Harry Chotiner: Well, hello, hello. Welcome. I’m Harry Chotiner. I’m here to talk a little bit about what I think is happening in American film in the last year or so that seems important, talk about some specific films, say a little bit about the Academy, if you’re interested in the Oscars. Before I go on though, I just want to remind everybody that a week from today, same time, same place, there’s going to be a terrific talk and conversation with Jane Wellman and Brian Murphy on student debt and the public financing of higher education. So, keep that in mind.
In thinking about how to talk about all of these issues involving movies, it reminds me of the guy who wants to buy a dog. And he goes online, and he sees there’s a talking dog for sale. So, he drives over to the house, knocks on the door, and the guy comes and says, “You’ve got a talking dog?” The guy says, “Yeah, he’s around out back.” So, he walks to the back of the house, and there’s a dog sitting there. He says to the dog, “Can you talk?” And the dog says, “Yeah, I can talk.” The guy goes, “This is unbelievable. How can this be?” And the dog says, “I don’t know. I’ve always been able to talk, ever since I was a puppy.”
So, the guy says, “Well, what happened?” The dog says, “Well, when they realized I could talk, they put me in the military because I could go behind enemy lines and overhear things and report back. I got all these medals, and the generals made a big deal out of me. Then they put me at the airport, because I could walk around, and I’d overhear about hijackings and drug smugglings. The mayor gave me the key to the city. They had a little parade for me. Then I got tired, so I found a cute little poodle, settled down, had some puppies.” The guy goes, “This is amazing. Stay right there.”
He goes back, and he knocks on the door, and he says, “How much do you want for this dog?” And the guy says, “Fifteen dollars.” He said, “Fifteen dollars? How can you sell this dog for $15?” And the guy says, “Because he’s a liar. He just makes up all that stuff.” My goal is to not lose the forest for the trees, because there’s a lot of amazing trees in American film now, and I’m going to try to focus on the forest, because we don’t have that much time.
Let’s start with how movies are doing, American films are doing. Basically fewer and fewer people go to the movies every year. What was the biggest year of attendance in American films in the last 10 years? Ten years ago. Seven out of the last 10 years, attendance declined, and revenues have been going up slightly, but that’s just because they raised ticket prices. But even raising ticket prices last year, there were about $11.5 billion worth of tickets sold, revenues declined over 4%. People aren’t going to movies.
If you ask people who love movies, would you rather watch a movie at home or in a movie theater, 40% say, “Either. I’m happy. I love movies. I’ll go to a movie theater. I’ll watch them at home.” Five percent say, “I’d rather watch a movie in a movie theater.” Fifty-five percent of moviegoers say they’d prefer to watch a movie at home. So, what does this mean culturally, economically, in terms of structures of power, and in terms of our own consciousness and experience of movies? I want to try to talk about it sort of on all those levels a bit.
As we all know, the movie studios are the most social and economically important movie institutions in the country, and we know they make blockbusters, and we know they get their revenue from overseas. That’s not news to any of you, I’m sure. Last year, for every dollar an American film earned, 70 cents of that dollar came from overseas. What do people overseas like to see? They like to see animation, and they especially like to see blockbuster action. So, what are the studios going to make? They’re going to cater to the most important and lucrative market, and they’re going to keep making blockbusters and action films.
Just parenthetically, we have to note that’s what’s happening with Disney is unprecedented in the history of film. MGM in the ’30s, which used to be the gold standard for how much hegemony a studio could have, MGM was nothing. Disney, not only do they have their own brand, they own Lucas Films. So, they own all the Star Wars. They own Marvel, so they own the best and most lucrative superhero franchise. They own Pixar, so they own the best and most lucrative animation. And they own 20th Century Fox.
If you look at the top 10 grossing films … I gave you a list. Don’t look at it now. But of the top 10 grossing films last year, six, the top six, are all Disney. Seven of the eight top grossing films came from Disney. How important are these top grossing films? Last year, about 700 films were released in the United States. Of those 700 films, 10 of them generated almost 40% of all the income.
So, that’s what that means. That’s what it means to Disney, and that’s what it means for our future watching movies. Fewer of us are going to go to movie theaters. They’re going to keep making the same thing that they’ve been making. And there’s no reason to think that that’s going to change at all. That’s not new.
The two things that I think are most importantly new are streaming and the #MeToo movement, and that’s what I want to focus on. In terms of streaming, I would say we’re sort of in the middle of the beginning of the streaming revolution. How many of you subscribe to Netflix? Yeah. Right. Okay. Me too. Streaming is the biggest threat to movie theaters since television came in in the 1950s. Last year, Netflix spent more money making movies than all the studios combined. Last year, Netflix made three times as many movies as all the studios combined. That’s stunning. That’s shocking.
Well, what’s the significance of this? Netflix is the colossus, but not for long. In the next five years, they’re going to have huge competition from Warners, Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, Hulu, Amazon, NBCUniversal, most importantly Disney. Even the second largest theater chain in the world, they’re getting into streaming, which takes customers away from movie theaters. Last year, there were over $200 billion in corporate mergers, all of which were designed specifically to find product for streamers to bring to us.
Here’s my favorite statistic, and then I’m going to start to move away from statistics. But think of all the minutes everybody in the United States spend watching television last year, watching the Super Bowl, every sporting event, every primetime show, every cable show. Ten percent of every minute was watching Netflix. Now when we say Netflix is going to have tons of competition, and you’re going to have so many more options than Netflix, what percentage of all television watching is going to be streaming?
Well, what are they giving us? What is Netflix providing us, and these other streamers? Generally, they make two kinds of movies. They make what you would guess, stupid, mindless comedies, romances, and action movies. They also make exactly what the kind of movies that we regret that the studios don’t make anymore: thoughtful, well-made, well-acted, well-directed dramas. Manchester by the Sea, The Irishman, Two Popes, Roma, Marriage Story. These are streaming movies.
They’re not just spending a lot of money, as I was suggesting, on movies; the streaming companies give the directors autonomy and control that no studio would dare give them. And that’s why people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg and the Cohen Brothers, they want to go make money. They’ll make the movies the studios want. They’ll give you bigger budgets than the studios will give you, and they’ll give you more autonomy. That bodes really well for the kind of quality of movies we’re going to get.
My guess is that five years from now virtually all the Academy Award nominations are going to come from the streaming companies. They’re proliferating. They’re making a lot of movies. They’re making what we want. Is that going to continue? Yes. Is that good for me, and I assume you, we have similar taste in movies? Yes. Is it going to continue? And it is going to continue for the crucial reason that the studios and the Netflix and the streamers have different agendas.
What does a movie studio want? When they make a movie, they want two things. One, they want to make as much money as they can. The second thing, and it’s the phrase you hear most often in the corridors of a movie studio, protect your downside. How do you keep yourself from getting slaughtered by making the wrong movie?
The answer to making as much as you can and protecting your downside is what’s called making hard concept movies. A hard concept movie is a movie that, if it’s really good, you’re going to make a ton of money. But most movies aren’t really good. So, assume it’s going to be like most movies. It’s going to be pretty mediocre. You know what? That’s okay. There’s still an audience for it.
Superhero movies, animation, The Lion King, the John Wick action movies, all the Rocky sequels, low budget horror films. When those movies are good, they’re incredibly profitable. But if they’re not, there’s still and audience for them, and that’s what’s really important. No studio executive ever got fired because of what they didn’t make. They only get fired because they made something, and they made a disastrous financial decision.
I passed on Back to the Future. That’s a billion-dollar franchise. Every studio passed on Back to the Future the first time it came around, and I can tell you that story about my best friend that … One of my best friends there passed on Jaws. How do these things happen? We can talk about that later if you want. But the point is that studio executives are cautious, and therefore they want to make hard concept movies. They can make a lot of money; and, if they don’t make a lot of money, you’re okay.
What you want to avoid are soft concept movies. A soft concept movie is a movie that, if it’s really good, you’re going to do fine. You’re going to make money. But if it’s mediocre, you’ve got nothing. Imagine the mediocre version of Moonlight, or a mediocre version of La La Land or Little Women or Marriage Story or Farewell or Amadeus. Anybody going to a mediocre version of any of those movies? I loved Moonlight. It’s one of my three favorite films of the last decade. A mediocre version, I have no interest whatsoever.
I also like the John Wick action movies. I loved the third one, which made a ton, but I’ll even go see the mediocre second one, because, if you enjoy action movies, it’s enjoyable. That’s what the studios are going to do. They’re going to make hard concept movies which are not the movies that we want. The movies that we tend to like are soft concept movies, and they’re dangerous. They’re risky. And who wants to set out and make a movie that, unless it’s terrific, you’ve flushed all your money down the toilet?
Netflix doesn’t think like that. Netflix doesn’t sell movie tickets. Netflix sells subscriptions. Well, what gets me to buy a subscription and to keep me subscribing? What gets me is that they make movies that have some kind of cultural traction, that have a buzz about them, that I’m curious to see, that are part of the cultural zeitgeist. Those are the movies that get me to subscribe.
And let me tell you, if you take a movie like Roma or a movie like this year like The Irishman, if either of those movies had been released in movie theaters, they would have been slaughtered. Both of them would have lost tons of money and would have been considered a failure. Netflix doesn’t care. The Irishman has been part of the cultural conversation for anybody who’s interested in movies for six months, and now the Academy Award season it’s back in the conversation again. That’s what they want. That’s what gets us to subscribe and to keep our subscription going, and that is what’s going to help keep them making the kind of movies that we want to see. This is what’s good about streaming.
The other thing, which I don’t have time to go into, because I’m focusing on American films, but if you want to later … If you’re interested in gay film in the third world, radical film in the third world, streaming is indescribably important in doing radically, wonderful things in the third world. And we can talk about that later, if you want, but I want to focus on the other side of streaming.
I’ve been saying what’s good and hopeful about it, but there’s a downside. The one that everybody talks about is, well, you lose the social aspect if you’re not going to movie theaters, if you’re watching your movies at home. People go, “Well, wait. I’m not sitting at home watching alone. I have all my guys over, and we watch movies together.” “I have all my girlfriends over, and us girls all get together and watch movies.” Couples get two or three couples come, have dinner, we’ll watch a movie together. Isn’t that social? No, that’s not social.
How many of you saw the original Mission Impossible? Brian De Palma directed it. Okay. Doesn’t matter whether you saw it, but it’s great. Brian De Palma made it. It’s Tom Cruise. And there’s a scene where he’s got to break into CIA headquarters in Langley, and the floor is totally wired. So, he can’t touch the floor. The Mission Impossible team’s lowering him from the ceiling, and he’s got to get really close to the floor. It’s Tom Cruise. He’s looking good, spread out, this far from the floor, and he’s trying to get the thing. And we notice there’s a bead of sweat on his forehead, and it starts going down his forehead. He’s not even seem to be aware of it. Slowly, it’s getting to his nose, the bridge of his nose. Then it starts going down and getting to the tip of his nose. If that bead of sweat hits the floor, he’s dead.
First time I saw this movie was in the Grand Lake. Loved it. Went back to see it a second time the next week, but this time because … If you ever want to gauge a movie audience, you sit in the back of the theater. So, I went to the last row. I’m in the biggest theater at the Grand Lake. It seats like 9,000 people. So, there’s 9,000 of us watching this movie, and there’s the bead of sweat on Tom Cruise’s nose. I’m telling you, there was no oxygen in the room, because 9,000 people had inhaled, and they could not exhale. What those people were experiencing at that moment was not just an intense connection to that movie screen; they were experiencing an intense connection to the other 9,000 people who couldn’t breathe with them. That’s an experience you can never have at home.
And the other side of that is … I don’t know if you ever can remember when you saw Sophie’s Choice with Meryl Streep. At the end of the movie, I’m sitting there, sobbing like everybody else in the theater. I get choked up now thinking about it. When the movie’s over, the lights come on, 15 to 25% of the people got up and walked out of the theater. The movie’s over. Eighty percent of us couldn’t stand up, because our legs wouldn’t support us. We sat there, and you’re sort of looking at people who are dabbing their eyes and crying. Then you start to walk out, and people are looking at each other. These are total strangers, but you’ve made a connection, because you all went through Sophie’s Choice. That is an experience you can’t have at home. This will be lost forever when streaming takes over and we no longer go to movie theaters.
The other thing I would say that’s really important about the movie theater is … What makes a movie a movie? Film philosophers talk about this. Film critics talk about this. Film professors. What makes a movie a movie? People like you and me, regular people who love movies. What makes a movie a movie? We talk about this. My own feeling is what has most defined the movie historically is … If you think about it, when you meet somebody and you want to develop a connection with them, you want to have some understanding of them, what do we look at?
We look at the face. We look at the eyes. We look at the mouth. That’s how we read people, connect with them. Well, what was it like when you watch a play, and you’re trying to connect, see what’s going on? You watch an opera. You watch a television program. What’s it like to see a face on a 70-foot screen? What kind of connection is possible between me and a cultural representation on a 70-foot screen that was never possible for any humans in the history of civilization until movies? What kind of intimacy, what kind of fantasy, what kind of projection, what kind of being moved is possible by seeing that face on a 70-foot screen? You can’t get that at home.
And also connected to that is something else that I think is totally enmeshed and inseparable from movies, which is the movie star. Now, what makes a movie a movie star? I mean, an actor or an actress a movie star? I would say I’m interested in your thoughts on this. If you’ve never seen Paul Newman’s eyes … Be still, my heart. If you’ve never seen Paul Newman’s eyes or Steve McQueen’s eyes on a 70-foot screen, you don’t know what a movie star is. If you’ve never seen Clark Gable or Will Smith’s grin; Bruce Willis’ smirk; George Clooney where he lowers his chest and he sort of looks up, and he gives you that furrowed brow; Julie Roberts’ incandescent smile; the best laugh I’ve ever heard, which is Marilyn Monroe’s; if you’ve never seen that on a 70-foot screen, you don’t know what a movie star is. As more and more of us, including future generations, go less and less to movies, there won’t be movie stars.
The other thing I want to mention that I think is also lost that, for me, is inseparable from what it means to be a movie, which is … I don’t know about you, but there’s so much of my life that I don’t have control over. I have grandchildren, so of course there’s so much of my life I don’t have control over. And I’d like to have more control whenever possible. But when I go to a movie, I sit there. The lights go down. The screen lights up. I sit back, and unconsciously I say to the movie, “I’m yours. I give you my power. Take me where you want to take me. I want to go. That’s the reason I came here.” And if the movie’s crappy, I take my power back. But if the movie’s any good, I’m there. I go happily.
When I watch a movie at home, I don’t give up my power. I decide whether it’s going to be light or dark, what the lights are going to be. I control the volume. I stop to go to the bathroom. I stop to get a snack. I check my email. I answer the phone. If I’m tired, I can go to bed and watch the rest of the movie the next day. When I watch a movie at home, I keep the power. And that experience of a movie, to me, is inextricably bound up with what it means to be in movies. When we don’t watch movies in movie theaters, we will always keep our power.
So, what I’m trying to suggest in summary is that, are we going to get more, better movies? Yes, yes, yes. And what we’re also going to lose is the collective emotional experience of being with an audience, the special relationship to the human face. We’re going to lose movie stars, and we’re going to lose the experience of choosing powerlessness happily, for the emotional experience it can bring us.
Another thing I want to talk about for a bit is the #MeToo movement, which I assume you all know is the movement that is basically attempting to hold harassers accountable, create more gender and racial equality and inclusion, and to create safe working environments for people. Whatever the limitations remain on sexual harassment in Hollywood, the progress here has been staggering. When I worked in a studio, if you want, we can talk about it later. It is so different than what it is now.
By any measurable standard, sexual harassment has dropped drastically, and it’s not just measurable standards, but impressionistic accounts. The experience of women working is drastically better. Doesn’t mean it’s all done and it’s all great. It does mean #MeToo has rocked the entire studio system.
Now, whether the change is coming because men genuinely think it’s good or because they’re intimidated, and whether studios are doing it because they’re run by women and men who have good intentions, or because they’re afraid of lawsuits, studios are proactively taking steps to protect the experience of women in that workplace.
Just one anecdotal thing. Who are the two most famous directors accused of having sex with underage girls? Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Neither of them have had their box office or their clout or their reputation hurt in Europe at all. Roman Polanski released his most recent film on the Dreyfus Affair. The week it opened, it was the biggest film in France. Both of these directors for their new movies they can’t find a distributor in the United States. Now, we can talk about whether or not that’s good or bad, but that’s a sea change.
There’s been so many more women in key jobs. Last year, 18% of studio films were directed by women. Woefully low, the highest it’s ever been, and it keeps getting better every year. Forty percent of all animated films made last year were directed by women. Not enough. Still very impressive. In 2018, of all the films released in the US, 31% were about women. Last year, it was 40%. And the main reason for that is, who goes to movies? For the fifth year in a row last year, more females than males go to movies every year. So, that’s part of the reason that that’s happening.
There’s been so many good movies directed by women just in the last year. I want to mention Queen & Slim, Little Women, Farewell, Booksmart, The Mustang, Honey Boy, Nightingale, Harriet. There’s more women executives, though there’s clearly a glass ceiling in the studio system, because there is so many competent women who keep bumping into it.
But the real disparity for women and minorities is in the crafts, cinematography, editing, set design, special effects, sound. That’s where it’s still very hard for women and minorities to break in. But there is progress there.
I would say, in terms of these issues, the staggeringly exciting thing that’s happened in the last three years is the renaissance of black film. Just go home and Google black films for the last three years, and you’re going to look at that list, and you’re going to go, “Oh my god.” Last year, for instance, we had Queen & Slim, Burning Cane, Little Woods, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Hale County, Harriet, Just Mercy, Waves, Us, Brian Banks. It’s just great and staggeringly impressive the black films that are being made now.
Two other things to know though … When we think about black film in America, one, non-black people don’t go to black movies. That is a huge problem. Black films don’t do well financially, because non-black people by and large don’t go to them. If you think it’s bad here, it’s worse in Europe. And if you think it’s bad in Europe, it’s worse in Latin America. And if you think it’s worse in Latin America, the worst of all in Asia. Try opening a black film in Asia. Good luck with that. That is a huge problem, and it’s not just like, oh, small black films that are dramas don’t play. They play better here than they do in Europe.
Every single superhero movie that has ever been made, no exceptions, does better overseas than in the United States. On average, they get three-fourths of their money overseas and one-fourth here, a minimum of two-thirds overseas and one-third here. Every single superhero movie, except one. What is the only superhero movie that did less business overseas than the United States?
Audience: Black Panther.
Harry Chotiner: Black Panther. Exactly. That’s not a coincidence. The other thing that’s interesting, I think, last year about black film, if you look at what were the two best reviewed films of last year, one was Last Black Man in San Francisco, and the other was Waves. Both of those films were written and directed by white guys.
What’s really striking to me, five years ago, if this has happened, there would have been a storm of consternation and controversy. Do critics prefer white people making black films to black people making them? Can a movie be a black film if it was directed by a white man? Is there some sort of cultural trespassing going on when white people are making these movies? This year, by and large, nobody cared. The movies came. They were well-received. They did as well as they were going to do at the box office. And what had been a lightning rod of controversy just disappeared.
The other thing I want to say about race is that the most important thing to understand is the gap between black participation and Latinx and Asian people. They are so outrageously underrepresented. By the way, do you know who goes to movies the most? If you go by percentages, the single biggest group of people that goes to movies are Latinx people. Next most is Asians. Third most is African Americans. And bringing up the rear is … You know.
So, Latinx are 19% of the people, 4% of the working actors in Hollywood. Asians and Latinx people are so much more disadvantaged in terms of the amount of films that are made about them and their participation in the making of films, their ability to get films made. What I would say is, if you’re black, your future with movies, either making them or going to see movies about your experience, is looking very good. If you’re Latinx or Asian, not so good.
I want to say something else quickly about the Oscars and Oscars so white and this year … There’s seven categories that are the most prestigious, not counting best picture, because there’s not a person for that. But of the seven most prestigious categories, actor/actress, supporting actor/supporting actress, original screenplay, adapted screenplay, and director. So, that’s 35 people, 35 nominees. This year there are four who are not white. Whoa. That’s pretty low. Four out of 35. That’s really striking. Last year, if you look at those same categories, the majority of people who were nominated in those categories were nonwhite. Of the winners of those seven categories, five of the seven were nonwhite.
So, what am I saying? Am I saying there’s no problem? No. Am I saying it’s just cyclical? Yes. You have your years where it’s more or less. What I would say, though, for a perspective, go back seven, eight years. We don’t have to do this, but if you want … I do this, but you don’t have to do this. But go back seven, eight years and look at all the nominees.
What you will find is that by and large over the last seven, eight years, the percentage of black people who get nominated in the seven most important categories is roughly the same percentage of black people in the United States, and it’s higher than the percentage of black people who work in Hollywood. The percentage of Latinx and Asian people who get nominated is drastically, excruciatingly lower. By the way, if you were curious, 62 women got Academy Award nominations this year, which is the highest ever.
So, am I saying there’s no problem? Of course I’m not saying there’s no problem. I’m saying we’re missing the racism dimension of this issue if we focus on nominees. The way I think about it is the question is not who got nominated and who didn’t get nominated. The question is who got robbed. Tell me all of the nonwhite actors who it’s unbelievable that they weren’t nominated, all the screenplay writers. It’s unbelievable. All the directors. I’ve heard people say, “Well, Greta Gerwig should have been nominated.” Personally, I don’t think so, but it’s a conversation we can have. That’s one. I’m not hearing anybody else say, “Well, there’s all these other women directors. How could they not have been nominated?” Actors, directors, screenwriters.
Who’s got robbed? Basically almost nobody got robbed. I would say there’s a supporting actor in Just Mercy, that’s the one issue that I would say could have been robbed, and maybe Lupita Nyong’o from Us. But basically what’s my point? My point in saying I just was going on and on about how many great black films there are. I was going on and on about how many women are directing these fabulous films and doing a superb job of it. So, it’s obviously not that these people can’t do it.
If we want to talk about racism, it’s the problem of access to money to make these films. When we’re going to find that more minorities have been robbed, hopefully that won’t happen, is when there’s so many more films being made by nonwhite people and women. When you have that, given the talent in the community, then you’re going to go, “We have a real problem.” If we want to look at racism, look at the institutional structures of power that make it so difficult for nonwhite people and women to get the funds to make the movies. And the other thing we have to look at is why white audiences won’t go see movies about nonwhite people, by and large. Exceptions, but it’s overwhelmingly true. That’s what’s got to change, and that’s where I do think there’s racism.
How many of you used to watch the TV series that we used to watch? The Wire. The Wire. Oh my god, I’m old. Okay. My wife and I used to sit around, watching The Wire, and every week we would go … There’d be all these African Americans in all these roles, and they were unbelievable. We would just be going, “How much acting talent is there in the black community?” We would watch these people, and we would be amazed, and in most cases never see them again.
The talent is there. They’re not being excluded because of the racism of the Academy. They’re being excluded because audiences won’t go to movies about nonwhite people and because structures of power won’t give them money to make those movies.
The other thing I would say is, if you want to be critical of the Academy, which is still 84% white and 64% male … Both of those numbers are changing though in the right direction. But it’s the conservatism. It’s the stodginess. Look at this year’s nominees. When on this list of movies do you go, “Whoa, that’s an interesting film. That film really pushed borders?” Almost nothing.
My favorite movie of years and years is obviously Parasite. How many have you seen Parasite? What I really wanted to do, but Susan Hoffman is really mean and wouldn’t let me do it, is I wanted to stand up here and just talk about Parasite for a half hour, and then I wanted to listen to you talk about Parasite for a half hour to help me understand it better. But the point is … And Parasite is getting recognized.
But the point I want to make is that the Academy is so stodgy. It’s so terrible, these old white men, what their taste is. It’s a democratic institution, the Academy. Everybody votes, right? No. Not for documentaries and foreign films. They screwed up so many times by not nominating films that were clearly terrific that the Academy made it less democratic and created special committees to steer the vote so that worthwhile films could get nominated, because the old, white men don’t get it. That’s a serious problem, if you care about the Academy and what’s going on there.
Okay. Let me talk for a little bit about some specific movies. How many of you saw … Yeah, a lot of you saw Parasite, right? I’m not going to talk for a half hour about Parasite. I’ll just say a couple things about it. For me, the way to think about Parasite is, when we go to a movie, almost all of us, we’ve got to get two questions answered. We can’t get into a movie without answering two questions.
What’s the genre? Because when you go to a … When you know the genre, you have expectations. If it’s a romance, it’s one thing. If it’s a comedy, it’s … We need to have those genre knowledges, because there are rules to genres, and that helps situate us, and we want to get situated. The other thing we have to have is we’ve got to have somebody to identify with. What’s going to take us on this journey? There’s somebody we’ve got to want to go with on the journey.
So, what does this movie do? It starts out. It’s a comedy. No question it’s a comedy. Oh, no, wait. Maybe it’s a horror movie? No. It’s a home invasion movie. No. It’s a political movie. No. It’s a slasher movie. I have to use the F-word, because one thing you always tell writers when you’re working with them in a studio or in a writing class: don’t fuck with genre. If you change genre on an audience, you are going to alienate them. You are going to make them uncomfortable. And they will not stay with your movie. You better know what you’re doing if you’re going to screw around with genre. And he does. He changes genre, and we go with him.
The other thing is it’s a rich family and a poor family. Who are we going to identify with? Hello? We’re going to identify with the poor family, and we do. They’re totally adorable, and we like them, and we go with them. Then they get the chauffer fired, and then they get the maid fired. Then there’s people downstairs who are in the same position they are but more vulnerable, and they ask for help in solidarity. Nope. They won’t offer it. Suddenly he’s saying the people that you identify with, it’s more complicated than that, Harry.
And then the people that we don’t with, with the rich, he’s got this course going from the father of the poor family who keeps going, “Well, the rich aren’t so bad. I think they’re …” And they’re not! These people are not monsters. The wife though keeps saying things like, “Yeah, but if you have money, it smooths out the wrinkles,” and she has a line, my favorite line in the movie, which is really profound in terms of thinking of how culture works in a class system. She says, “Rich people can afford to be nice.” You think about that in terms of what you do when you find the poor family downstairs.
But the point is that he’s playing with us. He’s saying, “Oh, you know you’re going to like these …” Not only are they nice. How does he shoot them? The rich family, when he shoots them, they’re almost always alone in the frame. The poor family, when he shoots them, they’re together. Come on. What do we like? Which family’s more egalitarian? One’s patriarchal, and the other’s extremely egalitarian and democratic. He sets it up for us to like them, and then he keeps pulling us back, pulling us, pulling us. And with the rich, he’s doing the same thing, the same thing, the same thing.
Why is he doing that? Well, one of the reasons I think he’s doing it is because he’s trying to make what I would describe as a Marxist critique of capitalism, and I do think the film is a critique of capitalism, and I do think what he’s doing is his point is Marx’s point. The problem with capitalism is not capitalists. Capitalists can be really nice people. But what the system does, it puts them in a situation where they have to do bad things. The working class, we’re not rooting for the working class because they’re so nice. They can be horrible. We’re rooting for the working class because they’re in an unjust system, and that’s what this is about.
Over and over and over, he keeps saying, “There’s something wrong with one group of people living in this glass house and the other group folding pizza boxes,” and the problem has nothing to do with them as individuals. They are all part of a system. That system is reflected in every shot of the houses, how the poor people live under the street. The rich people, you walk up to their house. Both have glass. One’s glass looks out on people urinating in front of their home. The other people’s glass looks out on nature, on green, on beauty. Then there’s the third residents downstairs where anybody can potentially end up easy to fall down there. People are constantly boinging boinging down the stairs. Very hard to get up. He’s doing this over and over and over again about class, and I just think that’s really quite amazing.
Also, I just want to say … I don’t want to go too much into this. I’ll just say one last thing about the final violence in the movie. It’s really good! I’m telling you. What precipitates the violence at the end? Boundaries, slipping boundaries all along. The rich father keeps saying, “Got to have our boundaries. Got to have our boundaries.” And the poor people are willing to accept the boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
What precipitates the violence? It has to do with smell, and what this genius of a director gets us thinking about the power of smell. And basically, poor as these people are, they have self-respect, and they ignore indignities. Then you come to a point where somebody talks about your smell, and you snap.
It’s interesting that it wasn’t some huge … And they’re cutting your … We’re firing you. We’re cutting your wage. It’s about who you are. They don’t think they smell bad, but they’re told that they are, and they bought into it. Now he’s realizing it’s horrible that I bought into it. Yeah. Okay. There’s so much more to talk about, but we’re not going to talk about it.
Okay. Let me say what will be really … I’m sure it’ll annoy everybody, which is to say something about Little Women, which I was really disappointed in, and I know everybody likes it. Let me just say that I love Jo. Every woman I’ve ever known wants to be Jo. Every man I’ve ever known wants to be with Jo. I get it. Jo is fantastic. Saoirse Ronan, short of Meryl Streep, is my absolute favorite actress working in film. But let me talk about why it didn’t work for me, and I’d be curious what you think about this. How many of you saw Little Women? Okay, great.
For the first 40% of the movie, I was really unengaged with the March family. They’re doing this all fun sort of bubbly stuff, and they’re like puppies. They’re just really … And you can see why Laurie wants to be part of this family. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of this family? This is Victorian America, and these people have a joie de vivre that’s irresistible. Fine. But I didn’t find it very emotionally complex or interesting or engaging.
In fact, the first time that I felt really moved by the movie was … Had nothing to do with the family. It’s when Laurie’s father is sitting at the bottom of the stairs, listening to Beth play the piano. It’s a four-second scene. And remembering his dead daughter who also played the piano. Anyway, that scene, that hooked me. That’s where I thought, okay, something emotionally meaningful is happening.
The first time I really did feel that there was scenes involving main characters was the scene where Laurie is proposing to Jo, and she turns him down. That scene is extended, and it’s painful. It’s real. His hurt and her hurt are abundant manifest, and it’s just great. It’s followed by one of my two favorite scenes, which is she goes home to her mother, and she’s explaining that she turned down this marriage proposal. Her mother, being perfect and good, of course, says, “You did the right thing. You did the right thing.” Then Jo says, “But I’m lonely.” That is the first time that I felt Jo’s a real person.
When Jo’s being told, “You have to do all this stuff to change your writing and stuff,” Jo’s a plucky, feminist of the 19th century. I never thought, “Whoa, this woman must be carrying some hardship. It’s hard to be a feminist.” No. I never felt that. I felt it was so easy for her. But when she said she was lonely, then she became a person to me, and I love that moment.
Let me just also add that I so disliked the mother. I disliked her because she was perfect. To me, the bellwether scene in that movie is when she says … And I love Laura Dern. I hope she wins the Oscar for Marriage Story. Great, great, great. When she says, “I’m angry,” [in Little Women] I didn’t believe it for one second. The basic rule of screenwriting is show it, don’t tell it. You tell me I … I could see plenty of moments where I think she should be angry. She has a reason to be angry. I never felt the anger there. To me, she was flat.
Beth exists in the movie, I felt, to be sweet and die. Meg was really uninteresting to me. The one character who worked for me was Amy. Amy is far and away my favorite character, and for me the only truly complex character in the movie. When Amy burns her sister’s manuscript, that’s the time I thought, “This is real anger. This is really an …” Not like, “Oh, sisters have their spats.” No. She wanted to wound her sister in a deep way, and she wanted her sister not just to be wounded, but the act was so transgressive. Her sister would have to deal with how much anger she had towards her sister. I thought that was great.
I thought that when she’s explaining to Laurie how marriage is an economic relationship with women and how, when she tells him she doesn’t want to be with him because she’s always been one down to her sister, and she doesn’t want yet another hand-me-down from her sister. To me, she was really the best character. Every time she was in it, I felt like this is a real drama with real three-dimensional people.
Just one last thing I’ll say, and then I’ll stop, which is that … You know I was complaining of the first 40% it’s the family being all bubbly-bubbly, and it’s cute-cute? And it’s fine. But, the exception is the end of the movie. By the way, I love that Greta Gerwig has the editor who’s been sort of an asshole for the whole movie. He’s the one who says, “Make it a happy ending,” and of course he’s right, and we love that. I love that she gave him that.
But at the end of the movie, remember the penultimate scene? She’s at home. She’s saying goodbye to, we know, her true love. He’s going off to the train station, and he leaves. She turns around, and the family’s there, and she goes, “What? What?” They all go, “You’re in love with him. You should go be with him.” But the train’s leaving. And the whole family scurries, and they run around to try to get her off. That, I loved.
And the reason that scurrying and running around by the March family was so wonderful for me is because there was some emotional stakes. There was some vitality. There was mixed feelings. It indicated some new understanding by everybody. That is the kind of March family frenzy that I never felt in the first 40%, and it worked so beautifully at the end.
Okay. I have a whole, long taxonomy on violence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I will spare you that. But, anyway … You want to hear about violence in … How many of you saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Okay. There’s so much that’s … I would say this is B Tarantino. It’s not his really … It’s not Inglorious Bastards. It’s not Pulp Fiction. It’s B, but it’s still … B Tarantino, for me, is better than the vast majority of people making movies today, and especially the way he develops his who main characters.
You have them figured out. I knew. I’m not stupid. I go to a lot of movies. I get it. Leo DiCaprio’s a washed up actor. He’s not very good. He’s hanging on. He’s lucky to have this gig, full of self pity. There hasn’t been any great writing, and then he gets to the scene with the girl where he’s sitting on the steps, and the two of them are talking. You go, “Oh, Quentin Tarantino wrote this. Yes.” The dialogue between him and that girl is great.
But the point is he’s shooting this scene, and he screws it up. He goes back into his trailer, and he does a kind of Robert De Niro Taxi Driver throwing things around, a big tantrum and stuff, and you realize, oh, he really does care about his acting. Then he goes back, and he acts the scene with her. Remember, he’s got a gun to her head? And he’s fantastic in the scene. You go, “Ah, there’s more to him than I thought.” He does that in the nicest way. Then he gets me comfy, and then he says, “No, Harry, dig a little deeper.”
Same thing with Brad Pitt. Hail fellow well met, good guy, stuntman. What’s not to like? I don’t know about you, but when I saw the movie, when Brad Pitt takes off his shirt on the roof, the entire audience started applauding, even straight men like me. Everybody was applauding when he took of his shirt. And you think, “Well, that’s Brad Pitt.” But then you realize, “No.” When he beats up the guy who slashes his tire, he’s going more than he needs to. There’s sadism there. Then you think, “Maybe he murdered his wife, probably murdered his wife.” This is a deeply disturbed person. Then I had to go, “Okay, now this movie’s working on an altogether different level.” He took me, and then he said, “Wake up, Harry. There’s more here that you think.”
But the thing about the violence … I would say there’s … For movies made by men, primarily for men, about violence, there’s basically three kinds that I’m aware of. There’s torture porn, which is like 24, almost all of lots of action movies with Mel Gibson where he just gets tortured so much in these movies. I think we’re supposed to get off on our hero can take it, and he does it, and …
There’s movies where the violence is rooted to some kinds of transcendence, some kind of maturation and redemption. The best example, of course, is The Wild Bunch, the greatest Western ever made. If you’ve never seen it, don’t see it til you can see it on a big screen. But anyway. And the Jesus story is part of that. The early Rocky movies, which were good, are part of this violence is a part of redemption.
Then what I would say Tarantino does in many of his movies, he does violence as schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misery of others. I’ll tell you this. I teach my film classes in New York, so it’s liberal. Imagine that I’m telling you this example, and we’re in Mississippi, and I’m using Hillary Clinton. But in New York, it’s Donald Trump. So, I say, “Okay, seven years from today, Donald Trump dies. You are going to decide, does he die quietly in his sleep, or does he die seven years from today after a protracted and painful illness?” Ninety-five percent of my students, you know what they say. “Well, that’s schadenfreude.” Trump is not a threat to them anymore. He’s an old, retired guy, but they still want to see that.
And that’s what Tarantino does. He has Jamie Foxx, an ex slave, go and execute slaveholders. That’s not about justice. That’s wanting to see these guys dead. When I was growing up in the ’50s, a nice, nerdy, Jewish boy, come on, what did every Jewish boy want more than anything? We wished we could kill Hitler. Come on. We do it in Inglorious Bastards. The Jews kill Hitler, and it’s a really violent killing of Hitler. In this movie, if you know anything about the Manson family, and you know what they did to those people, there is the same kind of they really deserve it.
I think that is one level, which is violence, but I want to just do a coda do that, which I don’t think is unimportant. I do think there’s a difference. I’m speaking for me, not anybody else, between watching a man beat another man to death and watching a man beat a woman to death. When I watch a man beat a man to death, if it’s Quentin Tarantino violence, I’m liking it. I enjoy violent movies.
Watching a man beat a woman to death is different, because, when I watch at Tarantino movie, I don’t think there’s psychosis going on in members of the audience. When I watch a man beat a woman to death, I’m wondering how many people in this audience are glad he’s beating her to death, not because she’s a Manson but because she’s a woman. The violence at the end, the way Brad Pitt kills that woman, that did make me uncomfortable.
The other thing to say about this, which we’re not going to talk about this, why he changes history, and there’s been a lot of criticism of that, and I want to defend that, which has to do with his conception of history in his movies. But, we should take time for questions. So, anybody have any questions? What did you think of the movies of last year? Yes?
Audience 1: I just wanted to ask you a question. I find your analysis of black films very interesting. I saw a list of your top favorite films for 2019. How many of those are black films?
Harry Chotiner: How many of them were black films? I’d have to look at the list. I think three. I know it’s three of my top 10 films of the decade. It’s three black films. I don’t know how many of last year were. Does somebody have a list? My wife handed me the list before I came up here, and she said, “You’ll need it,” and I said, “No, honey. I won’t, I won’t.” Oh, thank you.
My favorite films of last year … Are black films or are nonwhite films? Black films? Let’s see. Last Black Man in San Francisco, Queen & Slim. If you go to the honorable mentions, Little Woods. That’s it, I think. Yes? Did you want to say something about that?
Harry Chotiner: Yes, ma’am?
Audience 2: Hi. I think we were in the same generation going to movies and sort of reminiscing of some of the great movies that were in the past. I remember, in Berkeley, I could see lots and lots of foreign films. Lots. Maybe there were more theaters open also, but I’m finding it very hard to see the films that are nominated.
Harry Chotiner: You’re so right.
Audience 2: I’m hoping that streaming might help that. But it’s frustrating for those of us who are interested in other cultures.
Harry Chotiner: It certainly could. I think I agree with you completely. It’s very hard for foreign films to get an American distributor, because in most cases they don’t make any money. So, it’s expensive to distribute a movie, and so it’s hard to get it. I absolutely think that streaming is the hope and the future of that. I’m very confident that there will be lots of foreign films streaming three or four years now, once they realize that you and I care about it and that’s one of the reasons we will subscribe to a streaming service.
Audience 2: Another thing. A lot of people don’t like movies with subtitles.
Harry Chotiner: Right.
Audience 2: Some of us are okay with subtitles. Maybe people don’t read fast enough. I don’t know. Is that a stumbling block …
Harry Chotiner: It certainly is.
Audience 2: … with foreign language films?
Harry Chotiner: Yes. The two stumbling blocks for getting people to go to movies are black and white. People won’t go to black and white movies by and large, and they won’t go to subtitles. You’re absolutely right. Yes? Yes, sir?
Audience 3: Thank you very much for your talk. I really enjoyed it a lot.
Harry Chotiner: Thank you.
Audience 3: One thing that you said that was disturbing, and it disturbed me because I think I put myself in the 5% of people that would like to see a movie in a theater, what I understood you to say is that, because of the streaming industry, that the theaters that we go to see movies in will become a thing of the past. Is that what you were saying?
Harry Chotiner: What the theaters are hoping is two things will keep them alive. One, luxury. More and more theaters have reserved seats so you can get your seat in advance. They have comfortable chairs. They’re serving food. They’re trying to make the theater experience more palatable. The second thing they’re hoping is, superhero movies, that you go. Well, watching Marriage Story at home, I’m not giving up that much, but if you want to watch Marvel superheroes, you do give up something at home. You don’t have Dolby Stereo probably. So, their hope is that the big budget action movies and the attractiveness of the theaters will keep people coming. I don’t think ultimately it will, but that’s their hope.
Audience 3: So, I guess you’ve kind of alleviated that concern a little bit, because it sounds like you’re not portraying it as an inescapable truth. But if it were to happen, in your view, how far in the future will that take?
Harry Chotiner: What? Theaters to disappear?
Audience 3: Yeah, if theaters are just going to disappear.
Harry Chotiner: 25 years it’s going to …
Audience 3: Okay. That’s comforting too because of my generation. Thank you.
Harry Chotiner: Thank you. Thank you for the compliment and reminding me of my mortality. I appreciate that. Yes, ma’am?
Audience 4: I just would like to add one note of optimism to your point and his question. I’m not as pessimistic as you are. If you remember 10, 20 years ago, big department stores and places like Walmart were taking over. And the prediction was it’s the end of the small business, the end of the small store. It’s the end of the boutique. But, no, it wasn’t, because things move by pendulum. Oh, that’s a big thing. We’re going to go to these big stores where everything’s there where we need it, but people long for that more personal experience of shopping. I think the same thing will happen. Movie theaters are always going to be popular. People are always going to go, because it’s a social experience.
Harry Chotiner: It is a social experience, and there is something about the big screen. You’re a better person than I am for being so hopeful. I want you to be right. The thing that is most pessimistic to me is not that people go to the theaters to see the big budget movies. It’s that people of my kids’ generation are perfectly happy to watch Black Panther on their television, even on their computer screen. So, if you feel you can watch Black Panther on your computer screen and not lose a lot, that doesn’t bode well for the theaters, because their claim is it’s a unique experience that you have to see Black Panther on the big screen. Yes. Any other questions? Yes, sir?
Audience 5: Hi. Two questions. Speaking of foreign films and documentaries, have you seen a movie called One Child Nation?
Harry Chotiner: No. I’m dying to see it. About the Chinese policy on restricting family size?
Audience 5: Right.
Harry Chotiner: I hear it’s great. I haven’t seen it. Do you recommend it?
Audience 5: I do.
Harry Chotiner: Great. One Child Nation, we should watch. Yes. Thank you.
Audience 5: And the other question is you mentioned movies in the third world. Would you expand on that theme?
Harry Chotiner: Oh yeah. What I was going to mention is that there’s a woman who’s a successful Bollywood director, and she makes regular Bollywood movies. She made a movie, because she had the status and the six track record, about two young Indian women who fall in love and have a sexual relationship. When the movie came out and the movie got very good reviews … And when the movie came out, nobody went to see it.
Harry Chotiner: What she was saying to Netflix was the reason they’re not coming to see it is not because they’re interested but because it’s too embarrassing to be seen in the movie theater where this is playing. People don’t want to walk out. Trust me, if you will take this and stream it, there will be huge demand for it. And Netflix tried it, and she was 100% right. It’s one of the most successfully streamed movies that Netflix has ever had in India, and they couldn’t get anybody to go see it in the theaters.
Harry Chotiner: So, there is anecdotal, I can’t say more than that, evidence that streaming allows people to see movies that they would be too ashamed to go to in third world countries where that isn’t a problem in France. So, anyway, that was the point I was going to make.
But I just want to say one other thing, because I just have to say this last thing, and then you can go, which is that Parasite … I just want to say one other thing about Parasite. No, really. Come on. Great. I was talking about how the devastation of the critique of capitalism. One of the things that it does is that you watch this movie, and you think, okay, the Kim family, the poor family, what do they do? They fold pizza boxes. Well, what do they do when they decide on this scheme? They plan. They educate themselves. They improvise. They cooperate. They deal with problems and make adjustments. How smart are these people? How competent are these people? What could these people do if they lived in a system where they really had a chance to display those skills other than as a scam?
And I think what he’s saying is, how many people are there right now in East Oakland who, like the Kim family, have all of these talents that will never see the light of day because the system doesn’t make it possible? In depicting the Kim family in that way, in that situation, that seems to me he’s developing a very poignant and powerful critique about what is possible in certain economic systems. Okay. Thank you for coming. I appreciate it. Thank you very much. Thank you.