Saturday, January 12, 2008

Why America Doesn't Want America To Want To See Movies About The War

That title is misleading, because it implies that I have an answer to that question, and I don't. But after a week's worth of reaction to the New Hampshire primary results and how the media has seemed so invested in telling the American public what they're thinking before the people get to have their say, I have a similar question about the movies: why has the media had such a hard-on about telling us that "America Didn't Want To See Movies About The War"?

I'm bringing this up because just this morning I read in Entertainment Weekly how Kimberly Pierce's Stop-Loss is attempting to deal with this war-movie boogeyman by letting the potentially disgruntled sound off on the movie's web site. And of course, EW puts this under a misleading headline that basically says the movie is suffering from "bad buzz" even though the article doesn't say anything of the kind. It's just symptomatic of a media that has seemed, in the last 12 months or so, pretty invested in pushing the viewpoint that America doesn't want to watch movies about the war. Just like America didn't want to watch a movie about gay cowboys. Just like America didn't want to watch a Michael Moore documentary about 9/11. Just like (to be fair) America didn't want to watch a movie about the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The war thing seems more insidious to me because thus far it's working, if we're looking at the three high-profile box office failures that were Rendition, Lions For Lambs, and In The Valley Of Elah. And with that particular mission having been accomplished, no movie studio is going to touch an Iraq movie with a ten-foot pole, and thus one forum for discussing the political and military event of our lifetimes is going to be choked off. "Congratulations."

But, hey, I didn't see those movies either, so I guess that means I don't want to see movies about the war, then, right? Not quite. I didn't see Lions For Lambs because the reviews were toxic, I didn't see Elah because I hate Paul Haggis, and I didn't see Rendition because it was out of theatres in three weeks (and the reviews were pretty crappy besides). Trying to glean some political message out of what movies are or are not making money has always been dicey at best, and yet the media gleefully jumped all over the idea that nobody wanted to see anything with the war front and center. And that somehow that was okay, and that Hollywood should learn its lesson from this. In other words: "Stick to making sequels and comedies about women falling down, movie dorks, and let the American people ignore current events in peace." It's maddening and it's smug and it's attempting to silence discussion in a way that's antithetical to everything the media should be doing.

And it makes me want to buy tickets to every showing of Stop-Loss in the city, when the time comes, just to shut them up.


SecretMargo said...

See also: "America won't vote for a black dude/liberal woman." It's the same self-fulfilling cycle, and it is maddening, because it is so apathy-producing and phobic of change of any sort. Thank you for saying this.

Rural Juror said...

Yeah, I though too much was made of the political themes killing these movies and not enough was given to the fact that, by and large, they weren't very good.

That Bootleg Guy said...

Have you added "No End in Sight" to your Netflix queue yet, Joe? It's on its way to my mailbox and has gotten almost uniformly excellent reviews. Of course, it's a documentary and had virtually no kind of national release to speak of, so it may not apply within the context of your post, but getting the word out on "war movies" that are actually worth seeing is why bloggers were created.

Great post, btw.

Joe Reid said...

I actually saw No End In Sight a couple weeks ago and it scared the hell out of me. Really good movie but sobering as all get-out. It'll be getting some love when I do my year-end movie "awards" next month, but you're right, the word needs to get out: see No End In Sight, people. See it and despair!

Deirdre said...

I dunno. Since when has "good" been a predictor of what will win at the box office? Film snobs (and I'm including myself in that category) may have avoided these films because they got lousy reviews, but how much attention do most people pay to critics? I can't tell you the number of times I've told people I review movies for a living only to be told "I know if film critics don't like a movie, I will." Even a blow-em-up-real-good flick like "The Kingdom" didn't set the box office on fire, so I think there's something to the idea that people would rather not deal with these issues at the multiplex.

"No End In Sight" is a perfect example. It got great reviews but it didn't become the next "March of the Penguins" or "Inconvenient Truth." And I'd be interested to know how many people who did see it had the same reaction I did: Good, but not telling me anything I didn't already know. My guess is the biggest part of its audience was made up of people who'd already been paying attention to the war.

But I will agree with you, Joe, that stories like this don't help. Instead of saying "The public doesn't like war movies, let's move on and see what's new with Britney" maybe there could be some investigation of why that seems to be the case.

Joe Reid said...

I take your point, Dierdre, but I think with smaller movies like Elah and Lions For Lambs were (and to a much lesser extent Rendition), they need good buzz to do well -- or to do business at all.

But why should the public's apathy on this issue (if that is indeed the case) be celebrated the way it has been in the media? That's what bugs me. This idea that it's Hollywood's fault for "shoving these movies down our throat." When was the last time a string of romantic comedy failures ever hailed America's distaste for that genre?

There are fine lines to be drawn, sure, but I hate this kind of pre-emptive shutting down of a discussion, especially on such an important issue.

Anonymous said...

Well-stated, Joe. I, too, hate Paul Haggis (hard) and I'd rather eat my testicles than see any Tom Cruise movie, leaving only Rendition (of the three films cited) viewable. And the cinema-going experience is so soul-corroding I'd much rather rent any film on DVD than subject myself to the pig-ignorant Average Moviegoer.

But those three reasons don't ever seem to be included in "Why Hollywood Needs to Stick to Crap-Ass Crowd-Pleasers" stories.

Deirdre said...

Well, the "pig-ignorant Average Moviegoer" issue is never raised whenever the subject of box-office take comes up. No one ever talks about how tent-pole movies have to keep theatres afloat because sane people would rather not spend $30 to spend an evening in a cloud of hideous perfume and faux-cheese stench while the idiots behind them talk incessantly and kick their seats.

I understand what you're saying, Joe, but there are occasionally pieces about entire genres failing - it's just that there's less political significance when Because I Said So tanks than when Rendition does. Before Unforgiven the Western had been declared all but dead, and recently EW had a eulogy for the sci-fi flick. Anthony Lane thought The American President sounded the death-knell for romantic comedies because if the requisite obstacle was that the guy was POTUS there was nowhere else to go after that. And Elah did get some positive reviews, to the best of my recollection, but the "buzz" never materialized.

In any case, from what I understand, an awful lot of polls indicate that Americans think the war's a bad idea already. And given the fact that the films about Iraq are Apocalypse Now rather than Casablanca, maybe people don't feel the need to spend money to have someone tell them something they already know. I agree with you that too many commentators are jumping on the "Americans are tired of the war" bandwagon without discussing why that is. But there's no surprise there. It's just another example of the kind of laziness Jon Stewart's been railing against for years: someone comes up with a narrative and everyone follows it.

Bert said...

Very interesting post, Joe. Glad to know that someone is out there questioning just exactly what we should be taking from the media in this day and age. I've heard things about this new film Stop-Loss, and have been curious as to where the majority of this "bad buzz" originated...especially considering that the film isn't even out yet?

Anyway, aside from your blog posting, my curiosity and web-digging also brought me to that Sound Off site, which you link to...very interesting that they've opened this type of forum for the film. And even more impressive that Kim Peirce seems to have such an active and participatory role...