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Monday, November 04, 2019

Beware Another "Think Piece"

Film As Art Is Still So Much Popcorn

Movies don’t get respect. They haven’t even after a hundred years. Will it ever come? First some possible whys … the very word “movies” suggests a diminutive ("flicks" worse). But what more appropriate? There is “film,” a word to issue largely from schoolmasters, “cinema” the same, and as pretentious. “Picture” I like, have used, much as old-timers did. I’d propose popcorn as a highest barrier to prestige. Ever see someone carry a buttered bag into the ballet or opera? Popcorn is by definition frivolous. We do not make a meal of art by having meals with art. Especially something so silly as popcorn. With real culture, there is no place even for caviar. Herewith are the most popular snacks with movies: Milk Duds, Raisinets, “Sour Patch Kids,” Goobers, Nachos, Whoppers, popcorn being, of course, Number One. Some theatres will sell you a hot dog. We used to get hamburgers at the Liberty, likelier soybean-burgers. They came with slaw that I used to scrape onto the floor. Such was my regard for our Temple Of Enrichment. How to experience moving picture art on one hand with a box of Goobers in the other? I read that in the silent era, they didn’t let food into theatres. Peanut vendors off the street were allowed to push carts up-down aisles at a few places. Popcorn came later to scuttle film’s parity among the arts. Now awash with Goobers, our debasement is complete.

Note the "Formal Premiere"

Moviegoing was from the start a most democratic cultural pursuit. Too democratic, said High Art gatekeepers. Darkness conferred privacy, so it mattered less how you looked, whereas at live theatre, an arriving, or seated in boxes, viewership, bore as much scrutiny as actors on the stage. Roadshows upped the ante for deportment. Those of a politer generation imposed orderliness. We were dressed for My Fair Lady during a Washington family trip in 1965, my suggestion that we instead see Tomb Of Ligeia at an outskirts drive-in brusquely put down. I wore a starchy white shirt for the Pinocchio reissue of 1962, a feeling of red ants crawling up my back what I recall best of that day. Patrons came appropriate to outstanding event that was Cinerama, as did “Formal Premiere” attendees on Broadway during the early 30’s. To be assigned a seat conferred status, being escorted there jam on the bread. By such means might movies approach legit performance. Problem was attractions that did not justify hard ticket terms, or stayed past point of filling seats. A 1968 foray to Gone With The Wind at Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theatre saw me led by an usher with his flashlight to my reserved spot at a virtually empty matinee. I was seated to the far right, not a favored perch, but my ticket was specific. What penalty might come of a unilateral move? It was halfway through the Barbecue at Twelve Oaks before I dared a center view.

Assuming film is culture, is there any longer a film culture? The sort, I mean, that stood collegiates back blocks for a latest Antonioni or Bergman. Film festivals continue to thrive, so youth, and memory of art film in flower, is served. Apart from queue for comic book adapts, is there eager turnout for first Fridays of grown-up entertainment? I was there for Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, but do not expect that experience to be duplicated. There was once active film following on campuses. Is there vestige of it left? If most anything can be streamed on a hand device, why walk even to the student union for a screening? I saw where Martin Scorsese knocked super heroes and got knocked back even by a Disney chairman with interests distinctly vested. Then there is Francis Coppola who they say can’t/won’t/never will be, hired to make features again. These would seem last hope among veterans for Film As Art, at least as the elderly define Film As Art (but see Scorsese's newest, The Irishman, said to equal his best). I bet there is more worthy product made today than anyone could begin to keep up with, short of ticker tape to tell what is streaming or cloud concealed. Would finest stories shot on camera phones equal low-budget greats of yore? Ways people troll for movies have changed utterly. No longer must one wade in water to pan for gold. You’ll sift much dross, sure, but that was chance viewers and critics always took. Some so venturesome keep web pages to pass along finds, things we’d not know existed but for these bloggers' initiative.

How many will identify themselves as a “film historian?” To be an art historian might imply you have a job with a museum, or that you travel around and lecture, for pay. Best off is he/she who, when asked what they do, says “thoracic surgeon,” or “I design and build robotic body parts to restore normal function.” Most people, more’s a pity, regard film history as trivial pursuit, an absurd accumulation of useless information. I shrink a little if anyone calls me a film historian, but am annoyed by the “movie buff” tag, words best spoke to kazoo accompany, a whoopee cushion beneath all who’d celebrate the moving image. What awes me is respect comic folks get. They are gods now and film executives toady to them. Look at San Diego each year, and how stars, directors, sit along a dais to curry favor with those they once called geeks. Super hero enthusiasm no longer asks for respect --- it is demanded. Those who ignore the constituency do so to peril of their product, and their jobs. Imagine a studio establishment and opinion makers afraid not to know who Harry Langdon was, or Jack Pierce, or when and why we lost precode movies. It’s the stuff of dreams, so never mind, but imagine someone going to a boy basement filled with Spiderman and Fantastic Fours, telling him that someday his kind of idol would rule media. Could such an outcome have been believed?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

D. W. Griffith with THE BIRTH OF A NATION in 1915 at a top Broadway ticket of $2 a seat (over $50 a seat today) brought the bastard illegitimate (redundant I know) child that were the movies up to parity with legitimate theater. He showed that the motion picture could not only meet Broadway's expectations but also surpass them.

When the industry turned its back on that and relegated itself to being cheap entertainment all that Griffith had achieved was flushed down the toilet.

Today's audience spend more time looking down into giant popcorn containers and guzzling soda pop than they do actually watching the screen.

I have, unlike Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, no problem with Marvel's motion pictures. In fact, I like them. I have them all in Blu-ray 3D.

A moving image is a moving image. That's what defines a motion picture. What that moving image is of depends on the person with the camera.

The problem for the theatres is that the studios take almost all of the door. The only way the theatres can make money (stay in business) is through the selling of popcorn, etc..

9:41 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

I liked your "Think" piece; I always appreciate your musings on the winds of change.

I have a ticket to see THE IRISHMAN in a few weeks at New York's Belasco Theatre (a Broadway legit house). I can't decide -- should I wear a suit?

I can answer one of your (rhetorical) questions: "It’s the stuff of dreams, so never mind, but imagine if someone had gone to a boy basement filled with Spiderman and Fantastic Fours, telling him that someday his kind of idol would rule media. Could such an outcome have been believed?"


I would respectfully add that though I might be wrong about this, I think Francis Ford Coppola may have at least one more movie in him.

-- Griff

From John: Griff, I certainly hope Coppola has more movies in him, and that he'll be given the opportunity to make them.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Just a thought re: the masses vs. the art film crowd: In 1941, Chaplin's Mutual comedies were purchased by an enterprising distributor and a half-dozen were assembled into a compilation feature that was booked on the art house circuit, starting in New York City. The shorts were linked visually with an attractive "scrapbook" motif, but because this particular distributor was thrifty, the soundtracks that had been created by the films' previous owner, the Van Beuren Corporation, were not replaced. One serious lady cinemaphile took exception in a letter to the Amusements editor of the NEW YORK TIMES:

"Hearing of the CHAPLIN FESTIVAL... I sallied forth the other night and was delighted to see these favorites of mine. However, may I complain through your columns about the sound track which has been added to the detriment of the films, I think. It seems to me that a simple musical score would have been enough without all the whistles and cat-calls and noise effects which merely cluttered up the entire performance."

What fascinates me about this letter is that this particular moviegoer assumed the soundtrack was new, meaning she must have avoided her "favorites" when they were in regular distribution some eight years before. Today, of course, those soundtracks - assembled in 1932-33 by a second-string animated cartoon factory - are beloved (albeit more for the hot jazz than the "whistles and cat-calls"). Many latter-day cinemaphiles are loathe to part with their DVDs of "the Van Beuren versions," full-aperture transfers with restored intertitles on Blu-Ray be damned. And, of course, those versions more easily draw in kids. We know: we were kids when they drew US in.


12:12 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Another outstanding opinion piece from you, sir - opinions and observations delivered with the usual penetrating wit. It's this delicious stew of wisdom and merriment that keeps me coming back to your one of a kind site every day. Thanks again.

10:47 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I come from a culture of film geeks in Buenos Aires. When I see all of these TV ads that you posted I have say the way those movies were scheduled on television accomplished nothing. I can admit that they may have got very good ratings on their premiere, but that can only be accomplished for a single day since the following week it is quite possible that the following movie the next week didn't manage to get a big audience.

I frankly don't like how classic movies are exploited here in the United States: what once was a popular form of art today is a very elitist piece of overrated entertainment that is geared to unpopularity. Long before there was a Criterion company and their arrogance and self indulgence, Salvador Sammaritano was showing the same movies for free on public television in Argentina making them fully accessible and creating new film buffs, like me. Today it is a declining market with TCM doing everything to loose their audience now that Comecast has taken it away from the lineup of channel that we get with our subscription... channels that I don't care run from companies run by idiots that are overpricing content in order to compensate for the lost audience.

I would prefer to watch Fernando Martín Peña's show instead of the options that we have here. He programs movies, both classic and obscure titles from all over the world and different genres as well with an intelligence that I have never, ever seen here in the United States.

11:11 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Food in the movies ... as of late we're seeing a lot of "dine-in" cinemas, where restaurant-grade meals are brought to your motorized recliner chair. Upscale and expensive, but does it impart any more respectability to what's on the screen?

2:37 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The outcome of comic book superheroes "ruling the movies" had already been prefigured by the late 1970s: 'Superman: The Movie' was a big hit in 1978. The biggest draw for my friends and I way back then certainly wasn't the anticipation of the drama or plot or even the characters presented, but the sheer visual spectacle made possible by the special-effects department.
Successful comic book and other fantasy movies are still bottomed upon the presentation of spectacular visuals. But, as the technical ability to create and present these spectacular visions of the imagination have become less exclusive, sheer spectacle alone has proven to be no longer enough to ensure a successful box-office.
I for one recognized in the late 1970s that the special effects then available were simply not yet either good nor inexpensive enough to present comic-book stories on the screen in a way to fully exploit the imagination which the comic-book creators had displayed on the pages of their comics - even animation was at that time yet too expensive to present those visions.
In fact, those comic books had always relied upon the imaginations of their young readers to animate their stories, to bring them to life; forty years later, that has changed, as the special-effects workers (and animators, too) are now both good and inexpensive enough to almost do away completely with the need for any exercise of imagination whatsoever by the viewers in the presentation of fantastic visuals.
Oddly, the result of that seems to be a "humanization" of the superheroes: the ubiquity of the means to produce fantastic and elaborate visual spectacle has served to re-invigorate the need for engaging drama and comedy in the relations between the characters portrayed on the screen in order to distinguish the film from others in its genre. Without those kinds of dramatics, the spectacle becomes an empty one, and that film will likely lack legs at the box office regardless of how spectacular it looks.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I had read somewhere long ago that peanuts were chosen as the cinema "snack" to increase revenue for the exhibitor and to provide a market for peanuts that southern farmers were forced to grow due to soil depletion in the pre-peanut butter days. It turned out peanuts made efficient, annoying projectiles and then popcorn was promoted as the cinema snack.
I have met people who were made anxious with the concept of consuming edibles during a film showing. I for one had no such consternation for that great tasting popcorn.
I haven't been to a cinema since that movie of DiCaprio being mauled by a bear was released. I had noticed at that visit to the cinema that the food was so expensive the theater did not list the prices on the menu. I found out that popcorn is no longer popped at the cinema, but at some centralized location elsewhere. Ugh.
Cinema nostalgia peaked at the time VHS was introduced to the public. During the 50's through the early 70's, TV was rife with old film because TV stations didn't have to pay dead actors or defunct film companies. Folks at that time wanted to see these films in an exhibition setting. I remember when film festivals were common and I attended a few. Some cinemas showed exclusively old films and managed to stay afloat for awhile, the Ogden in Denver was one.
Nowadays the amount of people who care about old film is minuscule.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Michael's offended lady patron who objected to the Chaplin Van Beurens hadn't had the chance to see them all at once. Upon first release they were just individual added attractions, at an RKO show she might have declined to see. I can just see her snooting Wheeler & Woolsey!

John, I loved your "kazoo accompany" remark! Save a kazoo for me. I'm somewhere between a movie buff and a film historian. I'd be thrown out of a clannish clique of cineastes: "What's with all this Ingmar Bergman? Don't you run any Columbias or Monograms? Can I request at least one Laurel & Hardy or Charles Starrett picture?" (And yes, I do say "picture.")

10:55 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Face it, Scott. You're a historian. All the way a historian. Mere "buffs" don't write books the quality of yours.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The folks who get their tit in a wringer write letters. The ones who like the show rarely do.

Ironically the folks who don't like us do us more good as they talk about us while the ones who do don't.

When I first began doing my programs at a bar one night the entire audience said during my into to the program, "Shut up or give us our money back!"

I said, "Go get your money."

As they stormed out I said to the manager, "We will be packed and have to turn people away tomorrow night."

He said the next night, "I did not think we'd have anyone here," as he surveyed the packed house.

The life blood of the arts is, always has been and always will be controversy. Controversy is stirred up by them that don't like us.

You won't find a film buff (or a film academic) within fifty miles of my programs.

As far as scoring silent comedy goes I prefer hot instrumental jazz to synchronized soundtracks that try to be funny and get in the way of the humour on the screen. Get more laughs that way.

9:34 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Food for thought -- I've been mulling this one for a couple of days. Lately there's been a trend towards luxury with powered recliners and high-toned meals delivered by waiters. One could argue this is even more degrading than Goobers and Coke, because it emphatically identifies the movie as something that doesn't need or deserve your undivided attention. Even at those prices.

But seriously, folks ... Pretty much from the get-go, movies have been Popular Entertainment. Nickelodeons could thrive in locales that couldn't support a legit playhouse or even vaudeville. For cheap entertainment it was magazines, dime novels and your older sister abusing popular songs on the piano. In time radio and finally television offered damaging competition, but movies prospered by underselling live entertainment to the point where average families could afford to go weekly or even more frequently. It also became a socially acceptable and allowance-friendly activity for young people. Finally, a lot of people laughing, sniffling, and gasping at the same show became a sort of community event, especially as the movies and corollary press became shared folklore in day-to-day life.

This loops back to the respect issue in two ways: First, all those screens demanded Product, and an industry came forth to provide it. The sheer quantity of films mitigated against a uniform level of culture and uplift. Quality pictures could and would get lost in the tide, the way filet mignon would get lost in a Boston Market steam table. If they were made outside the studio system, it was tough to get them in front of an audience; if they were made inside the studio system, they generally got dragged down to the comfort level of the least intelligent and most cowardly executive.

Second, respect in the arts is almost always tied to elitism. In "The Films of Laurel and Hardy", Everson speculated that the boys hadn't attained critical respect because they were too available and accessible, while Louise Brooks's films got their due because they could only be seen with great effort.

Expanding on that, I'd say capital-R Respect requires obstacles that preclude mass appeal:
1. It has to be fairly expensive, identifying it as Valuable.
2. It has to be hard to get at, limiting access to those who Truly Appreciate It.
3. It has to require a lot of special knowledge to Get It.
You can readily apply this to the art world, wine, the fancier restaurants, and modern comic books. Where comics were once even cheaper and more accessible than the movies, now they're expensive and collectible, and tailored to committed connoisseurs rather than kids who pick up a random copy at a drug store. (By the way: Actual comics now comprise a comparatively small part of DC and Marvel revenues. The real money is in the movies -- which serious comic fans tend to view with jaundiced eyes, since the films are "popularized" for a mass audience). Filmmakers, even the most artistic, lean away from elitism in that they want their films to be seen by a large audience. They may not dream of Disney-sized grosses, but they don't want to end up in a private collection vault either.

I could go on, but as a public service I won't.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

DBenson: Ditto.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The real money is not in the movies. It's in the product merchandising. The movies are commercials for the products. SONY has the rights to SPIDER-MAN but to the the SPIDER-MAN merchandise. To keep the rights SONY has to produce films. MARVEL is content to let them do that as the real money does not come from the movies (or the comics as you note). The movies and the comics keep the characters alive.

Ditto Warners and the LOONEY TUNES characters.

7:16 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

For me during the past decade or so, the most interesting contemporary films are coming from foreign markets.

Despite the occasional fluke in the current Hollywood system that brings us a "Get Out" or "Moonlight", foreign filmmakers are still cranking out great films made by and for adults and smart genre pictures that either get no distribution here or might pop up, with no promotion, on one of the streaming services.

I've made a regular habit of looking over the UK, German, and French versions of Amazon to look for local product not released here, taking a chance on films that look interesting. It's been rewarding, seeing big comic book stars like Tom Hardy or Simon Pegg appear in interesting and challenging movies in between their big Hollywood projects, or latching on to local thrillers or action films much more entertaining and well scripted that overblown US attempts in the same genres.

Even the so-called "art house" or alternative venues, like the Alamo Drafthouse, have become rather predictable, showing a constant parade of "indie" movies with big stars promoted through National Public Radio, revivals of 80s hits many of us were bored with thirty years ago, and the occasional "oldie" like "It's a Wonderful Life" or yet another screening of "Vertigo" or "Psycho".

Lately, I've wondered if a single screen a big urban area could make a go of it by showing films from foreign markets or US indie producers not picked up for theatrical distribution here, giving audiences the chance to see something they can't get at a big box cineplex or on their preferred streaming service.

The 1990s seemed to be the "sweet spot" for me with seeing films in a theater. Sure, there were the big studio pictures, but at least once a month, I could expect to see at least one interesting true indie or foreign film at my local cineplex in Winston. A few I spent years trying to track down on home video. These really were "must sees", since you really didn't know if you'd have a chance to see them again.

9:07 AM  

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