erik lundegaard

Mood Fight

I’m a little worried about David Carr

First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).

But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.

The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”

Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”

Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.

See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?

Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:
Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.
Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”

Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.

Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”

Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.

He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.

Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at boxofficemojo.com, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)

In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”

That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.

So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.

Posted at 10:23 AM on Sat. Jan 31, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office, Media  
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