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Oscar Season Chat #2: A Conversation with Reviewer Stephen Whitty

Oscar Season Chat #2:  A Conversation with Reviewer Stephen Whitty

At a time of the year that’s all about picking the best of the best among movies, it seems singularly appropriate to talk to someone whose year-round profession is assaying the good and the bad up on the big screen.

“I’m one of the few people on the paper who’s never had a journalism class, and I’m one of the few people reviewing movies who’s actually studied movies, made movies.” Stephen Whitty is talking about his job as movie critic for The Star-Ledger, the biggest newspaper in New Jersey.  Whitty came to The Ledger 13 years ago after a ten-year stint at the San Jose Mercury News.

The reference to making movies stems from his time as a student in the film department at New York University, one of the two most respected cinema studies programs in the U.S. (the other being at UCLA).  Whitty hadn’t gone into NYU with ambitions of being a movie critic.  But, “I didn’t like directing.  You have to deal with a lot of people as a director, and whatever it is somebody has to have in their personality to deal with everybody else’s headaches, I didn’t have.  I found myself gravitating toward the solitary things:  editing, writing movies, writing about movies…”

Some might think being a movie critic to be a dream job:  doing nothing but going to movies every day.  But, it requires a certain kind of psychological stamina to sit through the 300 or so pictures Whitty sees each year – most of them not particularly satisfying.  “You’re sitting there watching Madonna in Swept Away (2002) at 10 a.m. and you start wondering, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then I have to peek at my pay stub to remind myself, ‘Oh, that’s why I’m here!’”

It also requires a boundless enthusiasm for the medium, the kind where even after sitting through a day’s worth of the latest Hollywood mind-killers, Whitty can still go home, flip on the TV and “…see what Turner has on tonight.”

In the correspondence he receives at work, and sometimes even when he is personally approached, he’s had to deal with critiques of his critiques; accusations of snobbery, of a “taste gap” between the critical community and “normal people.”  He remembers one woman who told him she could always tell she was going to like a movie by the fact Whitty had panned it.

Whitty has an explanation and it has nothing to do with snobbery.  “What people don’t understand is that I see maybe ten times as many movies as the average moviegoer – and that’s only what I see for the job!  A typical person who likes going to the movies might go three times a month.  A more casual goer; maybe once a month.  A lot of people go to the movies only three times a year or so.  For them, it’s like eating out.  Maybe they didn’t go to a fancy restaurant, and the food wasn’t five-star, but they think, ‘Well, the veal parmagiana was pretty good, it was ok, the place was nice…’  Nothing too special; they had a pleasant night out.  For me, it’s like going out to eat every night, and it’s, ‘Oh, God, I ate this fifty times before!’

“You see so many movies novelty becomes more important to you.  You’re hungry to see something even a little different.  You don’t need to see yet another shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger – or whoever – running in slow motion toward the screen, jumping for safety as some huge explosion goes off behind him.

“I know that people go to movies for all kinds of reasons.  I try to take that into account when I’m reviewing a movie.  I’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t like it, but it works if you’re looking for a certain thing.’ I try to point out why I didn’t like something, and give it some kind of historical context; how a certain movie – or kind of movie – fits in with a trend, how it compares to movies of the same type that came before.

“If you’re going to be useful to people, you need to be consistent in your criticism.”  He points to the woman who used his pans as a barometer of what she’d like, and laughs.  “If you know what you’ll like by what I hate, I’m doing my job.”  He points out that despite the suspicion of some sort of cultural gulf between movie critics and typical ticket buyers, they’re not as far apart as some might think.  “I’ll tell you, if the average moviegoer looked at my top ten picks from a year, they may not have been everybody’s favorites, but I don’t think they’d disagree with me.  And if they saw my bottom five, I doubt anybody’d defend them.”

The trends in movies from the 1960s to the present, Whitty believes, reflect the evolving conditions of the motion picture business.  “In the 1960s, the studios had lost touch with the audience.  They were making all these big, gaudy, period musicals and people weren’t going.  Then you had this explosion of really inventive filmmaking in the 1970s, all these new directors coming into the business:  Coppola, Scorsese… The success of Easy Rider (1969)had kicked off a lot of interest in young filmmakers, and that opened the door for young directors most of whom hadn’t really done that much.  Look at William Friedkin.  His big movie prior to The French Connection (1971) was The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) and that’s it.”

Coppola had his The Godfather (1972), Spielberg had his Jaws (1975), Friedkin had The French Connection and The Exorcist (1973); the tyros of the early 1970s pumped out a string of major commercial hits, which, in an ironic twist, was also their undoing.  Their incredible initial successes bought them a creative and financial carte blanche from the studios.  They were given even more money and latitude with which to indulge their creative visions.  As suddenly as the rising class of young directors had all – within a surprisingly short space of time – delivered major successes, they all, just as suddenly and in an equally concentrated period, stumbled.  “Scorsese had New York, New York (1977), Friedkin had Sorcerer (1977), Spielberg had 1941 (1979), Bogdonavich had They All Laughed (1981)…all of them had a big, expensive flop.  The result was the studios, in the 1980s, they retrenched, they started to rein these directors in.  ‘We’re going to exert more control,’ they said.  So then scripts would get written, and re-written, and re-written the way the studio wanted them.  ‘We’re going to test movies.’”

There were other forces at work as well, spawned by the massive success of pictures like Jaws and Star Wars (1977). “With Jaws, (producers Richard) Zanuck and (David) Brown and (director Steven) Spielberg realized you could make a lot of money if you could sell a movie to the same people over and over again.” The kind of box office grosses a movie like Jaws attains, says Whitty, indicates a lot of repeat business, and repeat ticket buyers are invariably young.  The business of turning out blockbuster hits, according to Whitty, has, consequently, become “…very much kid-driven.  It has been all the way back to Jaws.” The result has been “…these Jerry Bruckheimer kinds of movies that make most of their money off kids.  You make a movie that appeals to a 12-year-old so that he can come back next week and bring his friends.”

The box office dynamic of such movies is highly marketing-driven.  “Big movies depend on making more and more of their money on their first weekend, with typically huge drop-offs in the second week.”  Massive marketing campaigns create a sense of awareness and anticipation which can create an opening box office surge for a movie regardless of its quality.

He cites the remake of Planet of the Apes (2001) as an example.  A familiar title, an extensive, lengthy, studio-mounted ad campaign for the movie prior to its opening, and the result is a tremendous debut weekend ($68.5 million).  “By the time the word-of mouth gets around and people realize the movie sucks, the money is already made” (Planet earned two-thirds of its domestic take in its first two weeks, ultimately grossing $180 million US when its theatrical run ended 25 weeks later).

Other examples:  Mission Impossible (1996) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000). “Neither of those movies made much sense,” says Whitty.  “After they’re over, they kind of evaporate.” Their releases, however, are textbook examples of how the modern big-budget thriller is packaged and marketed.  “You’ve got a recognizable title, a big star (Tom Cruise), and those pictures had promotional tie-ins everywhere to everything:  sunglasses, cars, you couldn’t get away from it.” That initial box office splash – however short-lived – creates a title awareness among consumers needed to maintain a movie’s momentum through ancillary venues.  Even if a movie flops in theaters, as long as the title is branded into the consumer’s consciousness, there’ll be people who will rent it when it comes to home video often out of a curiosity to see what it was which caused the movie to fail.  “You now have a situation where most movies make more money on DVD sales and the home video market than they do at the box office.”

It’s that easily promotable “hook” which has also made the movie “franchise” such a valuable and desired commodity i.e. the Lethal Weapons, Die Hards, Batmans, and so on.  The typical flaw with franchises is that once they’re established, Whitty observes, the successful elements of the initial success are often flogged lifeless.  “I mean, the first Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988), they were a bit over the top, but they were ok.  But then they just kept getting bigger and bigger and dumber…”  He considers the James Bond series:  “They were always over the top, but for me, the best one was From Russia with Love (1963). It had the most story, and the big action scene in the movie was just two men fighting in a train compartment.” Afterwards, when the series established itself with the hit Goldfinger (1964), the Bond pictures became about each succeeding installment outdoing the previous ones in terms of spectacle.  The stories, on the other hand, were increasingly reduced to contrivances serving little more purpose than to provide an excuse for a series of overblown action set-pieces.

Another evolutionary change came in industry distribution patterns.  Whitty recalls the “road shows” when a movie would premiere only in a limited number of venues.  “When I was a kid, a movie would open in New York and a couple of other big cities, then it would move to the smaller theaters, then smaller theaters, eventually to the drive-ins.” The change to wide, national releases, “…changed everything,” he asserts.  “I remember (one-time Paramount production chief) Robert Evans saying that when Paramount released The Godfather, they opened it on something like 300 screens, and that was the biggest release of any movie to that point.  These days, a release is more likely to be ten times that.  And, when you have a release that large, buying a quarter-page ad in newspapers isn’t going to do it.  You have to advertise on TV, and TV spots need to reduce the movie to easily digestible chunks.  They’re also enormously expensive, so now you have to throw that cost on to the cost of production, and that pushes you to look harder for movies you’re sure are going to hit big.  That answers the question of why anybody would make an expensive movie version of a lousy TV show like S.W.A.T. (the movie version was released in 2003).  It’s highly promotable.”

It also answers the question of why the contemporary thriller forms making up most blockbusters have become so dramatically stale as studio production executives crib elements from previous successes hoping to repeat the same box office performance.  It’s a strategy inevitably leading to creative stagnation.  “So many movies I see, twenty minutes in and I’m already thinking, ‘Ok, actually he’s not really dead, they just found someone else’s body…,’ or, ‘Right, ok, turns out she really had this twin sister nobody knew about…’  You sit watching a cop thriller and the minute some guy starts talking about how he’s almost set to retire and get on his fishing boat, you’re saying, ‘Ok, he’s a dead man.’”

Which brings Whitty to an oft repeated plaint among movie critics that the underlying problem with the current generation of moviemakers is a lack of real-world experience; the dramatic hollowness of their movies is the result of making movies that are really about other movies.   “There’s some validity to that.  Sometimes it’s nice to see the familiar, particularly in a genre picture.  The girl wakes up in the night, the lights go out, she’s walking the dark halls in this long robe, holding up the candle… You expect it, it’s comforting to see it.  But then do something with it.  Pulp Fiction (1994) is a movie inspired by a lot of other movies, but (Quentin) Tarantino pulled it off so inventively.

“I want to be surprised.  The Usual Suspects (1995) surprised me.  I’m not sure if I saw it again today that the story would actually hold up.  It seems like this criminal mastermind went through an awful lot of trouble just to put a bullet through somebody’s head, but it kept me interested; you couldn’t tell where it was going.  Memento (2000) was a movie with a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that worked quite nicely for that story.

“Freshness happens in the script.  The problem is that the studios have these things re-written over and over and over.  The stars are too involved in that process.  Nobody wants to play a bad guy, nobody wants to die in the end, or if they do they want to have a great death scene.”  Even after the movie is completed, Whitty continues, the process of trying to pre-fabricate success goes on:  “They have all these test screenings.  They take the picture out to some suburban mall, they grab kids off the street to watch these things.  Do you really want an army of kids to tell you how to fix a little thriller?”

Under this system, Hollywood pumps out an army of the predictable, the stale, the simplistic, so much so that eventually even critics’ standards begin to erode.  In Whitty’s view, critics have become so benumbed by the inferior that it doesn’t take too much to spark some enthusiasm from them, even for a movie that, in an earlier time, might not have fared so well in the press.  Spider-Man (2002), for example:  “This was no classic, but they actually had a credible romance in that picture, you saw characters make some interesting choices.  That was enough for that movie to get a lot of good press.”

For Whitty, an example of the 1970s antithesis to the current process – and one of the movies regularly cited by many critics as a height from which American cinema has fallen – is Chinatown (1974). “It’s about a lot of things.  It’s this great, classic, private eye mystery, but it’s also about power, corruption, the whole, bizarre history of how Los Angeles lost its water supply, got it back… The movie contains a ton of serious issues.”

It’s that textured storytelling – the careful layering of themes and subplots – Whitty finds distressingly lacking in so many of today’s major releases.  “I interviewed Larry Cohen.  He’d just hit it big with his script for Phone Booth (2003),but for much of his career he’s worked on low-budget movies and TV.  I remember him talking about when he was working as a writer on the old (1960s) TV Western series, Branded…”

The series concerned a cavalry officer – played by Chuck Connors — humiliatingly convicted of cowardice.  The series’ theme song inculcated the character’s dilemma in each episode:  “What do you do when you’re ‘branded’…and you know you’re a man.  Whatever you do for the rest of your life you’ll remain…‘branded’!”

“Cohen told me that when he was writing Branded, for him it was really about the McCarthy era.  I mean, there was nothing there you could see in the shows that told you this, but that was what he brought to it…that was the subtext.  Somehow Connors found out and when he did they fired Cohen right away.  But, that subtext (in today’s thrillers), that message…that’s the first thing they throw out.”

He cites the hit Black Hawk Down (2001). Though he feels there were some interesting things in the movie, what was more striking was what the movie lacked.  “There must’ve been some minorities in that unit that had some strong feelings about what they were doing there in Africa.  How did they feel?” A lot of military-themed action pictures avoid criticizing the military in order to gain the cooperation of the services so producers can use the personnel, facilities, and equipment on a scale allowing elaborate productions like Top Gun (1986), Black Hawk Down, and others.  “If something goes wrong in one of these movies, it’s always, ‘It’s the politicians’ fault,’ because that’s safe.  It’s never, ‘Was there something wrong with the plan?  Did we screw up?’”  In the process, however, potentially compelling stories become simplistic.  It’s not just the military moviemakers looking to avoid offending, says Whitty, but there seems to be a terror in contemporary Hollywood of having viewers make decisions and judgments about what’s happening on-screen.

He compares the movie We Were Soldiers (2002), with the 1993 source book, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young:  Ia Drang:  The Battle That Changed the War In Vietnam, a true account by Lt. Colonel Harold G. Moore (played in the movie by Mel Gibson), who commanded American troops during what would be one of the biggest battles of the Vietnam war, and Joseph L. Galloway.  In the book, Whitty says, there were incidents of cowardice, of men who threw down their weapons and ran.  The book also pointed out how shabbily soldiers returning to the States from Vietnam had been treated, not just by anti-war protestors but by the Veterans’ Administration as well.  In the movie, on the other hand, all of the soldiers acquit themselves bravely.  “If you make everybody in the movie a hero, then what does it mean to be a hero?”

The Bourne Identity (2002), he felt, tried to recapture some of the moral complexities of 1970s espionage tales.  “Basically, they tried to update the spy story for the younger audience.  What was interesting about it was it wasn’t just the bad guy vs. the good guy, but the bad guy vs. a not-as-bad guy.” As a rule, however, the studios seem to prefer their moralities clear and their endings upbeat, even in a pseudo-noir like L.A. Confidential (1997). For Whitty, a strong, compelling movie came apart in L.A.’s tacked on ending.  “That was a Hollywood ending,” he groans.  “It doesn’t fit the movie at all.  The ending in the (1990) novel (by James Ellroy) is absolutely despairing.”

Scripts today, Whitty opines, are not written; they’re built. “It’s Joel Silver telling you you have to have these ‘beats’ in a picture, you have to have one in the first ten minutes,” and regularly thereafter.  Whitty points out how older thrillers didn’t have the relentless, forward-pounding pace of today’s constructs.  “You look back at a picture like the original The Thing (from Another World) (1951)…, they’d take a scene to do nothing but establish characters.” Characterizations in such a well-crafted piece, he says, are so strong and credible that the nature of the threat is almost irrelevant.  “It could’ve been anything (in The Thing).  A disease outbreak, a killer on the loose, a fire…It didn’t matter, it didn’t have to be a monster.  You invested in the characters.  Alien (1979) worked for the same reason.  You had time to care about Sigourney Weaver and the other characters.”

Even Hitchcock, whose pictures were as meticulously constructed for effect as any in the industry – “He was upfront about the fact that he was building a roller coaster ride” – understood the value of character.  “You look at a movie like Vertigo (1958) or Shadow of a Doubt (1943); they’re very character-driven.” So, “What you have now is a lot of people making movies they don’t believe in.  You can only do right by what you believe in.”

Movies do surface that echo the interesting product of the past, but they rarely come out of the major studios. “Narc (2003) was a throwback.  It was gritty, dark, downbeat.  Some of the most interesting scenes in that movie had nothing to do with the plot.  There’s a scene where Ray Liotta and Jason Patric are called in to look at a murder scene.  The scene does very little to move the plot along, but it’s a chance to see the characters be.Liotta comes in, he sees this medical examiner he knows, ‘Hi, how you doing?,’ there’s some back and forth.  It’s a chance to get to know them.  But Narc didn’t make a lot of money, not the kind of money the studios look for, not like some big, stupid Die Hard 5 if they ever get around to making it (which, as it turns out, is scheduled for a 2012 release).

“The supernatural thriller The Others (2002) was another one, a throwback to movies like The Haunting (1963). No gore, all mood, very clever.” Even though The Others was a substantial success, Whitty doesn’t think it’s the kind of movie that changes studio mindsets because, “A killer in a hockey mask is still much easier to sell.”

Other favorites come from overseas.  “Every once in a while Claude Chabrol can still throw something into the mix worth seeing.”

Occasionally, the studios do release a similarly exemplary thriller.  Whitty points to Insomnia (2002), Road to Perdition (2002), and L.A. Confidential. “Those were all complicated, interesting stories done in interesting fashions, L.A. Confidential’s soft-hearted ending notwithstanding.” Still, overall, they were good movies with respectable box office grosses.  The problem for each of them was their high cost which Whitty thinks is more a sign of how the studios do business than with the drawing power of the movies themselves.  Whitty says the studio excuse is that only big, star-driven vehicles can make big money, but he calls the paradigm self-fulfilling.  “They’re committed to these aging $20 million per picture stars because they think that guarantees them a return, but once you sign them on your budget balloons and that causes you to try to tailor the movie into something that you think will make $100 million.

“You constantly hear the complaint from some directors that they want to work in the $20-40 million range, and at that range these kinds of movies could work quite well financially.  But the studios don’t want to hear that.  You either have to pitch the movie as being very small, or huge, otherwise they don’t want to hear about it.  Me, I would rather see ten $16 million movies instead of one $160 million movie, but the studio knows that that $160 million picture can get them a billion.”  He looks at Paramount’s Changing Lanes (2002), another movie he considers interesting and well-written and speculates on what it took to get it made.  “Would Paramount have made that movie without stupid The Sum of All Fears (2002) (which, like Lanes, starred Ben Affleck)?  I don’t think so.”

The irony, says Whitty, is that for all their calculations and tailorings, Hollywood’s batting average isn’t much better than it was back when tyro directors were given their heads and coming back with expensive flops like Heaven’s Gate (1980). “You can test and do the other things they do and still lose.”

A critic’s year, Whitty sighs, is rife with frustration.  “There’s an awful lot of bad movies out there.  You have to be an eternal optimist to get yourself back into a theater every day, hoping you’ll see something a little different.  In any given year, I could probably only recommend 10-15% of what I see.  I’m not even talking four-star pictures, or even necessarily American movies, but maybe just that 10-15%.” His voice turns hopeful, then:  “Still, that means 30-40 movies worth seeing.”

Ask him if he thinks there’s any chance of the situation changing and there’s a pause.  “If people support smart movies, yes.  The only thing Hollywood is committed to is making money.  But, it’s hard to get people to go.  I tell them, take a risk on something with subtitles.  Try a movie with people in it you don’t know.  Take a chance once in a while.  You might get a nice surprise.”

– Bill Mesce