Reactionary Causes

In Which 'Argo' is Compared to 'Glee'

And movies continue to lose their cultural significance

Movie CultureMichael Cieply's recently published "New York Times" piece headlined "Movies Try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance" suggests, to me, it will do its best to explain what makes something culturally relevant and how movies can swing momentum back in their direction. However, the image that accompanies the piece (as seen to the right) comes with the following caption:

Eclipsed by TV: The Master, top, has been seen by about 1.9 million viewers, much less than the audience for an episode of "Mad Men," bottom.

I hope you already see my main problem with Cieply's argument, but if not I have no problem digging deeper as this idea of the cultural irrelevance of movies, especially compared to episodic television based on number of viewers, is ridiculous.

As I have said already, I don't think movies are dead or dying, though I welcome an actual, thought-out comparison of a television show's success to the success of a film and at the same time try and convince me how and why they should be looked at under the same microscope. Cieply, curiously tries to do just that, and I'm willing to give him a shot, but first I must say...

I'm listening Michael... but, in matters of cultural relevance, have you seen Argo or Killing Them Softly yet? Oh, you're about to make a comparison regarding one of those very films? Well then let me step aside...

Cieply writes with a digital pen of clear contempt (for whom I can't quite tell), "Argo, another Oscar contender, had about 7.6 million viewers through the weekend. If interest holds up, it may eventually match the one-night audience for an episode of 'Glee.'" Wait, wait, wait... "Glee"? You are comparing Argo to "Glee"?

If "Glee" is the standard-bearer of cultural relevance then please, before movies ever become culturally significant, just stop making movies so I can stop watching.

And please, if you want to defend "Glee" and some of the important societal issues the show touches upon, don't do so as if those very issues aren't covered in films and with far more delicacy and less blunt trauma. Beyond that, isn't Argo one of the more culturally significant films of the year... just without the dancing, singing and Britney Spears covers?

Cieply then uses "The Sopranos" to point out how only the Twilight franchise has managed to similarly hook viewers on "long-term character development".

Okay Michael, so you want more sequels, is this what we're getting at? Because it's either that or 12-hour feature films with cliff hangers every 60 minutes that are solved only a second later that end with a cliffhanger that won't be solved until a year later. I ask, because you seemed to scoff at what you referred to as a "a 70-millimeter character study" when mentioning The Master's disappointing box-office results...

And why does he have a problem with films like Taken 2, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises bringing in money from overseas?

Then, without any explanation for why things are the way they are, he mentions that "the number of films released by specialty divisions of the major studios... fell to just 37 pictures last year, down 55 percent from 82 in 2002." He says this without noting the shuttering of Warner Independent, Picturehouse, Miramax and Paramount Vantage and also not mentioning the rise of smaller studios that include Open Road, FilmDistrict, Roadside, Oscilloscope, Magnet and Magnolia. Or do they not count because they don't have major studio backing?

The ignoring of these new studios and their movies, for me, is one of the biggest oversights any time someone tries to say movies are dying, especially culturally and especially when he adds, "The drop-off leaves many viewers feeling pained." Which viewers are feeling pained? Those that depend 100% on films from Focus and Fox Searchlight?

Hollywood turns out films targeting as wide an audience as possible, only occasionally releasing films with a bit more risk and when they do it's something like Cloud Atlas, which the filmmakers have to go and raise the money for and studios like Warner Bros. can swoop in at the last minute and get it at a bargain price. This is something we have all known for some time. It's no surprise, but to pretend the major Hollywood studios are the only players in the filmmmaking game is ridiculous.

He even goes so far as to quote Daniel Tosh making fun of Seth MacFarlane as the chosen host for this year's Oscars to make his point. MacFarlane's Ted, by the way, is the highest grossing, original R-rated comedy of all-time worldwide. By Cieply's standards, the Academy has just assigned hosting duties to what may be one of the most culturally relevant comedians in the world.

He does mention The Social Network as a culturally relevant film and uses someone else's words to suggest the Oscar going to The King's Speech instead was a step backward for the Academy rather than forward. However, to use Cieply's logic insisting numbers tell the whole story, wouldn't the $414.5 million made by The King's Speech worldwide make it more culturally relevant than The Social Network, which brought in only $224.9 million? I'm not asking because I believe The King's Speech is more culturally relevant, but merely to point out how you can't use conflicting arguments to make a point. What is it that makes a film more relevant Mr. Cieply, the number of tickets sold or the content of the film?

Cieply seems content in handing over final word to David Denby whose new book "Do the Movies Have a Future?" managed to remain part of the cinematic conversation for the better part of a couple of days and largely as a result of his New Republic essay "Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?"

He gives credit to Denby when he writes "the enduring strength of film will depend on whether studios return to modestly budgeted but culturally powerful movies." This statement would mean a lot more if I didn't get the impression Cieply would rather see a feature length "Real Housewives of New Jersey" than a new Paul Thomas Anderson film.

In fact, maybe Cieply's movie future has already arrived. By his argument, Pitch Perfect just may be the height of cultural significance. It tapped into the "Glee" culture and has so far scored $51.3 million at the box-office on a $17 million budget. Modestly budgeted? Check. Culturally powerful? Double check! I don't have any arbitrary ticket sales to suggest I'm onto something... but I might be and that appears to be enough.

Movies aren't culturally irrelevant. They aren't dying to episodic television. But I guess as long as the argument is taking place then that's a good thing.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RagingTaxiDriver/ RagingTaxiDriver

    Preaching to the choir. Very nice article.

  • Chris138

    What is it with these New York critics being so melodramatic about the state of movies? I can't help but roll my eyes whenever a new one of these kinds of articles are published.

    But you're spot on here.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheBioscopist/ TheBioscopist

    I got three words for Cieply: "The Shawshank Redemption"

  • Susan

    Also, while I far prefer to see movies in theaters, the idea that a movie's modern shelf-life is its 12-16 week run is all there is to it; ludicrous. Movies don't run for months on end anymore because the whole release process is different. I know many people waiting to see "The Master" at home on blu-ray on their big tvs. Do I think they're missing something? Sure. But they have a great home system, little time and don't like seeing dramas in particular with crowds because of possible rowdy crowds.

  • Annie

    How can anyone compare the viewership between film and television? TV is much easier (and cheaper) to access. It can be viewed at anytime of the day (especially now when DVR recordings are being calculated into the viewership data). Film is a little more difficult. Nowadays going to watch a movie is such a chore; you have to have at least $10 per person to see the movie, you better make sure there's gas in the car, and you should always have an extra $10-20 in your wallet for snacks. On the other hand, I can turn on the TV in my pjs, I don't have to worry about getting dressed or having gas in the tank, or extra money for any foods, since I have a stocked fridge 10ft away. I don't know about anyone else, but even thought cable bill is over $100/month it still feels more expensive to go watch a movie at the theater. I can watch a 100 (or more) episodes of TV in one month for $100 while I could only watch 8-10 movies for that same price. That makes a big difference in someone's life and budget. It's very unfair to compare the two.

  • Mike W

    Two quick points:

    1) We are still living in a severe global recession. I think people are finding it easy to cut going to movies out of their dwindling entertainment budgets. Especially when it costs $60-$80 for a family of 4 to go to the theatre. Conversely, the costs of home entertainment has gone down significantly.

    2) Damien Lewis said it best at his Emmy acceptance "we live in a golden age of television". The programming these days is awesome; Homeland, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk, Modern Family, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. And with the exception of HBO many of these shows are available with regular cable packages.

    But the quality of television will drop off eventually and Movies will come back. I think there is some ebb & flow to these things.

  • Scott

    Personally, I can't get into any -- any -- hour-long tv shows. With no real closure coming, no satisfying overall structure, I can't justify sacrificing that much time for something that just kinda keeps going randomly, until the ratings dip and the show just ends. The X-Files' mid-nineties seasons were the last shows I actually watched from beginning to end. My girlfriend can watch a Criminal Minds marathon, which I find mind-numbing.

    • Newbourne

      I prefer TV more than movies at the moment, and truthfully, it's because most movies suck. Every year there are SOME movies that are great, but most of them go from average to awful. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, I tried to watch as much movies as possible and I peaked in 2010 with 250 movies. I think I REALLY ENJOYED 10 out of the 250 movies I watched that year. About 40 were okay, 100 were "meh", and the rest were awful. After 2010, I gave up on being a cinemaphile. Thank goodness that television was there to comfort me.

      TV on the other hand has been spectacular. I'm up to date with Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Emprie, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, Person of Interest, Grey's Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, Dexter, Modern Family, Episodes, Veep, True Blood, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Community, Glee, Fringe, Burn Notice, Suits, Louie, Justified... and MORE! And most of these are pretty spectacular. Glee, Once and TB are the only "average" shows I've been watching.

      All in all, TV is amazing. Hopefully this "boom" period won't end and TV will maintain the quality for years to come.

      • Stiggy

        On the contrary, TV is actually getting worse. Over here in the UK we have crap like Coronation Street, Holby City and Eastenders clogging primetime TV everyday. Add on to that trashy reality shows like The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, clogging late night TV and you start to realise that TV has actually gone down the toilet over the years.
        There are only 5 tv programs worth watching these days; Doctor Who, Sherlock, Countryfile, Top Gear and Pointless. All of which are on BBC.

        • Newbourne

          We're talking about drama series here... We should keep reality shows out of the equation. They're pretty much all awful. Similarly, "reality movies" like The Real Cancoon are terrible too, so it's obviously a problem with the very nature of the genre.

          Sorry to hear about the crap shows you might get in the UK. The only UK show I watch is "Episodes" and that's just because they air it on Showtime. Other than that, I don't have any experience with UK shows.

          • Stiggy

            Just to be clear
            Doctor Who and Sherlock are both dramas and well written ones at that
            Countryfile and Top Gear are factual entertainment programes
            Pointless is a game show

            • Stiggy

              I almost forgot that Mock the Week and QI are worth watching. Both of those are comedy panel shows.

  • Viral

    Bard i think one of your pet peeves with animated movies which you review is the reliance on the pop-cultural phenomenon and this is what makes those things that rely on such temporal occurrences not age well - a Lady Gaga gag in an animated movie in 2012 will not translate well to lets say the audience of 2030 - where as a beauty and the beast is still fantastic to watch. That is where I kind of agree with the possible theme of Cipely's article - that there are a lot of crappy movies out there. but to compare Argo with glee is rubbish and invalidates the entire article.

    while the television is fast catching up in terms of putting well written, strongly acted, elaborately produced entertainment out there ( mad men, GOT, The Good Wife etc. ) there is just as much culturally "relevant" trash out there ( MTV)

    • Viral

      you were so Shakespearean in your article that i dub thee Bard ( it was meant to be Brad)

  • Jarrod

    *Clap*

    *Clap*

    *Clap*

    You here that, Brad? That is the sound of me doing a slow clap all the way over in Australia. Thank you for this article. I have read these articles denouncing the state of cinema, and can't stop rolling my eyes as privileged men like Mr. Denby beg for sympathy, entangling broader social issues into their own ego/self inflation. Whilst Mr. Thomson and Mr. O’Herir make reasonable points about cultural changes in film viewing, the Mr. Denby piece – titled ‘Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?’ – is difficult to take very seriously. For one thing, this assertion has been declared many, many times over the last century (The Playlist has constructed a comprehensive list about the idea’s presence in film circles). For another, the writing is unbelievably self-pitying, treating movie theatres as if they were coal mines. There is little worse, arguably, than blind optimism in film criticism (timidly assuming that the filmmaker knows best, refusing to question these choices of a favourite filmmaker), but blind pessimism? That doesn’t seem like that much of an improvement.

    I am sorry if this post is long, but the pieces - the Denby one in particular - made me frustrated to be a film fan. With delusions of insight, these experts in being experts yearn for an earlier, golden age in cinema (or several), with the likes of Mr. Denby justifying his skin-crawling sentimentality with such gems as “nostalgia is history altered through sentiment” (yep, Mr. Denby actually wrote that, and at least one another person read it and decided to publish it, as if it were 'clever' or something).

    Wistful, quiet and PC, Mr. Denby might be personable if he weren’t so insufferably precious, so delighted by his banal insights and lazy generalisations. “Ignorance is strength,” George Orwell suggested in Nineteen Eighty-four, and that seems to be Mr. Denby’s edict, cloaking his intellectual inadequacy behind a mask of resigned cynicism and benevolent arrogance. Mr. Denby considers his own ignorance as a cultured wisdom, considering critical opponents – like the “media hip” young people – as the ‘other’ who needs to either be educated. Mr. Denby’s self-conception seems peculiar, occupying roles as a beleaguered Wily Loman and a Randian hero. This shifting attitude is apparent in his suggestion of his critical opponents, “My friends think that our current situation is normal. They believe that critics are naïve blowhards, but it is they who are naïve.” Both victim and educator, eh? The last fighter against a corrupt system? The all-knowing wizard, a light, wise father pained by the changing world? In an industry full of blowhards, few can match Mr. Denby’s sanctimony, especially since he has been blowing this same tune for at least a decade.

    According to Mr. Denby, “directors used to take great care with such things,” apparently: “spatial integrity was another part of the unspoken contract with audiences, a codicil to the narrative doctrine of the scriptorium ... We now have a movie culture so bizarrely pulled out of shape that it makes one wonder what kind of future movies will have.” I don’t doubt that the rules of cinema – its visual grammar – have shifted in recent years. But is it a sign of cinema’s doom? Is visual culture changing for the worse? Or is it simply evolving, as it has since the beginning of the medium? And if American films are changing, are other films from around the world subject to those transforming, as well?

    Oddly, there is no mention of any contemporary foreign language films in the article: the most recent example is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was completed five years ago. (Then again, maybe these omissions isn’t all that surprising, given that he happily declared of Catherine Breillat’s Romance that “one of the extraordinary examples of growing up French is that you can be absurd without ever quite knowing”, an appalling example of ignorance even by Mr. Denby’s own standards). Consciously or not, Mr. Denby equates the ‘American Cinema’ with ‘Cinema’ itself, an insulting premise to the likes of the Dardenne brothers, Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke. Oh sure, he mentions some foreign filmmakers, but he cites only those who pursue careers in the American system, like Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. It is almost as if these filmmakers needed to have made an American film to be declared a “film artist” by Mr. Denby. In another, curiously similarly-themed article ‘Whatever Happened to Movies for Grownups?’, Mr. Denby expresses anticipation for a number of upcoming films, such as Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty and Cloud Atlas. With the exception of Cloud Atlas, each of these films are not just American productions, but American-orientated stories: is there anything more American than a presidential drama directed by Steven Spielberg or a romantic film that mixes football and dancing (and stars two of the most hyped American stars of contemporary cinema, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence)? How about a thriller about the frickin’ hunt for Osama Bin Laden? Yet, there are many more films “for grownups”, like Joachim Lafosse’s intense tragedy Our Children, Michael Haneke’s very moving and beautifully directed Amour, Kiarostami’s whimsical Like Somone in Love and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, a fine follow-up to the excellent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Each of these (oh shudder, foreign-language) films exhibit a strong sense of directorial accomplishment, using minimalist techniques such as two shots and diegetic sounds to create tension and atmosphere. These are extraordinary films, but with the exception of Haneke’s film, they will not receive the same degree of attention from even ‘cultured’ critics like Mr. Denby as the American counterparts. Perhaps, subtitles aren’t sexy enough for Mr. Denby, however (or maybe the proven performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Émilie Dequenne and Niels Arestrup aren’t anywhere near as exciting as those of their American cousins).

    When Mr. Denby isn’t ignoring foreign films (except for the one or two he puts on his Top Ten list every year, to prove that he is 'cultured'), he fixates upon the superhero film as – in part – responsible for the denigration of culture. In this respect, Christopher Nolan represents the critic’s narrative concerns. Although The New Yorker critic doesn’t have much time for The Avengers either, the British/American filmmaker behind The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception becomes Mr. Denby’s nyktomorp, a catch-all for all that is wrong with contemporary cinema. Mr. Denby writes, “the job of luring the big audience to the Friday opening—the linchpin of the commercial system—has destroyed action on the screen by making it carry the entire burden of the movie’s pleasure. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, sensation has been carried to the point of a brazenly beautiful nihilism, in which a modishly “dark” atmosphere of dread and disaster overwhelms any kind of plot logic or sequence or character interest.”

    It is easy to demonise others’ work when you express a shallow understanding of their technique. Mr. Denby’s condescending attitude is full of broad declarations but bereft of a sustained analysis of the filmmaker’s method. For instance, The Dark Knight Rises’ five-ac structure seemed fairly obvious. A rebirth story, the film follows this structure:

    • Anticipation Stage The ‘hero’ (Bruce Wayne) and his ‘kingdom’ (Gotham City) are engulfed in darkness. The story’s ‘king’ (Commissioner Gordon) refuses to tell his people the truth about a ‘changeling’ (Harvey Dent), imprisoning them into a ‘shadow’ (a state of deception). Meanwhile, the ‘light father’ (Alfred) refuses to tell another truth to the hero, allowing the hero to remain emotionally unfulfilled as he pursues his ‘dark inversion’ (the Batman role).
    • Dream Stage Bruce begins his assault on the ‘dark rival’ (Bane). Things seem to be going well for the hero: he meets his ‘anima’ (Miranda Tate), befriends ‘light alter ego’ (John Blake) and turns a ‘dark other half’ (Selina Kyle) into a ‘helper’. The protagonist experiences ‘ego/self inflation’ (acting for his own gratification, but pretending to do so for altruistic reasons).
    • Frustration Stage Things start going badly for the hero. Bruce quarrels with his light father (Alfred) when he reveals the ‘sentimentality’ (the lie) in Bruce’s life. Bruce is betrayed by Selina and beaten by his ‘dark rival’ (Bane). Bruce is imprisoned into a physical representation of the ‘shadow’ (the pit). Bane upturns the ‘ruling consciousness’ (revealing the truth about Dent) of the city and reduces it into a ‘dark masculine state’ (prisoners escape, the police are imprisoned). Bruce is then mocked by his ‘dark father’ (Ra’s al Ghul). With the help of a ‘trickster’ (Blind Prisoner), Bruce experiences the ‘dialectic three’ (the three jumps to freedom) and – in turn - overcomes his ‘nyktomorp’ (his fears of bats and the destruction of his city) and understands his ‘unrealised value’ (to appreciate life once more). Selina has a ‘change of values’ (helping Bruce).
    • Nightmare Stage The heroes prepare for an assault against the antagonists. The hero challenges the ‘dark rival’ (Bane) and overcomes him, but Bruce’s ‘anima’ (Miranda) turns out to be his true ‘dark rival’ (both are children – literally or spiritually – to the dark father Ra’s al Ghul). The nuclear bomb threatens to throw Gotham into a ‘shadow’ state (killing everyone).
    • Fulfilment Stage Bruce achieves ‘self-realisation’ (he is willing to sacrifice his life for others, and – in turn – is liberated by his ego). The ‘king’ (Gordon) is reinstated to rule over his kingdom and the ‘below the line characters’ (Blake, Alfred, the orphan children) are rewarded. Bruce and his ‘anima’ (now Selina) experience an ‘archetypal happy ending’ (they no longer define themselves by their inversed selves).

    The structure seems pretty obvious to me: both the protagonist and his world are placed into a shadow state (both are deceived by authority figures), and it is only through reflection and understanding of oneself that both can be fulfilled. Sorry to ramble on, but I just don't believe it is really time to call the coroner. I am just more than a little sceptical about these latest declarations of doom, and – especially – the critics making them ...