Saturday, August 7, 2010

Endangered species

When Rob Reiner directed Stand By Me in 1986, it seemed poised to be as surefire a hit as there was that year. The fact that it was based on a short story by popular horror novelist Stephen King was tangential to its prospects -- in fact, you could argue that most people didn't even know that, since the movie itself is not a horror. What drew audiences -- both young and old -- was the promise of nostalgia for 1959, with a soundtrack full of popular period hits, and the type of relatable coming of age story with just enough genuine danger to seem edgy.

For children of the 1980s, it was no surprise that our parents were interested -- my dad was 20 in 1959, my mom 16. But I don't think we even needed that connection to be interested ourselves, just as we didn't need that connection to be fans of A Christmas Story, set about 15 years earlier. We just wanted to see a good story told well, regardless of who was starring in it, and when it was set. (I'll try to ignore the fact that River Phoenix was probably considered a heartthrob then the way Robert Pattinson is considered a heartthrob today, and be content granting my generation a certain purity in its interest in Stand By Me.)

Something makes me doubt that today's young viewers have that same pioneering spirit.

Nearly 25 years later, Reiner is directing another film that will earn obvious comparisons to Stand By Me, even though the subject matter seems to dwell in the considerably lighter territory of first crushes (whereas Stand By Me dealt with poking corpses, dodging trains and evading bullies with switchblades). Flipped, which opens today, is set in 1962, a mere three years after Stand By Me. But the passage of a quarter century makes it feel like it took place 100 years before that, practically speaking.

Simply put, Flipped feels like a total anomaly. It's been so long since a coming of age story set 50 years ago has received such a wide release and been so heavily marketed, that my wife and I were left scratching our heads when we saw the trailer. Before we figured out why we were flabbergasted, we were reaching for the right description of the trailer we saw -- what was wrong with it that flummoxed us so much.

Well, there was nothing wrong with it. Flipped looks like it might be cute, even good, though Reiner hasn't been the same director in the past decade as he was previously. (It's no coincidence that the poster says "From the director of Stand By Me and When Harry Met Sally" -- two movies that came out in the 1980s.)

What was wrong with it was this: It seemed like a relic from another era. Something subtle has changed in our collective viewing habits, such that this kind of movie has almost disappeared from the landscape.

Yep, the 20th century period piece is officially an endangered species.

Period pieces from other centuries are endangered to an extent, too. But you're always going to find people interested in costume dramas, if only for their high production values and classical subject matter. Conversely, the interest in movies with '57 Chevys and doo-wop singers seems destined to dwindle and dwindle until there's nothing left. In fact, I think we may have already reached that point. The weekend box office for Flipped will render some kind of judgment on that.

Flipped is not the first movie that has created this kind of reaction in me. I remember thinking the same thing when I saw the trailers for My One and Only, last year's Renee Zellwegger vehicle that's set in 1953. I remember thinking, "Who wants to watch that kind of movie in this day and age?" Sure enough, few people did -- despite the presence of Zellwegger, the film couldn't scare up $2.5 million at the domestic box office. Other years have likely featured other anomalies like My One and Only, but the fact is, I don't remember them off the top of my head -- which speaks to the very point I'm making.

At least with that film, however, the studio viewed it as a marginal commodity to begin with, not sinking very much into advertising. (That film was also released in August, which may be deemed a suitable month to gamble on this kind of movie.) Flipped is different in that it has been backed by a genuine awareness campaign. The trailer played before the popular summer movies directed at young people (I believe we saw it before Toy Story 3), and there are hundreds of billboards up around Los Angeles. Warner Brothers is throwing all its weight behind this movie, and we're about to find out whether it was a smart move.

So why can't today's kids take an interest in Flipped? Maybe all they need is one good, memorable movie of 1950s-early 1960s nostalgia, and it will kick off a wave of others, just as any other thematic trend comes out of nowhere and takes hold. But I kind of doubt that. Maybe I'm just turning into a curmudgeon (at the ripe old age of 36), but I think it's hard to grow up in an era when you're so surrounded by high-tech gadgets, and have the same kind of appreciation for low-tech stories. And it's not like this generation is the first to lose some of its focus. Where we were watching Stand By Me in 1986, the generation before us would have been losing themselves in a book rather than a movie. Bloggers blogging in 1986 would have called our generation lazy for needing to have visual stimuli do the work of creating characters and settings for us, rather than leaving that up to our imaginations, as would be the case if we were reading.

It's only logical that people want to see movies that have at least a tangential overlap with their experiences. That's why I expect another film that opens today, Middle Men, to do significantly better than Flipped. Middle Men, about the advent of internet porn, is set in the 1990s, a time that's recent enough for today's viewers to remember, but old enough that it's starting to seem like a distinctly different era. The early years of the internet seem like a terrific period subject to get today's viewers, since many of them have witnessed the massive transformation of the medium in their own lives. That increasingly less familiar sound of an old dial-up modem will still resonate with viewers for a few more years, enough to make them laugh and nod their heads in recognition. Period pieces will never go away entirely -- it really just depends what period is most relevant to the viewers.

And to end on a slightly more positive note, I think it may actually be the 1950s and early 1960s themselves that are at a peculiar disadvantage in this discussion. Let's face it, this was a relatively boring decade plus in the United States. The Eisenhower administration was a remarkably stable time, a Korean War here and there notwithstanding. Music was light and fluffy, people seemed innocent. Movies set just ten years earlier will probably continue to resonate with people long after the 1950s have become a permanently square topic for mainstream films. In the 1940s, you had World War II, and the post-Depression hardscrabble existence being experienced by most Americans.

Maybe the problem with movies set in the 1950s and early 1960s is the absence of conflict. Because after all, isn't that one of the basic cornerstones of narrative filmmaking -- conflict? The more epic the better? This era was bookended by periods of heavy conflict -- World War II on one side, Vietnam on the other. What came in the middle was just pompadour haircuts and waitresses on rollerskates.

So if I'm saying the Twilight generation doesn't want to watch something because it's too frivolous, well, I guess that's about the best compliment I can give them. And if true, it's quite the paradox indeed.


Mike Lippert said...

It's so strange that, first with The Wackness and now Middle Men that the 90s can already be considered for period movies.

Personally I just found out about Flipped last week. I have no idea what it's about, who is in it or that Rob Reiner was even working on a new movie but I hope it's good, the man needs a serious career overhaul.

It would be nice, if it were good, that this movie found an audience. These movies are getting so rare, especially during the summer that we should support them when we can, unless it's about the same quality of Reiners past couple decades worth of stuff, in which case, screw it.

Don Handsome said...

What the hell is Flipped?

Its funny because this film is not at all well known where I live - in Chicago. You make reference to it recieving a big push in LA, but this is not at all so here.

Poking around, I found out that it was suppossed to (maybe) be released here today, but that is not true as its not playing at any theater - though the release date is still listed as August 6th. I haven't seen one preview, print ad, poster, or ANYTHING about it. I had never heard of it before I read your post. I'm wondering if they just think the early 60s don't play in the midwest.

In also think its sad that Reiner can only command a staggered/small release these days. Add This is Spinal Tap to the poster along with Harry... and Stand By Me and I'd think that his flick could open anywhere.

Vancetastic said...

Yep, as evidenced by both of your comments, this seems like one of those times that I have a different perspective by being shielded in the cocoon of the biggest city for movies. It looks like Flipped doesn't open wide until three weeks from today -- a far more tradition release date for a film that they're taking a risk on it. (The weekend before Labor Day always gets the ass end of the stick in terms of new films, doesn't it?) So I guess we will withhold judgment on the film's success with audiences until early September ...

Mike, I had forgotten that The Wackness was a period piece per se. Then again, that doesn't surprise me, as I found the whole film fairly forgettable. Wondering if you happened to notice, however, that it contains a brilliantly shot shower scene that is totally out of synch with the rest of the movie in terms of its tone and quality. I'd like to watch that shower scene again, and not because it contained anything titillating.

Don, I don't think they'd put This Is Spinal Tap up there because Spinal Tap is so different from this in form and function. It would be like saying The Godfather was "from the director of Jack!" If that weren't a violation of chronological rules in terms of release dates, that is. However, I think you were just putting in a plug for how awesome Spinal Tap is, rather than making a real point.

Mike Lippert said...

Ha, Godfather from the director of Jack. Spot on.

I''m not sure about Don's statement that Reiner can't open a movie big anymore. As far as I can tell just about every movie Reiner has ever made has been released wide and wasn't the Bucket List quite a hit despite it being crap? If anything the studio is doing the right thing with this by going the tradition route of a staggered opening. I hope, if it's good, it gains good word of mouth and can become a moderate hit.

Vancetastic said...

The most interesting thing, to me, about The Bucket List is its pervasive influence on the zeitgeist. As far as I'm aware, before that movie, no one had ever heard of a bucket list -- I think the movie coined the phrase. Now, however, everyone knows what a bucket list is, even if most of them haven't seen the movie -- which is, in fact, quite bad. Rarely do you see such obvious green screens in place of a travel budget.