The success of a break-all-the-rules film like “Argo” always shakes up the corporate protectors of the status quo. That’s especially true at a moment when the industry knows that major changes are looming.
“Argo,” which will easily pass the $100 million threshold, defies all the precepts of studio pitchmanship. It’s set in the Middle East (bad idea), is an R-rated period thriller with no car chases (worse ideas) and mixes satire with suspense (certain death).
Its biggest star, George Clooney, is simply a co-producer and its protagonist (Ben Affleck, who also directs) never does anything heroic except negotiate. So “Argo” is clearly not so much a hit as an accident. Or is it?
“Argo’s” breakthrough seems an appropriate backdrop for David Denby’s new book, “Do the Movies Have a Future?,” which tries to come to grips with the challenges facing filmmakers in a new digitally driven, platform-agnostic media world.
Denby, the longtime critic for the New Yorker, reminds us that, under their present business plan, “the studios are not merely servicing the tastes of the young audience, they are continuously creating the audience that they want to sell to.” In short, Hollywood no longer responds to what filmgoers want, its massive marketing machine imposes its “conglomerate aesthetic” on the worldwide audience.
So will this formula survive in the brave new world of fast-multiplying platforms and YouTube networks, where the laptop and the tablet carry greater impact than the theater seat?
In a sense, as Denby reminds us, the entertainment industry finds itself at a crossroads reminiscent of the dot-com boom, when no one could figure out whether the Web promised cultural democratization or merely a new form of media oligopoly.
Of course, Denby, as a film critic, would like to see the re-emergence of movies as a true “national theater” as a byproduct of these changes.
I’ve always appreciated Denby’s efforts to come to terms with the evolving lexicon of the cinephile universe. He’s even regularly grappled with the mysteries of Mumblecore, the microbudget indie films that often play more like a college cocktail party gone wrong. (The emotions are supposed to rumble in these films, not the dialogue, Denby explains).
To my taste, several high-profile releases favored by the elite critics (“The Master” comes to mind) reflect the same sort of structural disarray as the Mumblecore films, but Denby would likely disagree.
The critical community by and large embraced “Argo” and relished its rule-breaking ethic. Audiences, too, are going along with it (the release is starting promisingly overseas as well) as though to emphasize that the mandates of the past no longer prevail at a time when all the rules seem to be changing. Thus “Argo,” in all its eccentricity, may reflect not just an accident but a new sensibility.
While “Argo” had smooth sailing through the critical community, Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas present to filmgoers, “Django Unchained,” may run into choppy waters. The serious cinephiles in the academic world are convinced that popular critics misunderstand the filmmaker and have vented their frustration in a new book, “Quentin Tarantino: The Manipulation of Metacinema.”
Tarantino’s work, the academics explain, is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s doctrine that “we’re not interested in photographing reality, we’re interested in photographing the photograph of reality.” Hence Tarantino is building on “the aesthetics of contingency — a conditional rather than a dialectical worldview.”
I’m glad we cleared that up. Here’s a sampling of the critical insights offered up by 13 cinema professors in their book on Tarantino’s work:
•Critics wrongly attacked Tarantino’s bizarre depiction of the Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds,” failing to realize that “film is a counterfactual reality that influences us to an understanding of sociocultural self-reflection.”
•Tarantino’s sensibilities are akin “to the realm of physics in which alternative outcomes of particle measurement may be regarded as equally real.”
•By disorienting us in its leap from genre to genre, “Inglourious” rewards us with the pleasures of recognition, and, in the process, celebrates a certain cosmopolitanism through its fluency of genres.”
I hope Tarantino reads these commentaries before he finishes editing his new film so that he can incorporate new counterfactual obscurities into his oeuvre.
Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton/Josh L. Dickey wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson