With the release of Wonder Woman upon us, Podcast Producer Thom Hetherington looks at the way we watch and respond to films today.
There has been a tectonic shift in the way we watch movies. And I’m not talking about the rise of 3D, the age of IMAX or even those godawful vibrating chairs that spray you with disturbing smells and jets of water. I’m talking about you. When did you get so cynical?
Audiences seem increasingly reluctant to engage with films, often before they’ve even seen them. The desire to enjoy is being trumped by the desire to get one’s money’s worth. Suspension of disbelief seems to be supremely lacking in modern cinema audiences and it’s a crying shame. The more time I spend at the pictures the more I find more that people are laughing not with films, but at them.
Indeed, cynical film watching has become a kind of cottage industry in recent years. Showings of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room regularly sell out across the globe, often frequented by the director himself. People gather not to watch the film, but to point and laugh at it. And whilst this isn’t a problem in of itself, certainly not given it has Wiseau’s full participation, it does point to a wider problem. These screenings are part of a world of YouTube videos that surgically dissect a film’s plot piece by piece, TV shows centred around mocking continuity mistakes and entire blogs and social media channels specifically targeted at strategically shit-bombing the work of numerous filmmakers, actors and writers. Namely that there seems to be an increasing desire for failure on the part of the cinema going public.
Nothing seems to delight people more than when a film bombs at the box office. When Shia LaBeouf’s recent thriller Man Down failed to sell more than one ticket in its UK opening weekend, everyone lined up to have a giggle. But at what? As Simon Brew, editor of Den of Geek, pointed out on Twitter; ‘a small distributor took a chance on a half-decent movie, and we’ll now sneer at them for trying.’ We know full well, given the box office receipts, that the dissenters hadn’t bothered to watch the film in question. The same is true of recent ‘flops’ such as Live By Night (our review), John Carter, Jupiter Ascending and Tomorrowland (a film all about cynicism bowing to wonder) and countless others. I am, admittedly, an outspoken defender of all of these films but this is partly because, and here’s the rub: they swing for the fences. And, yes, their batting average may look a bit skewed from afar but so what? When did it become so delightful to heap scorn upon derision instead of stepping back and admiring a bold creative choice and direction? To heave up a bitter cackle before stopping to think? Jupiter Ascending, for example, features a fascinating exploration of class and exploitation whilst also being incredibly beautiful and featuring Sean Bean as a half Bee man. Yes, it’s a bit silly sometimes, but it doesn’t take itself as seriously as half its critics seem to do. If people stopped laughing at its Rotten Tomatoes score and actually watched it, they might be pleasantly surprised. There are an alarming number of people who seem to be baying for cinematic blood to gorge themselves on. And it isn’t particularly pleasant.
This is reflected, too, in the number of people who seem to delight is smugly pointing out the similarities in plot between the original Star Wars and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They are, of course, being wilfully stupid in ignoring the fact that the storytelling in these two films is entirely different. The characters, and the way that they interact with each other, in Abrams’ film are vastly different way to Lucas’ original creations. The same is true of the super intellectuals who point out the kinship of Avatar and Dances With Wolves, who seem to be vitally missing the point that one of these films is a groundbreaking piece of visually breathtaking cinema that is, crucially, set in space. If viewers can’t lose themselves in the visual majesty of a world where a six foot blue Sigourney Weaver lives, then there’s something wrong. Whilst this may all be a snag for certain viewers, it shouldn’t ruin their enjoyment entirely. Movie watching is an emotional, escapist, experience and it shouldn’t be hampered by a fixation with plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stand By Me and Clerks barely have a plot between them, but we’re all happy to accept them as masterpieces in their own right. If you want to get stuffy about plot, then you will, I assure you, be much happier staying at home reading summaries on Wikipedia.
There are, of course, many contributing factors. A night out at the cinema is no longer a cheap affair, if you want to go all in with snacks and drinks then it can very quickly become more expensive than a trip to the theatre. The temptation to write a film off as absolute baloney purely from a trailer makes sense, particularly if you want to save money. And a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes can be misleading too; there might be a five star review from someone whose opinion you deeply value, but you won’t find it by quickly glancing at the ‘fresh’ percentage. Financially too, it makes sense to laugh at a film rather than with it once you’re in the cinema watching it; at least then you’re getting some fun for your money. But as the world increasingly becomes a cynical place, shouldn’t we be trying to escape in the cinema? Or learn something? Not guffaw because we think we’re more intelligent than the filmmakers?
However you, gentle reader, cannot be entirely to blame in this large and complicated game of self-righteous finger pointing that I’m playing. It’s hard not to feel that audiences are merely becoming savvy to the rising cynicism of the film studios. It’s not uncommon now to get five sequels announced to a film that hasn’t even been released yet and cinematic universes seem to be popping up left, right and centre like dandelions, just begging to be uprooted by schadenfreude. Even within the movies themselves, we’ve seen Captain America fighting against the United States instead of for them, and Batman repeatedly smashing a bathroom sink into Superman’s face. Cynicism, it seems, is all around.
But for all this loathsome negativity and impending misery there does seem to be a turn in the tide. Most notably the recent Wonder Woman (our review), for example, feels alarmingly retro in its protagonist’s heroics; Wonder Woman fights for a cause as much as she fights against an enemy. It feels like a direct response to the cynicism in and surrounding the underrated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wonder Woman is a film all about the power of love in a world that’s seriously lacking it, it’s about a humanity that needs saving not from sky portals or inter-dimensional beasties but from itself. It’s sad that it seems to be so timely. But perhaps we could take a lesson from it as viewers, to find the good in films, to will for something beautiful, not something that we’re more coldly intelligent than. George Carlin once observed that “inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist”, it’s time we each dug them up. It’s better to walk out a cinema disappointed than walk in bitter. Call me schmaltzy, but to escape into the warmth of wonder seems far more inviting than to sit and nitpick. I dare you to suspend your disbelief. After all, once those nits are picked, they’re only going to end up biting you.