In this Sunday’s Times, A.O. Scott has a fairly measured, well-reasoned piece about how the summer movie season consists of corporate studios treating audiences like children, spoon-feeding them familiar mush, and of audiences acting like children, opening wide. Tony Scott writes such rational, slipcovered sentences that it’s easy to miss how all-condemning this piece is — or to miss the way it’s structured as an oblique bird-flip to The Number One Movie in America.
Consider these sentences:
“The real action is… with the boys and their toys.”
“We like big, dumb popcorn spectacles… And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalizes risk, originality and intelligence.”
“Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand.”
“What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course… Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.”
“Toys, comic books, and familiar fictional characters are a bigger, more reliable draw than movie stars or well-known directors, and are also easier to control. Wolverine, Captain Kirk, Harry Potter, Hasbro — those trademarks and secondary merchandising opportunities will reliably get kids into the theaters.”
It’s pretty funny how pretty much every key sentence in this piece could refer to G.I. Joe, a movie Scott does not mention by name at any point. (The film screened for fanboys but not critics; The Dargis reviewed it in Saturday’s paper.) And then we get to here:
“The weekend grosses, widely guessed at on Thursday night and breathlessly reported by the middle of Sunday afternoon, record the quantity of tickets purchased, but they cannot register the quality of the experience. The aggregate of receipts shows that a lot of people like going to the movies, but not necessarily that they like what they see.
Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about.”
This piece ran, like I said, in Sunday’s paper, and was probably read on Sunday afternoon, just as the Times was reporting a weekend-topping $56.2 million take for G.I. Joe.