Returning To OZ: Or When Storytellers No Longer Know How To Tell Stories


Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful

There was a time when American cinema and Hollywood meant something. That time is long gone and empty films like OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL are the hard proof. These types of films have, sadly, become the norm. They also, as it turns out, show us yet another example of how when James Franco is cast in films where he is given nothing to do — no real script, nothing of substance to latch on to — he simply cannot fake it. Like his bored and boring performance in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (read my post on that film HERE). Compare these to the recent SPRING BREAKERS which, like the film or not, shows Franco actually giving a performance. He’s capable of it. But offer him a role in a Hollywood film and he accurately reflects the project’s entirely insipid nature. In many ways, he’s our best barometer for showcasing just how empty Hollywood has become.

More and more of my friends and acquaintances are confessing to no longer being able to conjure the desire to go to the cinema any more; it’s no longer a satisfying experience for so many of us. In fact, it has become, on far too many occasions, a downright depressing experience. Not handing over your hard-earned cash to see these grand and elaborate wastes of time is one of the most powerful statements you can make in opposition to this spiraling trend. Every time you pay to see a film like OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, you support the creation of more just like it. Which you may be fine with if you like this sort of fare and are enjoying America’s current fling with all things dimensionless.

In conversing the other day with a screenwriting friend who has been taking pitch meetings around town, it seems things have gotten even worse than when I was taking those exact same meetings years ago. Conversations about character no longer have a place; they are fleeting asides to conversations about how many digital teeth a monster might have or how many tentacles. The “people” in the story have become nothing more than catalysts for effects. It used to be the other way around.

Is it that I’ve just become an old man complaining about how much better things were “back in my day?” Perhaps, but I don’t believe that’s truly the issue at hand. It seems to me the Hollywood film industry has fallen victim to the same raging disease that has swept this entire country into a catatonic inability to accomplish almost anything of value. We have fallen behind the rest of the world in so many areas where we once lead the way. The Daily Kos recent comparison of TIME magazine covers in America and abroad is the perfect highlight of our cultural infancy; we are still children in this relatively new country of ours. But it seems the freedoms that once invigorated our countrymen and fed our desire to explore and express ourselves, to stand out and carve new paths, has given way to a capitalist agenda that speaks to the weakest, least developed parts of our psyches. It has literally divided our country. Hopefully, it’s all just a phase, the one step backwards before the two steps forward. Certainly, future historians are going to have a field day with us. Unless, of course, this one step backwards leads to a complete tumble down the stairwell for the entire human race.

I’ve mentioned this little anecdote before, but it bears mentioning yet again here: not too long ago I took a meeting with a producer who had recently produced a major Hollywood action/thriller. It was a film I actively did not like and had been shocked by the sheer lack of logic and basic storytelling qualities inherent in the film. When asked about this, the producer confessed to me that everyone involved with the film was fully aware that the script had no inner logic and oftentimes blatantly broke the rules of the world it had set up. His justification for such blatant storytelling disregard was that they had shown a cut of the film to a test audience and the audience didn’t seem to notice any of these things, so the filmmakers decided that it simply “didn’t matter.” And maybe they were right. Have we bred and raised new generations of Americans for whom the dollar sign is the be-all and end-all of our journey here on earth? Are we systematically eliminating our desire to connect with one another in meaningful and revealing ways?

History shows us that storytelling has always been a profound and integral part of the human experience. So what does it say when our most beloved storytellers no longer know how to tell stories? Or even care?

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Returning To OZ: Or When Storytellers No Longer Know How To Tell Stories

5 thoughts on “Returning To OZ: Or When Storytellers No Longer Know How To Tell Stories

  1. I’ll have to respectfully disagree on this and compare you to the old man you says “back in the day…”. I think the thing which clouds many people’s minds are the sheer number of movies being made. Yes, when you look out in the movie landscape you see cash in after cash in after cash in. In that respect, it is hard to see where characters and story have gone. It is not like those movies have gone but they have their own venues. If you want movies with more depth and character that is what you find in independent films. The other problem is people compare film to the hey day of the 70’s when personal dramas were king. In that respect, no, those days are gone and never coming back. But this year alone you have people pushing boundaries and giving thoughtful movies like Side Effects, Upstream Color, Spring Breakers, Mud, Frances Ha, Before Midnight, Fruitvale Station, and Blue Valentine. The 70’s had great directors but I’ll still take Alfonso Cuaron, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Michael Mann, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, and David Fincher to name a few. The movies you want are there, you just have to go out and look for them.

    1. halmasonberg says:

      I do agree that those movies are out there. However, part of my point is that Hollywood is not making most of them. And when they do, it’s usually via a director who has unprecedented control over their films compared to most other directors working within the Hollywood system. I think Soderbergh’s recent comments (https://vimeo.com/65060864) as well as Spielberg’s (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steven-spielberg-predicts-implosion-film-567604) highlight the changes that have taken place. When I first started working in the industry (at Sony Pictures) REMAINS OF THE DAY was the studio’s “big” film that they were aggressively promoting. Then a new studio head was brought in and the big film became CHARLIE’S ANGELS and, it seems to me at least, that things have stayed more on that track only declining in content. Take a story meeting in this town. Most any screenwriter will tell you just how much things have changed. But yes, in America it’s the indie world where cinema continues to flourish. And I think technology will allow that to continue and I am excited and thankful for that. The 70’s was, indeed, a special time and we may or may not see a resurgence in the popularity of character-driven films here in the States. I like to think all things are cyclical and it seems some folks are growing increasingly tired of what Hollywood has been putting out there. The difference I have noticed is that the people in charge at the studios are, in large part, not lovers of film. They “like” movies, but they don’t “love” cinema. And, to me, it shows. And judging by the commentaries made by other filmmakers, I don’t think I’m the only one out there having this experience of Hollywood. I can look at any other era in cinema, not just the 70’s, and see hundreds of fantastic scripts being made into films via Hollywood (along with bad ones, they’ve always been there, too). By my personal standards of what constitutes a good script –even a decent script– Hollywood today seems to care far less about that particular element of storytelling, an element which I find to be essential to making good films, than at any other point in cinema history. And I think it reflects something about our society. As does the growing indie movement.

      1. I know I’m immediately putting my remarks in contradiction to people who work in the industry like Soderbergh and Spielberg but I like to think they are being a bit myopic and not looking at history. Yes, we are in a current bubble (to use an economic term) of superhero blockbusters and bubbles will eventually burst. But those bubbles have been present all through film history. It was a bubble of big Hollywood films failing that brought about the artist driven films of the 70’s that most people (myself including) love so much and it was itself a bubble that burst with most notoriously Heaven’s Gate. Bubble’s burst and movies bomb and studios fail but Hollywood goes on because it is ever evolving. I agree with people like Spielberg in the notion there will be a year with several large failures but I disagree that it will implode the film industry or that we are heading toward a cliff.

        I think we are talking about different things when it comes to “Hollywood” because I think they do release those films but they know in what venues in which to release it. I also think it is a bit of horse trading in current Hollywood which is why I’m surprised to hear Soderbergh makes those claims cause he should know better. Soderbergh knows the give and take of Hollywood because he plays the game well. He would basically trade Oceans 11 films for stuff he could never do on a pure indie scale like Che which I absolutely love. For every Magic Mike there was a Girlfriend Experience. The Coens trade off No Country for A Serious Man, Joss Whedon does Avengers and gets to do Much Ado About Nothing, Danny Boyle trades between big films and things like 127 Hours and Trance, Christopher Nolan could make a two hour film about paint drying and WB would push it as an awards contender because right now his rep is he can lay nothing but golden eggs. I’m not writing well cause I’m just doing it on the fly. I’m coming off as Mr. Rose Colored Glasses but I don’t think I am. I know Hollywood is driven by greed but I also know that most artistic endeavors are from artists learning to circumvent or adapt to Hollywood’s greed. Orson Welles was blacklisted after Citizen Kane but it didn’t stop him from making several other films which I think are greater masterpieces than Kane. The man did what he had to do to get things done. You see that then and you can continue to see it now. Making it as an artist now is being part Picasso, part used car salesman.

  2. halmasonberg says:

    I very much agree with you on all points. My definition of Hollywood are films produced, developed and financed by the studios. Not those films that are simply picked up for distribution. The difference for me between something like HEAVEN’S GATE bringing a studio to its knees and the current crop of features, is that HEAVEN’S GATE reached for something. Most of today’s Hollywood fare does not. Again, I don’t know if you have ever been in these meetings, but they have become the worst-case stereotype of themselves. Like a Saturday Night Live skit or modern day conservative politics. The other difference is that technology has placed indie filmmakers in a position they have never been before. Can you imagine what Orson Welles might have done had he had today’s technology at his fingertips? I agree with you that many of his post-Kane films were his greatest. And we would have had so many more. Is that a good thing? Who knows? But today’s filmmaking technology is making the studios less, well, necessary. In my home alone, I have the capacity to shoot a film and edit it and do effects with the same equipment and software that Jackson used to do his LORD OF THE RINGS films. Add the internet to that equation and our ability to market and target the audience that we want/need to know about/have access to our films and the studios become even less necessary for negative pickups. Theatrical screenings are no longer the end goal, but more a marketing stop along the way to streaming and Blu-ray and Pay-Per-View. And most films bypass that stage altogether now. Hollywood has always been a greedy, nasty place, but it was also the place to make films in America if you wanted to reach a wide audience. It attracted both businessmen and artists. That is no longer the case and since Hollywood is at what I agree with Soderbergh is an all-time historical low in terms of content and the interest and passions of those in charge, filmmakers with a desire to do more than THE AVENGERS can now do it elsewhere with an ease that was never before possible till now. I’m hoping those folks will continue to realize (as Shane Carruth did) that the path to filmmaking success of BOTH the artistic and financial kind is not only not necessary via Hollywood, but is, in fact, freer and more possible if you circumvent that establishment altogether. If we can let go of our belief that that particular system and path is the best, most desired way to make films, then we may see another filmmaking heyday not unlike the 70’s, though with its own modern sensibilities and not via Hollywood as we’ve known it. I think had Cassavetes been starting out today, he might well have had an easier time letting go of his dream of being a Hollywood filmmaker and embraced his desire and calling to be an artist without quite so much of the internal battle and painful struggle he himself confessed to waging. Did that struggle influence his films? I’m sure it did. But maybe it also aided in his early demise. Today he would have been freer to explore what was inside him in a growing environment that was more attuned to what he wanted to do. He didn’t have to continually try and sell something or to convince others of the value of something they had no interest in buying or recognizing the value in. The Hollywood outlet as we have known it, if it does continue, may be relegated almost exclusively to those who do not care about storytelling or artistry. And that group currently has more in common with Wall Street than it does with filmmaking as we have known it for over 100 years. There is another place, outside of Hollywood, gaining momentum and recognition. And it’s offering something Hollywood does not seem to be interested in. Now we wait and see if there are audiences out there who are.

    1. halmasonberg says:

      I will also add, and I think this is largely the point, the “do one for them, do one for me” system of working in Hollywood is dying. Neither CHE nor MAGIC MIKE were done for the studios. Hell, CHE didn’t even get studio distribution. These were indie films and, as I’m sure you know, Soderbergh had to struggle financially to get CHE made at all and was not happy with the end result simply because he could not find the support he had hoped to find within the industry. That model is no longer viable.

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