5 Contemptible Things about Hollywood
If I were speaking from the gut, as it were, I would say this list should go no further than the following 5 crimes on the senses: 1) biopics of historical leaders. 2) movies made out of comic books or video and board games. 3) the latest generation of sweeping historical and fantasy epics. 4) The Asylum film studio behind all of the coyly-titled “mockbusters”. 5) the “spoof” dorks Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who put more money but somehow less imagination than the Asylum geniuses into their films that are labeled “comedies” for the purposes of categorization. But those are juvenile complaints. What truly ails the film industry in the United States is an acceptance of apocalyptic agitprop, welfare bribes for movie stars, overdone genres, narcissistic self-congratulations and a fierce Hail Mary attempt by a weakening cartel to crowd out competition and expand their powers through the government. No, Epic Movie pales in comparison to the following 5 aspects of the film industry that affect us all in profoundly negative ways.
1. Evangelizing through horror films
A consistent theme in this list will surely be the sense of an industry being hoisted by its own petard through diminishing returns on a gimmick and/or the law of unintended consequences. This is a pattern through all film history, where a genre begets further copies of itself like asexual amoebas, until people grow sick of it. But the same standard does not necessarily apply when it comes to a trope in art that connects with religious belief. With a testament on your side, you can get believers to watch Tom Green pick his nose if it fit the tapestry. Certain narrative tactics strike true and pay dividends, almost like a sacred back-alley mugging. As the legendary film critic Pauline Kael said in a scathing review of The Exorcist, “[it’s] the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” The audience’s daily lives were imperiled by a novel marketing strategy, wherein the studio rejected all requests to publish images of the possessed girl (played by Linda Blair) in order to intensify the terror while watching the film. Surely, at least a few of the people with a scintilla of religiosity walked back to their car and sat staring at the wheel for a half hour in the dark.
If a film affects audiences in such a way, doesn’t that constitute quality, nay … greatness? Yes and no. The Exorcist is certainly one of the more inspired horror films ever made, but the underlying message behind it is that we should all get back into Church (specifically, the Catholic Church). The effect was so powerful, that many films since have tried shamelessly to utilize terror as a conversion method. The demonic possession genre is so profuse, it’s moved from fiction to reality television shows involving a lot of the people who stay up way past their bedtimes watching all these movies. The themes of Christianity native to most Western art for the past 17 centuries have concentrated and narrowed their efforts on the horror genre in recent decades as the last redoubt to shock lost souls into repentance. No longer do regular melodramas, romances or comedies try to appeal to one’s faith. Tree of Life? Bah! Too abstract! Give me Keanu Reeves shooting demons with a crucifix bow and arrow! After a century of losing battles trying to convince others of the preeminence of metaphysical religious claims, the priestly class has turned to fiction as the one realm where their arguments can actually win in the end.
But, you say: “where is the harm? And what does it matter if mere mythology colors our art?” After all, the great classical and renaissance artists and poets all drew from mythos they didn’t actually believe. Well I cannot account for any mass harm done by Bacchanalias or Ovid’s raunchy poetry, but when one watched Bill Paxton’s chilling film Frailty, where he conducts a number of ax murders of “demons”, whose true nature only he can see, the implications become a little scary for anybody outside of the faith. When two films inspired by the same “possession” are produced simultaneously but with varying levels of insult for the audience’s intelligence, it’s almost expected the worse example will be produced in the US. While both are ostensibly trying to tell the story of Anneliese Michel, Requiem reports solely the cold medical facts of a mentally disturbed young lady, while The Exorcism of Emily Rose sexes up the story to include cinematic frights and Satanic CGI. As if Americans need cartoon suggestions to take heed. It’s a wonder that the exorcism industry is seeing a monumental boom.
2. State tax credits for filmmakers
In the 1990s, the Directors Guild of America released a study claiming that $10 billion in lost revenue could be blamed on “Runaway Productions”: film productions being outsourced, predominantly to Canada, where they were siphoning American jobs, money and national pride etc. The response was swift: the film industry wanted competitive measures from the federal and state/local governments to keep Hollywood from fleeing for the Great White North. Louisiana and New Mexico decided to provide generous tax credits to films produced in their states, and following the success of films like “Ray” starring Jamie Fox, other states quickly took notice. Over the 2000s, the number of states offering tax incentives for film productions blossomed from 5 to 44. Some states, such as Michigan, went to extremes by offering up to 42% of the production cost in tax credits, attracting films such as the second Transformers sequel.
So despite the rest of the American economy having a sluggish recovery, we can at least be proud that Hollywood is still master of the film universe, and the day was saved thanks to these measures, no? Well, no. The prolonged economic feasibility of the tax incentives has suddenly become a worrisome burden in most of the states that have adopted them, and obviously the most generous state is facing the most awesome troubles, as Michigan had the most eye popping criticism of the program. Michigan’s Governor has significantly scaled back the money appropriated for the program, while the state’s pension plan is on the hook for Michigan’s largest and yet quickly failing film studio. Under The Alaska Film Production Incentive Program, Alaska became a hot destination for cinema and television, most notably the tundra queen herself, Sarah Palin’s own reality show that recently aired on TLC, 1/3rd of which was proudly funded by the Alaskan taxpayers. In Iowa, the tax credit program has been racked by a heinous scandal, and after a few big productions, Massachusetts sees fungible film incentives fading quickly. As pointed out by Robert Tannenwald on the incentives program in Massachusetts, the tax credits could still be costing the state tens of millions of dollars years after they discontinue all taxpayer subsidy for cinema, as the tax credits are transferable.
So why the hell do we insist on putting Disney, Sony, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers on corporate welfare again? Is it because we’re afraid of the Canadian film industry overtaking us? Big Nanook is coming for our celluloid? Would that be the same Canadian film industry that’s a little over half-owned by their protectionist government to promote Canadian culture, while all of their theaters are filled with films from American studios, occasionally starring the biggest Canadian actors who live in Los Angeles? Are Michigan pensioners over $600,000 in the hole on account of the industry’s fear of Atom Egoyan or the loss of some residuals because of a feature length film follow-up to The L Word being filmed in Vancouver? What? I’ll be a little more worried about revenue lost to Canada when last weekend’s top 10 films at the box office there or in the United Kingdom (where the public interest UK Film Council recently folded because of insolvent financing of films full of artistic merit but shallow in profitability) wasn’t entirely composed of films made by American studios, wherever they may shoot or with whomever they may partner. The Canadian and British film industries are not booming threats to American cinema, especially Hollywood. Quite the contrary, their film subsidies and government control of the arts could be seen as desperation or playing defense in the glow of Hollywood preponderance.
If we’re providing tax incentives in such a wobbly, impermanent manner in constant flux, but remain under the yoke of frivolous celebrities and moguls with politicians on their speed dial, we could at least use this taxpayer money to promote artistically gifted nobodies who actually need help from the state. If our idea of welfare is for Johnny Depp and not John Q. Public, we could look forward to adopting the same anti-competitive desperation of government control over the arts as other countries. Most of the titles on the list of highest grossing films of all time did all right without bloated tax incentives. If an industry needs incentives to survive, it’s likely going to slit its wrists in the bath tub anyway, and I hardly think that’s the case with Hollywood, who continues to rake in billions upon billions of dollars every year. Responding to the abolition of the UK Film Council (which produced a great many phenomenal films over the past decade), Julian Fellows writing in The Telegraph pointed out how the French, unlike the non-market oriented Council, maintain solvency with government funded arts by tying creative talent to their own profit and success. Yet, even though the French are shielded from the American preponderance by sheer linguistic difference, 5 of the top 10 in their Box Office last weekend were still American productions. I highly doubt Hollywood will uproot completely to start anew in France to film all of our movies. It’s called globalization: we lose a bit, they gain a bit, we get a bit more back, and so on and so forth. Deal with it you big babies.
3. The found footage genre
Found footage was once a great idea, and it’s gone awfully, awfully bad. For some quick history: from the beginnings of cinéma vérité with Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, through to the ad hoc steadicam used by Terrance Malick in Days of Heaven, and then the vertigo-inducing shaky cam utilized in combat scenes in Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, the attempts of clever cinematographers have always aimed at reproducing the close intimacy and dizzying effects of real life clusterfucks that a traditional painterly / photographic scene framing couldn’t easily bring us. After Cannibal Holocaust was released to a particular cult (and legal) fanfare, others were inspired by the form until movies like The Blair Witch Project blew it up into the mainstream. For some quick supplemental theory: the prospect of seeing at once a clearly fictional narrative universe while simultaneously watching it through the lens of the camcorder your parents filmed you with as a kid creates a sense of distantiation that has a jarring effect on your senses (“Oh yeah, it’s not real, it’s just a movie … right? … right?!). This has unlimited potential, especially with political cinema and documentary, where the jarring effects could throw your preconceived notions off kilter just long enough to force you into reassessment. Fun stuff there, but is that what we’ve gotten? Nooo … unfortunately what we’re getting more and more of these days is insults layered upon insults. The perceptible aim of most of these camcorder movies is just an attempt to scare you by making you believe the events actually occurred, maybe with a website trying to convince you further. That’s a one time thing, it doesn’t work twice, forget 20 times.
An otherwise decent film, the Norwegian dark fantasy TrollHunter left you with a groan-worthy chestnut at the very end by telling you to phone your local authorities if you have information about the supposedly missing stars of the film. The first Paranormal Activity maintained a suspension of disbelief just fine, actually fantastically so considering it made a lot of good out of its tiny budget. The second one pushed it right up to the limit by wanting us to believe another couple in the family filmed themselves just as much as the first couple did. The third film pulled its pants down in the grocery store by forcing us to believe the father of the two girls in the first two Paranormal Activity movies filmed his family too with a 1980s camcorder. I had one of those camcorders, the amount of video tapes the dad would compile in just a week couldn’t fit into a large garbage bag. If there’s one thing to learn from the found footage genre, it’s that you’re much safer not videotaping yourself hanging around in your underwear watching TV, or walking around in the woods. If there are two things to learn from the found footage genre, it’s to not videotape yourself, and to not watch found footage genre movies.
4. The Academy Awards
Marlon Brando weirded out the Hollywood royalty by having an Indian rights speech read in front of them. George C. Scott would rather watch a hockey game than participate in the “meat parade”. Trey Parker & Matt Stone of South Park fame went to the awards after dropping acid and dressing in the same couture as J-Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow. I don’t like the idea of ruining other people’s party and scoffing at awards they give you, regardless of the ostentation and bad taste associated. But I just have to admire people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass for the Oscars and make light of it in a clever way – far more clever than anything that’s ever happened on script at the abysmally grating shows. Disregarding each of our personal tastes, in which we all surely form a discordant cacophony, we are all of us for the most part united in having a better idea than the Academy usually does in picking a winner.
This year, the nominees for Best Picture are The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse. 1 of these films was in the top 40, 3 in the top 50 highest domestic grossing films of 2011. 3 were in the top 25 of 2011 as rated by people on the internet movie database, and 6 in the top 50. On rottentomatoes.com, there are 4 in the Top 50 of 2011. Go back through the history of the Best Picture nominations, and try not to laugh or get a little riled up at some of the selections, and films passed over, for any number of inexplicable reasons (explicable if you’re cynical and listen to the various participants who admit the corrupt practices that would get you executed in China). Permitting some subjective room for matters of taste, one would be right to leave it be and accept the expectations natural to us, considering this is an industry-insider event where their primary purpose is to get gussied up for the Joan Rivers interview on the red carpet, pat themselves on the back for getting their lines right, and to sell more tickets next year. Hating on that concept isn’t easy when you think of it in such plain terms.
But it does become an awful lot easier to hate when you actually watch the orgy of chicanery they trot out each year. That Billy Cristal is the standard for a successful Oscar host, and Jon Stewart is widely seen as a failure tells you all you need to know about the Academy Awards and the banal saccharine totalitarian expectations with which they suffocate us year in, year out. There is a certain prestige that goes with the Oscars. It’s an institution of American culture. Everyone hates them to death, but we watch anyway. Women watch partially for the glamour and the trainwreck, and the men watch for the off chance that Angelina Jolie will French kiss another blood relative. Is this really all we have to offer? A humorless, painful parade of narcissism, interrupted by a few decent people accidentally allowed into the industry? If the nominees are selected and winners chosen in ways awfully reminiscent of post-Citizens United Super PAC marketing, open this voting stuff up to the people who paid for the tickets, because it’s all just a political beauty contest anyway. Nobody cares who Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks likes the most, we care whom and what we like the most.
5. The Motion Picture Association of America
Without a doubt, the most nefarious example of public indecency and the largest threat to greater competitive success in a film industry open to those outside the big 6 is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A trade association, the MPAA is accused of being an anti-competitive creativity-stifling trust or cartel for blocking the sale of DVD burners, a medieval-style rent-seeking artisan guild, and a massive corporate lobby in favor of intrusive authoritarian anti-business regulation and the monitoring of internet activity. Worse yet, as depicted in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, they’re also a haplessly insufferable morality police that inconsistently and piously judges the content of any film whose producers want release in the United States. If your film fails to meet their conservative religious criteria, your product is dead on arrival, because they have a titan’s grip over all distribution to theater chains.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was an effective compromise between honoring the intellectual property of artists, and the rights of people developing web content. Critical to this bill was the inclusion of a “safe harbor” in the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, where websites like Youtube would themselves reserve the right to get rid of objectionable user-uploaded material suspected to be complicit in copyright infringement. The studios or one of its associated drones in its constellation of power would have to single the material out themselves, saving Youtube from having to hire a million people to scour the billions of hours of content for copyright infringement. This set of circumstances helped bring about the current paradigm of intellectual property rights on the internet as we’ve come to know it, and for the most part, it’s worked out about as well as it could without violating the rights of innovative businesses and artists. But because the MPAA calculated the lost sales in opportunity costs from the high volume of illegal downloads, and recognized that their business would only continue to suffer, what with the growth of internet use in the developing world, the proliferation of file hosting services and the Federal ruling that threw Viacom’s complaint against Youtube’s “safe harbor” out the window, they decided to fight back by other means.
They called your Senator, and your House Representative. They lobbied heavily for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the Senate, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the House to be passed, both of which would force sites like Youtube to be responsible for monitoring all of the objectionable content in the “safe harbor”. Failure to screen would result in Youtube being shut down after the MPAA petitions a judge. The erosion of their business because of illegal downloads has forced the MPAA into drastic action that demands the authoritarian expansion of government powers to preserve their rent-seeking capabilities.
To implement their grand designs, they’ve hired former Senator Chris Dodd – author of the half-assed, short-sighted and economically costly Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the subject of severe scrutiny for his uncomfortably friendly relations with Countrywide Financial and extremely cozy relations with the Government Sponsored Enterprises Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac (who share enormous blame for the housing bubble), the principal Big Daddy Warbucks for Dodd. Honestly, who better to lead a sweeping expansion of government into the marketplace for the sake of a bunch of out of touch studio moguls with spray on tans? On Fox News, Dodd rang the war drums for the guild loudly:
Candidly, those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.
You hear that Obama? Hollywood just might go to Team Red to seek solutions to help them prevent competition, curb naughty words and boobs, and shut down Youtube for posting parodies of artists with thin skin.