we didn’t need dialog, we had faces

1/14/10

I quite enjoyed my brother Sean’s blog today, and I know people have issues with clicking to other pages, so if you don’t read it on his his site, I’ve reprinted it here:

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There’s a lot of head scratching going on, and a sure sign of stupidity is when everyone else is confused and you think there’s an easy answer. I’m pretty obviously, then, a little stupid, because it seems pretty clear to me.

Broadway has had a series of really well reviewed shows close before they could see any return on their investment, and a Neil Simon play never even made it because the other Neil Simon play was hemorrhaging money.

Man, I should just memorize how to spell hemorrhage. I really like using it and I’m tired of looking it up.

There are a lot of people coming up with a lot of ideas about why these plays just aren’t bringing in audiences. I would like to tell you why I think it is, and I’m gonna say all of this without providing a single bit of supporting evidence. This is all conjecture, and based exclusively on my perspective, which is ridiculously skewed.

In the 70s, people made really awesome movies. Or so the story goes. Then Jaws and Star Wars killed the whole thing because people wanted to make blockbusters. This is a ridiculously simple way of looking at it, but there definitely was a shift away from a single artist’s vision (the director) to a system where each element of a film was given equal responsibility to provide a return on an investment.

Score? Regardless of the movie’s style, get John Williams. Actors? Regardless of the roles, get Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Script? Get the guy that wrote the thing that just made money, whatever idea he’s got, it’s probably great! Direction? Just… get someone who can take notes from the producers.

Fast forward a decade or so, to 1993. Last Action Hero comes out. Remember, at this point, it was in vogue to cast European legitimate actors as bad guys, thanks to Die Hard, so we had Schwarzenegger as the hero, F. Murray Abraham as the bad guy and… Jesus, every actor you can name was in this movie. And every one of them showed up on set with, at minimum, their agent, manager and make-up artist, but very probably with their own script doctors.

What opened against it? Demolition Man, which had Nigel Hawthorne as its propped up English actor cred, and Sylvester Stallone in the lead. Wesley Snipes also ate through about a hundred cameras as the “charming bad guy”. In “Last Action Hero”, the alternate reality has Sylvester Stallone appearing in all of Schwarzenegger’s movies, in “Demolition Man” they have (in a weird bit of prescience) Schwarzenegger as the President of the United States.

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These movies are remembered for their suckiness, but the truth is, they were exactly as good as the crap that went before them. In fact, they have a fair bit of charm when compared to “Cliffhanger” and “The Pelican Brief”, which were also released that year. But a little movie called “True Romance” snuck in there as well, and everyone suddenly got very excited about what movies might turn in to…

1994? We had Pulp Fiction, The Professional, The Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers, Ed Wood, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Shallow Grave, Once Were Warriors…

I can’t believe I lived through 1994 and didn’t simply eat popcorn and sleep on the floor of a movie theater. The movies that weren’t even watershed films were certainly pop culture touchstones, like Ace Ventura, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Reality Bites, Four Weddings and a Funeral…

My point for all of this is this – In Acting Skool, they teach “Don’t play ‘Drunk’, play the circumstances of the scene, and play ‘trying not to be drunk'”. In “Art”, you can’t *try* to make money. You have to try to make art, and that art will then either make money or not. But as consumers of art, we can tell when you’re switching the price tags on the old meat in the cooler. The minute you think you’ve got a system for popularity, you’re actually taking a step closer to failing.

So, why did these shows close on Broadway? My feeling is that it’s because Broadway has become too Broadway, the meat’s been in the cooler for too long. Broadway producers who are interested in making money need to be willing to *lose* money on an auteur, on a singular artistic voice that might be a touchstone for a generation. Neil Simon and established musical re-treads don’t speak to the audience specifically because they seem to be engineered to entice the audience.

We want that from fast food, but we don’t want it from our art. Some of the avant garde is off-putting and, like all art, a lot of it feels insignificant and confused. I refuse to call it bad, but sure, that stuff won’t translate. However, MOST of the avant garde stuff is really very fun, totally digestible and could make a producer somewhere a fortune.

The guy who didn’t buy The Blue Man group when he saw them on the street is probably the same guy who’s losing millions of dollars trying to turn Spider Man into a musical. To that guy, I’d say, “the lessons are there, they aren’t even from that long ago, and if you really love theater, you’d know what to do.”

Come find the individual voices. Don’t look at the MFA programs, come an see what the punks are doing. There are men and women in the off-off world who are SWINGING FOR THE FENCES. And we can do it because if we lose four grand, WE’VE ONLY LOST FOUR GRAND. Most of the people who are writing and being incredibly brave because… because when nobody’s looking, bravery is easy. EVERYONE sings in the shower, and that’s what we’re doing at our 53 seat houses.

When Tracey Letts wrote Superior Donuts, he had no intention of it going up at a Broadway house. Which was probably a little bit naive on his part, he’d had a successful play on Broadway which means EVERY THING HE WRITES will go up on Broadway from now on. Until he flops. And then NOTHING HE WRITES will go up on Broadway. Until he succeeds again. And then EVERYTHING HE WRITES… This is how it works.

The voices of a new generation are currently bellowing at the windmills. If someone wants to take the money they’ve got, and print ten times the amount, they should dig in their backyards, because I know, for a fact, the backyards are full of diamonds.

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0 thoughts on “we didn’t need dialog, we had faces

  1. jen

    i have to ask. do you write for big love?
    given you’re a movie kind of fellow, along with your wife, i invite you to read a post i wrote about the 40th anniversary of the best movie i’d personally never seen. not trying to bait you to the blog. i really thought you might be interested as it is an italian film. have you seen it? there are so few people in the world with whom to discuss such things.

    Reply
  2. noj

    did the Pelican Brief really suck that badly? i remember thinking it was ok and that was at my all-time most cynical age of 21. it definitely couldn’t have been as bad as cliffhanger / last action hero / demolition man – those were museum-piece bad.

    Reply
  3. Sean

    I think when you’ve done Sophie’s Choice and All The President’s Men, you’re kinda screwed for the rest of your life. The problem with Pelican Brief is that it contained all the elements of *greatness*, but it was actually a very boilerplate thriller. I don’t know if it sucked, but it disappointed, which is probably worse.

    Reply
  4. Neva

    I was thrown down a wormhole with the mention of Once Were Warriors. I was living in New Zealand the summer of 1994 when it came out. It was a big story there the whole time and such a powerful movie to see there and discuss with folks. Will have to go back and see it again now.
    And, because at least three people have mentioned Shawshank Redemption to me TODAY and I’ve never seen it I will rent it ASAP!

    Reply
  5. chip

    The Shawshank Redemption is terrific.
    However, it wasn’t F. Murray Abraham that played the villian in Die Hard, it was Alan Rickman. I only bring it up because Rickman was so great in the role (“I read about them in Time Magazine”, “You said anything about terrorists”) that I found myself for him to get away with the money.

    Reply

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