It Came From Hollywood!

We went to see Once yesterday, and I came to an annoying realization.

First off, let’s get this out of the way: go see this movie right now. I guess it’s a musical, in that a huge portion of the film is conducted in song and that the music is essentially integrated into the narrative. The story is at once deftly simple and richly complex, and if you were unable to understand a single word of the dialogue you’d still get it. Completely. Rarely have I seen a film with quite this much pure heart. A+. Five stars. Run, don’t walk.

Now, to the bigger issue. As I watched this magnificent film, I kept waiting for the “something bad happens.” There was no substantive reason why something bad would happen – no reason to suspect that the van coming down the street behind the girl would suddenly veer to the curb and several thugs would jump out and haul her screaming into the back. No reason to think that the men hanging around on the stoop outside her apartment would hurt her. No reason to think that when they get on his dad’s motorcycle to head down to the beach that they might wreck. None at all.

But at several points in the movie these ominous thoughts intruded on my ability to track the narrative. I was invested enough in the characters, in the story, in the music, that these thoughts tightened my chest. You’ve been to movies – you know the feeling I’m talking about here. Foreboding. Doom. Manufactured anxiety. However, none of this was seeded by the movie itself. So where was it coming from?

After the movie it hit me. It Came From Hollywood! I’ve seen so many damned Hollywood films that the formula has infected me, imposing itself and exerting irrelevant expectations everytime I enter a theater. We all know the formula, even if we don’t know that we know it. In a certain type of film, at a certain point in the story, we expect a personal tragedy. 55 minutes into another genre we expect a car chase. Toward the end of yet another genre we know that she’ll leave the faithful, steady accountant (played inevitably by Bill Pullman) for the handsome, romantic interloper. Her soulmate. Her True Love®. And we know the camera won’t linger too long on the jilted lover – secretly, deep down, he’s happy for her, just like we are. He’ll be just fine.

In a way, this should be obvious enough – we create, and are in turn shaped by our creations. Great artists alter the landscape of what is possible, and since we’re all descended from monkeys we can’t help imitating. Admit it – when somebody says something shocking to you, your response is, to some degree, modeled on how a TV or movie character you’ve seen responded to a similarly shocking revelation. In your head, you’re the star of a formulaic sitcom or romantic drama or whatever genre is called for at the moment. Stand in front of a mirror and run through your expressive repertoire – how much of it is real, and how much of it is Hollywood?

Does art imitate life, or is it as Wilde said, that life imitates art? Some years back Jim Booth and I concluded that life imitates television, and that may be the saddest fact of all. But at least it’s tolerable if the effect is invisible – ignorance being bliss and all. But yesterday wasn’t the first time lately that I’ve noticed an impending and misplaced dread while watching a constructed narrative. I never stopped to examine the feeling in detail, though, and now that I have I’m trying to imagine the self-referential meta-artistic nightmare that awaits the next time I enter a theater. It won’t be bad enough that I have this artificial formula etched in my neural pathways that’s fucking with my ability to relate to a film on its own terms, but now I’ll be examining that inner conflict even before it starts. It will be a miracle if I can tell you the name of the movie after it’s over.

Thanks, Hollywood. Thanks a lot.

8 replies »

  1. I’m going to leave this open to let others comment since you and I have covered this kind of ground numerous times in both private and professional settings. I will only say, Agreed on pretty much all points.

    Great piece, Sam. Just a great piece…Beautifully stated.

  2. You know, I’d probably have approached a movie like this a little differently. I’d have been thrilled to have a movie that breaks the Hollywood formula (just like I am thrilled when I find a movie that adds something new to the formula, or that makes the formula its own and excells at it in a way not other movie has).

    I guess I just don’t mind the formula if it’s done well.

    This gives me more ammunition for another blog I’m working on, though, and I appreciate that fact. Thanks!

  3. The problem is when the formula is so prevalent, so dominant, so ubiquitous that it makes all things non-formulaic seem strange.

  4. 🙂

    This is one of my favourite pieces of writing by yourself. Sometimes I think you read a person’s mind…

    Having said that I accept the formula before I go into the cinema and if it is made very well (as it still often is) then I’m okay with it. Of course it is always fantastic when a gem of a movie comes along that obviously slipped under the Hollywood Formula Radar Detector (I am thinking of the Matrix – but not the below par second and third films).

    Dominant culture is what it is…you just have to do your own spade work and find that which is not.

    Again, a lovely blog entry.

  5. Thanks, Elaine. I thought initially that maybe it was just me, but I commented on it to the people who saw the movie with me and their grasp of what I was getting at was instantaneous. So I owe them a bit of thanks, too – had they laughed me down I’d have kept it to myself, perhaps… 🙂

  6. All right, Sam, I haven’t seen the movie. I’ll go see it on your recommendation. That out of the way…

    I think you’re putting the onus of responsibility a bit to heavily on the shoulders of Hollywood. Sure, there are hacks out there abusing the medium, but what you’re describing here sounds to me more like a frustration in the fundamental nature of structuring conflict.

    I’m one of those people who can come off like a mind reader. As soon as I walk into a movie, or turn on the TV, I can pretty much tell what’s going on. I know you’re like that — I’ve seen it in action. But I’d submit that it’s far less due to Hollywood sellouts indoctrinating us to understand trash-abuses of plotting than it is thanks to the fact that there are only about a dozen fundamental plots to begin with. Everything else is just rehashing “Arabian Nights” and the “Bible” — in that order.

    I’m with others who’ve commented already — it’s refreshing to see the formula done well, and disappointing when it’s not. But I’m not sure I’d blame Hollywood for cashing in on my eagerness to buy-in. Seriously, man…. Whatever you think of “Fantastic 4”, when that dude lights up on fire, I’m all in.

    Good post, man. 🙂

  7. Hi, Pete – great to hear from you.

    They do say there are only 11 or 12 stories out there, and yeah, there’s a big difference between well-executed formula and hackery. No question. Maybe I just need to stay the hell away from bad movies. Or maybe I need to see if the same thing I was feeling is true of good Hollywood films. It is, to some extent, because it’s happened when I was watching Oscar-nominated stuff, when I think back.

    And of course, watching TV doesn’t help even a little bit….