pop culture

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Age of the Great American Flop

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The dust has settled after the typical weekend clash; tentpole after tentpole, soaring budget after soaring budget coming for each other’s throats and the number-one slot at the box-office. Prestige is in the numbers, and it’s clear that the box-office titans of years past have little sustainable clout with the contemporary audience.

Tom Cruise is one of those hardened box-office warriors whose armor is beginning to crack. His Edge of Tomorrow, which reportedly cost around $178 million to produce, earned an estimated $29 million this past weekend, well below what a film of this caliber should be hauling in. Cruise isn’t the only megastar to fall short of expectations as of late; Johnny Depp hasn’t carried a film to more than $80 million in the U.S. since he last rode the waves of the Pirates of the Caribbean series back in 2011, and Will Smith’s After Earth earned only $60 million from American audiences just last year. It’s becoming ever-apparent that:

1)       The age of the “movie star” and box-office success going hand-in-hand is dead

and

2)      The American industry is driving itself into the ground with a stacked slate of tentpoles that never have a chance for survival

There’s nothing  wrong with shifting away from individuals toward broader appeal and familiarity (with a young adult novel, a comic book, a long-standing superhero franchise, etc.)  to secure box-office success, but it’s hard to let it go nonetheless. While Depp, Smith, and Cruise—whose last film to ride past $100 million domestic without the help of pre-established series popularity (the Mission Impossible series) was 2005’s War of the Worlds—find their films doing well in overseas markets (Depp’s The Lone Ranger earned $170 million in foreign receipts, while Smith’s After Earth raked in $183 million), their domestic fall from grace isn’t due to an indifferent general public. The worldwide appeal is there.

Quality is something audiences still value; Edge of Tomorrow received near universal acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike. Warner Bros. pushed a major pre-release campaign that hinged the film’s success on good word of mouth; the studio held at least three preview screenings in many major markets over the last few weeks, and the reaction was largely positive. If you build it, they will come in droves—if it’s free, as most word of mouth screenings are.

The problem with today’s film industry is not that that the tentpoles (for the most part) are inferior works (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are just a few examples of 2014 blockbusters with stellar critical reviews), it’s just that the industry is overcrowding its own shell and pushing itself out of every orifice.

Edge of Tomorrow never had a shot; riding between Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent last weekend and the YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars this week, Cruise was sandwiched in between two event pictures with a much higher profile than his—which rode on his star appeal alone. Maleficent is Angelina Jolie’s first live-action turn in four years and appeals to the grossly-underrepresented female audience, and The Fault in Our Stars comes pre-packaged with an audience comprised of fans of the novel it’s based on. The market for Edge was satiated only two weeks prior with X-Men and Godzilla. In short, Cruise didn’t have a home in the crowd.

If we look back to the beginning of the blockbuster—let’s just use Jaws, for example—the films themselves were an event that rode through to success simply on being an event. From its opening on June 20, 1975 through the next 30 days of release, Jaws never made more than $7 million per weekend. Let’s jump to 1997, when Titanic—which went on to hold the record for top-grossing domestic release until Avatar in 2009–opened to $28 million in December, followed by a steady stream of weekend grosses ranging from $35 million to $1 million when it fell out of the Top 10 exactly six months later.

Sure, the blockbuster was a new concept in 1975, and the 1990s were heavy on action-oriented films, but the success of films with astronomical budgets was not entirely dependent on how top-heavy a studio could make a film. Blockbusters are becoming so frequent that they’re the norm, not the event.

So far in 2014, we’ve seen approximately 13 major blockbuster releases; that’s an average of nearly two per month thus far, though the majority of them have fallen in the summer release window. Seven films with budgets of over $100 million (some coming in at nearly $200 million) have been released since April; 5 more uber-expensive tentpoles will release from now until August. That number would have been 6, but Warner Bros. pulled Jupiter Ascending from its original July release date and re-slated it for February of next year (they cite issues with post-production and visual effects, but it seems like the studio was feeling burned from the heat of competition).

When blockbusters are released in rapid fire succession like this, there’s bound to be ones that slip through the cracks. It’s simply unwise to create an industry where bloated-budget films fail not on quality, but because they’re no longer capable of being “event” pictures because the event is now the standard.

The fact remains that we’re seeing consistently-underperforming films with budgets of over $100 million. Foreign audiences (namely Asian markets) have shaped American productions for quite some time now, but something needs to be said for the American audience becoming an afterthought.

There’s nothing that separates a film like Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim—two quality productions deemed “flops” because their budgets far outweighed their American grosses—from each other or from other action-oriented an event that makes them worthier of the general audience’s dollar. Audiences would rather save their money for a brand they’re familiar with (Marvel, DC, etc.) instead of risking it on a title they have no prior relationship with.

But, as the top-heavy numbers get bigger, the studios get more ambitious and the competition gets stiffer; this would explain why May box-office hit its lowest levels since 2010; the drop-off for huge openers is part of the equation when you go bigger, harder, and faster on tiny little legs trekking up a mountain of buzzy pre-release anticipation. If we take a look at the Top 100 opening weekends of all time, 80 of them were released between 2004 and 2014, 18 of them within the last year alone. Of the Top 20, only one was released before 2006 (and it was still a superhero film, 2002’s Spider-Man). Nearly all of the contemporary top-grossing opening weekends are sequels, animated family films, superhero films or, yes, sequels to super hero films.

Again, the movie star used to be that point of familiarity. A movie star could really make something out of an adult-oriented narrative that would have found little success otherwise; now we rely on broader concepts of appeal to drive our box-office, but it’s all front-loaded. Even the front-loaded are front loaded, as The Fault in Our Stars earned nearly $25 million on its opening Friday, but dipped to $12 million and $9 million on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, since the last weekend of March when Noah premiered, every film that opened to more than $40 million (aside from Neighbors and Maleficent) dropped over 57% of their audience in their second weekend. Why? Because they don’t have room to breathe. Noah faced Captain America the week after; Spider-Man faced Godzilla 14 days after opening; Godzilla faced X-Men, X-Men faced Maleficent, and Edge of Tomorrow faltered in the wake of Angelina’s box-office reign–all within seven days of each other, respectively.

It’s no surprise, then, that films like Edge of Tomorrow aren’t reaching their audience the way blockbusters used to. It’s a film that, 15 years ago, would have waltzed past the $150 million domestic mark in three or four weekends. Cruise will be lucky if Edge limps to $80 million in North America. When the “movie star” was a business, an industry unto him or herself, films like Edge of Tomorrow were given room to spread their wings and soar. When audiences have a film like this to choose from at least once or twice a month, it’s harder for them to justify spending money on a something they’re unfamiliar with when they know they have 10 superhero flicks to catch just around the corner.

Perhaps Warner Bros. is on to something, here; the studio dumping months have turned into an ideal, wide-open space to drop big-budget films at a time when they’re all crowding toward the summer slate like never before. Just this year, their The Lego Movie soared to nearly $250 million domestic with a February release date, while the studio’s Gravity rocketed to $270 million from American markets in October of last year.

Everyone loves a good event picture here and there, but the battle for weekend supremacy and who can go bigger is a tired one, and the tentpoles aren’t going to stop. It’s hard to find a slot in the picture for gargantuan puzzle pieces, and we’ve created a crack in the armor of the titans. The implosion is imminent unless the air supply increases for those who can’t breathe.

Follow the author on Twitter: @joeynolfi

The Trouble with TV Consumption: When Will “The Shocker” Flatline?

the walking dead season 4 part 2 michonneI don’t watch Game of Thrones, but I feel like I know every inch of its body like it’s a ghostly lover I’ve only dreamt of courting.

The allure is real and tangible everywhere I turn. HBO’s healthy marketing budget has made it so that I can’t wait for a bus or click on to my favorite site without seeing an ad plastered on some physical or digital space.

I don’t have a problem with marketers doing their job. What I detest, however, is the devolution of A&E journalism from being the stimulant to the easily-stimulated.

Sunday evening through Monday morning, the headlines are inescapable: “Game of Thrones Shocker!” or “The Walking Dead Spoiler: Discuss the Season Finale Shocker!” I know we’re living in the era of the resurgence of event television, but I  don’t appreciate it when I’m bombarded with an array of  headlines aimed at shaming me for casual disinterest.

“Shockers” don’t impress me much anymore.

I guess the headlines are a preferable alternative to the quick-fire “OMG SERIOUSLY? #GameOfThrones” that fills my Twitter timeline when any given buzz show airs, but the fact remains that you can’t simply exist as a casual consumer (of the fan or non-fan persuasion) any more. You’re either part of the in-crowd or the outcast. There’s no middle ground in the world of quick-fix television.

I’m forced to indulge in the cultures of these shows, though watching rabid fans salivate over something they fail to realize–in their fits of, well, “shocked” outpouring of digital discourse on social media–was constructed specifically to send them off their rockers is entertaining in itself.

How easily we, as a collective audience, have relinquished control.

I’m supposed to form a relationship with a show. I’m supposed to curl up in its embrace—by myself (who needs people?)—and drift off into the sweet nothings it whispers into my ear. It has to be consensual. A show hinging itself upon shocking me fosters a souped-up, manic consumption that leaves no room to explore new routes. It conditions expectations of topping itself, and makes it impossible for its writers to explore even terrain. 

Still, I feel like the industry wants me to feel like I’m missing out on an irresistible fuck-fest to draw me in. They want me to feel like the outsider. They want me to submit to their show’s ability to travel so long right around a circle that the only way to keep things interesting is to yank the wheel to the left.

I miss the days of connecting with fans on the basis of quality versus surprise. LOST, while inspiring a fan culture all its own, propelled itself forward on the grounds of dramatic resonance. Each bit of absurdity fueled the show’s personality. It became a character drama with an affinity for the absurd. The show was never defined by its insanity, and its twists and turns inspired crescendoed momentum instead of reaching a peak, diving off the side, and climbing back up only to repeat the same suicidal event two weeks later.

Plot twists used to serve purpose, but now they’re used as buzz topics for tomorrow’s articles that tap into everyone’s innate desire for inclusivity. We all want to be a part of something, but this shocker business feels too constructed.

I admit that I watch event shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. Of all the buzz shows, The Walking Dead most justifiably earned its right to assert dominance over the pop culture discussion at large. It’s a huge cable production that trumps nearly every scripted network show in terms of revenue, ratings, and response from the key demographic. But, the show evolved from a quiet, subdued drama that it was in its first two seasons. It has adapted to fit within a culture that demands spectacular stimuli–including the shocker. Its ever-bloated cast list grows by the season only to be cut down without warning in an inevitable, unmotivated bloodbath. It’s a show that was once defined by a singular character’s will to survive, but now rides from high to high on the fumes of its audience speculating who will die next.

And everyone eats it up.

In a sense, it’s impossible for us to fairly gauge a show’s quality when it follows the shocker format. What this does is allow an otherwise brilliant show to become predicated by superficial elements; character deaths, tonal shifts, plot twists—moments whose foremost purpose isn’t to advance the story, but to get you on your phone tweeting about it whether such elements work or not.

We don’t challenge ourselves to accept what’s happening and if it works with the ideology of the show. It’s simply golden if it’s unexpected, and I’m sick of it.

It’s easy to see how the passively-accepting, actively-responding, binge-watching culture has adopted other more subtle series as posterchildren for buzz-crazed consumption before they had a chance to hit their stride. That’s why Homeland sputtered out so fast: It was a show that was genuinely compelling in its first season, fueled by intricately-woven character dynamics and twists & turns that served a purpose in context. The media ate it up. It became the show to watch, picking up steam long after its premiere, and the show adapted to this too-soon ejaculation accordingly. It became a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The solid shell of season one is now haunted with the extravaganza of the (literally) explosive season two finale and melodramatics of season 3. It’s a show that needed to be caught up with, not a show that needs to play catch-up itself. Now, all we care about is the spectacle; all we care about is if a show can sustain the demographic’s boner.

The fact that everyone is so hung up on the shocker has even managed to tarnish the reputations of brilliant minimalist shows like True Detective and Looking.

True Detective’s first season was a character drama disguised and marketed as a crime/detective thriller. Its stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, played two characters that were infinitely more interesting than the murder case they tried to solve, and the show unfolded accordingly. People expecting a procedural were intensely disappointed to learn that the focal characters brought far too much weight to the table; Their stories—and how they reacted to the crimes and each other—were too complex to ignore. 

Because True Detective dared to make its central mystery of uncovering the murders the least important part of its identity pissed people off once the finale aired. They were unable to appreciate the philosophical gravitas or the beautiful intricacies of its characters and their connection to the world around them. People don’t see characters anymore, they see play pieces atop a board game; but, who wins in that situation?

Screen-Shot-2014-01-12-at-11.38.10-AMBecause Looking, a drama revolving around a group of gay friends in San Francisco, didn’t follow a traditional structure and because it dared to linger in silence where any other show would try to cram in flesh, blood, and bone, it became a detractor to the gay community in the eyes of the Internet Court. Twitter ripped it apart every week. According to them, it either probed too little into gay culture or became a stereotypical representation of the gay fantasy. It was never good enough for the contemporary audience. It was held to an unrealistic standard of upholding the image of the gay community when all it aimed to do was explore its characters without their sexuality as a defining factor. It never asked to be a champion of the gay community, nor did it beg for people to look upon it as a trailblazer for the queer identity. It was a show about people, but “real” people wanted it to be something traditional, but still expected it to be something different when it bored them. People looked for something to latch on to; the gay factor must define this show because people are too impatient to dig anywhere under the surface. It’s a dynamic show that defies classification, and that frustrates the casual audience to the point of not simply disinterest, but violent backlash.

What does this say about us? Can we no longer handle simplicity? Are our minds descending so deep into the quick-fix abyss that the only time we allow ourselves to come up for air is to take another hit from the shocker to carry us through to next week’s episode?

Networks are not the problem. They have to make money somehow. I’m troubled by rabid audiences consuming television like a drug, moving from high to high, plot twist to plot twist, shocker to shocker. It’s empty consumption, and it’s clear to see that TV shows like The Walking Dead and Homeland are evolving to fit this mold when they started out as completely different shows than what they are now. People live for the inclusivity versus the art of the show.

Sooner or later, you’ll come to expect it, and that’s when the shock will flatline. The high will fade, and Twitter will go silent. We can only hope it comes sooner rather than later, but where do you go from there once it happens?

Make no mistake: I cannot judge a show I’ve never seen. I can only react to the coverage a show receives and how that coverage reflects a much greater shift in the way TV is consumed and produced for our quick-fix culture to the point where I must endure a barrage of industry “coverage” that’s only bent on making me feel like an outsider for not stepping inside the loop.

That’s not something I can warm up to any time soon.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

In it for the Long Haul: 4 Things We Learned From Sunday’s Oscars

86th Annual Academy Awards - ShowDoubt is such a malicious feeling.

It liquifies, seeps through the tiniest of cracks, and willingly takes hold of our perspective and changes it in a heartbeat, and yet 2013’s awards season seemed to be defined by it.

From September through this past Sunday’s Oscars, it seemed as though the industry never reached a clearing of solace amidst the chaotic journey to the Academy Awards.

While Gravity, American Hustle, and sometimes even The Wolf of Wall Street seemed to lead the race at any given time, critical backlash or a guild surprise reintroduced doubt unto the emerging frontrunner’s wings before they could fully spread.

We had many frontrunners, but we ultimately had none.

12 Years a Slave seemed, on paper, to be the film with Best Picture written all over it, having fallen in line with the Academy’s diversifying image (publicizing increased minority membership while boasting its first black female president), which seemed to spell a clear path to victory for Steve McQueen’s powerful historical drama, though it became a sitting duck for critics, audiences, and Academy members who don’t like to be told what to do.

Instead, they fancy themselves as free-thinkers, seeing in the mirror rebels who buck the system instead of reenforcing it; they are, at times, both. Crash was a rebellious choice for Best Picture in 2004, though it fell in line with a general consensus to avoid the controversial. Films like The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo reaffirmed the awards season status quo as generally-appealing Best Picture winners.

What, then, inspired Sunday’s change of heart? 12 Years a Slave–a film about black characters, directed by a black man, with a black screenwriter and black stars–won Best Picture, breaking the longstanding streak of white filmmaker dominance.

There are four key things Sunday’s Oscar ceremony teaches us about the new breed of Academy that made what is, for them, an incredibly bold choice:

1) The Academy listens to outside sources, but are not dependent upon them

With Best Picture-sealed closure to complete its narrative, the 2013 awards season arc can certainly be traced across racially-motivated factors. The Academy’s diversifying membership (more women and minorities were invited last year than any other recent year) and changing leadership (Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first black female president in Academy history) mirrored a shift in the industry. A general push for more diversity onscreen and behind it led many prominent films starring (Gravity, 20 Feet From Stardom) and made by (12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station) minorities to critical and commercial success.

12 Years a Slave fit the bill at a time when racial tensions are ever-present in a nation that sees the split between rich and poor, black and white, and gay and straight widen across countless social and political battles day after day. People look to film as both a reflection of and comment on the society around them, and a film that deals with issues of race in a historical context is the greatest tool of all to both probe the majority and provoke thought across the board.

The Academy had many choices thrust in their face by critics circles and guilds alike. The NYFCC wanted so desperately to champion American Hustle across the finish line first, while the guilds seemed to back Gravity. Gravity winning Best Picture would have made sense statistically, given that 7 total Oscars (including two key Best Picture indicators–Best Director and Best Film Editing) were awarded to Cuaron’s masterpiece. In a split year (as the sages over at Awards Daily have consistently pointed out), the Best Director Oscar often goes to the more-respected film (in essence, the “better” of the two, for example: Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) whereas Best Picture is generally favored to win as a crowd-pleaser that pushes as little buttons as possible. This year, Gravity was the latter, though the typical awards procession was reversed. Steve McQueen went home with a Best Picture Oscar instead of one for his directing.

What prompted this? It’s nearly impossible to tell, aside from the fact that the Academy sought to forge the narrative that had been placed in front of them by audiences and industry tone. They consciously chose it.

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2) The Academy–sometimes–thinks as a singular entity

You hear it all the time when predicting the Oscars: “you can’t make generalizations. They’re not a collective brain with a singular train of thought.” This year, however, the opposite is most likely true.

12 Years a Slave was divisive, yet it was able to win on a preferential ballot, which many believed was impossible given its polarizing nature. To win on a preferential ballot, a film must acquire significant support from Academy members who rank the Best Picture nominees. Not only must it receive a substantial amount of #1 votes, it must also cover a fair share of #2 and #3 votes for the sake of the preferential redistribution process, which many thought was impossible given the film’s nature and general Academy tastes (many, in anonymous interviews with trade publications, labeled it as “torture porn” and “hard to watch.”).

All in all, the film seemed like either a #1 choice or a #9  choice; there was no middle ground. The film triumphed during a split year (which, for the aforementioned reasons, usually ends up following a certain pattern, with certain types of films winning in both the Director and Picture categories). This means that a conscious split in the votes was made by the majority as Gravity, for consistency and statistics’ sake, by all means should have taken Best Picture given its huge wins in other categories.

A majority of Oscar voters made a conscious decision to deviate from the pattern, indicating a more generalized, universal way of thinking for them than is usually assumed.

3) The Academy simply is changing

Recognizing a film like 12 Years a Slave is huge for an Academy that boasts an overwhelmingly white male voting base. 77% of Academy members are men, and 94% of them are white. This essentially means that 12 Years a Slave still had to appeal to a white audience and gain white support, aseven if the entire non-white sect made 12 Years a Slave their #1 choice–6% of the vote is not enough to win Best Picture.

Has the racial and gender majority been reflected in the Academy’s past choices? It’s very difficult to back it up with statistics, but various interviews with Academy members (like Michael Musto’s, published here) seems to indicate that things like the size of an actress’ boobs and how good they looked in a particular dress are key factors of the voting process for some. That would also, if we’re being general, describe why, on average, younger women tend to win acting awards alongside older men. Do they see the award as a prestigious boys’ club that men must work their way into, while throwing sexually-charged votes at young, pretty women in sexualized roles (seriously, look at the characters that have won women Oscars here)?

12 Years a Slave was, undoubtedly, objectified for its racial implications, but its presence in the Best Picture race is justifiable beyond the awards season narrative it perpetuates. It’s a finely-crafted film by a budding auteur, and contains as much aesthetic girth as it does thematically.

The Academy has, for the past few years, awarded the same types of films across the same genre with a very small racial angle. The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo are each dramatic–structurally simple–films with general appeal, universal plug-and-play plots, and push as little buttons as possible. 12 Years a Slave is an artful, graphic examination of American history that shies away from nothing. It forces itself off the page, forces us to consider a small part of the foundation of who we are as a nation, and begs us to see African-American history as more than just an old, flat, black-and-white photo within the pages of a textbook.

The film calls for attention on black filmmakers in an age where white men overwhelmingly dominate control over the camera. The film calls for attention on black stars and, therefore, increases a diverse image at the forefront of the industry. The film winning Best Picture indicates that the still predominantly-white, predominantly-male, predominantly-heterosexual Academy, who’d never awarded a film about slavery or “black” issues its top prize before, who’d only given 4% of total acting awards to black actors, was willing to amend its historical tendency to shy away from films about the minority (Brokeback Mountain, The Color Purple).

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4) The Oscars are still entirely relevant

Argo currently upholds the legacy of Best Picture winners from the bargain bit at most major retailers (don’t believe me? Find the nearest grocery store–you know, one that sells DVDs on that shoddy rack near the checkout–and survey the films offered. I’ve counted Argo on sale at approximately three different ones in the Pittsburgh area). The Artist, in a sad turn of reality mimicking art and the film’s aesthetic, has quietly faded away. Ratings continue to climb for ABC’s telecast, however, though there’s an uneven weight of relevance distributed disproportionately between the ceremony itself and the films winning awards.

Sunday’s show functioned almost entirely as a means to re-insert not only the telecast into contemporary pop culture–both literally (Ellen’s selfie begged for interactivity) and figuratively–but also to cement the Academy’s opinion as aware, timely, and forward-thinking.

Films like The King’s Speech, Crash, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire range from mediocre to hugely entertaining and heartfelt. They’re the type of film that’s pleasing and easy to sit through. They’re perfectly enjoyable, though they lack the gravitas and titanic statement that only a true “best of” pick should have. I’m not sure how long even the general public would have continued to take the Academy at least somewhat seriously if films like Argo continued to win Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave is a film with something to say. It doesn’t exist as a fantasy amidst a society plagued with struggle. It will not have the same impact in Norway as it does in the United States. It is specific to our culture and to our history, whereas the last three Best Picture winners are fantasies which either glorify and embellish American culture and heroism (Argo and The Artist) or have little to do with American culture at all (The King’s Speech).

It’s a film that’s both reflective and pensive of history and the present. If anything, it increases the presence of the minority voice and offers an alternative narrative to the ones dominated by white screenwriters and white actors. It’s a film that resonates now as a genuinely fantastic work of art, but will also establish a legacy that legitimizes the Academy’s taste as in-line with contemporary social and political sentiments.

It’s a film that, to put it shortly, is in it for the long haul.

What, then, do the Oscars mean to us as a society, if anything at all? It’s a self-congratulating, self-made cycle of greatness, but it’s become a pedestal of visibility in an industry that’s teetering on the edge of a revolution for greater inclusion of minorities across the board.

Is it ok to doubt the relevance of the Oscars? To doubt the impact they have on American art and culture? To deny that, even on the smallest level, art can help someone envision a platform for themselves they never thought possible?

This year, the Academy looked doubt in the face, harnessed it, and talked all of us into certainty for the future.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

Post-Ripley Feminism in “Getaway”: How An Awful Film Can Matter

Selena-Gomez-The-Getaway

How do you make a terrible film, actress, and director infinitely more interesting?

Is it possible? Is it wise to use a terrible film to highlight discussion of gender politics in Hollywood?

These questions might never find answers, but a good place to start looking is in what we see onscreen and recognize first: The human body; the actress herself.

The majority of her lines amount to nothing more than fearful ejaculations. No doubt, her budding image as a young sex symbol—meant to inspire ejaculations of a different kind—is responsible for her landing the part in the first place. She’s pretty. She’s popular. She’s modestly talented. She epitomizes everything that makes celebrity such a shallow, superficial affair on all fronts. She’s Selena Gomez, and she stars in Getaway, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, due for release this Friday.

It was inevitable that a film helmed by the same man who gave us Dungeons & Dragons would be as terrible as it sounds on paper: a woman is kidnapped and her husband, Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke), is forced to indulge a crafty criminal mastermind (Jon Voight) and his diabolical wishes to retrieve her. “The Voice,” as Voight’s character is billed, outfits a car with cameras and microphones and forces Magna to steal it, coaching his victim through a series of illegal tasks with the goal of wreaking enough havoc on the city of Sofia, Bulgaria to distract police from a bank heist.

Courtney Solomon, the captain of this ill-fated shit-ship, hasn’t directed a film in nearly eight years, and it certainly shows. From the sloppy editing to the pitiful narrative logic, the film borders on incoherence unlike any other film I’ve seen in its final cut phase. It isn’t until Gomez’s character (known only as “The Kid”) enters the picture that the film takes on a slightly more enjoyable tone thanks (in part) to the unintentional hilarity of her casting. During my screening, the audience erupted with laughter as Gomez appears onscreen for the first time—clad in “tough girl” attire including a baseball cap and hood—pointing a gun into the car of Hawke’s character and demanding that he “get the fuck out.” She might as well have been a plush toy, and the gun a lollipop. Note to future filmmakers: babyface and intimidation aren’t synonymous.

GETAWAY

It turns out that the car Magna drives in fact belongs to The Kid. One thing leads to another, and we’re forced to endure 90 minutes of painstakingly pathetic excuses for chase scenes as Selena Gomez frantically screams in the passenger seat.

As annoying as Gomez is as a person, The Kid as a character is a rare highpoint in a murky sea of inadequacy, both in terms of the film and the industry that produced it. For starters:

A)     She’s young, and isn’t a sex object

In fact, as sexual as the real-life image of Selena Gomez is, she’s clothed in a bulky hoodie for the majority of the film. Usually roles like this are reserved for older actresses, ones that Hollywood deems as incapable of sexual appeal once they hit 40. But, the efforts undergone to desexualize The Kid are extensive. Her position in relation to Hawke’s character is merely coincidental and not founded on sexual attraction. They’re two people on an even playing field. He is married, and she’s just along for the ride. There’s never a moment where Magna’s determination to get to his wife is broken. The film doesn’t feel the need to justify her presence in relation to a male’s. After all, she actively pursues a male for reasons other than to capture his penis and use it to fulfill a part of her that’s missing; the girl just wants her car back, and uses a gun to try it. She sees herself on an even playing field, stepping to the much bigger Magna, and doesn’t seem like she’s trying to prove anything. Merely existing.

B)      She’s nobody’s property

Of course, The Kid is her father’s daughter.  But, as most children tend to be, they are their parents’ children. Gender, at least here, is irrelevant. She reveals that her dad owns numerous banks throughout the country, and that the car (a souped-up Mustang) was a gift for her 16th birthday. Here, we could have easily lost The Kid to a different kind of sexual marginalizing. She could have readily fallen into the “Daddy’s girl” category which defines so many teen girls in contemporary films. However, we never even meet her father throughout the film’s run. She mentions it once, and only again when the heist is revealed to be taking place at one of her father’s banks. In fact, she actually uses her knowledge of the intricate inner-workings of the bank system to foil The Voice’s plans. It’s Magna, in this situation, who is at the mercy of another man using a woman to bait him to do his bidding. For once we see a woman in a position of power (The Kid, of course, not the idiot who got herself kidnapped) and the male relegated to a one-note, cold-staring, heart-aching quest to retrieve the vagina he feels is rightfully his. As The Kid’s cunning shines through in key scenes, we also being to realize that:

C)      She’s not stupid

If she isn’t a sex object, isn’t someone’s girlfriend, isn’t at the mercy of her father, and isn’t conventionally “unattractive,” she has to have the intelligence of a paperweight, right? Wrong. We’re given little information about her home life, with the film only giving us enough information to satisfy our curiosity’s as to why she belongs in the film in the first place. She has a powerful father, but he remains unseen for the film’s entirety. He has money, but she doesn’t talk about spending it frivolously. She shows huge interest in computers and technology when confronted with the cameras-in-the-car-so-he’s-watching-us thing, prompting Magna to question her ability to handle things like hacking and rewiring. “Oh, a girl likes cars and computers. How butch. This is the 21st Century, you should try joining it,” she tells him, also speaking directly to the audience as we understand her as a smart, talented woman spitting in the face of so many other characters who would have just sat back and screamed the entire time while forming a sort of Stockholm Syndrome-esque attraction to the man driving the car.

The Kid is absolutely that girl, though, in a select few scenes. There must be pages of the script where The Kid’s only lines are things like “Slow down!” *screams* “Stop!” and “We’re going to die!”, but it’s easy to give her a pass because of what she represents as a character written with what seems to be feminist inspiration. It’s sad that female characters like this exist so rarely in these types of mainstream films that they have to be dissected in such a manner. This case is particularly interesting because The Kid is in a film that, by all means, no one should care about. It’s loud, it’s silly, and it’s stupid, and Solomon has to understand that he’s not taken seriously as a filmmaker given his lousy track record both directing and producing. The fact that The Kid is treated almost as an afterthought—and still exists free of the tropes usually plaguing contemporary female characters—is a true testament to how the filmmakers view women, and how women should be represented in film.

It’s a shame that the film is so terrible, and that the only other female character is such a pathetic excuse for a role, but her victimized status is balanced by a strong female character who ultimately becomes the most interesting, varied, and dynamic person throughout the film.

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" - opens October 4th

Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” – opens October 4th

2013 has proven to be an amazing year for women in Hollywood. Sandra Bullock is earning rave reviews for her film-carrying performance in Gravity, Vera Farmiga similarly escaped sexual objectification and male-dependent status in The Conjuring, and the “Bridesmaids Effect” continues to work its magic as female-driven comedies like Identity Thief, The Heat, and The To-Do List make exponentially more than they cost to produce, while male-driven and targeted films with hefty price tags continue to sink.

The best way to think about Getaway, however terrible it might be, is to focus on these characters that are all interchangeable with the opposite gender. The Kid could have easily been a male with minimal script restructuring. As Brent and his wife could just as easily switched roles. It’s telling because the only other film that automatically pops into my mind when talking about interchangeable parts is Alien, which contains a script that was intentionally written so that each of the characters could be played by a man or a woman. The film doesn’t get any better, but this single element has given me more to talk about in terms of gender politics in Hollywood than Iron Man or The Lone Ranger.

While Getaway is lightyears away from the quality of Alien, at least we can credit Solomon for allowing Ripley to live on in the smallest of ways all these 34 years later.

What Is PopSmut? Well, Glad You Asked…

PopSmut is the product of my passion. After years of blindly following anything and everything that has to do with pop, celebrity, and socio-artistic culture, I decided it was finally time to create a space where I could share my opinion on whatever it is that’s currently fascinating me in the entertainment world. PopSmut rapes and pillages fashion, film, pop culture, and music; from news to celebrity interviews to generally cutting up on whatever I see fit, PopSmut takes my dirty fascination with the artistic medium of entertainment and publicly exposes it.

To art I’m bound forever.

Welcome to my dirty little pleasure. This is PopSmut.

What to Look For In the Future:

– Celebrity Interviews with Lauren Utter + Gabrielle Kniery (America’s Next Top Model), Alex Young (Recording Artist), Baby Tap (Recording Artist) and Jenn Hoffman (Celebrity Photographer)

– Film, Music, and Television Reviews

– Personal Artwork/Photography

– General Perspectives on Pop Culture, Entertainment, Art, and Fashion