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, Id say shes 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
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 themthere are some smart, interesting folks at the Dallas
Morning News, for example. Im kind of Robert Thompsons understudy,
a sort of apprentice quote slut.
My usual schtick
when Im 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.
Thats Standard Historian Trick #245, but its often true. Other times,
I say that what appears to be a trend is not a trend at all, but thats
rarely heededby 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 childrens 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 whats going on in pop
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 thats 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.
the Caribbean is doing well in the summer sweepstakes because its
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
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
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 dont want to watch traditionally-animated
films any more, and went to see Finding Nemo because they prefer
computer animation, theyre 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.
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. Theres 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 cant 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 formsbut also because it tapped into deep strains of American
paranoia about government and authority. Its just that the latter success,
what makes the program grist for both the scholarly and popular mill, doesnt
necessarily have much to do with the shows economic viability. You could
make another ten programs that try to tap the same wells (and the shows
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, youd 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.