Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading Literary Classics, Again

Time and again I have been struck by the difference between people how are supposed to read literary classics, and the far less inspiring way they actually experience them--a combination of unthinking respect for their Authority, and equally unthinking boredom with the actual stuff of them.

As it happens, this is not a new situation at all.

Oscar Wilde summed up the situation almost one and a quarter centuries ago in similar terms, when he remarked that:
In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them.
Certainly where Shakespeare is concerned, it seemed to him "quite obvious that the public really see neither the beauties nor the defects of his plays."

Moreover, he took the view that this tendency "does a great deal of harm," the public "mak[ing] use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities."

Some decades after, H.G. Wells observed in The Outline of History that it was "a pity that the ridiculous extravagances of scholastic admirers . . . speak of [Homer's Iliad and Odyssey] as supreme and unapproachable and so forth," for these attitudes had left the general reader's response to these worthwhile works an "awe-stricken neglect."

And so it went with every other writer enjoying a company of "scholastic admirers" prone to "ridiculous extravagances" of this sort, who insured that that part of the public which did read fiction gave their attention to figures like E. Phillips Oppenheim instead. So it still goes, long after Oppenheim himself became obscure, while his heirs advertise their novels on television.

Incidentally, I expect to have more to say on Wells' Outline in upcoming posts.

Selling Theater Tickets in a Post-Netflix Era

The entertainment press is, like the rest of the press, not famous for encouraging a long-term perspective. Slight ups and downs in the mark get trumpeted as indications of endless boom times to come, or the End of Everything, when in the United States, at least, the numbers have remained fairly constant: 4-5 tickets sold per capita, per year, for the past several decades.

Still, that does not rule out the possibility of deeper and more worrying changes for the business, like the apparently decreasing tendency of the younger age cohorts to go to the theater. To go by the statistics routinely offered up on BoxOfficeGuru, for the young moviegoing (rather than mere movie-watching) is less and less a casual activity during a weekend outing, and more and more a deliberate decision--which seems understandable given that they are as a rule more cash-strapped, less mobile and more accustomed to alternatives for accessing content than older cohorts, even as all demographic categories seem to be affected by these trends.1

The result is that while it has always been the case that most movies lose money, leaving the industry dependent on a comparatively small number of big moneymakers, a "regular" movie has even less chance than before. A film simply has to offer something on the big screen that will make buying a ticket rather than waiting and seeing it on the small screen worthwhile. The most obvious way is sheer visual impact--hence, the accent on blockbuster-style spectacle, supplemented with the punch of IMAX and 3-D.

The other is making a film's release feel like an event, something the viewer wants to experience not in two months, but right NOW along with "everyone" else. Of course, there is hype, but it only goes so far when everyone does it, and those charged with generating the hype need something to work with--the very reason for the pressure on would-be filmmakers to produce "high-concept" work. Basing a film on a property which already has a large and interested following is the most obvious strategy--hence the endless sequels, spin-offs and remakes, as well as the tendency for new work to come from adaptations of already popular properties rather than original scripts. (The phenomenon is not limited to tentpoles: Twilight was not an action-packed CGI-fest, but its release was certainly received as an event by fans of the book.2)

Still, there are limits to the "event" strategy. If every movie is an event, then no movie is an event, especially if all the movies out there look alike anyway--a gripe that has become fairly routine, though it may be increasingly plausible. And particular franchises can be worked to diminishing returns in this as in other ways. The Spiderman reboot failed to stir up real excitement back in 2012, and the sequel suffered accordingly this summer, setting the tone for a season full of movies that large parts of the audience felt they could afford to miss.

Nonetheless, for all the disappointments of the past few months, Hollywood, buoyed by all the surcharges and foreign receipts, looks a long way from the kind of crisis that would require it to seriously alter its way of doing business.

1. Their decreased propensity to drive has often been noted; and it should be remembered that this is not a reflection of improved public transport, the reverse likely being the case given post-2008 cuts to public services.
2. It seems, too, that movie running times reflect similar pressures. The 90 minute film seems largely a thing of the past, just about everything seeming to be a two-and-a-half hour epic, intended to make the viewer feel they got something they wouldn't just watching a TV show at home. And of course, when the movie's main offering is spectacle, the longer running time lets it serve up more of this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie

The dominance of the effects-powered science fiction and fantasy spectacle, and with it, the "summer tentpole," is typically traced back to the mid-1970s, and films like Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and Richard Donner's Superman (1978), since which time films of the type have typically topped the box office.

Yet, their dominance of the marketplace has never been so complete as it is now. Going back over the lists of releases as recently as the 1980s, one struggled to find a handful of such films in any given year. Now in a typical summer, most weeks see a new release of the type (or even two), while a good many other such films are sprinkled around the rest of the calendar, giving the impression that it's summer all year long.

In the process they have crowded out other types of films, among them other styles of action film which had managed to flourish even in the post-Star Wars age, like the paramilitary action movie, and with it, the R-rated action movie in general (in contrast with the typically PG/PG-13-rated Spielberg-Lucas-superhero spectacles).1 During the '80s, and even much of the '90s, various Schwarzenegger and Stallone vehicles (like 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1993's Cliffhanger, and 1994's True Lies), the first three films of both the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises (1987-1995), and assorted Die Hard imitators (1994's Speed, 1996's The Rock, 1997's Air Force One), as well as a slew of science fiction films made in similar style (like 1986's Aliens, 1990's Total Recall and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day), were all among their year's top ten hits.2

The annual top twenty during these years also included such hits as 1982's First Blood, 1986's Cobra, 1987's Predator and Robocop, 1988's Rambo III, 1989's Tango & Cash, 1992's Under Siege and Patriot Games, 1993's Demolition Man, 1994's The Specialist, 1996's Broken Arrow and Eraser, 1997's Con Air and 1998's Lethal Weapon 4. Two other Schwarzenegger films widely seen as prime examples of the '80s action movie, 1984's Terminator and 1985's Commando, also came very close (making the twenty-first and twenty-fifth spots in their years, respectively).

The preponderance of these kinds of films would seem even more overwhelming if one also counted in related films like Eddie Murphy's '80s-era action-comedies (1982's 48 Hrs., and the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies in 1984 and 1987, all of which were top ten hits, with the original BHC the top earner of '84), or the period cop film The Untouchables (the sixth highest grosser of 1987).2

In fact, it could be argued that where the action genre was concerned, they were predominant, big-screen action almost synonymous with the words "People under 17 years may only be admitted if accompanied by a parent or guardian." Still, even before the end of the '80s the relationship shifted into reverse, as the shoot 'em ups characteristic of the decade became creatively exhausted and decreasingly relevant, while improving CGI and the superhero boom boosted the science fiction and fantasy epics. In succeeding years the blazing machine guns gave way to wire work and computer-based superheroic feats, and the mayhem became at once larger in scale and edited in quicker-cutting fashion, leaving less opportunity or reason to linger on gory details, while the subject matter (so often drawn from the pages of DC and Marvel) made a lighter tone appear more appropriate. The result was action that was at once more spectacular and nearly antiseptic.3 Meanwhile, film in general, the action movie included, became prone to downplay that other major reason to exclude the under-17 crowd, sexuality (such that one writer recently remarked the sexless lives of superheroes). Under such circumstances, the shift away from the "rougher stuff" was natural enough, and encouraged by the risk attendant on swelling budgets.

In hindsight, The Matrix (1999) seems particularly representative of the transition, in its blend of withering machine gun fire and superheroics (Neo even flies), and its launch of the last R-rated action franchise to meet with really massive commercial success. After its debut fifteen years ago, new R-rated action movies tended simply to continue older franchises (like Bad Boys and Terminator in 2003, Rambo in 2008), often sold on nostalgia even when that was not the case (like 2010's The Expendables), and tended to be comparatively marginal within the marketplace.4 The highest-grossing such film last year, Olympus Has Fallen, fell short of the $100 million mark to wind up only the thirty-sixth highest-earning film of its year--a long way down from the prominence of comparable movies a quarter of a century ago. Unsurprisingly, even traditionally R-rated franchises have tended to sanitize their content in pursuit of a more lucrative PG-13 rating (as Alien, Die Hard and Terminator did in the 2000s, as has been the case with the Total Recall and Robocop remakes, and now even the third installment of The Expendables).5

In short, like the sex and nudity once a regular feature of such movies, bloody violence, when not presented as part of Serious Drama (like the based-on-a-true-story terrorism-themed films in which Navy SEALs are now apt to make appearances), tends to be left to lower-budgeted fare, and one supposes, to premium cable drama like Game of Thrones, which along with the rest of the post-'90s explosion of means for accessing entertainment, saves fans a trip to the theater.

1. One might include under the heading of Spielberg-space-superheroes such things as the Star Trek franchise (first-class hits through the fourth film) and the succession of Indiana Jones imitations seen during the decade (the biggest success among which was 1984's Romancing the Stone).
2. Indeed, four of the top twenty movies of 1987 were police-centered action movies (The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon) or action-comedies (Beverly Hills Cop II, Stakeout)--even without including the science fiction film Robocop, which also made the year's top twenty.
3. Excepting the Blade franchise (1998, 2002, 2004), launched in a time when comic book movies were often lower-budgeted and less commercially ambitious, R-rated superhero movies have tended to perform modestly at best. The most successful of these, 2008's Wanted, is only #34 on BoxOfficeMojo's list of superhero films.
4. One area that has been something of an exception is the battle-heavy historical epic, the R-rated Gladiator (the #4 hit of 2000), Troy (#13 in 2004) and 300 (#10 in 2007) all doing good business, but this remains a small and fickle part of the market, especially in the United States. Another, more modest area of success is action-horror, the Resident Evil (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012) and Underworld (2003, 2006, 2009, 2012) films getting by on smaller budgets and lower grosses.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Learning History From Anime

Time and again I have been struck by the paucity of English-language writing on a major historical subject. Large patches of German history, for instance, like the Peasants' War, or the 1918 Revolution, or the history of the Federal Republic. And while World War II can seem the most thoroughly exhausted of historical subjects, very little seems to have been written about the Italian armed forces' performance and role in that conflict.

No less surprising is the scarcity of historiography about Japan. The obsessive interest in the country in the United States during the '80s does not seem to have extended to an interest in the country's history--a testament to the superficiality of that interest, and of the "expertise" on the country so highly touted at the time. Unsurprisingly, the American anime fan who finds themselves intrigued by a subject like the Warring States period, or the Bakumatsu era, who would like to know more about the career of Oda Nobunaga, or what the Shinsengumi were really like, has very few sources to which they can turn.1

That being the case with Japan, with its prominent place in world affairs during the last century, one can only imagine the scarcity of substantive information about other, less-prominent, less-studied societies--and what weak stuff must pass for expertise on their cultures.

Such is the distance between hype and reality in this "information age."

Monday, August 11, 2014

The East Asian Box Office: The Entertainment Press Gets Its Say

I have often remarked here on the trend in the hugely important markets of East Asia (China is the world's second-biggest, Japan's the third) toward the consumption of more domestically produced product, and fewer Hollywood movies.

My thoughts were a reaction to the films I saw topping the box office in China, Japan and South Korea in the past decade, but a more systematic examination only supports that conclusion, as an article in Film Business Asia showed last May. Indeed, the article notes that in 2013 "one hundred films from East Asia made more than US$10 million at their local box office," securing "a combined box office of US$3.41 billion."

Mark Schilling in his article "Why Hollywood No Longer Dominates Japan's Box Office" notes that the market share of foreign films in Japan fell from 67 percent a decade earlier to roughly half that (34 percent) by 2013--which also marked the fifth straight year in which they failed to exceed a fifty-percent share of the market.

These are impressive chunks of not just the local market to which Hollywood has paid so much attention in recent years, but the whole world market.

Of course, even if Chinese, Japanese and South Korean moviegoers are less apt to choose Hollywood, some American movies still do massive business in this region. Disney's Frozen was a megahit, pulling in close to a quarter of a billion dollars in Japan alone, and another $125 million in China and South Korea. The preceding year, Monsters University was a colossal success, while the comedy Ted was also a hit.

Still, it is increasingly being recognized that audiences are more selective regarding the American films they do. Schilling's thought, after noting the big business those American films did, is that Disney-style family films can still do well here, and that even if Ted is not exactly that, "Japanese audiences love cute, even if they get their cute from a vulgar, substance-abusing animated bear."

By contrast, they're not much for "dark and depressing"--the American entertainment industry's adoration of "dark and gritty" perhaps costing it in this part of the world.

On the Success of Game of Thrones

By the end of its fourth season, Game of Thrones became the most watched show on HBO ever.

More watched, even, than the storied Sopranos.

That the show would meet with much success at all once seemed a longshot.

And yet, in hindsight, it seems perfectly natural.

Game of Thrones succeeded as a fast, flashy, sex-and-violence-laden soap opera. And where soap opera is concerned, it is tough to beat a feudal setting.

The simple fact of the matter is that in today's world power is vested less in individuals than in large organizations, while office and office-holder are separate, and likely the products of a culture of white-collar organization men taught to always seem agreeable and "speak to the well-blunted point." Different kinds of power--public and private, economic, political and military--are vested in altogether different organizations. It all makes power diffuse, and vague, and impersonal, and the players rather self-important cogs in just one of many wheels, for all their flattering by worshipful journalists.

By contrast, in the Game, personal power is often highly concentrated and multidimensional, so that individual players like Tywin Lannister (Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West, King's Hand, creditor to the throne) weigh very heavily in the scales--so much so that they don't have to worry about hiding bodies when violence becomes their preferred recourse. At the same time the drama of politics and war and wealth is tightly bound up with family drama, with people's love lives, in a way they never could be in the modern world (an incestuous relationship, a family vendetta, sufficient spark to set alight the ever-rickety feudal structure). And it is all attended by pre-modern pageantry next to which even the most lavish corporate function must pale (though admittedly, the TV production never quite does Martin's conception of these justice).

To put it another way, a couple of lawyers trying to do each other out of a partnership in their law firm, suburban adulteries, and even the tabloid scandals of the glamorous seem a very small thing next to the drama of the Lannisters and Starks.

Does this mean American television is about to unleash a torrent of feudal-set soap operas on us?

Perhaps. But it seems more likely to remain confined to channels like the CW (already invested in this area with Reign), and historical drama-minded cable networks like the History Channel (offering up Vikings) than the American Big Four, perhaps not totally averse to flirting with the form but much more likely to stick with their lawyers and suburban adulteries and such over the long run.

The Decline of the R-Rated Movie

Through the '80s and '90s, a typical year saw three R-rated films in the year's top ten earners at the American box office, and eight in the top twenty.1

During the 2000s that number dropped sharply, so that the average was more like one of the top ten, and three of the top twenty in any given year were R-rated. Since 2010, R-rated movies have been even rarer than that in the upper ranks.

What happened?

Much of it would seem to be a reflection of the transformation of the action movie during these decades, from R-rated shoot 'em ups to PG-13 rated CGI spectacles about superheroes. Along with the even more complete disappearance of the sex-themed blockbuster, this translated to a major change in the market. Today's R-rated successes, by and large, are comedies like last year's The Heat (#15), We're The Millers (#16) and Identity Thief (#20), horror films like The Conjuring (#19), and Serious Adult Dramas like American Hustle (#17)--lower-budgeted and lower-grossing fare for the most part.

1. The average was actually 3.1 of the top 10 and 7.8 of the top 20 in the years 1980-1989; and 2.9 of the top 10 and 7.6 of the top 20 in the years 1990-1999. By contrast, the number was 1 of the top 10 and 2.9 of the top 20 in 2000-2009; and 0.5 of the top 10, and 3 of the top 20, in 2010-2013. All calculations based on data from BoxOfficeMojo.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the Differences Between Japanese and Western RPGs

Gamers have often held the view that Japanese and Western--e.g. American--role-playing games tend to differ significantly in style. (Indeed, the Wikipedia article on role-playing video games devotes a significant amount of space to the subject.)

Setting aside the aesthetic differences (character design and the like), the conventional view seems to hold that Japanese games emphasize story and character and accessible gameplay, while American games stress more complex gaming. Accordingly Japanese games will give us well-defined characters pursuing linear quests, while American games will gives us minutely customizable characters free to roam sandbox worlds at will. The Japanese game is more likely to offer turn-based play than its American counterpart. And so on.

One can, of course, push the generalization too far. These are, after all, tendencies. Exceptions have always existed, and the line has long since been blurred by the cross-fertilization and outright imitation of past decades. Still, the generalization has some value, obvious in a comparison of, for instance, the Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) and Elder Scroll franchises, and the responses they have elicited in North America.

Interestingly, few seem to have tried to offer an explanation for the difference. But it has occurred to me that one factor may be the personal backgrounds of the pioneers of Japanese and American gaming. Where the latter just about all seem to have been computer scientists, many of the Japanese pioneers, like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, came to the industry from fields outside computing, and often from the arts. (Kojima was interesting in writing and film, while Miyamoto had a degree in industrial design.)

It does not seem improbable that this subjected the cultures of these industries to differing influences, with the artists looking to draw players into a compelling story, while the engineers esteem technical intricacy and "features."

Considering the possibility I remember the old story about the first commercially sold video game, 1971's Computer Space, the modest sales of which were attributed to its complexity--co-creator Nolan Bushnell saying in hindsight that whereas all his engineer friends "loved it," the game was "a little too complicated for the guy with the beer in the bar." Obviously American video gaming has since gone on to popular success, but the engineers still seem to prevail over the artists to a degree not seen across the Pacific--with implications not just for the RPG, but the visual novel genre (much more prominent in Japan than in the West), and the fact that it was Japan's Nintendo, and not an American company, which offered up the user-friendly Wii.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

What is a Novel?

When I started taking an interest in literature, I naturally found myself wondering just what made a novel, a novel.

Certainly there is a consensus that a novel is a work of prose fiction. It seems fair to argue that the audience is generally expected to read them privately--rather than hear them publicly recited or performed like epic poems, or plays. It also seems plausible to contend that it has tended to stress the individual, and interiority, to a greater degree than those other, older forms--evident in such things as the time they spend inside their protagonists' heads.

Nonetheless, one can say that this generally describes the fiction we read today, and that one has to look to something else to distinguish it from, for instance, a short story. One obvious criterion is length, the short story filling a few pages, the novel a book (with the minimum estimates falling in the 40-50,000 word range).

However, there are qualitative differences as well as quantitative ones. One expects greater breadth and depth, and more detail, in a novel than in a short story--producing an "epic depiction of life," a world on the page.2

Certainly those novels esteemed as great literature tend to offer this. I find myself thinking, for instance, of writers like Hugo or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. In a much more idiosyncratic way, even a postmodern like Vonnegut or Pynchon goes for the same thing.

In fairness, narrowly "genre" works are less likely to do this. A romance or a thriller, for instance, may offer this--but many of them, judged by this standard, give the impression of a novella, or even a short story, extended to the length of a book. Ironically, at a time when books are running rather longer than they used to, I wonder at times if this is not the direction in which a good deal of popular fiction is tending.

1. The Science Fiction Writers of America, for instance, uses the 40,000 word figure in determining what is eligible for the "novella" category of the Nebula Awards.
2. Where does the novella fit in, one might wonder? Lengthwise it's an intermediate form, which offers the detailing of a novel, but just the scope of a short story.

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