By SEAN ETTER
To be honest, I was pretty disappointed by the new Star Wars film. The first time I saw it, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. However, after discussing it with a friend and seeing it two more times, I concluded that it was quite simply Episode IV repackaged with original characters and “retro” tropes to make the audience feel as if it is on the same field as the original trilogy. In terms of creativity and authenticity, The Force Awakens is nowhere near theoriginal as an art form. There are moments that recall the Lucas films. There are glimmers of hope (particularly in the final scene) that the next installments will be good. However, the movie is altogether a commercialized algorithm made to sell tickets at the box office and Chewbacca dog toys at Petco.
This is not a review of The Force Awakens. Rather, I think the most recent Star Wars film can be used to explain the current state of the movie industry and more generally of art. Film studios are rebooting blockbusters from decades ago. They have put a Hollywood spin on other stories we’ve known since childhood: Jurassic World, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and more recently, The Jungle Book. (Why? My childhood is crying!) Biblical movies have also seen a revival.However, the differences between these and a Marvel movie set in ancient Mesopotamia or Rome seem to be minute.
The reasoning behind these reboots is mostly financial. Films are expensive to make and even a large company like Disney can struggle to rebound from a bust, while smaller companies run the risk of being wiped out. Funding can also be hard to obtain: the most recent James Bond movie filmed an extensive (and fantastic) opening sequence in Mexico City. This occurred after the Mexican government offered large subsidies to the production company, which was struggling to finance the movie.
The result of the accountants’ takeover of Hollywood is that movie companies are less willing to risk new stories, and instead bank on the guaranteed revenue of reboots with a large fan base. The other result is that film studios have released nothing innovative recently, at least as far as blockbuster films. I struggle to believe that George Lucas would be successful in proposing Star Wars to today’s investors with its extremely high-effects budget and its radically different story (other than the hero’s journey) from almost anything before it.
This isn’t just a trend in the film industry. Risk-averse companies have also been a detriment to music and literature. When was the last time the best-selling novel was also one of the best literary works of fiction? When did we last see a best-seller’s list topped by books on the same intellectual level as those of Hemingway or Joyce? Granted, there has always been a disparity between the success of authors writing what might as well be screenplays for action movies and rom coms and of those trying to create art. However, with the squeezed margins due tocompetition with e-books and pirated books, publishing companies have been less willing to take a chance on a novel that is not feel-good movie material.
The same has been true in the music industry. An unfortunate consequence of the Internet is that music labels have also seen their margins fall. As such, touring has become the only way for musicians and their labels to make a great deal of money. This has always been a large source of musicians’ income. However, the sole dependence on shows has pushed labels to promote artists who can sell out stadiumsrather than small bars and cafes. Bob Dylan would not have survived in the current musical climate. The Beatles would also have struggled during their later years (which many agree were their most artistically substantial), as they stopped touring about midway through their career.
Artists themselves have often felt pressure to focus on producing “sellable” goods, rather than books and songs with intrinsic artistic value. Artists have always struggled financially more so than their business and engineering counterparts. However, adding to the rising cost of living in most large cities is exorbitant student debt for attending college. First-year graduates of Julliard or Berklee simply cannot afford to play jazz part-time in Manhattan bars and write their own music, living in a normal Queens apartment with other musicians. Many like to poke fun at music and theater majors as being overly idealistic. However, I admire them for having the confidence to pursue their passions in the face of so much societal and financial pressure to become a corporate bean counter.
There’s not much we can do to counter this trend. Many will always choose a Marvel movie over an abstract foreign film because Marvel movies are easy, fun, and allow us to turn our minds off for two hours. Alternative and innovative music will never dominate the radio for roughly the same reasons. However, there are some things we can do.
1. Stop watching Marvel movies.
2. Support normal, local musicians.
Oftentimes, the work of local musicians’ isn’t necessarily great, but it’s different. In addition, supporting artists in their formative years can help them grow into something better. Pay the $5 cover fee to see their show, stay off your cell phone while watching, and buy their album. They’re not really making any money. They’re simply artists trying to survive.
Some musicians do still want to change the way we think about music. Some authors do still try to write about the inner human struggle. Art is a reflection of our society. It’s what elevates us above clever animals in a way that technological advancement alone does not. Help art evolve out of commercialism, and in doing so, help the world evolve as well.