Pirates 1, Sinbad 0

I have not seen very many movies this summer. A colleague of mine and I keep saying we want to go see the Matrix sequel, but at this point, I’d say she’s going to have t come over and watch the DVD in October at our house.

I did have a chance to see “Pirates of the Caribbean”, though, and like a lot of people, I thought it was a lot of fun. In fact, it underscored how unfun most summer movies have become, how in the timing and nature of the thrills they allegedly provide (every few minutes, you have to have your spectacular car chase fight-scene explosion-laden laser-shooting scenes) they have become as predictable and repetitious as pornography.

“Pirates” had funny dialogue, a great performance by Johnny Depp, a couple of the greatest sight gags in the history of the cinema, and some good quick-paced action sequences that came at appropriate moments in the story and stayed no longer than necessary. The plot was a little convoluted, but it often avoided easy cliché: even the climax did not do the expected thing, and allowed the stiff-upper-lip English officer a chance to be something other than a cad.

I get calls now and again from journalists working the pop culture beat. I like talking to quite a few of them—there are some smart, interesting folks at the Dallas Morning News, for example. I’m kind of Robert Thompson’s understudy, a sort of apprentice quote slut.

My usual schtick when I’m talking about pop culture trends is to provide a bit of historical perspective and note that what appears to be a new trend has a deeper history. That’s Standard Historian Trick #245, but it’s often true. Other times, I say that what appears to be a trend is not a trend at all, but that’s rarely heeded—by the time a reporter gets to me, I have a paragraph saved for “expert opinion”, but the basic angle is already set in stone.

I also get a lot of mileage out of casting myself as the contrarian to the Usual Suspects, those bluenose experts who hate children’s TV or think reality TV is the end of civilization, or the kind of left-leaning cultural studies scholar who has a hopelessly dour, functionalist understanding of what’s going on in pop culture.

The most basic thing I have to say is the one that makes the least impact, not just on journalists, but on cultural producers, and that’s because it is banally true and because no one in the culture industry really knows how to systematically act on this banal truth. Pop culture journalists ask why certain movies or TV shows fail and others succeed, and try to find a trend there that predicts future success or failure, that reads the entrails and tries to divine the underlying secret threads that knit the cultural economy together.
The basic thing I say is that the best predictor of success is letting interesting, skilled and independently-minded creative people make something with a minimum of direct interference (though enforcing budgets strikes me as reasonable prudence) and not letting hacks, dullards, mindless derivatives, isolated egomaniacs or cynical burnouts anywhere near a camera or a script.

“Pirates of the Caribbean” is doing well in the summer sweepstakes because it’s a good movie. Simple as that.

Ok, yes, every once in a while a movie or a TV program that is truly and unambiguously shit makes a ton of money. Yes, all the time, movies and TV shows that are really great lose money. Some of the great ones are really only great for those audiences that get their rocks off on films made by Northern Europeans who hate everyone, including themselves and are guided by a list of arcane and inflexible aesthetic rules.

Moreover, much of what gets slagged off as shit is actually pretty inventive in some fashion. The first season of “Survivor” was really damn interesting. “American Idol” interweaves some really primal narratives with the pleasure of feeling superior to the truly horrible aspirants while rooting for the truly superior ones. Though I personally hated the film “Titanic”, I had to concede that it was visually interesting and actually rather daring in its coupling of a big-budget disaster film to a single unabashedly sentimental love-across-the-railroad-tracks love story.

A lot of the time, the very best television will succeed if executives have the patience to let its audience build, even when it doesn't seem to go anywhere at first.. If good stuff fails, there is often an underlying reason that could be dissected intelligently. “My So-Called Life” was a very well-done show, but it was too real in its portrayal of a certain kind of adolescence, too painfully reminscent of its self-indulgences. The very best films may just have the bad luck to miss the audience they deserve while in the theaters, but a lot of films get a second and third life these days.

Much of the time the cultural marketplace deals out rewards and relative punishments that have some degree of sensible correspondence to quality. So when critics and film producers conclude that the twin failures of “Treasure Planet” and “Sinbad” mean that audiences just don’t want to watch traditionally-animated films any more, and went to see “Finding Nemo” because they prefer computer animation, they’re drawing the wrong conclusion. The simpler conclusion is this: “Treasure Planet” and “Sinbad” both sucked, while “Finding Nemo” was a good film. If “Finding Nemo” had been “traditionally animated”, but with its script and voicing, it still would have been a good and very popular film.

You don’t have to look for a trend and wonder if the audience is really hungry for movies about pirates, or if the audience is tired of movies made about TV shows, or if audiences find big-breasted action heroes in silvery jumpsuits less appealing this year because the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter has aligned with Mars. There’s no trend, and no mystery: audiences can be fooled for a week, but not much more than that. In the cultural marketplace, almost everything that succeeds, succeeds because it offers someone some authentic pleasures; almost everything that fails does so because it breaks a covenant with its audience and gets made only to get made.

There is, of course, a success that goes beyond financial or beyond the duration of something being produced. Some shows and films have a success that can’t be quantified, and that kind of success is the deeper issue that ought to be what both journalists and academics are interested in. “The X-Files” succeeded because it was a well-made television program with some original twists on established narrative forms—but also because it tapped into deep strains of American paranoia about government and authority. It’s just that the latter success, what makes the program grist for both the scholarly and popular mill, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the show’s economic viability. You could make another ten programs that try to tap the same wells (and the show’s producers tried) and not get anywhere.

What resonates in popular culture is often only clear in hindsight, and nearly impossible to predict, except in a cloudy, oracular manner. What makes money and loses money is easier to understand. Making crap will often pay back your investment, but if you really want to strike it rich in a big way, you’d better find someone with a firm, distinctive, original grasp of what entertains, amuses, delights and inspires, give them some money and stand back and watch what happens.