Michael 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...
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.