Monday, October 17, 2011

Are movies relative anymore Pt 2

After long consideration, Disney has decided to go with a western movie with Johnny Depp for $215 million. The original budget was $275 million and Disney was worried, but now that it's only $215 million, all is well.

The movie is based on a 1950's TV series and 3 movies and it was called The Lone Ranger. The Ranger traveled the west with his trusty Indian friend, Tonto, dealing out justice to bad guys. I used to watch the series all the time and still find one of the feature-length movies on TCM.

In hindsight, they were pretty simple stories of morality, good guys win, bad guys lose. They were okay for a kid like I was, but now, older, I realized they weren't that great even for their time period.

But back to the question of movies and whether they matter. The previous blog dealt with the business end and this blog is about the content. At the beginning of the digital age a saying came into place; "the good news is that everyone can make a movie, the bad news is that everyone can make a movie".

And there have been a lot of bad movies lately. Some well-meaning, but simply not very memorable. And it's worth it to remind you that there were always bad movies. But what is happening is that the good ones really aren't great.

There's a theory about people who watch a movie a couple of times over a period of time. It basically suggests that what you remember is not really the movie, it's the memory of the movie, what you remember about that evening as much as what you saw.

I do this with Easy Rider, sometimes I watch it and it's great, other times it feels dated and sometimes just corny. But then, there's The Searchers, one of my alltime favorites and what's interesting about this one is that I still enjoy watching it.

Okay, I remember going to Easy Rider with a date who wore a mini-skirt just after they all came out in around 1967 or so. And it was a mini that could take on any clothes of today.

And I remember The Searchers, seeing it as a kid of 10 in a small town theater. Yet every time I watch it, and I've seen it at least 30 times, it's always new, there's always something in it that I didn't catch before.

So what's the difference?

It's a better-made movie. Directed by John Ford, who won 6 Oscars in his career and who had a way to make the movie better. Ford had a way of putting little idiosyncrenicities into his characters and scenes, little bits as actors call them, the way someone rolled their cigarette or rode a horse or just spoke. Little things that made them human. And usually things that producers hate because few producers really understand the subtleties of life.

And knowing those subtleties means you have lived life.

But there was something that all the movies had up to the 1990's. They were the event. You would talk about going to see the latest movie on Fridays, there was no iPhones or iPads or tweets, just the movies.  And TV of course, but TV didn't spend the money that movies did, movies were truly bigger and wider and louder and more exciting.

TV was related to doctor shows and cop shows and lawyer shows. Ironically the same as now. But then there came the CSI shows which pushed the envelope in terms of filming like a movie. This new way to shoot TV dramas started some time ago, the X-Files was one of the first to shoot dark images and shadows.

With digital cameras they can now give TV shows the look of a movie, any CSI episode that show you that.

That hit the movies hard, not to mention that a whole new generation of writers who were raised in relatively easy  lives that gave them little inspiration beyond writing shows that copied the TV shows they saw as kids.

The great writers came from WWII, they either served or they were kids and many of them were outsiders, guys mostly, who came back from the horror of war or hitchhiked across the country, riding trains, working in fields, living life. And they usually wrote great scripts although mixed in with a few bad ones here and there.

What they wrote about were issues, disguised as entertainment. There was always a bigger picture than the story. Take Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, about migrant workers in the 30's. The book caused a stir in America, Republican politicians condemned it. And John Ford made the movie in 1939 and Republican politicians threatened to have it pulled from theaters.

Most of the great movies have messages that stir the heart and mind, and most people don't get them, but that doesn't matter, the message is still there. Of the movies now, I would say Avatar had that, it was essentially a 1970's script with 21st century CGI. This year's Woody Allan movie also has a bigger message, that the past isn't always as great as you think, it's just the past.

One of the best younger writers around now, although way past 40 is Alan Sorkin, and if you want to read the hell he went through just in his personal life with drugs, you can see why he's good. He's been there.

Each week in LA there are 5 to 10 new movies released, most of them independent movies where the distributor rents a theater for 2 weeks to say the movie played "theatrical", which enhances it for DVD distribution (and now streaming). And most of them are not very good, some weeks they're all really mediocre.

So what do studios do? You know that, bigger and better. 

Remember the Lone Ranger? On TV it was a fairly inexpensive show, but with Johnny Depp, it's going to be $215 million. We're talking about a couple of horses, some wide open spaces and some gunfights. $215 million?

How can a western cost that much? Well, Johnny gets his piece. But after that, where is the money going to be spent? Cowboys and Aliens wasn't a success, considered a flop even with Harrison Ford although Harrison is getting long in the tooth. And it didn't cost as much, even with massive CGI effects. 

And the best part is this; they're re-arranging the movie just slightly. Instead of the Lone Ranger being the lead --- Tonto, his faithful Indian companion  is the lead. So it's The Lone Ranger, but the Ranger plays second fiddle. In a genre that only anyone over 45 can relate to. And they stay home to watch CSI.

At least in the series, Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, a real Indian from Canada. 

Now to see The Lone Ranger from the 1950's go to Materials and click on LONE RANGER.