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Friday, October 29, 2010

The Worst Movie Year Ever?

In my initial post I took a pretty generous attitude toward high concept films, television shows, and books. But what about all the dreck that gets made? In Hollywood, for instance… 

Back on July 28, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Queenan wrote a piece entitled: “Is 2010 the Worst Movie Year Ever?” Here's a link. In the piece Queenan slams pretty much the entire slate of Hollywood’s recent offerings. What does Queenan’s analysis have to say about the state of the high concept in the Hollywood film industry?

The core of his argument is not terribly surprising. It’s that plutocrats in Hollywood have chained their imaginations to warmed-over versions of yesterday’s high concept—oftentimes yesterday’s not even very good high concept—in order to cover the gi-normous production and marketing costs of making films. “Admittedly,” Queenan writes,   

Hollywood is fighting a war on numerous fronts, and losing all of them. Revenues may be holding up but that is only because ticket prices keep rising; overall ticket sales are down. And because of the enormous cost of marketing a film—even a low-budget film—Hollywood likes to play it safe. This is why it's a whole lot easier to get a sequel to Shrek or Tron or Predator produced these days. This is an industry that actually makes sequels to bombs— The Incredible Hulk is a case in point—simply because the subject matter of the film is at least familiar to audiences. And because the public will have seen so many bad films between the original and the sequel, it may forget how bad the original Hulk was. The Four Amigos could soon be on its way.

Hey! I liked The Three Amigos...

But aside from that, if Queenan is right, then Hollywood is betting that familiarity even with a tired concept will rate higher with moviegoers than a more artful concept that is not familiar. But as ticket sales slip, it seems clear that Hollywood is losing the bet.

The thought emerges: what if Hollywood recognized that trying to play it safe is playing to lose, even in terms of the bottom line? Even better: what if the foremost concern of Hollywood execs was the crafting of compelling stories? Would that mean economic sepuku?  

Not necessarily. The best new film I saw this summer was Toy Story 3. It presented an engaging twist on the original concept, with fantastic computer animation, unmatchable humor and an ending that sent middle-aged parents scrambling for the tissues. This latest example of the Pixar touch illustrates that fresh storytelling is not incompatible with enormous revenues—or even with revisiting an old idea.    

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Defense of High Concepts

Pop into the airport bookstore, or browse the bestseller shelves at Barnes & Noble. Read the loglines of the movie posters in the lobby at the Cineplex. Study the teaser ads for your favorite prime-time drama. In such places you will note the call of stories driven, in Hollywood parlance, by a “high concept.” An alien becomes stranded on Earth. Dinosaurs come back to life. An orphan learns that he’s a wizard destined to save the magical world.

Our culture is saturated with high concept fiction of all kinds—in movies, television, and books. It is tempting to consign all of it to the cultural dustbin. So much of it is vulgar, puerile, cheap. And yet—our love for the high concept is something that deserves a defense.

“One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar.”

So argues G.K. Chesterton, in a marvelous little essay entitled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” published in his book, The Defendant, back in 1901. Penny dreadfuls are cheap fiction, cheap in more than one sense, no doubt. But not in every sense. Chesterton’s essay focuses on the boys’ book—i.e., the story of pirates or outlaws, of Robin Hood and Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine—stories light on literary merit but heavy on excitement. He asks whether boys should be kept away from such fiction. His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.”

The “boy’s novelette,” Chesterton claims, “may be ignorant in a literary sense…but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

Chesterton urges us not to discount the importance of high concept fiction for culture. “People must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.”

Why is the need for what Chesterton calls the “true romantic trash” infinitely deeper and more important than the rules of good art? Why does my son go every morning to his “Lego table,” and the city he has built there and the adventures of its citizens? “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton affirms, “fiction is a necessity.” Is this because the need to be amused or distracted is deeper than the need to be intellectually stimulated? Or does it have more to do with the wonder provoked by the high concept? For isn’t this what makes a fictional concept “high”—that it generates maximum wonder on the part of an audience?

The high concept is a way of wondering, and philosophy, Aristotle says, begins in wonder. When we engage with a story, we wonder at a fellow human being set out on a path in which he will achieve either happiness or misery. How will it turn out for him? Will he find happiness? Or will he find out that what he thought was happiness really isn’t? To wonder about these questions is the beginning of the quest for wisdom.

Whether it is with the help of Legos or of popular movies and television shows, to wonder about the truths, and even the truisms, of life is an inescapable part of being human. This is why high concept fiction will always be “the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

My name is Daniel McInerny, and welcome to my new blog, High Concepts. I hope you will join me as I reflect upon questions having to do with the impact of the entertainment industry and new media upon our culture. As this initial post makes clear, I bring a philosophical eye to my reflections. Chesterton and Aristotle, as you see, are favorites. With their and others’ help, my aim in this blog will be to explore what a movie or book or industry trend is saying about what it means to be a human being trying to pursue the good life, a life, Aristotle tells us, always lived in company with our families, our friends, and our wider communities.

What sorts of posts can you expect from this blog?

• Reflections on the very nature of art, entertainment, media, culture—and what forms these take in our society
• Discussions of particular content trends in movies, television, and publishing
• Dialogues with pieces from other blogs and publications
• Movie, book, and media reviews
• Invitations to discuss questions generated by all of the above

I look forward to our conversations.