COLUMN: Don’t retread on me

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 5, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Don’t retread on me
By Aaron J. Brown

The entertainment writers call this the summer of the sequel. In a May 15 Newsweek column, film critic Roger Ebert describes a popcorn movie season of unoriginality and safe choices for the film industry. Substitute “film industry” for “America” and you’ve got a good picture of our problems.

For a century our nation and its movies have shared a conjoined fate. We used to make “Gone with the Wind.” Now we spend much more money producing much worse movies. And isn’t that our country’s problem? Can we balance the federal budget? Can we provide health insurance for all Americans? The answer is no, so long as we fail to admit the limitations of the Scooby Doo franchise.

Hollywood studios green-lighted no fewer than 27 sequels for the lucrative summer movie season. These films will earn the bulk of our movie-going dollars, and we will willingly pay. I’m going to Cars 2 with the family next month. There is no question about whether or not we will go. Mater and Lightning McQueen are involved. These are welcome, comforting figures in our life. We seek reassurance and we shall have it. This is the nature of the beast and/or talking car.

The Pirates of the Caribbean film series deserves extra consideration because the original was based not on a book, TV show or previous movie, but on an amusement park ride. Now there are several more Pirates movies, each like the successive ups and downs of a roller coaster – never as exciting as the first.

Other quasi-sequels channel similar nostalgic sources, such as comic books or TV shows. Captain America is back, as are the Smurfs. I guess I liked the Smurfs when I was a kid, though I grew apart from the little blue communists after a while. Then when I went to college Cartoon Network began playing hard for my demo using the forces of my childhood television habits. The Smurfs reentered my consciousness … against my will.

This summer I am expected to bring my children to see the Smurfs movie to validate the life I have led, watching cartoons instead of learning a foreign language or higher math. I will not see this movie. I am not yet able to reckon with my choices.

Ebert describes the studio process that has led the industry into this repetitive cycle. With so much money at stake, and American habits so calcified, saying yes to a sequel or identifiable brand is easy. Saying yes to something original or unconventional is dangerous to a studio exec. Some of the best dramatic work is now being done on broadcast and cable television, where risk can be balanced across a wider spectrum.

Looking back at the last year, I played a lot of the computer game “Angry Birds” on my Apple iPad. Angry Birds comes from Finland; that iPad comes from a lot of places, primarily Asian nations. Here on the Iron Range we’re shipping minerals to Asia in a political structure built with significant influence by Finnish immigrants in the early 20th century (among many other important nationalities).

Today our people talk about new mines getting ore to market, rerouting highways to accommodate the iron mines. We wonder about unions. We worry for the children of unskilled workers. Or do we? These are old discussions resurrected from the previous century.

Is it too much to ask for a new show? Something with a plot? Something with characters we can cheer for? At some point the dull thud of the familiar becomes not a comfort, but a frightening harbinger of a hollow future.

I can’t imagine sitting through a movie like that. Can you? Maybe we need to start making our own movies.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor on the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

Follow MinnesotaBrown on Facebook and Twitter for additional content.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.