Friday, September 4, 2015

Steven Spielberg and Matt Patches ought to get over themselves

So, a friend of mine recently posted an interview Steven Spielberg granted to Esquire, and I was...annoyed.  In it, Spielberg is quoted as saying:
"We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn't mean there won't be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I'm only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us."
Now, to be fair, this is a mild statement in context. But Matt Patches' later commentary and the misleading headline blow this statement so far out of proportion in order to serve Patches' agenda that it rubbed me the wrong way. Enough that I think it's time for a good rant.

See, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I like superhero movies (at least some of them) just fine, while also acknowledging that there is currently an overabundance of them, and some are just plain bad (I won't say which, because someone will surely turn this into a fight over our respective taste in movies). If next year there are no superhero movies released, I'll be happy. If next year ten superhero movies are released, I'll see the ones I want to see.

However, what I can't stand is hypocrisy, disingenuousness, or pettiness, which is what I see reading this. Spielberg comes off in the article like a cranky old man who is worried his toys are being taken from him, which is far from the truth. At this point in his career, Spielberg should be secure enough in his legacy that he doesn't need to take potshots at others in his industry or start playing prognosticator. Patches, on the other hand, sounds like someone who is desperate to be seen as a champion of independent cinema while simultaneously coming off as a guy who is just repeating things that more thoughtful people have already said.

In fact there is so much wrong with this brief article that I need to break my objections to it down in pieces.

There are valid arguments to be made about the dominance of superhero movies on the current film calendar. There are also arguments that I find less valid (namely the ones that are breathlessly hysterical and forget that the movie industry, from its inception, has always been largely dominated by films that rely on the entertainment value of spectacle). However, any valid arguments are drowned out when they're made by the wrong person. Who is the wrong person? Steven Spielberg, of course. The man who is credited with inventing the blockbuster effects-driven movie as we know it, and who has continually, long after he began directing more "prestigious" projects, kept adding entries to the genre. In the past decade alone, Spielberg has been attached as director or producer to "War of the Worlds," "The Legend of Zorro," "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," "Super 8," "Cowboys and Aliens," "Real Steel," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Men in Black 3," "Jurassic World," and no fewer than three "Transformers" movies. He is attached to direct "Ready Player One," coming out in 2017.

How hypocritical does a man have to be to knock blockbuster films when they have been the primary source of his income for decades? Sure, he hasn't made "superhero movies" (though I would argue that Zorro, Indiana Jones, the Men in Black and the Transformers are superheroes of a sort), but occasionally turning out something "Based on a True Story" or a "message" picture does not give one the right to get on a high horse about popcorn entertainment.

Let's talk a little more about those prestige pictures. In between directing and producing good-old-fashioned popcorn entertainment like the "Indiana Jones" and "Jurassic Park" movies, Spielberg has racked up an impressive number of "serious" and non-genre films such as "Lincoln," "Schindler's List," "The Color Purple," "Saving Private Ryan," and "Catch Me If You Can." Nobody, including myself, can accuse him of being unable to tackle a variety of subjects. No filmmaker in history has a more diverse or successful body of work. 

But Spielberg's complaint about "Lincoln," of all movies, being tough to sell in Hollywood is pitiful. Why? Because "Lincoln" is a perfect example of the fact that, even when he isn't making popcorn entertainment, Spielberg is incapable of making "small" movies. "Lincoln," which has a story that certainly could have been told with a lower budget, had an ensemble cast with no fewer than 20 highly-regarded (and expensive), award-caliber leading and character actors,  plus a $65 million budget  — certainly not "Jurassic World"-size, but also hardly indy-film level. 

As for his style of direction, Spielberg is rarely capable of making a movie that is "quiet," "subtle" or "emotionally complex," all things we consider hallmarks of "small" filmmakers. Look up and down Spielberg's list of sweeping, emotive, panoramic films and one wonders why this man thinks he is the person to be championing personal film-making. Even Spielberg's "important" movies are filmed like they are blockbusters.

By the way, what would the issue have been if "Lincoln" had been picked up by *gasp* HBO? Spielberg still seems to be living in a world where television is for garbage and movies are the only "legitimate" way to present filmed drama. HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and numerous other networks have been the home of profound, well-written stories for years, now. Spielberg, stop clutching your pearls.

Again, no one can dispute that at this moment in time, superhero movies are in a dominant position in the marketplace, and only the most die-hard comic book geek would begrudge pruning the schedule a bit. But both Spielberg and Patches are presenting one or both of two equally ridiculous hypotheses: That the market can't support multiple examples of one genre, or that having multiple examples of one genre is bad for art. I can't comment on the latter premise  it seems like too subjective an opinion, though I personally tend to dispute the notion that making any one type of art somehow eliminates the possibility of another type. However, the other hypothesis is shown to be patently ridiculous when asserted by Spielberg, a man who has directed (or is scheduled to direct) 11 movies that have focused on one of two subjects: aliens and World War II. That's out of 34 movies total. 33 percent of his directorial output. Who is he to criticize any filmmakers for their lack of diversity?

Let's be very clear about the mythology of the superhero movie, which is currently having a resurgence in movie theaters and on television screens. Yes, the stunning success of these movies in recent years has led to an explosion, and many more in development. And yes, because of technological advances, the movies can get bigger and bigger and be budgeted for more and more money. But the idea that suddenly people are going to just "give up" on superheroes is absurd. Spielberg should know better  as a child he read comic books himself. Sure, the boom in superhero movies is a fairly new thing, but that ignores the fact that these movies are based on characters that have been around for decades  in some cases in excess of 70 years. Clearly there is something about the superhero that captures human (specifically American) imagination on a deep level. The prediction that they'll go away is about as ridiculous as predicting that Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula will go away." It is more than a little late to dispute the role of these characters in our culture.

Beyond all of the raging hypocrisy and lack of basic scholarship of Spielberg's angst (which Patches is more than happy to embroider upon), what burns me up more than anything is that the basic premise is completely wrong. The Western did not die.  Here is where I'm willing to concede that Spielberg meant something valid that he didn't actually express well, which is that certain genres wax and wane over time. I have no doubt that there will come a time when there are fewer superhero movies. People will tire of them, grosses will go down, movie-makers and film companies will move on. But superheroes won't "die" any more than Westerns did. I don't believe Spielberg meant what he said, but Patches runs with his point and desperately attempts to prove it while only succeeding in doing the opposite. Yes, "the stampede [for Westerns] died down." But Patches' own examples prove that the Western has never "died out." As long as there are Tarantinos, Coens, Eastwoods or other good filmmakers making good Westerns, the Western survives. As long as television fans hold out hope for a "Deadwood" follow-up, the Western survives. Call it "tumbleweeds," but don't call it dead

People also have spoken of the "death of the musical," while conveniently ignoring blockbusters like "Mamma Mia," "Chicago," and "Into the Woods" and TV audiences flock to watch "The Sound of Music" and "Peter Pan" live. They're speaking now of the "death of the serious film" as gorgeous and important movies like "12 Years a Slave" and "Boyhood" continue to dominate the awards circuit and make back their budgets. But movie genres do not die, as long as talented movie-makers keep them alive. The same will be the case for the superhero film.

THERE IS ROOM FOR EVERYONE: The bottom line is, it doesn't matter what Spielberg or Patches or Christopher Stansfield think about superhero movies. Clearly, people enjoy them. People also liked "Lincoln." People liked "The Theory of Everything." There is room in the theaters, on television, on the Internet for narrative of all types. Hoping that superhero movies "go away" does nothing to help those other types of narrative. It's just a petty way to disparage the work of fillm-makers who may care just as much about making a good "Captain America" movie as Spielberg cares about making a good Tom Hanks tearjerker. And it's beneath both Spielberg and Mr. Patches. 

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