Film School never ends – but True Cinema did in 1989

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The Death of Cinema began with the Birth of Bruce Willis

Something happened in the year 1989 that changed the way we consume cinema forever. A baby named Mikey was conceived during the opening credits of 1989’s summer hit “Look Who’s Talking” and with that successful insemination arose the death of cinema as art for the audience.

The marketing scheme used on moviegoers, who consumed “Look Who’s Talking” to the tune of $300 million at the box office, relied on the gimmick of the biggest star in the film, Bruce Willis, voicing a baby and with that self sacrifice, the movie began cinema’s dark descent into the toilet bowl. “Look Who’s Talking” is the tent pole moment when Hollywood pre-conceived gimmicks and hyped up expectations overshadowed the actual film that follows an idea.

“Look Who’s Talking” successfully invented a new genre that can easily be coined the “gimmick film.” Alongside talking dog films, the talking baby film rightfully takes its place at the end of the 1980s decade as just one more gimmick that the movie going audience is will to accept. But “Look Who’s Talking” effectively rides the gimmick to the end of the train tracks and doesn’t pick up any worthy passengers along the way.

The plot is entirely irrelevant to the film and all of the attention is bestowed upon baby Mikey. Mikey is played by blockbuster movie star Bruce Willis. The death of cinema begins with Bruce Willis’ absence from the film. Why would a Hollywood film pick one of the best looking, most successful actors at the moment and cast him in a role in which you do not see him? One answer is money. Bruce Willis’ salary would have driven up the budget of the film to a much higher number than the practical $9 million which “Look Who’s Talking” was shot for. Also, by showcasing a big actor as an unseen entity, it gives even less credence to the actors you do see on the screen. Has-been actors Kirstie Alley and John Travolta are cast as the parents of Mikey and their non-presence makes the baby gimmick that much more the focus. John Travolta had not been offered a movie in five years when he landed “Look Who’s Talking” so his acting fee was most likely for scale. Kirstie Alley was not poised to continue her career into the 1990s and would have been relegated back to television (Cheers) if it wasn’t for the Look Who’s Talking trilogy.

The film takes its place amongst a historical moment in cinema during a year in which hype was king and content was an afterthought. Another successful film in 1989 was “Batman” which brought actor Michael Keaton out of obscurity and thrust him into an action role that no one thought he could do. But the studio system worked very hard at hyping and marketing “Batman” that by the time the film came out, the actual substance on the screen was not as important as the feeling that movie viewers expected to get by the time they had paid for their admission tickets.

Like a moviegoer who doesn’t realized that he has been duped until the lights go down, the character of Mikey also realizes that he has opened a can of worms. “Put me back in! Put me back in!” are the first words we hear Mikey speak as his mother gives birth to him. Truer words could not be spoken. Hollywood has always put a value on the adorable children in front of the camera, but to give an entire feature film devoted to close-ups of a cute baby is unforgiveable. In efforts to give the main character of the film, a baby, some personality the director/writer Amy Heckerling decides to give the baby a sexual libido and it is Mikey who makes breast jokes and follies as a young male who wants to get laid. The 3 month old baby is personified as the penis of John Travolta’s character who is castrated by his parental obligation to Mikey’s mother. When the camera dips into a woman’s cleavage (which it does more than once), it is Mikey who makes the lewd statement on behalf of John Travolta’s wandering eyes.

The failure of many films has derived in its overuse of voice-over speech. The film “Blade Runner” is famous for removing the voice over narration from its lead character Decker because it cheapened the film. Director Ridley Scott replaced the voice over narration in his director’s cut. On the whole, voice over is a cheap and easy way to steal a moment from the movie and make it break the fourth wall for convenience.

In the film “Adaptation” directed by Charlie Kaufman in 2002, the Hollywood coach Robert McKee says: “…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” “Look Who’s Talking” made a whole movie with voice over!

While the fans spent $300 million at the box office and two sequels were made, reviewers were not kind to “Look Who’s Talking.” Hal Hinson at the Washington Post wrote:

“As a director, (Amy) Heckerling moves through the movie like a train hitting all the stops; she pulls into the station, drops her load and moves on. What this consists of, basically, is cutting to the kid and matching Willis’s lines to the baby actor’s expressions. (2)

The decline of cinema, as exemplified in “Look Who’s Talking”, is symptomatic of overused genre clichés and formulaic selling points in movies designed to get the audience’s money and not their respect. Tried and true genres like Westerns and Romance films just don’t make the kind of financial return that Hollywood came to expect by the dawn of the 1990s. A film like “Look Who’s Talking” found a new audience to fill that financial void: babies and those that love them.

Rehashing an older genre will never have as much success as the original idea. While “Look Who’s Talking” celebrates birth, the film “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch effectively killed the Western genre in 1995. “Dead Man” was another film shot on a $9 million budget. But six years later, $9 million didn’t go as far so some sacrifices were made. None of these sacrifices were seen on the screen. The film features dozens of Hollywood heavyweights including Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, and Robert Mitchum. The score was composed by Neil Young. The attending of these stars to make a “small western” is not dissimilar to the attending of a funeral for a dead genre. Instead of reinventing the Western, “Dead Man” is a reflection of Westerns past when the Hollywood system did not have control over the characters, themes, and politics of a natural genre.

In “Dead Man” each character has a name and is given their proper moment to shine. In 1995, this greatly contrasted the Hollywood movies that were being churned out like the 1995 film “Golden Eye” in which James Bond kills hundreds of nameless victims. “Dead Man” is the final telling off of Hollywood from the Western genre’s perspective. It begs to be accepted as a simple memorial to a dead genre.

In the wake of “Dead Man”’s dismal success at the box office (it made just over $1 million), (2) Hollywood returned to less morbid cinema and the gimmick was forever ingrained as a part of cinematic integrity. Since “Look Who’s Talking”, audiences have come to expect the gimmick in a film to become its largest selling point. When selling a film to an audience of hundreds of millions, Hollywood executives have decided that it is easier for people to refer to films as “The movie about the talking dog” or “the movie about the two gay cowboys” than it is for audiences to go into a film unknowingly.

In the last ten years, movies derived from television shows or comic books have invaded the mainstream cinema. By relying on existing marketing schemes, these films have a built in desirable factor from people who loved their previous incarnation. Examples include the films “Starsky and Hutch”, “Charlie’s Angels”, “Iron Man”, “The Hulk” and the upcoming film “Chips.” Regardless of whether or not audiences feel that these cinematic recreations tarnish the original medium in which they were presented, filmmakers know that there will always be a newer and younger audience ready to accept a new telling of something that only their parents know.

Hollywood is advancing their timeframe on rehashing old ideas with existing marketing values. The film “The Karate Kid” is being redone and will star Jackie Chan. Despite the fact that the original “Karate Kid” is still part of the current generation of active, young film goers, that audience will be given a chance of comparison between the two films.

All of these changes in cinema and the movies that are made are a clear product of the financial underbelly of moviemaking. By not straying to far away from what has previously worked, the risk decreases and the value of return increases for studios. The debate of what is better between to films (or books or television) only creates more interest in multiple mediums. It is accepted that audiences can now consume greater quantities of art than ever before.

The choice to disregard most of what we consume is now being accepted by Hollywood who continues the churn out dredge every year. Writer and Film Critic Susan Sontag woefully put it:

“The tipping of the old balance between art and commerce is decisively in favor of cinema as an industry. All these forces are producing disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.” (3)

“Look Who’s Talking” represents that disposable eye candy that made us happy to be looking at something beautiful. The film gave our eyes a chance to be myopic and our brain, our senses, and our sensibility to take a seat in the back row of the cinema and just enjoy the show. By consuming the film en masse, audiences validated Hollywood’s idea that anything can sell – no matter who is talking.

1.Belton, John, American Cinema American Culture, p. 265
2. Hinson, Hal, Washington Post article, October 19, 1989.
3. Sontag, Susan, “A Century of Cinema,” an essay written for the Frankfurter Rundschau, 1995


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