Filmism.net Dispatch November 8, 2022

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In this filmism.net dispatch I'm talking about alchemy.

Decades after a film has been released, there's every chance it will have a couple of casual fans or more likely be completely forgotten. Or it might have such a dedicated following it's an industry all its own, like Star Wars or Harry Potter.

I want to pose the question; what causes that to happen with some films and not others?

To start with, alchemy happens because there are different kinds of fandom. Your average Marvel devotee is going to have a quite different approach to and love for films than those of Krzysztof Kieślowski's three colours trilogy or the canon of Rainer Fassbinder.

There are also several different kinds of enduring success. Star Wars and Harry Potter aren't really examples of what I'm talking about because they're successful simply through the brute force of brand name recognition and market breadth.

The original Star Wars was a lucky hit, and it spawned its own content industry that's churning out more material these days (and which gets global-level marketing support) than ever. Harry Potter subsumed the widespread love of the book series and ran with it.

But consider the ongoing love for movies like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Evil Dead . The reason they're still influential is because of alchemy.

Now, that alchemy is mysterious but it's not magic. It can also be different for each film. Often it's because film fans experience the tension between wanting to be one of the crowd but have their own tastes. Certain film fans love certain stuff just because of the counter-programming nature of its creative milieu.

For example, I've just read Quentin Tarantino's Cinema Speculation, where he loosely chronicles his favourite films of the 70s, and in 1977 while the rest of the developed world was lining up for Star Wars, he was going to see revenge drama Rolling Thunder every chance he could.

The term one can apply to a lot of film alchemy is 'cult'. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was made specifically to become a cult film. Office Space was made for the cinema era but before the movie industry even knew what was going on there was an army of kids going to video stores who'd end up making it a hit when everyone involved had already written it off.

Showgirls, Mommie Dearest and The Room all had similar paths to glory. Fans embraced their own ironic love for how terrible they were and the studios were then smart enough to lean in, marketing them as shlock you can enjoy making fun of with other fans in midnight screenings, encouraged to behave badly, talk, sing and in the case of The Room, even throw footballs around.

In fact I still remember the narrative about the film pushed all over the world by the distributor; 'the Citizen Kane of bad movies'.

After all, the impetus to see a movie everyone's talking about (even if it's for all the wrong reasons; see A Serbian Film or Martyrs) has a strong pull on cinema fans, and it's a very legitimate trading strategy in the content marketplace. Distributors don't care if you go to stroke your chin and consider themes of man's inhumanity to man or throw popcorn and stamp your feet as long as you pay your money.

The appeal of some midnight screening stalwarts like Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are more obvious; we all love the music, and what better time to belt it out with the cast on screen does so, all while enjoying the subversive pleasure of staying out late?

But there are other examples that are even harder to explain. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing horror maestro Mick Garris and one of the topics that came up for discussion is 1993's Hocus Pocus, the story of three witches starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimiy which he wrote.

It was a middling success at the time, didn't get a rush of midnight screenings and didn't make a particularly big splash on VHS or DVD. But it's now considered a holiday staple around the US Halloween season, so much so that Disney committed to a sequel that played in September 2022.

The only possible explanation for the ongoing love of an unspectacular 30 year old film is because the Disney cable channel took to airing it in America every October leading up the holidays. That was enough to make a whole new generation embrace it, but why, exactly? What is it in the film itself that's so watchable and repeatable, like a warm blanket for so many?

Alchemy appears at the opposite end of the industry too. In one case, a cheaply shot, Florida-made porno became a countercultural statement despite even the director later saying it wasn't very good.

Mainstream audiences lined up for Deep Throat, Hollywood stars came out in support, it was adopted as the dividing line between competing political outlooks in America and even though the money all went to mob bagmen, it's often touted as the most profitable film ever made.

But why that grubby grot flick as opposed to a million others? Of all the reasons movies endure it's maybe the least explicable. It went viral in the analogue era for the same reason the is-the-dress-blue-or-white, the Harlem Shake or a million other memes would later in the digital age. Alchemy.

The closest modern approximation of Deep Throat is probably Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic drama written with all the talent of a barely literate teenager and emerging from a million better-made contemporary erotic fiction to go not just mainstream but become a phenomenon.

The other thing about alchemy is that it often takes time to kick in properly. Look at the big hits of any year and it'll be a catalogue of examples of films you barely remember exist, let alone still like.

Consider Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School, black comedy Ruthless People or meatheaded action cop drama Cobra, the film Stallone wanted Beverly Hills Cop to be a couple of years before?

It might surprise you, but they all appear in the list of top grossing films from 1986 right alongside others we're still loving, quoting and sequelising a generation later including Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Aliens and Stand By Me.

Why are some forgotten and some remembered fondly? Sometimes it's obvious. We all loved the story of Ferris Bueller because of the wish fulfilment. Girls wanted Ferris, boys wanted to be him. We all loved Aliens because the filmmaking arts elevated already great characters.

In America they loved Crocodile Dundee because Paul Hogan's shrimp on the barbie ads were so popular. Decades later another Australian caricature would conquer the US media landscape in the form of Steve Irwin, who turned the larrikin meter up to 11 for the benefit of American audiences all over again.

In an age where gay culture wasn't nearly as accepted, we didn't realise how homoerotic Top Gun was and accepted it as the pinnacle of everything Hollywood traded in; testosterone, speed, power, action, confidence and beauty.

But honestly, what did those films have that the likes of supernatural Eddie Murphy comedy The Golden Child or Nick Nolte/Richard Dreyfuss fish out of water comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills didn't?

One particularly astute observation I saw on social Q&A website Quora, when comparing the well-resourced Sony/Marvel misfire Morbius and Sam Raimi's scrappy, low budget debut horror feature said (sic) ;

"No character development, no real consequences to actions, and they made what could be a great villain into a typical antihero. It's a horrible movie that exists to exist, because the producers just wanted to add a character to the sonyverse roster so they can make money off of the merchandising, marvel crowd, and potential sequels.

...when you watch The Evil Dead you get a coherent story, you know what the goal is, you get what the problem is, and you start to get into it regardless of the quality. You gain a level of attachment to it which outweighs the good, the bad, and the ugly details to the film."

Might that be the filthiest of dirty little secrets in Hollywood, that unless you're purposely making a grindhouse classic machine-tooled to recoup its money in cheap midnight screenings over the next three decades, it's story and character that make a movie endure through the ages?

And, following on from the above logic, does that mean Deep Throat is actually a great story full of characters that are easy to invest in?

I've seen lots of great stuff on screens recently. I really enjoyed Val, Val Kilmer's autobiographical documentary. For a star who had a reputation of being impossible to work with and causing so much friction and effectively derailed his career because of it, it's a very brave and frank warts and all film about his life and career.

Zoe was a blink and you'll miss it romantic drama from a few years back. The Léa Seydoux/Ewan McGregor starrer asks a few questions about our relationship to technology, but even though it cuts a few corners to concentrate on the development of the love story, it's a very effective love story.

And lastly, since we were talking about movies that have long lives, Top Gun: Maverick is the very model of how to do a sequel right. It takes what made the first film great, and expands the human side of what the characters face. I might even go as far as saying it surpasses the original.

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