Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Morals, Movies, and Michael Medved

Lynn Sislo points out critic Michael Medved's latest bit of moralistic tut-tuting about the depravity in Hollywood movies today, using the current box office totals to illustrate just how much Hollywood just doesn't get it:

National Treasure, a surprise box office hit from Hollywood, demonstrates once again the embarrassing gap between cultural elite and the general public.

This splendid adventure movie starring Nicholas Cage drew overwhelmingly negative reviews, and leading critics even predicted its commercial failure. Ordinary moviegoers, however, have expressed gratitude for the film — a clever romp with a patriotic heart and a family friendly "PG-rating," spinning an enjoyable yarn about a treasure map left by the founding fathers on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Well, Medved doesn't provide any citation of critics who predicted the film's failure, for one thing. Nor does he provide any backing for his statement that National Treasure has made "twice what the experts said it would" -- which experts? I'm sure some did, but so what? Few of the critics I read ever bother to offer predictions as to what's going to be a hit and what's not, since (a) they've been around long enough to know that you can't predict this stuff, and (b) they know that their job is to give their opinion as to what should be a hit, not what will be a hit. In fact, my favorite critic, Roger Ebert, has long admonished readers to pay no attention to the horse-race nature of the box office results.

But also, Medved doesn't provide any kind of context for his scathing mention of the "cultural elite" -- who is it? Is it the Hollywood that actually made a film like National Treasure? The mainstream company, Pixar, that made the current hit The Incredibles? What independent "cultural elite" company made The Polar Express?

Medved's piece is just idiotic. There have always been plenty of family-friendly movies, most of which actually do tank at the box office. Quick: who's seen Whale Rider? A Little Princess? The Secret Garden? How many families, starved for wholesome entertainment, bothered to track down screenings of The Iron Giant or Spirited Away? The idea that there is a great untapped market out there is an endearing myth -- if the market really existed, then surely that market would snap up the tons of available product in droves. The market doesn't do that.

And that's probably the dumbest thing about Medved's article: the attempt to discern some kind of cultural trend, or at least a black eye for the "cultural elite", because -- gasp! -- the critics panned a movie that turned out to be popular. Well, anyone who's ever actually perused the box office returns knows that this isn't a new phenomenon; in fact, it's almost a given that at least two of the top five movies in any given week's box office results will be films that the critics hated. And it's been that way forever: just look at the current all-time box office champs. There are more than a few movies in there that I don't recall the critics exactly admired. I'll bet Medved himself even panned a few of them. (Hell, The Phantom Menace is number five, and the critics and the audiences alike hated that film!)

Try again, Michael.

(And btw, I have every intention of renting National Treasure when it comes out on DVD.)

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