Friday, April 23, 2010

Popcorn Directors vs. Great Directors



This article is dedicated to Jarrett Lee Conaway, a graduate of the University of Virginia and the graduate film school program at the University of Southern California (yes the program that’s really hard to get into). May you become a director who makes GREAT popcorn movies.

There is a debate among those who consider themselves to be students of cinema. The debate is whether it is more important to have directors who make big-budget entertaining films (aka popcorn movies) or directors who make great dramatic films on a small budget (the “great” directors). Recently, there was a film made that is called “Great Directors” which is about directors who have made critically acclaimed films that are powerful, but not aimed at reaching a large audience. Usually the directors who make low-budget dramatic films believe that the makers are big-budget popcorn movies are not talented. In the film community, it is not a secret that big budget directors like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner are not respected. I have decided that it is time for me to play referee between the two sides and state where I believe that the film industry should go.

In 1997, the American Film Institute created a list of the 100 Best Films. At the top of that list was Citizen Kane. At the time, there were many of the films on the list that I had never heard of. What is Citizen Kane? Is it really that great? I had to find out. I started renting film after film from the list. I still have not seen everything on the list, but I have seen a majority of the films (79 out of 100). Seeing these films gave me the opportunity to see films that were excellent in many ways. Some of them were excellent big budget films. Others were very emotionally powerful. What many of these films had in common was that they were big budget films that were both crowd and critic favorites. Films like Forrest Gump earned the most money in their years of release and won Best Picture.

If I had to put myself in one camp, I would align myself with the films by the great directors over the popcorn directors for one reason, I’m looking for films that really grab my emotions and make me think. My favorite films of the 2000-2009 decade were No Country For Old Men, Red (2008), and Precious. To me, those films were powerful. Not only were they entertaining, but showed the good and bad of society and allowed the audience to see characters that were well developed. I love when a film makes me think about the human experiences in which the conflicts are more detailed than who plays the good and bad guys. The film The Godfather is a great example. The characters in the film are in the mafia. They are criminals. But the film is not about how evil they are. It is really about a family and how one son who was not in the family business had to join for the protection of his father. The character of Michael Corleone is not an evil person, but circumstances lead him into a life of crime and murder. The film is also about his father, who is not an evil man, but must live with the choices that he has made by entering the mafia and allowing his sons to be a part of his business.

The Godfather is one of those films that is respected by mainstream audiences and by critics. Films like The Godfather, Ordinary People, Lawrence of Arabia, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are the reason why I love films with a passion. Those films were not complicated, were accepted by mainstream audiences, by critics, and each of them won Best Picture.

But in the category of great films by great directors, there are a lot of great films that the majority of audiences will have never heard of, but would love if they had seen them. As someone who has turned to different films, I can recommend Aguirre- The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Withnail & I, and many others. When I was in college, I recommended that two students rent Withnail & I. One of them after seeing it said to me “I am Withnail” because he noticed how much he was like the Withnail character. They would have never seen the film without my recommendation. There are powerful films that most audiences have never heard of, but would enjoy had the audiences seen the films. Here’s one recommendation. See the film All That Heaven Allows which is about a younger man dating a woman who is between ten and twenty years older than he is. It is a great movie. But then I want you to rent Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, which is a remake of the film. Instead of being simply a film about the woman being older than the man, she is white (assumed Christian) and he has dark skin and is Muslim. This film is way more powerful to see the differences taken to a higher level than simply age.

While I love films that have extremely compelling stories and are critically acclaimed, I’m also human and love a film that is pure, dumb entertainment. Movies like Superbad, Borat, and Bruno do not touch my heart. I don’t feel that I’ve examined society by seeing them. I don’t take them serious and I’m not looking for artistic achievement from them. What I qA looking for are movies that would make me laugh, and those three films did a great job making me do so. When I see the fourth Shrek movie, I don’t need a touching story about how an ugly ogre will be accepted by society. I need the film to make me laugh. When I see Russell Crowe in the new version of Robin Hood, I want to see some great action.

Sometimes the audience wants a film to simply satisfy their hearts, not their heads. To watch a movie for laughs, action, or romance, the audience is looking to fulfill their emotions. The desire for humor can be satisfied with a great comedy. The desire for adventure can be satisfied with a great action movie. The desire for romance can be satisfied with a movie about two people falling in love. These are emotions that people feel and they know exactly what they want to get from their movies. The stories do not have to be complicated. The characters do not have to be well developed. The movies can be completely predictable as long as they give the audience what the audience actually wants.

I do not believe that the film industry can survive with only low budget powerful films. Even if the screenplays are better and the films have high critical ratings, not everyone wants to see powerful films all of the time. Sometimes people come home after a long day at work and they watch television for entertainment. If the only television options were shows on the History Channel, Discovery, and low-budget productions of famous plays from Broadway, then the audiences would not be satisfied. Sometimes people just want to be entertained and not have to think about issues. Society needs big budget films as much as it needs low budget dramas. In both cases, audiences need to have their desires satisfied.

I think the logical conclusion is that the film industry should make more films that have a big budget but the films should be both successful at the box office and with film critics. We don’t need every big budget film to be as bad as Transformers 2. If an Oscar-winning screenwriter worked with Michael Bay, then Bay’s next movie could be another big budget action movie, but have better developed characters and a decent plot. We as audience members have the right to ask for Michael Bay to improve the dialogue and character development in his movies. The low budget dramas will continue to be made, but hopefully some of those directors will get the attention that can help them get the financing to make great films with a bigger budget and more famous actors and actresses.
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