It is understandable that someone who sees 300 or more movies in a year might look at the form differently from the average moviegoer, who even before this pandemic hit typically watched fewer than 10 movies in a theater every year.
Experience changes us, for better and for worse. We trade a bit of our susceptibility to the magic and power of moving pictures for some insight into how they are designed and assembled. We learn their tricks and lose our sense of wonder. We grow up in movies.
That doesn't mean we love them any less; our appreciation ought to increase. But our tastes change. Spectacle becomes routine, explosions no longer make us flinch. We become sophisticated, or maybe jaded. It is a sad yet beautiful process.
One of the first things experience demonstrates is that the movies are primarily product, a method of transferring wealth from the many to the few. So they are only as true to human nature as they need to be to pass as representative of human drama. Hollywood would put a bouncing beach ball on a screen if that would fill an auditorium with paying customers. That most of the people involved in the production of a film are genuine artists does not mean that theirs is not a cynical power, shaping what we get to see.
Like every industry, Hollywood is now and again disrupted. The plague has halted most production and shuttered the big chain theaters like AMC and Cineworld, which has, in turn, caused distributors to hold back the movies they hope can still generate massive box office returns if and when they open in theaters. Other films, seen as less likely to engage the public's
attention on a massive scale, have been sacrificed to the hungry remunerative maw of on-demand streaming services.
If anyone can be said to be enjoying these past few months, it might be the stakeholders in Netflix.
One of the things we've been denied in 2020 is a proper summer movie season.
Scarlett Johansson's stand-alone comic book movie "Black Widow" had been scheduled to kick off the traditional summer movie season on May 1. Thanks to covid-19, the 24th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has a tentative opening date of Nov. 6.
"Wonder Woman 1984," originally scheduled for June 5, is rescheduled for Oct. 20. Pixar's "Soul," originally scheduled for June 19, now has a Nov. 20 release date. Christopher Nolan's "Tenet," originally planned for release July 17, has been delayed several times.
Before the success of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" in 1975, aside from films that had holiday themes, nobody thought that much about when a movie was released. But post-"Jaws" (and everything changed after "Jaws"; Hollywood stopped settling for singles and doubles and started swinging for the fences with every at-bat) the movie release calendar was split into three periods of roughly four months each: From January through April, movies that might start out as prestige products but misfire, dramas aimed at adults that aren't considered likely awards contenders and cheaply made horror movies. January and February are traditionally when what the studios consider misbegotten projects are released.
Then comes summer, with its putative blockbusters, action movies, raunchy teen sex comedies and all manner of popcorn movies.
Late August and September are when the weird and off-brand titles might be released, but then, after the Toronto International Film Festival wraps up in mid-September, the studios begin rolling out what they consider their Oscar hopefuls and prestige pictures, sprinkling in a handful of big family-oriented movies around the holidays.
Every year sees exceptions, and the "summer movie season" hasn't had any close correspondence with actual summer for a long time; in recent years summer movie season generally begins the first weekend of May and ends sometime in early August. Before that, the "summer movie season" used to begin on Memorial Day weekend and run through Labor Day weekend. If anything, it seems to get earlier every year — in 2018, "Avengers: Infinity War" opened on April 27.
I didn't think I'd mind the loss of the summer season. A film critic's job becomes either a lot harder or a lot easier during the summer. When she was working at The New Yorker, Pauline Kael used to take the summers off.
Week after week, there seemed to be one great inevitable happening opening at a theater near you that demands attention: the latest installment of the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes, another bare-knuckled Dwayne Johnson actioner, a Disney princess, a disaster movie with aliens or Godzilla.
These movies will be noticed, if not confronted, in a general-interest newspaper that purports to cover the movies. But they are not much to write about unless you fancy yourself a comedian (and that gets old, for your readers if not for you).
Mostly summer movies are factory-built formula, overt and handsome and ultimately empty of nuance. They are by turns sad, inspiring and uplifting. In the end, they invariably reassure you that the moral arc of the universal bends toward justice even if it looks like the bad guys have a lot of fun.
You watch enough movies, you understand not only the formula but can begin to appreciate variations in the formula. But that's not the same thing as being swept up in a movie.
Some of these movies might reward deep scrutiny — the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" movies have developed their own liturgy, and those who find them rewarding are welcome to do so.
But there are more things to do than to drill down into these manufactured mythologies (which are, after all, proffered for sale) and every rewatching of "The Return of the King" forecloses the possibility of doing something else with one's finite time on the planet. We ought to choose our obsessions carefully.
Some comic book movies, some monster movies are fantastic, and fascinating in ways beyond their liturgical power to draw crowds and engender catchphrases. It's just that most of them aren't, and they come one after another, body blow after body blow.
While even the dumbest and most overt movies can be enjoyed if you are in the right mindset (and movie-seeing experience can help with this), a lot of us wish for more variety during the summer and bemoan that the studios' calculated profit-maximizing decision to swing from the heels for a blockbuster almost every time has pushed more human-size movies off the big screens and onto TVs and laptops and iPads.
Now, with those inevitable happenings paused, some of these smaller films are getting a chance to gain purchase on the public imagination, in a way they otherwise would not have. Certainly, Disney+'s "Hamilton," the filmed version of the Broadway musical, would have received a lot of attention no matter when it was released, but releasing it on July 3, with no competition from most sports or from "Free Guy," the Ryan Reynolds/Jodie Comer science-fiction comedy (about a nonplayer character in a violent video game who becomes self-aware and decides to make himself the hero of the game) originally scheduled to open that day, turned it into an occasion for bonding, as millions of Americans subscribed simply to see what all the fuss was about.
And it helped that the fuss was deserved; "Hamilton" is more than the filmed musical it might have been, a psychologically astute work of uncommon intelligence and generosity of spirit with some actual good music.
"Free Guy" is now scheduled to be released Dec. 11, which only seems like a long way off. After Ryan's work in "Deadpool" and "Detective Pikachu," I'm almost looking forward to it.
If "Hamilton" is the closest thing we've had — in terms of crowd-pleasing potential and its ability to draw us together — to a real summer movie this year, we might think about the de-facto summer movies we've experienced. A film as earnest and low-key (for a special effects-laden war movie set in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean) as the recent "Greyhound" seems more like something that would have been released in the fall, or maybe, if you don't think the presence of Tom Hanks classes it up enough, into the dead zone of February.
Viewed in the harshest way possible, it presents as a vanity project for Hanks, a bonus paid for loyal service from an industry for which he has made hundreds of millions of dollars. OK, Tom, they say, go off and make your pet project, spend this much (or a little more) and we'll put it out.
And Hanks, with his deep interest in World War II and Navy gear, decided to write a script based on a C.S. Forester novel about a decent but ordinary man, a career naval officer who has never undertaken a wartime mission (and therefore must wonder if he has the right stuff to command), who is thrown by necessity into a critical position as the commander of a destroyer escorting Allied troop ships across the Atlantic during the early days of WWII, as German U-boats stalk them.
While the premise might sound like a summer action movie, with the Hollywood playbook providing two possible endings (after taking some losses the convoy makes it through and Hanks' character is a hero, or after taking some losses the convoy makes it through and Hanks' character dies selflessly) the actual movie is something more and less than that.
"Greyhound" is, in its best parts, a psychological study of male anxiety. In the film, Hanks' character is suffering from performance anxiety, deepened by our realization that it's not because he's worried about his own place in history or potential heroism, but about the lives of human beings — not only those in his care, but those on the enemy submarines he might have to kill. And those whose lives depend on whether and how efficiently he delivers troops to the European Theater of Operations.
"Greyhound" was not designed as a summer movie. Hanks wrote something much better than that, and the film may even have been served by a smaller budget, one that didn't allow for the photorealistically perfect but unimpressive special effects that allow us to see the subs and the ships and the torpedoes and the maneuvers.
As filmed, "Greyhound" is a dull gray action movie. But within that movie is a more interesting one that's going on in the conflicted head of the character Hanks plays.
"Greyhound" is a weird little film, and only the presence of its star and its familiar wartime setting argue for it as a summer film. It might play better in a different context. It makes a case for decent competency, in a season where excess is expected. It is a thought-provoking film when all we want is to turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.
Still, there's a very real upside to the lack of flashy product in the few cinemas that remain open — it allows us a chance to see other types of movies that in a normal summer movie season would never find oxygen enough to catch fire in the public imagination.
A movie like Rod Lurie's "The Outpost," an honest, unsentimental boots-on-the-ground look at the banality and terror of combat, might have collected nice critical notices in normal times, but it's unlikely it would have become the most downloaded/streamed film of the summer.
While the Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson project "The King of Staten Island" would likely have had a moment even in a normal summer cinematic environment, lots of little films like Vaclav Marhoul's adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel "The Painted Bird," Natalie Erika James' feature debut "Relic," Hirokazu Koreeda's "The Truth," Shannon Murphy's "Babyteeth," Andrew Patterson's "The Vast of Night" and Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip to Greece" all are getting deserved turns in the spotlight that they might have missed if the weekly blockbusters were magnetizing eyeballs.
That said, I miss the movies too.
I miss going to a matinee on a hot summer's day and watching "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and being alarmed and amazed by the ingenuity, craft and wit of the best Hollywood professionals. I am looking forward to seeing James Bond and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick" (scheduled for a Dec. 23 release). Soon I will probably drop into my local cinema, just to sit in its seats and look at its big screen and watch a classic film I've watched before.
Because that's what's wrong — and what's right — with summer movies. They all feel like something we've seen before.
And in these unprecedented times, maybe we could use a little nostalgia.