Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
BART: Every self-anointed film guru this weekend will be offering weighty analyses of all the awards choices, so here’s one reasonably dumb observation that I will offer up: Why are audiences being served up such an unrelenting diet of feel-bad movies? Whatever happened to the old-fashioned ‘date picture’? I respect the artistic sensibilities of all the nominated stars and filmmakers, but I wonder how many dates will be happily consummated, for example, after a visit to The Revenant or Room. I believe that Spotlight and Truth are fine movies, but their subject matter is not ideal grist for a couple trying to escape headlines about ISIS or cop shootings. David O Russell’s Joy, I am told, was conceived of as a comedy about capitalism, but Jennifer Lawrence looks totally depressed (and oppressed) during the entire movie.
FLEMING: The holiday menu does remind me of the unrelenting misery you would often find in a Sundance Festival slate, only on much larger canvases and stars. But what alternative did you have in mind?
BART: I recall hearing stories about a legendary marketing meeting at Paramount a couple of weeks after the release of Love Story, the classic tearjerker. The marketing team had observed crowds of young couples lined up outside theaters, and the lines were growing day-to-day. Some hasty audience research was mobilized. The key finding: The movie had become a sort of cinematic aphrodisiac. The heroine in the movie died but the filmgoer scored. The campaign was re-shaped accordingly to exploit the phenomenon. Harold and Maude served the same purpose; people got laid.
FLEMING: Wow. Love Story, with gorgeous stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, I get that. But a young Bud Cort bedding Ruth Gordon, old enough to be his grandmother? As the phrase ‘boner shrinker’ rises to the forefront of my brain, why don’t you clarify?
BART: There was a charm and a romance to it. What have we got now? Now, I hope some of the filmgoers watching Leonardo DiCaprio eviscerate a horse and scoop out his guts will find themselves in a ‘feel good’ frame of mind. The Revenant is a finely wrought movie but it’s a marginal choice as a date movie. (Not that that should be the prime motivation for buying a ticket!)
FLEMING: I brought my wife with me to see that film. She loved it as much as I did. I could never be a critic, because I like too many movies and can appreciate things like effort, ambition and degree of difficulty as much as plot and performance. To me, the press narratives on that movie so far have been misguided distractions: fixations on cost, a director being hard on his crew, even the oft-repeated ridiculously false rumor that somehow DiCaprio gets raped by a bear (mentioned twice now in New York Times stories after a misguided Drudge Report headline). On the last count, DiCaprio’s character Hugh Glass wanders through the forest, sees grizzly cubs frolicking, and realizes he’s screwed because he knows a protective mother grizzly is nearby. The results are terrifying. I see the adversity on that movie as a badge of courage, and this film made me think of others like The Lord of the Rings, or James Cameron’s The Abyss (I watched on Youtube Making of The Abyss, which details all the hardship of that underwater shoot, from Cameron watching dailies in a decompression tank to Ed Harris calmly discussing how he tried to act with water in his lungs as he was drowning, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio lying there for hours, wet and cold in her near-death climax scene, only to be told the camera had run out of film). These are once in a lifetime movies that will never be duplicated because their ballsy directors rallied cast and crew to push harder toward greatness, testing the capacity for endurance and punishment on a movie set.
In every shot of The Revenant, you feel the cold and the hardship as actors trudge through water and crawl through mud in frigid, snowy Canadian forests. It is hard to imagine DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and everyone else there ever worked that hard on a movie, or ever will again. And Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki staged the most gorgeously shot outdoor film I have ever seen, because of their insistence on driving for hours till they found a spot that looked untouched by humans, where they shot a scene or two until they lost the natural light. I have no idea if this film recoups budget or makes money, and I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it, but one cannot lose sight of the singular accomplishment here, the will to stretch in ways that doesn’t happen so much anymore in this age of caution and studio fiscal prudence. People are now measuring it against Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight because of length and snowy vistas, but there has to be room for both of these ambitious gems. Hateful Eight is another one where I so appreciated the high degree of difficulty and actors freezing their asses off so, all in the name of entertaining an audience.
BART: In selecting Best Picture contenders, I believe more consideration should be given to “degree of difficulty,” as the term is used in sporting events, but I am also talking difficulty in intellectual terms. In this context, a film like Bridge of Spies would seem to be a relatively (it’s all relative) by-the-numbers project – a classic period spy movie about Tom Hanks fighting a cold. The Big Short, by contrast, would pose the greatest “degree-of-difficulty.” It seeks to be both entertaining and suspenseful while, at the same time, explaining the sources of the financial crisis that almost capsized the nation in 2008 and which The New York Times headline was “Economic Collapse for Fun and Profit.” In my opinion, Adam McKay, who co-wrote and directed the movie, actually succeeded in pulling off his dual objectives. It was an absurd decision for him to make this film. Even more absurd: He brought it off.
FLEMING: Every one of those small canvas Best Picture candidates, including Spotlight and Room, had obstacles to overcome, and so did pictures that aren’t factoring in the Oscars like Fast & Furious (Paul Walker’s death), Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk (for things I’ve never seen on a movie screen before) and Straight Outta Compton (kicked to the curb in turnaround by Warner Bros). Tarantino’s insistence on shooting 70mm is right up there, and it created problems even after TWC distribution chief Erik Lomas foraged to find all the projectors. I drove through a rainstorm one night recently into the East Village, and got to a theater half an hour late for the start time of the first New York screening. Turned out I was 90 minutes early; the projector broke, immediately.
Luckily, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and producer Stacey Sher were there. They sat before a patient crowd and just talked, and talked, about anything, while a guy they called “sprocket man” struggled to swap projectors or somehow make it work. Russell was at the point where he was answering questions about whether Snake Plissken could beat up other characters he played, like Wyatt Earp, when the room darkened and we were hit with this 70mm snowy vista. And you understood what Tarantino had in mind when he insisted on that widescreen format to tell his twisted, wild, hilariously violent story. Between The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, The Martian and The Walk, 2015 goes down as an envelope pushing year. It reminds me why this business always keeps me interested. When it works, ambition must be recognized, Peter.
BART: And while we’re second-guessing contenders, maybe there should be special plaudits bestowed on those films that actually have an impact on the situations they explored. Spotlight is one prime example. In talking to a few newspaper editors, I find a restored interest in supporting investigative reporting teams like the Boston Globe Spotlight crew depicted in the film.
FLEMING: I spent a good deal of time with the Pulitzer winning Globe journalists for an AwardsLine cover story on Spotlight. They aren’t getting rich from this movie; they signed their life rights to producer Nicole Rocklin years ago, so I believe them when they say their biggest hope is to inspire young, smart, curious people to do that kind of time consuming work and for cash strapped newspapers to value it more. I watch the Spotlight grosses closely each weekend, knowing the bigger they are, the greater the likelihood of a long lasting impact I imagine must have happened with All The President’s Men. I also saw where Open Road and Participant just created a $100,000 fellowship for investigative pieces that will be published in the Globe. The notion of good journalism being subsidized by philanthropists is one possible future for a worthy pursuit that holds the powerful accountable. It would be a legacy for a great film.
BART: Greg Burton, who edits The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, combined his resources with USA Today and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to produce an excellent five-part series about the disastrous decline of aquifers in the U.S. and overseas (an eight month study). Despite ever tightening financial pressures, even the beleaguered Los Angeles Times is reaching out in this direction. Leo Wolinsky, who ran The Times for many years and who has been looking into this issue, notes that some tough obstacles confront the newspapers. “Investigative reporting requires a lot of time and source-building as well as strong editing,” he observes. Greater demands already are being placed on the slimmed-down staffs: reporters have to file more stories, plus contribute videos and radio spots. And there are fewer of them around. Newspapers have sharply curtailed state and local coverage. “I worry about the decline of hard-hitting local coverage,” says Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, a view seconded by Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Oregonian. Toward the end of the Iraq war the only journalists around were from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The good intentions are there, says Wolinsky, but the resources have to be present as well.
FLEMING: One final thought: I’m right now watching to see if there will be movie action after CAA this week sent to studios the book proposal: The 15:17 to Paris The Untold Story of How Three Childhood Friends Stopped a Terrorist Attack, Saved a Train, and Became American Heroes. Written by Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler, the book tells the story of those train traveling pals who disarmed a terrorist before he was able to rack up the body count we saw in Paris and San Bernardino. Will we see more worthy movies about timely issues like mass shootings that have become so prevalent in our lives and keep happening daily? And, will we see Hollywood finally get courageous and make movies that explore the unholy alliance between gun makers and Congress? We watched the massacre of 20 children and six teachers in a Newtown, Connecticut school, and Congress showed how compromised it is by NRA money by collectively shrugging their shoulders about any meaningful ban on the sale of assault rifles and oversized ammo clips, or even heightened scrutiny on weapon sales to people with emotional problems. Anything that would put them in the crosshairs of the NRA and off their payroll.
I just returned from a trip to Dublin and Edinburgh, while the San Bernardino massacre by radicalized Muslims occurred. They acknowledge terrorism can be waged anywhere, like Paris, but their stories expressed utter disbelief that U.S. pols have done nothing to try and stem what is now an average of one fatal shooting per day. They have gun restrictions and look at us like they might look at species on another planet. Now, there finally seems to be some movement toward some meaningful reform because those Muslim terrorists legally bought guns used in San Bernardino. The courts have started to act where legislators won’t. I think it would be remarkable if the gun makers who hijacked the Second Amendment to empower a billion dollar industry that leaves gun-soaked carnage crime scenes in its wake is finally brought to heel by Muslim terrorists who hijacked a peaceful religion to create blood-soaked carnage crime scenes. Where is Hollywood on this issue? Is it shame because guns are such a staple of their films? We see tons of Drug War movies, probably because they qualify as gun-filled action films, but when will we see a Traffic-like dissection of what is happening on our soil? Harvey Weinstein a few years ago talked about such a project–The Senator’s Wife with Meryl Streep–and he received a volley of death threats. He seems to be having his own problems right now and I don’t see this movie on any release calendar. Hollywood and its filmmakers are good at moralizing when they look back at injustice and corruption—Adam McKay’s The Big Short shames Wall Street for tanking the global economy in 2008, seven years ago—but this gun issue is the hottest hot-button issue in America, right now. Do films only work when they are filtered through the prism of time? Why has Hollywood been so cowardly, Peter?
BART: But this takes us back to where we started, Mike. Is it Hollywood’s role to make message pictures? This gets complicated because, on one level, we’re all in favor of serious films on serious subjects. But increasingly we look to cable TV or to Netflix and Amazon to fulfill this demand. And we look to the specialty sector for this material, as well. This is where the Darwinian factor set in this fall: there were too many very good and serious movies bumping into each other. And, as we said at the top, there seemed to be a curious absence of pure “entertainment.” Films can teach us a lot. They can also give us a good time. I vote for both.