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Movie malaise

Monday, February 23, 2009 | 5:35 p.m. CST

“Why aren’t movies better these days?” In the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, the editor-in-chief for Variety, Peter Bart, poses this question in a column about the “malaise” hanging over Hollywood. He points finger after finger at the greed of writers and conglomerates, but he leaves entertainment consumers relatively unrebuked. This is ironic and rather generous given that one of the greatest problems is no one’s fault but our own.

These days, Bart says, there’s no time for creativity amid all the panic about dollars and cents. Studios are decreasingly interested in making “artsy” movies that attempt to take a more original look at life (or the cinematic form) and are instead increasingly relying on the sexy, soulless world of comic books as fodder for films.

But who out there is clamoring for more "Iron Man"? Oh, right. That would be us. The studios aren’t spending all their money on action blockbusters because they have some insidious interest in the rise of Marvel’s stock. They’re giving the public what it's asking for, and we’re not asking for much beyond explosions and special effects.

The numbers are absolute on this point. How many of the three top-grossing films of 2008 were nominated for best picture? Zero. "The Dark Knight," "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones" swept the box-office podium spots, and "Hancock" wasn’t far behind. Meanwhile, the movies that the Academy tried on Sunday to distinguish with all the pomp, star-power and little golden statues they could muster are hardly bringing home the bacon.

"Milk," the biopic of an assassinated gay rights activist for which Sean Penn won the best actor award, made less money than the following, for example: "The Incredible Hulk," "Max Payne" and "Saw V".  That’s right. More people went to see a fifth rehashing of Olympic-style blood-spilling with nearly zero star-clout than the work of the man who won an Oscar in 2003 for his work in "Mystic River."

Will Smith charmingly addressed this issue when he presented awards for visual effects at the Oscars on Sunday. He wryly introduced the nominees by refusing to apologize for loving action films above all others. His justification? Because they have car chases, excitement, intrigue and, you know, “fans.” The non-action-hero actors and actresses in the audience laughed — presumably nudging each other with their empty wallets and saying, “It’s funny because it’s true!”

This does not mean the American public is entirely vapid, however. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I contributed to the box office sales of a certain tool-titled horror flick.) When we sit down to peruse the movie listings, we’re more often than not looking for an escape, for two hours of mind-numbing beauty or chaos that is fully removed from any pain or trouble that might trigger concerns we have about our own lives.

Musicals have thrived in war time for this reason, and perhaps the best escape we can find from today's economy and modern political troubles is by running to the bosoms of costume-clad Robert Downey Jr. and his cheeky British super-computer. There's no reason we shouldn't, but we should also take a break from the escapist tendencies to watch the currently low-grossing, emotionally difficult and much more rewarding films, such as "The Reader" (for which Kate Winslet won the best actress award) or "Milk," which are getting increasingly harder to fund.

The alternative, a vicious cinematic cycle, is easy to imagine. The economy gets worse. People don't go to see as many movies; they illegally download more movies, and when they do finally shell out, it’s only for the likes of "The Incredible Hulk." The industry, run by number-crunching conglomerates such as Warner Bros. and Paramount, then downsize their independent film departments and we’re left with nothing but shiny lights and action figures.

As Bart explained in an interview on Vanity Fair’s Web site, “The favored word of the networks and the studios today is ‘comfort food.’ They feel the public is troubled, and their answer to it is ‘comfort food.’”

To say that the movie industry's problems will be solved if people diversify their tastes is, I admit, something of an oversimplification, but the fact that the daring artists left in the film industry need more support is plain fact. So next time you look at show times, suck it up and choose the drama that you’re worried might be a little dreary for the Friday night you’ve worked so hard to get to. Otherwise we'll be handing out Academy Awards to the cast of Saw VI; the statues themselves would shed tears at the prospect.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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