Sunday, December 18, 2005

Pernicious adequacy afflicts the film world too, not just music. Well, so says A.O. Scott, more or less, in this NYT piece on the malaise of middling middlebrow movies, entitled "Where Have All the Howlers Gone?". As it'll be subscribers-only any minute now, I'll just go ahead quote big chunks of it:

"Just last summer the air was filled with anxiety about an apparent box-office slump, as journalists and studio executives alike wondered why fewer people seemed to be going to the movies. The most obvious explanation - or at least the one I favored at the time - was that the movies just weren't good enough. But now that the season of list-making and awards-mongering is upon us and the slump talk has quieted down, I find myself preoccupied with a slightly different, not unrelated worry: What if the problem with Hollywood today is that the movies aren't bad enough? Which is not to say that there aren't enough bad movies. Quite the contrary. There is never a shortage, and there may even be a glut. The number of movies reviewed in The New York Times - those released in New York - grows every year; in 2005 it will approach 600. Given that so much human endeavor is condemned to mediocrity - like it or not, we spend most of our lives in the fat, undistinguished middle of the bell curve - it is hardly surprising that many of these pictures turn out not to be very good. But the very worst films achieve a special distinction, soliciting membership in a kind of negative canon, an empyrean of anti-masterpieces. It is this kind of bad movie - the train wreck, the catastrophe, the utter and absolute artistic disaster - that seems to be in short supply.
And this is very bad news. Disasters and masterpieces, after all, often arise from the same impulses: extravagant ambition, irrational risk, pure chutzpah, a synergistic blend of vanity, vision and self-delusion. The tiniest miscalculation on the part of the artist - or of the audience - can mean the difference between adulation and derision. So in the realm of creative achievement, the worst is not just the opposite of the best, but also its neighbor. This year has produced plenty of candidates for a Bottom 10 (or 30 or 100) list, but I fear that none of the bad movies are truly worthy of being called the worst. And this may be why so few are worthy of being considered for the best..... There are fewer and fewer movies being made that send us from the theater reeling and rubbing our eyes, wondering "what the heck was that?" or demanding a refund. For precisely that reason, we are less and less likely to emerge breathless and dazzled, eager to go back for more and unable to forget what we just saw

Another parallel between music and film: the remake phenomenon. When did it start? I don't remember there being remakes at all when I was a youth in the 1970s and early Eighties, unless you count A Star Is Born, and the only famous example from the classic Hollywood studio era I can think of The Philadelphia Story getting turned into High Society (which a/ turned into a different kind of movie all together, a musical and b/ the remake is such a classic anyway). I'm not counting Hollywood remakes of foreign films, just thinking of remakes where the motivation is that the film was already a blockbuster the first time round, ie. that mixture of play-safe meets imaginative failure meets exploiting nostalgia/retro-kitsch. What was the first real example of that, cineastes and scholars?

The parallel between rock-retro and movie-retro isn't precise. You get bands who'll base themselves almost entirely on another earlier band, but you don't get groups who decide to remake a classic rock-canon album. (Well, that's not true, it's happened a few times--Pussy Galore redoing Exile on Main Street, other examples I'm sure--but always as a way-marginal, art-conceptualist move, i.e. nothing like the mainstream blockbuster remake a la King Kong, Bad News Bears, etc). Still there' s definitely a similar kinda lameness at work, a failure of nerve that proves that retro-mania isn't just a pop/rock-specific phenomenon but a culture-wide malaise.

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