Originality Is Undervalued
The limits of making products
I like and enjoy the Marvel superhero movies. I’m not a completist, but I’ve watched 23 of the 28 movies released in the series since its inception with Iron Man in 2008.
That said, I don’t actually care about anything that happens in the Marvel films. I am never moved emotionally. The stories do not haunt me in the days after I’ve seen them. They are entertaining, highly competent products that for the most part I’m perfectly happy to lend my eyeballs and a portion of my consciousness to for a couple of hours at a time.
That said, if another film or tv show in the Marvel universe is never released, I couldn’t care less. Of course there are literally dozens more Marvel movies and TV series in various states of completion, from those coming out imminently to something currently being called only “Untitled Scarlett Johansson Project.”
In general, I have a laissez faire attitude about these things. People should be free to like what they like, love what they love, obsess over whatever they wish. You won’t find me at a comic-con hauling around my Mjolnir replica, but I also don’t think those who do are worthy of scorn or are to blame for killing arthouse cinema.
That said, we shouldn’t be blind to the impact that the explosion of these properties along with the proliferation of Star Wars sequels and spinoffs has had on what kind of entertainment is produced, why it’s produced, and who it is produced for.
These thoughts have been rolling around my head for quite sometime, so when I ran across this clip of an interview with filmmaker James Gray (We Own the Night; The Lost City of Z) talking about what effect he thinks this has had on the movies that show up in movie theaters, it struck home.
I think the movie business made a critical mistake…and really it was not a recent mistake, but a big mistake to think of it as - this film did not make a ton of money, thus we don’t make that film. This film will make a ton of money thus we make that one, a very strict balance sheet equation.
In his view, the consequence of this “balance sheet” mindset becomes a kind of abandonment of segments of your audience.
When you make movies that only make a ton of money, and are only one kind of movie, you get a large segment of the population out of the habit of going to the movies and then you begin to eliminate the importance of movies culturally.
It strikes me as true that movies have become diminished as parts of a shared culture. Gray talks about how a line like, “I made him an offer he can’t refuse,” goes from The Godfather to a permanent part of the American vernacular, and how this kind of impact is just not happening today as the films that achieve wide theatrical release are crafted not as movies, but products.
As I write this, Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, is on its way to becoming the first Covid-era box office blockbuster. Top Gun, no one’s idea of an art house film, had the kind of cultural impact Gray talks about because it captured the vibe of Reagan-era America, and spun it into exciting action with a little power ballad sexy time between Cruise and Kelly McGillis mixed in.
Rather than trying something similar for today’s day and age, the appeal of Top Gun: Maverick appears to be primarily rooted in its references to the original film, including a shirtless display of male pulchritude in a beach sports montage that closely adheres to the original.
I’ll probably watch this movie at some point, and may even go see it in the theater, but it seems clear that it has been very much crafted as a product meant to give “service” to the original, “service,” meaning a kind of fidelity and consistency to the universe from which the story comes. The accuracy of the choices in the service of service is a hotly debated topic within fan communities.
Artistically, the question of how faithful something is to another thing that already exists is simply fundamentally uninteresting. It asks us to respond to art primarily through the lens of nostalgia, rather than on the art’s own terms.
But this is often the central aesthetic question applied to these properties. We can’t even appreciate the appeal of the movie we’ve just seen without being prodded towards what’s next. One of the most hotly anticipated parts of any new Marvel movie is the post-credits sequence that will tease whatever movie is coming in the future.
I sort of can’t imagine dropping someone into a Marvel movie cold and having them really understand what the heck is going on beyond some good guys are fighting some bad guys. They certainly won’t understand the elements the hard core fans most appreciate, the nods to the other movies, or the comics from which the movies are derived.
Those hard core fans have nothing to apologize for, and deserve no blame, but to James Gray’s point, the pleasure of those hard core fans relies on an aesthetics of exclusion. Those who get it are not the inside. Everyone else is missing out. If you spend enough time missing out, you begin to think it might not be for you.
This is of course the identical critique of more highbrow fare, which maybe suggests we’re at a point where the pendulum has swung all the way to one side and may start heading back. Of course, the only thing that will bring back a more diverse array of theatrical movies is if someone sees money in it.
Books lost their place as significant cultural objects long before movies, with the exception of the occasional anomaly like Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey. But I think a similar dynamic of choosing what should be published using a “balance sheet equation” is absolutely happening, and it’s not good for the big publishers that are so focused on those balance sheets.
One of the factors that drives this dynamic is the use of “comps,” titles that books seeking publication are compared to in an effort to convince the people who make these decisions that a book is worth publishing.
There is probably no bigger comp title of the last decade than Gone Girl. Writing at Esquire, Maris Kreizman looks at the past ten years of the Gone Girl universe when it seems dozens of books every year are compared to Gone Girl in an effort to capture reader interest.
But of course very few, if any of these books being compared to Gone Girl are flattered by the comparison. Copying an original always results in a diminished object. Readers who are consistently burned by these comparisons and then finding a book wanting become wary. Patricia Highsmith has become such a go-to comparison (including to Gone Girl), that I now actively avoid books that are described in marketing copy as Highsmithian because I know I’m being fed some B.S.
As Kreizman notes, while the success of Gone Girl is often equated with its ingenuous plot twist, there is much more to the book in terms of its sociopolitical critique of America in the wake of the housing crisis. It’s a great work of suspense, but it is also a deeply realist work rooted in the world that Gillian Flynn brings to life with great clarity.
Not that there’s anything wrong with thrillers, but to suggest via comparison that every thriller also has the depths of Gone Girl obscures what made Gone Girl genuinely fresh and turned it into such a big bestseller.
Originality and freshness are compelling to audiences, but it is very difficult to decide what variety of originality will find favor, and what will leave audiences shrugging. For safety’s sake, then, it’s easier to seek out books that are reminiscent of what’s already sold.
Over time, though, in addition to the diminishing returns of trying to publish the next Gone Girl for the thousandth time, we get a flattening of what is written, what is published, and what is brought to the attention of the broader public.
I happen to think that this is very much bad business, that the energy that goes into finding the next thing like the thing that’s already popular would be better spent seeking out the next thing that becomes the thing other things are compared to in the future.
But that strategy is obviously riskier for those who are judged on the numbers at the bottom of a balance sheet.
If I ran one of the large publishing companies, I’d set aside a pot of money and task someone of experience and good taste (someone like Maris Kreizman), and tell them every year to bring me a half-dozen books unlike anything I’d read before, rather than books that only meaningful when compared to something else.
If I find one Gone Girl every three years, my balance sheet would be looking mighty healthy.
My Chicago Tribune column this week is on the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT-3), an ultra-sophisticated language Artificial Intelligence that can produce highly fluent prose. I wonder if it could maybe write a book for me.
As it turns out, there’s already writers using these algorithms as tools to help with and influence their writing. At his newsletter, Counter Craft, Lincoln Michel talks to Chandler Klang Smith (The Sky Is Yours) uses auto-generated text to spur on her writing.
Related, at Inside Higher Ed, I discuss how GPT-3 manages to write fluent prose without knowing any rules of English grammar. (By the way, people can also write fluent prose without knowing those rules.)
Also at the Tribune, Christopher Borrelli rounds up more books (44) than you could possibly read this summer.
If that’s not enough books, CrimeReads has 22 crime books for summer. You’ll be pleased to know that none of them are compared to Gone Girl.
If you’re looking for a long, thoughtful, and challenging essay about what value reading fiction may (or may not) have in a world of chaos and darkness, check out this piece from Kathleen Mulhern, published at Plough.
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1. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
2. In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
3. The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen
4. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know by Adam Grant
5. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Lucas P. - Lisle, IL
The marketing copy for Jonathan Dee’s The Locals describes it as “in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen,” which is exactly the kind of comparison that does not help a book find an audience because I think Dee is up to different stuff than Franzen in this book, and looking at the polarized reader reviews, people agree with me. I think Lucas will dig it.
1. Tenth of December by George Saunders
2. A Swim in a Pond in a Rain by George Saunders
3. Want by Lynn Steger Strong
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. Matrix by Lauren Groff
Maya T. - Scottsdale, AZ
Any short story collection with any kind of odd events or humorous elements of the last 20 years has been compared to George Saunders, who apparently has taken hold of Maya’s interest. I’m recommending another writer of short stories who seem nothing like Saunders except that both writers manage to deliver stories with an emotional punch, Selected Stories by Andre Dubus.
It’s been a very bad few weeks, and at first, when I sat down to compose this newsletter I felt compelled to write about the unfathomable tragedies, but what is left to say about these events that hasn’t been said a million times before. It’s hard to not be overwhelmed by anger or sadness, so for those who are feeling these emotions, you’re obviously not alone.
Until next time,
Clearly it means something that I know the name of Thor’s hammer.
Some of them are excellent products, but their quality as movies is incidental to that orientation, rather than central to it.
Honestly, this show looks kind of fun.
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