Calling It With Top Gun
If you haven’t read Mark Harris’ excellent GQ op-ed titled “The Day the Movies Died” yet, you really should. In it, Harris selects the Summer of ’87 release of Top Gun as the titular moment in history, and for good reason. Many will instinctually question the choice, citing releases like Star Wars and Jaws instead, but the article is much more than mere film-nerd “What if…” play — it’s aimed at a real trend in the industry that has shaped the new modern day studio system. Enough pretense. If you haven’t given it a read, go do so now.
Other Contributing Factors — The Death of Film Appreciation
Harris’ analysis of marketed film is right on the money, but there is a deeper corrosion at play. Roger Ebert has discussed the death of film criticism in wake of the rising “CelebCult” before, but I intend to carry this a step further. First, Ebert was speaking specifically about criticism in print. Second, Ebert’s thesis centers around the demand for printed gossip, which doesn’t necessarily align with Harris’ assertion that the age of “A-list celebrity as product” has come and gone in Hollywood, replaced instead by “proven product” — sequels, remakes, etc.
So what do I mean by death of film criticism? In film school, my circle of cineastes looked forward to each and every release. The late-90s — early-aughts were an extremely exciting times for American cinema. I’m not going to be so bold as to declare it a movement, it wasn’t. Not every film released was golden, but one can hardly deny that there was an incredible balance of high-concept films released, above and beyond the sequel / spandex genre. Films like Mulholland Dr., Boogie Nights, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, The Thin Red Line, Rushmore, He Got Game, Happiness, Memento, American Psycho, Almost Famous, Traffic, Bringing Out The Dead, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, and many more.
I mention these films for very specific reasons — many of them represent original screenplays, adapted works from lesser-known sources, early films from budding directors, anticipated vehicles from established auteurs, or perhaps most importantly many are, to some degree, polarizing efforts. It was a great time to be studying film theory. But it was ultimately killed, not just by a push to marketing as Harris illustrates, but also by cynicism, in fighting, and the inability to appreciate what we had. What happened?
Flash-forward to the present, and we are met with two films that seemingly incapsulate this dilemma — Shutter Island and Inception. Let’s take a closer look at each:
The details: Legendary director Martin Scorsese adapts Dennis Lehane’s novel with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. On the surface, the film appears to be a procedural drama exploring the disappearance of a prisoner in a mental institution. However, beneath the surface the film explores the complex intricacies of the human mind and mental illness.
The details: Newer generation director Christopher Nolan crafts this original film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. On the surface, the film appears to be a science-fiction heist film using the clever manipulation of the mind. However, beneath the surface the film explores the complex intricacies of creativity, art, and the studio system.
For weeks at a time, I watched as friends engaged in a flat out social media war over which of these two films were superior. Why couldn’t both be appreciated for what they were? Why tear down two films like this? Both are engaging above and beyond the sequelization/spandex trend in the cineplexes, both did well at the box office (one more than the other, but still), and both seemed to resonate with broader audiences. So why?
My theory: In film school circles, it’s less cool to cop to enjoying Nolan’s work than it is to cop to liking a Scorsese genre film.
Disclaimer: I love both of these films. Both are technically superb, tightly wound, and about more than their genre-play surfaces let on. I enjoyed them both in the theaters, and I know quite a few people who did.
So why the hate? Let’s dig into each director briefly:
Scorsese has transformed cinema several times over. His work, both as a director and a champion of archival efforts, has impacted the form in more ways than any other director that comes to mind. The man behind such films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Casino (and more) can’t always turn out gem after gem. Films like The Gangs of New York and Bringing Out the Dead were met with less-than-accepting responses from the film school set. More on that in a bit.
Nolan made his way into prominence via the independent circuits, first with Following and then with Memento. After adapting Insomnia for American audiences, Nolan began a transitioning pattern between pet projects and blockbusters, in the process re-inventing the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Few directors are more polarizing in film geek circles than Christopher Nolan. Many of my colleagues won’t even speak of Following, and are quick to bash Memento, in large part because of the darling status it achieved amongst mainstream audiences. Despite the films complicated time structure, Memento remained appealing to the broader audiences, and this accomplished two things:
- The film did decent business at the box office, earning 5 times its cost with the largest release being only 531 screens. This established Nolan as a player in the eyes of the Hollywood system.
- Playing with time is a film school convention, so bringing such a complex exercise in time-bending to a mass audience in such a digestible package was off-putting for many film school types.*
* Note: Yes, Pulp Fiction was a far more successful exercise in time-bending at the Box Office, but Tarantino’s film still left plenty of unlockable film theory references that puzzled the masses, while giving the film school crowd a badge of merit to own. Memento brought all of the fun of time-play to audiences without the need for film theory explanations.
The desire to keep film appreciation as an insider’s game is an instinct embedded into each and every film student. It’s innate, and likely permeates from the industry itself. However, this sort of thing results in in-fighting and opens the door for marketing-centric films to dominate at the box office. Looking back, I wish more of my colleagues had been able to look at things contextually — separating things like craft and execution from subjective like/dislike — before tearing original works apart publicly. Who cares if the subject matter didn’t appeal to you? The multiplexes are already dominated by mindless dreck, and soon there may not be room for polarizing films like Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, which means that the next There Will Be Blood might never see the light of day.