a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Posts tagged “Baz Luhrmann

Before Midnight

BEfore Midnight

Once again, a small, simple movie about ordinary people is burning up screens while many of the star-driven, big budget effects movies are underperforming.

It seems Richard Linklater’s third installment in what you might call his “European Trilogy,” Before Midnight, is going to be an even bigger success than his first two films, the modestly successful Before Sunrise and After Sunset. The studio is gearing up for unexpected wide release after initially thinking the movie would only do small art-house business. Meanwhile the smart money said Will Smith would clean up the summer with After Earth. Don’t take stock tips from these people.

Once again, a small, simple film about ordinary people talking resonates with movie-goers more than action heroes and heroines in leather catsuits and superhero tights. Whudda thunkit? Even in the action-adventure genre, however, things are different this year. The big winner so far seems to be the latest Fast and Furious movie. While these films obviously have done well before, most execs didn’t expect the latest installment to blast past Star Trek, Olympus Has Fallen, The Great Gatsby (yes, I classify Baz Luhrmann’s flick as a comic book movie even though it’s cloaked in the legitimacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald) and all the other optical extravaganzas that have come out so far. It’s gotten so that even the kings of special effects extravaganzas are worried about the effects of the mega-blockbusters on the health of movies in general.

But studios keep trying to push them on us, push them hard, having them pop up in every browser window, shopping mall, TV show, and download. They merchandize the hell out of them, turning them into fast food meals, soft drinks, wearing clothing, video games, theme park attractions, you name it. If only they marketed other films that hard, quality films, films that didn’t feature some overpaid Hollywood A-lister trying to save the world (again), they might make even more money than they do now, which, after production costs are subtracted, aren’t always very good and are often less rosy than their own PR suggests. (Just check where the parent companies’ numbers are on the stock market for a snapshot of their financial health.)

I always find Oscar night supremely ironic: a bunch of people gather to praise “art” and compliment films that for the most part they spent the other 364 days of the year blocking. Then it’s back to the sequels, rip-offs and formula pictures the next day.

I just wish Before Midnight would open the gate to other people-oriented films  the way action-hero and comic book movies do. I wish its success would make studio heads say, “Hey, people are tired of CGI monsters destroying the world. More and more people want movies based in reality.”

As William Goldman has pointed out, when the big budget extravaganzas are a hit, the studio execs say they know what people want. When small, quirky films fare the same way, that’s the “non-recurring phenomenon.” It’s a fluke. Forget about it. It ain’t gotten happen again.

Till it does.

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The Return of Gatsby

JayGatsby’s back. For better or worse (and I haven’t seen it yet), Baz Luhrmann, not one of my favorite directors, has brought Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Great American Novel to the screen again. I only wish Fitzgerald could see some of the money that would flow his way were he still alive.

When he died in 1940, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was considered by most people, including himself, a failure. Despite some early successes that allowed him and wife Zelda to live the high life, he was financially ruined by the time he died, hacking out unproduced and unwanted screenplays (as well as some bits of Gone With The Wind that were never filmed). You have to understand, this was a time when a novelist writing for Hollywood was considered a shameful act, and not something a writer would drown his mother in a bathtub for, like now.

Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, had been since college. His funeral was attended by few friends, just like Jay Gatsby’s, and he could not be buried in the family plot in Maryland because “he was not a practicing Catholic.” The clergy also didn’t like his books. Zelda, by now locked away in an insane asylum, died a horrible death eight years later in a fire.

It seems cliched that America’s iconic writer was drunk, unappreciated, misunderstood. When he died, there was a warehouse filled with stacks of The Great Gatsby. Since then, it’s sold millions. The whole thing is not unlike the fate of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, who lived in the same age, drank heavily, and died (even younger) unknown and unmourned (and broke). Late in life, when he returned to visit his midwestern parents, he found the records he had proudly shipped home still in their wrappers in a closet. The Beiderbeckes were ashamed of their awful son.

We live in a different world, for better or worse. Today there is an interest among the mainstream media—Time, Newsweek, The New York Times—in crowning new geniuses, if not manufacturing them outright. In part this could be to rectify wrongs of the past, but also it’s to have copy for stories. If Fitzgeralds can’t be found, they must be created—lots of them, because the news cycle (entertainment cycle, really) is now continuous, and faster than ever: ten new heroes must be crowned for every old one, or we will run out! And cultural heroes are one of the few things America still manufactures and exports in great abundance and to immense profit.

But that still doesn’t mean many genuine artists might not go to their grave without being recognized. Today the selling of a personality is more important than what that personality actually does. It’s as if we’ve looked at the models of the past and decided all future aspirants would be taken from these models—to the detriment of those who may not fit the preconception. We’re looking for a reclusive, perhaps alcoholic or drug-addicted (or better, former alcoholic or drug-addicted), person who does not fit with society in certain almost predictable ways. Artists, academics, scientists, politicians all come from Central Casting. There are perhaps many legitimate reasons Chris Christie might not make good presidential material, but we obsess with his midsection.

In the arts, certain backgrounds and predispositions are a plus, even perhaps a prerequisite. It’s easy in that mode to miss a genuine, low-to-the-ground creative person, because frankly many creative people are very dull. Their makeup and politics are also not predictable. Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Gus Flaubert said.

That wouldn’t go over so well today, where more and more the artist determines the perception of his art, especially since most new art is either very similar to old art or so different as to be incomprehensible—and almost always intentionally so. More people know about Warhol’s private life than understand why his soup cans are in museums, if indeed there is a good reason. The pimping of artists and hyping of artistic movements are manifestations of the very shallowness in the “American Dream” that Gatsby is all about.

Writers call that irony. Can’t wait to see the new movie.

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