Wednesday, 12 December 2007

the definition of "mainstream"


Let us imagine the possibility of a film made to a nine-figure budget, marketed across the globe as a big "event" films, that pulls in enough crowds to be top of the box-office for several weeks, perhaps even ranking among the year's best-performing films in financial terms. Now let us further imagine that such a film, beneath the crowd-pulling lavish production values and spectacle that is de rigeur for a film with a budget of that magnitude, ultimately exhibits a sensibility aimed at a specific, niche audience - that it can be enjoyed on a superficial level by a wide audience, but only actually understood by a much smaller subset of that audience.

This is occasioned by my catching a screening of Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf - I will post a full review shortly, but suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised - a film that fits virtually every practical definition of a mainstream blockbuster. It also happens to virtually demand some considerable knowledge of the Old English poem in order for its full subtleties and intent to be understood, since the film virtually positions itself as a dialogue with its source text.

A "mainstream" audience will come to Beowulf and perhaps enjoy it for the joyously over-the-top action scenes, or perhaps be slightly bored by the long-winded sections between these scenes. A considerable majority of its audience, however, is - and I am really trying hard to avoid sounding elitist here - unable to understand the full impact of its references and the thematic weight behind the film's events and images.

This is similar to a discussion that developed recently in a cultural criticism class I attended, about whether Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003-2004) should be considered cult or mainstream. In terms of production, exposure, marketing. cultural impact and audience reception, there can be little doubt that it is a major mainstream release. In terms of sensibility, the question is more problematic. It is certain that only a small segment of its audience will understand its wide range of cultural references or be aware of the cinematic legacies Tarantino is paying homage to - and, ultimately, Kill Bill was made for these people more than for the wider audience. It is even possible, though perhaps to a lesser extent, to argue a similar case for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy, the biggest blockbusters of all.

Does it make sense, then, to call these films mainstream, or commercial? Is "mainstream" defined according to inherent qualities a film possesses, or is it measured purely by the film's media profile and financial success? Is it possible that some (by no means all) of the most-watched, highest-earning films might, in sensibility, and beneath their glossy surface, be as niche at heart as more overtly "cult" hits?

6 comments:

Noel Tanti said...

i think that mainstream, by definition, is something that appeals (or should appeal) to a wide audience... however i find that a lot of people tend to equate mainstream with low quality, which is not fair... the bard himself wrote plays that appealed to a wide spectrum of people, ranging from the illitterate to the scholar... so yes i can understand how a mainstream movie can work on many levels...

the reverse is also the case... not all handheld, grainy, european movies are great...

magnum said...

I can't see how Beowulf is an example of the non-mainstream, seeing how it basically puts itself as both a large, noisy blockbuster with lots of shouting and fighting, not to mention Zemeckis' love affair with moving the camera around and 3D (don't forget Boewulf is meant to be seen in Imax 3D for the full effect).

As for references... any movie (or text for that matter) should be able to stand up for itself without being able to get all the vagrant references the director decides to put into it.

Also, ultimately aren't all (or at least the majority) movies 'commercial'? Surely all their makers want their creative output to make them a dollar or million...

Noel Tanti said...

it's not a matter of whether you use references or not but how you use them... if done clumsily, a reference becomes a rip off, which is the case with guy ritchie movies...

but when it's used to enrich a context, it's assimilated in the latter and helps one to understand BETTER what is being shown/said/read... it becomes an integral part of a process that acknowledges what happened before in order to highlight what is being done here and now...

like in coppola's dracula... you don't have to be an expert in horror fiction to appreciate or understand the film... but having a knowledge of the genre certainly enriches your viewing of it...

Daniel Vella said...

Beowulf does undoubtedly place itself as a "loud, noisy blockbuster", but what I am asking is precisely that: can something that is exceptionally mainstream on the surface be something else entirely on a deeper level? Is surface presentation all-important, or is it the film's content?

bobblog said...

what about Star Wars (parts 4,5,6) - I think that's a good example - the answer is yes then.

Daniel Vella said...

As much as I love the original Star Wars trilogy, I'm not sure they're such a great example. They're action/adventure films first and foremost - very good ones - and there's nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn't really say they're anything more, despite the Joseph Campbell namedropping.