Monday, September 06, 2010

Bad Movies and Capitalism

When it comes to bad movies, I frequently place a big portion of the blame squarely at the feet of capitalism -- and I don't just mean individual movies that are bad, but also broader problems that are quite common among mainstream feature films, including ones that I like. Yet that exists in tension with my sense of the feature film as a media form that is extremely capitalist, in that it often involves extensive mobilization of resources to produce not-very-much. I have trouble seeing how anything but the possibility of generating profit could motivate that kind of use of resources on any regular basis. So what's an anti-capitalist who really likes going to the movies to do? What might post-capitalist films look like?

This somewhat silly and vaguely tongue-in-cheek post was inspired by me seeing a spectacularly awful movie on Saturday night. I went to see "Piranha 3D". It is a prime example of how capitalism is to blame for bad movies.

See, movies currently exist to make money. In order to make money, they must sell tickets. In order to sell tickets, they must attract people -- as many people as possible. To attract people to buy movie tickets, you don't actually need a movie that has a good story, that is well-written, or that is overall well done. Those things don't necessarily work against you, but they are secondary to having enough arbitrary pull-factors in the same two-hour package to get bums into seats. So, for instance, having a big name star in a movie is a pull-factor. Having lots of cool explosions can be a pull-factor. Drawing on a reliably popular story form -- the buddy cop flick, the boilerplate romantic comedy, etc. -- can be a pull-factor, perhaps with the inclusion of a novel twist that is intriguing but not threatening. Having lots of sex in the movie can be a pull-factor. Being connected with a well-known and well-liked pop culture franchise can be a pull-factor. You put enough of these together, and sink enough money into telling people that you have them through ads and trailers and such -- or into deceiving people into thinking you have them when the movie really doesn't -- and you can make money. A good story that is well-written is not necessarily the most easily mass marketable aspect of a movie, which means (in combination with the social organization of feature filmmaking in which creative decisions are often made by committees of executives and not actually content creators themselves) that even many films that we experience as "good" are actually this mish-mash of pull-factors stuck on top of stories and writing that are mediocre or worse.

"Piranha 3D" exemplifies this in an almost ridiculously extreme way. It has a small number of pull-factors. The horrible-terrifying-creature-eating-people trope is popular enough to guarantee some interest. Since that was about all I knew about the film when I bought my ticket, that's what got me. There are some points of pop culture cleverness that may bring in a few people via word-of-mouth, such as the intense references to Jaws, including a cameo by the rapidly eaten Richard Dreyfuss singing "show me the way to go home"(which I have to admit I quite enjoyed), and the small role for Christopher Lloyd playing, well, a generic Christopher Lloyd character. Perhaps the biggest pull-factor beyond the premise is the staggering amount of screen time given to extremely hetero-male-gaze-ish shots of bikini-clad and naked young skinny mostly-white women who meet dominant definitions of attractiveness, all in 3D -- the stereotypical thirteen year-old hetero boys will be sneaking in in droves, and many older hetero men whose sexualities continue to resemble those of stereotypical thirteen year-old boys will be paying full price. The film will probably make money, given it likely cost a reasonably modest amount (by Hollywood standards) to make. But it's an awful, awful movie. The story and writing are run-of-the-mill Hollywood bad, with plenty of implausible holes, dubious dialogue, and blatant cribbing from a hundred prior films.

The need to maximize profit and therefore mass appeal and the power over creation exerted by committees of businesspeople are also at least partially responsible for lots of the other things that are distasteful about movies in general, including many "good" movies. However you apportion the blame between actual processes of audience formation -- who has the money, who spends the money, why they spend it -- and ignorant, prejudicial assumptions about audience formation by studio executives, this drives the powerful imperative in Hollywood whereby dissident aesthetics, marginalized voices, and critical politics are kept in their subordinated places.

In terms of what post-capitalist movies might look like, there are at least a couple of ways to try and answer this question. One is the really deep and clever way. I read an essay a few months ago in a book of marxist commentary on science fiction -- "Art as 'the basic technique of life': Utopian art and art in utopia in The Dispossessed and Blue Mars" by William J. Burling. It didn't talk specifically about cinema, but about the arts more generally. It argued in ways that I'm not going to get into that transforming the means of production would result in changes in human consciousness such that art-like endeavours in a post-revolutionary society would be unrecognizable as such to people whose consciousness has developed under capitalism. I'm not sure I totally agree -- it struck me as a bit over the top -- but I suspect that there is something to the notion that radical differences in social organization would mean that arts and music and all of that would shift sideways and diagonally in ways that are hard to imagine from where we are now, though I think speculation could be fun. But I don't have it in me to make stuff up along those lines right now, so we'll move right along to more prosaic speculations.

I think in a post-capitalist world, films would have more variety and better writing but less spectacle. I think that a society that made decisions in some sort of decentralized, democratic way would, even if entertainment was highly valued and even if resources were not in short supply, be unlikely to regularly sink the resources equivalent to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into producing two hours of entertainment. However, I suspect production and distribution systems would be very decentralized, which would allow for much greater variety in form and content than we currently see. This would probably include lots of things with very niche appeal, including lots that I would have no interest in but inevitably lots that would strike my fancy. Even better, I think such a world would have better written films because the drive to maximize inclusion of pull-factors would no longer crowd out good storytelling, and there would be more scope for creative vision to reach the screen without being filtered through committees of profit-conscious suits.

I have to admit that part of me would miss the spectacle, though. The improved writing and much broader range of form and content would be a fair trade, but I'd still miss the spectacle from time to time.

I wouldn't miss it if "Piranha 3D" didn't exist, though.


thwap said...

I can't fucking believe that YOU went to see "Piranha 3-d"

I find the idea of people actively enjoying movies where attractive young people get dismembered to be frightening actually.

I guess I'm a sentimental sap but I don't fantasize about death and dismemberment.

I like spectacle in a movie. But spectacle doesn't have to be mindless.

Scott said...


Believe me, I was hoping _Scott Pilgrim_ would still be playing so I could go and see _that_ again (though it has plenty of the "good" movie shortcomings alluded to above). If I had any inkling of what I was in for, which I know I should have, I would've picked one of the other lousy options...oh well, I suppose I got a post out of it, at least.

Scott said...

I should perhaps clarify the last line of the saying i wouldn't miss it, I mean that I wouldn't miss it one little bit if it did not exist, NOT that I wouldn't miss seeing it for the world or anything like that!!

Scott said...

Aaaaaand edited the post to reflect that...