Motor City Mayhem

Detroit is a movie you won’t forget. Or at least I won’t. It is brilliantly infuriating, difficult to watch and necessary to experience. If we as a country – or really as a people – are to begin to figure out how to move forward with the remnants of 2017 life, it’s a starting point. Not the only one but a possible one.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are both white and yet have chosen to tell a historical story that can be read as part of the ongoing story of the White patriarchal repression of Blacks. This has already created a side controversy that one realizes, after seeing the film, provides endless intellectual fodder but is sort of beside the point.

More to the issue is that if the arts can play some small part in bridging the gap between where we were, where we are and where we hope to be, Detroit should become a potent and powerful conversation starter. It’s that unrelenting and uncompromising.

…. but this time, the hype is real

Watching the film at a Writers Guild screening of people of all sorts of colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, it was clear the entire audience was emotionally gutted and awake. This was a Hollywood film made by whites where no white savior came in to save the day or even the score for the poor, put upon downtrodden.   We will never know what any other filmmaker of any other color would do with the same material – for better or worse – but at the moment Detroit is what we have of one hideous incident in one particularly hideous moment in our past.

This, by the way, is not meant to be congratulatory in any sort of way. There are no congratulations to be had in any discussion of this debacle.

Fifty years ago a racist patrolman in Detroit led a small group of law enforcers to alternately beat, torture and murder a small group of innocent Black men hanging out at the local Algiers Motel.

Detroit burns in July 1967

It was an explosive, ugly time of race riots and social injustice in big cities all across the country, but most especially in in the Motor City where an almost all White police force (93%) were tasked with holding the line on the residents of a fast-growing Black city (30%).

The unfolding story of the movie Detroit uses the ever-growing popular method of plopping its audience directly into the dramatic center of its narrative and trusting that in the age of web surfing, iPhone clicking and incessantly intense game-playing it will be able to play catch up.

Recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk do this and go for the big overall visceral reaction at the expense of individual character development and emotional nuance. Others like Atomic Blonde provide a couple of Irving the Explainer scenes of incoherent exposition and then have us settle down so we can watch the real entertainment – some larger than life extended violence where an unlikely hero/heroine (and who better than Charlize Theron) beats the crap out of everyone in slight we’d like to pulverize if were we six feet tall and had the benefit of hair, makeup and extensive martial arts training by stunt coordinator experts.

Charlize looking a little different from her Mad Max days  #oliviapopejacket

Detroit, however, is not about sensationalized hollow victories or a dramatic retelling of heroism under the thematic banner that War is Hell. It only starts out as a generalized expression of the Big Idea and a pastiche of characters one never gets to really know yet follows along into over-the-top battles. Its power is that it does all of this and then, at some unsuspecting point once this is all established, gets real specific, real fast. And stays there and unfolds for the essential body of the work – a kind of American horror movie gone wrong in a period motel hallway. And then goes on from there to show something about how we lived then. And ask the question if, at the end of the day, it’s really all that different than the way we live now – or is now just a cleaned up version?

Suffice it to say that at the end your visceral nerve endings are not only more than met but you also didn’t need chunks of exposition or violently musical YouTube-like video sequences to do it for you. There are actually real people to watch doing unfortunately all too human things that prompt all too human reactions that go on and on and on. As we say in screenwriting class, in science and in psychotherapy – cause and effect, real cause and effect. For every action is there is a reaction – one that is logical and one, in the movie Detroit, anyway, that you can follow.

… and countless other movies used for the exact opposite purpose

When asked the often-dreaded question of how he approached the material in a talkback afterwards, screenwriter Mark Boal said that he essentially saw this as a movie about an artist whose life was derailed. That, and a good deal of research, and talent, is probably a large part of the reason that the script for Detroit works so well. Call me old-fashioned but if you don’t know or care about the people (in this real-life case an aspiring young Motown-type singer) what do you really have? As a writer you need to find a way in. You can’t effectively write an issue or a historical event.

Sure, you can film it and use all sorts of technique, CGI and camera tricks to forge effective mass entertainment. But at the end of the day, what do you really have? What are you telling us that we didn’t already know, or need to be reminded of?

Certainly, movies can succeed solely on mass entertainment value, escapism, cheap thrills and recycled messages. Many of these films are highly watchable and superbly executed. But we’ve reached a point in the business where we have gotten used to the former and forgotten films like Detroit. Go see it and consider this a reminder.

But you can still go see Jon Hamm and this terrible haircut in Baby Driver #iunderstand

That might be a good way to end but it would be an oversight not to single out the mammoth filmmaking skills of Kathryn Bigelow here.   A two-year DGA study at the end of 2015 noted women account for 6.4% of film directors and just 3% of major box office films.  But let’s be kind and say the numbers have gone up slightly in the last year and a half. Still, that’s pretty piss poor.

When you watch Detroit you don’t so much ask yourself, how did she do that shot but in what world was she able to integrate all those disparate scenes and themes so convincingly, recreate an often botched decade of American history (the sixties) on film so convincingly and get those performances out of those actors so effortlessly? Heck if I know.

That girl #shesgotit #sheknowsit

It makes you wonder how many hundreds of other potential Kathryn Bigelows there are out there. Filmmakers who are female, or perhaps non-white, non-heterosexual or non gender binary, who might never get the chance. And how many of those stories are yet to be told. Not only through the entertainment industry but in any other American industry.

That would be one way to truly Make America Great again.

The Dramatics – “All Because of You” 

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OOOOHH BABY (DRIVER)!

Baby Driver is the sleeper box-office hit of the summer and a movie not without its charms.

It has pretty much redefined movie music for the future by creating a title character so enmeshed in what’s coming through his headphones that the song choices become not only an essential part of the narrative but, at times, the narrative itself.

It also creates a space for its lead, Ansel Elgort, to step forward and assume true movie star status – not merely in box-office dollars but in presence. It’s hard to imagine any other young actor with the charisma, dramatic heft and self-effacing charm to anchor the mind-boggling acts of passion going on around him done in the name of money, speed and most importantly, love.

Meanwhile… “What’s an Ansel Elgort?”

But chiefly, it arrives at a time where as a country – and world – we all need two hours of escape from reality through an imaginary city where, in the end, justice is served in an untraditional yet somewhat believable fashion given the context of what’s come before.

The latter is key in both a positive and negative way. For although Baby Driver delivers on so many levels it also falls short in several key departments – realism. And…realism.

Wait.. people aren’t this good looking in real life?

Of course, reality these days feels a bit unreal so perhaps that isn’t necessarily a fault. Unless, of course, one attends movies to see some reflection of life as one has experienced it, or even hopes to experience it.

It’s hard these days to be an audience member who prefers the more human musings of 2017 cinema like The Book of Henry and Dean. That statement in itself might feel oxymoronic since one of those films takes place in a pushed reality fantasy and the other follows the angsty life of a Brooklyn cartoonist whose drawings push the narrative at least one third of its 87 minute running time.

Still, neither of those films depends on relentless violence and over-the-top action sequences. Nor do their stories throw human logic out the window and halfway through turn into a Road Runner cartoon, a comic book or a horror fantasy.

Plus.. this Jon Hamm haircut #youareforgiven

I mention the last three examples because if one looks at movies in terms of box-office returns/deliverable profits it’s easy to see the issue with people like myself – those of us who wish Francois Truffaut were still alive and active on the film scene, or that at least Paul Thomas Anderson and Kimberly Pierce made more movies.

WWFTD?

Here are the top 10 top grossing 2017 films domestically:

  1. Beauty and the Beast – $503,940,432
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – $384,949,006
  3. Wonder Woman – $361,591,191
  4. Logan – $226, 275, 826
  5. Fate of the Furious – $225,587,340
  6. The Lego Batman Movie – $175,750,384
  7. Get Out – $175,484,140
  8. The Boss Baby – $173,782,946
  9. Kong Skull Island – $168,052, 812
  10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Vol. 623 – $167,980,297

Oh, and the list is almost exactly the same for worldwide grosses, except Get Out and Pirates move down to the top 20 and Transformers: The Last Knight and Fifty Shades Darker move up from #15 and #14 to #9 and #10.

More like FIFTY SHADES MORE BORING #nochemistry  #snooooze

Not to mention — the worldwide box-office grosses for the top 10 range from $1,259,744,572 (that’s Billion, with a B), down to a measly $378.8 million.

Obviously realism, or as I call it in my more bitter moviegoer moods – basic logic – doesn’t count for very much anymore.

I can’t even go there

What is logical in a capitalistic society – especially in business – is profit. Money. Though the type of movies at the tops of the chart on the whole cost a lot more than the smaller ones down towards the bottom, their international markets and ancillary revenue streams have increased so much that studios need merely one or two massive tentpoles every few years in order to justify all of the other risks.

That is, if this is merely a numbers game.

… and some numbers are not so great #sorrytommy

Having begun my career as a bit of a reluctant box-office guru when I was a reporter at Daily Variety in 1979, I can’t help but feel disheartened. I started the weekly national box-office story at the paper then out of sheer confusion over the scattershot press releases we would receive about how “outstanding” every big film opening was doing.   Decades later it’s turned into pretty much almost anything anyone in the movie business – and that includes too many movie fans – thinks about. And in the case of most every decision maker at the studios, cares about.

Not to say it was not always mostly this way for the studio suits in the old days or recent past. But at least there was a bit more of a balance.

As evidenced by Feud’s Jack Warner #ohhediditagain #moneytalks

The Hurt Locker was released in June. Forrest Gump (not my fave, but still…) came out in July. Heck, even All the President’s Men first appeared in April.

Where are their 2017 equivalents?

Don’t write in with a list of foreign films, limited releases, bomb studio 2017 movies or tell me to stream Netflix, Amazon or _____________. I get it and I do. We’re talking Movies here.

That said, the new Spiderman (Homecoming) has soared past $100,000,000 domestically in its 3-day opening this weekend.

As John Oliver would say, “Good work, Spider Twerp”

That’s the sixth Spiderman film in 15 years even though this one is considered to be NEW – meaning it’s a SECOND reboot of the franchise with a new director and star.

I haven’t seen it yet but I do know when it comes to 2017 realities one could do a lot worse.

Though seriously, that’s a pretty lame excuse. Isn’t it?

Boga – “Nowhere to Run”