Why are so many movies awful?

The short answer: they’re ruled by marketing, not by art, feeling, or emotion, to the extent that those characteristics can’t be captured by marketing.

The longer answer comes from Tad Friend’s article in the January 19 2009 issue of The New Yorker, “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which describes how movies get made. Today, the answer is nearly identical to the question of how movies get marketed. My favorite quote is a little less than midway through:

” ‘Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,’ one studio’s president of production says. ‘So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, “This director was born to make this movie.” ‘ “

“Pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates:” it’s a great metaphor that conveys precisely how much vast corporations care about art as well as the relative power of those existing within studios. Creativity isn’t dead, even in major studios’ presidents of production, but neither is cynicism, as the article shows in too many places to enumerate. “Cynical” might be too light a word—if Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood is somewhat cynical, then nothing except perhaps nihilism describes the Hollywood marketer’s mind as portrayed by Friend.

Read the whole article for more: it never comes out and baldly states what’s obvious, as I have. This blog only occasionally strays into territory dealing with movies; this analysis of Cloverfield is my only extended treatment of one, although this post discusses movie versions of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the movies I tend to pay the most attention to are based off books; according to Friend’s article, such movies are “‘pre-awareness’ titles: movies like ‘Spider-Man’ whose stories the audience already knew from another medium […]” like virtually all that have made extraordinary amounts of money in the last decade. Movies also tend to raise a book’s profile enough to encourage me to read it when I otherwise wouldn’t; the movie version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an example of this.

I suppose the same question regarding why so many are so bad could be applied to books too, but books are often less obvious: critics seem to have (slightly) more power, and the sheer number of books makes the bad ones easier to ignore. Call it strength in diversity. Movies are noisier, and because there are fewer of them, each one collects more attention. But because they cost so much to make, they become a numbers game; I care vastly more about aesthetic worth than opening weekends. But, at least as shown in this article, Hollywood cares about those numbers.

It shows in their product.

EDIT: Wynton Marsalis, by way of Alex Ross:


At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it’s hard to fathom. Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.

In addition, see my comments on Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood for more on how the way movies are made affects the movies that are made.

The Reader — Bernhard Schlink

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is sensual and philosophical, moving from the former, which predominates in the beginning, toward the latter in a manner “both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile,” as Michael describes the journeys in the Odyssey. “What is else is the history of the law?” he asks, and one might ask the same of history, full stop, or of love; The Reader implies that there is no answer save that the law, history, or love have whatever purpose we graft onto it, just as one could argue for a sensual reading of the novel, especially in the first part, or a philosophic, especially as Michael grows older. A young man with an older woman named Hanna feels the sensual as well as their, and its, doom, while the second, comes from an older lawyer who finds that his first love, if one can call it that, is being tried for crimes that would seem astonishing if not for the time period and location. There is a third part I will demure from speaking much of; to do so would give too much away in a novel that often feels like it gives too little away, especially of its feelings. Chapters end with no sense of ending beyond the beginning of the next chapter. Chapters of Michael’s life end with a similar lack of fanfare, and The Reader is, at its base, a novel that almost demands readings as analytic as its protagonist is inclined to give.

Some descriptions in The Reader are simple and true enough not to need elaboration, and those who have undergone extensive trials will recognize what happens when Michael’s bout with hepatitis renders him hospitalized for months: “although friends still came to see me, I had been sick for so long that their visits could no longer bridge the gap between their daily lives and mine, and became shorter and shorter.” Then again, Michael does not make friends easily, and his eventual wife is a ghostly presence who seems to affect him less than the hepatitis, or, for that matter, the weather. Perhaps this event combined with natural temperament and his liaisons with Hanna make Michael himself. Or maybe he was always this way, and that’s what brought him to Hanna and her secrets. Alas: those apt sentences like the one describing Michael’s illness tantalize us for more, and yet they are not forthcoming.

This novel is hardly alone in its remote, abstract mode. What is it about these Europeans—Schlink, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa*—who write short, sheer novels in which scenes are described and then left, like shards of a pot or torn pages from a book, for us to construct, or reconstruct? The length of the mostly rhetorical question probably indicates how little of an answer I can give. It’s almost as if the denial of a character’s interpretation, or the uncertain certainty they display when they do give interpretations, are or should be a statement of what we won’t know. Although this is overly abstract, perhaps I’m given to say it by having just finished The Reader, which challenges us to read the unreadable, and my chief response to it has to be a level above the action itself. The book just ends with a statement so devoid of interpretation that the feeling it must submerge becomes enhanced all the more because of its hiddenness. Like a great novel, we are left to wonder.

But I purposefully say “like a great novel,” rather than calling the novel itself great.

* I know: Llosa was born in Peru. But he feels European and lives part-time in European countries, so I count him as one here.

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