Sunday, November 1, 2015

How Star Wars Ruined Cinema

With the impending release of the new trilogy of films coming this Christmas, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the greatest sci-fi odyssey of all time, Star Wars. I sat down and thought about it for a while, I looked into the depths of what I remembered from my years minoring in film (which basically equated to watching old movies, in a dark room with a crazy teacher and writing a one page paper about it... yay college!). The more I examined this cinematic masterpiece, the more I realized something as deep, dark, and twisted as the empire itself, the implications Star Wars had on the entire film industry...

Even the idea of this subject matter pains me to think about. I love Star Wars! It's one of the first films I remember seeing as a child and it's one of the few movies from an era of great films that had CGI that to this day refrains from looking corny and hokey. However, the more I've thought about it, the more I realize that Star Wars was the beginning of the end to cinema as we used to know it.

If you're a film buff the way that I am you know that the late 60's, through the end of the 70's, is pretty much regarded as the "Golden-Era" of film making. This was a time when writers and directors had such creative freedom that they gave us one countless masterpiece after another. Without the worry of budgeting or commercial appeal, directors and writers were free to do exactly what making films is all about, telling stories, and getting us lost in a world different from our own. This was truley an era of "Movie Magic". I've seen thousands of films, that's not an exaggeration, thousands. Between Netfilx and a childhood filled with cinema along with a minor in Film from college I've collected a rather large sample size. If you ask any movie buff you're hard pressed to find someone who truely adores film, that would argue against the following assumption. In today's film industry there are a few dozen films a year released that are true to what film was originally all about, and that's probably on the high end. The majority of the films released today and for about the last 30 years are simply a way for studios to make money, the once great art form is now simply industry. 

If you look at any list of the 100 greatest movies of all-time, I'd say at minimum 70% were made on or before the year 1985 (80% according to this imdb list..., this is simply when directors and writers started losing their creative freedom. They got greedy and started making movies other directors and writers would want to see. They spent enormous budgets and created 4 and 5 hour monstracities (at least in the eyes of the viewing public), and basically they pissed away all the credibility they had worked so hard to gain. Although a lot of the blame for this can be placed on the directors for pushing the limits of their creative "leashes" if you will; a lot of the blame also falls on a series of films I dearly love, Star Wars. 

Before Star Wars, CGI was a joke, and movies were meant to tell a story with great dialouge and even better story telling. Movies that were popular were also thought provoking (which is rarely the case anymore), and they touched on matters that were important to the social climate. Star Wars changed all of this. It showed producers that a big box office Sci-Fi fantasy could create astronomical sales revenue by telling a mediocre story, but also by dazzling audiences visually. And since the demise of directoral freedom, and the rise of Star Wars coincided so closely, it is my point to argue that Star Wars in fact doomed cinema... as we used to know it. 

When you see a box office smash hit today it usually involves two things, a huge budget, and a shit load of CGI, characters and story are many times secondary, if even relevant at all. If you were to look at a list of the biggest box office successes of the last 10 years, you would be hard pressed to find a dozen movies  that didn't start out with enormous budgets. Combine that with huge amounts of CGI, or at least crazy amounts of stunts and action sequences and you have the "modern" box office smash. This isn't to say that there are not exceptions to the rule (paranormal activity, the purge) but the rule is pretty much law. This is why we've seen so many production companies turn to superheroes for an easy buck. It's got everything you'd want in a summer smash already built in, and all you have to do is adapt these characters that were written 40-plus years ago to today. 

How is this Star Wars fault? Star Wars opened the flood gates, it made story telling secondary. Now I love the films, and the dialouge, and everything about all three of those films, but even die hard Star Wars fans must admit the whole trilogy is pretty caddy. It just happened to be perfectly caddy, with the right characters played by the right people, but there's no denying it's cheesiness. No one will be comparing the integrity of Star Wars as an altruistic art form next to the Godfather for instance, but then again, they represent two opposite ends of the spectrum. In a perfect world both could exist, but in reality, audiences in mass prefer to think less and be entertained more, or at least that's how big studios have come to view the public at large. They believe we want to leave the theater feeling comfortable, and knowing that everything worked out the way it should. Star Wars helped in conforming this belief that the audience must be fulfilled. With the exception of, "Empire Strikes Back" which ended on a rather glum note, but everyone knew the tables would eventually turn for good, they had to.

Now there is a rising segment of film makers who've basiclaly given the finger to this idea of complacency in cinema (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind). They've worked long and hard to create this niche, and it's not easy for new up and comers to break into that segment. But even though these films still exist, they are few and far between. I remember watching Guy Pierce in Momento for the first time and thinking "this is what film making should be". And by that I don't mean all stories told backwards, but something that engages the audience. If you've ever seen this cult favorite you know you can watch it a dozen times and still pick up a little subtlety you missed the first 11 times around. But for the most part we as a general public desire visual anesthetic from our cinema. Something that will entertain us but also numb the reality we have to go back to when we leave. We desire comfort, and George Lucas helped make us comfortable, and in doing so killed the film industry. 

When I was in college I remember watching many classic films, some I had watched as a kid but for the most part they were films you just heard about. Robert Dinero, "Oh ya Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver" but most people who consume media now have never seen either of those films. I remember watching both in class and leaving going, "What the fuck just happened?" In the hey day of directoral freedom, there didn't need to be any happy endings, and most times there weren't. Most films I've seen that were critically acclaimed from that era left me feeling uncomfortable as the lights came up in the auditorium classroom, but the more I watched, the more I realized that's why they were so valuable. When all we desire is complacency, and simplicity from the media we consume, we slowly allow that to become all we desire from our lives. This is not just in film but in all types of media. That's why Justin Beiber will always be more popular than Ray Lamontagne, Ray may be more critically acclaimed, but the masses don't want to hear songs that end up make you feeling more depressed than when you started listening. They want, "Oh Baby, baby baby, OH!" In the wise words of prophetic poet/comedian/Youtube sensation Bo Burham, "Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff, Repeat Stuff." And that's exactly what popular music as well as popular cinema has done. In music the equation is Douchey Boy+Overexaggerated Love Song = Platinum Record. For film its similar Regurgitated Super Hero + CGI = Billion Dollar Box Office.

Now I can't go so far as to blame George Lucas for the Biebs, but I can definitely consider him a main contributing factor for why Michael Bay keeps getting 100 million dollars to make cars explode in the air. Or as South Park put it:

FBI Agent: "Mr. Bay those aren't storylines, those are just special effects."
Michael Bay: "I uh... I don't know the difference."

So what's the answer, the silver lining, the potential solution to return our lost art to the once great medium it was. Honestly, there probably is none. That may seem bleak, but unfortunately unless the masses decide they don't want to line up three days early to see ANOTHER TRANSFORMERS MOVIE then we are probably doomed to have an endless cycle of recirculated garbage. The truth is the studios own the movies now, the directors just point and yell action. But there is something you can do. You can choose to decide what you spend your money on, that's not to say that all indie movies are awesome but do some research and find some filmmakers you like and go see their next movie instead of Michael Bays. You can, not listen, to your friends when they say, "That new Batman movie was the greatest thing I've ever seen! You have to see it!" Let's be honest (Ben Affleck, are you KIDDING ME!) Michael Keaton is the best Batman, Christian Bale is the coolest Batman, and everyone else is just dressing up in a suit with hard nipples. Support your filmmakers who make films, not movies, there may not be many of them still out there, but there's a few and with our help we might not be able to turn this whole thing around, but we can at least make sure they don't get wiped out completely. And now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch, the new Star Wars Trailer, again!


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