THE FO­RUM

ED­DIE COCK­RELL ON THE GOOD MOVIE GLUT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

IN 2000, Ge­orge Clooney, then three years re­moved from a dar­ing, live episode of the television pro­gram E. R. , took the idea a step fur­ther. On April 9 that year, the com­pet­ing CBS net­work aired Fail Safe , the first live dra­matic pro­gram broad­cast in the US in 39 years. Star­ring Clooney, who was also the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, the pro­gram was a black- and- white Cold War nail- biter that imag­ined a tech­ni­cal glitch lead­ing to the ac­ci­den­tal bomb­ing of Moscow by the US. A re­make of the 1964 movie of the same name star­ring Henry Fonda as a fic­tional US pres­i­dent, it­self an adap­ta­tion of the 1962 novel by Eu­gene Bur­dick and Har­vey Wheeler, Fail Safe works as both provoca­tive thriller and spot- on trib­ute to the so- called golden age of US TV.

Last­ing roughly from 1949 to 1961, this was a time when those who ac­tu­ally owned TV sets shared in the com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing a small se­lec­tion of live drama and variety pro­grams and dis­cussing them the next day.

It was a com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause there was only a hand­ful of sta­tions broad­cast­ing fare such as crudely mounted real- time Shake­speare or pro­fes­sional wrestling filmed by a cam­era hung from the ceil­ing: what they aired was what the US watched.

Fast- for­ward to Fe­bru­ary 2008 and the Academy Awards. Clooney is now a global heart­throb of­ten re­ferred to in the film- savvy me­dia as the ‘‘ last movie star’’, for his clas­sic good looks and shrewd se­lec­tion of scripts that at once ex­ploit and spoof his lead­ing- man per­sona ( Oceans Eleven to Thir­teen be­ing the prime ex­am­ples). He cre­ates the usual fuss on the pre­broad­cast red car­pet and this year was there for the le­gal drama Michael Clay­ton , which was nom­i­nated for seven Os­cars, in­clud­ing the cov­eted best pic­ture and Clooney for best ac­tor.

There was spec­u­la­tion that few in­volved with the film, in­clud­ing Clooney, saw this com­ing when Michael Clay­ton opened to warm re­views and strong ticket sales in early Oc­to­ber last year. Yet the same Clooney who was smart enough to ap­pre­ci­ate the golden age of TV was also smart enough to guide his ca­reer through this un­ex­pected suc­cess. A pe­riod com­edy he has di­rected and stars in, Leather­heads , was sup­posed to be re­leased at Christ­mas but was pushed back un­til next month to ac­com­mo­date the Os­car cam­paign­ing nec­es­sary to gar­ner nom­i­na­tions, and wins.

The con­nec­tive tis­sue of those two anec­dotes, be­yond the af­fa­ble and driven movie star, is the in­creas­ing frag­men­ta­tion of movies and TV. Talk­ing of the Os­cars, raise your hand if you saw all five of this year’s best pic­ture nom­i­na­tions. OK, now raise your hand if you re­mem­ber a year when you saw all five nom­i­nated films as a mat­ter of course. You used to, didn’t you? And not so long ago, ei­ther. So what hap­pened?

It isn’t just about busy life­styles. Re­turn­ing to the trough of Os­car analo­gies, what if the five best pic­ture nom­i­nees, in­stead of Atone­ment , Juno , Michael Clay­ton , No Coun­try for Old Men and There Will be Blood , had been, say, Amer­i­can Gang­ster , The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly , Into the Wild , Sweeney Todd and Zo­diac? Or The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Or El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age? Or Rata­touille ? Or any one of a half- dozen other Os­car- cal­i­bre re­leases last year?

You can see where this is go­ing: Aus­tralian re­lease pat­terns not­with­stand­ing, is it even pos­si­ble any more for even the most con­sci­en­tious movie- goer to have seen all five best pic­ture nom­i­nees by the time the nom­i­na­tions are an­nounced? And at the same time have a life?

What’s miss­ing from this sup­posed re­nais­sance is the very thing that made the golden age of TV, uh, golden. There can be no more shared ex­pe­ri­ences on that level be­cause there’s just too much to in­gest and too frag­mented an au­di­ence to el­e­vate any one movie or TV show to that level of com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence.

This is why the con­cept of a lu­cra­tive fran­chise, such as Star Wars or In­di­ana Jones , has segued to the eco­nom­i­cally es­sen­tial tent pole, for ex­am­ple The Lord of the Rings or Spi­der- Man , ca­pa­ble of keep­ing an en­tire stu­dio afloat as it dab­bles in other gen­res and me­dia.

Aus­tralia’s Ge­orge Miller is back on track, fol­low­ing the US screen­writ­ers’ strike, to guide the latest per­mu­ta­tion of this phe­nom­e­non, Jus­tice League , into cine­mas for Warner Brothers. The movie, based on the DC comics chest­nut Jus­tice League of Amer­ica , of­fers mul­ti­ple spin- off pos­si­bil­i­ties for the largely un­known young cast, re­boot­ing such su­per­heroes as Su­per­man, Bat­man, Won­der Wo­man, Green Lantern and The Flash.

This is how they Hol­ly­wood. Se­ri­ously. More sin­is­ter is the way in which Amer­i­cans, and Aus­tralians, and any­body else with an in­ter­est in movies, con­sumes those films. Back in the early 1980s when VHS play­ers first caught on, the new thing was time- shift: record­ing a TV pro­gram to watch when you wanted. Then video rental shops opened and peo­ple soon re­alised they could skip the the­atri­cal run al­to­gether and watch the film at home.

This led to a re­think­ing of the en­ter­tain­ment pie graph that has pet­ri­fied Hol­ly­wood since the ad­vent of TV. Un­til the mid-’ 80s, the con­ven­tional wis­dom was that con­sumers had a lim­ited amount of time to con­sume en­ter­tain­ment, and that TV, then video­tape and then pay TV, would eat into the per­cent­age al­lot­ted to cin­ema- go­ing.

But the global surge in rev­enue for Hol­ly­wood movies and the suc­cess of DVD- qual­ity copies for rent, own­er­ship and, quite soon, in­ter­net down­load, demon­strates the pie is a lot big­ger than any­one ever imag­ined.

This also goes a way to­wards ex­plain­ing why that week­end ses­sion of a new film you have heard is mak­ing heaps of money is half empty.

What have been sac­ri­ficed, for bet­ter or for worse, are the con­di­tions that cre­ated the com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence. What hap­pens to the of­fice wa­ter cooler when ev­ery­one car­ries their own plas­tic bot­tle of the stuff?

But fear not, Clooney will un­doubt­edly fig­ure out a way to save us. In the mean­time, it’s the golden age of frag­men­ta­tion.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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