Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Sunday Times, film and snobbery.

I used to like the Culture section of the Sunday Times, back when they talked about video games with a maturity that was otherwise absent in mainstream media. Then they reduced the game section to a column for reviews. Then they removed it altogether. Apparently their definition of culture doesn't include the fastest growing and most profitable form of entertainment in the world today. I don't know why they scrapped the games section, but I'm beginning to suspect it was simple snobbery: the idea that games simply weren't worthy of coverage compared to film, theatre, books and stupid pop albums. That doesn't explain why they didn't review Death Magnetic or The Final Frontier, both of which were number one albums in the UK. Perhaps they were too busy helping Cheryl Cole's latest effort to pretend she's a pop star and not an ungrateful racist bully.

The game was given away by the front cover of today's issue, which consisted of a promotional image from Zack Snyder's incredibly awesome-looking upcoming film, Sucker Punch, together with the headline, "Here's Why You Will Stop Going To the Cinema: Why Hollywood is Giving Up Making Films for Grown-ups".

So that's you told, audience! If you read the Sunday Times, there is no way you'll want to see Sucker Punch! And if you do, you must be a child or a GRADE-A MORON! Congratulations! You've insulted anyone who wants to see Sucker Punch. Like me.

I really wish I could link to the subsequent article, but unfortunately it's hidden behind Murdoch's ridiculous paygate for the Sunday Times. If you really want to see it then it's on their website under the culture section. It's written by one Christopher Goodwin, who as far as I can tell makes a living bemoaning the intellectual downfall of the Western world. It's at least twice as long as it needs to be, and can basically be summed up as thus: Hollywood makes most of it's profit of of blockbusters aimed at a youth audience, and therefore "intelligent drama" aimed at "adults" loses out.

Whoa! Stop the fucking presses! Hollywood makes more from X Men films than it does from indie films about autism?! YOU'RE BUSTED, FILM-MAKERS! Our heroic Mr. Goodwin has finally exposed your dishonest racket to make money and, er, finance future films!

Yeah, there is so much stupid about this article I could go through it line by line to point and laugh at it. But since it is rather uncharitably not available for people to see without paying, I suppose I'll have to group them into a few arguments.

1. What is a "children's" film?

Goodwin produces the following useless statistic to "prove" that "kid's films have taken over." In 1993, 1 in 10 of the highest grossing films was a kid's film. In 2010- a scant seventeen years later!- it was 8 in 10. Now, Goodwin defines "kid's film" as "animated, based on comic books or books for children." So his definition of a kids' film is basically "a film for children", which is circular reasoning at its finest. Moreover, any definition that includes all animated films, including Grave of the Fireflies, Persepolis and any hentai you'd care to name is immediately suspect, especially coming from a professional film critic.

The choice of years is also deliberately misleading. 1993 might have featured only one "kid's" movie (I assume he means Mrs Doubtfire) but it is telling that Disney didn't release anything that year: 1992 featured three (arguably four- hey, I saw Wayne's World as a child!) and 1994 featured at least four. The number one selling film both years was an animated film (Aladdin and The Lion King respectively). The eight films of 2010 only count as "kid's films" if you include Iron Man (debatable) and exclude Eclipse (are you kidding me?!). It's also worth pointing out that only three of 2009's top ten unquestionably meet the definition, though a case could be made for New Moon and Transformers. Already it is clear that Goodwin has cherry-picked atypical years to exaggerate his comparison.

More to the point, his definition clearly doesn't work. I've already pointed out the difficulty of classifying films like Twilight: the first film was clearly aimed primarily at teenage girls (who may or may not count as "kids") whereas Breaking Dawn is likely to be an 18-rated horror film. I'm being facetious, but the point still stands that "kids" as a group encompasses all persons under the age of 18, from neonates to adolescents. It also utterly fails to account for "family" films or films that appeal to a wide audience. The number one film of 1993 (Jurassic Park) is an excellent example: it's clearly not a kids film, but a lot of children saw it. I myself begged my parents to let me see it as an eight-year-old, because (shock! horror!) kids like dinosaurs. They also like Batman and sparkly vampires, and I'm sure lots of them also liked exploring Middle Earth and Pandora (of course only the stupid ones would have preferred the latter to the former). For that matter, there are plenty of kids films that adults enjoy- how many stories have we heard about grown men being reduced to tears after watching Toy Story 3?

2. This is not a new phenomenon

As I've already mentioned, Goodwin discusses the infantilisation of cinema as if it was a bust. As if he were the first to make such an observation. Spoilers: people have been complaining that cinema is too youth-orientated since Star Wars was released over thirty years ago. There is no reason to suppose that the coming Dark Age of tits and blood obscuring plucky indie films with subtitles is any nearer in 2011 than it was in 1981. What is different now is that...

3. People have less money to see films

Goodwin claims people are seeing films less- in America film attendance was down by 5% and is at a current fifteen-year low. I don't know if anyone has told Goodwin, but people don't have as much money as they used to these days. Is anyone honestly surprised that people are going to the cinema less? Movies are a treat, an expensive luxury that has only increased in price now film-makers have decided to rip us off and give us migraines with 3D. If you can only see a limited number of films each year (and here I must reiterate that a professional critic like Goodwin not only has to see most films but has his expenses covered), you'd better make damn sure you enjoy it. Failing that, you're going to pick the films your kids enjoy over those you are itching to see yourself. That;'s if you're lucky, because...

4. Film releases are seasonal

Goodwin reminds us not to be fooled by the current crop of Oscar bait like The King's Speech, Black Swan and True Grit, because the rest of the year is going to be all blockbusters. Umm, yeah, that's how it works every year: the awards season runs from December to March, and that's when studios release their award-winners. The inverse is also true: one can imagine a parent wanting to take their child to the cinema as a birthday treat at any time in the year, only to be disappointed that most kids films come out in the summer or December. The hardcore action fan might similarly be disappointed that blatant award-bait like Conviction gets released in January instead of something more visceral

5. A film can be intelligent and a blockbuster.

The equation Goodwin is trying to draw is that a film cannot be intelligent and a blockbuster or a kids film. This ignores big-budget action films that a genuinely intelligent, like Inception and the Dark Knight, as well as those that aspire to intelligence but fail somewhat, like Watchmen. Indeed, I would submit that in recent years there has been a trend towards more intelligent blockbuster films, which blurs the gap somewhat between the films Goodwin praises and those he despises.

On the subject...

6. Just because you don't like a film doesn't make it bad

Right away Goodwin dismisses the majority of films as "not worth two hours of your life." I would respectfully disagree. Most of the films I see are worth seeing. If I don't want to see them, then guess what? I don't see them! How terrible it must be to write about films for a living and have to see every single one! What misery Goodwin must know? If you think so many films aren't worth your time, then don't bother watching them all.

But I would also submit that most films are enjoyable- yes, even the bad ones- if you allow yourself to enjoy them. Not every film has to be intellectually engaging. A "bad" film can be just as worthwhile as a good one: look at all the people who attend showings of The Room, making it a collective celebration of weird-ass mediocrity. Or the people who go to see the Saw films year after year- it would be inordinately generous to call these films "good", but they succeed in their primary goal, which is to frighten, unearth and entertain. The problem Goodwin has is that he considers such guilty pleasures are beneath him and doesn't realise that a film can touch any number of emotions to be successful besides stroking the egos of the middle-class.

7. Tentpole releases fund your autistic mute Holocaust films, you fool!

How does Goodwin think that adult-orientated drama gets funded? Does he not realise that they represent significant financial risks for studios. Okay, they have smaller budgets than blockbusters, but they still require a major advertising push at awards time. And studios have less money to finance films: Goodwin mentions the role of piracy and reduced DVD sales as part of the reason that studios have less money to fund films. As a result, he says, they choose to finance films they know will sell over risky propositions like indie films. So far, no big revelation. What he is overlooking is that big, financially successful films also help fund You can bet your arse that Black Swan, produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, wouldn't even exist without Fox's big cash-cows like the Marvel films, Avatar and, yes, Alvin and the Chipmunks. So show a bit more respect for your paymasters!

8. The comparison with television is bogus.

Goodwin contrasts the low quality of American films with the quality of American television, like the Sopranos, the Wire, Mad men and Lost (no, really. LOST!) I really shouldn't have to point out how this comparison doesn't bear out. Goodwin appears blissfully unaware of the reality shows and "celebrity" talent competitions that make up the majority of American- and European- television. Is he honestly going to complain that Season of the Witch is any worse (or better) than My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?

9. Do you even like films?

This one is nitpicking, but in the first paragraph Goodwin goes on about how much he hates going to the cinema because he finds the smell of butter or the sound of mobile phones going off distasteful. Then why do you go to the cinema if your ideal film-going experience involves sitting on your own, without any of those filthy poor people to disrupt the experience for you? Wait for the film to come out on DVD! Except.. if you did that then you wouldn't be supporting all these pretentious films whose absence you bemoan! Oh no! Whatever will you do? Sit with us oiks and support the film or sit on your own knowing you are contributing to the decline of cultural standards!

Seriously, get your head out of your arse. Seeing films with others is part of the experience. It's more than a little hypocritical to set yourself up as the defender of film when you make your contempt for theatre-going so obvious.

10. Apparently it's impossible to like both Black Swan and Sucker Punch

This is the one I find really insulting. Goodwin operates on the assumption that if you read the Sunday Times (or live in a house where someone receives a subscription to it, in my case), then you want to see proper, grown-up films. He assumes you are over twenty five, which I will be in two days. It follows that he assumes you are white, middle-class and English, which covers me as well. So it follows that I wouldn't want to see Sucker Punch, ever.

Except I do.

Of the five films that I have seen at the cinema this year, three have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The others were a CGI animated film about a princess and a film with Nicolas Cage in it. I like I range of films: I loved the King's Speech for it's warmth and its humour, and I loved Black Swan for its harrowing yet insightful grasp on madness and the pressure to succeed that reminded me of a similar film that I love deeply (which, incidentally, happens to be animated). I also spent last weekend watching the Twilight Saga and the remake of The Wicker Man (with the excellent Rifftrax commentary, I hasten to add). I'm also a proud (by which I mean "deeply ashamed") owner of two Uwe Boll films. I saw the first Pokemon film in the cinema, for goodness sake! I'm probably going to see Sucker Punch, and so long as it's a good film I'll probably enjoy it. The most important thing about a film is that you find something to enjoy in it, not whether I should be watching it.

So to sum up: don't you dare tell me what films I should or shouldn't like. If it's a good film, I'll watch it. Hell, if it's a memorably bad film, I'll watch it. If it's pretentious shite made by cynical bastards after an award, I'll probably avoid it. But I won't shy away from a film because I have preconceptions about its worth. So please refrain from suggesting that just because modern cinema hasn't followed the narrow, linear and exclusive path you wanted it to that I think the same way.


  1. This rant needs a 'like' button <3

  2. Ah, animated (or based on animated) = for kids...

    Perhaps we should petition for a Hellsing film?