Monday 15 February 2010

Joe Queenan, you silly man.

Every time I think the British Press couldn't possibly be more stupid, something like this comes along. As a change of pace, this rant isn't about how he misrepresents Howard: this is more broad.

My wife, who remembers Anthony Eden, Suez and Wayne ­Fontana & the ­Mindbenders, is ­always complaining that Hollywood doesn't make very many movies aimed at people who grew up in the 1950s or 60s.

Well golly, could that be because people who grew up in the '50s or '60s account for a smaller percentage of the population nowadays, resulting in a smaller percentage of films being made for their demographic? Come on. Do you think people made films in the '50s for people who grew up at the turn of the century? Of course not, they made them for people who were growing up then or a decade or two earlier.

But a quick glance at the recently revised list of the biggest-grossing films of all time – ­Avatar has shot to No 1 – shows ­something even more interesting. ­Hollywood doesn't make that many movies aimed at ­people who grew up in the 1970s or 80s, either.

No kidding! Instead of concentrating on people in their 40s, they're making films for a new generation which accounts for a much larger percentage of the population! What an astonishing scoop!

With few ­exceptions, the films that have raked in the most cash at the box office in the entire history of motion pictures are movies made in the past decade, ones that are aimed at adolescents and tykes. Gone with the Wind is no longer on the list. Neither is The Godfather. Nor, for that matter, are Jaws, or ­Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Ten Commandments, which used to be.

Of course, since Hollywood's top 20 list is not adjusted for inflation, the most recent films will always dominate. (The list is a convenient way of making it seem that contemporary films are far more popular than the blockbusters of the past.) So instead of Gone with the Wind, we now have Avatar, Titanic, two Pirates of the ­Caribbean, five Harry Potters, all three Lord of the Rings, two recent Star Wars sequel-prequels, and the free-standing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Finding Nemo, The Dark Knight, Jurassic Park, Shrek II and Spider-Man 3.

The stupidity is mind blowing. Of course Hollywood are going to pat themselves on the back for their most recent successes: most of the people working in Hollywood were involved in them. What's the point in them touting films whose producers, cast and crew are all old or dead, when they could talk up films of their generation that they had a part in? Queenan's acting surprised about something that should be taken for granted.

What's more, his concerns about modern films usurping older ones is largely unwarranted. Here's the top twenty domestic grosses adjusted for inflation:

  1. Gone with the Wind
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Sound of Music
  4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  5. The Ten Commandments
  6. Titanic
  7. Jaws
  8. Doctor Zhivago
  9. The Exorcist
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
  11. 101 Dalmatians
  12. The Empire Strikes Back
  13. Ben-Hur
  14. Return of the Jedi
  15. The Sting
  16. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  17. Avatar
  18. Jurassic Park
  19. The Graduate
  20. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Avatar, Titanic, Jurassic Park, a Star Wars prequel - films Queenan has lamented for being included - simply are pretty damn popular.

In place of some of the slightly more adult-oriented classics of the past, the list is now filled to overflowing with films for teenagers, small children, and people who don't want to grow up (The Lord of the Rings, Avatar).

Hilarious. Let's first ignore the astounding suggestion that The Lord of the Rings is for adults with arrested development, even if we're only considering the films. What, exactly, is "adult-oriented" about Star Wars, The Sound of Music, Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, E.T., The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark in comparison to Avatar and The Lord of the Rings? Are the action-packed biblical epics Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments really any more "adult-oriented" than the other films on the list?

Hollywood doesn't mind if grown-ups come in and see the films they make. But they'd much prefer it if they arrived with a bunch of kids. Theirs, or somebody else's. Strays even, orphans: the industry is not fussy.

... And this is different to the Hollywood of fifty years ago how?

On a positive note, there are no films that are explicitly sexist or racist or stupid or evil. This suggests that mankind is moving in a positive ­direction, at least in this sphere of ­intellectual endeavour.

I don't even know what that means. Is Queenan suggesting that films of his golden past were explicitly sexist or racist or stupid or evil? If that's the case, why the hell is he defending them? Adolescent action films are surely preferable to "adult-oriented" films with twisted moralities.

What do these 20 films have in ­common? One thing only: 19 of them are fundamentally different from Titanic. Titanic is the only film that is not a complete and utter fantasy, the only film that deals with a real event ­involving real people. It is also the only film on the list where the ­audience knows in advance that it cannot ­possibly have a happy ending. That ship is going down, and when it goes down, Leonardo ­DiCaprio is going down with it.

The tyranny of "real life is more artsy" rears its ugly head. Because, of course, nothing can be worthy of intellectual discourse if it's a "complete and utter fantasy." Despite Titanic focusing on two fictional characters, and the factual errors of the film being questioned, sometimes in justifiably indignant ways (such as the case with the brave, selfless First Officer William Murdoch being recast as a cowardly murderer for the sake of "drama"). Plus, the idea of it "not having a happy ending" is nonsense: there's every possibility Leo survived until we see him melodramatically sink under the waves at the end of the film. Hell, I was half-expecting to see an old, decrepit Jack come to Rose's house, reunited at last. That's how "impossible" the happy ending was.

Some of the films on the list have ­displaced far superior films that spawned them. No one thinks the two recent Star Wars on the list approach the quality of the original Star Wars, yet there they are.

And, again, nobody is going to seriously think that the new Star Wars films are greater successes based purely on financial gain. By that logic, you'd expect people to magically think that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a superior film to Blade Runner simply due to box office returns. People aren't that stupid, Queenan.

Spider-Man 3 grossed more than Ben-Hur because ticket prices were much higher; it was marketed in several formats; and a colossal amount of money was spent on getting people to see it.


Overall, this emphasis on how "modern" films are dominated by teen audiences is something that's been old news for decades. Of COURSE most films are going to be aimed at teens and young adults: they have disposable income, less discerning taste, and are more likely to make repeat viewings. This has been the case for many years. Hell, how many of the people going to see Gone with the Wind were 50-60 year olds? I'd wager the biggest percentage of filmgoers to see Fleming's epic were the exact same age as the biggest percentage going to see Pirates of the Carribean.

The whole article comes across as a crotchety old man talking about how films were better in HIS day. Because intelligent action films like The Dark Knight cannot possibly compare to the likes of HIS intelligent action films.

It's articles like this which cause me to seriously dislike the British Press, and why I don't bother with newspapers. Still, at least he's no Baz Bamigboye.


  1. The most interesting thing to me about your adjusted list is with the exception of The Graduate (I was surprised it was there)is that all of these films take us somewhere fantastical-they all have elements that give us wonder.

    And having WONDER is the pre-requisite for a touching story in whatever medium.

  2. In place of some of the slightly more adult-oriented classics of the past, the list is now filled to overflowing with films for teenagers, small children, and people who don't want to grow up (The Lord of the Rings, Avatar).

    Has this guy ever read Tolkien? How about The Hobbit? The whole story is about Bilbo's need to embrace responsibility and open his eyes to life outside his hobbit-hole and the Shire. Some might even call that ... wait for it... growing up.

    This isn't the first time The Guardian has trashed The Lord of the Rings. This paper has somehow proclaimed itself the arbiter of good taste; the "guardian" of fine literature and "legitimate art" indeed. How pompous and narrow-minded. There's more to intelligent art than what's been dictated to you on your college syllabus. Someone needs to get their head out of the 1960s.

  3. Very true, David. I'd say a great many films have that "sense of wonder" being key to their success. Look at all the historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia: they are based on historical events, but the sheer grandeur and magnificence makes it larger than life, to the point where it almost feels like it is a fantasy.

    To be honest, Brian, it wouldn't surprise me if he'd never read any Tolkien. I wouldn't even be surprised if he didn't even know about the mountains of books and magazines of scholarly criticism.

    Like you, I particularly love the irony that he talks about LotR as being for "adults who don't want to grow up" when the entire saga, and definitely The Hobbit, could be so easily read as a coming-of-age story in the first place. The Hobbits aren't little kids anymore.

    The Grauniad is the most pretentious, pompous and ultimately stupid out of all the broadsheets, and that's saying something.