[10 January 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been an interesting 24 hours in the fictional fantasyland known as Hollywood. Business keeps chugging away as the promise of award season gives in to early 2012 malaise and yet the surreal stories just keep on coming. On 9 January alone, three things shook up Messageboard Nation, each one requiring their own social soap box network responsorials. Chief among the headlines was the fact that The Devil Inside, a low rent, ridiculous excuse for a found footage exorcism experience, made a record $35 million at the box office. Almost immediately, that story was trumped by a quote from Vertigo star Kim Novak in which she likened the use of Bernard Hermann’s memorable score from said film as part of the soundtrack to The Artist as “rape.” Finally, the Director’s Guild of America announced its five choices for its annual Oscar indicator, and much to every armchair pundits mutual shock, David Fincher was included for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while Steven Spielberg was snubbed for both of his efforts (War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin) this year.
Tackling the last item first, it seems clear that many felt the Popcorn King was due some end of year accolade, if only by attrition. After the usual suspects showed up on the list - that would be The Descendants’ Alexander Payne and The Artist‘s Michel Hazanavicius - the next three names shocked many in the mutual know it all community of the Web. Woody Allen walked away with a nod for his otherwise forgettable Midnight in Paris while Martin Scorsese’s magical use of era and experimentation earned him and Hugo a well deserved nod. But it was the inclusion of Fincher, a far out of left field long shot for his slick, sinister take on the aforementioned Swedish phenomenon that really got the keystrokes stoked. Many felt the film didn’t live up to the potent pre-release hype (remember the trailer confirming it as the “Feel Bad Movie of Christmas?”). Others argued that there were better directing turns - and they are probably right.
Still, the inclusion of Spielberg into the discussion seems disingenuous. As a perceived remnant of the long gone days of legitimate blockbuster entertainment, not today’s micromanaged multimillion dollar weekends, the new breed of ‘critic’ have constantly complained that he is overrated and over-rewarded. Many still worship at the altar of his very best - Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark - but the supposedly unforgivable sins in his oeuvre have marked him a disengaged dinosaur. Yet there were those who believed his work in War Horse, and perhaps more so with Tintin, would push him beyond the others opting for Academy recognition. Fincher may indeed be a fluke, but with few listing either of Spielberg’s efforts as Year-End warrants, his exclusion makes much more sense.
Not that the naysayers care. They are still jacked up on their own sense of reasoned entitlement and will complain loudly and at length to anyone who will listen. It’s the same with those who feel The Artist is being pushed down the throats of awards season voters, especially in light of the movie’s minor if still magical approach. So naturally, when an aging actress with little or no current pop culture cred speaks up, confirming their belief that the silent French film is nothing more than a crime masquerading as creativity, there is bound to be controversy - and conversation. Indeed, voices automatically took Ms. Novak to task, arguing that those who’ve suffered violent sexual assault might take umbrage with her wording, while the anti-Artist pact sit back and shout “We told you so!”
Neither side is really right. Directors have long used the music of others to make their points. Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and even the great Master Scorsese would have a hard time meeting their muse without the invention of rock and roll, and a fantastic score can make or break a movie. In the case of Vertigo, however, everything about Hitchcock is mythic. Brush up against his genius and you’re more than likely going to rub someone the wrong way. While not wholly untouchable, his canon is to be approached with better than kid gloves. While Mr. Hazanavicius can argue all he wants to about aesthetic choices, the end result of including Hermann’s timeless melody is two-fold. For many, it took them out of the moment. For others, it was a nice nod to cinema’s storied past.
What it isn’t, naturally, is rape. Perhaps in the most colloquial meaning of the term it could be mildly construed as something remotely similar (not very likely), it is indeed a poor choice of words by a fading former starlet. In fact, the reference is more egregious that what’s being referred to. It’s a sentiment shared by those still shocked by the 6 January box office results. Stunned would be an understatement. Currently sitting at 7% on Rotten Tomatoes aggregate meter, The Devil Inside was seen by many as a terrible fright flick bolstered by a good bit of media marketing. Indeed, the ad campaign was so compelling that it couldn’t even quash the horrible word of mouth coming out of preview screenings and midnight showings.
Like some manner of insane group think, audiences tired of twee dramas and pompous pretense apparently wanted to see something scary…not that Devil delivered in that regard. It touched the nerve…since nothing else was available to do so. In fact, forgotten by most of the complaints was the concept that little else of major mainstream value was released said weekend. Everything ‘new’ was either limited, or a holdover from December. Still, this didn’t take away from the main criticism leveled by the numbers - the misguided signal it sends to Hollywood. Had The Devil Inside slowly fizzled, making a minor dent in the overall cash count of 2012, few would remember it. Even better, no one would want to emulate it. Now, with such a haul, the studio suits have been given permission to pursue other likeminded mediocrity. While truly worthy horror films get underfunded and dumped onto DVD, Devil haters should be ready for at least one sequel to this stupidity (or like the equally anemic Paranormal Activity, more than one).
With the Academy itself heading up the final flashpoint of the day (the new documentary nomination rules are so confusing it will take a team of MIT grads and a couple of psychics to truly figure them out), it’s clear that website forums and blog comment sections will be very active for the foreseeable future. Some of the discussions will be nothing more than the sound of one massive glad hand clapping. But buried within the noise is enough decent drone to mark some spirited debate. While they may not always make sense, the arguments do provide some sensationalized entertainment - that is, until the next false firestorm arrives.