I come out of the latest Indiana Jones sequel and the only thought racing through my brain is, “Why did they make this movie? Besides for money?”
Aside from a sword fight involving a guy straddling two cars (which, I believe, I saw some version of in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie) and a few trees full of enchanting monkeys (who had nothing to do with the movie – the monkeys’ faces reflected visible surprise at being involved), the movie felt ponderous and dull, choosing nostalgia over invention, and displaying little visible effort at having the story make sense.
To date, the latest Indiana Jones movie has made over two hundred million dollars, so what the heck do I know? Except this:
I know movies used to be better.
I’m talking major studio motion pictures. They were demonstrably better. What does “better” mean? Satisfying. Enduring. You come out of the theater without wanting to ask for you money back. I know old people like old stuff, and that we live in a culture where “Nothing’s better or worse, it’s just different”, but I’m telling you:
Today’s movies are worse.
Come on, film buffs. 1939. The Oscar winner was Gone With the Wind, the nominees – among others – The Wizard of Oz (Dr. M’s favorite), Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka, leaving no room fo Beau Geste, Gunga Din, Young Mr. Lincoln and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not the mention The Thin Man. May I have your comparable list of any other year? Or any era, beyond the Thirties and Forties, where, by the way, the movie business was just as passionately committed to making a profit?
Yes, most movies were always terrible. But they made more movies back then. If only ten per cent of movies made per year are any good and you make five hundred movies, the result is fifty good movies a year. If you only make a hundred movies a year, the same proportion leaves you with ten good movies. And I don’t believe we regularly reach that level.
Reasons, reasons, reasons.
What makes current movies so terrible? The movie studios were bought up by larger entities demanding reliable profits. This is something I’ve never understood. If corporations wanted reliable profits, why did they go into the movie business in the first place?
Go into missiles. They’re always making missiles. I don’t know why, they never use them. But I’m certain there’s way more money in missiles than there is in movies. If you don’t like missiles, try Wall Street. Or real estate. Real estate guys buy basketball teams.
The best movie people can get are good seats.
And yet, big companies continue to invest in the movie business. Maybe they just like being invited to the premieres. Bragging rights, you know?
“We made another missile.”
“I met Angelina Jolie.”
Here’s me being incredibly ungracious. I have no future in the movie business, so I can say whatever I want. I don’t know how the presidents of movies studios go to work in the morning. What exactly do they believe they’re doing for a living?
“In the name of profit, I eviscerate a formerly flourishing art form.”
That probably wouldn’t be their answer. They’re probably more positive about what they do. But isn’t that kind of accurate? They transformed the movie business into a money machine?
How did it happen?
Well, the first move was “The Lust for the Blockbuster”, with, hopefully, encouraging sequel potential, though even if the sequel potential isn’t encouraging, they’ll crank them out anyway. Indiana Jones has powerful name recognition.
“But we have nothing new to say.”
Then studios discovered “The Youth Market.” Movies for teenaged boys. To see with teenaged girls. Crank up the sound. Pour on the special effects. Forget believable characters and storylines you can follow. Video games don’t have storylines. Give me carefully-timed jolts of visceral excitement. Sex and gore. Not Al Gore. The gore that flies out of screaming honeys when they explode.
Okay, those are business decisions. We can’t fault those. We live in a business culture, and business requires that you to go for the money. If you don’t give the company the profits it expects, they fire you and get somebody who will. Eager to retain your perks and prestige, you hold your nose and drag moviemaking down another notch.
(I know I’m being very negative, but I have to get this out first. After that, I’ll take responsibility for why I can’t write a movie. It’s in my character, maybe in other people’s too. Before acknowledging failure, I need to diminish the thing I’m failing at. Not that what I’m saying is totally without merit. How much merit, is for you to decide.)
Moving on. To our glorious culture, a culture that requires writers to tell only one story. Over and over.
This is the storyline of all American movies:
Somebody wants something. And they get it.
That’s it. That’s the American story. Everyone gets what they want. Whether it’s a sports movie or a romance movie, the outcome is obligatory: the team wins; the couple ends up together. It’s not the studio’s fault. The audience demands these endings. Otherwise, they feel cheated. They’ve wasted their time.
“I watched an entire debate movie where a team from a small, black college takes on Harvard and they lose? What am I doing here?”
Somebody wants something and they get it. In movie, after movie, after movie. Like a kid who demands that you tell them the same bedtime story every night. The only exceptions are the movies that are made for Oscar consideration. Then, there’s a twist. For the Oscar-aspiring movies, it’s
“Somebody wants something, and they go crazy.”
Or die. Or go blind. Or lose a leg. Or get assassinated. It’s an odd thing. “Winner” movies rarely win the Oscar. Maybe the Oscar voters think:
“They already won in the movie. Let’s give it to the schizophrenic.”
(I know there are exceptions. The exceptions are my favorites. In sports movies, I love Rocky and The Bad New Bears. Both of them lost the title. In romantic movies, I’m crazy about Lost in Translation, and I really liked Once. Those couples didn’t end up together. What makes those movies memorable, for me, is their rejection of the “and they get it” resolution and their resonating humanity.)
I can’t get excited about writing a movie where, not only I, but the entire audience – and maybe the universe – already knows the ending. What’s the point? To be in the movie business? It’s not enough.
The only challenge in writing movies where everybody knows the ending appears to be in the skillful disguising of the inevitable. That seems like a lot of work for zero surprise.
“Can you believe it? The underdogs won the cheerleading competition.”
“Yeah, and against such enormous odds. I’m completely blown away.”
Let’s hear it for “The Sarcastics!”
And yet. Anthony Lane, a gifted and reliable movie critic for The New Yorker injected this in a review of Baby Momma:
“Not that predictability weighs against a film. What counts is not the well-tried grid of the narrative, but the kind of energy you send through it.”
When I read that, the first thing that came to my mind was,
“This movie critic has just given up.”
Predictability is okay as long as you send energy through the well-tried grid of the narrative?
No, it isn’t.
Unless you’ve seen too many movies and have decided to throw your hands in the air and “mark on the curve.”
I believe a writer owes the audience something they haven’t seen before. But that could be a personal quirk. When I wrote the pilot of Major Dad, there was a place in the script where a “Knock-Knock” joke was required. I admit it. I bought the definitive “Knock-Knock Joke” book. I read every single “Knock-Knock” joke. Some of them were pretty funny for “Knock-Knock” jokes. Then, you know what I did?
I made up a new one.
It’s probably just my “Good Boy” nature. I am not wired to steal someone else’s “Knock-Knock” joke. Unfortunately, I totally lack the “new ‘Knock-Knock’ joke” counterpart of a movie idea. I simply haven’t got one.
I wrote for television for thirty years. Not every story I wrote was original, not every joke formulation surprising, but that was always my goal. That’s probably what made the work harder. Trying to be startlingly original in every regard. Larry David pulled it off, but I wasn’t at his level.
Over the years, I’ve written three original screenplays. None of them sold. Being the negative person I am, I then stopped writing screenplays. Unlike other writers, who keep banging away, three “No’s” and I’m out. That’s all the rejection I can handle.
So there’s that.
But there’s also something generally about television writers and the movies. Not a lot of TV writers have successfully made the move. At least, not in comedy. Some of them didn’t want to. Besides the fact that television writers retain far more control over their scripts than all but the biggest movie writers, there is also the question of longevity. Ed. Weinberger, a hugely successful television writer/producer used to say.
“I’ll go into the movie business, when I can have a career in the movie business.”
Go to IMDB. Compare the resumes of television writers and movie writers. Television writers have consistently longer careers.
More importantly, however, there’s the meat and potatoes, the “doing the actual job” consideration. I’ve given the matter considerable thought, and the best I can come up with is that TV and movie scriptwriting are fundamentally different.
The difference is not just that one form is longer. It is that it has something to do with a compositional rhythm. It’s like the difference between a writing a hit tune and writing a symphony. The hit tune has to hit you early, hard and often. The symphony, without lagging, can be more deliberate, luxuriate in its detail, and build methodically to its crescendo. Hit tunes don’t have the time. Neither did sitcoms. Especially the non-cinematic ones I worked on, that were filmed in front of a live studio audience.
It is my belief that the muscles you develop writing in television can be liabilities when you try to transition to movies. Though I wouldn’t deny that what I just said may simply be an excuse.
Nah. It’s true.
One of my favorite comedians from the past was Victor Borge. Borge was a Danish immigrant who once described his transition to life in America this way:
“There was a point, after I’d been in America for a while, where I’d forgotten all my Danish, but hadn’t learned any English.”
That’s pretty much describes my condition moving from television writing to movie writing. It also describes my unwillingness to write anything I've seen before and my inability to come up with anything new. Both situations render me