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The Lens: Don't confuse popularity with quality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 25, 2009 - Roger Ebert, who has more or less taken the position of elder statesman of American film criticism in the past few years, stirred up a mini-brouhaha a week or so ago when he published a general lament about the current state of film. Well, not so much the state of film as the state of the audience, and especially those younger than the age of 20, who represent a good percentage of the most avidly pursued demographic in current movie marketing.

Ebert's message could be - somewhat unfairly - reduced to two arguments:

  • a) What's wrong with these darn kids today?
  • b) Why is "Transformers 2" making more money than "The Hurt Locker"?

To "a," I'd suggest that it's not just teenagers to blame but an entire culture that encourages adults (men more than women) to lodge themselves firmly and nostalgically into an adolescent frame of mind and tells adolescents that this is how grownups really behave.
To "b," I'll point out the obvious: It's a waste of time to rest an argument on the box-office performance of two or three particular films. Films like "Transformers" will always outgross works like "The Hurt Locker," just as surely as Dan Brown will sell more books than Thomas Pynchon. That, for better or worse, is the nature of popular culture.

But having said that, it's not that hard to share Ebert's frustration, especially during this season of noisy, vapid and juvenile films. The very existence of a movie like "G.I. Joe" - a movie based on a cartoon based on a line of toys - can begin to seem like the ultimate insult, the last straw (or les quatre cents coups, Mr. Ebert might prefer), in a decadent film industry that lurches desperately from one ridiculous trend to the next: from remakes - oh, sorry, they're called "reboots" now - of movies that weren't any good to begin with ("My Bloody Valentine"?) to that old standby 3-D, faithfully pulled from the closet every decade or so and touted as The Future of Movies.

To read through a list of forthcoming film projects actually in the works is like watching the film studios lapsing into a kind of artistic senility, a return to the nursery. Among the recent announcements: "Stretch Armstrong," "Bazooka Joe," "Monopoly" and movies based on ViewMasters and Lego blocks. Call it the Hasbro-ization of Hollywood.

What Ebert misses when he talks about the lack of interest in serious film criticism is that there's a thriving body of online discussion of films, websites and blogs that generate thousands of words about contemporary film every day, many of whom took offense and responded to Ebert's remarks. The problem with most of these sites - besides the dominance of what Ebert called "fanboy zealots" - is that the need to produce so many posts on a regular basis, the urge to be the first to link to a hot new trailer or casting gossip, has created an information network where critical discussion has taken a backseat to what I'll call "comment," a kind of discourse that does a better job of following the will of the studio publicity departments than Hedda Hopper or Rona Barrett could ever have imagined.

The studios release a new photo from next season's big multimillion-dollar spectacle, and the online community responds by commenting on the photo, then by commenting on each others comments. The studio releases a teaser trailer; it's given a more thorough examination than most actual features receive. After the blogosphere has forged its way through the trailers, the conceptual art, the leaked screenplays, the public pronouncements of the stars, the video games based on the film, the three-minute presentation by the producers at Comic-Con, the speculation about the sequel and the final round of press junkets, they've exhausted the subject by the time the actual film opens and are left with nothing to do but report the box-offices grosses.

This crazy whirlwind of publicity/fandom reached a new peak a few days ago when 20th Century Fox declared Friday, Aug. 21, to be "Avatar Day," booking roughly 130 IMAX screens worldwide to present a short (and spoiler-free, they assured everyone) selection of scenes from James Cameron's forthcoming 3D CGI fantasy to be released in December. In addition to the preview of "Avatar" (not to be confused with "Avatar: The Last Airbender," an animated fantasy series currently being filmed by M. Night Shyamalan), audiences were treated to an almost equal amount of footage promoting the various toys and games tied to the film.

This kind of film promotion is far from new. Studio executives used to call it "synergy" and still treat it as if it were the holy grail of moviemaking. But the idea of "Avatar Day" seems to me to take the usual run of Happy Meals, T-shirts, cereal boxes and action figures a step further, not simply using these products to promote the film but actually dragging the audience in to see the promotional goods on their own. It's as if the commercial has become bigger than the product it's designed to sell.

And somewhere in all of this, the film itself - or at least the nature of film as a coherent narrative event - may get lost in the shuffle of product placement, cross-promotion and pseudo-events. If this is "the future of film," as producers routinely label their latest offerings, it may not be quite as dark a place as Ebert predicts, but it will almost certainly be a noisier and more aggressive one.

Wishing you all a belated Avatar Day. (Next year, I'll just send a card.)

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.