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April 05, 2006

The Future of Movies 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Despite the title of this posting, I have to report that "Basic Instinct 2" almost certainly doesn't represent the future of movies. It's in fact such a glum thing that it probably represents the present of movies all too well.

Catherine Trammell's confrontational style

You may have read reports about what a disastrous first weekend the movie had, despite Sharon Stone's heroic p.r. efforts on the film's behalf. Bad first-weekend business indicates that moviegoers haven't given a film a chance. Big fans of the first "Basic Instinct" movie and of the erotic-thriller genre generally, The Wife and I headed to the local theater in the hopes of discovering that the American public had made a mistake. But the American public was right this time; the movie is a downer.

Set in London and directed by Michael Caton-Jones, it's proficient and chic in a heavy-spirited way. It has the somber, silver/blue, glossy/translucent look of high-end car ads. But despite its stylishness, it has none of the shameless and lewd, semi-porno joyousness of the first movie. (Here's a posting I wrote about the prevalence of silver in recent car ads. Here's a re-visit to the same topic. Here's a piece I wrote about Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont's commentary track on the DVD of "Basic Instinct.")

For the first 2/3 of the movie I thought the script -- by Leora Barish and Henry Bean -- was a decent try at reviving Catherine Trammell. During the film's last third, though, the sly and tense doublecrosses piled up so high that I was left wishing that the filmmakers had taken a "Scary Movie 3" approach to their project -- doing a Mad magazine version of the first movie instead of keeping a straight face and aiming for hotsy-totsy intensity.

The film's worst flaw, from this filmgoer's p-o-v anyway, was how unsexy it is. It's seriously unsexy in even the most literal-minded ways. It's hard to believe that the filmmakers didn't know that more screentime should have been devoted to depicting sex acts. Ah, the web ... Here's a threesome scene that was cut from the film. It's much sexier than anything that remains in the film.

On a slightly less-dumb level, the film's look-and-feel is unsexy. The cinematography is over-rich, and the set design, while impressive, lacks sparkle. And all those hyper-competent, lowkey British actors ... There's nothing provocative about what's onscreen, or even about what comes from the speakers: Jerry Goldsmith's great score from the first movie is simply recycled here, in an uninspired way. The film isn't a lush and over-the-top fever dream. It's a dignified and under-the-top episode of quality TV.

In any case, the film is far kinder to its production design -- to its interior decoration and its architecture -- than it is to its performers. (The film dwells a lot on Norman Foster's phallus-shaped "Gherkin" building.) While the glass and steel look fabulous, "flaws" doesn't begin to describe what it finds in the performers' faces, hands, and legs. The film is a startling reminder of just how big a facial pore, or a stubble, or a corner-of-the-eye crinkle can be when it's projected onto a 30 foot wide screen. Although the film is intended to be erotic, I've seen more alluring flesh in a sandwich. If Gyula Pados, the film's cinematographer, photographed a child, the kid would have age spots.

Sharon Stone doesn't cover herself in glory, sadly. First off, there's the matter of her looks; some critics have been cruel about her appearance. The female critics have been especially hard on her, make of that what you will. My own take is that she looks great, darn it. The world would be a much sexier place if all 48 year old women looked a quarter as good as Sharon Stone does.

That said, the film coifs Stone, makes her up, dresses her, moves her about, and photographs her horribly. An effort at the wittily-overdone is certainly made. The idea seems to be to have Catherine Trammell shine so brilliantly that she's like a halogen lamp in the midst of dark, sensible London. But onscreen, Stone looks tense, awkward, and Photoshopped, weighed down by the burden of being killer-glam. Is Stone trying to suggest that Catherine has come to the end of her rope? Or does she herself find the project a bore? The film wants her to be lurking and circling, a glittering leopard on the lookout for her next victim; it wants her radiating power, decadence, privilege, and ease. Onscreen, though, Stone hulks around, sneering knowingly. I suspect that in person Stone is one of the most ravishing near-50-somethings imaginable. As showcased in "BI2," though, she looks like a past-her-sell-date drag queen.

The sequel is a reminder of what a fantastic thing the original movie was. The headstrong, vulgar conviction in the Joe Eszterhas script ... The neatly-judged, near-camp flamboyance in Paul Verhoeven's direction ... The sweaty pugnacity of Michael Douglas ... And of course the revelation of Sharon Stone as a full-fledged star. Here was this minor starlet, pretty in an airlines-stewardess way, yet behaving like the world's most self-possessed seductress/killer. Could she really carry it off? She had no right to ... but she did. The Stone spectacle added a lot to film's suspense, not to mention its yumminess.

This time around, Stone seems freezedried. Stardom has been unkind to her. Early on in her career, she was fascinating to watch. She had a fresh charm, a lot of unprincipled drive, and it was fun to watch her learn a bit from movie to movie about how to act. These days, she has lost her physical dewiness -- no way to avoid that, of course. But she has also become such a self-protective caricature of herself that she seems twisted over by the burden of Being Sharon. And -- something that is her fault -- there's no spontaneity or grace left in her as a performer, at least not when portraying Catherine. She seems determined to convey some end-of-the-road, reluctant humanity at the heart of Catherine. (A mistake, in my view: Sociopaths never reform, and never become human. Plus, I don't want to be asked to care about Catherine Trammell's torments and humanity. I want to watch her cause havoc in a sexily couldn't-give-a-shit way ...) But everything she does chugs along rails so well-traveled that she's like a Bette Midler parody of herself.

All that said, you know me: I do love movie eroticism, and I do love movie thrillers. So The Wife and I had a good time despite the movie; we had a good time not in a "it's so bad it's good" way, but in a "we love this kind of movie, good or bad" way. We raised eyebrows at each other a lot, whispered to each other a lot, and enjoyed pulling the movie apart afterwards. How do you balance campy fun and knowingness with genuine heat and intensity? Hard to say, but we appreciated the effort the film made, and that ain't nothing.

But our movie-theater-going experience was suboptimal. As the pre-feature trailers were showing, I ran down five floors to tell the staff that the projector's registration was off. A foot of image that should have been at the bottom of the screen was at the top of it instead. The staff, politely, did nothing. As the last trailer ended, The Wife became irate, ran downstairs and let the staff have it with both barrels. A few minutes later the image was fixed. Unlike me, The Wife is an expert at getting herself treated well.

I don't know about you, but I've just about had it with movie theaters. Once adjusted, the image was glorious, despite my misgivings about its flesh-tones. A well-done movie image is really something to behold, even in these days of high-quality, big-screen TVs. Still: Should The Wife and I have had to ask twice for the projectionist to do his job properly? Should we even have had to ask once? Besides, for the $21 we spent on our tickets, we could have had the pleasure of buying two DVDs while avoiding going to war with an unhelpful theater staff.

I'm apparently not alone. Theater-going numbers are down, of course. Closer to home, a young filmmaker tells me that he almost never sees movies in theaters. He's a DVDs-and-iTunes-downloads kinda guy. A former film critic reports that -- while he loves Netflix, DVD sale-bins, and his DVR -- he has just about given up movie theaters entirely. "The theaters can drown in piles of their own lousy popcorn as far as I'm concerned," he said to me.

Delighted to allow for exceptions, of course. (I've always had good experiences at the Landmark Sunshine, for instance.) But it seems to me unlikely that studio movies and chain movie theaters will ever again turn into something that I can get very enthusiastic about.

My guess is that the next place vitality will arise in storytelling-through-time visual entertainment will be in straight-to-DVD movies, and in short movies posted to the Web. The nonsense that comes between creative teams and potential audiences -- the committees, the campaigns, the press, the layers of bureaucrats and in-fighters -- seems to bleed movies (and movie-like entertainments) of their life-blood. Online especially, young talent can make their videos and simply put 'em up, there to be found or not.

A few examples of ready-for-prime-time online short films are beginning to turn up. If you haven't watched an episode or two of The Lonely Island's "The 'Bu," it's worth a look. It's a well-done short-format spoof of the teen soap opera "The O.C." Another snappy no-budget production is Waverly Films' "Puppet Rapist," a funny and surprisingly intense con-and-cops drama that mixes people and puppets in deadpan-dicey ways.

Neither "The 'Bu" nor "Puppet Rapist" are trying to participate in the Greatness sweepstakes. But both projects are full of enthusiasm, skill, and vitality anyway. And both offer the fun of irreverent young performers showing off lots of talent and bravado. The Wife says the projects are like the movie equivalent of garage-band rock 'n' roll. If the "art" thing is AWOL, well, at least both films are brim-ful of a lot of what's missing from too many films today: spirit, likability, and the human factor. And that may be where art begins.

Channel 101 and Channel 102 seem to be the go-to websites for short-form webmovies. If anyone runs across webfilms they enjoy, please let me know about them! Sharon Stone tells Blackfilm that David Cronenberg was once in the running to direct "BI2," and that the threesome scene I linked to above was cut from the film to appease the ratings board. Dan Glickman reports that average theater attendance per person is down for the third year in a row.



UPDATE: Colleen rags hilariously on "BI2" here.

posted by Michael at April 5, 2006


Brilliant dissection of Stone and the film. You put mine to shame, and with no swears!

As to the moviegoing experience, the theater operators seem to do everything in their power to make it miserable. I think that's why the Arclight has taken off here in L.A.: everything they do enhances the moviegoing experiences, from ushers who corral unruly patrons to the blissful lack of advertising at the top of the show. I'll pay a premium for that, and wait for the rest on DVD.

Posted by: communicatrix on April 5, 2006 05:04 PM

Michael, I think that the problem is that shock value is completely dead.

It says something about this movie that the director has been screaming that he failed as a result of a return by Americans to Puritanism.

"Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States," said the Dutch native. "Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends."

Hell, you can rent a video of a gangbang in any adult store in any small town in America.

I live in NYC, too. Something is really out of kilter here, Michael. I listen to all the loony talk about evangelicals forming armies to storm Manhattan and lynch the gays, and I wonder: What in the hell is this all about?

The director is on to something. He is, in fact, wishing for a wave of repression, so that we can be shocked and titillated by something again.

We've reached a sensual dead end.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 5, 2006 05:12 PM

Hey, you two hotsy performers should make your own webshorts. Get that work online!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 5, 2006 05:28 PM

The closest multiplex to Valier is 80 miles away but it's no better than the rest. So I go to Netflix -- I tried that fancy film Forum mailing list in Chicago with all the Criterion films for a while, but they mailed me back the DVD I just mailed them, put two in the envelope, put none in the envelope, totally forgot me for two weeks, etc. (Not enough people or too much drug culture.) $10 membership at Netflix and they tell me when they got my mailing, tell me when they're sending the next disc, and so on. I get about a movie a week for $10. Dependably.

That's all preliminary. I've been watching "The Shield" on DVD, the "heir" in terms of staff and style to NYPD Blue, Hill St. Blues, Homicide, et al. I had no idea what it would be like other than that. Well, it was rude and rough and there was a lot of obviously improvised old dirty jokes and etc. Four episodes back-to-back is a pretty big dose.

Then I watched the same stuff with the comments on. How the people talking LOVED it! These guys were really getting OFF on it. (The women barely got a chance to talk, though they're the best actors in the show.) Explosive laughter and lots of reminiscence about incidents during shoots. Dang little enlightenment about choices made, "art," or how they thought the audience would react. The scripts were transgressive -- dark side of society and all that -- but they were loving how transgressive THEY were: what they got away with, how daring they were, how they rocked and prevailed -- even though the suits in the front office knew nothing and always tried to frustrate them, always thinking about sales.

In other words, these shows are masturbation being marketed as effing. They don't even NEED an audience, so who cares if the film registers are off. Deadwood was a little this way, but this is WAY more self-indulgent -- always mentioning the good old days instead of creating.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 5, 2006 05:53 PM

You may be dismayed to learn that there will be a Basic Instinct 3 and that Sharon Stone will direct it.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 5, 2006 07:37 PM

I may be a little late to the party, but I wanted to make one comment on the "Future of Movie Theaters".

Something I see happening is a growth of "micro-theaters". As larger and better TVs (i.e. Plasma, DLP, LCD, etc.) become more affordable, locals and neighbors will be hosting more and more Super Bowl and movie watching parties.

And with the growth of Theater Seating as an option for the Upper Middle Class family Living/Entertainment room, it will seem more and more that your friend and neighbor is providing a better experience than the local theater can.

Especially since the atmosphere will be friendly and relatively quiet, or unquiet, depending on local tastes.

Would you like to have some Brandy or smoke a Cigar as you watch the movie? Well, now you can.

How about watching Glenn Ford, Jocelyn Brando and Lee Marvin in The Big Heat on the (fairly) Big Screen while being served sushi? The choice is yours my friend.

At least one of your neighbors will go bonkers over this stuff. People always do. Because, this is their Thing. This is what they love, and they will spend every last dollar and waking minute working on making their Movie Experience the greatest ever. And the locals will hear about it, just praying that they get invited to one of his Movie Nights. They won’t even care all that much what the movie is.

And soon he will start charging for it. He will not be greedy, just looking to cover his costs. And the people will happily oblige, just as long as he keeps up the great work.

Well, those are my thoughts. Take them for what you will. But remember, I am a hopeless libertarian. So, I love the idea of people pursuing their dreams and working very hard only to find others who value their work so very, very much.

Ian Lewis

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 6, 2006 08:11 AM

I didn't read all that many bad comments on Stone's appearance in those reviews...except one said she looks "wierd." Like plastic surgeried wierd. Others said she was "improbably toned and fit." They were quite unkind about her performance but how were they cruel about her appearance? (Personally, I would have thought Jodie Foster might have come in for some sniping for both her performance and appearance in "The Inside Guy" more than it looks like Stone should be criticised, at least for her looks. But Foster seems to be a sacred cow in Hollywood--nobody will say it). What does you "think she looked great, darn it" mean? Nobody (in the reviews I read) said she looked "old." Is that what you are reading?

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2006 09:54 AM

Why do films make actress look bad these days? I mean, sometimes you see an actress on Jay Leno or Oprah and she looks a thousand times more rosy and lovely than on the big screen movie she is promoting. And, I'm sure it's more than just the small screen, lighting thing. Or, actually, it is the lighting thing. And the make-up, and the angles. I'm not a filmy type, but if you watch those old glorious thirties and forties films the women look like, well, women, and also, they are sort of encased in this silvery smoothness: are our standards different or something. I'm always surprised at the way faces are photographed in films these days. Is it supposed to be realism to make actresses look so drawn? It's not about photoshopping away the wrinkles, it's about that rosy glow, you know? Even vamps need that to look sexy, don't they?

Posted by: MD on April 6, 2006 10:19 AM

P.S.---Doesn't it just seem like it took forever to do this sequel? A whole different generation of moviegoers are buying tickets now, and Sharon Stone hasn't exactly stayed a hot box office ticket. I think that is as important as her age. Even if the movie was great, which it unsurprisingly sounds like it isn't. I bet some younger moviegoers don't know who she is. It would be like Cher trying to do a sequel to Moonstruck now. You hard as it is to get movies "greenlighted" in did this get through in 2006?

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2006 11:33 AM

P. Mary -- Bad commentary tracks, that's a great idea for a blog posting. I bet a lot of people could volunteer candidates. Sizzling writing as ever, btw. Is your book full of passages like that? And you expect academics to be able to deal with it? Hmmm.

Patriarchy -- Yikes. Well, a girl's gotta pay the rent, I suppose. It can't be cheap, living as Sharon Stone...

Ian -- I like your vision of the moviegoing future. It sure beats spending more time at the computer, and sounds a lot more social too. I hope one of my neighbors is a good, video-mad techie. Sign me up!

Annette -- You got me wondering if I was unfair, so I surfed back through the reviews again. Noticed something strange/telling/interesting. The guy reviewers were prone to be either/or: either they said she looked terrible, or they said she looked great. The gal reviewers tended to give and take at the same time, as in "however much plastic surgery she's had, she looks great." That kind of miaowing tends to strike me as more wounding, as real knife-in-the-back-while -smiling-at -the-victim stuff. But maybe that's just me having trouble with female style. Interesting! So thanks for raising that. It did take ages to get the sequel going, didn't it? I've read about lawsuits, about Stone not wanting to do it, about actors not wanting to act opposite her, etc. Really seems like a project that no one really wanted to do, but that had to happen sometime anyway, so everyone dragged their feet into it. (That's how it plays too.)

MD -- Glamor and the movies, and what's become of the pairing, is a fun thing to think about, isn't it? Why do the movies do such a bad job of selling glamor these days? The movie world is full of amazing-looking women -- they're certainly more toned and manicured than women have ever been. Yet do the movies they're in make them look as appetizing as they might? The usual thing is to blame a couple of developments. One is color film. B&W automatically stylizes what you're looking at, which seems to leave people willing to accept a certain degree of artificiality -- it's all dream/make-believe anyway, so why not fantasize and be rhapsodic. Color tends to make everything seem much more immediate, and many people seem to take that to mean that what's on screen should seem more real. It takes a lot to stylize color. The other development is (you'll love blaming them) the Boomers and the '60s, when everything got torn down, ripped apart, and made much more informal than ever before. Ever since, people simply haven't been able to accept the same degree of style that they were before the '60s. Again: people seem to demand more in the way of "real," and to have ever-more trouble accepting glamor. But also, the magazines and fashion business have done such a great job of marketing snazzy, glossy, glamorous style -- the girls look better photographed on the red carpet than they do in the movies. What's left for the movies to add? How can they compete with the images the image-manufacturers create? Anyway, such are the usual explanations. Even so, they seem inadequate, don't they? I think a lot of people would enjoy indulging in a little more sexy/dreamy glamor at the movies than they usually get a chance to. But Hollywood doesn't seem to be selling that any longer. Maybe they've focused on the 15 year old boy market for too long? Any hunches?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 6, 2006 12:30 PM

I'm surprised, with all the recent fantasies (LOTR,Narnia, Phantom of the Opera, or period pieces, like "Pride and Prejudice"), glamour hasn't made more of a comeback. Do cinematographers know how to do it? Certainly the earlier generation---Speilberg, Lucas, Coppola---did NOT. Women never look worse than they do being photographed by Steven Speilberg, except maybe Diane Keaton in "The Godfather." Really--go back and look at it. She even got to wear '40's fashions, and they still made her look like a plain-Jane schoolmarm. It's amazing she had any career. Those directors seemed more immature in a certain way---more fascinated with photographing guns and spaceships---than in photographing men and women. Everybody talks about the amazing cinematography of "Close Encounters"---but its more the lights of the aliens. The people look godawful.

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2006 01:57 PM

There is an interesting "New York Times" Op Ed essay by Nora Ephron (writer, director and former member of the Board of Directors of Loew's) about a terrible movie going experience she recently had on the Upper East Side.

It's dated April 7, 2006 and is entitled, "The Last Picture Show."

(As of Fri. evening, it was also listed on the home page of the "New York Times" as one of the site's most e-mailed articles.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 7, 2006 11:53 PM

Also, if you go to the wonderful "Cinema Treasures" website, there are some recent similar discussions regarding movie presentation on both the pages for the Landmark Sunshine and the Ziegfeld. (The "Cinema Treasures" website has listings for theaters all over the country. So there may be similar discussions about theaters elsewhere, too.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 8, 2006 12:05 AM

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