Yesterday my sister and I were gushing over the new Spectre trailer and she innocuously asked me when the flick was being released. I told her we’d be able to see it in November and then launched into an unsolicited explanation that James Bond movies always come out in November because the last time they released a 007 entry in the summer was 1989 and it got clobbered at the box office by Batman, Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon 2. Then I start babbling about how I was worried that since Star Wars 7 is also coming out in Q4 it might hurt Bond at the box office. THEN I continued to explain that usually Star Wars movies come out in May but that Disney probably pushed back the release date to the winter because they didn’t want to compete with their own Marvel film Age of Ultron and cannibalize their box office receipts. I topped off the conversation with a hope that Spectre would still “do good business.”
I then stopped in my tracks and realized I never once mentioned that I hoped the movie would be any good. All I was talking about was how I hoped it would make a lot of money so that we would be assured we’d see more good James Bond movies. But why the hell should I care? I don’t work for Sony Pictures or the British Intelligence. I’m not a financial analyst.
I don’t think this is my fault. It’s just how we talk about movies these days. Each month brings a new conversation around box office record-breaking. This is the first movie to make this much money on Memorial Day. This is the most money that a movie has made in a single day. This is the most money a movie has made in a single weekend. This is the most money a movie based on a romance novel has made on a leap year in which the planets were aligned with the northern star. This week the conversation is about the newest record Jurassic World has made, replete with lazy puns about “chomping through the competition” and “stomping through box office records.”
So let’s go ahead and say it. It’s official, Jurassic World has eclipsed Avengers to become the number three top-grossing film of all time. Number three? Who the eff cares? Well, since Avatar and Titanic are still a clean billion dollars’ worth of business ahead of anyone else due to James Cameron’s fondness for deep-throating Satan, for all intents and purposes number three is the spot to beat.
But what does that mean? It means that 3 of the top 10 movies of all time came out in a SINGLE YEAR. Forget Jurassic World’s billion and a half dollars, that’s the real record here. For years, the highest grossing movie of all time was Star Wars, which had eclipsed the record of Gone With the Wind. Star Wars was released in 1977, Gone with the Wind hit the silver screen in 1939. That’s almost a four decade difference, which is laughable in this day in age when half of the top grossing films of all time were released within 2 years of each other and seven out of the ten top grossing films of all time were released in the last ten years.
So what does this mean? That in 2017 four of the top movies of all time will be from the same year? That in 2019 half of the top movies of all time will be from the same year? And that by 2029 every movie in the top ten will be from the same year? And that every year after that the entire list of top ten movies will be entirely supplanted? Okay, obviously any statistician worth her salt would shoot an Indominous Rex-sized hole through the pattern I’m suggesting here, but my point is: how sustainable is this? I’m reminded of the dotcom bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000s. They both seemed as unstoppable as Jurassic World and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But isn’t the box office economy a market like any other? Isn’t this a bubble like any other? Isn’t it inevitable for it to pop?
Let’s take a look at this from the perspective of supply and demand. What are audiences demanding from top-grossing films these days? Shit they’ve never seen before. Shit they’ve seen in comics and videogames that they want to see on the big screen. Shit they’ve been imagining and dreaming about for years that we finally have the technology to put up on the silver screen. And now that social media has empowered moviegoers to express these demands to studios, the supply is finally being met.
By this time next year, we’ll have seen it all. We’ve already seen Jurassic Park finally open it’s door this summer. Next summer we’ll finally know what happens when Superman fights Batman. We’ll finally see Spiderman join the Avengers and watch the entire Marvel Universe explode into a civil war. We’ll finally see what happens next in the Star Wars saga. We’ll finally see Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise begin their legendary 5 year journey. We’ll finally see Wonder Woman on the big screen. We’ll finally see James Bond battle Spectre in the modern era.
And I think the bubble will pop. What the hell could make more money a superhero civil war? What could possibly make more money than new Star Wars movies? There’s no way that year after year movies can just continue to make more money than ever before. I don’t know about you, but when I see Superman and Batman together on the big screen I know I’ll say “well shucks, now I’ve seen it all.”
Of course that’s a preposterous statement and I know it. Something new will always show up. People said they saw it all when Star Wars came out. Then The Matrix blew their minds. It’s bound to happen. It’s happened before. By the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was about to collapse under its own weight. People had seen it all. They’d seen Moses part the Red Sea. They’d seen what outer space would look like in the year 2001. They’d seen the Crucifixion in glorious Technicolor Cinemascope and the Blob swallow teenagers in 3D. They’d seen Frankenstein meet the Wolfman and Dracula. They’d seen nudity and heard the F word. They had television sets now and there was nothing movies could show them that they hadn’t already seen. The bubble popped. And that was a good thing. It paved the way for Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanavich, Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah, Polanski and Boorman. It opened the door to The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Taxi Driver,The Last Picture Show, Chinatown, and Deliverance. The popping of the old Hollywood bubble showed audiences things they’d never seen because they didn’t know they existed.
Somewhere out there a little girl is making her first movie on an iPhone. Someday she will grow up and show us something we’ve never seen before. But first, the Blockbuster Bubble needs to pop. 30-something nerds like myself need to have seen it all, go into hibernation and let her take over. And you know what? I hope her movie makes a trillion dollars. Why? Because James Cameron seems like a douche and all his movies except Terminator are ridiculously overrated. Have a great summer folks. See you at the pictures.
The Brightest Heaven of Invention
The works of William Shakespeare have demonstrated a remarkable ability to traverse the centuries without losing their relevance or effectiveness. More striking than that, is how the Bard’s canon moves through storytelling mediums as well as it does through time. Hundreds of years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be delivered to audiences through technology that was not even a twinkle in humanity’s eye during the Elizabethan era.
Orson Welles made adaptations of Shakespeare a staple of radio drama in the 1930s, and Laurence Olivier made cinematic versions of the Bard’s work an Oscar-winning enterprise in the 1940s. Franco Zeffirelli made Romeo and Juliet fresh and new for the generation of free love in the late 1960s and Baz Lurhman did the same for the MTV generation in the 1990s. Kenneth Branagh made even the densest Shakespeare text digestible for ordinary audiences with his Henry V and Hamlet. The brilliant visionary Julie Taymor took the Bard’s forgotten tragedy Titus Andronicus out of place and out of time with cinema’s most wildly anachronistic adaptation of Shakespeare, Titus. Modern audiences are able to enjoy podcast performances of the favorite Shakespeare plays on their iTunes as they commute to and from work. The younger generation can even play a videogame based on the characters from Hamlet on their Android or iPhone.
The words of the Bard of Avon are alive and well in an era of storytelling where tales of “sound and fury” filled with incredible imagery and effects have delegated the kind of clever wordplay that Shakespeare embodies to the backseat of dramatic narrative. And yet, one of the vanguards of this bombastic trend of storytelling, Joss Whedon, has taken a respite from his storied career of vampires, spaceships, aliens and superheroes to bring us a great cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Much Ado About Plotting
Much Ado is like a blueprint for all romantic comedies, and the genre follows its template to this day: Two characters who are obviously destined to be together spend the first half of the film bickering. They finally admit to themselves and each other that they love each other, but due to a series of misunderstandings caused by a rich and handsome douchebag, everything goes to hell. After much cringing from the audience, the plot creaks its way to resolution, our two leads end up together and the rich and handsome douche gets what is coming to him. The formula still works like a charm even though everyone knows how it will play out.
A Company of Players
For the majority of his career, Shakespeare relied on a trusted troupe of actors known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to bring life to his characters.The various players in the troupe would appear in production after production of Shakespeare’s plays, playing dozens of characters. With the cast of Much Ado, Whedon has demonstrated that he has created a troupe of actors as loyal and familiar as Shakespeare’s. Fans of Whedon’s works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Avengers will recognize almost all of the faces here and it’s clear that this is a family of performers who were most likely paid nothing more for their appearance here than the pleasure of working with old friends. It works well for a play like Much Ado, whose dramatis personae is populated by a tight-knit community of cousins, comrades and co-conspirators who have a long history together.
Where We Lay our Scene
The production was filmed at Whedon’s personal home, which makes the world of the story seem real and comfortable. It must have been a challenge filming without the flexibility of a soundstage, as evidenced by the tremendous number of electrical technicians credited for this film. As the story plays out, you begin to feel like a guest at the Don’s home, enjoying the long string of parties and after-parties that make up the bulk of the plot.
Unlike many modern or anachronistic productions of Shakespeare, this production doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that the words don’t match the setting like in Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet or the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. There are a couple of nice moments that acknowledge the disconnect, like when letters or other correspondence appear as text messages, or guns fill in for swords, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It also avoids some of the staginess of more traditionalist interpretations of Shakespeare’s works like Olivier’s films. This never seems like a film of a play. It always feels like a film. I’m not sure exactly what the choice was to film in black and white. Maybe there is a color scheme in Whedon’s decor that doesn’t match the setting of the story. Although there is nothing in Whedon’s interpretation that dictates the film needs be in black and white, it works here.
Words, Words, Words
The key to helping a modern audience understand Shakespeare’s language is to make sure that the actors understand what they are saying. The poetry is beautiful in its own right, but the intention and meaning behind the words are what make the plays great. So many modern performances of Shakespeare fall flat because the actor’s don’t seem to know what the hell they’re talking about. Despite a strong cast of supporting players, Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet never escapes the realm of eye candy because the two leads seem hopelessly adrift in the text. Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado is fantastic, but suffers whenever Keanu Reeves is onscreen because he clearly can’t handle lines more complex than “Whoa” or “Excellent!” Whedon is not dealing with Ian McKellan or Patrick Stewart here, but there are very few weak links in the cast. The two leads are fantastic, and the rest of the cast provides excellent support.
The songs play well with Shakespeare’s lyrics, to the point that the people I saw the film with weren’t even sure they were from the play. Whenever 400-year-old words don’t seem out of place in a modern time, that’s a really good sign the director is doing something right.
The Undiscovered Country
While Joss Whedon’s reputation is that of a sci-fi/fantasy genre director, he has displayed an impressive knack for the classics. This film could very well have ended up a high-profile version of the drama club school play—something that’s only fun for those involved. Instead we have received an adaptation of Shakespeare refreshingly devoid of pretense or self-importance that is also fun and accessible. The real question is, what’s next? Whedon is already directing the second Avengers film and most likely has his pick of plum projects going forward.
Why not combine his skill at staging genre epics with his ability to shake up Shakespeare? Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest demonstrated that the Bard’s stories work even in a futuristic setting. I’d love to see a sci-fi version of the battle of Agincort with a lightsaber-weilding Henry V jet packing around calling out “Once more onto the breach dear friends!” Why not stage a production of Hamlet on a lonely moon base? How about a Midsummer Night’s Dream where a bunch of kids beam down to a fantastic alien planet called Arden? How about a version of Macbeth in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of murderous warlords? Sounds crazy? So does a black and white production of Shakespeare directed by the guy who made Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But hey, it works.