Tuesday, August 01, 2017

NYT article claims that movies these days are based on intellectual property as opposed to screenplays? A few thoughts on missing the shift in IP inspirations in film from stuff you look at to things you play with

A friend of mine, James Harleman, has said that every time a film critic complains that Hollywood has run out of ideas that film critic reveals his or her profound ignorance of the reality that Hollywood has never had its own ideas

That was a thought that came to mind reading a piece over at the NYT, Alex French's piece called "How to Make a Movie Out of Anything — Even a Mindless Phone Game"

It's like journalists for mainstream papers and magazines learned absolutely nothing from anybody associated with the Frankfurt school some of them name-drop so much. 

Take the very premise of the article, the use of the word "mindless" in particular.  Does this mean mindless or immersive?  Is the phone game mindless because it's truly mindless or because a journalist doesn't think it's worth writing or thinking about apart from the assignment?  And then there's this:
So over time, Vinson has moved toward making movies backed by intellectual property. He was the executive producer of the so-bad-it-was-good ‘‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’’ (2013), which barely broke even domestically but went on to record a worldwide gross of $226 million. He also produced the ‘‘Journey To’’ franchise (‘‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’’ 2008; ‘‘Journey 2 the Mysterious Island,’’ 2012) based on Jules Verne’s stories, which has been solidly profitable, with a worldwide gross of over $500 million. (A third installment is in development.) He is now working with Disney on a film about Snow White’s sister, Rose Red. And following the trend of taking successful movie concepts to TV, Vinson has started on a serialized version of the Martin Scorsese film ‘‘The Departed.’’

Did Fritz Lang invent the plot and characters for Metropolis whole cloth?  No, obviously not!  F. W. Murnau got some trouble from the Stoker estate because somebody thought there was a case that he cribbed Stoker's Dracula story to create the film Nosferatu.  There's nothing new about making use of existing intellectual property to make films.  What might be new is the pervasive use of intellectual property that is not so much narrative-based as it is trademark-based.  This would be most true of stuff like superheroes, board games, and the like. 

But for the article, French seems to believe, or writes as if believing, that there's some fundamental distinction between intellectual property of the sort leveraged by studios today and ... screenplays that would, technically and legally, also fall under the domain of what's known as intellectual property. 

It's as though the author had a chance to see a simple thread running through video games and toys and mobile phone games and board games and didn't see the thread.  Twenty or thirty years ago the screenplays were stories we got told about other people and these days films are apt to be made about games or toys we have actually played with.  The fact that so many of these films are so often terrible is not necessarily the point.  Studios are looking for stuff they can adapt from existing trademarked intellectual properties that, to as far as can reasonably be controlled for, have pre-committed existing audiences.  How do you know to measure pre-existing audiences in a contemporary market?  Well, one possible way to do this is to keep track of game, video game and toy sales.  Sure, let's insist that athletics and sports count, too.  Just because America's pastime may have shifted from baseball to something like Angry Birds doesn't mean American's aren't still killing time.

Let's take this back to a scene from the recent Spiderman film where Michael Keaton's Adrian Toomes muses upon how kids used to draw cowboys and Indians.  The idea there, for what it's worth, was that kids would draw the stuff that was part of their aspirational or fantasies of play.  The gist is that Toomes resents a little (and later a lot) that the kids of today are aspiring to play at being superheroes rather than something more conventional from his own era.  Film critics may have a comparable lament, really, when they complain about superheroes.  Why can't kids these days want to emulate a Kubrick or a Godard?   Why, indeed, would they wish to?

The stuff your generation played with in childhood or played at in childhood will very likely become the tentpole cinematic and televised franchises of your middle age or, if not that, then in some way inspire homage or reaction.  What is Game of Thrones in the end if not a kind of reaction to Tolkien?  It can also be thought of as what you get if you multiply a narrative like the Book of Judges by 20,000 but let's just set that aside for the time being.

Film critics seem to be more ready to get into films that have author surrogates than audience surrogates.  It's easier for a film critic to cut some slack to a Woody Allen for more or less continuously playing himself or having other people play stand-ins for him than for a Tom Hanks to keep playing a relatable everyman who is, at some level, expected to be a stand-in for the movie-goer rather than the movie-maker.  The trouble with this kind of metric of philistinism is that it's not necessarily more sophisticated in the end for a film critic to bask in the glory of being able to read himself or herself into the deliberately blank slate of an artier film than it is for a regular shmuck to imagine that in some sense he could be Steve Rogers or that she could be that Meg Ryan character who gets the guy in the end.  Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson once observed that it was really weird how a character played by Harry Connick Jr. could be a horror story antagonist for only doing exactly the same things that a Meg Ryan character could do in a romantic comedy that would be regarded as cute and charming and completely defensible.  Maybe both these types of characters belonged behind bars. 

But let's ask for a moment whether the difference between prestige television and television you don't see critics talking about has something to do with what gatekeepers as a group decide has to be talked about to be with the times.  For as much as I've seen people talking about Game of Thrones there's another show that passed the seven season point lately, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  It's even getting a movie this fall.  Sure, Archer has season 8 wrapped up and Rick and Morty has a season 3 starting up now.  South Park has just passed the twenty year mark.  But one of these shows does not give the journalistic scene every opportunity to opine about current events by way of tagging everything as having a potential headlining corollary.  Somebody could talk about how Game of Thrones is about climate change because they can and do read that idea on to the show.  Does anybody do that for My Little Pony?  It's not as though there aren't fans of MLP who are similar in fundamental outlook to Trekkies, utopians who regard their pet show as emblematic as all that which will make humanity better and usher in a possibly divine (if you're into that) era of social cohesion.  I can get to hwo the Hasbro properties better embody the ideals of the total work of art in the European avant garde some time later, though ... .

When critics resentfully ask how many more of these superhero movies are going to get made they should just ask themselves, how many audience surrogates do they think the studios think they can crank out before the market bottoms out?  There's more than one kind of audience surrogate pandering film out there.  Who's to say that Spotlight isn't ultimately in that category, for instance?  It's not that it's a badly made movie, but then it's not like Wonder Woman is a badly made movie, either.  I enjoyed both movies as a matter of fact. 

Having mused upon these things a little bit let's end with a downbeat haiku I wrote in the last year or so about arts critics and art criticism

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

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