In This Episode
Moviegoing has changed a lot in the past several years, as movies have become increasingly niche and box offices dominated by derivative blockbusters. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have another golden age of cinema, even if it’ll be different from the ones in our past. Top Gun: Maverick managed to break the mold as a big budget action movie that quickly became a cultural touchstone for all kinds of Americans, proving, perhaps, that we can at least rekindle moviegoing, with movies everyone feels drawn to see.
Brian Beutler: Hi and welcome to Positively Dreadful, with me, your host, Brian Beutler. We wanted to stretch our wings here a bit this week, since we’re right in the heart of summer blockbuster season and talk about what’s happened to movies over the past, say, 15 or 20 years. As you know, we prep for these shows to be about unwelcomed trends in our politics and culture and everything in between. And it’s a constant challenge not to fall into the sort of get off my lawn trap. Certain things seem to be trending in an unfortunate direction, but that doesn’t mean the best thing would be to go back to the way things were when I was a teenager or a young adult, and everything seemed great because one, that’s definitely not the case. And two, there’s no challenge there, right? If you take a wrong turn along the way, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to retrace your steps all the way back and start over. So I don’t just want to complain that movies were better in my day. Why can’t we make movies like the ones I grew up with? But I do think that somewhere along the line, the pressures shaping filmmaking from the pandemic to technology to copyright to just straight up profit motive, kind of Balkanized movies, they steered budgets towards comic book movies and reboots, and we lost a broad middle of movies that weren’t necessarily big budget blockbusters and weren’t necessarily highbrow cinema, but were shared cultural artifacts that most people had some relationship with. And I get the sense, though, maybe I’m wrong, that most consumers of any generation do not prefer it this way. I don’t know exactly when this disjuncture began, but in my mind it’s the early to mid-aughts. There’s the first Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire, obviously, but beyond the comic book realm, Hollywood rebooted James Bond with Casino Royale and Batman with Batman Begins. And I really loved both of those films. I still watch them whenever I happen upon them. And I remember thinking, Wow, these directors and actors really rescued these franchises, and maybe we’re going to begin to take the best aspects of character driven hit dramas and infuse them into our big studio blockbusters, and everything will just level up a bit. Looking back now, 15 or 20 years later, that seems clearly wrong. And again, it’s not that movies are bad now. I’ve seen tons and tons of great ones since then, some of my favorites, but they’ve grown increasingly niche. They’re movies for people, not movies that you got to see because everyone’s talking about them. Anyhow, what really got me thinking about all this was Maverick, the new Top Gun movie, and some of the critical discourse around it. And, you know, in some ways, Maverick bears all the hallmarks of new big budget cinema. It’s a sequel. It’s like a huge billboard for the military industrial complex. It also does this weird thing where we’re supposed to be at war with a technologically superior enemy, but we can’t name the enemy because the only possible country that could be is China. And we can’t say that because think of all the money we’d lose if China banned Maverick. But despite all that, I loved it. I saw it twice in two weeks in the theaters, something I used to do all the time but haven’t done in years. And I noticed it’s become a cultural touchstone for all kinds of Americans as though the last two decades, never happened. And it made me think we can rekindle not movies per se, but moviegoing as a thing we do as members of a single society. So I wanted to talk to someone who’s watched the evolution of mass cinema up close, who probably had a better sense than I do of how things have changed. Why things have changed. What role movies have played over the years in giving Americans a common culture and whether a renaissance is possible or desirable? Jonathan Rosenbaum was the lead film critic for The Chicago Reader for more than two decades until 2008. He’s written, I think it’s correct to say, thousands of reviews and several books about movies. And at my suggestion, he went and saw Maverick this week. And I understand he also loved it, though, as I sit here recording this, I don’t know why. So let’s find out. Jonathan Rosenbaum, welcome to Positively Dreadful.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Thank you. Glad to be here. [music break]
Brian Beutler: I hope you’ll forgive the indulgent wind up. But before we get into movies and moviegoing, I wanted listeners to know a bit more about you. I think you grew up, I think, in northern Alabama. Is that right?
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yes. Northwestern Alabama, where my father and well, actually my grandfather owned a chain of movie theaters in four different towns, including three in my hometown that were within a block of each other. So it’s like I grew up seeing practically all the releases of the mainstream releases of the 1950s. And, you know, that’s that was a very rich period, actually. I think the last, for me, the last really for me, the last really great period of sort of Hollywood filmmaking. I don’t even know I’ve enjoyed films since then. I don’t think they’ve been any [laugh] period as great as, you know, the fifties and some and certain decades before the fifties, but. In any case, I grew up there, but then I’ve lived a lot of other places since then. I went away to boarding school in Vermont in 1959, and then I went to college in New York, moved to after graduate school in Long Island. I went to I lived in Paris for five years where I rediscovered the American cinema through a kind of a franchise in some ways. And then I lived in London, then I moved back to the States, to California. Finally I wound up. Then I moved back to the East Coast. Finally I. Went back to the West Coast to teach. And then after that [laugh] I finally settled in Chicago, where I worked for the Chicago Reader, as you described earlier.
Brian Beutler: So this may be a dumb question and apologies in advance if it is. But you’re from Chicago. Siskel and Ebert were Chicago based. Richard Roeper is Chicago based. I’m wondering how it is that Chicago became such a hub for movie criticism.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, one thing that I think is significant is Chicago, unlike New York and unlike Los Angeles, is America. [laughter] You know, it’s so much work. I think that New York and Los Angeles are almost like separate states or separate countries, you know. But Chicago is very much, as I say, America, for better and for worse. And it’s a. It’s an easier place to live, I think, than those two cities, in Los Angeles and New York in many ways. I mean, I used to say in a kind of snobby way that I like living in Chicago because the main cultural activity is sports and I have no interest in sports. So I can get a lot of work done actually, [laugh] when I’m here.
Brian Beutler: I mean, it is I think it’s fitting in some way because because it’s the biggest city that isn’t New York or L.A. And so there’s a media market there, but there’s not a lot of movie production there. And it seems right in a sense that critics should have some distance, not just physical, but they shouldn’t they should have some distance from their subjects. And it probably gets harder to maintain a level of objectivity about what you’re criticizing if you’re not mingling among the actors, directors, producers, etc., that make the product that you’re. Well, criticizing.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: I should I should point out that I don’t think objectivity is either possible or nor is it desirable. I think I believe in subjectivity, but I like to objectify my subjectivity, which is to say I feel the role of a critic is not to evaluate, but to intervene in a public discussion that starts before the critic comes along and continues after the critic leaves. So if a critic is doing a good job, she or he is improving the options of the discussion in certain ways. And that’s what I try to do.
Brian Beutler: But wouldn’t you wouldn’t you think that that gets harder if you’re doing that by day and then by night having dinner or cocktails or whatever with the people who make the the thing that is the subject or object of your criticism.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, it can, but not necessarily, I think, as long as one objectifies one’s subjectivity. And so, in other words, that people know where your ideas or opinions are coming from. I think that puts everybody on the same playing field, which so I don’t find it, even though it’s true. I have friends who are filmmakers and I write about their films and I’m trying to say it’s never I’ve never had any problems with that. Nevertheless, I don’t think I don’t consider it a major problem. I consider, film going is social. It’s always been social. And even if one watches things on one’s laptop, it’s social. Because the difference now is when I used to see movies that I really liked a lot, like in New York, for example, sometimes weeks would go by before I’d meet somebody else who saw the same movie and we could talk about it. Whereas now you’re already in dialog with people on the internet about it before you see the film, after you see the film. And you know, I have a website that gets used to have about a thousand people a day visiting. Now it’s closer to 800 since the COVID thing but it’s but even so I feel like it’s very international too. And most of the people who come to my side are younger people, not people my, you know my, my age. I’m 79. But the people who go to my site tend to be in their twenties and thirties and and I’m in dialog with a lot of them all the time, which I find very satisfying and in fact more focused that kind of relationship to my audience than I had when I was writing for The Chicago Reader. In many ways.
Brian Beutler: That’s interesting that you are you’re coming at it from the perspective of somebody who’s who thinks that the transition to the sort of digital, interactive criticism leaves us in a better place maybe, than in the more gate gatekeeper driven criticism world of the pre-Internet era, when you had a handful of established critics who sort of created the dialog about movies and what made them good and bad.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yeah, I think well, it’s it’s better in a lot of ways if you think about what the options are, for example, on cable, because right now, for example, if you go to Netflix, you’re seeing, you know, mini series and films from all over the world now, which was not the case before. The only period when you had a very a kind of a mass audience, something closer to a mass audience for international cinema was after the divestiture. You know, that happened in the fifties, which affected my own family’s business. So that for a certain period, you know, when theaters had to become independent, including my own family’s business. You had all these art cinemas, you know, a thousand in the United States back then. And, you know, that’s during the period of Italian neorealism when that when those movies were actually making money and people were going to see them. And now you’re getting what I find really interesting is a much more diversified choice. The problem that people face now is that there are too many choices so that they need lists. And I’m one thing that’s that’s helped me because the most popular things that are published, even in the Chicago Reader, are things involving like when I gave an alternative list to the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films. And I, I came up with another list that was about 100 other films, which I thought were better than the ones on many of those on their list. And that became very popular. So I think that the people, you know, in some ways it’s a more reactionary period because when you when you have too many choices, you go much more with with what you you know, the movies that have million dollar ad campaigns. And that’s not necessarily because people prefer those. It’s because it’s the only ones they hear about because they that they they stick to those sort of like mainstream channels in which, you know, films like Top Gun Maverick are, you know, the only films you hear about practically. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other films around and that people are actually watching them and enjoying them. The difference for me is, is that my audience is international now. It’s not strictly an American audience, although over half of the people who come to my website are Americans. I hope that’s clear—
Brian Beutler: So let’s get, it is. It makes sense. It actually I’m glad that you have this perspective that differs from how I introduced this because I’m wondering what you as you listen to me drone on and that wind up what you thought about it what what you thought I got right and what you thought I got wrong.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, I do think that the I. I do think that what you’re saying is partly right. But it’s but, you know, I think we’re we’re all based on our generation. You know, my generation is as is as an older one than your generation. And so I see as a kind of, you know, what a lot of people talk about. There’s a certain golden age in mainstream moviegoing. I see it. There’s the fifties. You see it more probably like the seventies, eighties or nineties, you know. But and I know an awful lot of people think the greatest period with the seventies, you know.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: But the funny thing about it is when one is reviewing movies, one of the requirements of the job, which I found, which is the reason why I retired when the reader didn’t want me to retire at the time that I did, is that you have to make whatever you’re writing about, good or bad, seem important, and then you’re supposed to forget about it. It’s the same way moviegoing is supposed to go, you know. In other words, it’s a totally immersive experience when you’re watching it and then you’re supposed to forget about it to make room for the next movie, you know? And. I’m you know, my belief, if I have a motto, it’s the title of a book that I’m trying to find a publisher for. It’s called And Dreams Beget Responsibilities. And one reason why I haven’t been able to find a publisher is that that goes against the grain of what the mainstream wisdom is, about how you’re supposed to respond to movies. You’re supposed to forget about them after you see them. They’re not supposed to change your life, you know? And what I find so fascinating, even though I really enjoyed Top Gun Maverick, it’s to me, it’s a film. If you put all the pieces together, it has many of the same elements that I find in Star Wars, which is really what makes mass murder attractive. [laugh] You know, it’s like it’s it’s and in fact, it really explains. I mean, one of the things that fascinated me is I took down the name of all the different characters, nicknames, and let me just reel them off because they really give you a whole sense of the American ethos. I mean, okay, you’ve got Maverick, you’ve got Rooster, you’ve got Iceman, Hondo, Cyclone, Warlock, Phenix for the only woman in the theme, Bob, Payback, which is like, that’s pure Tarantino, right, Payback. [laugh] He’s a one trick pony who only deals with revenge. You know, you’ve got Fanboy, Hangman, Omaha and Coyote. I mean, you put those all together. You’re getting exactly what the kind of mythology of the people who do mass murder, you know? And you know, there’s one thing that you’re absolutely right about in your thing is that, you know, it’s not even first of all, it’s not even clarified what country they’re bombing. It’s also not clarified if they’re killing people or not killing people or if they’re just destroying weapons. I mean, it’s made to seem so remote because it’s, you know, in this cold, icy, you know, that whether you’re killing people or you’re just killing equipment, it’s not even clear. And, you know, even the title Top Gun is already started giving you the ethos of the people who commit mass murder. I mean, you know, there there’s a top guns, you know. And one of the interesting arguments that goes on in the film is whether it’s better to think or better to act on instinct. And one thing I like about the film is that it contra— it literally contradicts itself in a kind of knowing way, because first, it’s basically, you know, the Tom Cruise maverick character is saying you have you can’t think. You have to just sort of like do. And but then on the other hand, his life gets saved because of someone who thinks so. Like most of the successful mass market movies, it works both sides of the street. You know, it’s basically saying, yeah, you’re supposed to depend on instinct, but it helps if you think also, but not think too much, because this is not a movie about thinking, really. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: No, definitely not.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: It definitely is not. It’s it’s very exhilarating, though.
Brian Beutler: Oh, I know. It’s so taut.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And it’s and also there’s a kind of engine power that is sort of like that runs through the whole film and makes it exhilarating. It’s also very impressive technically as a kind of as a stunt. I mean, I was looking at the credits on Internet Movie Database and, you know, there are 46 people credited for makeup and hair. That’s kind of extraordinary, if you think about it. 46 people, seven writers, you know, on the film. 11 producers. I mean, you know, it’s kind of like. It’s a whole, you know, enormous team putting together that which is an effective war machine. And that’s what we’re supposed to be exhilarated by. As in Star Wars, you know, I blame Star Wars to some extent for the — I mean, I think the Gulf Wars might not have happened in the same way if it hadn’t been for Star Wars, because Star Wars convinced people that, you know, you could wipe out entire civilizations. And it’s just like a video game. There’s no blood. There’s it’s just, you know, it’s exhilarating—
Brian Beutler: So this is something that this is something you mentioned to me on the phone. And I was going to ask you about it. I was going to do it later in the conversation. But let’s just fast forward. I want to know why you like Maverick, because what you said to me when we when we spoke earlier is that you had this critical antipathy to Star Wars, because it leaves viewers with the impression you were just talking about that we can destroy whole civilizations without bloodshed or remorse. And actually, that’s like the happy ending when you do that. And Top Gun has that same kind of harmless triumph of the defiant underdogs quality to it. So why, how do you square that? What makes, Top Gun good in spite of that ethos—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well I think this overall project is very disturbing. But I mean what I’m saying is, [laugh] you know, listen, when people—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: No I agree with you, I mean—
Brian Beutler: When people see Star Wars or they see in other words, it’s movies, big budget movies like this are designed to keep the same as, you know, even in if you take another world mass market movie that I have a real animus against, which is The Godfather films. I mean, this is a film that says corruption is inescapable. We can’t do anything about it. So it’s Shakespearean and it’s, you know, it’s like suddenly becomes very noble. What I’ve, it’s not noble at all, it’s very cowardly. It’s defeat— completely defeatist view of of humanity and and that. But that’s what’s very popular. I mean, the reason why Citizen Kane is the most popular film of. Of Orson Welles is because it’s a good corruption, you know, thanks to Herman Mankiewicz, you know, and whereas the other Orson Welles films are all about innocence and. People don’t like to be faced with their own innocence. I mean, this is a film that is trying to develop our innocence about mass murder, you know, and. Yeah, I can get into it. But then, I, I the inside, what makes me like it is, it tells me how easy it is to become a mass murderer [laugh] and how and how exhilarating that can be. [music break]
Brian Beutler: So I’m the target audience for this movie in a number of ways. But my, my, my demographic and the I just as a person have always liked sort of edge of your seat action and thriller movies. So I don’t think that’s like a big surprise that I thought that the movie worked on those levels. Beyond that, though, there’s this nostalgic quality revisiting the original 30 years later—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: I have to add that I have not seen, I have to add that I have not seen and don’t have any particular plans to see the original Top Gun.
Brian Beutler: You’ve never seen it?
Jonathan Rosenbaum: It it came out it came out in 1986, which was the year before I started at the Chicago Reader. So I didn’t have to see it. And because I didn’t have to see it, I didn’t want to see it, you know? And I still don’t want to see it, you know? [laugh] I don’t feel like it’s going to teach me anything new. Whereas I felt that, you know, that because of the popularity of of the sequel, I was very curious about it and it satisfied my curiosity. But the other thing I have to say, and this is a weird thing about demographics, too, is that I happened to see Top Gun Maverick in a theater where I was the only person in the audience.
Brian Beutler: That was not the case when I saw the second time. Yeah.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And. I think I’m an experienced enough moviegoer and I can understand if I was sitting at, you know, an auditorium full of people and they were all digging at the way I was, or maybe not exactly the way I was, but still digging it. I could sort of I could sort of, you know. Get a sense of that even without the people there.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I think that that that’s like a powerful indicator of of a movie’s appeal that you’re not getting swept up in the emotions of people around you, but you can sort of come to your own conclusions about it. And if it can hold you without, you know, reference to how other people are responding to it, then it’s speaking to something inside you that says you like it and it’s good.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yeah. I should mention the only review I’ve read of the film was one that I just read last night by Michael Wood, a London review of books in which he says world politics are absent. And I thought that was, you know, that that was the only thing in the review I found interesting necessarily. But but I think because I mean, it’s I mean, he was a little disturbed about the fact about that aspect. But of course, that’s what makes it work as a mass market entertainment, that innocence, you know, that, that the only world that matters is the world of the other team players. And that’s the way in other words, so you have this paradoxical situation now. On the one hand, America believes itself all alone in the world, that there’s nothing else that’s important, that in fact, everybody else in the world either is American or hates America or wants to be American, but there are no other alternatives. The idea that that, you know, you could want to be something other than American doesn’t even occur to most Americans. So it’s. I think there’s a certain type of so you get that kind of way in which America is in many ways, despite other indications now, change is more isolationist than it was during the Cold War. And you can even see that in the kind of cliches you get in movies. You know, it used to be in the fifties, for example, whenever you had a Russian character, it would be someone would take out their shoe and hit it on the table like Khrushchev did, you know. So in other words, it was a it was a cliched idea about what Russia was. But if you go to see. You know, global disaster movies now. They haven’t they haven’t moved from that. They don’t have any ideas. People in America still think the French love Jerry Lewis. They don’t know that that was true only back in the fifties and sixties. And since then, Woody Allen is vastly more popular in France than Jerry Lewis, for instance. So America has the power does. America doesn’t keep up with the rest of the world. And yet at the same time, we’re getting all these foreign miniseries and stuff on cable. We’re getting all this interest in Ukraine right now. So it seems to me that there is a change in awareness of what’s happening in the rest of the world, partly because of COVID actually. It’s so in other words, it’s it’s it’s opposite things going on at the same time. And I find that really, really kind of interesting. This is a very this is very much a nostalgic movie because it’s really about the fact goes back to the idea that America is the only country in the world.
Brian Beutler: I think it’s also nostalgic about movies, and this is part of the reason why I wanted to anchor our conversation around this one—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: —random action movie is that, you know, even if it’s actually fine that you haven’t seen the original because, yes, they you know, they’re definitely gunning for fans of the original Top Gun to come see this movie and bring back, you know, the characters from that from that movie and places back in, you know, our our younger days.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, it’s interesting, too. One thing I was very touched by and that won me over is the fact that Tom Cruise gives a personal introduction to the film. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Yes, that’s where I was. That’s what I was going to say is, is he saying he starts the movie not with the with the iconic music, but with this direct to audience message, Thank you for coming to the theater to see this movie. And it is a movie that’s sort of about, you know, the the like the last generation’s heroes. Like, their way of doing things is better, right? That that the new ways that we’re doing things are inferior. That that, for instance, that war fighting and the quality of the pilot in the plane is inherently superior to the new way of of fighting, where algorithms in airplanes fight other algorithms and other airplanes. But I got the sense that he was saying the same thing about about moviemaking, that that the way that the era of the movie megastar that makes all kinds of movies that draw people by the millions to the theaters and then everyone talks about those things is on the decline. But he thinks it’s better.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: If you had to boil down Top Gun Maverick in one senetence, you know, that sums it up. I would I would say it’s Trump’s motto, Make America Great Again. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: It’s, it’s kind of—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And that’s the same motto as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you know, of Tarantino, why everybody loved. Yeah, it’s it’s the same idea, which is still America is the only country in the world. And let’s make it great again. And that’s what’s really kind of, you know, so paradoxical about it, because what I’m saying is it’s not only translates into the exhilaration of mass murder or the potential exhilaration of mass murder, but it’s also, you know, becomes a Trumpian movie. I mean, you know, it’s. It seems to me that, in other words that the only community that’s, exists really, is the community of people who were committing mass murder and were able to, you know, sort of like. So it’s a it’s a kind of worship of power, the power of that machinery, even if even if you’re not sort of like, you know, your trusting your instincts rather than your trusting, you know, algorithms. It’s still about you know, it’s like sports, too. It’s team spirit and all of that. It’s all very disturbing. But I think I but I like it because it’s great. Food for thought. If you’re trying to figure out what’s so screwed up about this country right now, you know, [laughter] I think you’re getting you’re getting a really good image that you could start looking at and analyzing, you know, and analyze the parts of it that are not. Because whenever we talk about mass murder, it’s always them. It’s not us, you know? And I think we have to see it as being about us.
Brian Beutler: It’s I mean, it’s funny because I can’t think off the top of my head of some way to refute your criticism. But I don’t think that that’s what the audience for this movie is thinking about when they respond to it positively. And that that audience spans the gamut. I mean, it’s people who are left wing and liberal.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: But the whole idea of a movie like this is that going to the movies and having a great group experiences is returning to the innocence of childhood, you know? So it’s another way. This is a boys movie, even if you’ve got it, you know, like it’s very politically correct with the right number of, you know, like nonwhite characters and you’ve got a woman who’s one of the pilots and so on. It’s still about returning to our innocence. And that’s what movies are supposed to be according to this, and therefore. But for that reason, you know, we can learn a lot from it.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And, you know, so I’m proud of like, as I say, I’m working both sides of the street. [laugh] I’m trying, I’m, I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying it as an innocent boy, watching, you know, returning to his childhood and as a grown up analyst, trying to see why we’re so fucked up, you know. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: So the fact that Tom Cruise begins with this this hearty, heartfelt Thanksgiving for the people who showed up, I think suggests that he he mourns the loss of what used to be more common, which was for people to do what he wants them to do, go to the movies, have a great time, have movies bring people together. And so I thought for this episode—
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And forget about, forget about it afterwards. That’s the other thing you see. That’s what’s part of it. It’s as a critic. You see, one of the things that I found so debilitating for doing this for 20 years is that you have to see a lot of movies you don’t want to see, but you have to also make them seem important. And then you’re supposed to, and then you have to forget about it in order to make room for the next movie that’s supposed to seem important a week later, you know, it’s like it’s it’s all about amnesia as well as, you know, a fully immersive experience while it’s happening. And it’s the same way America deals with its own history. I mean, you know, absurd war becomes all important. And then you forget about it. You forget about the victims. You forget about what you know what happened. You forget about what mistakes you might have been made. And you go on to the next war or the next mass killing, you know, or whatever it is that’s going to fill up the news that day.
Brian Beutler: So I, I, I thought to myself in preparation for this and responding to, to that introduction of the movie, you know, what explains how that entered decline, you know, or stopped being the norm around around cinema and moviemaking? Why people stopped thinking like weekend at the movie is the way to to see movies.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, the idea of targeting, see when I was going to movies in the fifties, it was movies were for everybody. And so there would be something in the movie for everybody, you know, for all age groups, all economic groups, etc.. Then they they decided, you know, it’s much better, you see, then you suddenly got with Reagan, everything changed because there’s a different economic model that came with Reagan, which was that you take an existing market and you drill it into the ground, you exhaust it, you don’t start a new market, you go back to the old market. And so with targeting, they decided that the ideal audience for movies was, you know, ten year old boys. And it’s no longer everybody but ten year old boys and. And the point is that in a paradoxical sort of way, Top Gun Maverick as a movie, both for ten year old boys and for everybody, because everybody wants to be a ten year old boy. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: That accutally accords with, [both speaking] that accords with one of my hypotheses that I’ll that I’ll I’ll go in reverse order. So I mentioned Siskel and Ebert earlier, Ebert and Roeper after that. And I could be making a sort of propter hoc mistake, but that the decreasing prominence of these critical validators who everyone knows, right? Everyone knows Siskel and Ebert, to, using user driven tools like Rotten Tomatoes. That started to happen, I think, before the shift in in movies. And so, I mean, if you’re a if you’re a studio exec and, you know, the first Spider-Man movie comes out with Tobey Maguire, it it made over $800 million worldwide. It has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. At the same time, Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars, which is hardly a rave review. So if I’m in the moviemaking business, who am I going to listen to about what kind of projects to support? Am I going to listen to Roger Ebert just because he’s famous? Or am I going to listen to the to the thousands of of viewers who, you know, tell the Internet, I love this movie. And there are a lot more people like me because look at how much money it’s making.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, but you have to remember, this is a very important consideration. Back in the fifties, nobody knew what box office receipts were. You know, they knew that some movies were more successful at the box office than others. But the whole idea of listening to top talk box office grossers is that is a later development. And it became to me, it was always something obscene about it, because why should we be interested in how much money, you know, stupid billionaires are making? I mean, who cares? You know, it’s like, but that became the main thing. And then after all, there was a certain kind of way in which publicity is running the show. I mean, you’re spending at a certain point, people started spending as much or more money on the publicity as they did even on making the movie. And that became what was most important. You know. But when people used to write to me, sometimes the reader and say, Why are you always writing about films I’ve never heard of? I would always reply, What you mean is, by films I’ve never heard of are films that don’t have multimillion dollar ad campaigns. That’s all. And the point is why we should even be interested in how much money a film is making is is is kind of questionable because, you know, if everybody knew exactly what made money and, you know, then it would it would be, you know, it’s voodoo science, really, because there are plenty of times that they spend all this money on movies and they flop, you know?
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: So it’s it’s not a science, it’s guesswork. And the whole thing of the box office champs is, you know, and running and being aware of how much money a movie makes. And all of that is really just sort of like gratifying to the egos of the people who are putting up the money. But it has nothing to do with our lives. You know, I don’t think I think it’s sort of like giving the last word to the publicists. The first and the last word. The whole idea of thumbs up and thumbs down is, is that critics should have the first and last word. I don’t believe that. I believe the critic should ever be in the middle of a discussion.
Brian Beutler: But okay. So so perhaps the the the disempowering of of sort of famous critics doesn’t explain it. But it is true that, you know, I think it’s true I haven’t I haven’t studied it scientifically, but, you know, in the night, up through the 1990s and maybe even a little bit into the 2000s, there was there were these like middle to high brow comedy movies and drama movies that despite not being big blockbuster movies, but also despite not being like highly acclaimed cinematic masterpieces, did really well at the box office. Right?
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yes.
Brian Beutler: Like, I’m gonna pull movies out, you know, out of my head. But like the As Good As It Gets or the Truman Show or The Firm. Another Tom Cruise movie, right?
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yeah. I gave four stars, which embarrasses me now to As Good As It Gets [laugh] because I’m a big James James L. Brooks fan. And contrary to most of my colleagues, you know, I think he’s a really great filmmaker. But I guess the point I’m trying to make is, is that back in the, back in the fifties, it was a very different ballgame because it was really about I felt it was kind of like going to the movies was like being at a town hall meeting, you know.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Because I grew up in a small town, you know, 30,000 people. It was right next to a couple of other towns that were smaller. But, you know, so you had the whole community of that, those three towns, it was like 60,000 maybe, but it was still a kind of way in which you were participating in your community, whereas now targeting has made that impossible in certain ways. It’s basically subdividing the audience, subdividing the markets. But whatever the market is in America is supposed to be different from what the market is overseas.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And, you know, it’s sort of like and my whole career is directed towards confounding that. I’m trying to work. Towards the world, what I see is the world community and. And I think that if there is a world community, at least one that I experience from my website.
Brian Beutler: Okay, here’s my here’s my, my other hypothesis.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: And then we’ll try to try to sum up. I don’t know if you’ve seen this or not, but a new-ish pastime, I think mostly for people my age and younger is is streaming some usually mediocre movie on Netflix or another service and kind of half paying attention, half watching it while at the same time scrolling on our phones.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: I do that all the time.
Brian Beutler: I’ve wasted countless hours of my life doing that. And I. I wonder if part of the dwindling of movie culture is maybe in part a consequence of people having low tolerance for 2 hours of withdrawal from social media like they’re so addicted to Facebook or whatever they’re doing on their phone that they don’t want to put it away for 2 hours to sit through a movie that, you know, the rules say you got to keep your phone off. [laugh]
Jonathan Rosenbaum: No, absolutely. I think it’s there’s a book that impressed me a lot this year called Stolen Focus, which is really about what the Internet and social media has done to us. And it’s what the perfect illustration of of the new situation is how many phone numbers you remember now.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Whereas back in the you know, when I was a kid, you remembered that you knew the phone numbers of all your friends.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: You know, and now you don’t know them anymore, but you don’t remember them anymore because the computer does that for you.
Brian Beutler: Yep.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: And does this make us better people now? It makes us weaker people with with, reduced attention spans, you know, and I think that it’s that that’s something that that we’re the pawns, of you know, the economic interest, basically, which is which, you know, ties in with the targeting idea. Again, it’s, you know, it’s sort of like basically we’re the products that are being sold actually not the movies but us.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So given everything we’ve discussed and all the forces, economic and technological targeting, as you mentioned, our own bad habits of social media, all these pressures that have taken away from the sort of paradigmatic movie that appeals to our sort of innocence and draws people from all walks of life to the same movie. And we all have a good time. Can there be a moviegoing renaissance, a renaissance of that paradigm? And should we want there to be?
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, seems to me, the kind of movies that I feel, you know, the past that I feel nostalgic about, even if I didn’t experience them as a kid, would be something like The Best Years of Our Lives, because that’s the film that really spoke to, I think, virtually everyone in America about what the experience of the war and its aftermath was. And in a very grown up way, I think that’s true that it wasn’t just about innocence. It was about grappling with grown up problems. And that was a film that was just recognized, you know, critically and popular in a popular way as ways as, you know, one could wish. I think whether we can get a film like that now is I, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t like to predict the future because I think that there we’re constantly contradicted by, you know, the evidence of new movies that come along that do things that we didn’t think were possible. But but, you know, my favorite movies as a kid were westerns and musicals. And it seems to me that even a film like. Like, you know, Top Gun Maverick has elements of both westerns and musicals and, you know, in terms of what it’s doing. So I think that that certain things from the past do survive in some form or another. But it’s but I think that the idea of appealing to us as grown-ups is something that we, or likely to experience on cable than we’re likely to experience at a movie house. But that’s because of the way the business works.
Brian Beutler: So the real villain in my story isn’t any of the things we spend a lot of time talking about. But it’s these serial dramas that I also really like that are drawing on our on our screen time budgets. And then we decide we we don’t have as much time or need for movies as we used to.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, yeah. I mean, the best mini stories that I’ve seen the past two or three years is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which you could see on Netflix, [laugh] which I. Have you seen any of that?
Brian Beutler: I haven’t. I haven’t. But I’m going to now.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Oh, yeah. It’s amazing. And it’s really to me, it actually tells tells us why we’re screwed up. It’s it’s said most sitcoms are based on the idea that people never change. But in this, in this series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the characters actually change and learn from their mistakes and things like this. And it’s a it’s a musical comedy. They’re musical numbers in every single episode. And and it’s really about self-deception and the self-deception that we practice on ourselves. So I think it’s I think there are ways that you can actually have grown up entertainment, but it’s not going to happen in movie houses because that’s not the way the business works now. But it can work. It can operate that way. I think, as I say on cable, because I believe in the future of niche markets, if you start talking about what changes history. Movies that change history, we’re talking about small groups of people. In other words, with people, people say the sixties were great period, that, you know, sort of like the French New Wave in the forties was a great period because of Italian realism. We’re really talking about a small group of friends who sat together in cafes and had ideas in common. And that’s what changed history by the time it became absorbed by the mainstream. These people were gone on to other things, you know. So it’s like we said, the mainstream catches up with niche markets years later. But it seems to me that if you want to change history in an art form, you’re talking about niche markets. If you want to sort of like make a lot of money, if that becomes your main interest, then you have to talk about, you know, that then it becomes essential to talk about Top Gun Maverick and not about niche markets. [laugh]
Brian Beutler: I feel like that’s an indictment of me a little bit. For wanting. For wanting. Well. Well. [laugh]
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Me too. Because I wanted to see it and I’m glad I saw it, you know. So it’s not I’m not trying to sort of, like, say I’m good and you’re bad. You know, I’m not trying to say that. I’m trying to say we’re all in this together.
Brian Beutler: Is it an inherent is it an inherent good for a society or this country or any other to have a common language around movies? You know, that every week or two or three weeks, something hits in the theaters and suddenly everyone’s talking about it. And and this is the thing that draws us closer with our coworkers or family members who we would otherwise be fighting with about politics or whatever else.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Well, except that it depends for what we do with it. I mean, you see one thing that kind of fascinates me, and I’m still fascinated by a figure like Jerry Lewis, who’s hated in America. The people don’t even remember when they say the French love Jerry Lewis, they they forget the fact that Jerry Lewis was so big at America that he was making three films a year and. That’s what the only reason why the French, a small group of French intellectuals liked Jerry Lewis at a certain period, was because he was so big in America, they wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise. So America in complete denial about the fact that Americans really love Jerry Lewis. They don’t even remember that, they don’t, they’re in denial about it. But it was true. You know, so I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a certain kind of way in which there’s a grown up way of responding to this group activity and that there’s a childish way of responding to it. And I think we ha— that that’s what comes to me of a large part of the issue. It’s not, to just say it’s good that we all feel something together is only the first part of, you know, I think the issue. I think it’s what we do with it once we have that group experience.
Brian Beutler: I think that’s a good note to end it on. Jonathan Rosenbaum, I’m glad you like Top Gun Maverick. I’m glad I didn’t accidentally send you to see a movie [laugh] that you hated. And I really appreciate all of your insight on this topic.
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Okay. Well, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Brian Beutler: Thank you. [music break]
Part of the fun of that conversation, for me at least, was that I had no idea what he was going to say other than that bit about how bad Star Wars was for geopolitics. And so I got hit with a totally different perspective than I was expecting. But he’s watched movies change more than once in his long career. And I think his sense is, one, the reports of the death of movie culture are premature. They could come back and to what we’re experiencing now is less the death of a common culture than a migration of that culture out of movie theaters and into living rooms, away from movies and towards series. And since we have no idea of that last or what might replace it, what’s the point in being fatalistic about it? If the new Top Gun is a metaphor for movies, then it’s a story about how past Golden Ages can inspire future ones. And it just cleared $600 million at the domestic box office. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our associate producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.