Friday, May 11, 2012

Understanding How The Avengers Became an ATM

By Steve Evans

To understand how a movie like The Avengers could pop a record-breaking opening of more than $200 million and show no signs of stopping, juggernaut that it is, I pulled a useful book off the shelf in my office and started re-reading the insights of some academicians who study such things as cinema, though especially pop culture and the interplay with those who consume it.

Movie Blockbusters (2003; ISBN-13: 9780415256087) tackles both the film industry and the ticket buyers who keep studios in green clover. Thoroughly academic in content, yet accessible to anyone who enjoys film, this book will expand your mind in understanding what drives Hollywood to produce noisy and ungodly expensive pictures for the widest possible audience.

Big-budget, spectacular films designed to appeal to a mass audience: is this what - or all - blockbusters are? Movie Blockbusters brings together writings from key film scholars, including Douglas Gomery, Peter Kramer, Jon Lewis and Steve Neale, to address the work of notable blockbuster auteurs such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, discuss key movies such as Star Wars and Titanic, and consider the context in which blockbusters are produced and consumed, including what the rise of the blockbuster says about the Hollywood film industry, how blockbusters are marketed and exhibited, and who goes to see them. The book also considers the movie scene outside Hollywood, discussing blockbusters made in Bollywood, China, South Korea, New Zealand and Argentina.
It is a sobering read for anyone who laments the languishing state of arthouse theaters, or who yearns for thoughtful, provocative films that you can enjoy in a theater without hearing Captain America and the Hulk yell their spandex-covered asses off through the wall adjoining the theater next door.

There are two broad ways of thinking about this division between blockbusters and smaller films that explore the nuances of complex issues affecting our lives.

Old school showmen, the long-gone heads of the major studios, would tell us that the job of a movie is to entertain people so as to turn a nice profit.

People who think of film as a serious art form that wields tremendous influence tend to prefer pictures that provoke and spark conversations that could – conceivably – lead to positive social change.

These are not mutually exclusive considerations. There need not be blockbusters at the expense of smaller pictures that address social concerns, just as provocative cinema need not (and probably never will) supplant noisy action films. There is room in the marketplace for both of these broad categories of films. Unfortunately, one category makes nearly inconceivable amounts of money and the other gets discussed in coffeeshops.

The real issue comes down to show business, which of course is most definitely big business. Companies that wish to continue making money must deliver products that people will pay for.

So why do people pay to see rambunctious blockbusters featuring fictional superheroes who spout painfully obvious witticisms and dialog that serves little purpose other than to advance the plot to the next big action setpiece? This is the essential question.

I argue that it is principally because they are bored with their lives, don’t particularly like themselves and may even be deeply frustrated with the doldrums of their existence. Noise and spectacle (bread & circuses in another time and place) provide blessed distractions from the reality of dealing with an incorrigible boss or a failing relationship. Contrast the appeal of the blockbuster with a movie that explores painful but real human problems. The latter has a harder time finding an audience because it’s hard work to confront your demons head-on or even deal with them vicariously through a motion picture. The number of people who want to think deeply about the complexity of existence is disproportionately smaller to those who would rather not think at all.

The Avengers was made expressly for the second group.

Blockbusters place no demands on your intellect, only your wallet. They are as fleeting and ephemeral as an amusement park ride, which is just another form of escape from a banal existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

The essential truth of that sentiment has evolved since the 19th century. Today, many people are content to let someone else do their singing and live adventures on their behalf.

It’s safe to watch life the way we wish to live it; much harder to see ourselves in films that explore real problems – and then do something about them. If you wish to be challenged, if you don't care for the status quo and yearn for art that advances your intelligence, not insults it, there are entertainment companies that want your business and will satisfy your desires.

Myself? I’ll keep supporting the Criterion Collection and Janus Films, Kino Lorber, RaroCinema and Blue Underground until they turn out the lights and shutter their operations, may that tragic day never come.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

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