Friday, June 16, 2006

New blog meme!

Terry Teachout has posted a brief and capricious list of "personal bests," such as best comeback, best P.G. Wodehouse novel, best first line, and so forth. Sounds like a good meme to me, though I'll scramble the categories a bit:

Best Comeback: “Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it.” (Winston Churchill, of course.)

Best Movie Score (tie): Virgil Thomson, Louisiana Story; Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Adventures of Robin Hood; Bernard Herrmann, Taxi Driver.

Best Painting I’ve Seen This Year: Grant Wood, Woman With Plants. (Imagine Willa Cather's My Antonia distilled to a single, indelible image, and you have Woman with Plants. Unlike Wood's better-known American Gothic, it's still hanging at the Renwick in D.C.)

Favorite Count Basie Record: April in Paris.

Louis Armstrong Album I Wish More People Knew About: The Real Ambassadors -- a real kick in the pants for anyone who claimed that in later years Satchmo was a caricature.

Best Movie I've Seen This Year: Stuart Cooper's Overlord, finally released in the US after more than thirty years, and still one of the best WWII movies ever made. The climactic image of a soldier collapsing within the iris of an eye is as indelible as it is difficult to describe.

Best New Movie I've Seen This Year: Greengrass's United 93, a Battleship Potemkin for the War on Terror. Close second: Rian Johnson's Brick, which is sort of like Dashiell Hammett crossed with early Gregg Araki.

Worst New Movie I've Seen This Year (tie): Why We Fight (pokey left-wing propaganda), Mission: Impossible III.

Best Educational Film: Since Teachout has already taken "Powers of Ten," I'll take a different tack and suggest "Donald in Mathmagic Land." In the late 1950s and '60s, Disney was the undisputed leader of educational filmmaking, and "Mathmagic" is one of the studio's best efforts in that vein.

Best Slow Movement: Tranquilo, from Ned Rorem's Symphony No. 2. Simple and beautiful as a Quaker meeting house, but brief as a summer in Maine.

Best Piece of War Reporting: Michael Herr, Dispatches. The New Journalism goes to 'Nam. Although Ward Just's To What End probably contains more objective reportage, I prefer the unrestrained literary style and go-for-broke absurdity of Dispatches. The book inspired Coppola's Apocalypse Now even more than Conrad's Heart of Darkness did, and most viewers don't realize that Herr, not Martin Sheen, spoke the film's voiceovers.

Best First Lines (tie): “Elmer Gantry was drunk” (Lewis, Elmer Gantry). "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" (Orwell, 1984). "London" (Dickens, Bleak House).

Best Last Lines (tie): "Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?" (Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises). "On which he looked up at her" (James, Portrait of a Lady, 1881 edition). "Years from now, when you talk about this ... and you will ... be kind ..." (Anderson, Tea and Sympathy).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Da Vinci Code surpasses Passion of the Christ

In today's National Review Online, Austin Ruse, president of the right-wing "Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute," gloats over the supposed box-office failure of Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code. The aptly named Ruse writes that "in the world’s largest film market — the United States — The Da Vinci Code still lags far behind The Passion of the Christ. Forgive me if I revel in that a bit."

Unfortunately for Ruse, the central premise of his argument is false. Worldwide, The Da Vinci Code has outgrossed Mel Gibson's Passion by over thirty million dollars (in less than a month's time). And it's not done yet.

True, The Passion of the Christ was a monster hit in the United States, drawing evangelical Christians who hadn't gone to the cinema in years -- and so far, haven't gone back. Overseas, however, the movie was a disappointment. Throughout Europe, it did mediocre business, and in Britain it flopped outright. The lion's share of Passion's foreign box-office take came from the Middle East and Asia, where even diehard followers of Islam set aside their taboo against images of the holy prophets so they could watch an American movie as intractably anti-Jewish as they were. (If goyishe Americans couldn't understand Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic iconography, Islamist mullahs and imams had no trouble figuring it out.)

In contrast, The Da Vinci Code has not been a monster hit in the U.S., though it has hardly underperformed: Its domestic box office is certain to break the $200 million mark, a respectable cume by just about any standard. With future DVD sales, the film should turn a healthy domestic profit for its producers despite relatively high (though for a blockbuster, not outrageous) production and marketing costs. But Da Vinci has truly excelled in foreign markets: Not only has its foreign box-office take more than doubled its domestic grosses, it has exceeded even the domestic receipts of The Passion of the Christ.

The remarkable success of the Da Vinci Code outside the US indicates a new and not altogether reassuring trend: In a very important sense, the most conspicuous products of American cinema are no longer identifiably American. Hollywood blockbusters are now a globalized product, and they have come to reflect the ideals and concerns of a global audience. Unlike films made under the studio system of old, and unlike even the international co-productions of the 1960s, today's Hollywood blockbusters no longer reflect (and perhaps are no longer meant to reflect) American values or American political realities. To the extent that the concept of America even arises in these films, it is usually the subject of knee-jerk derision and scorn: In the films we export to the world, America is viewed precisely as the rest of the world views us.

The first successful example of a globalized cinema -- at least, that I noticed -- was the Wolfgang Petersen epic Troy, which butchered Homer's Iliad in favor of a diatribe against the Iraq War and the current Bush administration. Predictably, the film underperformed in America: Back in the summer of 2004, over half of us still liked President Bush. But it fared much better in continental Europe, especially France and Germany, where hatred of the President burned as brightly as a Peugeot in Clichy-sous-Bois. As Bruce Bawer has pointed out in While Europe Slept, public discourse throughout Europe has fallen into a sort of anti-American, left-wing lockstep. Troy catered to this mindset perfectly, giving European moviegoers the ideological content they craved. And because it performed better in European markets than American ones, Troy managed to recoup its massive production cost.

The lesson here is that Hollywood is not embracing left-wing politics in spite of the bottom line, but because of it. Left-wing films make money, not just here but all around the world -- while right-wing films, contrary to what Michael Medved would have you believe, generally fail in foreign markets and remain a tough sell even at home. (The exception that proves the rule is The Chronicles of Narnia, which managed to please American conservatives as a "closeted" Christian allegory, yet performed well abroad as an effects-laden children's film.) Most multiplexes in the American heartland, regardless of how many screens they have, confine themselves to the same large-scale leftist movies that must play everywhere else in the world. Meanwhile, arthouse theaters which showcase lower-budget American filmmaking must cater to liberal urbanites, not only because these theaters are located in urban enclaves, but also because if recent box-office receipts are any indication, not even the most devoted O'Reilly fan will pay to see a conservative documentary.

By and large, conservative films can't rack up the sort of worldwide box office that would justify a bloated Hollywood budget. As the American and foreign receipts of Passion of the Christ demonstrated, the tastes of American conservatives are decidedly out of step with the "new world order" of filmmaking and film marketing. Consequently, a conservative product must earn most of its profits in the United States, from an audience of prospective filmgoers who are all but impossible to reach. Meanwhile, a liberal or a leftist film can rely on business from ever-expanding foreign markets, where their political viewpoint is practically de rigeur. (This sorry state of affairs may explain why most Christian filmmakers in the US have resorted to cheap, lucrative, direct-to-video releasing: It enables them to reach an audience without the problems of marketing and distribution. As a side benefit, the cut-rate production values of most Christian films are far less glaring on the small screen.)

None of the above caveats or concerns would apply to The Da Vinci Code, because it embodies a globalized and not an American cinema. Of course, the production is American, with an all-American director (Ron Howard) and a bankable American star (Tom Hanks). But the casting of French actress Audrey Tautou, with her middling command of the English language, indicates that from the start the filmmakers had foreign markets in mind. There are other indications of international intent as well, such as dialogue which (except for Ian McKellen's wicked ad-libs) limits itself to easily translatable exposition, and travelogue-like cinematography that shows off the film's French and English locations to best advantage. Like Troy, Da Vinci was guaranteed to infuriate American conservatives, because it attacks the most sacred of their sacred cows. (Conservatives tend to prefer their religion neat and straight, like a good Scotch.) But as one would expect of a film that American right-wingers dislike, it's making a tidy profit all over the world.

To be fair, The Passion of the Christ was produced at roughly one-fourth the cost of Da Vinci Code, so a comparison of the two films is a matter of apples and oranges (both of them rotten, as it happens). The free publicity surrounding Passion ensured that the film would promptly reach heartland evangelicals, and its relatively low budget meant that it wouldn't need sizable foreign receipts to turn a profit. Ultimately, the return on investment was much larger for Passion than it will be for Da Vinci. But The Da Vinci Code will still prove a substantially greater box-office success.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion: Death Wish

(coming soon)

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