Hollywood is dead. The shining Western beacon of filmic expression and exportable art that has defined American culture for decades has now assumed the status of a vestigial organ. Where modern film was once the most promising of artistic mediums, the relevance of Hollywood products to present and future generations has gone by the wayside. Mainstream film just doesn’t matter anymore.
It’s a mental death. In a purely capitalistic sense, Hollywood’s doing great. The first month of this year was the best January Hollywood had ever seen, liberating a jaw-dropping $1 billion in gross sales. Most Hollywood analysts cite the economic recession as a primary contributor to recent successes. With looming hardships that the common consumer fears without completely understanding, we turn to the $10 escape of the ever-welcoming movie theater.
But Hollywood’s still dead. The recession is serving as life support. With Paul Blart: Mall Cop dominating box office sales, it’s safe to diagnose that Hollywood is in a persistent vegetative state. I say, just pull the feeding tube already. It’s embarrassing.
Hollywood knows it, too. It essentially signed its own death certificate when it gave the Bollywood-tinged U.K.-produced sensation Slumdog Millionaire a bailout of Oscars last month. The Academy Awards is normally a narcissistic star-studded gala of Hollywood congratulating itself on a job well done. Not this year.
The Feb. 24 Oscar broadcast drew the lowest viewership in history. Even industry insiders backed off from attendance, sensing that perhaps at last the beastly business they serve has jumped the shark. They weren’t being disingenuous – we had no good movies. Low-budget commercials offering to ‘BUY YOUR GOLD!’ reminded lonely watchers of the recession we’re in, potentially in a ploy to sell more tickets to Madea goes to Jail.
Postmortem, Hollywood can’t escape singing the same old songs. Genres have worn into deep predictable ruts. They’ve become mined out labels that serve only to guide consumption rather than help explore the content of a medium. Taking a forced glance at one of this year’s biggest-advertised action films, Max Payne, one can see how Sunset Boulevard’s lifelessness sucks our souls right out of our eye sockets.
Payne was a production so utterly rank it failed to give Mark Wahlberg a bounceback from The Happening. (Look up his performance on YouTube, cuz ho-lee shit, it’s Wicker Man all over again.) To prevent the analysis of Payne from being a total downer, I’ll compare it to what I consider two action successes: the first Matrix and Fight Club.
Payne repackaged an unoriginal idea that even the video game industry had forgotten, while Matrix was built on a heavily borrowed sci-fi stroke of genius and Fight Club loyally adapted an underground novel that you absolutely must read before dying. Payne almost seems conscious of how played-out its genre is and sets out to distinguish itself by failing to include any action for the first hour of film. Instead, viewers are forced to plod along through (surprise) seedy nightclubs in (surprise) a city gone to hell while a hero reminisces about (surprise) a murdered wife and child.
Special effects were abused ad nauseam in Payne to cater to music-video CG junkies, whereas tastefully limited graphics were used to groundbreaking effect in both Matrix and Fight Club. The latter two successes capped their action masterpieces with a hero’s transcendence. Payne tapers off with Wahlberg killing the end-boss. (Hint: His mentor betrays him!)
It’s clear to see that what matters in modern action films like Payne isn’t an enticing plot, but the ability to listlessly cash in on conventions of genre. Sort of like comparing a good storyteller with the guy that bashes in his window and steals the TV.
Hollywood’s corpse has more than one kind of stink. The biggest ‘serious film‘ contender at the Oscars this year was the biopic of gay rights legend Harvey Milk. Hopefully, Milk’s passionate fight for equality was familiar to us Californians long before the previews came out. On the heels of Prop 8, Milk could have been a crucial voice against intolerance. Could have been.
For a frame of reference, I’ll contrast Milk with Malcolm X. X opens with a direct feed from the Rodney King beatings a year prior – Milk shows old tape of anonymous gay men getting marched out of a bar in a police raid. Where are the gay couples denied legal recognition? However beautifully arranged, Milk wound up yanking tears instead of agitating public opinion. The laughs were few and the audience is inclined to pity Milk for his closeted life and suicidal lovers. Milk portrays a hero in intimate relief but his cause takes a back seat. The real driving principle behind the gay rights movement is scantily on camera compared to Milk’s internal turmoil. Malcolm X had Denzel Washington reciting Brother Malcolm’s speeches word for word, putting the audience right on the folding chairs of the Nation of Islam.
Strangely, Milk is somewhat absolving of Milk and Moscone’s assassin, Dan White. White didn’t need to be crucified, but he escapes the film with a text roll that ignores the Twinkie defense and soft jail time for a double political assassination. Malcolm X finishes on its strongest note with Nelson Mandela speaking to a classroom of black children. Milk leaves the slain champion a ghost rather than a friend, fizzling out without a eulogy.
Resurrecting dead heroes to placate liberal sympathies without a cry for action is downright disabling. Zombie Hollywood shows its ability to encapsulate dissent without making a real point. Slumdog had a ton more to say about modern politics than did the movie about a goddamn politician.
Dead Hollywood is a drug we all need to quit. We pay out the nose to sit through previews and ‘escape‘ from our worries for two meager hours. It’s like a hallucinogen, minus the indigestion, epiphanies and closed-eye visuals. My advice is to avoid the movie-theater dealers and just learn to download movies you actually want to see. If you need me, I’ll be watching independent horror films.
CHEYA CARY realizes he didn’t talk about Watchmen, which is an issue he has deep misgivings and a slight fanboy hope over. Tell him what movies you didn’t see this year at firstname.lastname@example.org.