Monday, January 13, 2014

Death of an art form

I have given up on movies. There was a time when I trusted sections of the cinematic establishment sufficiently to willingly suspend my disbelief and surrender an hour or two of my time and attention to their products several times a week. There were writers and directors whose cultural background and preoccupations I shared to a great extent and who had (as I saw it) something interesting to say. They were people I respected.

It's a trust thing. Art forms are always about trust, even if they are also about making money.

Whilst government subsidies may attempt to keep local film industries alive, they inevitably encourage ideological conformity and artistic self-indulgence. And the main targeted audiences for mainstream films are now younger and globalized. Lowest common denominator. You know the deal.

A recent Telegraph article mentions that one of the people working as a quantitative analyst for American film producers – a former academic statistician – happens to be a distant relative of Albert Einstein. Symbolic somehow, don't you think, emblematic of cultural decline?

Nick Meaney (who is not a cousin of the physicist) runs a company in South London which assesses the earning prospects of film scripts based on algorithmic analysis of human-input scores relating to hundreds of categories (strength of location, proposed actors, etc.).

Their results are, apparently, much in demand by film producers. And they suggest, by the way, that nine times out of ten the big names have no effect on the box-office figures (assuming the replacements are competent).

So not only are movies not movies in the way they were, the stars are no longer stars in the old sense. Does the explanation lie with the actors, their image-makers, the changed nature of the product or the audiences?

Stars didn't come much bigger than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. But Meaney criticizes the movie classic Casablanca for being "too gloomy, downbeat and too long". He points out that it was only the sixth-best performing film of 1943.

It has performed rather well since, however.

I like Bogart's line as he (Rick) and Bergman (Ilsa) recall their last meeting in Paris at the time of the German invasion: "... You were wearing blue. The Germans were wearing gray."

Quantify that.


  1. Yes I know the deal. Bean-counting crass commercialism pandering to the attention span of an 18 year old (or less). As housewife humorist Erma Bombeck once said, "The children have many dollars."

    1. What's interesting is that even despite all these crass, quantitative maneuverings, the film industry seems to be struggling – presumably because those dollars are now being spent on other things (like gadgets and games).

  2. The story I heard (from a producer) was that Hollywood has been transformed by the techniques you describe but not with the result you assert. The public made it clear that what they want is films with less nihilism and with more moral meaning. You may find these films a bit bland, but that's another matter. Meaningless violence (Natural Born Killers would be a good example) is out. Toy Story, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are in.

    1. Fantasies. Yeah. The deepest question asked this year (so far) is, can you really be in love with a computer. The Sci-Fi of AI is getting bigger lately. I bet within a couple of years, HAL - The Sequel. "I'm sorry. I can't do that, Dave."

  3. Alan, I don't deny that there is popular demand (at least amongst certain groups) for the kind of moral content you allude to, and it may well be that I was underestimating the comparative size and economic significance of the groups in question.

    I read recently that Bryan Forbes said that Whistle Down the Wind (a film which had the sorts of moral qualities you allude to) was his most popular and profitable film.

  4. On the fantasy issue: perhaps the genre is widely popular (in film as well as books) in part because these works are not tied to any real (particular) culture.

    Personally, I've always gravitated to social realism which, if it is done properly, really calls for an audience which knows (or at least is interested in learning) the subtleties of the culture in question.

    I like some romantic comedies though. Would they count as fantasy?

  5. I looked up Yahoo's top 100 films for 2013 and found I had seen only two of them, so you can ignore anything I've got to say on the topic.

    I did think Lincoln was a great film, but it was No 67 for 2012. I'd call that film social realism and very well done.

    I'd say Harry Potter is tied very strongly to a very narrow culture (English public school) yet it is also very accessible to kids who've never seen or even read about any such school. One of the basic facts about kids is that they relate so well to dinosaurs.