No New Ideas
“The story of Blair Witch is one of failure—mythic failure, but failure nonetheless.”
That’s right, Blair Witch was a failure. Only in the up-is-down, black-is-white world of Hollywood would a film that was made for about $30,000 and grossed $140 million worldwide—not to mention garnering practically unprecedented pre-release buzz and being the first film to capitalize on the Internet as a promotional tool—be ultimately considered a failure. And why? Because they couldn’t repeat its success. A widely-panned sequel from 2000 didn’t even come close to the box office of the original, which has operated as practically a curse on its creators, who haven’t had much success at all since hitting the first one out of the park, and even its distributor, Artisan, which collapsed not long after. It’s a fascinating case study in and of itself, and much could be written about what it says about the constantly mutating movie industry, and the cyclical nature of popular tastes. But, in Peter Bart’s new book, Boffo!, it only rates a chapter, and a fairly uninteresting one at that.
Bart, editor-in-chief at the film biz bible Variety, seems to have two purposes with this newest book. The first is to celebrate the centenary of his publication, which first started covering entertainment back in 1895; though this desire is fuzzily rendered, as he spends most of his intro talking about the history of the magazine, but devotes little time to it in the following book. The second is to take a look at entertainment industry blockbusters (it’s mostly movies, but as a sop to Variety‘s brief, he includes the occasional TV and Broadway show) and discover what lessons can be learned by seeing what worked and what didn’t.
So we get chapters on roof-raising and industry-cheering smashes like Lord of the Rings and C.S.I., which produced multiple profit-producing entities and spinoffs each (see above for lack of industry interest in something that can’t be repeated). Others deal with hits that shouldn’t have been, ranging from Psycho (even Hitchcock thought it stunk at first, and wanted to edit it down for his TV show) to The Best Years of Our Lives (nobody thought that William Wyler’s returning-vet film would play to a war-weary country in 1946, but oh it did).
In theory, this should all be red meat for anybody with even a passing interest in the entertainment biz. But an anodyne prose style and an utter lack of penetrating (or even original) insight hobbles Bart’s book right from the get-go. His anecdotes are readable and occasionally amusing (though do we need yet another run-through of the kibitzing and chaos that went into making The Godfather?), but they rarely lead anywhere. Each chapter, whether it’s on The Real World or Casablanca, lays out the story of that particular slice of mass-produced visual culture competently enough, but just when a reader might be expecting Bart to then step back, take it all in, and start telling us what it all means, it ends.
There’s a certain lassitude to the writing here, as though Bart thinks he’s spent too long in the trenches to really bother with the big picture, or even (occasionally) with getting it right—for instance, Bart claims that the Blair Witch co-directors haven’t completed another feature, yet, according to IMDb.com, both Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have films in the can. The lack of purpose to this book becomes apparent wearyingly fast, and reaches its nadir in the half-hearted conclusion, where Bart tries to find some general similarities between all his case studies and discovers that they shared things like “a singularity of vision” or “an emotional tug.” The fact that one could find both of these things in any number of costly and embarrassing flops is apparently beside the point.
What Boffo! proves is that Bart is just too much the insider at this point, too far removed from his beginnings as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and with too many years as a film exec (Paramount, MGM) and trade magazine editor, cozying up to the stars, under his belt. He will never be the dissenting voice, the one in the wilderness crying out about how lousy Titanic was, or (gasp!) criticizing the first two Godfather films. Wherever audience and critical reaction has fused together to create a cultural consensus of “this stinks” or “this is amazing,” Bart will be right there, ready to nod along with the best of them, and to tell everyone why everyone is right. Because that’s what this creaky industry needs as it plunges headlong towards self-immolation, another yes-man.