Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
We are at the start of the summer movie season. A time of senses shattering entertainment, where filmmakers like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder thrive, with the studios happy to take our money and our high expectations with them. I don’t know about you, but as I get older this film-going staple has slowly transformed from my favorite time of year, to an overwhelming sense of ‘meh.’ “Iron Man 3 is finally out!” Ok. “Next week is the new Star Trek!” Who’s the villain again? “Next month is Man of Steel!” Please don’t let them mess it up! Time and again this season is filled with mediocre movies that make for spectacular trailers. Is it just that I’m getting ‘too old for this shit?’ Has my film-going experience broadened to the point where mind-numbing entertainment doesn’t hold the same cache it used to?
Perhaps the heart of the disparity can be found in Steven Soderbergh’s lengthy address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (already being dubbed as the ‘State of Cinema Address’). In it, he rambles on about a great many things, but one subject in particular that stood out to me was the contrast he defined between Cinema and Movies.
Movies are the blockbuster mind-number. The flick you watch while munching on popcorn and let the intricate explosions or hacky romances wash over you. Plot and character are only relevant in-so-much as they get you to the next big set piece. Escapism at its finest. Where as cinema, roughly put, is art. Cinema is all about their stories, and characters, and the pictures they paint. A rough, but elegant, comparison (made by Todd VanDerWerff in a review for State-Lines favorite Community) can be diagramed between The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Nolan’s Dark Knight films, while vast, and often explosive, are Cinema. He’s trying to explore the world in a complex and affecting fashion, dealing with issues as personal as they are global, that stretch beyond people in costumes punching each other. Meanwhile The Avengers is pure movie. A fun, bombastic ride of a movie, but not much more than the sum of its well-oiled and exciting parts. Perhaps that’s why The Dark Knight films are the only blockbusters that still resonate with me today, while most other summer fair is all but forgotten.
If I haven’t made it clear, that’s not to say The Dark Knight films are good and The Avengers is bad, just that the intent of those films is different. The same could be said (and was said by Soderbergh) for movies and cinema. Cinema isn’t inherently better or worse, it’s just that the creative process behind it is different. In his address, Soderbergh lamented the death of cinema, which he goes into at length and deals a lot with the financing of features, which I won’t get into here. However, the concern for the state of cinema is completely understandable. Every year studios put more money in to their bloated super-franchises while the diversity in film diminishes. Cinema is the heart of the film industry. It’s what refreshes and renews it. Without creators like Christopher Nolan, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino there wouldn’t even be the few new ideas there are that regenerate the form. And if cinema is the heart, then movies are the arteries (they keep the blood=cash flowing), and they are slowly being clogged by sugary action/adventures, and bloated with rom/com empty calories.
“Marvel has a writing program it uses as a concept generator…”
Recently fans have been up in arms over the news that Marvel might recast some of its superhero talent as they demand higher paydays. But the truth is that those films have never been about refined performances. People aren’t clamoring for a new Thor film because of Chris Hemsworth’s performance (the female audience pining for his abs not withstanding). In fact, buried in a recent report about Marvel’s financial negotiations is this little gem, “Marvel has a writing program it uses as a concept generator and has scripts for Blade and Ms. Marvel features, for example.” And while that probably isn’t an admission that there is some computer in a cold room spitting out story concepts (like it sounds), it does underline the factory pressed nature of not only Marvel films, but the summer template as a whole. The fact that fans would hold the players in these films with such high regard is disconcerting to me. It’s not like we’re discussing Michael Fassbender in Shame, or Daniel Day Lewis in… well, anything. The truth is though, that a majority of movie goers haven’t even seen Shame. Which, in that case may be a good thing, for its graphic depictions of sex (don’t need giggling thirteen year olds in that theater). A better example, I recently saw the smart, challenging, and thoughtful film Upstream Color directed by Shane Carruth. Haven’t heard of it? That’s understandable, its total box office is almost a thousand times less than Iron Man 3’s budget alone. Yet it has more ideas packed into it than all of Marvel’s movies put together. Why aren’t more of these movies made? Because, obviously, we’re not seeing them.
Part of that can be laid on the doorstep of the marketing behind these movies. The big studios will put a lot more money to back the films they’ve already invested a ton of money in. This makes only a marginal amount of sense, but its how the business is run. So if we, the consumers, want to diversify the movies crowding our theaters, its up to us to not just watch the films Hollywood tells us to watch with there massive ad campaigns. Most of you reading this article are big boys and girls now, you don’t need mommy and daddy, or a focus group, to tell you what films should matter to you. Just as we try to limit our sugar intake (despite how bombarded we are with ads for sweet products) to maintain a healthy weight, so to it is up to us to get out of our little summer blockbuster rut and seek out dynamic, and original entertainments. It requires more footwork, but like a morning jog, the rewards are with it. If you have a theater near you that plays small indie films like Upstream Color, check out what they’re showing. When you go to Redbox or Netflix seek out fair that falls out of the mainstream. Get out of your comfort zone and buy, rent, and watch something you wouldn’t normally see. Not all of them will be diamonds in the rough, but you can look at reviews from sites like the A.V. Club or stay tuned right here to Trash Talk! and State-Lines to get some direction towards the hidden gems. If you do, and explore the wider world of film, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Your standard for cinema and movies will grow, and you’ll be supporting healthy diversification of the medium. In the end, supporting a healthy cinema will force movies to get better, and may break the summer of it’s same old ‘meh’ routine.
Agree, disagree, or other? Please comment below and let me know your thoughts! Also, you guys can now follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @djtalkstrash. Do that, and I’ll reward you with pithy banter of 140 characters or less. That’s a bargain!