Friday, January 07, 2011

Rebooting the Culture


I took my dad to a New Year's Eve matinee of "True Grit". Ordinarily, it wouldn't have been my first choice. But he loves "Dusters", so that's where we went.

I was in my teens when the John Wayne version came out in 1968, so I knew the basic story and I didn't have a positive memory of it.

I didn't see it in a theatre when it came out, John Wayne being an ultra-conservative supporter of the Vietnam war and representing (to me) much of what was wrong and right-wing about Hollywood at the time.

In fact, the strongest memory I have that's related to it is of Richard Burton, nominated for "Anne of the Thousand Days", sitting in his seat at the Academy Awards and shaking his head in bewilderment as the Duke hurried past him to collect his award, also beating out Peter O'Toole for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for "Midnight Cowboy".

I saw the movie sometime later on TV and found it pretty much forgettable, with Glenn Campbell struggling badly to act in the part of the Texas Ranger and Kim Darby working equally hard to come across as a girl barely in her teens.

That's just the way John Wayne movies were made back then, some eye candy for the youngsters and a guy who could sing the theme song.

So while I like Jeff Bridges a lot and have an ultimate respect for the Coen Brothers, this felt like it had the makings of another "Hudsucker Proxy" or one of those studio projects "A" listers seem obligated to do now and then in order to get a project more to their liking off the ground.

My perspective on the future of filmed entertainment wasn't much buoyed by the pre-film trailers which included a seasonal greeting from the head of the Famous Players theatre chain promising 2011 as the year I'd get to see "Hangover 2", "Kung Fu Panda 2", "Cars 2", "Sherlock Holmes 2", "Transformers 3", "Scream 4" and "Harry Potter 8 - Pt.2".

Added to this were remakes of "The Mechanic", "Arthur", "Fright Night", "Footloose", "Straw Dogs" and "Poltergeist" as well as reboots of several well worn franchises and at least a dozen new comic book super heroes not much different from the ones we already have.

It didn't help that Harvey Weinstein had just announced a deal to make the entire Miramax Library available for sequels, remakes and reboots, promising to deliver "Shakespeare in Love 2", "Rounders 2" and "Swingers 2" among others.

I was happy to have the lights dim, since it signaled my first remake of this "New Movie Order" would soon be over.


"True Grit", however, turned out to be quite impressive, filled with fresh ideas, actors who could act incredibly well (as well as plausibly play a 14 year old) and maybe the best script currently available onscreen.

So I got to thinking that when Harvey Weinstein said "Shakespeare in Love 2 will be better than 90% of the films out there" he might not be too far from the truth.

Maybe his words were just standard fare Hollywood bravado. God knows nobody rushed to see the almost-a-Shakespeare-in-Love-sequel "Stage Beauty", despite brilliant performances by Billy Crudup and Claire Danes and absolutely nobody has had any time for any of the "Rounders" copycats that now fill the D2DVD and remainder shelves at whatever video stores still manage to keep their doors open.

Some of those who write extensively about the business have looked at the upcoming release slate and bemoaned the studio addiction to sequels and remakes and reboots, suggesting that it reflects "the end of creativity".

I've never been one to latch onto the recurring "conventional wisdoms" of Hollywood where "insiders" share secret knowledge of what will get made and why. Most of the time they're dead wrong or no better at prognostication than the average movie fan.

I'm also not big on the "End of…" anything crowd. Remember the "End of History" -- or "Irony" or "TV Comedy" or "The Republican Party"? Somehow they're all still with us.

But for a guy who makes his living thinking up his own stories, there still was a lot of room to wonder what the future might hold.

If the 2011 release schedule and the Miramax plan suggested anything it was that the big players were seeing DVD sales shrink, movie sales to television decline and distributors like Red Box and Netflix offering less than send-your-kids-to-Harvard deals.

They were hedging their bets and going with the known over the unknown.

And then my dad started talking about the movie on our way home in the car.  He'd liked it a lot too. We even laughed in the same places which is saying a lot since his Alzheimer's is kicking in pretty good now.

Most days he's not really sure who I am anymore or where exactly we are on his life's journey. And on the bad ones I become some guy named Chuck he used to hang with after the war.

He'd been feeling well earlier in the day, so I invited some of his air force buddies over for lunch. They're all in their 80's and none was staying awake until midnight, so they used the time to reminisce about New Years past.

It was going well until the conversation ebbed and my dad said, "Chuck, you must remember a special New Year's from your time in the service."

A couple of the guys eyed their drinks, saying nothing, the way they all do when a friend falters. A couple of the others waited intently for my reply.

I felt like Michael Crawford in that episode of "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em" where he attends his deceased father's regimental reunion and most of the guys only notice that "Old Spencer has aged well".

But in the car, after the movie, whether I was me or Chuck, my dad recalled going to see Tom Mix movies back in the 1930's. He recounted the experience in incredible detail, right down to the kind of wood and velvet seats you found across Saskatchewan in the combination movie/vaudeville houses that used to stand in almost every village and town.

I knew his memories were accurate because I can remember being in a couple of those before they all disappeared not long after the arrival of television. One was a place where I saw my first live show sometime in the mid 1950's, believe it or not, a travelling minstrel show.

Some things apparently take much, much longer to die than most imagine.

tom mix3

But as my father recalled one of the Tom Mix adventures he'd seen as a boy, I started to realize that for all our vaunted admiration of the new and the groundbreaking and the game-changing reimagining, pretty much everything we do is built fairly solidly on what came before.

Tom Mix worked with John Ford who virtually invented John Wayne who made a forgettable Western famous enough by winning an award that somebody else thought it might be worth remaking.

Somewhere along a similar historical timeline, British Sea Shanties transformed into Bluegrass and Country music. Somehow playing skiffle riffs inspired "The Beatles" to create a discography that still echoes here and there across every iPod playlist.

Few people know that "Oklahoma", the Musical that both saved and revived the Broadway Musical was based on a play that had died on a nearby New York stage only months earlier. If you want details, may I suggest Jaime Weinman, who probably can quote from both Playbills.

Indeed, the entire history of Hollywood has been based on turning previously successful books and plays and magazine articles into movies. Why should it be considered out of the ordinary that studios are now basing their new films on old ones.

And the same books and plays have often been remade in the past when social mores adjust to allow them to tell parts of the story once expurgated for being too sexy, somehow taboo or even just politically out of tune with the times.

At first blush, the Seth Rogan version of "The Green Hornet" looks like studio hubris at its worst. But maybe 3D and cloning visuals from video games will make it worth watching.

The trailer for "Transformers 3" certainly had my attention until I saw things begin to transform, so maybe there's a chance it won't end up as another noisy, pointless toy commercial.

For all the potential doom and gloom, "True Grit" exhibited that there is still room for an original voice and a fresh take that make a story come alive.

So maybe "Rounders 2" will need Matt Damon and Teddy KGB to make people "Pay the man. Pay him his money". Or maybe all it will take is a screenwriter with a fresh take on Poker.

You can't make a Poker movie without a guy who's good at the game. Does it really matter if his name has to be Mike or "The Worm" to get it made?

Somehow, despite Aristotle pointing out that there were only 7 basic plots, we've managed, in the intervening centuries, to keep people entertained and coming back for more.

And no matter how "original" our creative voices might feel to us, we're all just echoing what came before and being derivative.

What keeps the experience from being repetitive is our ability to tell the story better rather than just repeat it; finding a truth in it that no one has discovered before or making it resonate for our times in a way the older version made for another time and another people can no longer do.

There's always a future -- even if there's a 2 stuck on the end of it.


Brandon Laraby said...

A great sequel is just a great movie with a number on the end of it. It all comes down to the people working behind the scenes, the writers, actors, directors, producers, gaffers -- whatever -- who come together and decide that, for whatever reason, they're going to make this bird sing.

Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan was infinitely better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture. See Also: Aliens, The Dark Knight and Terminator 2.

Jacob Silverman said...

re:The part where it says "Tom Mix worked...iPod playlist"

These are very good observations on the nature of capitalism