Film

Why Are So Many of Today's Movies So Bad?

All indicators are that the movies will not be getting, collectively, any better any time soon.

Bad movies are nothing new. Surely they date as far back as cinema itself; as soon as you have more than one of anything, you run the risk of one being "better" than the other.

And certainly early American film history is littered with some pretty pungent cinema stinkers—the hyperbolic Reefer Madness came out in 1938; the notorious flop I Take This Woman, with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr, emerged in 1940; and the nadir of Bette Davis's career, Beyond the Forest, was unleashed in 1949.

But something seemed to have happened in the middle of the last century. Suddenly, around 1950, after 50 years of movie making, instead of getting better at it, we got worse. And every decade since then has only brought with it more and more disastrous big screen bombs. In Harry and Michael Medved's early tome to bad movies, The Golden Turkey Awards, from 1980, their appendix of the 200 worst film "achievements" of all time lists only four titles from before 1950 (The Big Noise, The Kissing Bandit, The Return of Dr. X, and the aforementioned Reefer). It is also noteworthy that Wikipedia's entry on the "Worst Films of All Time" doesn't include any films made before 1953. It is interesting as well that the Razzies didn't see fit to come into existence until 1980.

Furthermore, Wikipedia's list, separated as it is by decade, only gains in the numbers of films with each subsequent ten-year period.

Think movies aren't getting steadily worse? Well, only three years into the 2010s and our current era has already had Movie 43, Bucky Larson, Battleship and the Twilight series to fully clog up the theaters. And, sad to say, but the ongoing trend of full-on cinema schlock shows no sign of abating any time soon--at least not while Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy and Sly Stallone still have anything to say about it.

So what happened?

Of course, movie making didn't completely roll of the rails in '50s, not when films like Vertigo, On the Waterfront and Singin' in the Rain still managed to get made. Nor has any subsequent decade ever been without its fair share of true filmatic masterpieces. Still, something has surely gone askew for films like Gigli, Birdemic and others to come to fruition.

One theory that perhaps explains the decline of the masterpiece and the rise of the mediocre is the movies's ongoing democratization. Not only are more films being made today, they are also no longer the provenance of a few well-funded, carefully controlled studios out on America's West Coast. The Room, after all, did not have any studio backing; Troll 2 was not a Paramount production. Suddenly—and getting easier all the time—anyone with a camera and some free time can produce a movie. (God help us all.)

Still, this does not help to explain such big budget, major movie debacles as Jack and Jill, Showgirls, and Freddy Got Fingered.

So what makes these films of recent vintage seemingly so much worse than subpar, sub-B programmers of the '30s or '40s? And why do we keep churning out so many of them year after year?

Well, I have a couple of theories.

Beginning in the '50s, and gaining momentum every year ever since, movies have had to "up their game" (so to speak) to compete with television and its siphoning of customers out of theaters. To entice audiences back to the theaters (and eventually the Cineplexes), movies have—for better or worse—worked hard to be more "adult," amping up violence, sex, nudity, language and other so-called "adult themes" until they are either on the "cutting edge" or, at least, far removed from the realm of what could ever be shown on non-cable television.

The "adult" language, gross-out shtick, scatological references, sexual entendres, and anatomical focus that now populates many of the worst films coming out of Hollywood—from Spring Breakers to The Paperboy—often makes these films disturbing, not just stupid or slow-paced, to sit through.

In contrast, films of the '30s and '40s, though they can often be cheap, silly, boring, and dumb, are seldom over-the-top offensive. Even the racial/ethnic stereotypes that populate many vintage films can be forgiven by placing them within the time they were produced. Current films—in fact, films from the past 20 years or more—however have no such protection. Hence, the greater disturbance (and outrage) when viewing the Asian stereotypes in The Social Network or when encountering the curious case of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.

I would also argue that greater budgets and filmgoer's greater knowledge about the filmmaking process (especially its finances) has further altered how we ultimately judge the films we see.

Granted, making movies has long been a costly endeavor. Allegedly, 1916's Daughter of the Gods, with swimming star Annette Kellerman, was the film world's first million dollar movie. It was followed by Foolish Wives in 1922 costing $1.1 million, and When Knighthood Was a Flower, also from '22, which cost $1.5 million. And this was back when a million was still a MILLION!

But, today, thanks to the internet and publications like Entertainment Weekly, movie budgets get reported and dissected (think Waterworld) long before the finished product makes it to the big screen. Were the ledgers of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz so well known before they premiered?

Runaway movie costs (and star salaries that often bloat them even more) is also a post 1950—in fact, post 1960—phenomenon. In James Robert Parish's 2007 book Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Most Iconic Flops, Cleopatra (rightfully) is the book's kick-off chapter—and the earliest film discussed. It was produced in 1966. Of the other 12 movies profiled (Town & Country, Cutthroat Island, Ishtar, Cotton Club,Last Action Hero, et.al.) all but were produced after 1980.

Precognitive knowledge about a film's costs and overruns can alter our movie going experience as we sit there in the darkened theater and wonder: How can anything that cost this much be this boring or this dumb?

Such blatant conspicuous consumption disturbs us on a level far more basic than just how much we paid for our movie ticket. Oh, the wretched excess and utter waste of it all! And it is this differential that allows us to more readily forgive—perhaps even find affection for—smaller, independent bad films like The Room or Plan 9 than we can ever muster for a Heaven's Gate, a Battlefield Earth or the latest near-$1 billion Bruce Willis would-be blockbuster.

It's rather quaint now to remember back to the runaway success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and how its low-budget creativity, along with its internet based ad campaign, was supposed to change film forevermore. Well, that didn't happen. Disney's infamous John Carter from last year showed that runaway budgets (and bad ideas) are still part-and-parcel of many Hollywood studios. In fact, more and more, films are flirting with budgets of $1 billion making not only their breakeven point riskier and riskier but audience expectations higher and more demanding.

Meanwhile, the race to see "how low can you go" continues apace, as Movie 43 undeniably proved. Age has not slowed down the Frat Pack, the unofficial club of (usually) bankable male stars (Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, et.al.) who have never grown up and women, considering last year's Bachelorette, show signs of following in their footsteps. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still Hollywood heavyweights. And, lest we forget, Seth McFarlane just hosted the Oscars where he sang a song about "boobs."

All indicators are that the movies will not be getting, collectively, any better any time soon. The '30s might have been the Great Depression and the '40s the Great War, but in regard to films, they are looking better and better all the time.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image