Consuming Cynema PART I

A persistent misconception immediately after the 911 attacks in 2001 is that President George W. Bush urged Americans “to go shopping.” This was not the case. Over the years it’s been simplified into that message. In reality The President said this,

“It’s to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”  George Bush, White House Archives

Not once was the word “shop” or any form of it used. This is not a political defense. Rather, something in that speech to a shocked nation did stand out to me, and can be applied to the entertainment industry. While we were not directly urged to “go shopping” the simplistic picture of consumerism congruent to the picture of American life was apparent. We have accepted an image of how life should be.

Follow me here as I wind this article toward the filmmaking industry. It’s about what reality the industry wants us to believe in. Is life the pilgrimages to Disney? Consuming? Is that what enjoying life is about? The same goes for film. Is a good film all about “updating?” What do we really need to “enjoy” a movie?

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1. We are born. Almost instantly we are barraged by commercials and media. We accept the mindset that our children must have name brand clothing, fed on the latest fad diet and marketed to their respective genders in a media driven message that simultaneously says we should strive for “gender neutrality.” (See data here: Statistic BrainUniv. Michigan Study) Our perceptions of the world are almost instantly shaped.

2. Television and online viewing assaults the young with images of vapid, smart-mouthed androgynous and tarted up tweens decked in the latest products. In between programming is “Product Porn”–toys and other items marketed with an image of wealthy children barkers and shills. Dolls like Bratz, Monster High, Twinkle Toes do more to entice pedophiles than their child targets and the parents that must get them. Again, all of this is marketed by shiny, happy children who hail from plenty of money with comfortable lives in a 30 second sensory assault. This doesn’t include the majority of junk food ads on a kid outlet like Nickelodeon. It’s all about what’s cool and now and the illusion of knowing more than what you really do.

3. By the time school starts, children are classified and tracked (even though schools claim they aren’t). Any child showing the slightest deviation from the norm–questioning the system, showing boredom for the antiquated educational system, are told they have learning disabilities and a host of “attention deficit disorders” that can be alleviated by a bevy of medications that the pharmaceutical industries are ready to dispense. ADD, ADHD, SD, AADD–the list goes on. Outside the scope of this article, we have social anxiety disorders, various depressions and other mental disorders that paint a picture of a strung out young adult population unable to cope.

4. The Internet dovetails with the attention deficit issue and further immediate gratification:

– Don’t buy films, download them and don’t wait for them to be released. Pirate advance copies to see it right away.

– Consume every leak, spoiler, sneak peek, leaked photo/footage thus eroding the anticipation for a film and its ability to be an event or something special.

– Don’t watch full films. Click on YouTube and watch “clips” from films, giving the illusion one has watched the full film. One no longer “has time” to watch full movies. There’s so much nothing and selfie taking to be done.

5. Bootleg and streaming films are immediately accessible. No waiting.  They can be viewed on technology that debases the medium. While our minds understand that lavish green screening looks cartoonish and sometimes as fake as a 70s “Godzilla” movie, the viewer accepts that this is the new medium and the standard. Some films were not meant to be watched on tiny tablet and mobile screens let alone wide screen TVs at home. A byproduct in thinking is that movies are simply made with the click of a mouse and software. They aren’t art. They are product to be consumed. Disney World is not so much an amusement park, but rather a three dimensional commercial.

The new perception by a new generation: Black and white films are old and boring. “Long” movies are boring. Anything over two years old is “dated.”

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The film industry adjusted slowly to this new consumer. As the Millennials came into their own, they entered into a world of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. Their world was already structured for pure consumerism. Movies were no longer events that made a summer magical or defined a decade or even brought a message. The industry adjusted to make them pure consumable product that, like the auto industry, could be updated into better models and lines every year.

The 1980s saw the rise of the VCR as the cable industry blanketed the country. Studios joined the rush to get their films out onto cassette, now allowing the consumer to directly control their viewings. The consumer technology sector responded with new TVs–giant screens, projectors, new and bigger tube sets before the microchip and LED revolution coming in less than two decades. Home theater systems started springing up. I worked a video rental store in 1984 and personally helped install dozens of “surround sound, big screen” systems in giant homes and two bedroom trailers. The movie theater was relocated to the living room in the form of four head VCRs, Projection TVs and speakers dotting walls.

Still with me?

I will argue studios made a major mistake in releasing certain films to home video. As films are selected for historical preservation by the government, I contest particular films were meant for the big screen only and were compromised by their home video and TV releases. This is really no different than the argument against “colorization” of black and white films which started in the 1980s. Some films were specifically shot in black and white. When colored by computers, they lose their impact–contrast, shadings and even whole inferences and subtext meaning are lost through the process. Alfred Hitchcock deliberately shot “Psycho” in black and white. It was a choice. While fans would argue “coloring” it would be blasphemous, I would go as far as to call it criminal and a crime against art itself.

“Frankenstein” was shot in black and white. The Monster’s makeup was created to facilitate this artistic choice among many others. While Karloff was indeed made up in greenish makeup, it was to create a grayish, muted pallor to The Monster in BLACK AND WHITE film. When colorized, the makeup is restored to green, thus giving a comical, cartoonish effect, diminishing the impact of the film and Karloff’s magnificent performance. Technology is not meant to mitigate the choices of the auteurs.

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SEQUELS AND CONSUMER CYNEMA

“Jaws 2” was not the first sequel. As long as there have been films, there have been sequels (The Thin Man series, The Bowery Boys, Hammer’s Dracula films, Universal Monsters, etc.). Yes, books and even songs have sequels, but film sequels are the most interesting and accessible to mainstream consumer society.

Jaws 2 (1978)

Jaws 2″ was made for the sole purpose of cashing in on the industry-changing success of “Jaws.” The definitive shark movie changed the way films were made and released. It created the summer blockbuster and “tentpole” mentality. Its impact on the American film industry and audience can’t be underestimated. Entire industries sprouted up around “Jaws 2”–trading cards, coloring books, models, candies, posters, clothing, toys…all of it catching its predecessor’s wave. However it was “Star Wars” and its merchandising that not only again changed filmmaking and viewing, but merchandising. George Lucas built his empire on merchandising and the universe was never the same.

Sequels caught fire and suddenly every studio was looking for its own “franchise.” The original 1975 “Jaws” was never meant to have a sequel, let alone become a “series” of films. The same was said of “Psycho” yet by the 1980s, a sequel to the venerated horror film was in the works. Roy Scheider reprised his role of Chief Brody in “Jaws 2.” He once said he didn’t think there was anything wrong with a sequel and a story that gives people a good time. This is affable enough, however behind the scenes Scheider was forced into playing Brody again because of a legal issue with Universal Studios. Chief Brody returned with his own gun to his head. Scheider later stated that “Jaws 2” was a contractual fulfillment and not much more. He also made sure to be busy in 1982 filming “Blue Thunder” to prevent any approach for returning to “Jaws 3.”

Anthony Perkins at first resisted reprising Norman Bates. The role of the murderous Momma’s Boy defined him, made him a star and he never shook it. Universal floated the idea of a sequel 22 years after the first film, and Perkins respectfully declined. “Friday the 13th” was up to its third installment and Universal wanted its own slasher franchise. When the studio hinted they would make the film without him, possibly using Christopher Walken as Norman Bates, Perkins had a change of heart with “Psycho II.”

Even small horror films that made big money like “Halloween” were seen as franchise potential. While John Carpenter clearly intended for his 1978 masterpiece to be a standalone picture, Universal (again) had other plans. “Halloween II” led to a slew of sequels and presently two remakes. Other films like “The Omen, The Exorcist, Friday the 13th” all bore sequels, albeit some with mixed success or even outright failure (“The Exorcist II” makes my Top Five list of worst movies of all time, however the fourth “Jaws” film is my number one).

Sequels did not have to be good. They were created to bring in more money on a tried and true product. Give the people more of the same. It was a simple formula and one that studio accountants could almost rely on as a magic algorithm. It wasn’t foolproof but a sequel to a successful picture mitigated a certain amount of financial risk.

Film U.S. release date Box office revenue Reference
Domestic Foreign Worldwide
Jaws June 20, 1975 $260,000,000 $210,653,000 $470,653,000 [62]
Jaws 2 June 16, 1978 $81,766,007 $106,118,000 $187,884,000 [63]
Jaws 3-D July 22, 1983 $45,517,055 $42,470,000 $87,987,055 [64]
Jaws: The Revenge July 17, 1987 $20,763,013 $31,118,000 $51,881,013 [65]
Jaws film series $408,056,075 $390,359,000 $798,415,075 Source: Boxofficemojo.com

The series has clear diminishing returns, but from an actuarial perspective, each one made a solid profit. Even if the second film made just HALF of the first film’s revenues, it was worth taking the risk. The logic was simple: there were still folks out there that would see a “Jaws” movie no matter how bad it was. Sequels were pretty safe bets, overall.

But there were other revenue streams on the horizon, and George Lucas would lead the way.

The next step in the evolution of consumer Cynema was George Lucas’s 1990s “touching up” of his original “Star Wars” Trilogy for theatrical re release. Through the wonders of CGI, Lucas could go back and do the things he was unable to do the first time around. More ships, more creatures and even a CGI Jabba the Hutt…and literally milk his audiences several times by offering a “New Coke” and “Classic Coke” type of home video release. You can get the versions of the three films you grew up with in their original theatrical release form or get the “enhanced versions” with all the new bells and whistles and even Hayden Christensen digitally added at the conclusion of “Return of the Jedi” to fit canon of the inferior prequel trilogy.

JediGhosts

In essence, this was the 90s answer to colorization. With new digital technology you could go back and “fix” whatever you didn’t like about previous films. Unlike colorization, this new tool also allowed dangerous possibilities for censorship and Orwellian cultural revision. Find something politically incorrect? Now you could erase anything deemed offensive. Lucas even went back and fiddled with the whole “Greedo Shot First” debate, irking fans all over the world. The bottomline was The Bottomline. The remastered re-releases in 3D were a cash cow for Lucas Film. The irony is that studios could have reaped easy profits re-releasing a number of their event motion pictures every so many years with little cash outlay. Now they were all in the home video graveyard. “Star Wars” had the power of Industrial Light and Magic to revamp the effects and remaster into 3D.

There were scary rumors that Spielberg was planning a 40th re-issue of  “Jaws” with a digitally created shark replacing the original mechanical Bruce. Altering original films for the sake of “fixing” them implies they were not good to begin with or somehow substandard. It takes away the appreciation for the art and work done by the original artists. To replace Bruce the mechanical shark with a CGI one, just because it would “look more real” is not just an insult, it is vandalism. Unfortunately it also sends a dangerous message to the audience: nothing is worthwhile because it can simply be altered or changed. Instead of asking an audience to appreciate the perfect dialogue and character development of “Jaws” the act of re-mastering puts the focus on the superficial and debases the impact of the original film. The message is clear: “Jaws” is substandard and we want to fix it for you.

Spielberg already made waves by digitally messing with his alien classic, “ET The Extraterrestrial.” He had tech wizards erase the guns from FBI hands and replace them with walkie talkies to make the film more “family friendly.” Fortunately it was mostly received with scorn and derision. As it should have been.

The original 1982 version with FBI agents holding guns.

The “remastered” 20th anniversary version with guns replaced with walkies.

Replacing guns for radios in “ET” is ludicrous. Spielberg was pandering to a politically correct lobby that claims to be “focused on the family.” In actuality, it is a major sign of weakness and unmitigated defeat for art and cinema. Spielberg’s actions were pure Cynema. He made a seamless film and utilized his resources properly. Now he was going back and cynically changing things to appease for the sake of more dollars spent on his film. It is a cash grab and it is cultural vandalism no different than censorship.

Sequels, digital “restorations”…what does this have to do with Consumer Cynema?

As I conclude this first piece, it comes down to the fallout. The mindset. The focus on turning films into malleable product creates a lack of appreciation for the filmmaking process. There is no longer any type of need for emotional investment into a film. You know that sooner or later it will be “re touched” or “re made.” “The Godfather” no more needs a remake than the Mona Lisa needs one. Films went from art to reusable products in the Space Shuttle era.

The shark from “Jaws” looks fake? Like the CGI in the original Sam Raimi “Spiderman” looked good? The green screened backdrops of the plodding and leaden “Hobbit” films rivaled the natural beauty of New Zealand? While Bruce the shark is not the most realistic creature on screen, he represents a piece of new technology created out of devotion and necessity. Universal courted ideas like a Disney animated shark or actually trying to “train” a real Great White before Robert Mattey, a mechanical effects expert came out of retirement and made an iconic monster. To go back and blithely erase that hard work and artistry to appease a generation lacking imagination who needs everything delivered in literal form is nothing short of reprehensible.

 

In PART II I the concept of film cannibalism in the form of the remake brings Consumer Cynema full circle.


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