August 23, 2013

On the Bigness of Cinema (and Ben Affleck)

Remember when everyone pitched a fit about Daniel Craig being chosen as the new James Bond? And now, more than ever, people are putting 007 movies on their ten-best-films lists at the end of the year. Nothing ever prevents the naysayers from making all their garbled noise, but when you read about people complaining of an actor's casting in a franchise, you wonder if anyone is aware of the real problems going on in the world today. Comic book-movie lovers are fuming about the fact that Ben Affleck will now be playing Batman. They're apparently ashamed and embarrassed, and haven't gotten over their Christian Bale crush yet. They may rattle their cages and scream of cinematic injustice, but frankly, I think this is a good choice. Christian Bale? No sense of humor. On the other hand, Ben Affleck can't possibly take himself that seriously after an immaculate record of bad movies. And yet, he's been redeeming himself with movies like The Town and Argo of late. Affleck may be just what's needed for a franchise that has always struggled with heavy-handedness. (Come to think of it, I'd like to see a truly left-field casting choice for one of these movies. Perhaps, Florence Henderson as the next Iron Man?)

What frustrates me, and, is doubly frustrating because few seem to care, is the fact that studios have just set a new precedent in making a superhero movie that will feature both Batman and Superman. A movie like this will surely usher in a new wave of even bigger, heavier, more gargantuan movies. The movie-going public is like an ever-expanding stomach, engorged on the excessive offerings of the studios, and our collective appetite for small movies generally always contracts in the process. (The Town and Argo seem like small movies compared to the bloated franchises that repeatedly inundate the screens from May to September every year. That's saying something.) We seem perpetually entranced by quantity and increasingly less interested in or appreciative of quality.

The only real solution to this is for the public to lose interest in these big movies. But that doesn't seem like a realistic possibility. I'm constantly perplexed as to the success of films that offer the same things over and over again. The summer blockbusters are so indistinguishable that one must assume the public either doesn't notice or doesn't care, that they consider bigness in a movie to be an indication that they've gotten their money's worth.

More likely than not, folks will make the "mindless entertainment argument." People often argue: "I don't want to have to think about something. I just want to sit back and enjoy something mindless for two hours." (Make that two hours and forty-five minutes. But I'll grumble about overlong movies another time.) This argument makes no sense to me, because I find these kinds of movies mentally exhausting and boring. How are others so enthralled by them? Are they kidding themselves? Are they utterly oblivious to the fact that they're being snowed in by a sedentary film industry? Perhaps.

Or perhaps audiences have settled for television, where they're more likely to find smarter entertainment these days. (Re-watching a few episodes of 30 Rock, which is brilliant in a kind of mile-a-minute, hyperactive way, I'm struck by how few movie comedies could ever keep up with its insane comic ingenuity.) Yes, in an odd way movies have become a breeding ground for stupidity and television a site of creativity. (One might argue that subtlety has been lost altogether, but that is for another day.)

Granted, there's still an oversupply of crap on television (Duck Dynasty comes to mind), but television now offers more fascinating writing, more interesting characters, and seemingly more chances being taken. (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and even HBO's Veep are some of the funniest, cleverest shows in a very, very long time.) I can't speak for the dramas, because I avoid them, but I hear good things about certain dramatic shows on cable and regular television. I can only trust the opinions of people I respect who claim they are smartly written, well-made shows that offer more than your average mindless movie does.

Mindless movies, by the way, have their place. But in answering the question, "of what ingredients is a good mindless movie made?", I suppose we must all decide for ourselves.

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