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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Cranky Critics

Critics who want Hollywood to go back in time

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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June 5, 2001 -- I saw this quote from Internet critic Widgett Walls the other day: "In short, it's cluttered, overlong, badly executed trash and it kicks off the summer movie season with a whimper. But it'll make a fortune. God help us all."

What loser of a film was he talking about? None other than "The Mummy Returns," one of the top 50 box office smashes of all time. And it isn't just Widgett. There are plenty of top critics who agree with him. Pulitzer prize-winning critic Roger Ebert also gave the film a thumbs down.

Here's another example, "To pre-empt myself with the verdict, "In-duh-pendence Day" is nothing special. It is not, as some have proclaimed, "the worst movie ever made", nor is is quite worthy of the moniker "IQ4". What it is, is a minor and humourless SF piece with delusions of grandeur, hyped beyond all reason and lumbered with some very unsubtle and nasty subtexts." This is one of the top 10 all time box office hits being knocked by another Internet critic, Paul-Michael Agapow of Postviews, and he's in good company too, there are lots of critics who agree with him on this one. By the way, one of the "nasty subtexts" he's referring to is American nationalism.

Here's another example: "If it was supposed to be inspiring in some way, it missed my wavelength. It was competently made but overlong and occasionally infuriating. I would give it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. But, being fair, I will point out that your mileage will possibly vary. The film received an ovation at the end in the theater where I saw it, so it is pleasing some audiences." That is Mark Leeper talking about the Academy Award-winning, top 10 all time box office hit film "Forrest Gump" (and Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis). Leeper is another well-respected critic who is in good company with his views on this film. These guys aren't cranks or crackpots, they just don't like the formula for success being used to make these, and many other popular films.

Common themes expressed in criticisms of these and other popular films are that they are formulaic, they emphasize spectacle over substance, they are not character-driven, they offer no surprises, but only well-worn recipes. In the film "The Player," a biting satire of Hollywood, a producer hears only script outlines of 25 words or less. These script outlines always refer to other films on which the film ideas are based. Rather than developing new ideas, critics complain, there are a large number of sequels and films made of recycled parts of other films. We are bombarded with the familiar, the critics say. Film becomes product, rather than art, built of familiar components, by committee.

In "The Player," a writer's original vision of a European-style film is trashed. He wants a tragic ending, an innocent woman put to death. He wants no stars. The test audiences hate the ending. It it changed to Bruce Willis rescuing Julia Roberts from the gas chamber. Stars with a happy ending. The ruthless producer rescues the project, but the writer does not complain. He knows it will be a hit. There are certain critics who hate happy endings. Steven Rosen, critic for the Denver Post, writes, "Movies lie to us to ensure happy endings." He believes there is too much escapism in movies today.

Rosen, and other critics, long for the last "Golden Age" of movies in Hollywood, the 1970s, ushered in by "Easy Rider" and "Patton" and highlighted by the first two "Godfather" films, "Chinatown," "The Deer Hunter," "Taxi Driver" "American Graffiti," "Coming Home," "The Conversation," "Jaws," "The French Connection," "Star Wars" and ushered out by "Raging Bull."

But there are two movies on the above list that have come under fire from some critics: "Jaws" and "Star Wars," the first of the modern blockbuster movies. Rosen, and a number of other critics, have adopted the idea that "Jaws" and "Star Wars," directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, respectively (the two teamed in 1981 to create the wildly popular "Raiders of the Lost Ark") trashed Hollywood. In an article on this subject, Rosen writes: "A case can be made that 'Star Wars' ruined the movies, both for causing the demise of the great 1970s-era, realism-rooted dramas and for ushering in the new generation of manipulative, formulaic effects-driven blockbusters ... The post-'Star Wars' era has been marked by big-budget films studiously trying not to surprise us. As much as possible, they try to be a sequel or a remake - or at least modeled on a bigger hit." Rosen is not the first critic to come up with this idea. It has been around for at least three years since Peter Biskind's book came out (the book is discussed below).

It sort of sounds like Rosen and the other grumpy critics just don't like to see people enjoying popular, escapist films like "The Mummy," "Independence Day," "The Mummy Returns," "Forrest Gump," and other big blockbusters. They seem to begrudge the success of these films. The more successful these films are, the more of these kinds of films that Hollywood will make ("God help us!"). In the constant struggle between pure art and pure commerce that has always gone on in Hollywood, these critics would like to see more art and less crass commercialism.

My view is that Hollywood films have always been heavily slanted toward being a profitable product rather than "art" (whatever that is). The 1970s were an anomaly. Competition from television, and a disastrous series of musicals had just about ruined the major studios. They were desperate for something, anything, to get people back into movie theaters. Along came "Easy Rider" in 1969. Made on a tiny budget, the film made a fortune. Studio heads couldn't figure out why a film about a generation of alienated youth would be so popular, but it was obviously time for a change. This opened the floodgates for new, reality-based films like "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver."

The 1970s also featured some filmmakers who had cut their teeth on television, such as Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. They brought new ideas to Hollywood. The studios, unable to figure out the new market of Baby Boomers (the success of "Easy Rider" proved nearly impossible to duplicate), gave unusual latitude to directors to pursue their own vision. Francis Ford Coppola took advantage and made the award-winning (and highly profitable) Godfather films. Two books, Charles Fleming's High Concept (Doubleday) and Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster) detail the rise and fall of some of the more glamorous directors and producers of the 1970s and 80s. The books portray out-of-control directors and producers indulging in drugs, orgies and alcohol while trying to make films. Biskind argues that the success of "Star Wars" and "Jaws" spelled doom for the reality-based dramas of the 1970s.

Flemming's book highlights the life of Don Simpson, producer of Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop and Crimson Tide. Simpson once said a blockbuster must have a simple plot of three acts: 1. Explosive incident. 2 Impending crisis. 3 Triumphant resolution. Simpson was said to have been fond of dressing as an animal trainer while playing sado-masochistic games with prostitutes. One famous director of the 1970s reportedly sent a plane to Paris when he ran out of cocaine at Cannes. It can be argued that all the studios did was to give rope to the directors and producers. They eventually hung themselves with it.

At any rate, movies made by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, such as the "Star Wars" films, "Jaws," the "Indiana Jones" movies showed Hollywood where the new market was. It was basically in the same place the old market had been years earlier. The "Indiana Jones" films, featuring a series of cliffhangers, are very similar to the old Republic serials. "Star Wars" was an update to the old "Flash Gordon" and other venerable science fiction movies which date back to the beginning of films. The dealmakers in Hollywood no longer had to give control to a director to follow some mysterious vision. They know where the market is. There is money to be made in sequels and rip-offs (the similarities between the "Indiana Jones" films and the "Mummy" films are fairly obvious). There is money to be made with the familiar, with escapism, all the stuff that drives some critics to distraction. Audiences like happy endings, even if some critics don't. I think "Jaws" and "Star Wars" basically saved Hollywood's bacon. These films helped revive a flagging film industry. There may be fewer art films now, but there is a lot more money. In fact, the American film industry is one of the nation's largest and most successful exporters. Action films like "Die Hard," and its many sequels and clones, do very well in foreign markets, an increasingly important part of the film industry.

Critics like to see something, anything, that is different, it seems. They go nuts over a film like "Memento" because it is just that, different. Sometimes, however, different is not better. Most audience members are not like critics, almost no one goes to 100 to 200 films a year like critics do. They generally are not tired of escapism and happy endings. When they do get tired of happy endings, maybe we'll have a new "golden age" in Hollywood. We'll have sad, depressing films. It'll be more like watching European movies. I can't say I'm looking forward to that. I loved "Forrest Gump" and I liked "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." I also liked "Independence Day." In fact, I've watched it several times. My favorite film last year, however, was an "art film" called "Requiem for a Dream." It did not have a happy ending. By the way, I don't think any of the critics I have mentioned in this article panned all of these films, and they may not even believe in the theory that George Lucas ruined the film industry. There may be no particular critic who fits this ideal "grumpy critic" profile. I'm talking about abastract ideas here, not about particular critics.

So, are some critics really so grumpy that they can't stand to see anyone having a good time at a movie like "The Mummy Returns?" No, I think some critics are just disappointed in the direction the film industry seems to be heading. I think most critics, and this includes me, are concerned with the "dumbing down" of the product, the lack of character-driven plots, the lack of characters the audience can identify with and care for, the lack of character development, the increasing coarseness of the images and language in film, the lack of subtlety, the increasing brutality and lack of compassion for people on the screen. A few of us are worried about the increasing levels of violence in films and how that is affecting our world (see Violence in cinema: An essay). Even if one does not particularly long for a return to the "golden age" of the 1970s, there are plenty of other things to be worried and concerned about, but if people enjoy "The Mummy Returns," I'm not going to get upset about it. I agreed with Andrew Manning's review of the film which said, "Kick back, turn off your brain, and have some fun, dammit!"

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)