Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day Show: Apocalypse Now

For this Memorial Day, Maverick at the Movies will feature a condensed version of the 2-disc soundtrack to Apocalypse Now released by Electra Records. This soundtrack is unique in that it includes the music, dialogue, and sound effects of the film and as a result it plays very much like a radio drama. The album has been cut down to fit into the one hour time slot of the show and has been edited for content but retains the narrative of the film.
Apocalypse Now is one of the great war films of all time and with the Memorial Day holiday upon us, it seems appropriate to revisit the film. Narrative structure, be it in film, fine art, or literature, provides us with a sense of meaning and helps us make sense of the world either by confirming or challenging our beliefs about the world. This film does that tremendously and in the middle of a war in which the moral high ground of the United States has at least been destabilized and parallels to Vietnam have become increasingly apparent, this is a very relevent film.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

NY Times: Defending Goliath: Hollywood and the Art of the Blockbuster

The New York Times has an interesting op-ed piece by Manohla Dargis defending Hollywood's summer blockbusters. An excerpt:

Blockbuster is really just descriptive, but it often carries with it a down-market whiff, as do many pop-cultural products that come with eye-catching price tags and seem precision-tooled for young audiences. Critics, including, yes, yours truly, often use blockbuster as easy (too easy) shorthand for overinflated productions that rely more on special effects than words and characters, and that distract rather than engage the audience. At its most reductive the negative spin on blockbusters is that they signal the death of cinema art and mark the triumph of the corporate bottom line, of marketing strategies, product placements and opening-weekend returns. And here you thought you were just watching Tobey Maguire run around in a unitard.

But just because a movie blows stuff up doesn’t mean it automatically stinks. A good blockbuster, like the recent Bond flick
“Casino Royale,” takes you places you might never otherwise go and shows you things you could never do. It brings you into new worlds, offers you new attractions. It takes hold of your body, making you quiver with anxiety, joy, laughter, relief. When great blockbusters sweep you up and away — I’m thinking about watching “The Matrix” for the first time with a few hundred other enraptured souls — they usher you into a realm of communal pleasure. In a culture of entertainment niches, they remind you of what going to the movies can still be like.

They also remind you that without the human factor a blockbuster is nothing but a big empty box. Blockbusters that endure strike a balance between the spectacular and the ineffably human, whether it’s
Peter O’Toole framed against the never-ending desert in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Keanu Reeves coming down to earth in “The Matrix” as he realizes that he knows kung fu. It’s the epic story of America refracted through one family in the “Godfather” films. It’s a mechanical shark and Robert Shaw remembering the U.S.S. Indianapolis in “Jaws.” It’s Tom Cruise hanging by a thread in “Mission: Impossible” and Christian Bale standing amid a cloud of bats in “Batman Begins.” It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s wild eyes in “Titanic” and Kirsten Dunst’s sad ones in “Spider-Man.”

Many film students, critics, academics, and independent film snobs blow off glossy Hollywood product too readily, in part because it's hip to be counter-cultural and counter-corporate. And admittedly, Hollywood has given these people reason to feel that way. For every Kingdom of Heaven, we are subjected to Troy, King Arthur, 300, and the theatrical cut of Alexander. However, this is not that different from other mediums. There are some great, talented musicians working for major music labels. Think of Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails, or Tom Waits. But much of the music industry is polluted with the superficiality of MTV and American Idol's yearly search for the lowest common denominator. Likewise, there are many great writers like Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk, and Tim O'Brien who have achieved considerable literary and commercial success. But much of what makes the best seller list are books by Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, and Danielle Steel. These authors are, in part, name brands. But entertainment is a business, the second oldest profession, and (like politics, the third oldest,) it is closely related to the first. This may seem cynical, but that is reality.

Dargis makes an important point in the last paragraph of this excerpt, that "without the human factor," another way of saying good storytelling, "a blockbuster is nothing but a big empty box." Big budget film are not really all that different from their low budget counterparts. While we all notice the big budget box office and artistic disasters, there are plenty of low budget films that aren't worth their weight in popcorn (A Vincent Gallo marathon, anyone?). What Hollywood studios are able to provide are the resources to make and market a film like Gladiator or The Matrix. This simply could not be done by a low budget filmmaker. And the Hollywood distribution system is able to take independent films like Pulp Fiction or Open Water and place them in theaters located in Mankato, Minnesota rather than limiting their exhibition to New York, Los Angeles, and a few film festivals.

So go ahead and enjoy that $250 million nonstop adrenaline ride. Or take in a small intimate story produced on a shoe string budget. Just hope that when the credits role and the lights come back up that you got your money's worth.