Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rise and fall

I've spent some time leafing through the massive You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, by Richard Schickel and George Perry, which ties in with a multipart American Masters history of the studio that airs next month on PBS. There's a lot to salute as the studio celebrates its 85th anniversary: The coming of sound via 1927's The Jazz Singer, its run of classics from the 30s to the 50s, from gritty gangster pictures to Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, and Rebel Without a Cause, and of course all those great stars it bred, like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and James Dean, not to mention Bugs and Daffy.

But the party's over. By the time the book reaches the present day, it's pretty much just big glossy photos of Harry Potter and other so-called "tentpoles," that keep audiences and shareholders happy. The absence of text is no surprise--what is there to say about them? That's not why I'm party-pooping, however. It's discouraging to read that WB no longer wants to shelter smaller films under the ever-widening tents, which is, or used to be, the artistic justification for the blockbusters. Since the book went to press this includes what will soon be the second-biggest grosser of all time, the stridently overrated Dark Knight, which in Heath Ledger's slightly Cagney-esque performance as the Joker winks at a risk-taking and exuberant past the studio is in retreat from. It wants to sell superhero soap, and that is that.

WB--you can't really call it "Warner Bros." anymore--is hardly alone in this. Hollywood is like one melded entity searching for the next big thing, preferably in tights. In the heyday of this book (which Running Press publishes Sept. 9) the studios had distinctive identities, and you could still discern the outlines of what they were in the 70s and 80s. (Clint Eastwood, who contributes the foreword, still hangs his shingle on the WB lot.) But it's discouraging to see a regime so upfront about putting marketing over moviemaking. Looked at one way, the cover of You Must Remember This caps a record of distinguished achievement. Looked at another, it might front a gilded mausoleum. I do remember this, and it's nice that WB puts out a thick book (and lots of DVDs, though that has slowed) to commemorate the good old days. But what the new, thoroughly corporatized WB wants you to remember is the balance sheet.

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