Monday, September 12, 2011

Strictly No Originality

Winter is coming and television schedules have a very familiar look, largely because we have literally seen it all before. The BBC is playing host to yet another series of celebrity love-in/bitching contest, Strictly Come Dancing; ITV is home to yet another series of Simon Cowell’s sickly sentimental/vicariously vicious singing contest, X Factor; and, for reasons that are wholly commercial, Channel Five has decided to resurrect that moribund format, Big Brother.

This is the kind of thing that gives me nightmares. I take film and television much too seriously and I worry: is this the best that we can do? Is culture going to move forward? Have we really run out of ideas? Do the people who watch these shows actually enjoy them or are they the unwitting victims of a 21st century form of mass hysteria, propagated by a media industry that wants nothing more than to keep people docile in order to manipulate them into buying yet more of the same product? I just don’t know.

Not that lack of originality is only a prime time television problem. 2011 will see the release of more film sequels than any other year in recorded history (27, if you must know). Moreover, far from being subject to the ‘law of diminishing returns’ that previously governed Hollywood sequeldom – prior to around 2000, movie sequels were expected to make roughly 2/3rds as much money as their immediate predecessor – cash-ins on existing properties have never been more popular. Presently, seven of the Top Ten Highest Grossing Films of the Year, and nine of the top twelve, are sequels, spin-offs or remakes. Are producers giving audiences what they want (the films’ success would seem to indicate that they are) or are consumers simply being forced to accept a narrower choice?

Certainly, ‘established properties’ are the order of the day in Hollywood. We have already had films based on a Hasbro toy range (Transformers) and another based on a Disney theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean). A film based on popular children’s board game Battleships (Battleship) is already in the works and Ridley Scott is rumoured to be circling around a possible Monopoly movie. Expect films based on Captain Planet, Thundercats and Masters of the Universe (I am not joking), followed by Hollywood adaptations of The Samurai Pizza Cats, Captain Bucky O’Hare, Bill & Ben and Muffin the Mule (I might be joking).

I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the crew is trapped in a time loop, the only escape from which comes when they avert the destruction of the Enterprise. I think our situation is similar, although I would suggest an alternative prescription – the opposite, in fact. In order to escape, we may need to destroy the Enterprise. Figuratively speaking that is.

Before we get to the possible cure, however, it is important to ensure that we have correctly diagnosed the symptoms. Part of me is tempted to offer a purely Marxist analysis. The list of conspirators who might be involved in a deliberate plan to perpetuate a miserable media mediocrity is almost endless – Simon Cowell, the Murdochs, the BBC, Twitter, Facebook, the Google guys and Bruce Forsyth, to name just a few. But that is far from a satisfactory explanation. The diagnosis I would tend towards is both simpler and more complex. Certainly, money is an important motivation and while consumers continue to buy the product with which they are presented, major studios will continue to serve up more of the same. If people stopped going to watch the likes of Transformers 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Fast & the Furious 5, things would change. And, who knows? Maybe some original content would be produced. Crucially, however, I think the people who are making the film, TV and music that the rest of us have to either endure or ignore are just not that good. Simple as that. They are doing the best that they can, they simply lack the talent or imagination to produce anything that communicates any sort of meaning.

To those who might suggest that I am imposing elitist criteria on subject matter that doesn’t ought to be taken so seriously, I respond thusly: if elitism means setting standards that distinguish one piece of work from another and posits that it is possible to create films or programmes that are distinctly better or worse than others in terms of their ambition and their artistry, then you can call me an elitist and I will wear that badge with pride. However, it is also instructive to look at how what we mean by ‘mainstream’ has changed in recent years and, specifically, over the last 10. In what I think was 2003, there was a feature in Empire magazine in which the writers were encouraged to debunk a piece of received wisdom: one contributor argued Forrest Gump was a more deserving winner of the 1994 Best Picture Oscar than fellow nominees, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, while another espoused the virtues of Flash Gordon and denounced Star Wars as farcical trash. Those were fun, but one contribution really stood out. It stood out at the time and now, 10 years hence, it appears increasingly prescient. He or she (I can’t remember) argued that while Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were both good films in and of themselves, they risked providing an inappropriate template for mainstream movie making that Hollywood producers might find it difficult to resist. Both were fantasy franchises which meant that, not only were sequels possible, they were expected, even demanded, from the outset; and both were well over two and half hours long, breaking from the previously accepted notion that any film aiming to attract a mass audience needed to be under two hours. Crucially, both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were massive, massive hits. Now, look at the Hollywood product we have today and tell me you do not see a connection. Superhero franchises with countless sequels and no end in sight, filled with unnecessary sub-plots, in-jokes and baggy storytelling, all as a direct result of abandoning the rigour involved in keeping the running time - Strictly No Originality - Keyword description


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