I spent the weekend in Telluride. And I had a variety of conversations with people whom I love and like, people I don’t know, and even some people I don’t much care for. (If you are wondering where you fit in that, know that you may well be wrong, and I am happy to clarify with anyone… and even change that status, which also happened a bit this weekend.)
But aside from the movies (more coverage to come), my takeaway from the weekend (and from much of my life working this industry for decades) is that the most and least insightful people carry some of the same blind spots in this business.
I often recall a conversation with Michael Moses (before he was knighted) about a movie that I wrote a complex and negative review of, in which he asked why I couldn’t just watch a (commercial) movie and not pick it apart so aggressively. That is was just a movie.
I have spent years lingering on that question. He was right on some level. And over the years, I have completely stopped writing negatively about movies with a low profile, whether in the week-to-week of releases or at festivals. My voice may not truly damage a movie (at the peak of my historic “power” or at the bottom), but why add another weight of any size on something trying desperately to get off the ground? I feel free to be as positive or negative as I feel about films that have a clear runway to take off.
As a critic, the egoless claim of “protecting the public” is, almost always, bullshit. Being a critic is a performative act. There are very few in the position of a Tony Scott or Manohla Dargis, empowered by a great leading voice outlet to stay focused on their work as critics, first. When they want to write a book or something, they take leave from the daily critical grind. You may or may not agree with them about this movie or that, but they have the glorious (earned) luxury of not self-promoting.
Roger Ebert, a generation older, came from a time when being at his beloved Chicago Sun-Times meant warring with The Chicago Tribune. As passionate and pure as his opinions were, there was a certain showmanship as a “newspaperman” that was part of his core, made even more dramatic by his television life. He loved that.
But back to me…
If you are reading this today, you are either in the movie and television business or keenly interested enough to engage in this time-consuming non-news read. We are not saving people from burning buildings. But this is not a criticism. Very few people choose to make that their life.
Speaking only for myself, I love the entertainment industry. I have spent years of my life actively in the making of theater and of television and of film and most of my adult life now writing about it rather than trying to participate in the making of these arts that I so dearly love. I suppose I relegated myself to professional voyeur after finding that my passions and my personal skill set didn’t fit well into the making of things, though I was fortunate to get a solid early footholds in each arena. While I dreamt of a mentor to help me sand my edges, I never found one. My eventual success as a journalist brought me pleasure and stuck long enough that it became me.
Point is, there is nothing in this industry, except money, that demands as a fundamental of living to be taken seriously.
Is it because of this that the players, high and low, fight for every inch of their turf like their lives depended on it?
That the stakes are so low that it leaves an aching feeling in the back of our egos that it could all disappear at any moment because so little of it was of deep value in the first place?
I do think that is part of it and that this is more true the higher up the food chain you live.
But I also think that a major way this anxiety is walled off, which infects the highest and the lowest on the power ladder, is habit. Habit alleviates the fear. Do what has been done and success will be as sweet and failure will not be attributed to a choice you made that had not been made a million times before.
We all have habits. They do protect us in our lives. Some are destructive. But on average, our Matrix lives are protective and often allow creativity that would be much, much harder without the foundation of habit.
But the problem with habit, in an eco-system like the tv/film business, is that it can become a trap as much as solid grounding from which everyone can push forward.
For me, one of those traps against which I still rail, is simply deciding that some things just aren’t worth caring about anymore.
Over my near-40 years in the entertainment industry, I have been lived through Broadway being shuttered for lack of interest, sitcoms dying, hour-long television dying, movies in theaters meaning nothing (for 20 years now), studios being declared dead, etc, etc, etc.
Things change. This is undeniable. But the intense desire to shut one door before opening the next, it seems to me, is as often as not about habit. The fear kicks in when the next habit is unsure. So sharpen the blade and cut the cord.. NOW! There can only be one defined set of valuations at a time. And if you don’t believe this, you have to be a fantasist or a Luddite.
Now I have unfairly manipulated this into a demand for more flexibility and fearlessness and that is asking too much. Sorry. I am good at backing people into corners and very few people are comfortable fighting their way out. I get it. This is why some people think I am mean… but that is a whole different column.
Point is… he says again… one danger of the power of fairly narrow habits driving an industry of imagination and manipulation is that The Smarties who can see the lines then become cynical and dismissive of the entire machine. None of it inhales and exhales in the way humans should - mostly unconsciously and occasionally with deep life-sustaining purpose - so none of it means anything.
Different smart people have dismissed different things as meaningless. Sometimes these choices are self-serving, sometimes they are based on deeply held and sincere beliefs, sometimes people are just exhausted.
What is so hard is that there is the conversation about the machine (aka habit) and the conversation about meaning. They become harder and harder to separate with any clarity. Valuations are held differently, both in personal ideas and within corporations. Admitting out loud that there is a difference - especially in success - requires almost inhuman self-insight. And then we all add our personal baggage.
I am both sympathetic and empathetic on this. I am not slapping at anyone, least of all people with whom I have had recent conversations about these issues, explicit or inferred.
But I see almost every choice to detach from the ambition of making every single event in the world of the industry its best as a defeat… not only does it detach that event (failure at some percentage of events is always inevitable), but it inevitably creeps onto the next event and the next event and the next event like Venom, an unquenchable symbiote…
… because habit.
It All Means Nothing vs It All Means Everything.
None of us can live worrying or thinking about, much less doing, everything. So every one of us, high and low, is a steward of the future of the industry. The good choices matter. The bad choices matter. The habits matter and breaking of habit matters.
The answer is not always success. This will forever be a 20% success industry and all those algo-zombies who think they can analyze the film and television industry like widgets (a non-specific product bought by customers for non-specific reasons) are just fooling themselves. So just deal with the fact that only $3 billion of your $15 billion annual content spend is going to be what keeps your lights on… and you will never know better (by more than a 10% swing for the greatest programming geniuses ever) which part of the $15 billion is going to be diamonds.
So my choice is to care about all of it and simply not deal with the massive bulk which is too much for me, as a human, to process. I get pulled into to new areas now and again. But like everyone else, a lot of my focus is not being focused. Because you can’t.
But it makes me so sad when I hear - and I hear it all the time - “It doesn’t matter.”
Of course it doesn’t matter. How can anything matter in an industry of emotion, spending fortunes on pretty pictures while people live in the street and go to bed hungry, worrying about what this one influencer or another might say even when the influence is unproven and unlikely, spinning and spinning and spinning… nothing can really matter.
But then, you breath in the work. And nothing matters more. On whatever size screen, in whatever genre, in whatever venue from IMAX to iPad… the art can give you life.
And then you have to support it. So you build this machine. And some are in it for the money and some are in it for the love and most are in it for some mixture of the two.
As the machine grows, habits form. Styles come and go. Sometimes, life changing events - whether color, sound or Netflix - arrive and the machines need to be rebuilt and the habits made habitual again. All in the name of the sharing of human ideas… or money… or both…
In a moment of transition like this, when so much is on the table, and very real decisions are being made every day - not just logrolling - that can truly change everything… and like the work itself, one never knows what the event that becomes the tipping point will be… these are, to me, the moments to be the most passionate, the most invested in seeking only the best of ourselves and of our industry.
There is a reason we all have chosen this industry as a part of our path. It fucking matters. To us, if to no one else. We can’t explain why it matters on a chart. It just does.
I truly hear every voice that says, “It doesn’t matter,” for all the thousands of reasons people throw their up their hands. And in the harsh light of day, yeah. But then you see Roger Deakins light the inside of an old 80s movie theater (or “set,” if you must) and it matters.
And if that matters, every nasty, cynical, habitual, broken, defensive, fearful other step… they matter too. Every single one. Sorry.
Caring is tragic, on some level. But if overcoming futility was not possible, there would be no movies or television shows or plays to watch. Is that what we want? Because not caring is the path.
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