July 10th, 2013
It’s a tragedy because the movie should be more effective than it is. But it isn’t, in part because the movie industry is collapsing and Americans are losing interest in history. As a result, storytelling is more challenging than ever. Sadly, “Kon Tiki” illustrates this.
KON TIKI: To quote an old lawyer friend of mine who has been giving my films the exact same review for over twenty years now, “Nice film, but needs more boobs.”
Movies are dying, Americans are losing interest in history, and the Oscar-nominated movie, “Kon Tiki,” is the sad victim of it.
I just saw the movie at a theater. I wanted to love it. I loved the original story as a kid and devoured the book by Thor Heyerdahl. Not only did the movie get an Oscar nomination and have a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes (which has to just be a sentimental show of support), it also made $21 million overseas. So you would have thought it would blow you away.
But … it just isn’t very good. At least not in today’s world of vacuous movies. It means well. It has some kinda cool effects shots. It clearly had a big budget. But it was mostly pretty dull and plodding, despite the beautiful settings and tanned aryan hunks. It’s sooo hard to make a truly good movie these days. It really is.
Here’s the real problem, which most people really don’t want to think about: audiences have changed. To quote the Chinese herbalist a friend of my has been visiting for help in dealing with her cancer treatments, the effect is, “coom-a-lative.” It really is.
Audiences of the 1970’s and 80’s marveled at epic movies like “Out of Africa,” and “The Last Emperor,” and all the great World War II movies. But those people hadn’t had literally thousands of movies crammed into their eyeballs since birth. There was no way to even do it back then — there was no video, no Netflix, hardly even movies on planes. You couldn’t force feed yourself movies even if you had wanted to.
But today … it’s coom-a-lative. People have just seen it all, pretty much. And that’s partly what you feel like with “Kon Tiki” — you can’t do anything with sharks in a movie any more without feeling like you’re back in, “Jaws.” Which is part of this movie — several shark scenes where you can almost feel the composer creating the music score, starting to slip into the ominous Jaws theme, then going, whoops, and pulling out of it so they don’t get sued.
Then they have a scene trying to convey the wonder of bioluminescent creatures at night (and I don’t know what they hell they showed — it looked like four gargantuan phosphorescent sea monkeys), but … if you’ve seen “Avatar,” you’ve seen far more stunning bioluminescent creatures — who cares if theirs are fake while the Kon Tiki ones are real — it’s the movies — “this really happened” counts for very little these days in a world where Ben Affleck wins an Oscar for making a movie, “in the spirit of the truth.”
And the stakes … it’s just too intellectual for today’s audiences. The crew takes a 5000 mile ocean journey just to show it could have happened long ago by the ancient mariners. But the movie didn’t build up the significance of this feat enough to make the celebrations logical. It’s like watching a bunch of guys hugging each other because they solved a math equation. Okay … and why was that equation important? The movie falls short on just basic rules of storytelling.
I guess worst of all, which I saw noted by a few reviewers, there wasn’t much character development — it ends up being just a bunch of white blond dudes at sea trying to prove a point. You hardly get to know who they are other than Thor and his fat friend who is the standard guy who panics over everything.
And lastly, sadly, there was a good metaphysical context which they alluded to but didn’t really use as the main set up, which was the idea of this idealistic journey taken just a few years after World War II where even though the good guys won the war, the entire planet was left with an inescapable ominousness from the atomic bombs. People were deeply disturbed. The Kon Tiki voyage was a refreshing bit of idealistic distraction that had almost a nostalgic element to it, hinting of earlier, more innocent times. The movie should have opened with the atomic bombings to set the atmosphere (so to speak) of the times. But it didn’t.
Lots of other ways to critique the screenplay, but far worse is just the grim overall specter of societal change (meaning the changing audience) that is inescapable.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: HISTORY
For starters, history is dying in America. Last Sunday “60 Minutes” re-ran their segment on historian David McCullough. Towards the end of it he lamented today’s, “history illiteracy,” in America. Which is true. Americans are about done with history. Who needs it. I personally have a whole stack of anecdotes on this topic now. I have a documentary feature film on one part of World War II that I’ve been sending to film festivals. Guess what. Film festivals are done with history. For the first time ever I’ve been looking at what festivals have to say about “what we want for films.” Turns out it primarily LGBT content, “youth activities,” music documentaries, current social issues, and environmental controversies. History is a million miles away from all that.
Also, I just saw a factoid that attendance to Civil War battlefields in America is half of what it was twenty years ago (I think it spiked with Ken Burns’ brilliant Civil War documentary series). History is just too dull for today’s audiences. And, increasingly, so are movies — too dull in general, forcing them to have a billion shouting special effects shots or die.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: MOVIES
In case you didn’t hear, Spielberg and Lucas shocked Hollywood a couple weeks ago by breaking the bad news — movies are headed towards an apocalyptic change that will be brought on by a spate of colossal flops. Their grim prediction comes on the heels of Steven Soderburgh pointing out that trying to make a quality movie today that has any cultural significance is just about hopeless. He gave a stunningly pessimistic (and great) speech at the San Francisco Film Festival.
Spielberg’s pessimism was prompted by his movie, “Lincoln,” which he emphasizes only just narrowly escaped being a TV movie on HBO because almost none of the studios would finance it. Soderbergh’s Liberace movie did end up on HBO for the same reason.
As Soderburgh tells it, the studios are now run by MBA droids with zero taste, understanding or appreciation of movies. You don’t have to tell me about this. In my last year in film school at USC I took two film courses in the business school — entertainment marketing and entertainment finance. The entire class was made up of exactly those droids. It was stunning. They talked of movies as “product” — who cares what’s inside of it — the package shows cars exploding, we can sell it overseas — good enough. The package shows Millard Filmore — ack, don’t touch it!
Soderburgh breaks it down more specifically, telling about how the studios homogenize movies and make them “foreign friendly” by stripping them of everything uniquely American. And I love his opening anecdote about being on a 5 hour flight observing the guy next to him watching non-stop action movies where the guy fast forwards through all the story and character development scenes in the movies, viewing only essentially “action porn.” Soderburgh’s feeling was the guy represented today’s American viewer.
(little personal anecdote: I was in a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood one night in 2001 with a date when this balding, shaved head guy with coke bottle glasses walks in accompanied by a supermodel. I nudged my date and said, “that guy’s a physics professor at USC — can you believe the women he gets.” she said, “whoa, what a stud.” but it was actually Steven Soderburgh with supermodel Jules Asner back when he was first dating her — google a photo of them together, you’ll see what I mean — it pays to win Oscars).
Pretty grim overall. Everyone dreaming of making great movies today needs to realize these are the constraints. I first saw it in 2006 at Tribeca with Dodos. That was right at the beginning of the collapse of the film industry. The independent film distributors were just starting to talk about it, and Mark Gill of Miramax gave a similar earth shaking speech in 2008 titled, “Yes, the Sky Really Is Falling,” about how indy films were dying. It’s 5 years later — they’re now almost dead.
And even if you want to “change the world” with issue-oriented “documentaries” you’d better have some lame brained stunt like lighting your water faucet on fire (as in the hyper-polemic “Gasland”) to grab the attention of viewers. The audience has truly changed.
But fret not. Two weeks ago I met a 24 year old kid at a USC event who works with the biggest “Youtube production company” in Hollywood. It’s fascinating hearing what’s going on with video production on the internet these days. It’s a whole, huge, booming new frontier. It’s like the late 1920’s as silent movies (today’s regular movies) were being replaced by “talkies” (today’s web videos). Which is exciting to watch.
It’s just change. It’s totally natural. Darwin tried to explain it to you long ago. Go read some essays on selection and you won’t feel so anxious about it. Survival of the fittest. It’s been around since the first eucaryotes ingested the first bacteria. Change happens. And it’s awesome.