For as long as the novel’s been declared dead (and the theater, et al), people have been bitching about the declining quality of Movies. What’s different now is that the moviegoing audience is finally doing something about it: staying home. It’s obviously due to a plethora of factors that include technology (from the affordable big wall screen TV to the recent invention of the video iPod) and Sartre’s Dictum (Hell is other people – have you been to a movie theater recently?). But in Sunday’s NY Times, A.O. Scott has a well-argued, well-written case for why the box office is in a slump.
Last summer he suggested it was ‘cause the movies weren’t good enough.
This winter he says it’s because they’re not bad enough.
Scott points out that Hollywood has a deep fear of “making a mess,” i.e. courting the kind of spectacularly awful movie disaster that sometimes happens when an impassioned auteur falls prey to impulses of “extravagant ambition, irrational risk, pure chutzpah, a synergistic blend of vanity, vision and self-delusion.” In other words, precisely the same impulses that can also produce a masterpiece.
As someone who works in the belly of the beast, I can testify that I have smelt the scary. Often one can feel the Industry’s fear-based initiative at work: hoping to get the biggest mainstream bang for their bucks, studios generally de-edge and otherwise un-risk-ify their movies. Sit at a piano and press the damper pedal down – you’ll see all the keys go down, not just selected notes. Same goes for emotional depth, intellectual complexity, and personal vision when the weighty Industry Machine leans on a given film project, and this is how mediocrity triumphs.
A.O.’s mordant meditation on how what’s “tasteful, familiar and safe” is bleaching the average studio mainstream feature of audience appeal ends with a downer sigh of despair on behalf of that audience. But his plaint induced in this reader an exultant swing 180 degrees to-the-left.
Hollywood fear, the reign of mediocrity, the accordingly shrinking audience? Bad news for the studios, sure.
But it’s great freakin’ news for the writers.
Consider this: maybe what's happening right this minute is an unprecedented upper. Perhaps what you're hearing, above the diminished box office ka-ching! out there, is the creak of a long stuck door coming unstuck: in such increasingly befuddled, becoming-desperate times, the advent of... dare we say it... originality? -- of distinctive, call them fresh points of view may be upon us.
After all, the current screenwriting moment, if described a year ago, would've sounded like a gag about a Polish screenwriter: his idea of a perfect pitch for a studio exec was "two cowboys in love."
But the bizarre has come true, with Brokeback Mountain already racking up major award noms and an impressive opening weekend. In a sense, all bets are off. Right now, projects that don't look like carbon copies of what didn't work this year have a better chance of being taken seriously by Hollywood than they would have, a few years back. Right now the movie I'm most excited about reading is the one I HAVE NOT READ BEFORE.
From a reader's POV, the Times' take on Why Bad Is Good has its correlation in the way we feel about moviemaking at the frontlines. As longtime guard dogs of the studio regime, we're way weary of being offered the same stale biscuits, day after day after day. What smells like blood-red filet mignon to us, what gets the tail wagging (to beat this metaphor to its well-deserved demise) is a whiff of Something New.
And yes, sometimes it looks like something awful. Do you think anybody in Hollywood was looking to make the movie, "Man in middle-aged crisis wants to sleep with his teenage daughter's best friend?" No way, but Alan Ball's screenplay for American Beauty was simply that good. Subversive as it seemed, it demanded to be made. And it came from that personal place, that impassioned arena, that too many aspiring professional screenwriters shy away from.
I never knew what an amazingly broad panoply of meanings the word "bad" could contain, until I became a story analyst -- never knew how many kinds of "bad" there were before. When we're in the bullpen picking up the day's material, sometimes a reader will be given a submission so clearly from the Valley of the Gwangi that it's an instant "Pass." You just look at the cursed thing, betrayed by the tell-tale crazed printing and/or tacky illustrated cover, a never-in-a-million-years title, some not-on-my-watch subject matter, and know that you won't have to think twice about rejecting it.
But if you're lucky, it's stupendously foul -- giggle-worthy, something to quote to a fellow reader. And it will have a certain kind of energy that actually makes for an absorbing read. These are tales told by madmen, and the Great Worst of them have exactly the kind of loopy, obsessed bravura that A.O. Scott is talking about.
On the other hand, of course what I most love to read is a well-written script that's genuinely about something, that's trying to shed new light on something worth seeing. While the safe, tame same-olds bore readers to tears, we're most likely to get excited about, and go to bat for, screenplays that stretch. Indeed, look at the Hollywood "Black List" this year (in a deliberate spin, name belies function; it's a list, currently circulating around town, of scripts-in-play that got the most industry notice in 2005): Allen Loeb's Things We Lost in the Fire, the spec script that tops the list, with 25 mentions from the insiders consulted, has a heroin addict as its anti-hero, and right behind it is Juno by Diablo Cody, a teenage pregnancy... comedy.
Teachers of writing (see Annie Lamott) are always telling students to "dare to be awful." So I say that now's the time -- for the courage of convictions, for the taking of leaps. Maybe you'll interest the next Ed Wood... maybe you'll attract a James Cameron. Just know there's currently a slowly dawning awareness on the studios' part that the mainstream, that mythical beast, is shifting in its unconsciousness and changing up the rules. You've got them at a rare moment of vulnerability, a time when the William Goldman edict (Nobody knows anything) is more applicable than ever.
So go for it, dude. You've got nothing to lose but what, if you stick with the tried, true and tired, is liable to be a "pass" anyway. So dare to be bad. In the best sense of the word.