Saturday, December 10, 2016

Max Landis and the three institutionalized film industry flaws

Max Landis is the talented screenwriter/director son of the talented director John Landis. He is "up to his knees," so to speak, in Hollywood. And even as he is successfully participating in the process of creating corporate studio product, he’s also willing to comment on that process. This makes him invaluable, even if you disagree with his commentary or dislike his product.

Recently he posted a video in which he names three institutionalized flaws in the corporate studio filmmaking process. Watch it here; it's worth watching!:

He’s absolutely right about all of this.

As for his first point, I can only offer hearsay evidence from friends and acquaintances in the film industry. I happen to think that this is the least important problem (hopefully the people in charge of making films understand that, for instance, jokes get less funny the more you hear them) and the problem that could be most easily fixed. But of course, Landis suggests that none of these problems can be fixed at all, because they’re institutionalized. So, despair.

His second point is even more interesting. I’ve written on this blog several times about the RottenTomatoBots, those critics and fans who believe that art can be quantified, and that any opinion that runs counter to a film’s aggregated critical score is at best suspect and at worst “contrarian.”

This leads to critical atrophy. Reviews that run counter to the “Tomatometer” are dismissed with snide comments “(“LOL this guy gave this movie a negative review when the tomatometer is at 90% so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”). No less a figure than Roger Ebert directly accused Armond White of being a “troll” for refusing to remain in line with consensus critic thinking.

The Tomatometer score becomes an important tool for fans or thinkpiece authors to browbeat others. When the Ghostbusters reboot came out earlier this year, the Tomatometer became an instrument of political battle. When its score settled around 72% (or whatever it was) that was used by politically motivated writers as evidence that the movie really was good, despite what the "haters" hoped.

This cannot be overstated: Art cannot be quantified. Art can be examined, appreciated, dissected, placed in larger context, enjoyed, hated, etc. But there is no way that anyone can say with complete metaphysical certitude that a certain film is good or is bad. Just because the general consensus is that “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo” are the greatest movies of all time, that does not make that a fact. I can think of at least ten movies just off the top of my head that I like better than either of those movies— and I happen to really like both of those movies. By the same token, who’s to say that “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “I Spit on Your Grave” are the worst? There are elements of those movies that a large number of people might agree are inept or distasteful. You might think they’re “bad.” But they are not, objectively, bad, in a "2+2=4" sort of way.

UPDATE 12/11/16: The Tomatometer issue is compounded by the role that “film critics” serve in the promotion of studio films. Critics actually agree to “embargoes” of their reviews in exchange for getting to see films at early screenings. The studio dictates the relationship to critics—who should be impartial—and manipulates that relationship in order to better serve their own corporate interests.

Landis’s third point is the most important, and I wish he’d gone into more detail on it, and examined it even more closely. The fact is that there is a huge, cavernous gulf between those creating corporate entertainment and those who are expected to consume it. The people in New York and Los Angeles seem to have little interest in understanding those who live and work in the rest of the country. This is disastrous.

I’ve already written about the Fake Satire of Stephen Colbert, who was so completely out of touch with the country outside of New York and California that when planning his election night special, he and his writers didn’t even bother to prepare for the possibility that Donald Trump would win the presidency by enough of a margin that they would know that night. How can artists create meaningful works that speak to average people— that engage people on an emotional level—if they have no understanding of how they’re actually living their lives?

The answer is that they can’t. They don’t even try. It’s why you see so many of what conservative cultural critics call “sucker punches”— the slipping of a liberal or Democrat agenda piece into an otherwise unrelated film or TV show.

Corporate media artisans are perfectly comfortable pushing a corporate agenda. The “Toy Story” movies are a perfect example of art that’s created to promote corporate control of our lives. But where is the film or TV show that honestly portrays working-class characters? Where are the centrist or even conservative characters who aren’t presented as venomous, angry bigots?  You often hear that studios want to make money, above pushing an agenda. I’m not so sure that’s true. In 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” became a huge, massively profitable hit. You’d think that it would inspire a deluge of “faith-based” movies from major studios. No, it didn’t. Because most corporate artisans do not share religious “faith,” and are contemptuous of those who do. Even worse—they lack the intellectual curiosity and the stamina to even research why it is that someone who is good and intelligent might also be a religious believer.

Follow the Twitter accounts of many celebrities and you’ll see how they view those who disagree with progressive ideas. Again, the "Ghostbusters" reboot is instructive. When the trailer was released it met with a lot of criticism. Some of it was overtly sexist but most of it was a variation on “this isn’t funny” and “why do they keep doing remakes?”

Rather than address the legitimate criticism that was offered in earnest, those involved in the making of the film, and their friends, attacked them as sexists. This served the dual purpose of further alienating a major portion of the audience while absolving the corporate artisans involved in creating the film of any responsibility to understand what their audience was looking for.

The answer to “why do they keep doing remakes?” is, at least in part, because the corporate artisans creating films and TV shows today are so completely out of touch with popular taste that all they can do is strip-mine works of the past, looking for previously successful Intellectual Property to exploit. This is also why there are so many comics-based movies, and why studios are scrambling to create "shared universes."

I’m using the political/spiritual divide because it’s so pronounced right now. But it runs even deeper. Which is why you see so many movies and TV shows about writers or aspiring writers or producers or professionals living in New York or L.A. Ask your average corporate artisan to create a compelling story about the life of a working-class person and they'd be baffled.

UPDATE 12/11/16: Thinking about this overnight, and listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast with Owen Gleiberman, the film critic who got weepy over “Toy Story 3” and actually bragged about it, it occurs to me that a big part of the problem is anxiety over the way in which entertainment in general, and films in particular, are consumed. As I’ve already discussed in analyzing the “Toy Story” films, technological changes have created serious challenges to the studios. Previously reliable revenue streams are suddenly losing profitability. There’s no doubt that worry over how that revenue will be replaced is having a detrimental effect on the executives and creators. In the form of resentment, for example.
It’s interesting and heartening that Max Landis, who was born into the entertainment industry, recognizes this fact. Hopefully something can be done about this, because as corporate artists become further removed from the rest of the world, their ability to create meaningful art that goes beyond in-group virtue signaling is going to become impaired. That’s ultimately a disaster for them, but it’s such a slow-moving disaster that by the time they have some incentive to change, it might be too late.

Meanwhile, I’ve written two books that cover these very topics. The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks is a satirical Hollywood mystery about a redneck and a professional party girl who fall in love for perfectly legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with promotion of their respective brands. The book discusses the contempt that those within the entertainment industry have for the rest of America.

The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot is another satirical mystery novel that explores what happens when a beloved horror comedy franchise from the 1980s is she-booted with an all-female cast. Nobody at the studio can understand why anyone might object to this idea—other than sexism—which complicates the search for the person who is murdering female executives at the studio.

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