Sunday, November 27, 2005

To judge from how the weekend’s box office is breathlessly reported in the news bulletins Monday morning, more people seem interested in movie grosses than in movies.

Evidently, Hollywood has recovered from this summer’s all-time record “box office slump.” Or at any rate, news stories about the box office slump have slumped.

A breathless Associated Press dispatch on the opening weekend of “Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire” reported that “the latest Potter movie led a lineup that helped reverse the Hollywood box-office slump.”

I wouldn’t say the boy wizard and his Hogwarts chums exactly “led a lineup” of slump-reversers. When you look at the weekend numbers, Harry Potter’s $101.4 million is more than the gross of the rest of the Top Five movies combined and doubled. Indeed, the rest of the Top Ten together managed $66 million. Harry Potter is an industry apart, and tells us nothing about Hollywood’s general malaise, or alleged recovery.

I chipped in my own $20 or so of that hundred million. Went to see it opening weekend. Had a miserable time. Nothing to do with the movie. Everything to do with the theater in which I saw it: a multiplex operated by a New England chain called Entertainment Cinemas of South Easton, Mass., and they really should make critics see the films in these kinds of joints.

It was a small screen at the end of a dingy room with unraked seating and, instead of letting you lose yourself in the dark to the magic of the silver screen, they keep half the lights up for the movie. I e-mailed “customer service” at Entertainment Cinemas to ask why, but received no response.

Small multiplexes apparently save money by hiring one projectionist to run several screens. The drawback is that one or other of the semi-unmonitored machines will jam, leading the projection lamp to burn a hole in the print. To lessen the risk of this, the projectionist expands the space between the gate and the lamp — ie, he shows the film slightly out of focus. I don’t know if that’s why the Harry Potter I saw was so dark and blurry, but, after reading about all the lavish effects-laden set-pieces Mike Newell put in the movie, I did rather feel I was seeing the cinematic equivalent of a digitally remastered symphony concert replayed through a 1950s transistor radio.

The average multiplex is surely not long for this world. Already, 85 percent of Hollywood’s business comes from home entertainment — DVDs and the like. Suits me. Or so I thought until, on the way home from the hell of “Harry Potter,” I stopped to buy the third boxed set in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. Loved the first two — Daffy, Bugs, Porky, beautifully restored, tons of special features. But, for some reason, this new set begins with a special announcement by Whoopi Goldberg explaining what we should not find funny: “Unfortunately, at that time, racial and ethnic differences were caricatured in ways that may have embarrassed and even hurt people of color, women and ethnic groups,” she tells us sternly. “These jokes were wrong then and they’re wrong today” — unlike, say, Whoopi Goldberg’s most memorable joke of recent years, the one at that 2004 all-star Democratic Party gala in New York where she compared President Bush to her, um, private parts. There’s a gag for the ages.

I don’t know what Whoopi’s making such a meal about. It’s true you don’t see many positive images of people of color on Looney Tunes, but then the images of people of noncolor aren’t terribly positive either (Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam).

Instead, you see positive images of ducks of color, roadrunners of color and tweety birds of color. How weirdly reductive to be so obsessed about something so peripheral to these cartoons that you stick the same damn Whoopi Goldberg health warning on all four DVDs in the box. And don’t think about hitting the “Next” button and skipping to the cartoons: you can’t; you gotta sit through it.

A Hollywood ashamed of one of its few universally acknowledged genuine artistic achievements is hardly likely to come up with any new artistic achievements.

As the instant deflation of that Whoopi cushion reminds us, the movies are now so constrained by political correctness, storytelling itself endangered. That’s something slightly more ominous than the feeble limousine liberalism many conservatives blame for the alleged box-office slump.

Say what you like about those Hollywood writers of the 1930s and ‘40s, but they were serious lefties. Their successors are mostly poseurs loudly trumpeting their courageous “dissent” while paralyzed into inanity. This year’s Sean Penn thriller, “The Interpreter,” was originally about Muslim terrorists blowing up a bus in New York. So, naturally, Hollywood called Rewrite. And instead the bus got blown up by African terrorists from the little-known republic of Matobo. “We didn’t want to encumber the film in politics in any way,” said producer Kevin Misher.

But being so perversely “nonpolitical” is itself a political act. If there were a dozen movies in which Tom Cruise kicked al Qaeda butt across the Hindu Kush, it would be reasonable to say, “Hey, we’d rather deal with Matoban terrorism for a change.” But, when every movie goes out of its way to avoid being “encumbered,” it starts looking like a pathology.

By the time Hollywood released this summer’s “Stealth,” some studio exec must have panicked that, what with all this Bono/Live8 debt-relief business, it might look a bit Afrophobic to have any more Matoban terrorists. So Stealth was a high-tech action thriller about U.S. Air Force pilots zapping about the skies in which the bad guy is the plane.

That’s right: an unmanned computer-flown plane goes rogue and starts attacking things. The money shot is — stop me if this rings a vague bell — a big downtown skyscraper with a jet heading toward it. Only there are no terrorists aboard the jet. The jet itself is the terrorist.

This is the pitiful state Hollywood’s been reduced to. Safer not to have any bad guys. Let’s make the plane the bad guy. No wonder it’s 20th century Britlit — “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Narnia” — keeping those Monday morning numbers up. Hollywood’s yarn-spinning is what’s really out of focus, and in the end even home entertainment revenue won’t save a storytelling business that no longer knows how to tell any.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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