Schroedinger’s movies

Last week, as a way of exploring the role of the commercial imperative in film, I presented a selection of filmmakers who remade their own, earlier (better) work in an effort to reclaim ownership of work that got away.   In the weeks to come I intend to (next week) look at an attempt to remake a notoriously unpopular work by one of the greatest masters of old Hollywood, remade with less controversy and less effect by a more marginalized director; and (the week thereafter) some excellent but especially difficult films by uncompromising artists determined not to conform to the commercial marketplace.

This week, though, it’s time to look at some major landmarks in pop culture that somehow manage to occupy both a position of personal, arthouse statement and that of commercial juggernaut, at the same time.  Consider these the Schroedinger’s cats of cinema.

What I have said before, and I’ll say it again, is that great works of cinema art have a harder time getting made, and a harder time reaching their audience, if they don’t have the backing of commercial interests who expect to make money on the deal.  That is certainly not to say that artistic value is measured in dollars.  But it is to say that if you’re an uncompromising artist who chooses to reject Capitalism and all its works, you’re probably better off working in a different medium other than motion pictures.

Movies are by their nature expensive to make, and intensely collaborative creations.

I have a significant number of family members, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who work in the film industry—but nearly all of them are in the supporting infrastructure of that business, not the visionary artists who hold primary responsibility for creation.  I have frequently gone to see a movie simply because my cousin designed the sets, or because one of my mentors edited the film.  I’ve gone to see movies just because a friend from high school had a single line.  Friends have played dead bodies on Law and Order, supervised digital transfers for DVD releases, written novel adaptations of big screen hits.


(I went to school with Kent Faulcon. He’s been in Men in Black, Solaris, American Beauty, and 24. He’s married to a professor of constitutional law at Loyal. Her name is Kim West-Faulcon. I went to school with her too.)

These people aren’t big names, and they don’t drive the creative vision, but they care about their work, enjoy what they do, and it’s how they pay their bills.  This is their job.  I don’t consider it unreasonable to ask that the creative visionaries, as they realize their dreams, act as responsible employers and do their part to make sure the people in their employ are paid for their work, and have jobs in the future.

I’ll give you two different examples of how I see the intersection between art and commerce, to help explain my perspective on this question.


Go Watch a Star War

You can make a credible case that George Lucas’ original Star Wars and its aftershocks helped destroy the cinematic environment for art films.  Prior to 1976/1977, Hollywood made a lot of movies, and while there were some that were more expensive than others and some that were more popular than others, the overall variation between these extremes was fairly modest.  There was room for all kinds of movies, in all kinds of genres, aimed at all kinds of audiences.

Then, the one-two punch of Jaws in 1976 and Star Wars in 1977 revolutionized how Hollywood studios thought about their business.  The unprecedented box office success of these films broke the previously assumed ceiling to such a degree, it suddenly made sense to chase the next blockbuster hit.  Over time, studios came to make fewer films, and poured more of their resources into the spectacle-driven movies they hoped would be the next big hit.  Smaller films got crowded out.  Many wanna-be blockbusters failed—as had always been the case, but now the films that failed resulted in bigger and bigger losses.  It became much harder to advocate for anything experimental or risky, even at the lower budget levels, because studios needed the lower budget films to perform more reliably as a cushion against the losses of failed blockbusters.

Add to that argument the ostentatious excesses of Star Wars: a franchise that spawned sequels, TV spin-offs, comic books, novels, and endless toys.  A movie series so dependent on the spectacle of its special effects, its makers founded a whole company just to do the FX work.  These things were literally engineered by scientists to sell more toys.


But, let’s be clear on this.  George Lucas had a peculiar, quixotic vision about a throwback kind of science fiction film that was absolutely out of touch with where 70s Sci-Fi and 70s cinema in general was at the time.  He shopped his idea around to various companies but got no interest—but he was so determined to make his movie his way that he more or less mounted its production independently, selling to 20th Century Fox only the distribution rights.  He foresaw the value of the toy licenses and other marketing opportunities, and held on to those rights himself—which was easy to do because the studio didn’t think that was worth anything.


The sequels weren’t made just to cash in, but were part of his original idea of how the story would unfold.  More to the point, George Lucas remained so stubbornly resistant to any outside feedback, and so disinterested in how audiences responded, that he famously alienated much of his own fanbase by making additional films (and revising the originals) more to his own taste than anyone else’s.

In short, whatever you might say about the pernicious effects of Star Wars on the marketplace, George Lucas’s involvement has from the start been the prototypical example of an uncompromising artistic visionary, controlling every aspect of his creation to conform to his own personal dream.

An uncompromising personal vision that happened to manufacture three of the top 50 all-time box office grosses.



Walt Disney’s Fantasia is another interesting case in point.  It’s arguably the most personal creation of Walt Disney’s, but at the same time Disney was an outstandingly popular and populist creator.

Like George Lucas, he set out to do something quixotic, and out of step with the marketplace of his time.  His company was already out of the ordinary for making feature-length cartoons, but to then decide to make a non-narrative cartoon that celebrated classical music was as nutso an idea as any capitalist mogul has ever had.


But to describe Fantasia as a “personal” work by Disney does disservice to all the creative voices that were key to its making—all the Disney gagmen and animators who gave life and humor and color to the music by long-dead composers, whose work was filtered through the tastes and sensibilities of Leopold Stokowski.  Swap out any one of these people and you’d end up with an entirely different film.

It’s also important to note that, compared to Star Wars, Fantasia was not a success, or at least not the way Disney intended.  It’s probably more accurate to say that Disney was wildly successful at getting 1940s Americans to spend their money on a non-narrative cartoon about classical music than anyone could have expected, it’s just that Disney had unrealistic ambitions and fell short of them.  But falling short of those unrealistic ambitions meant that instead of keeping Fantasia in permanent rotation, as new musical sequences were rotated in, the film played a normal run and went away.

This is supply and demand at work.  Disney had a potentially unlimited supply of Fantasia—his animators could keep illustrating music as long as audiences wanted to see it—but demand kept that idea at bay.  Which is probably for the best—it’s almost impossible to imagine what the original plan for Fantasia would have been like.  I imagine it would be like the alternate version of Anchorman 2 that rolled into theaters just as the original version dipped into second run houses, with alternate takes and different jokes.  Can you imagine Anchorman 2 running indefinitely, with new footage constantly being dropped in?


Of course, Fantasia wasn’t a failure—demand was lower than Disney forecast, but there was enough there to generate: a Looney Tunes parody; some Fantasia-ish follow up musical films like Make Mine Music; a sequel in 2000; as well as an enduring meme of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  And don’t forget all the home video releases on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray—something denied those art films so off-putting that it’s hard to imagine any commercial audience for them at all.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves—that’s a story for later in the month.  Next week, it’s time to visit a film that has become a beloved masterpiece of Golden Age Hollywood, despite being rejected by audiences on its first outing, and the remake that tried to soften those off-putting jagged edges but lost audiences in the bargain.

14 Responses Schroedinger’s movies
Posted By swac44 : May 10, 2014 1:10 pm

Disney also created something he hadn’t foreseen, the psychedelic trip movie, which the studio tapped into zeitgeist-wise when it reissued Fantasia in the late ’60s (or possibly 1970, I forget the exact year) with a campaign specifically aimed at those who might toke up or turn on prior to a screening. It sounds hard to believe, but who else would they have been courting with this poster art? Mickey’s in the artwork somewhere, you just have to do a bit of searching to find him.

I have a copy of that very poster, but it’s so garish I can’t imagine what wall I could possibly hang it on. Maybe in the laundry room.

Posted By Arthur : May 10, 2014 1:12 pm

Great topic? Could a case be made that Lucas was a pioneering young creative filmmaker who changed the establishment, and then took control of it? Could we contrast to Orson Welles withhis Citizen Kane and Coppola with his Godfather who, for whatever reason, never became commercialized?

Posted By Doug : May 10, 2014 3:34 pm

I mention this only as backup for what Swac posted: back in 1978 or so when Fantasia was re-released, a friend and I went to see it.
I’ve never done drugs (does coffee count?) but my friend would smoke a bowl of hash right before the show…and fall asleep part way through, which is why we went more than once. Not sure, but this might have been in Montreal. Long time past.
A while back I posted about modern movie economics after watching the end credits for Marvel’s “The Avengers” where thousands of workers were noted-who each earned a paycheck, fed their families while cooperatively creating ‘entertainment’.
As for Coppola mentioned by Arthur, I think he decided to be a big fish in his own pond. He had enough money early to be able to finance his pet projects and ignore everyone else.
Disney and Lucas did indeed change Hollywood, but Hollywood is a perpetual dance where every generation or so some auteur changes the tempo or adds his or her own signature moves. And the dance goes on.

Posted By george : May 10, 2014 10:46 pm

David Kalat said: “George Lucas’s involvement has from the start been the prototypical example of an uncompromising artistic visionary, controlling every aspect of his creation to conform to his own personal dream.”

I admire what Lucas did with STAR WARS (although I think AMERICAN GRAFFITI is a better movie). I don’t admire what his countless imitators — and his pal Spielberg’s countless imitators — have done.

Doug said: “Hollywood is a perpetual dance where every generation or so some auteur changes the tempo or adds his or her own signature moves. And the dance goes on.”

Only we’ve been stuck with the Lucas-Spielberg moves for the last 35 years. Imagine if Hollywood was still trying to duplicate BIRTH OF A NATION in 1950, not just its financial success but its cinematic style. That’s the sort of situation we’re in now.

Movies have gone forward, but little of that momentum has come from the major studios since the early 1980s.

Posted By george : May 10, 2014 11:32 pm

Hollywood is actually returning to the dystopian sci-fi that ruled in the early ’70s, but with teen girls instead of Charlton Heston. And the action and effects in these YA adaptations owes more to the Lucas-Spielberg films than to SOYLENT GREEN or OMEGA MAN (or SILENT RUNNING, FAHRENHEIT 451, etc.)

Posted By Arthur : May 11, 2014 12:28 am

When Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola made it big in the early seventies, I remember reading an article touting them as the first generation of directors who grew up watching television.

Posted By Doug : May 11, 2014 1:40 pm

Maybe not J.J. Abrams, but somebody WILL move Hollywood forward, as inevitable as rain in May. That auteur will not by held back by outdated opinions/comparisons.
Hitchcock: “Yeah, but he’s no Demille!”
Spielberg: “Yeah, but he’s no Hitchcock!”
Abrams: “Yeah, but he’s no Spielberg!”
The ones who move Hollywood forward will shrug off the baggage others burden them with. Their motto might be,
“I’m no Hitchcock? So what? He’s dead! Forget him-right now I’m twice the director he is!”

Posted By george : May 11, 2014 8:04 pm

” … some major landmarks in pop culture that somehow manage to occupy both a position of personal, arthouse statement and that of commercial juggernaut, at the same time.”

Stanley Kubrick’s films are examples of that. As critic Andrew O’Heir said, THE SHINING occupies the “sweet spot” where art-house cinema, genre fandom and mainstream movies converge, which is why so many people are still picking over it. (See the documentary “327.”)

Posted By george : May 11, 2014 8:12 pm

“When Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola made it big in the early seventies, I remember reading an article touting them as the first generation of directors who grew up watching television.”

I’m not sure that’s so true of Coppola, who was born in 1939 and probably spent his first several years without TV in his home. (In the ’40s there were more sets in bars than homes.)But the younger Lucas and Spielberg were definitely influenced by the TV shows they watched as kids and teenagers. They’ve said so in interviews.

Coppola’s influences were more literary and artistic. He was into Euro art films while Lucas and Spielberg were more obsessed with pop culture and mainstream entertainment.

Posted By Arthur : May 11, 2014 8:24 pm

Then, George, Lucas and Spielberg at least were the then new generation of director’s “raised on television” unlike their predecessors. And will there be, is there now, a new perspective being created by directors “raised on the internet?”

And was there a different sensibility between that of directors “raised on the movies,” as opposed to those who pioneered the industry?

Posted By AL : May 11, 2014 8:28 pm

Whenever I see or hear the names J.J. ABRAMS, JOSS WHEDEN, CHRIS CARTER, “and others”, I pay attention. We truly are in the midst of THE “Golden Era” of Television…

Posted By george : May 11, 2014 8:28 pm

Doug said: “Maybe not J.J. Abrams, but somebody WILL move Hollywood forward …”

I’m afraid Hollywood is currently being led by a company — Marvel Comics — rather than a person. And people who want to direct big-budget, wide-release films have to get with the program.

Posted By george : May 11, 2014 8:37 pm

AL said: “Whenever I see or hear the names J.J. ABRAMS, JOSS WHEDEN, CHRIS CARTER, “and others”, I pay attention. We truly are in the midst of THE “Golden Era” of Television…”

I loved some of their shows, especially Whedon’s, but when most critics use the “Golden Era” phrase they’re talking about “prestige” cable dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Girls, Game of Thrones, etc.)

I don’t think you can call it a “Golden Era” just because an elite, upscale, college-educated audience is finally getting the TV it wants. I suspect that’s why NPR programs like “Fresh Air” spend so much time interviewing people from the prestige shows: they have the same demographic.

Posted By george : May 11, 2014 8:48 pm

Interesting Atlantic article: “Why Nobody Writes About Popular TV Shows.”

And it’s true: NOBODY writes about the very high-rated NCIS: Los Angeles.(Game of Throne’s highest rated episode was beaten by an NCIS RERUN.)

From the countless essays it has inspired, you might think Girls was the most popular show on TV. Girls actually draws only about 600,000 viewers a week. That would get it cancelled after one episode on network TV. I suspect TV critics connect with Girls because they live in the same sort of upscale urban world that the characters inhabit.

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