Peace out, kids. I’m shedding this mortal coil collaborative blogging experiment, or rather, it’s shedding me. Either way, I’m moving on to different, if not greener, pastures. You can find shiny new rants and ramblings – and old and rusted ones – at my blog, A Good Idea At The Time. Keep an eye out there: I’ve been working on a massive, multi-part refutation of libertarianism – if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m also going to be writing a entertainment news column at The Faster Times starting in August. Now, I take the terms ‘entertainment’ and ‘news’ seriously, so don’t expect to see the latest Miley Cyrus upskirt pics there. Sorry, but that’s just not going to happen.
I’ve had a great time writing for True/Slant under the watchful eyes of Michael Roston, Andrea Spiegel, and Coates Bateman. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity and advice they provided along the way. And to my loyal followers, casual readers, and unhinged trolls, I appreciate your interest in my blabberings and hope you’ll continue the conversation at my new haunts. So long and thanks for all the fun.
In the last post, I talked about the inherent difficulties in creating original art in a medium as collaborative and expensive as film. Yet television, long considered a ‘wasteland’, is enjoying a widely acknowledged creative renaissance at the same time the movies are striking out. On first glance, this is puzzling. They’re both mediums of visual narrative aimed at a mass audience with budgets sizeable enough to preclude amateur involvement. But I think there are key differences, intrinsic and imposed, that have made it easier to achieve excellence in television than in film – at least in the last decade.
FAILURE DIVIDED BY TIME
One reason might be that TV creators simply get more chances. Movies are a one-shot deal, while television is usually serialized over a period of months or years. Spreading the narrative out over a longer period of time relieves some expositional and character building pressure from the creators. And it allows more leeway for mistakes, since viewers see the episodes, at least in part, as distinct entities, and won’t judge an entire show too harshly based on a few bum apple episodes. In fact, most great shows not only have a few crap episodes but at least one mediocre season, but fans view that as an inevitable part of the process of getting so many hours of entertainment. To use a term from finance, television has the ability to amortize its failure over time, a luxury that films, by their very nature, don’t have.
But I don’t want to let the movie industry off the hook that easily. There are stark differences in the choices that the two industries – even though they’re often owned by the same parent company – have made in distributing their product to the people. These choices have made all the difference for the end product.
SCRATCHING THE NICHE
Since the 80’s, television has benefitted creatively from the introduction of niche markets, a.k.a. the cable networks. None of us would be talking about the current “golden age” of television if our only choices were still the Big Three. Relieving the pressure to please everyone all the time, producers can work on quality shows knowing that an audience lies out there somewhere among the cable universe. Movies haven’t really figured out to do this profitably yet. All the money is gambled on the shoot-em-up spectacles and the inane star-driven romantic comedies, with a few crumbs left over for tedious and predictable prestige pictures for Oscar bait. These days, the cinematic circus is all tentpoles with nothing underneath. The medium budget studio movie is basically dead, and with the collapse of foreign pre-sales as a method of financing last year, indie film distribution is struggling more than ever. Rather than researching alternative avenues of income and distribution, the Big Six studios keep putting their bets on bigger, dumber, and younger. Meanwhile, adults looking for thoughtful movies are out of luck.
THE WRITER AS PAUPER AND PRINCE
The lowly treatment of writers in the movie industry is the stuff of on- and off-screen legend. Robert Altman’s The Player captures the feeling most vividly when it has a producer literally kill a screenwriter and get away with it. Once a screenwriter hands in a script, he/she can expect to have it rewritten twenty times by God-knows-how-many writers hired afterwards, not to mention being shut out of the set and thus, further input.
The case of Ridley Scott’s recent stinker, Robin Hood, is a good illustration. Originally entitled Nottingham, the script took a fresh spin at the myth by telling the story from the Sherriff of Nottingham’s point of view. Using forensics, he hunts down a local terrorist, aka Robin Hood. The script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris quickly became a hot property and the subject of an intense bidding war.
Given that there have already been 111 movies about Robin Hood according to IMDB, it was essential that any new movies about this legend actually be, well, new movies. And this script, while dark and unconventional, certainly promised that. Well, till Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott, producer Brian Glazer, and god knows how many other writers got their hands on it. First, Ridley became obsessed with archery and had the movie rewritten to be all about that. You and I might think that’s the least interesting part of the Robin Hood myth, but what do we know? We didn’t direct G.I. Jane. Oh, and then Scott thought it would be interesting to have Russell Crowe be both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham in a Fight Club sort of twist. I almost wish they would have ran with this idiotic idea so at least the movie would’ve been spectacularly bad instead of just plain old boring bad. But cooler, more conventional, heads prevailed, and it became little more than a retread of the last big Scott/Crowe team-up.
“The script went through many, many different changes…. But to me, really, it’s more about the visuals. It’s the Gladiator version of Robin Hood.”
- Brian Grazer to Entertainment Weekly
Who in the hell – beside the aforementioned three – wants that movie? No one, according to Rotten Tomatoes and the box office. But it’s a familiar story in Hollywood. A studio buys a script for its unique and compelling voice, and proceeds to strangle that unique and compelling voice until it’s the same whimpering moan of mediocrity that we get every week out of these guys.
Contrast that with television, where the writer/producer supersedes the hired-hand director and has final say over what happens to their story (except for the execs, of course). I’m not saying that film needs to hand over the reigns to the writers. It is a director’s medium, after all. But somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that auteur means author. If directors aren’t going to write their own scripts, they should at least listen to the people that do, even after they write them a check. The current too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen process –a tug of war between half a dozen screenwriters, inane input from egotistical execs, clueless after-the-fact focus group suggestions – is murdering storytelling at the cineplex. Art By Committee is an oxymoron, not a business plan. I’m biased, obviously, but if you stop treating the writers like they’re disposable, you might start getting something besides throw-away movies.
IS THE CINEMATIC SITUATION HOPELESS?
So much of modern moviemaking seems to be a conspiracy against quality, where expecting a good time that doesn’t insult your intelligence is a sucker’s bet. Entertainment – to say nothing of art – rarely makes it out alive. But does it have to be this way? So many of the problems revolve around the monopoly of the Big Six studios, and their chokehold on the making and releasing of film product. Given the recent revolutions in the distribution of home entertainment like Netflix, Red Box, and on-demand, it seems odd that hasn’t had more of an effect on the production side, especially since the secondary market is where most movies make back their budget.
Perhaps this change towards digital distribution can make the digital revolution that happened in production finally bear fruit. Higher quality HD cameras such as The Red have made digital indies look less like subpar high-school productions (see The Anniversary Party, Funny Ha Ha, etc.), and more like the kind of adult art than can give the majors a run for their money. The movie industry is nothing if not unpredictable, and I wouldn’t count out quality movies as being something to compete on. Stranger things have happened.
“Ninety percent of everything is crap.” – Theodore Sturgeon
The successful sci-fi author delivered that gem to Venture magazine, after being bombarded with the umpteenth question about why so much sci-fi sucks so hard so often. And so was born the oft-quoted “Sturgeon’s Law”, an assertion as bitter as it is true. He was right to suggest that sci-fi doesn’t have a monopoly on mediocrity. Whether you collect fine art or pop records, you’re going to have to sift through a ton of trash to find even a little bit of treasure. But while I think Sturgeon’s right that it’s harder to find quality than crap in most endeavors, I think he’s wrong to suggest that they all share the same ratio.
For example, let’s take film. If you did an honest accounting of the popular mediums, I think it would be hard to deny that going to the movies delivers disappointment more reliably than any other diversion. In every other field, we are living in a golden age of excellence and accessibility. There is more quality television, music, writing , and design being produced now than the average person can hope to keep up with, and it’s easier than ever to gain exposure to it. But for movie fans, you could check out all the great films of most years over a long weekend. I don’t care if you’re talking about the multiplex or the arthouse, a lightweight romantic comedy or a weighty drama tackling the social issue du jour. Excellence is an endangered species in the movie world, and I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon.
A GOOD MOVIE IS HARD TO FIND MAKE
In some ways, this is inevitable and longstanding, an inherent property of the medium itself. It is exponentially harder to achieve excellence in filmmaking than it is in other mediums. Now, that’s not to say that someone who makes a great movie is more talented than someone who paints an incredible painting, records a brilliant album, or writes a masterful novel – or even a harder worker. I’m simply saying that, for reasons I’ll go into below, there are many, many more obstacles standing between the vision in a moviemaker’s head and its real world execution than there are in other fields.
Making a movie takes a lot of people. There’s no way around this fact, even for indies. And this has considerable consequences for the creation of art. A songwriter can write a song by themselves, and either record it solo or, unless they’re the Polyphonic Spree and need 28 people, recruit three or four other musicians and form a band. A novelist needs only themselves, time, and maybe an editor, to complete their book. A painter needs a few supplies and a canvas. You see where I’m going with this.
As Edward Jay Epstein puts it:
Assembling a small army of individuals with highly specialized skills on a temporary basis is not an easy task. It requires persuading individuals to contractually commit themselves, often six months in advance, to a job that may last for only a few weeks, and to forego other opportunities. They must work long and unusual hours, often with strangers who may be unfamiliar with their methods and, in some cases, hostile to them. Then, after completing their task, they must seek other employment.
Epstein’s only covering the logistical difficulties involved, not the creative ones. Imagine trying to get 100 or more people to collaborate on any other kind of artistic endeavor, and take a guess on the odds of being anything less than a muddled mush of crossed signals and pained egos.
Now, all these people we’re talking about don’t come cheap. Sure, on some indies, you can get your friends to work for free on your first or second movies, but after a while, you realize using volunteers gets you volunteer quality product. You need professionals, and professionals cost. This is why, despite their best efforts, the arthouse and the indies haven’t really stepped up to the plate where the studios fail. A talented amateur filmmaker is still an amateur.
MAMMON AND THE MOVIES
The average daily running cost on a studio picture in 2000 was $165,000. Naturally, the incredible – some would say obscene – amount of money required to make one movie has a filtering effect on what kind of art you end up with. You either somehow pony up a few hundred thousand – at the very, very low end – to make your own movie, or you come up with a script that will make a movie that an army of marketing experts think they can design a poster around. Originality and complexity are anathema to this mindset; they’re too unpredictable at the box office. Better to stick with known formulas, well-worn tropes, familiar franchises, and lowest common denominators. It’s a truism that aiming for the widest possible audience means working in the shallowest artistic pools .
This is not another rant against the idiocy and poor taste of the major studios. Though I’m sure most movie execs probably have both traits in spades, they start the game with their hands tied. They’re dealing with astronomical sums of other people’s – i.e., their parent company’s – money. If they continually gamble billions of dollars on aesthetic whims with little chance of profit, they and thousands of other people are out of jobs. Resolving the tension between making something worthwhile and making a return on investments of that size has always been tricky. We shouldn’t be asking why Hollywood keeps making bad movies. We should be asking how it ever makes good ones.
As Samuel Beckett knew, the act of art is the art of failing better. And success once doesn’t guarantee your next fifty attempts won’t be failures. It’s just part of the process. Great artists need thick skins, time, and persistence. But the huge hurdles of filmmaking make it so expensive to fail, most filmmakers just don’t get that many chances. And if they do get to make their script, chances are it will tampered with at every stage of the process; its unique peaks flattened to resemble proven moneymakers, its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities shaved off so as not to offend or confuse a mass audience, and by the time it’s all over the work is so altered as to be unrecognizable to its creator and unpalatable to anyone with half a brain.
In the next installment, I’ll look at why TV is enjoying a creative renaissance while films flounder, and what the movie studios can learn from that.
But why should former supermodels get all the moviemaking fun? Here are five spouses of world leaders that would cut interesting onscreen figures, even if they’re not quite the publicity magnet that Bruni manages to be.
Sarah Brown (Wife of British PM Gordon Brown)
Given the fact that Gordon Brown could very well not be M.P. in a week, the family is probably going to want to look for hobbies and alternative income streams. And what better hobby than being a movie star? I’ve knocked around the idea a bit myself, but I can never seem to find the time.
When not running to her husband’s defense after he inadvertently insults little old ladies, Sarah Brown splits her time playing the charity-circuit wife role to the hilt and being the “high priestess of Twitter” (I guess that’s a thing?) – a far cry from her days as co-founder of high-powered P.R. firm Hobsbawm* Macaulay. So, she’s reserved to the point of being chilly, tech-savvy and super-ambitious, and attractive in an angular and slightly unnerving way. Sounds like a Tilda Swinton type if I ever saw one. Team her up with Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), make her the C.E.O. of some ethically challenged bio-tech company, and the script practically writes itself. And no bad films have ever been made after saying those last five words, right?
*Apparently an actual person’s name and not a Harry Potter character.
Princess Letizia (Wife of Felipe, Prince of Asturias)
As we all know – or discovered on Wikipedia thirty seconds ago – Prince of Asturias is the official title for the heir apparent to the Spanish throne. Not a bad snag for a commoner*. I’m not surprised given how easy she is on the eyes, if you know what I mean. (I mean she’s physically attractive.)
* Maybe it’s my American lack of familiarity with vestigial figureheads, but can we come up with a less insulting term for non-royalty? Given the shoddy track record of monarchical morality, I think they should be the ones stuck with the pejorative shorthand.
Kim Ok (Alleged current wife of Kim Jong il, Batsh*t Leader of North Korea)
Now, I’ll grant being married to the dictator of the most paranoid and isolated regime on Earth is a bit of stumbling block, sure. But let’s not let a little thing like life in a forced labor camp stop us from an inspired casting choice. Hear me out here: I’m thinking Oliver Stone. He’s already an old hand at brutally unsubtle propaganda and shameless hagiography. Sure, he may not see ideologically eye to eye with Dear Leader now, but give him a few months in a NK filmmaking education camp, and I’m sure he’ll come around. Kim and Kim: A Match Made in Worker Paradise, or somesuch. I’m not a marketing guy, gimme a break.
The Chantal Biya Story is a Baz Luhrmann biopic. That much is obvious. But twos of minutes of interweb research hasn’t told me a thing about her singing chops, so whether it can reach the full unwatchable ridiculousness of a Luhrmann musical is still unclear. And for no good reason, here’s a random picture of Chantal Biya seemingly giving Carla Bruni the stink-eye at the UN.
Joachim Sauer (Husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel)
The German media’s nickname for the quantum chemist is “The Phantom of the Opera”. But don’t let that fool you into false excitement. It’s only because he’s camera-shy and loathes attending public events with his wife. So, he’s boring, normal, and has a perfectly understandable distrust of the media spotlight. GUH. Well-adjusted people are so lame, drama-wise.
But we can work with this. Anybody see the critically acclaimed indie sci-fi drama Primer, directed by former engineer Shane Caruth? I didn’t think so. When even fans describe the film in terms like “hopelessly confusing” and “deliberately paced”, it’s no surprise that your little time-travel flick is relegated to cult status. But that’s exactly why they’d be perfect for each other. Caruth and Sauer could have a ball banging out another head-scratcher science-fiction flick that’s heavier on the science than it is on the fiction. And “The Phantom” could rest easy, knowing that appearing in a Shane Caruth film wouldn’t danger his beloved anonymity in the slightest. Done and done.
Right Guard shill/Redman BFF Method Man once quipped that his late Wu-Tang partner, Russell Jones, went by the alter-ego Ol’ Dirty Bastard because “There ain’t no father to his style”. Despite obvious differences in talent and temperament, the same could be said for Mark Region, the director of After Last Season. It’s hard to point to a a single frame in his aggressively baffling debut with precedent in the world of film. Since the debut of the trailer last June, the movie has prompted a flurry of questions, chiefly: “What the heck is going here?”, Is this seriously getting a theatrical release?”, and “Is that cardboard thing supposed to be an MRI machine?”
I can answer the last two questions definitively: Yes, it did get a release, though only in four theaters, and yep, they actually try to pass off that series of cardboard boxes covered in computer paper as an actual MRI machine. But as far as the first question, I’m a long ways from a credible explanation of how and why After Last Season came into being or what it all means – even after watching it three times on DVD. But try I must. Along the way, I’ll be interspersing my thoughts with pull quotes from this Filmmaker interview with the director from last summer.
Stop Making Sense: The Plot of After Last Season
Filmmaker: What are you trying to say or communicate with this film?Region: The film covers several subjects. Scientific innovation and how it can be used to solve a murder is one of them. Showing some facets in the lives of medical students is also one of them.
After Last Season resists synopsis like Keith Richards resists sobriety, but I can at least lay out some of the pieces and hope someone else knows how to put together the puzzle. Despite supposedly being a ‘sci-fi thriller’, ninety percent of the dialogue involves incredibly dry discussions of one of three topics:
1. MRI machines and their functions
2. Directions to nearby towns and descriptions of local businesses
3. Geometric shapes
I saw one person online try to summarize the plot as “Ghost Foils Murder”. If I had to sum it up briefly like that, I guess my take would be “Medical Interns Endure Confusing Renovations, Inept Haunting”. But, in the spirit of the film, let me test your patience with a longer synopsis:
Along with several characters whose reasons for being in the film are unclear, a couple of medical student use groundbreaking, mind-reading technology (that looks like MS Paint ) to uncover (kinda) a murder from last week, and then the murderer that they saw with their thought-reading chips (more on that later) comes to get them (how would he know?) with an already-bloodied knife (?), but then a ghost one of the main characters had seen in a dream (I think) attacks the bad man with a chair, even though shortly thereafter the ghost demonstrates how he can lift a ruler but not a backpack (seriously), and I think a chair is usually at least as heavy as a backpack, right? I give up.
But don’t get me wrong. All that ‘drama’ with the knife-murder-guy is only about five minutes of screen time and is so confusingly staged and shot, it doesn’t come close to breaking the film’s commitment to inducing bewildering boredom in the viewer.
Region: After you’ve seen it, you know the whole plot. It’s all in there. It’s very logical. I wanted to make the movie as realistic and logical as possible, it’s just in the way it’s presented. The way it’s presented it will produce some kind of thrilling or disturbing reaction. But it’s very logical and it’s all in there.
But as much boredom as the movie generates – and it’s a lot – it’s a strangely fascinating sort of dullness. It sounds odd, but my friends and I were on the edge of seats with boredom the whole time. It’s thrillingly tedious: how will they top the last banality? I’ll collected some samples of the enigmatically generic dialogue to give you an idea. Like the movie itself, I give no context. Some of these are the scenes in their entirety:
Woman on phone: “I’m on the third floor. I live in an apartment building on the east side of the city. It’s about 15 minutes from the bridge. I have a view of downtown from my windows.
Stacy: Did he love the town?
Anne: Sometimes, he gave me the impression that he didn’t, but my grandfather stayed in Ringham most of his life.
Stacy : (said with an inordinate amount of interest) : What did he do in Ringham?
Anne: He became a carpenter.
[Lots of mutual laughter at this for some reason]
Stacy: Well, my father also grew up in a small town. He stayed in this town until he was 15. Later on, his family moved aways to the suburbs of a large city.
Random Lady: My uncle saw a coyote by that tree over there. It stood there for several seconds and then went away.
Actual last line of the movie: We have a room next to the living room.
But as dazzling as the dialogue is, it’s no match for the real star of the movie, the set ‘design’.
Production Values, or Lack Thereof, of After Last Season
Region: We only had enough money to shoot the film and not enough for production design in the beginning. Additional money only came several months later for the special effects and for the computer animation. We made the sets simple. I used shots of walls to show the passage of time in some scenes and to show that something is happening at a different location in other scenes. (ed. note: Huh?) For the rest we tried to keep the sets simple because of the budget.
Let’s say I decided to walk into any random room in my apartment, lay my camcorder down on the first available surface, and spin it around violently. Odds are I’d end up with a more pleasing composition than ninety percent of this movie. And the only thing more innovatively inept than the camerawork is the ‘set’ ‘design’. I’m not exaggerating to say that my friends and I missed ninety percent of the dialogue in this movie the first time we watched it because we couldn’t stop laughing at how amazingly awful the sets, special effects, and cinematography were. Every new shot triggered another round of questions, confusion, and guffaws.
But it also incited arguments. The thing is so poorly made it’s a provocation. Viewings inevitably dissolve into debates about intent and conspiracies over whether the whole thing is a giant put-on or not. It’s a level of slapdash halfassery that would elude the amateur. An amateur is merely inadequate, but so much of After Last Season seems to go out of its way to be wrong.
The sets are piled with seemingly random detritus and the walls are often, for some reason, half-covered with wallpaper taped on with duct tape. Text is digitally placed on a blank sheet of white paper when it could’ve easily been simply typed and printed out. The presence of a ghost is illustrated by gray Rubbermaid boxes sliding across a floor. The movie’s plot revolves around electronic chips that two people place on the side of their heads so that one can see the other’s thoughts. Yet they decided to illustrate this ultra-futuristic technology with graphics that would’ve looked low-budget on a screensaver in 1993. The combined experience of the effects team on ASL can probably be measured in minutes.
Filmmaker: Were these people from a VFX house, or were they people who simply knew how to do things on a computer?
Region: People who knew things to do things on computer. Unknown people. We put [the effects] together from scratch.
Uniquely Inept is Still Unique
But as craptastic as the film is, it’s more than mere incompetence that makes the film fascinating. Most incredibly lame works of almost-art are compelling and sadly comic because of a massive gap between highfalutin intent and piss-poor execution. But like The Room and Troll 2, it’s incredibly hard to even begin to fathom the intent behind After Last Season. In other words, it’s so weird, I don’t even what they were going for – and that’s strangely admirable. It may not be, by any measure on any Earth, well shot, written, acted or directed, but it is highly, highly, original. And, personally, I’d much rather see some loony goofball flame out like a roman candle trying some nutty stunt than watch yet another by-the-numbers piece of boring Oscar bait aimed straight at a complacent middlebrow audience. I’m looking at you, Eastwood.
Sadly, After Last Season isn’t available on Netflix yet. You can only purchase it through Amazon. And for the record, I highly recommend pooling the resources of your Bad Movie Club and doing just that. Here’s to originality!
Filmmaker: Is there anything else you would like people to know about you and your movie?
Region: It’s a thriller. The critics would say it better than I do. One critic said it’s a film unlike anything you’ve seen before. That’s from the critic, and that’s something we tried to do.
As a young boy growing up in a small rural town in western North Carolina, I had one simple dream: getting the hell out of a small rural town in western North Carolina.
Kidding, kidding! I love the South. Where else on Earth could produce both Flannery O'Connor and Lil' Wayne?
But I have always felt the pull of the big city, and the promise of action, adventure and all-night bodegas that come with it. I've lived in San Francisco, LA, and New York, and I've been lucky enough to work as a television editor for such networks as VH1, BET, CMT, Lifetime and The Travel Channel. I enjoy documentaries more than anything, though, and I'm currently doing research for my own: an investigation of that ongoing American obscenity we call the Drug War.
I'm also a writer forever straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction. Screenplays, skits, polemics, plays, blogs, short stories and personal essays: don't make me pick just one, I love 'em all. On True/Slant you'll find me in scavenger mode, digging up bits of interest from all corners of the internet (it has corners, right?). From politics to pop culture, from the truly idiotic to the truly inspired - it's all grist for the mill.