A Corpse in the Cinema 2: Lazarus and the Magic Act

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As the first part of this comment explained, Hollywood has become fossilized by its winning conventions. The tropes brought to life by the cinema of the 1970s – a revolution of sorts, in itself – have set roots into the industry in almost inescapable form with the vessel of the blockbuster, almost as a genre of its own. Today’s Hollywood, rusted at its core by shibboleths half a century old and under attack by new forms of entertainment, faces a crisis not unlike the French and German film industries in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively.

The symptoms of this ‘war on two fronts’, as it were, can be easily seen with some degree of context in mind of the past tendencies of cinema: movies have become an exceedingly mathematical affair, dictated and plotted by marketing committees as finely-tuned attempts to appeal to as wide an audience as can be had. The last five years in particular have seen a sweeping adoption of very successful but creatively restrictive fashions, such as the craze for shared cinematic universes pioneered by Marvel Studios.

While this model fits the comic-book genre rather naturally and has recently been applied, quite craftily, to Star Wars with last year’s Rogue One, it is ill-tailored to for example Universal Pictures’ multiple attempts to connect all its ‘monster’ properties. Such as: I, Frankenstein or Dracula Untold and – if one’s impressions are to be believed – Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot this summer (Universal must be honorarily mentioned to have been perhaps the first to venture into crossover terrain, with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943, though to not much critical acclaim). The ‘offspring’ of this fashion I consider the most baffling and appears to be the most catastrophic, nevertheless, is Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, blatantly and inexplicably designed by Warner Bros. as the cornerstone to a (doomed) six-piece Arthurian cinematic universe.

The corpse has been found and the murderer identified: but what’s to be done with each? Here, we run into the problem of the killer and victim being the same person. Hollywood has, much like the German cinema of the 1960s or the French cinema of the 1950s, dug and knelt in its own grave both in terms of creativity and in prospects of competition with the growing industries of television and videogames. This is not to say, as it was in the first part of this commentary, that “das Kino ist tot” – cinema is dead. Cinema is, nevertheless, in dire need of shedding its skin in favour of a new one.

The greatest difficulty facing change of any substance in Hollywood is the huge costs behind modern productions. For the signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto, overthrowing the old cinema was as simple as declaring its death and replacing its narrative conventions: not so with modern Hollywood. Perhaps paradoxically, the widespread availability of better, cheaper filming equipment since the 1990s has transformed the box office into a battlefield and annual blockbusters into heftily expensive enterprises: the top fifty most expensive film productions in history, adjusted for inflation, were all produced between 1995 and 2015 with the third and fourth instalments of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise holding the dubious titles of first and second most expensive films in history (costing together three-quarters of a billion dollars).

The reasons behind the ballooning expenses of modern cinema are mired in the abyss of Hollywood book-keeping – worthy of its own module in any Accountancy degree if it weren’t notoriously opaque and secretive – but spawn, to lesser or greater degree, from the increase in competition and the need to publicize decreasingly original products. A conservative maxim of Hollywood budgeting proclaims that the true cost of any given production (more so in the past decade) is the ‘declared’ budget as one might find online, doubled to cover marketing expenses.

This year’s Baywatch, for reference, would have a reported budget of $70 million but a more accurate, total budget of $140 million. It is not difficult to see therefore why Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, was considered in its time to have caused Warner Bros. a loss of $167 million, despite grossing close to a billion over a budget of $150 million. Hollywood’s hermetic accounting practices may have been to blame for the even more curious case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which despite having strengthened the New Zealand dollar by 30% after its release, in principle caused New Line Cinema “horrendous losses” and sparked a lawsuit between the company and director Peter Jackson; but it is undeniable that the modern blockbuster has, much like Ryan Gosling’s description of mortgage-backed security packages in The Big Short, “mutated into a monstrosity” that threatens to collapse Hollywood itself.

For would-be revolutionaries, fighting against the expense of modern blockbusters must fall to the age-old triptych of “doing it better; doing it cheaper; or doing it first”. This is not, in itself, a revolutionary formula of any sort: blockbusters themselves strive to ‘do it better’ (more commonly, ‘do it bigger’), the B-movie market illustrated by the SyFy channel already ‘does it cheaper’, and various ‘indie’ directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn have ‘done it first’ to varying degrees of success and critical acclaim, with The Neon Demon and his superior but rejected Only God Forgives as examples.

The next revolution in cinema must, nevertheless, adopt at least one of these maxims if it even hopes to dethrone the old regime: optimally, in the spirit of its predecessors, it should adopt all three. Though resurrecting Lazarus is in itself an act of magic, the ‘death’ of cinema by deluge of mediocre, expensive and unoriginal movies, both in terms of creativity and profits, can only be reverted by a seawall of cinema that counters the three and comprises better, cheaper and innovative pictures.

It’d be dishonest to omit that, as with all revolutions, the cure is sure to be unpleasant and in time likely to replace the malady; but when that time arrives, we can take refuge in the words of a fictitious President of the United States, and wishfully remember that “life would’ve been a lot easier if the bastard hadn’t died in the first place”.

George Lucas’ original Star Wars turned forty last Thursday 25th May, and earlier this year the first look at the annual dose of the Skywalker saga (with giant walkers on a white planet, a protagonist suspended in not-carbonite and other mandatory emulations of Empire Strikes Back) reminded us that the franchise has spent thirty-four of these forty years in deep creative bankruptcy. And so, with nine instalments under its belt and (to the dismay and exhaustion of many) four more inbound before the end of the decade, let us use this occasion to cheer Hollywood and its flagship franchise: das Kino ist tot! Es lebe das Kino! Cinema is dead! Long live cinema!

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