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COUNTERPUNCH

Measure of Film Isn't How Much It Makes

November 21, 1994|SCOTT PATRICK WAGNER | Scott Patrick Wagner is a free-lance manuscript editor and theatrical consultant. He is also a first-degree practitioner of Reiki, which is a form of healing bodywork. and

Film critics for The Times frequently bemoan the "lowest common denominator" mentality of the American motion picture industry, but The Times does a great deal to encourage this trend.

Calendar is rife with film articles that are singularly about grosses and box-office status, such as the Nov. 14 story, "Love at First Bite: 'Vampire' Tears Into Box Office." Even the blurb about the video release of "Like Water for Chocolate" ("Video Tip," Calendar, Aug. 22) described the film only as the "highest-grossing foreign-language film ever." Having been raised both in Los Angeles and Mexico City, I can assure you that such a nutshell description would cause smiles and shaking heads there over the "quaint American way" we have of reducing everything to dollars and cents.

When did this relentless reportage on box office develop broad-based appeal? When did box-office figures jump from Daily Variety to the Los Angeles Times? When did the importance of these numbers leave the realm of the industry workers and become substantive criteria to the public at large?

Our industrywide (and nationwide) obsession with grasping for the holy grail of "most," "widest," "biggest" and "record-breaking-est" has created a country of size-fixated camp followers. Saturday night movie selections are now based on what film "opened big," rather than what movie your best friends told you moved them to tears, to peals of laughter or to deep thought.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that there simply aren't many films moving anyone's best friends to anything but compromised acceptance of mediocrity. When the studios strive for nothing but huge/big/wide/monster record-breakers, there isn't the luxury to stick to anything like a clear vision or a focused emotional through-line. That might mean sacrificing the McDonald's tie-in, and that is an unacceptable marketing strategy.

Speaking of McDonald's (or, as it was known over Retail Summer, Roc Donald's), what do we think we're doing to our children with our bold commitment to artistic compromise? "The Flintstones" didn't open as a movie, it opened as a retail outlet at the mall. We don't make many movies for our children these days that offer the pure expression of a story and an idea. We provide blatant manipulations; setups for one cheesy cottage industry after another, no matter how peripheral to the project or deleterious to its storytelling.

And the retail strategizing isn't the most insidious aspect of the industry's numbers fixation. The stories must accommodate the money monster.

"The Lion King" is a prime example. This story had all the ear- and tail-markings of a lyrical, "serious" Disney animated feature, a la "Beauty and the Beast." But "Aladdin"--with its irreverent humor and pastiche style--made a lot more money than "Beauty" (which only made a lot of money). Thus, "Lion King" had to be twisted and refashioned. A film that was already destined to have inherently ultra-wide appeal due to the universality of its story, had to be made even ultra- wider . So the wart hog got promoted. And "funny" took precedence over "moving." And no one I know cried at the end of what should have been a deeply resonant fable about "the circle of life."

You may think my logic is questionable: "The Lion King," after all, has done spectacular business, and it's coming back for even more. So if that is the ultimate watermark, then I am full of hooey. But no matter who insists on reinforcing the concept of "box-office uber alles " (and The Times must look at its compliance), the "bottom line" is still not the bottom line.

Even if we are willing to settle for less than true creative expression for ourselves, are we willing to impose that upon our children? Shouldn't our commitment be to give them the best we have to offer and to offer it unconditionally? We are cheapened when financial projections become more important than telling the story.

We are a country locked in debt, on every level from the personal to the federal, and it's no coincidence that we are fixated on the dollars and cents of every situation. Whether the money fixation causes the debt or the other way around is moot. We're locked in a self-perpetuating system of "numbers madness." And we're passing this insanity on to the next generation. If we do not give them pure offerings, without manipulation, or show them that there are things more important than "richest-widest-biggest-loudest," we will have raised a generation that may have money but will be emotionally impoverished and ethically bankrupt.

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