Why Are “Ensemble Movies” Popular Right Now?

08/13/2010 3:03 PM |

Its true: a lot of people are in this movie.
  • It’s true: a lot of people are in this movie.

That was a question Michael Cieply asked, and tried to answer, yesterday in the Times. Short answer? They’re not—the article’s own lede admits that this weekend, Julia Roberts stars alone in Eat Pray Love. The star-driven vehicle is far from gone.

But, also this weekend comes The Expendables: the movie’s marketing (those subway posters!) may make it seem like the star-studded dream of many an action fan, but in fact it’s really just Stallone and Statham with a few other notable actors in bit supporting parts. Forcing a trend, Cieply notes that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World also comes out this weekend, which involves Michael Cera fighting seven ex-boyfriends.

Coincidence?

Probably: “’I don’t know that anything is changing’ in terms of storytelling patterns, said Marc Platt, a producer of the cast-heavy ‘Scott Pilgrim,'” Cieply writes.

When I mentioned this article to my girlfriend, she said that Hollywood has always made movies with big casts. Cieply acknowledges this, too: “Group film has had a long, rich history in Hollywood,” he writes, citing movies like Grand Hotel through to the overlapping chatterboxes of Robert Altman’s oeuvre.

So what’s novel here?

Large-cast films could seem slightly suspect [seriously? "slightly suspect"?] in a culture that honored solitary heroes like Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and Steve McQueen (“Bullitt”) in stories that put them at odds with the world.

“I don’t think the ensemble film has ever quite taken root in America,” the film historian David Thomson said by e-mail this week. “It goes too much against the grain of stardom and stories about ‘important’ people.”

Here, Cieply approaches the intriguing meat of his inquiry, though he fails to pursue it. If something about the movies really is changing—beyond “falling star salaries and a declining number of films”—it would mark a notable shift in the country’s political outlook. The American Dream requires that individuals be able to effect real change in the world—in their own lives and country—and so the country’s legend-making machine, also called “Hollywood,” has long produced products that celebrate the fate-mastering individual. We’re a capitalist country, not a socialist one!

So, if the movies are now about large groups of people (like The A-Team, conspicuously missing from Cieply’s discussion) rather than rugged individuals, does that signal that Americans are ready for an Obama-era of consensus building, nationalized medicine and general groupwork? Or only that the radical wealthy lefties who control the entertainment industry are trying to shove this vision of a communist utopia down our throats?

Or is it all just about television? One of Cieply’s sources “theorizes that feature film is reaching toward the complex, multicharacter scenarios that have made hits of sophisticated television series like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Sopranos.'” But, again, Cieply comes up short in pursuing this line, so allow me.

In September 2008, I sat in the audience during a panel discussion called “Film Criticism in Crisis?” According to a piece I filed at the time, Emmanuel Burdeau, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema, offered the following insights:

Film’s role in the national cultural conversation has largely been replaced by television…[i]n the early days of cinema, he said, lots of people in theaters watched lots of people on the screen. But now all we have are Vin Diesel movies, where a lonely audience member watches a lonely guy.

Television, on the other hand, is a medium that still deals with community, “whether it’s a mob family or proletariat black people in Baltimore.” Kent Jones agreed, saying a sense of community had disappeared from American screens because of studio executives’ fear of needing to please everyone. [Gavin] Smith noted that the traditional boundaries between television and film were being increasingly blurred, evidenced by the fact that a forum on the future of film criticism had spent a large chunk of its time discussing The Wire. (I know that I discussed the last season of The Wire or the final episode of The Sopranos with more people than I’ve discussed any individual film ever.)

If more movies about groups really are being produced today, perhaps it’s because audiences need communities around which to build their own—because Julia Roberts by herself ain’t cutting it.