(Corrects name of director Robert Bresson in the second paragraph.)
I went to see "The November Man" last week. It was, alas, not a very good movie. But even if it had better dialogue, a more coherent plot or believable characters, I wonder whether I would have liked it. Because I have to tell you: I am so over car chases and fight scenes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m hardly a movie snob. It’s true that I enjoy the occasional Robert Bresson flick. I also loved "Point Break" and "The Rock" and "Speed." For that matter, I loved "The Matrix" and "Bullitt" and "The Bourne Identity," some of the progenitors of the modern fascination with ... car chases and fight scenes.
It’s not that I don’t like those things; it’s that I don’t like them so much that I want them to be the entire point of virtually every movie I see. Most of the time, the movie listings seem to offer three choices:
- Insipid comedies;
- Explosions and CGI; or
- Fifteen-minute car chases and fight sequences, interspersed with the absolute minimum of dialogue and character development needed to set up more car chases and fight scenes.
The fight scenes in "The Matrix" are great, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch them over and over, in every single movie. The car chases in "The Bourne Identity" were fantastic, but again, that doesn’t mean I want to watch them for nearly 90 minutes straight. Frankly, all that shakycam is making me seasick.
This weekend, the Official Blog Spouse and I watched "Turner & Hooch," mostly because we have a bullmastiff with a strong resemblance to the canine lead.1 It was striking to compare the movie’s construction to the current fare. Mare Winningham, the love interest, had actual personality traits that were there just to flesh her out as a person, not to set up some later plot point. She had interests beyond motivating Tom Hanks to continue his hero’s journey. She was not 15 years too young to be holding her ostensible job or plausibly dating her nonmillionaire male lead. The plot moved fast enough to hold your interest without requiring someone to be in mortal danger every five minutes. Scenes were fully developed with multiple beats instead of a single, not-very-funny punch line. The action sequences did not drag out endlessly to provide an extra 10 minutes of punching, kicking and elaborate waving of sharp objects.
This was not some critically acclaimed New Cinema epic; it was just a nice action comedy of a sort that’s now apparently very hard to make unless you at least throw in some comic-book characters and, oh yes, a lot of really long fight scenes. It was absurdly refreshing compared to all the same-same-same I’ve been seeing in the theater over the last few years.
It is somewhat consoling, as critics frequently note, that television has gotten amazingly better. And yet, I miss movies, which offer somewhat different satisfactions than television. If you love a good short story, it’s not entirely comforting to note that there are a lot of great novels around.
But as a libertarian, who am I to complain? The market is getting what it wants; if mine is a minority taste, I can hardly demand that Hollywood start remaking its films to cater to me.
On the other hand, maybe I’m not the only one who’s getting sick of explosion, explosion, car chase, knife fight, boat chase, explosion, shootout, gymnastics demonstration, shootout-to-swordfight finale on exploding jet skis. Despite a few standouts like "Guardians of the Galaxy" (which I loved), Hollywood is having a terrible summer, its worst in nearly two decades. Apparently, the formula is getting stale even for the teenage boys it’s designed to please.
I’d like to think that this means Hollywood will go back to making more midbudget movies for folks like me instead of a handful of pyrotechnic extravaganzas for the teenage boys. But even if it wanted to -- even if it decided to -- I wonder if it could.
Over the last decade, as I’ve discussed before, Hollywood has stopped making so many movies. It is increasingly concentrating its resources on massive “tentpole” franchises, often based around pre-existing properties such as comic books that come with built-in name recognition. Instead of trying for solid base hits, they’re hitting for the bleachers every time. This formula has been pretty successful over the last decade, but in many ways, it’s very risky. You need virtually every hit to be a home run.
The problem this summer was not that all the “more of the same” sequels flopped. Rather, it was that none of them turned into the megahits that Hollywood needs to make a tentpole strategy profitable. Only "Guardians of the Galaxy" is even likely to break $300 million. If this happens again next year, it will call for some hard thinking about the long-term viability of the tentpole strategy.
Even if things perk up next summer, the film industry may still want to put on those thinking caps, because it's running out of properties to generate sequels. Next year will bring us the seventh installments in the "Star Wars" and "The Fast and the Furious" franchises. The comic-book universe has been mined so thoroughly that Hollywood is down to fourth-tier properties such as "Guardians of the Galaxy" and a Spider-Man reboot that remade the first movie nearly scene for scene. Audiences have been conditioned to look for sequels and name recognition; sadly, the biggest flop this summer was "Edge of Tomorrow," an original movie with a clever script and much more personality than most recent action fare. I quite liked it, but relative to its budget, it died at the box office. If the audience won’t come out for new fare and is too bored to come out for "Spider-Man 18," Hollywood is going to end up in a bit of a pickle.
Unfortunately, its workforce is now completely optimized for making tentpole action movies. Actors and actresses are selected for their ability to get ultra-buff and fill predictable roles in the stripped-down plots and minimalist dialogue that translate so well into foreign box office. Writers are fewer in number, and they excel at writing to the formula. Ditto directors, and so on down the line.
Where do you go if you want to get someone who can write or direct something . . . well, more like "Turner & Hooch" and less like "Sex Tape" or "The November Man"? Or an actor who can pull people in to see it? It’s not that you couldn’t find anyone who could do that; the question is whether you could find enough of them to fill out an old-style movie pipeline.
You see this in industries all the time -- radical downsizing to meet some strategic challenge, followed by the realization they’re missing a bunch of human capital they might really like to have. Careers have useful arcs; the only way to get the middle managers, or 30-something actors, that you need is to have employed them 10 years ago.
So if indeed Hollywood does move away from the giant circus tent school of moviemaking, it probably won’t be back toward the movies that make me nostalgic. It will be toward something else that it can do with the people it has. I have no idea what that will be. I can only hope that the car chases will be a little shorter -- and not quite so numerous.
1 Yes, of course I cried at the end.
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