[4 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We Americans apparently love our crap. Give us cinematic Sauvignon and we’d rather swill sickly blockbuster Boone’s Farm. Case in point – the repugnant Wild Hogs, a movie made for a common denominator lower than the lowest one on record. This midlife crisis suburbanite biker garbage raked in $38 million big ones over the 2 March weekend. It bested the police procedural perfection of David Fincher’s Zodiac and took new boy on the block Craig Brewer back to the sophomore slump woodshed with his exploitation attempt, Black Snake Moan. Yes, when offered filet, or at least something that closely resembles some manner of non-processed animal by product, we immediately queue up for the aesthetic-clogging junk.
Just look back over the last month or so. Everyone had Eddie Murphy pegged as the next Denzel Washington, ready to finally find some Oscar love at the end of his rollercoaster career (and personal life) rainbow. Then an unfunny hemorrhoid named Norbit came crashing into your local Cineplex, dragging the comedian’s Academy chances down to the level of the film’s toilet-based wit. While some can argue that the site of a nominee dressed up as a culture’s worst ethnic nightmares had no affect on his Best Supporting Actor chances, it couldn’t have helped. Even as Mr. Murphy stormed out of the Kodak Theater (allegedly), he had his massive bank account (aided by the film’s $75 million take), not the annual victor’s party, to laugh – and fume - all the way to.
It’s hard to see why the comic should care. Everyone should be as lucky as to have his audience appeal. His Teflon talents are apparently so non-stick that he can send the cause of racism back 275 years and still walk away a bankable star. All an Oscar can do is turn him into Cuba Gooding and/or Lou Gossett, Jr. Besides, he knows that his demographic prefers Velveeta to Gruyere. Shrek, Dr. Doolittle, and Daddy Day Care prove that fact. So there’s no reason to worry about a lack of professional legitimacy. As long as the money keeps pouring in, the child support payments will be met and all will be right in the materialistic Murphy universe.
Similarly, Nicholas Cage can calm down as well. His long festering comic book caper Ghost Rider has been trying to deflect a dozen months of bad buzz on its way to an early Spring opening (or what many in Hollywood used to consider the scheduling equivalent of the kiss of death). Even the confirmed geeks over at Ain’t It Cool News couldn’t drum up the usual “be there, cause you’re square” kind of support for this graphic novel nonsense. But thanks to an omnipresent trailer that seemed to be playing constantly since Tom Brady last won a Super Bowl, and clips that focused on Cage’s “good old boy, American Chopper-lite” persona, the satellites surrounding NASCAR nation turned out in droves.
Actually, that’s not fair. It was cellphone-addicted adolescent retards that drove both of these films. As a matter of fact, it’s teens in general, not film lovers or cinema snobs, that drive the movie business’ heavily insured SUV. Want to know why the unreasonably reviled Titanic still sits among the top grossing films of all time? Just ask your hormonally hopped up wannabe fame whore. Though she will probably admit to the passing fancy – just like her previous worshipping of boy bands…and personal integrity – it was indeed her allowance dollars that crowned James Cameron king. It’s the same with the pleasant Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Girls get to swoon over Johnny Depp’s dark eyeliner and Orlando Bloom’s blushing baby face, while the boys can tap their testosterone with either energetic swordplay, or Keira Knightley.
Oh, and we can’t forget families – those nasty little nuclear units that still believe fruit leather is part of the reconfigured food group pyramid (next to Lunchables, right?). They REALLY love a fat laden filmic repast. When reviewing the highest grossing movies of 2006, over 50% are geared toward the tots. There was Cars ($244 million), Night at the Museum ($205 million), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($195 million), the $190 million Oscar winner Happy Feet (take that, better CGI entries) and Over the Hedge ($155 million). Even more interesting, when looking over #s 11 through 20, not a single kiddie flick can be found. So the answer is obvious – if you want a few more greenbacks in your commercial coffers, make sure the wee ones are part of your production design.
By catering almost exclusively to the two demographics that support the vast majority of moviemaking profits, the studios feel empowered. The gamble of manufacturing a motion picture gets a little less risky, and returns can be almost guaranteed when buffered by DVD and merchandising tie-ins. Certainly there are examples that buck this carefully micromanaged trend (Lucas’ Star Wars romps, Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings films), and art can frequently find a place on the standard motion picture menu (The Departed, for example). But by in large, the mega-multinational monoliths who overshadow the rest of the media landscape prefer to pay their bills by delivering prepackaged product that goes down easily and leaves no biting or bitter creative aftertaste.
Thus we have a 2007 movie season looming with retreads, sequels and more examples of Wild Hogs harmless hamburger helper. There is nothing wrong with embracing a mindless mid-life crisis picture featuring actors who have all done, and really should all know better, but just like restaurants, Tinsel Town can’t thrive on gourmet fare only. If all you gave the people was Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Prestige, they may be better nourished, aesthetically. But McDonald’s has been around more than half a century for a reason. We apparently want, nay CRAVE, the entertainment equivalent of comfort foods. The Fountain may seem like substantive cinematic sustenance, but all the populace really requires is a tempting Talladega Nights taco or two.
In his recent book on the movie biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet argues that audiences today love mediocrity – indeed, prefer it to artistry or innovation. “The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring”, he states, going on to argue that such shared disappointment creates a kind of communal bond. It’s the same with our varying tastes in vittles. We will occasionally venture out into the world of fiery foreign (film) foodstuffs, or indulge in a bit of eclectic (indie) fare. Yet if there were movie Mac and cheese being served up at our favorite burger joint/Bijou, we’d rather have a super-sized serving of same.
Call it the concept of the collective consciousness experience (people still argue that any genre of film – horror, comedy, actioner – is better when seen with a crowd) or a desire to follow along with the rest of the fad gadget front (can’t be left out of what your fellow filmgoers feel is a cash-worthy creation), but it adds up to one clear conceit – American audiences readily prefer a diet high in saturated stupidity and sugar-laced silliness. They fancy it over a banquet featuring intelligence, wit or authentic emotion. And since it’s impossible to completely cleanse one’s personal preference palate, we will continue to see junk like Wild Hogs (or, perhaps, the upcoming Blades of Glory) dominating the top of the charts.
And what about the more rarified offerings? All one can say is bon voyage, bon appetite.