day than to have a good, full unencumbered laugh, especially when it is shared with someone else.  The only fools left out there are the ones who find nothing funny in the end.

And the Oscar Goes To – Navigating the Politics of the Academy Awards

The Awards season once again comes to a close with the presentation of the Oscars in another week.  With it, the final verdict of the previous year in movies.  At least, that’s how the industry itself likes to put it.  For most of us on the outside looking in, the Academy Awards seems to be less reflective each year of how we responded to the movies they put out into the market.  None of last year’s top grossing films are up for Best Picture, and are instead relegated to the “minor” awards like Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.  For the most part, the movies up for the top awards are very little seen by the casual viewing public, and it often leads to many people watching the Oscars on TV every year feeling perplexed as to which movie is which.  There are a lot of factors that lead the Academy towards the choices they make every year, and sometimes they do lead to some short-sighted results.  Too often we have seen in Oscar history where one movie has won the award over another, and the loser has gone on to become one of the most beloved films of all times, while the winner has disappeared into obscurity.  Hindsight makes us see the folly in some of these choices, but looking back at the time in which it happened, it sometimes makes more sense how each of the big winners at the Oscars managed to get there.  Whether we like it or not, the road to the Oscars is defined by it’s own complicated politics; which can sometimes be as messy as the real political world.  To be an Oscar winner, you have to abide by many industry rules, impact the right people, and appear the whole way through like a champion.  And even still, winning the Award comes down to having the right amount of luck on your side, as well as the right timing.  All of this shows that just making a great movies isn’t enough to be gifted Oscar glory.

Looking at the whole of Oscar history, we’ve got to remember that the total number of winners that has ever been since it’s inception could just barely fill up the Dolby Theater in Hollywood where the Awards are held.   Most winners are just lucky to have their one and only, while an even smaller handful win it more than once.  Overall, it is very difficult to win an Academy Award.  Some of our greatest legends never won in their lifetimes, including Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and Peter O’Toole, and were only lucky to be gifted Honorary Awards towards the end of their careers.  Edward G. Robinson was never even nominated, and died shortly after learning of his Honorary Award; never getting the opportunity to savor his glory.  As much as many of us dream of one day holding one of those golden boys for our own, it’s highly likely that it’s a dream that will never come true.  But, it’s not a dream that can’t be achieved either.  One thing that does define all Oscar winners across the board is that it came from their hard-earned, passionate work.  Even if you dislike the ultimate choice of the winner each year, you can’t make the argument that the person won for doing a half-assed, lazy job.  Every Oscar winner pushed themselves harder than they would normally, and that’s something that garners the attention of the industry around Oscar time.  For filmmakers, it’s usually because they worked under some extreme conditions to complete their film, like David Lean filming in the Arabian desert with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or Peter Jackson shooting three epic films simultaneously in order to win on the third with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).  And with actors, it’s transforming themselves completely for the performance, like Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), or any winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  Winners are lucky, but they don’t get the glory without something to show for it.

But, there have been many great movies and performances over the years that pushed the envelope and yet were completely ignored by the Academy.  How do some movies rise to the top while others do not?  That is where the politics of the Oscars come into play.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is an organisation of industry professionals established to help advance the innovations in both arts and science in all industry fields.  As part of it’s mission, the Academy created an award to honor the highest quality film-making each year as a way to promote the many different advancements made in the medium for audiences everywhere to appreciate.  That award, first given out in 1927, would go on to become the Oscar, and has since become the highest honor anyone can receive within the industry.  In the 89 years since, the Academy has blossomed into a prestigious organization, with it’s membership made up of some of Hollywood’s most elite talent.  Individual Academy members can identify themselves as such, but the Academy itself keeps their full roster a closely guarded secret.  In total there are approximately 6,000 voting members of the Academy, and it is them who decide who ultimately wins on Oscar night.  It’s a democratic system, with balloting deciding the winner, but it’s also a secretive process, with vote totals never being made public.  The selection process of Academy members is also kept secret, so it is sometimes hard to know who’s voting for what sometimes.  We do know that actors make up the largest voting block of the Academy, so that’s why it’s a lot more common to see performance driven films do well at the Academy Awards.  But, even still, there is a belief that the representation of the Academy is not as reflective of the rest of the industry as it should be, nor with the rest of society, and that’s often why so many people call into question many of the winners they select.

One thing that we know about the Academy is that their voting block tends to skew a little older, and is more predominantly white.  This led to some controversy in the last couple years with people crying foul over the lack of diversity among the nominees; even going as far as some calling for a boycott of the Awards ceremony.  While I don’t believe that the Oscars left out minority nominees on purpose, it nevertheless was an indication of the unfortunate downside of having such a closed off organization in charge selecting the choices.  It ultimately led to current Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African-American) to revise the standards and qualifications for membership, in the hope to bring more diverse perspectives to the Academy.  But even with this change, there is still the danger of the Academy holding something of an elitist position in determining who is most deserving of the industries top award.  Sometimes, generational differences have caused a rift between what the Academy wants and what the viewing public values.   You see groundbreaking films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Raging Bull (1980), Fargo (1996) and The Social Network (2010) lose out to more traditional competition like Oliver, Ordinary People, The English Patient, and The King’s Speech respectively, and it’s all believed because the Academy didn’t recognize the changing attitudes of the times and instead went with what was safe.  The more cynical view is that the Academy tends to reward standard fare over the more groundbreaking, because it gives them a lower bar to cross when they make their own grand statements to win an award for themselves.  You can make the claim that this is why smaller, independent films succeed at the Oscars so often, with some notable exceptions that couldn’t be ignored (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings).

But, the make-up of the Academy is only one obstacle in the labyrinth of trying to win an Oscar.  One major factor that comes into play is the ability to look like a winner.  While the selection process of the Academy Awards is closely guarded secret, their ultimate conclusions have more than often proved to be very predictable.  Some of the time, many Academy members tend to neglect their privilege and see very few of the actual nominees that are up every year.  Even with all the publicity surrounding the films and the numerous screeners that are shipped out to Academy members, a few movies will fall through the cracks, which then leads to Academy members turning to what we call “bellwethers” in the award season in order to make a choice.  These tend to be all the previous awards given out in the season leading up to the Oscars, including the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, all of the Guild awards, and even the prestigious film fest accolades that each film has collected.  This gives the voting member a better idea of whether or not the movie or the performance is Oscar worthy or not.  So, if you’re looking to win an Oscar, the best thing you can do is to win as much of these bellwether awards as you can.  It may not always work, as there have been a few curve-balls in the past.  Adrien Brody won his Oscar for Best Actor in The Pianist (2002), having won no prior award up to that point; losing out to the favorites that year with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.  But, with exceptions, the vast majority of Oscar winners had made it to the final ceremony with a lot of previous wins under their belt, and the golden boy was just the final piece of their collection.  To become a winner, you have to look like a winner, because it’ll make the Academy feel all the more confident in their choice.  One hopes that the wave that Oscar winners ride through Award season will have lasting power beyond the final ceremony, otherwise it just looks like only hollow hype.

Though the Academy takes into account how an Oscar nominee fares throughout the season, they also take note with how the nominees reflect back on the Academy in the public eye.  One thing that us outsiders notice around Awards season is the constant hurdles that an actor or filmmaker must go through in order to put the best face forward after becoming a nominee, otherwise they may lose their shot at winning.  In many ways, this is the most political that the awards season gets.  Many nominees are forced to play by the academy’s rules and be on their best behavior in order to convince the voters that they are not only talented, but also made of good character.  The last thing that the Academy wants is to court controversy, so they often hold their nominees to a higher standard.  Hopefully, the Academy ultimately judges winners based on the work itself, and not by looking into the personal lives of the nominees.  It is unfortunate that sometimes nominees do fall victim to Academy bias.  Sir Ian McKellan is believed to have been overlooked for his performance as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001), because of his outspoken support of gay rights at the time; another indicator of the Academy showing a slow adaptation to changing values.  There is also the risk of an actor’s less than flattering work overshadowing their nominated work; such as the case with Eddie Murphy, whose critically panned Norbit (2007) was released to theaters just as he was making his case for an Oscar for his performance in Dreamgirls (2006), which he lost in what some believe to be a direct effect.  Since then, people have termed these kinds of negative films as the next “Norbit.”  Whether or not it’s true, the Academy still is not happy when you break their rules in the process.  Melissa Leo nearly thought she lost out on her Oscar for The Fighter (2010) when she violated Academy rules with self-promotion in publication ads throughout the industry.  Still, she won, and the academy more than often does reward for art over personal behavior, such as with no show George C. Scott in Patton (1970), or the fiercely independent Mo’Nique with Precious (2009) .  But, still there are unmistakable concessions to the Academy that most nominees must live by and often times can’t escape.

Finally, there is one other factor that plays into a person’s chances to win an Academy Award and that’s the ever crucial element of timing.  The Academy often has been accused of terrible timing with their choices, because too few of them ever look that good years later.  But, when you’re only allowed one choice in every category each year, you are usually bound to make a choice that won’t please everyone.  The only times you do make the popular choice is when it’s obvious to everyone else.  There are often some years where there is such a clear favorite that any other choice would be foolish.  But, when it’s not, the key to winning is to hope that your stock rises at just the right moment.  You can see that through some of the bellwether selections, but oftentimes, a curve-ball is thrown into the mix.  George Clooney looked like a sure thing in 2011 when he was up for Best Actor for The Descendents, but then a little French film called The Artist began to gain traction late in the season and by Oscar night, Clooney saw his sure fire win go to little know Jean Dujardin, the French comedic actor who stars in The Artist.  Sometimes, however, being overlooked for so long is one way to garner sympathy from the Academy in order to ride a wave towards a win.  The Academy tends to go out of it’s way sometimes to right past wrongs, sometimes in short-sighted ways, awarding leeser films because of how they robbed an actor or director of an award in the past.  It’s not always a bad thing.  I don’t know of anyone who was upset when Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar after 5 previous nominations over a 40 year career with The Departed (2006), or Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning an award last year for The Revenant (2015).  Sometimes, the mood of the industry also influences who they choose to win.  In many cases, they reward a movie because of what it has to say, and use the win as a statement to the rest of the world.  The academy may be slow to adapt sometimes, but every now and then, they reward risky films like Midnight Cowboy (1969), or Platoon (1986), or movies with a passionate statement on society like last year’s Spotlight (2015).  It’s all about matching the mood of the Academy in order to win, and even this can prove to be as unpredictable as anything else.

One sure fire thing that we’ve recently learned about the Academy Awards is that they greatly value movies that reflect well on them specifically.  Many have accused the Academy of vainly rewarding movies that flatter the industry, and it’s not difficult to imagine this being true.  With The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) winning back to back like they did, and La La Land poised to be this year’s big winner, it seems pretty clear that the best way to succeed at the Oscars is to appeal to the Academy’s own sense of self worth.  But, it’s not always going to be the case.  Most movies, filmmakers, and performers walk away winners on Oscar night because they had all the cards fall into place for them at the right time.  Sure, there is a lot of political wrangling to make that happen, but there’s no denying that all of it is a long process that everyone would want to go through, all for the glory of the win.  The only issue for the Academy is whether or not they do a great service for the industry by taking so many precautions in their selections.  As we’ve seen before, what seemed like a logical choice at the time ends up not bearing fruit in the years since.  Hindsight is a problem for the Academy, and it often leads to many shakeups within their organization to determine how they can best keep up with a world and industry that is changing so rapidly.  For the most part, despite their flaws, they still have the final statement to make on the industry within every calendar year, and it’s a distinction that won’t leave them soon.  We may not agree with their choices every year, but we are nevertheless fascinated by the significance of the Award, and the impact that it has left on film history.

Lawrence and Me – Personal Journeys That Our Favorite Films Take Us On

When I started writing this blog nearly 4 years ago now, my hope was to share my knowledge and opinions on a wide range of topics related to all things cinema.  And for all these years, I have expanded this thing into an extensive body of work.  I run twelve different series of articles on here and to date I have reviewed 50 plus films for this site, as well as covered exciting public film exhibitions within the Los Angeles community where I live.  Conventions, festivals, art galleries; it’s all an effort from me to all of you, my readers, to give you an open look into my passion as a fan of cinematic art.  And believe me, I have enjoyed this journey we’ve taken together.  If I didn’t have this blog, I probably wouldn’t be doing all the same things.  I’d still be watching new films every week, going to all these film festivals, and attending these conventions, but this blog also gives me even more of a purpose to.  I’m not just a participant, but also a reporter, using this site to share experiences with those out there who otherwise would’ve missed out on them.  Now truth be told, I am still an amateur at best, but this site is also an unfiltered expression of my own passion.  I write on this site, because it is something that I take pleasure in.  And even if my readership may still be limited to friends, family, and the always welcome curious newcomer, I feel honored to have at least built something that other people can appreciate.  The reason, you might ask, why I am waxing nostalgic all of a sudden, is because with this article I have now reached 200 posting on this website.  For a milestone like this, I tried to think about what would be the best subject for the occasion.  And for #200, I thought it would be fitting to talk to you about my all time favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and how it has shaped my life ever since I first saw it nearly 18 years ago.

For a lot of people, their favorite movies usually end up being something tied to their childhood, or perhaps a discovery in their adulthood that changed their life forever.  I’m a child of the 80’s, an era where there was no shortage of influential movies that I could have latched onto.  So, why did a movie released 20 years before I was born make such a difference in my life?  It might have been just because it was the right movie at the right moment for me.  From early childhood, I was already a keenly aware observer of the aura of cinema.  It was mostly started by my passionate love of Disney movies.  I was the kid in school who had seen every Disney animated classic up to that point, and knew them all by heart.  I was also the kind of know-it-all kid who wanted to share all of my fandom with everyone else; probably to level of obnoxiousness.  Still, it was a passion that spurned me on to pursue more knowledge and expand my expertise.  Once I became a teenager, I started to move beyond just Disney fandom and actively take interest in movies of all kinds.  I became more interested in film history, and found myself watching channels like HBO and Turner Classic Movies more than I was watching the Disney Channel.  The yearly run-up to the Academy Awards interested me more than before, and ever since turning 13, I have not missed seeing a single Best Picture winner in it’s first run in theaters ever since.  But, even though I was aware of my interest in film at the time, what I lacked was the knowledge of what to do with it.  I was certainly not the only person who loved movies this much; but I felt that there was something about them that was calling out to me specifically and pushing me towards something else.

And then there was the summer of 1999.  I had just finished my sophomore year in high school and was looking for that one thing that would guide me towards what I would do with myself going into adulthood.  At the same time, I was trying to catch up on my film history knowledge as well; more specifically, I was trying to see every movie that had won Best Picture at the Oscars up to that point.  This particular summer, a golden opportunity came to my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  Columbia Pictures was showcasing a traveling film fest, spotlighting movies in their catalog that had recently been selected for the American Film Institute’s Top 100.  The fest came to the last remaining old movie house theater in my town, the now re-purposed McDonald Theater, and was playing a dozen of these films the way they were originally intended to be seen; on the big screen.  The opening film of this fest was Lawrence of Arabia, and it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to waste.  I was just old enough to start seeing movies on my own, so my parents allowed me to go by myself to the theater to see it.  For an older movie, the screening was still surprisingly popular, and it ended up being a packed house.  I, at the time, was only expecting to be entertained for 3 1/2 hours and have another title crossed off my Oscar watch-list.  What I got instead was a trans-formative moment; the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience in my life.  I was stunned by how much this movie drew me in.  The flawless use of editing, music, performance, and most importantly visuals to tell this story.  It was at that point that I no longer had just a love for film.  Now I had a love for film-making.  I had seen the pinnacle of what cinema can accomplish, and now my obsession had changed from wanting to see every movie to wanting to understand how they were made.  I returned home that evening almost in a daze.  It took me a few weeks more to put into words the impact that that afternoon in the theater had on me.  And then it dawned on me what I needed to do.  I had to become a filmmaker.

I don’t know if things would’ve been different if I had seen Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on television as opposed to on a big screen in a theater packed with other people like myself.  I may be sitting here today writing about a different movie or a different subject entirely.  Lawrence might not even have become my favorite movie.  But, it did because it was the one movie that put into focus everything that I was trying to understand and steered me in the direction that I have followed ever since.  In my senior year of high school, I enrolled in my first ever film class; an elective course that mixed a film history and literature curriculum with film making projects.  In addition, I joined the school newspaper and became it’s film critic.  After graduating, I spent my college years broadening my film knowledge further.  I sought out films of all kinds; especially the ones that are not widely available like international, art house, and independent flicks.  While working towards my Bachelors Degree in English at the University of Oregon, I also earned a certificate in film studies, giving me not only a broader knowledge of the film arts, but also the skills to write more articulately about them.  And while attending college, I also lucked out in getting a job at a movie theater, where I could watch as many as 80-100 films a year, if I so choose.  But, my goal in life was not just to learn about movies; it was to participate in making them.  That is why I wanted to spend my graduate years in a formal film school environment.  In my last year at the U of O, I applied to three different film schools, and was accepted to every one.  I ended up choosing to attend my top pick overall, which was Chapman University in Orange, California.  There, I got my first real taste of actual film-making, and was able to make friends and acquaintances of some truly talented and impassioned future filmmakers like myself as well as professionals, many of whom have helped me to become a better student of the art-from overall and given me encouragement that have I always appreciated.  I graduated with my Masters Degree in Screenwriting and since then have been trying to make a life for myself in the movie capital of the world, and all because of that one afternoon that I decided that I wanted watch Lawrence of Arabia for the first time.

But, stepping away from the impact that it left on me, I’d like to look at exactly why this movie ended up being the one that changed my life.  Lawrence of Arabia, despite it’s universal praise, may not exactly be to everyone’s taste.  It’s 3 1/2 hours long, about a little known historical period in time in the early 20th century, and centered on a protagonist who is both narcissistic and dangerously naive.  And yet, what director David Lean delivered became the cinematic epic that all others are now judged by.  What he did was take this history lesson of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, a campaign that one character describes as “a sideshow of a sideshow” in history, and made it into a story biblical in both scale and theme.  And this was accomplished through a perfect execution of it’s presentation.  The 70mm widescreen photography alone is unmatched in the history of cinema.  David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young not only pushed the cameras to the limit of their capabilities out there in the unforgiving Arabian desert locations, but they also managed to invent new techniques on the fly that filmmakers today have them to thank for.  Lawrence for example was the first ever film to capture the mirages on film; a distortion caused by extreme heat that is commonly seen by the naked eye, but is near impossible to capture on film.  Using extremely sensitive telephoto lenses, we got the first ever mirage captured on film, used to spectacular effect to introduce Omar Sharif’s Ali into the movie.  High definition blu-ray technology has been a blessing to this movie recently, giving us a full appreciation of it’s spectacular visuals, but even still, this is a movie that must be seen on the biggest screen possible.  It’s why I fell in love with the first time.  I still remember the goosebumps I got when I saw the establishing shot of the Wadi Rum valley where Anthony Quinn’s Auda abu Tayi made his camp.  This was the movie that convinced me that anything was possible in film, because it showed how cinematic language can be transcendent, that it finds the beauty in the most unexpected details, and make a “sideshow” feel like the greatest story ever told.

But, in the years since watching it the first time, and after gaining a broader knowledge of film-making in general, I have also come to appreciate the movie beyond just the wonder of the spectacle.  At it’s center, Lawrence of Arabia is about a singular journey of one man’s self discovery.  T.E. Lawrence (played in a career-defining performance by Peter O’Toole) is one of history’s most celebrated figures, but at the same time, also one of it’s most enigmatic.  We don’t know exactly what drove this well-educated Englishman to spend so many years embedded among the various tribes of Arabia and help them to both drive out their Turkish oppressors and form a unified nation under the rule of King Feisal of Mecca (played by Alec Guinness in the film).  Not only that, but he did so in defiance of his own home nation, who sought to claim Arabia for themselves after deposing the Ottoman Empire.  The movie examines what would drive a man like him to do something like that, and what the film ultimately finds is that nobody really knew what drove Lawrence’s ambition; not even himself.  Lawrence, in the film, is a man driven by passion and a desire for accomplishing the impossible.  But at the same time, we also see that he’s a person who dangerously tests his own limits in a kind of perverse self mutilation.  He playfully puts out matches with his own fingers, and reveals that the trick is not minding that it hurts. Overall, he is a man who’s incapable of putting his own self preservation ahead of his desires.  While it can sometimes enable him to accomplish inhuman tasks, like when he miraculously saves a lost companion in the desert, it also drives him towards a dangerous path of being swallowed into a hell of his own making, as the film’s more disillusioned second half brilliantly portrays.  It’s a remarkable character study of a truly enigmatic man, and it’s that exploration that I find so fascinating and reflective in my own journey as a film student.

Because of my need to test my purpose in life and strive to succeed in a career in film, despite all the odds placed in my way, I can understand a little more about what drove Lawrence so deep into the desert.  We are all driven by a little bit of our own madness sometimes, but it’s how well we manage our ambitions and focus our madness into creativity that enables us to do great things in life.  I certainly am no where near as lost in the wild as Lawrence was, but there’s something in his character and story that I identify with.  I could have chosen a different avenue of life; taken a steady 9-5 job in some office cubicle back home in Oregon and just lived an average life where I would have been safe and content.  But instead, I have followed my passions which have taken me away from home and have allowed me to get ever so much closer to living out my dreams.  Of course, it hasn’t all been without risk (substantial student debt and all the dangers that big city life throws at me), but had I not taken those risks and accomplished something out of it, would I have been as content as I am now.  When Lawrence decides to challenge all rational and cross the impassable Nafud Desert, he never stops to think about the cost; only the final destination.  It’s reckless, but once it’s accomplished, he becomes a hero to all around him.  Will I ever achieve something like that in my life time?  I don’t know, but it’s better to test my limits than to try to live by them and do nothing.  I never thought that 4 years ago that I would have it in me to write a blog every week, and yet I took a shot at it and here we are, 200 articles later.  The same with attending film school and working in the film industry; I never would have known if these were right for me or not had I not taken a chance and applied my name for acceptance into these institutions.  The journey still has a ways to go, and there are regrets over time about some roads not taken, but the final destination is something that I still have on my horizon.

So, this is why Lawrence of Arabia is my all time favorite movie.  It pivoted me towards a purpose in life and represents the ideals that I want to live up to as a student of film.  I hope to one day write a movie that has even just a little bit of the wit and impact that Lawrence has.  Robert Bolt’s screenplay is often one that I quote with regularity and respect with awe for it’s sheer, simple brilliance.  It’s amazing how the screenplay deftly answers some of the more existential questions with the simplest of answers.  For example, when asked by a reporter, “What attracts you Major Lawrence to the desert?” he answers, “It’s clean.  I like it, because it’s clean.”  That right there is a fundamental screenwriting magic trick; using a non-sequitur to explain the un-explainable, and it’s beautifully delivered with delicious sarcasm by Peter O’Toole in the movie.  But, apart from that, Lawrence is also a movie that helps me to understand the limits of ambition and the need for understanding.  There is a strong theme throughout the movie spotlighting the failings of misunderstanding, and how lack of intelligence leads to disorder and hatred.  Lawrence went into the desert not only to learn more about himself, but to understand the world, and it’s an example that I have to tried to live up to myself, broadening my understanding of how the art of film is differently reflected in the larger world as a whole.  Lawrence of Arabia is more personal to me than any other film that I have seen and that’s why I always claim it as my all time favorite movie.  I’m sure that everyone else has that one movie that speaks to them too, and in many ways, a person’s favorite film can reveal a lot about who they are.  Sometimes it’s a personal attachment to the main character that defines a person’s favorite movie, or the message it delivers that they hold so dear.  But the one thing that every favorite movie has in common is that it plays a role in molding us into the people that we are.  Lawrence of Arabia solidified my purpose in life; to play a part in the growing legacy of cinema, and whether I am making a film, or writing about them, it’s a purpose that I still live out every day.  As I look ahead to the next year on this blog, my hope is to expand it further and make it even better; maybe someday try turning it into a vlog and starting up sponsorship to allow my readers more input into what I write about.  Anything is possible at this point.  As the movie states, “Nothing is written, unless you write it.”

Turning the Old into the New – Making Retro Popular in Hollywood

So, as we stand now in the first leg of the 2017 awards season, the movie that looks like a clear front runner for the top prize of the season, the Academy Award, appears to be Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.  Truth be told, we won’t know for sure until the actual awards are handed out, but so far, it’s the movie that is breezing through all the awards thus far and is dominating.  Which leads me to wonder, why this movie?  Why is La La Land sweeping up so many awards this year.  It’s not the typical Oscar style movie.  Heavy dramas and message filled movies tend to be the awards favorites this time of year.  But, La La Land is an upbeat musical comedy about struggling artists in the creative labyrinth that is Los Angeles, California, and a movie where no one dies and where both of the stars end up getting what they wanted in the end, more or less.  Certainly, the fact that it’s a showbiz movie helps, as films like The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) have shown that Hollywood loves to celebrate movies that cast a positive light on their industry.  But, the movie is also becoming a hit with general audiences as well, and that tells me that another factor is fueling the popularity of La La Land, and that’s a strong reaction to retro style film-making.  La La Land is a throwback to musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era, but transplanted into a modern day setting.  Like musicals of the past, the musical numbers become a natural extension of the story rather than a music video style interlude that cuts into the narrative, and is shot in long takes that help you to appreciate the production values and choreography.  They are not new film-making techniques, but rather ones that have sat long dormant and only fell new and fresh because of their long absence.

In La La Land, the experiment works because it is clear that director Damien Chazelle has done his homework and studied the movies he’s trying to emulate very closely.  It seems simple on the surface, but there is a lot more to making retro styles work in a new movie.  Anyone can just copy a scene from an old film, but very few can actually make a new film feel old fashioned and have that come across as something new and revolutionary in the end.  In many ways, it all comes down to the story you want to tell in the end.  For Chazelle, he was interested in telling the story of people on the periphery of Hollywood fame, and just living day to day trying to prove that they can be a value to the world.  The musical numbers are lavish, but they carry weight because of the way we identify with the characters and feel their struggle.  That’s why when they break out into song, we share in the enthusiasm behind the experience.  But even on the crafting side, it takes a sharp sense of your film-making craft to know how to make a film successfully retro.  You have to know the intimate details such as the type of film stock used in filming, or the timing of the editing, or even just the choices in blocking a shot.  It’s a rhythm of storytelling that helps to give it that retro feel.  Production design, which creates the visual texture of a different era, becomes the very last element that makes a retro film feel old fashioned.  What makes La La Land a remarkably retro movie is the fact that it’s retro in technique and not design.  Chazelle’s film is a modern world brought to life with Hollywood magic.  A musical number in the old Hollywood style can come off as ordinary when boxed into a prefabricated soundstage environment, but when transplanted to rush hour traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, then you’ve got the makings of something old becoming new again.

La La Land is not the first project to capitalize on collective cinematic nostalgia.  There are plenty of other movies that hearken back to a bygone time and try to emulate the style of that era.  But, it’s the practice of using the era’s limitations and film-making styles that actually defines this type of movie.  It’s basically what separates a retro film from a period film.  You can watch a period movie which puts extraordinary care and detail into the authenticity of the costumes and set design to recreate a different era, but it will still feel like a modern film regardless.  This is because the film-making technology is of this era and not the one that the movie is set in.  Aesthetically it can look old fashioned, but when it is shot on crisp digital photography, it will still be recognized by the viewer as a new movie.  For a movie made today to truly feel like of another era, it must strip away all the cinematic shortcuts that technology has given us over the years and utilize techniques and technology that has been long out of use.  For it’s part, La La Land does this by shooting on film, and in a film stock that is not as widely used today as it once was.  Damien Chazelle chose to shoot the movie in the Cinemascope process, which was developed back in the 1950’s as a cheap and practical format for widescreen film-making.  Today, most movies utilize a Panavision inter-positive, which allows the for the filmmaker to format the screen dimensions in post to their liking.  Cinemascope is widely given as the name for the ratio of all widescreen movie (the standard of which is 2.40:1), but the original film based Cinemascope was actually wider than this (at 2.55:1) and is far more dynamic at capturing screen depth than modern day Panavision.  It was an especially popular format for the musicals of the 50’s, which I’m sure is something that Chazelle took notice of.  While most moviegoers probably will never know any difference between film stock formats, subconsciously it does leave an impression and helps to make the final film feel retro purely through the very film stock used in it’s making.

Chazelle is one of a number of filmmakers that have returned to old techniques and film equipment to recreate styles of the past.  One filmmaker in particular that has gone out of his way to not only use old equipment, but also champion it in his promotion of his movies is Quentin Tarantino.  Tarantino is a filmmaker with modern sensibilities, but he is also a director with an extensive knowledge of old Hollywood film-making and a strong desire to relive those styles in the work that he does.  He’s a man raised on watching exploitation films and international cinema, and how the sometimes dingy and haphazard presentations of these movies in grindhouse theaters sometimes added to the overall experience.  It’s a decidedly different kind of retro film-making that Tarantino likes to exploit in his own work than what we see in La La Land, but it’s no less accomplished with a lot of care and detail.  Perhaps his greatest expression of this was in the double feature project that he created with his friend and collaborator Robert Rodriquez with Grindhouse (2007).  The over three hour presentation featured two feature length films; Planet Terror, directed by Rodriquez and Death Proof, directed by Tarantino.  While both obviously were meant to parody their selective grindhouse genre flicks, there was also a strong emphasis to try to capture the physical look of those types of movies as well.  Digital scratches were added to the finished film, to make it look like a film print that would have played in one of those old grindhouse theaters, where special care of the film prints was probably never taken.  Not only that, but color grading was purposely washed out for a lot of scenes to further give the movie an old tattered look to it.  For Tarantino, he makes a strong effort to make you aware of the retro look of his movies and it’s become a staple of his film-making style.  Even in a more polished film like The Hateful Eight (2015), he made a big deal about shooting the movie in the extremely wide and rarely used Ultra Panavision format, and having it screened in 70MM film across the country.  For him, presentation is just as key to making a film feel retro as anything else.

What I find interesting about the use of retro style film-making is how it often is dictated by the maturity of the filmmaker and the audience they are trying to reach.  As different generations come of age, they notice that movies that get made in their adulthood often reflect the kind of products they were familiar with in their childhood.  What was Saturday morning material in our youth are now the box office kings of today.  And this is a cycle that keeps refreshing every generation or so.  You see this with hit films today based on TransformersTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Alvin and the Chipmunks.  And why these films?  Because they are all based off of shows that were popular during the 1980’s, and children born and raised during that decade are now hitting their thirties and are the ones both getting these movies green-lit, and are paying to see them in huge numbers.  You can pretty much see a correlation in every decade with another past era that suddenly comes into vogue based on a collective nostalgia.  In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we saw big screen adaptations of the kind of cartoon entertainment that our parents grew up with in the 1960’s and 70’s, with The Flintstones (1994), George of the Jungle (1997), and Scooby Doo (2002).  And going further back, you see a nostalgic revival of the 1950’s in the 1970’s with shows like Happy Days and movies like American Graffiti (1973).  Now that I brought up a project by George Lucas, I can also see how Star Wars (1977) is a retro throwback to the 1950’s, when sci-fi serials were a staple of the industry.  The iconic opening crawl is lifted directly from those same serials.  Essentially, time dictates the nostalgic value on things, but it doesn’t always reflect that way in deliberately retro projects.  Damien Chazelle is only 31 years old, but the retro style he’s trying to capture in La La Land hearkens back way before his lifespan.  It’s an acquired appreciation for that era for him, which probably could’ve been built from film studies during his years in film school.  But, what a filmmaker values in the nostalgia of this film-making may not always translate for an audience.

For a retro style film to work, there has to be a shared interest between the filmmaker and the audience.  Sometimes a director will put extraordinary detail into capturing the look and feel of a retro film and no one will watch it, because of the disconnect between the art and the demand for that art.  A perfect example of this kind of project not working as well as planned was an ambitious film by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh called The Good German (2006).  Soderbergh set out to recreate the aesthetic look of Hollywood war era films by shooting the movie entirely in black and white, mostly on soundstage sets and on a backlot, and even constricting the movie to a full frame aspect ratio that was standard of that era (approximately 1.33:1).  The George Clooney and Cate Blanchett headlined movie even had a marketing campaigned modeled after those of movies in that era, like Casablanca (1943), Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  It was clear that Soderbergh clearly wanted to evoke those movies in his own, and have the retro feel of his movie be the drawing factor behind it.  The only problem is that unlike all those other movies, less care was put into the story.  The film is so concerned with the aesthetic, it falters with the narrative and just ends up being this pretty but boring thing.  One can’t fault Soderbergh’s devotion to the project, but for movies like this to work, the narrative must work in balance with the visuals.  That’s the strength with La La Land.  It puts a lot more attention towards the narrative of two people falling in and out of love and makes the visual flair a reward for the audience involved in it’s story, rather than be a distraction.

But, when you look at movies that work well with retro fimmaking and those that don’t, you have to wonder what determines the response that the audience will eventually give to these movies.  The cyclical nature of nostalgia has something to do with it, but there are other factors that make it possible for audiences to embrace something retro.  Sometimes, it’s the escapism of returning to something familiar that has that effect.  I find it easy to see why La La Land is becoming the hand down favorite for all of the accolades for 2016, because if you lived through 2016 and saw how rough of a year it was for many people, you would want to escape into a idealized world of music and song too.  La La Land is cinematic medicine for a shattered world, and Chazelle’s musical is hitting just at the right time.  It not only is entertaining, but it was gives us the reminder of what a Hollywood movie can be to it’s audience, and how it can lift us up.  If the year had gone a little different, the movie may have come across as naive and hollow.  Timing is everything for a retro film or any project to hit it’s mark, and often times, it’s built upon years of disappointment for an audience.  One genre in particular that has really benefited as a whole from a more retro-centric sensibility is the Horror genre.  After getting watered down in the post-Blair Witch, jump scare heavy era of bland Horror film-making, we are seeing a revival of the kind of thrillers that put the genre on the map in the 1970’s.  You can see this in movies like James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) or the critically acclaimed It Follows (2014), both of which draw more on atmosphere and scare audiences more with what’s not seen that what is seen.  And on television, we have a show like the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things, which is retro to it’s very core, and in the process, feels refreshing.  In the end, retro film-making becomes a statement against mediocrity, and looking to the past to find better answers for today.

La La Land, more than anything, has benefited from being the right movie at the right time.  We as a culture are in an uncertain place, and that is allowing something that is so self-assuredly positive to connect with us at this moment.  You have to admire the crafting behind the film, with so much attention devoted to making the musical feel retro without becoming naively old fashioned.  But, what I like best about La La Land is that it represents the value that a deep knowledge of film and film history can have.  I love the fact that Chazelle is keeping some tried and true tricks of the trade alive with his movie, especially the practice of shooting on actual film.  Along with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, there are only a handful of filmmakers that still use film stock and Chazelle is keeping a valuable legacy alive because of this.  These filmmakers also show that retro film-making also represents a sign of quality in their work that normally wouldn’t be seen.  Modern film-making offers us a lot of shortcuts, but by tying our hands down and working within restrictive limitations, it provides us with some interesting creative avenues to try to overcome them and make the product of our efforts seem much more interesting as a result.  Period movies are by no means lazy efforts, but they will always feel like a modern movie because of the modern tools that went into their creation.  Take those away, and you can actually give your movie a more timeless feel that feels exactly of a different era.  That is what La La Land is in the end, a movie set today that feels like it was made in another era.  If it does win the Best Picture award for this year, it is an understandable victory.  Like a fellow Awards juggernaut, 2011’s The Artist, an earnest experiment in old tricks can find it’s audience and make the old feel like new again by adhering to the conviction of it’s presentation and endearing it with a timeless story worthy of telling.  In the end, films last forever, so it’s important to give a movie a reason to stay around that long.

It’s a Wonderful Life – 70 years of the Quintessential American Christmas Tale

On this Christmas Eve, many of you I’m sure are spending the holidays with loved ones, cherishing the warm feelings of Christmases of old.  Whether it’s the joys of opening gifts Christmas morining, or preparing the delicious Christmas dinners, or sharing the day with a loved one or a whole family, we all have our ideal Christmas experience that we want to relive each year.  For many like myself, the experience of the season is almost always tied with a love of cinema, and like so many years before, I am spending the holidays revisiting some of the classic standards of the season.  There are many Christmas movies out there that bring a different sensation out of me depending on what I’m looking for.  If I’m feeling nostalgic for Christmases of my childhood, I watch some of the Rankin Bass specials, or A Charlie Brown Christmas, or the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  If I’m looking for a good laugh, I watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  And if I’m looking for a mixture of both nostalgia and laughs, I put on Home Alone (1990).  There really is an endless supply of Christmas movies to appeal to any mood we have during the holidays.  But, while Christmas is a time filled with great joy, it can also be a time when we tend to reflect too much on the things wrong in the world.  And for a troubled year like 2016, when it looked as if the whole world was falling apart around us, silly things like Christmas movies just don’t seem to do enough to raise up our spirits again.  And yet, Christmas films also have the special ability to inspire, and make us see through the glitz and commercialism of the season to what Christmas is really all about in the end; hope.  And there has never been a Christmas movie that illustrated that better than Frank Capra’s masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s amazing to think that It’s a Wonderful Life is celebrating it’s 70th Anniversary this year.  Even more amazing is the fact that it was once considered one of Hollywood’s biggest failures.  Now, we can’t even imagine a world without it in our lives.  It plays every year on television, it’s a highly influential movie that is referenced constantly and not just at Christmas time, and it is frequently held up as one of the greatest movies ever made.  The American Film Institute even placed it as high as #11 on their list of the Top 100.  But, it was a long road for this little film to become the classic that it is today.  In many ways, what turned it into a classic was the changing shift in our modern culture.  It’s a Wonderful Life told the story of a changing nation, where the America of old was being pulled towards a new identity, where life’s answers were no longer going to be so easily explained through the magic of cinema.  And yet, at the same time, It’s a Wonderful Life unashamedly delivers on all the same traditional Hollywood tricks to deliver a message that is considerably more modern.  And that message is specifically intended to say “you mean a lot to this world.”  You have to remember, 1946 was America’s first year out of a World War.  Soldiers who had been abroad for many Christmases were now asked to return to a sense of normalcy during the holidays that I think some of them thought would never come again.  It was an uncertain time for many Americans, and It’s a Wonderful Life spoke to that period.  I think that is why the movie has endured all these years; because it speaks to the worries of all Americans during times of uncertainty, renews their belief in the hope of the holiday season, and shows that through celebration and charity, the best of humanity can endure.

The wartime atmosphere had a lot to do with the making of this movie too.  In particular, it shaped what would become the quintessential American hero of George Bailey, who is brought to life in a career-defining performance by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart.  George Bailey is a man so driven by his kindness to others, but none of that same kindness is ever redirected his way.  Bad luck seems to follow him wherever he goes, and yet he never lets hardship turn him bitter.  It’s that basic sense of giving up oneself that defines him, and yet the movie has us believe that such men are unjustly punished by the world.  When he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen river, it causes hearing loss in one of his ears.  He finds the ideal woman to become his wife (played wonderfully by Donna Reed), and yet doesn’t have the means to give her everything she deserves.  He saves his hometown from financial ruin, but does so by sacrificing his nestegg for a vacation that he’s always wanted to take.  By being so nice, he has created a self-imposed prison.  It’s not the kind of narrative that you would expect for such a heroic character, but that’s what Capra and Stewart were trying to show us in the end.  We as a society tend to undervalue the kindness of the average individual and in many cases we only recognize their value once it is too late.  By the third act of this movie, George Bailey himself feels there is nothing he can do to set things right, and only taking his life will bring some sort of release from the pressure that’s on him.  That’s when the the Hollywood magic of a deus ex machina comes into the story, pulling him out of his despair, with the visit of an angel named Clarence (played by Henry Travers).  What follows is a considerably different tale than before, but it’s also what makes this movie the holiday classic that it is.

For a lot of postwar Americans, this movie must have been a bitter pill to swallow, with George continually losing out to others and driven so close to suicide.  The supernatural element of an angel coming to his rescue and showing him an alternate reality where he was never born, thereby showing his worth, must have seemed pretty naive as well.  And yet, this is exactly what ended up speaking to an entire new generation soon after.  We don’t see the value of the good works that we do in other peoples lives, but they do, and that goodwill manifests itself in the love they extend out to us in return.  We, like George Bailey, may think that what we do is foolish and unrewarding in the moment, but a lifetime of kindness gives us the right kind of rewards in the end, and that’s the distinction of being honorable.  That’s why this works so well as a holiday film, because it reminds us of the benefits of goodwill towards others.  In the years since it’s release, people have looked at the concluding act of this movie as a plea for generosity in our society, as many people who make our lives better often go unrewarded.  In the wake of World War II, a few American veterans were unsure if all their sacrifices were worth it in the end.  Sure there was peace, but they were returning home to families that they no longer recognized and with scars both physical and mental that would never heal.  But, in the years since, they would learn that George Bailey had more in common with them than they realized and that the message of generosity was not meant for them, but for everyone else.  It’s a Wonderful Life was a movie meant to make a changed American society remember that it is indeed virtuous to reward sacrifice for the greater good, especially during the holidays.

Is the movie a tad too sentimental at times; of course.  But, using the traditional Hollywood routines of old actually helps the narrative out a great bit.  George Bailey may seem like the quintessential Hollywood hero, but what we realize after watching the movie is that he’s not the typical Hollywood character at all.  He is a man on the periphery of society; the everyman whose small contributions make a little difference but more commonly go unnoticed.  He’s a community hero whose influence and recognition will probably never be recognized outside of the city limits of his hometown.  The ones who do gain national recognition tend to be the ones who make big, sweeping gestures that often come at the cost of disenfranchising people like George Bailey.  And that type of character is personified vividly in the form of Mr. Potter (played to perfection by the legendary Lionel Barrymore).  In It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s struggles often come as a result of Mr. Potter’s manipulations, as the shrewd old businessman is trying to force his will on the town of Bedford Falls as a whole.  Mr. Potter in this sense is a quintessential Hollywood baddie, but also one that is sadly all too recognizable in American society.  We see too many of his type in the world of business, in public discourse, and unfortunately far too often in the realm of politics (this election year clearly illustrating that point).  That’s what makes the story of George Bailey such a potent one for audiences, because it is the typical Hollywood underdog story, but given to the ordinary American servant doing what’s best for his community.  It’s a movie that inspires as much as it comforts, and reminds us that one of the important things to remember in life is to not let the Mr. Potters of the world make us feel worthless.

The common man struggle was always a favorite motif for director Frank Capra.  You can see it throughout his work in the 1930’s, especially with his Oscar-winning Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take it With You (1938).  But in all his earlier films, it was always the underdog that had a clear sense of purpose in life, and who set out to change the minds of others.  It’s a Wonderful Life flips that narrative around and shows us that the underdog can sometimes be the one who’s lost and is in need of a new direction.  Capra understood the mind of a wayward soul because both he and Jimmy Stewart served in the war, and no doubt had come across many George Baileys during that time who probably had lost all faith in themselves and humanity.  Capra intended this to be a movie that spoke for those broken men, and show everyone else that more than ever before, this was the time to reach out to them.  That message may not have been received right away, and it’s probably only because of the fact that movies at the time were still dismissed as lighthearted fluff.  But, thanks to television, which sought to fill airtime during the holiday season with anything that fit the theme, this movie found new life and it spoke to an entire new generation that finally could understand the pain that so many of their elders were going through.  It’s because of this movie that a tradition of charity prospers during the holiday season.  It’s great to receive during the holidays, but it’s even more rewarding to make one poor person feel like the “richest man in town” just for one day, and help them realize that they matter.  Could such a tradition exist without this movie?  Absolutely, but It’s a Wonderful Life made such an outpouring of charity feel magical and it gave us an ideal to live up to for every holiday season.

On top of everything else, the movie just makes the holiday season feel even brighter.  The interesting thing about the movie is that very little of it actually takes place during the holidays.  It’s only once we get to the dire third act of the movie that a theme of Christmas begins to take center stage.  In many ways, the movie takes inspiration from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, which also focused on a man’s redemption through the intervention of heavenly spirits on Christmas Eve.  It’s a comparison that’s not unusual, because both Dickens and Capra were deeply humanist artists, usually casting their spotlights on the average forgotten citizen.  But, unlike Dickens, the story renews a man’s faith in himself, instead of showing him the error of his ways.  George Bailey’s fault is his own low self esteem, and thinking that he’d be better off dead.  As we learn from this movie, loneliness is the worst mood to have during the holidays.  Loneliness turns good men bitter, and seeing the eternally optimistic George fall into a void of isolation becomes the story’s most tragic element. As the final act proves to us, George’s sense of duty and honor closed him off and that all he needed to do was to not be ashamed to ask for a little help in return.  Wishing to never be born  and seeing the consequences of that illustrates to him that every good deed he makes reciprocates in the love and well-being of those around him, creating an atmosphere of normalcy that may not be apparent right away.  Seeing all of this, he becomes thankful for the greatest gift of all; life.  It’s that joy of understanding that every day of life is precious and that being a good person matters that makes George’s redemption so memorable.  Joyfulness for what we have in life is one of the great pleasures of this holiday season, and I don’t think there has ever been a better illustration of joy put on film than George Bailey running through the snow covered streets of Bedford Falls yelling, “Merry Christmas.”

It’s really hard to believe that a movie that was a box office failure in it’s time, and responsible for bankrupting the company that made it as well as halting the once prosperous career of it’s director, is today celebrating it’s 70th Anniversary as one of the most popular American films ever made.  Virtually every person in America has seen it, and that’s partly due to it’s inescapable presence on television during the holiday season.  But, despite it’s widespread exposure, audiences still adore it and hold it up as probably the greatest Christmas movie ever made.  I think that’s largely due to the universal themes within it.  It is a uniquely American tale, about a common man who through hard work and good deeds achieves some semblance of the American dream, and becomes an essential part of his community.  At the same time, the message of the movie speaks to all of us no matter where we come from.  It teaches us that charity is a fundamental tradition for the holiday season and that we should all help those in need feel welcome and appreciated, not just at Christmas time, but year round as well.  It also teaches us that giving back and being grateful are essential feelings to share with others during the holidays.  In a time right now when we as a country and as a world feel so helplessly fractured, the message of this movie becomes all the more timely.  I hope that It’s a Wonderful Life continues to live on for many more generations, because the happiness that is felt by George Bailey at the end of the movie should be one that is shared with every human being from this Christmas on.  So, please make another person feel special, give assistance and kind acknowledgement to a complete stranger, show unexpected kindness towards an enemy, and enjoy the festivities like they mean everything in the world to you, and your holidays will feel all the more worthwhile and life-fulfilling.  And maybe, even in these turbulent times, we can help a million angels earn their wings.