not in our stars, but in ourselves
Have you been watching The Knick, readers? I hope so! It is definitely one of the best things on TV right now, and among the very best of 2014. Considering that 2014 also brought us True Detective, that is indeed saying something. We’ve also been blessed with the promise that that gum we like is going to come back in style, with a third season of Twin Peaks in 2016.
Notice a theme? Each of these TV shows has been directed by a real-deal, hot-shit film director. Steven Soderbergh infuses The Knick with a beautifully cinematic restlessness. True Detective – the first season, at least – was a work of visual splendor, thanks to Cary Joji Fukunaga. And of course, David Lynch is the progenitor of this entire film-director-on-TV movement, bringing his decidedly surreal visions (the kind seldom seen outside film festivals and arthouses) into unsuspecting American homes every week. The news this week is that Steve McQueen will be joining his film director colleagues with Codes of Conduct, a show that will probably make The Wire look like Sesame Street. (N.B.: I love The Wire. I also love Sesame Street. Please don’t kill me.)
Some time back, before Behind the Candelabra had premiered, Soderbergh went on a bit of a tirade about the state of cinema. He said, “I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird…I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, ‘Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?’ But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.” Essentially, he argued (and, I’d say, continues to argue via The Knick) that it’s almost unreasonably difficult to make a great movie these days. The Suits, those anonymous mostly white, mostly male power brokers at Hollywood studios, want their movies to make as much money as possible. They therefore want their movies to appeal to the widest possible audience. They want, in short, to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the viewing public, because they calculate that they’ll make the most money in doing so.
Mads Mikkelsen, star of the deliciously insane Hannibal, made a similar point in the June-July 2014 issue of Homme. “Things have changed,” he reflected. “TV series now tend to be more daring. As for cinema, the more expensive it gets, the milder it gets, as it has to be targeting more and more viewers, from 5-95 years, to be able to at least compensate the cost. On the other hand, TV can be more radical without this type of accounting requirements.”
Perhaps it is a simple question of economics. TV channels have, through advertisements or subscriptions or both, built-in revenue streams. Do they hope for hit TV shows? Of course. Hit TV shows keep viewers sitting long enough to see the commercials; hit TV shows bring more subscribers. The channel isn’t usually in too bad a spot if a show flops, however. Movies, on the other hand, don’t have that safety net. A movie takes months to produce, millions of dollars to make and to market, and then the studio heads hold their breath and hope beyond hope that they’ve correctly understood audience trends and preferences. If so, they’ll recoup their costs. If not, heads will roll.
Here’s the problem, and here’s where I get worried. I am, of course, delighted that there’s so much amazing TV available. If serious directors want to turn their attentions to the small screen (smaller, anyway; current trends in the production of TVs themselves are toward the large and ostentatious), then that will enrich the entire medium. We all win. However, I am seriously concerned about the film industry. I love film. It is my first love, my last love, my ever and ever love. I’m concerned about this trend because it indicates two things, one following the other:
(a) movie studios are no longer run by the kind of genius tyrants of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Those men were bastards, make no mistake, but they founded the industry – and they loved movies. They understood what they were doing. Now, we’ve just got bastards, plain old bastards, bastards with MBAs and no concept of movie greatness. Did you hear about the deal the Weinstein Company (taking a moment out of its busy Oscar-baiting schedule, you see) struck with Netflix to release the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel? The deal also includes release in IMAX theatres, a separate ideological issue that I’ll complain about some other time, but the gist is that Weinstein wants to make as much money as possible, and knows that the double-X team of Netflix and IMAX will mean bigger bucks than a proper theatrical release. Maybe this will work fine in this one instance, though I personally take issue with the idea of having a movie as grand (one assumes) as Crouching Tiger‘s sequel available instantly to stream while you watch it on your phone or whatever when you’re on the toilet. Again – that’s a separate issue. However successful this particular instance may be, it sets a dangerous precedent: encouraging filmmakers to think small and cheap, to make maximum profit at minimum cost to the studios.
(b) if these trends, real and imagined, continue, can you imagine what that will do to moviemaking overall? What director worth his or her salt would want to stay on that sinking ship? Soon, we might have great TV, and a dying film industry. That would be a shame, and it would break my little cinephile heart. The film industry has always been among the most adaptable, the quickest to embrace new technology and new techniques. It’s falling behind, though. Rather than look at ways it can continue to evolve and to adapt, it’s opted either to make the stupidest movies possible, designed to appeal to those smelly masses out there; or to slash the costs of real, true-blue distribution and exhibition, and to stream its (likely) increasingly lower quality offerings to you while you avoid eye contact on the train, clasping your silly little device during your morning commute.
To think, there used to be picture palaces.
I know, I know. I’m a reactionary and a fuddy-duddy and a host of other things. I don’t want to see movies die, though. There are still some great things happening in cinema, and I want them to continue to happen. (Speaking of which, did you see The Boxtrolls yet? Go see The Boxtrolls. Go reward an interesting, weird, funny, lovely movie with your ill-gotten money. Please? For me?) I don’t want those few moments of greatness to go extinct. I don’t want to sit on my couch or lie in my bed for all my visual pleasure. (Some of it, sure.) I want to go to a theatre, sit with a bunch of strangers, and share the same dream with them as we all gaze at the bright wall in a dark room. Is that so much to ask?