Calling attention to independent movies, Roger Ebert said, “it’s a miracle any film gets made. Millions of tiny pieces have to come together.” It’s extremely difficult for independent filmmakers to finance their own projects while competing with profit-guzzling blockbusters that are backed by the mainstream film industry.
An example: According to Variety magazine, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, director Michael Bay’s explosion-laden sequel about wars between aliens and robots, was the first movie ever to receive full support from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. The military, funded by taxpayers, didn’t hesitate to provide the use of “Marine hovercrafts, Navy subs and nearly every kind of Army helicopter and Air Force plane in service… all coordinated through special arrangement with the Department of Defense.”
However, the U.S. military wouldn’t allow The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s insightful character study about an American bomb squad in Iraq, to film on their bases, let alone provide any assistance. Why not? Maybe because it wasn’t “realistic” enough. Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal said a senior military official defended their support of Transformers 2 by saying, seriously, “If we were going to fight aliens that’s how we would do it.”
This laughably skewed logic is hiding the fact that Transformers 2 was supported because it was expected to make money. And it did. Though it’s among the worst reviewed movies of 2009, Transformers 2 is one of the highest grossing movies of all time, reaping $400 million in the U.S., and at least $400 million more internationally.
On the other hand, The Hurt Locker is one of the best reviewed movies of 2009– critical consensus says the “well-acted, intensely shot” movie is “thus far the best of the recent dramatizations of the Iraq War.” Yet The Hurt Locker remained in limited release for weeks, depending on hard-earned word-of-mouth support to bring it to wider release and just $13 million in revenue.
Why such cognitive dissonance? It’s no secret that when times are tough, people go to the movies. Americans want to escape news of the recession and increasing unemployment. But why are they paying for shallow special effects and profit-seeking sequels, instead of an incredible movie that explores the minds of soldiers and the effects of war? This is a system in which pandering is rewarded and creativity is stifled.
This counter-intuitive cultural phenomenon doesn’t merely say that Americans have bad taste in movies. It says they’re growing increasingly apathetic, or lazy, and that they still believe that ignorance is bliss. This is why national topics like the healthcare debate are so misinformed. Media outlets would rather cash in on town hall spectacles instead of explaining why Kafka-esque misnomers like “death panel” are so absurd and damaging. Crucial issues like how to pay for healthcare reform are relatively under-the-radar, while almost every cable news program has given time to delusional conspiracy theorists who willfully ignore President Obama’s birth certificate.
This does not mark an ideological divide–the conservative columnist David Brooks, for example, has publicly denounced Sarah Palin’s “death panel” term as counterproductive and malignant. Instead, it marks an era of national malaise, in which the pursuit of truth and knowledge is being replaced by the pursuit of profit and scandal.
But hope remains. The Hurt Locker, with Oscar-nomination rumors faintly circulating and ever-increasing word-of-mouth support, represents the potential for thoughtful, smart movie-making, and honesty in American culture. And some Americans still seek honesty from their government and media, discussing the healthcare debate with civility and asking the questions that have to be asked. So all hope is not lost, but hope is slowly running out. And Transformers 3 is slated for the summer of 2012.