In the February 2011 issue of GQ magazine, Mark Harris writes an article called “The Day the Movies Died.” In it, Harris relates how “brand movies” have stifled originality in Hollywood. It’s a familiar theme of many an entertainment journalist–films have been dying for over thirty years at the hands of the summer blockbuster, but Harris brings something new to the equation–a poorly thought out argument where he contradicts himself a number of times.
His argument is that witty, complex movies such as Inception can only get made as sort of a vanity project to director Christopher Nolan to entice him back for Batman 3, a brand movie. Hollywood is focusing less and less on quality writing and good stories in lieu of marketable brands. They are green lighting films that come from other medium, have a built in fan base, and are easy to market.
I’m not saying Harris doesn’t have a point. What I am saying is that it is not as bad as he makes it out to be, and the “facts” he uses to prove his point are counter productive.
This is how Harris describes the 2011 movie slate:
“four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in its title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have a 7 1/2 in the title.
He uses similar verbiage to describe the 2012 film output as well. They list the films Harris is referring to in a footnote in the article, but I thought it be fun for you to have a little guessing game with what films Harris is referring to.
Presented as such, the film output looks fairly damning, even considering that this is just a representation of the films coming out this year. There’s a lot of sequels and adaptations. The point is that the lack of originality killed movies, and he makes it quite definitively.
Then he goes and blows his argument out of the water in two different ways.
First, he makes mention that films such as this make it harder for great films like Black Swan, The Social Network, The Fighter and True Grit get any attention, let alone get made. Original films one and all, right?
Well, maybe not. Even if you let The Fighter and The Social Network slide despite that they are both essentially biopics (movies based on real people’s stories are not that original to me), True Grit, using Harris’ terminology, is a remake of an adaption of a novel. It is exactly what Harris is complaining about, only it has the Coen Brothers at the helm instead of Jon Favreau.
Second, he lists the film that started the “Brand Film” trend as 1986’s Top Gun, a film that was neither an adaptation nor a sequel. (It was “inspired” by a magazine article, but if you’re counting that as an adaptation, I am taking the biopic exemption off the table.) Harris choosing this instead of either of the two sequels to Superman, the two sequels to Star Wars, or the two sequels to Jaws that arrived in theaters before Top Gun seems odd, especially considering there was a Superman III and Jaws 3-D in there that would have proved his point better.
If Harris’ argument wasn’t damaged enough, let me ask you what the three best films of all time were. Most critics would answer Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather in some order. Great films, right? Well, how’s this for originality–the first was a thinly-veiled biography of William Randolph Hurst, the second adapted from an unproduced stage play, and the third from a novel (It also had two sequels to boot!). Just because something comes from another media doesn’t mean that it’s automatically bad. Some great films have come to us this way, many more than Harris would care to admit.
Harris then goes on to say that the focus on “Brand Films” is due to the pursuit of the prized 18-24 age bracket. Why is this bracket so sought after, according to Harris? Because they don’t have “taste and discernment.” And, although Harris fails to mention it, they also have a boatload of discretionary income–no mortgage, no wife, no kids–so they can spend their money on going to films. Numerous times. I think the latter reason might be more germane.
Harris also wears his biases on his sleeve. He thinks that the fact that 8 of the top nine films (as of when he went to press) were from “three kid-oriented genres–animated movies, movies based on comic books, and movies based on children’s books” is bad. Really.
This really shows Harris’ ignorance. Pixar has been putting out the most creative, inventive and critically acclaimed films in the recent past. Harris pays lip service to this fact (“We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar”) but the fact that it is family fare means that it no matter how great the films are, they will never be more than “Brand Films.”
As for comic books and “children’s books,” well, Harris really doesn’t know what he’s talking about here. Comic books haven’t been exclusively “kid-oriented” since, well, Mark Harris was a kid. It’s been almost 30 years since the medium has been marketed and targeted almost exclusively to adults. And the two “children’s books” that Harris is referring to is Harry Potter and the Twilight Saga. Do you know how many adults read those books? I’d wager a whole lot more adults read those books than kids do. And you can quote me on that.
And, to close out the article, Harris makes note that a positive sign for the health of films was the consecutive weekends that The Town (adapted from a book), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (a sequel) and The Social Network (a biopic, kind of) spent on the top of the box office. Not the best way to celebrate the fact that originality might not be dead.
Mark Harris is entitled to his opinion. However, since he is trying to make an argument here, he should have expressed his opinion better. If you are mourning the lack of originality in the blockbuster films genre, don’t celebrate it in the serious drama category. It makes you look like you haven’t really thought things out.