Among the many recent news flashes that are ostensibly revelations to the American media but which don't surprise me at all—i.e., that athletes use steroids, that actors have romances as rabid and unreliable as foaming junkyard dogs—the thing that shocks me the least is the downward slide of summer movie box-office returns. The oceans of hyperbolic ink and hyperventilating thought devoted to this supposed phenomenon is staggering.
Film writer/historian Neal Gabler—a sharp guy, make no mistake—went into paroxysmal pop thesis mode last week in an article for The Los Angeles Times titled "Movies just don't matter." He must be consuming more tabloid garbage in the supermarket checkout line than even I can digest, for he maintains that the everyday drama of celebrities has eclipsed our need for cinematic entertainment. According to the article, our intense "knowingness" of celebrity lives—or what he terms "lifies" ("because they combine life with the narrative appeal of movies")—now satisfies the human urge for experience outside of our own. Gabler gets an A-plus for effort, but he should be put on permanent detention for shamelessly tossing out a term like "lifies," the most stomach-churning coinage since "Bennifer."
Why aren't people going to movies this summer? The movies this summer stink. I mean, really, am I alone in this realization? Gabler again: "More people will read, hear, or joke about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes than will see either War of the Worlds or Batman Begins. More people will read about the romantic entanglements of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie than will see their movie, Mr. & Mrs. Smith." OK, yet this neglects to mention that all of these movies were still big box-office hits. And were among the few that—surprise!—didn't stink, or at the very least satisfied our experiential needs. (Oh, sure, go ahead and tell me that Mr. & Mrs. Smith wasn't fast, smart, or funny enough. Guess what? People like to look at painfully good-looking people. And Mr. & Mrs. Smith could've made twice its total box office at the concession stand alone if it had given us what we really wanted: a flash or two of Brad's Milk Duds and Angelina's Jujyfruits.)
I don't see what all the fuss is about. Did movies stink last summer and still make money? Yeah, I guess they did. But they stunk more this summer. The ones that stunk less, relatively speaking—or, I should say, experientially speaking—made money: People think Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are funny; Wedding Crashers put Wilson and Vaughn together in a comedy; it made money ($116 million and counting). Even something shitty like The Fantastic Four still made over $100 million because, I suspect, people are tired of comic books being treated as "graphic novels"; The Fantastic Four is about as far from "graphic" and "novel" as you can get.
Movies will always matter as long as our 10 bucks gets us at least half a glimpse of the fantasies and desires we can't find, to paraphrase one iconic dreamer, right in our own backyard. In the meantime, lifies (sorry, Neal) go on.