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How Stupid is Hollywood Really?
This summer it’s been my lot to see a few of the newest pickings of the cinematic crop. By all accounts most of these movies are awful, and if they’re not awful they’re something worse, and anybody who knows the first thing about cinema knows it. You can be sure it’s gotten bad when reviewers replace the thumb with the shrug. Reviewers can’t even conjure the conviction to give the yea or the nay any more. Instead they shrug. “It was a movie,” they say. “Pretty. But not much else.” And so the former feeling of cinematic magic is gone, smothered by this onslaught of mediocrity.
Perhaps we could let sleeping dogs lie were it not that this particular breed of artistic triviality has profound moral consequences. You see, some of the half-baked films currently drawing an ever thinner crowd of exhausted moviegoers are The 40-year-old Virgin, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Wedding Crashers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Aristocrats. One of those was called a “boob raunch-fest” by Matthew Drudge of drudgereport.com, and that description could be extended to most any of the others. The online family-friendly movie-reviewing website, Screenit.com, stigmatizes every one of these with an “extreme” grade for sex and nudity, not to mention profanity, and pretty much anything else that forbids a responsible parent to bring their child or watch the movie themselves.
What’s particularly sad is that the invisible magicians of the movies, the unseen directors and the producers and the screenwriters, have always been adored by the imaginative and the innocent as the closest things we’ve got in this world to bona fide wizards. Behind the golden screen is mystery and magic and the power to move human minds and hearts. And until this point in history filmmakers have always been at least clever enough to keep up the illusion that they are very, very clever and mysterious people; and until now we’ve been perfectly content to allow them that pleasant fiction.
But with the current rotten pickings from the Hollywood tree, things have gotten so thoroughly out of hand that it begs the question, how stupid is Hollywood, really?
A headline story from the New York Times last week says that the “Movie Slump Stirs Tensions in Hollywood.” This theme has been recurrent throughout the summer months. Attendance at theatres is down a whopping 12% from last year, and revenues are down 10%, and apparently (at least so I am told) nobody in Hollywood knows why. I can’t explain this fact in any other way than that Hollywood’s finest are much, much stupider than we ever thought.
Apparently, according to the Times, the Chairman of Disney, Robert Iger, believes that the problem is that people are flocking to the movie stores and purchasing DVDs instead of flocking to the theatres. Distributors, he claims, need to release movies in the theatres and on DVDs simultaneously, which apparently is supposed to solve something, somehow. Of course that explanation is just as ridiculous as it is convenient and proves with a touch of finality just how out of touch Hollywood really is.
I adore the movies. But in my nightmares now I see diamond-studded, Porche-driving producers and directors gathering in chic coffee shops and bars in Hollywood and hanging their despondent heads over their glasses and mugs. “I just don’t get it,” they say. “What is it that people want?” they ask.
And they sit silently, and they sigh and drink and sign their divorce papers and flirt with the waitress, until one of them says what’s got to be said: “I guess we’ll just have to do what we always do.” “Yes,” says another with a gleam in his eye, “It’s time make a soulless, sex-fueled remake of a timeless classic in a desperate bid to capitalize on the nostalgia of the older generation of moviegoers and the libido of the younger.” And they all nod their heads and marvel at how easily movie-goers can be manipulated, and wonder at how very clever they are; and they go out in search of the most tired-out, overrated, tabloid eviscerated actors to play out their vacuous script. I try desperately to stop them, of course, but it’s a nightmare, and I’m paralyzed.
A few years ago Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ. Major film distributors refused to touch it with anything less than a ten foot pole. So Gibson gave them the ol’ you-know-what, distributed the film himself, and sat back and had a good chuckle as a movie about what Hollywood believes is an out-dated, unpopular, ancient dead guy (one who claimed he was God nonetheless) obliterated numerous box-office records.
Gibson lined his pockets with platinum. And you’d think with that sort of appeal Hollywood would sit up and take notice. And they did, for a few days, even if it was only to pop a Tylenol to ease their throbbing heads, sent spinning by The Passion’s massive sales figures, or to spout clichés about fundamentalist extremists and anti-Semitism. But in the end they just couldn’t wrap their heads around the film, couldn’t fit it into the confines of their curiously narrow world-view, and when the three-ringed circus called the Oscars rolled into town The Passion was treated as little more than a curiosity side-show.
Even stranger yet, and perhaps just as revealing, is the Napoleon Dynamite phenomenon. By no means is Napoleon Dynamite a great film—far from it—but the distinguishing features of it are its simplicity, its down-to-earthness, its moral innocuousness, its practically unknown actors, its ludicrously low budget, and its unbelievable popularity. The movie was like the anti-Hollywood, without any of its expensive polish or hyper-testosterone, and it promptly cashed in. And it wasn’t even a good movie, but at least it was something different. And even more curiously, your children can watch it without permanently bidding adieu to their innocence.
In fact, while
we’re on this vein of thought, it might augment the argument to point out that
one of the most lauded films of this summer is March of the Penguins,
with an astonishing 94% critical approval, according to rottentomatoes.com. And
the only actors in the documentary detailing the struggles of the artic birds
are thousands of cold, noisy emperor penguins; Morgan Freeman provides the
voiceover. So while emperor penguins march to mate, audiences are held
spellbound, while War of the Worlds and The Island, with their
monstrous budgets and computer graphics and throbbing soundtracks and A-list
actors, go relatively unwatched.
The simple fact is that Hollywood is out of touch; they’re so out of touch that they’ve become pathetic. They’re the Democrats or the CNN of the arts. They’re convinced they represent the people and know what they want. But when Bush is reelected, and people tune in to Fox news and listen to Rush Limbaugh, or stop watching their movies, they’re flabbergasted.
America’s alienated, unofficial aristocracy can’t figure out what to most of us is patently obvious—that there is a substantial contingent of moviegoers that is crying for something meaty, moral, and perhaps even mildly intelligent. But they are so wrapped up in the cocoon of their liberal wonderland that they don’t even know how to begin to make a film like that. Even if they tried they would fail, because they don’t and can’t and don’t want to think that way; perhaps they don’t want to think all.
A review of The 40-year-old Virgin in The National Post, begins “From raunchy to raunchier, from Wedding Crashers to The Aristocrats, the laughs come despite a little voice inside you (or beside you, if you go to movies with your mom) admonishing, ‘you should not find this funny’.”
And maybe, please God, the collective assault of that little voice, which in bygone days was called the conscience, has led movie-goers to conclude exactly that. It’s just not funny. It’s not entertaining. It’s the same recycled trash written by the same recycled screen-writers and delivered by the same recycled actors again, and again, and again. We’re tired of being thought to be stupid. We’re tired of being thought to be sex-manipulable puppets. And we’re tired of giving you money. So we won’t. So there.
What we certainly can hope is that this extended box-office slump will finally open the doors for more independent filmmakers to fill the void with simpler, family-friendly, and intelligent films. And, of course, when The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe makes its debut, I’ll be sitting in the front row, grinning like a little kid.
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