Lloyd Lee is a gentleman and a scholar. You should see his socks. This is the first in an ongoing series of movie conversations with Lloyd.
Lloyd: Jake, how are you? Have you seen any movies recently—or perhaps films? I say films since I know Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg shot their latest films on actual film. Although I definitely want to discuss The Master and Lincoln, I’d rather focus on where the film industry is at right now in America.
As you know, the Oscars are a month away. I remember thinking this year was a horrible year for movies. This was a month or so ago, before I saw Django, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook—all among my favorite films of the year. Now, I believe I’m just bitter about the year because The Master didn’t get nominated for best picture.
In reality, it has been a phenomenal year for movies. 3D seems to be diminishing in importance (although I confess to seeing Life Of Pi in 3D), and great directors are making movies that people are actually seeing - e.g. Bigelow’s ZDT vs. Hurt Locker (a film no one saw).
I know we’re living in the golden age of cable television, but are movies making a comeback?
Jake: (For the record, Lloyd has always said and will always say “films.” He may be the world’s most interesting man.)
Lloyd, I’m going to tell you a secret: I saw a lot of terrible movies this year.
I paid money to see them. What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I bought a ticket to watch that movie. Contraband. John Carter. Snow White and the Huntsman. I watched all of those movies in movie theaters. Even you couldn’t use the word “films” on those puppies.
But at the same time as I’m totally missing this so-called “golden age” of “cable” “television,” I do think the movie industry did some good things this year. I wasn’t overly annoyed by the franchise movies this year, and the Oscar rush actually had me worrying that I wouldn’t get to see all of the movies I wanted to see at the theater. (Which wound up happening, on account of, I don’t have a job.) (The Chill doesn’t count.)
Lloyd: Jake, this might shock you, but I actually somewhat enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman. I’m not saying it was good, just that I somewhat enjoyed it. I am happy, however, that you did not see Battleship - that would be crossing a line.
The idea of the golden age of cable television appears to have cemented itself in 2007, when Mad Men premiered. Although HBO was doing fantastic things long before Mad Men, a basic cable channel had not really made a groundbreaking original program. After Mad Men’s success, we saw Breaking Bad, and then The Walking Dead. HBO came into the spotlight again with Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, now Girls. And even Showtime is relevant again with Homeland.
Really my point was that television seemed to steal the spotlight from film over the past few years, but now film is making a comeback.
Jake: Think about how far the phrase “I don’t watch TV” has fallen in public esteem since we were in high school. The cool kids used to say it. Now, the cool kids watch Girls and Game of Thrones and Workaholics. The cool kids have Netflix.
I thought about the implications of each medium a lot last year. (I spent last year in a small town in Malaysia. Lots of down time.) Books are at the top. You talk about what you just read, and you’re an intellectual. Until recently, movies were in the middle. Nothing sophisticated, but there was a chance you’d see something important. TV was at the bottom. Then, Mad Men happened, and TV moved up.
This Oscar season, I think, pushed movies up a bit. I would argue that all of the contenders for Best Picture this year were important movies in their own respects, and it really meant something to have seen them. Know’m sayin’? Seeing Zero Dark Thirty was a significant thing. Seeing Lincoln was a significant thing.
Lloyd: It took me about five minutes to know what you were saying when I read, “Know’m sayin’?”.
You’re definitely right about the meaning of seeing movies like Lincoln and ZDT this year. If you missed them, you’d be left out of the conversation, and thus, not cool, not with it. This year, I can finally, having seen most of the “Oscar contenders”, not be called an elitist!
Unfortunately there are still many phenomenal films this year that virtually no one has seen - The Master, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild. I still wonder why those films, which are comparable and arguably better than Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, or Django Unchained, are still widely unseen. Is it just a lack of effort on the audience’s part? Do people really want to see something good when they go to the theater?
Jake: Let me tell you about what American movies look like in Malaysia, because I think that’s a good representation of a huge part of the American public, too.
Malaysian theaters show a combination of American, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian movies. But they don’t show the same movies as we see here. You would NEVER see a movie like The Master in Malaysia. You would see The Avengers. You would see Batman. You would see The Hunger Games.
I once had a serious conversation about American movies with a good friend of mine out there, and the one he wanted to talk about most was…Transformers. TWO. He talked about the artistry and imagination that went into that thing, and I was blown away. But it’s all about a different perspective.
Not everyone’s going to the movies just for great acting and cinematography. Think about the books we read. A lot of people would rather read 50 Shades of Grey than The Picture of Dorian Gray.
With all of the guaranteed money in blockbuster movies (look here for the list of the top grossing movies this year) AND the fact that a lot of people really, really do like seeing shit get blown up for two hours (Last Stand, anyone?), how do you think movies like The Master fit into the picture these days. Where do you think this string of Great Movies that came out starting at the end of 2012 fits into the bigger picture of American movies these days?
Lloyd: The Artist, The Reader—two fine films.
I can never forgive Michael Bay for what he did to such a beloved franchise, but I can understand why your friend was so impressed by Transformers. I think people in emerging markets like Malaysia are fine with homegrown talent making the serious films, and leave Americans, with their big budgets, to make the huge dazzling blockbusters.
The Master is really important, I think, for two big reasons. First, it was shot on 70mm. Second, it represents a new style of storytelling. Most people seemed to have felt that they did not get The Master, which is why I think it caused such passionate discussion. People were probably expecting a Scientology biopic, and instead got something else. But the moment they realized it wasn’t what they expected, they gave up on it. The Master is a film that needs to be seen at least twice for this reason.
I’d also put The Bourne Legacy in the same category of storytelling. Did you see it? Were you not also surprised, even baffled, by the non-ending? I’ve even heard people hating on Skyfall (perhaps the best Bond film) for not being a “proper” Bond film since, spoiler alert, the world is not going to end if Bond fails.
In terms of the bigger picture, I think 2012 shows us that writer-directors still make the best stuff. P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, and Michael Haneke all have films out this year that they wrote AND directed, and all are among the best of the year. Even though many people have said film is a director’s medium, I think those writer-directors prove it’s really a writer’s medium, maybe a writer-director’s medium. Let’s skip the Spielbergs, the Lees, the Jacksons, the Hoopers, and the Zemeckises, because all of their films, although decent, don’t stand well against the writer-directors’.
Jake: There are a billion (approx.) good movies with different people writing and directing, but I'd agree that writer-director movies at least give us a more complete artistic interpretation of the person's vision. It's like comic books that are written and drawn by the same person: Those almost always involve more complex ideas and a clearer direction for the overall work.
And while I do think writer-directors tend to give us some of the best movies, I also think it might be a viewers' medium—and not the kind of viewers that are watching The Master twice. After all, Battleship.