It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

Will Transformers 3 mark the end of Western Cinematic Civilization?

There are, according to film critic Roger Ebert, 27 sequels being released in 2011. In a popular Time magazine article that’s making its way around the internet, Ebert laments the lack of imagination in Hollywood, and uses sequels–among other evidence–as proof that not only are great films in danger of vanishing, but the theatergoing experience is dying as well.

It’s a very strange argument. True, Hollywood films suck in general. But then I’m reminded that this is 2011, not 1940, nor 1974, and you’d have to be pretty out of the loop to think that Hollywood has ever been a font of imagination. Furthermore, there’s still tons and tons of great, great movies out there–some small films make it to the cineplexes and thrive, others, yes, go straight to DVD or stream at home. I believe this is actually a good thing, because it gives indie filmmakers–like local auteur R. Alverson–more opportunities to release their movies. So why the negativity on the part of Roger Ebert? I don’t know, but I’ll choose to wax optimistic on the current film scene.

Roger Ebert is a strange case. The man is to film reviewing what Stephen King is to literature. Both have been hugely popular, taking their craft into the mainstream in ways that their contemporaries must envy. Longevity has rewarded both with a critical reappraisal–King, once merely the man who pumped out popular horror by the pound, now finds his short stories in the pages of The New Yorker, his sportswriting (horrible though it is) in McSweeney’s. Ebert rode to prominence with his good friend and perfect foil Gene Siskel on their Sneak Previews/At the Movies television shows, and his writing in the Chicago Sun Times. (And of course he’s lesser known for a trio of exploitation flicks he made with Russ Meyer.)

As of late, he’s been lauded as one of the great film critics of all time, and I wouldn’t begrudge him that. Ebert was a gateway critic for me, and I’m sure for many others. I watched Ebert and Siskel duke it out on the far superior Sneak Previews on PBS in the 70s and early 80s. I loved that show–if you lived in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan in the days before VHS, you had your choice usually between Rocky and some other piece of crap playing at the local movie house. Ebert and Siskel would discuss and debate Bergman, the new Woody Allen, Star Wars… every movie under the stars. And I was in heaven watching them, dreaming of being able to see these movies on the big screen in New York, Chicago, Detrot. But that was all I had–dreams.

I’m not as enamored of Ebert as I used to be, in part because I feel he’s very predictable (his proclaiming Avatar a classic is but one example–I could see that one coming a mile away), but I also wonder if he’s not becoming a bit hidebound in his opinions. Ebert may have a good argument in worrying about the state of movies, but his article relies on outdated connections or sometimes poor taste to buttress his arguments, and that’s problematic.

It’s true that the studios hunger to push movies into the theaters and then into people’s homes in a mere sixty days could hurt the cinemas. I don’t like the move to digital, but I understand it. However, these things are coming, and it’s up to studios and theater owners to adapt, just as it was for record stores to move from vinyl to cassette to CD and back to vinyl to survive (and most didn’t–except many smaller ones.)

But Ebert talks about the “end of quality cinema” as if what comes out of the studio combine has ever been that great, and is the only standard of quality. Unfortunately, he quotes two “a-list” directors, Paul Schrader and Barry Levinson, who haven’t made a good movie between them in nearly two decades (though Levinson had some success with a recent HBO movie that Ebert laments doesn’t make it onto the big screen. More on that later.)

At one point in the article, Ebert quotes Schrader as saying “Several decades ago audiences could expect a film such as The Social Network every week; now we are lucky to have one or two a year.” This is just such utter bullshit it’s almost difficult to respond to. For starters, the decade Schrader must be talking about was the 1970s, and I’m sorry, but there was never a stretch where every weekend saw two movies open that were as good as The Social Network. Schrader’s not lying–there’s no maliciousness in that quote, but it is either the words of a bitter human being or someone prone to extreme flights of hyperbole. And what Schrader and Ebert forget is that the 70s were a wonderful counterpoint to the 60s, which is a decade that critics look back upon as a terrible one for the studios, a time when they were considered unimaginative, pumping out the same shit (albeit not sequels), while TV was dominating American life. Just like today.

Ebert then turns to Levinson’s praised HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Jack Kervorkian. I haven’t seen it to weigh in on it, but according to Ebert it was “it was apparently not possible for Pacino, Levinson, and a touchy subject to interest a major studio.” Maybe. Maybe there’s other factors–like the fact that it was 134 minutes, or that the executives might have said that Levinson hadn’t made a good film in many, many years. Maybe the studios liked the material, but maybe he owned the material and was stuck to it. Honestly, I wouldn’t want my money tied up in anything Barry Levinson does today. Why he never considered making it a smaller, art house movie, distributed by one of the many more modest studios (Oscilloscope, Magnolia, etc.) apparently isn’t worth discussing.

Later, Schrader takes Ebert to task, suggesting that he (Ebert) should start including these TV movies in his columns and year end lists, and I frankly couldn’t agree more. The Wire ranks up there with the greatest films ever, in my book, and I’ve seen the first two hours of Mildred Pierce, and thought it was good (not great), but worthy of discussion, now and at year end. Ebert gives that notion some thought, before stating that he would rather see movies at theaters, thank you, because he loves community.

Of course, this begs the question: why can’t you do both? (I’ll leave aside the additional question: “Uh, aren’t you seeing these movies at press screenings that typically have very few people in them?”) My problem with the piece is that Ebert is inadvertently showing us the brilliance of our current situation. I have no strong numbers (and I’m not even sure you can crunch these), but the people I know who watch stuff like Mildred Pierce at home are the types who are rushing out to see the great movies at the theaters. These people, and I include myself among them, hunger for movies–we watch them at the art house cinemas, at microcinemas, and we watch them at home. As my pal and cinema conspirator Barry Kryshka noted, “people can drink at home but they still go to bars.” The fact that Levinson has HBO as a back-up isn’t a problem, it’s actually wonderful for everyone involved. Now he has huge opportunities like HBO and large and small studios to help him get his product out. (And I think we all know that if You Don’t Know Jack–which is a terrible title by the way–were released in theaters, it might have reviewed well, but ultimately bombed. That happens, you know.)

There’s tons of great movies being made today, perhaps more than ever. Ebert forgets or chooses to ignore that there’s amazing films from Asia getting play here, finally, at home and in the theaters–films I could never have seen in the decades before we watched movies at home. Back in the day (my day–the 70s and 80s), the studios dominated, and even the foreign greats, like Kurosawa and Fellini, dominated and kept out the smaller films. As someone programming movies for a little rep cinema in Minneapolis, I’m always stunned at the great variety of Asian cinema from the 50s through the 80s that was totally ignored, simply because there wasn’t room in the art house cinemas for Seijun Suzuki’s bizarre gangster epics when you were filling the screens with Bergman and Antonioni. Much as I love those guys, back in the day you’d think they were the whole of foreign cinema. We now know better.

My rambling point here is that, despite the struggles of film festivals and indie theaters (and trust me, I know how fucking hard it is), pieces like Roger Ebert’s fail to see the forest for the trees. If I had to predict, I guess I would say that yes, I think the cineplexes are going to be in trouble. But people still love seeing movies in the theaters, and while the big 12 – 20 screen theaters might be aching in the future, this might open the door for the independents. Direct streaming might just open doors for filmmakers like Alverson, whose newest film New Jerusalem, my favorite film so far this year (and yes, I have seen Tree of Life), doesn’t stand a chance of getting into theaters, now or in the last 20 years (same goes for Ebert fave, Ramin Bahrani.)

It’s work, people. Those of us who want cinema to survive in theaters have to work to get it there, at festivals, at microcinemas, even at the cineplexes, which need our patronage. But if Ebert thinks there’s a solution to the major studios pumping out garbage like Transformers, well, I guess I’d say that’s like trying to come up with a solution to make skunks smell like lilacs. Not going to happen.

Like everything wonderful in this world, if we care about it, be it music, or literature, or craft beer, organic food, American made clothing or movies, we have to nurture and care for it. Wishing and hoping that major corporations will do great things is almost literally like hoping God will grant your fondest wish. Make it happen yourself. Watch the great movies. Please do it at the theaters, but if you catch New Jerusalem at home, I won’t hold it against you.

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One Response to It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

  1. Pingback: Their Eyes Were Watching God | James River Film Journal

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