On Box Office Hits and the Pirates of Cool
As I write this I am watching one of my favorite adolescent movies, which, by nostalgia, remains one of my favorite movies today. The word "film" is carefully avoided here; I'm talking about the category of movies which are sometimes called "guilty pleasures" — the ones you leave off your list of favorite movies because you want to sound hip and cultured, but that you secretly return to again and again, like a Facebook crush or an old pop-up book from your childhood. Mine are all American productions, mostly from the 80s and 90s: Lucas, Willow, A Goofy Movie, Down Periscope...and in this case, Cutthroat Island.
Cinephiles today know Cutthroat Island as the much-ballyhooed Biggest Box-Office Flop of All Time, per the Guinness Book of Records. It cost something like $100 million to produce (according to ever-unreliable studio records), and made a total of $10 million at the US box office.
I wasn't aware of this grim financial backdrop when I enjoyed its swashbuckling absurdity at age 12. (Evidently I was one of only about 2 million people in the whole country who saw this movie in cinemas.) All I saw was an adventure of epic proportions that hit every Pirate Movie requisite like clockwork: treasure maps, gallows, sword fights, jungles, mysterious caves, cannon battles, storms at sea, smarmy bewigged Brits, and a tempestuous showdown atop a burning ship. Today I maintain that its screenplay is a marvel: faced with something like a crossword puzzle of obligatory clichés, the sextuplet team of writers and story consultants on Cutthroat pulled off the miracle of creating, for better or worse, the definitive Pirate Movie, the one with everything you need.
Now in the 21st century there is another movie I can think of, as can everyone, that ticks all the Pirate boxes. It is of course the sluggishly titled Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, with Johnny Depp in the Geena Davis role and Orlando Bloom as a square Matthew Modine. If Cutthroat killed the pirate movie, Pirates was supposed to have brought it roaringly back — although, curiously, one notes that not a single new pirate movie has since appeared outside the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
So as I am watching the smirking spectacle of Cutthroat Island for, oh, the fifteenth time, I am made to wonder: What on Earth is it that so divides these two movies? How, with so much in common between them, can one have been the most sensational failure in years and the other one of the biggest moneymaking franchises of the new millennium?
I've read a few blogs and observations theorizing about the specific films Cutthroat was up against during its release in Christmas 1995, and the way Johnny Depp was perfectly poised in 2003 to gain superstardom. I've watched the original trailers for Cutthroat, and they are absolutely terrible. Probably these are all factors — but I think, with a nod to Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation is this:
Geena Davis isn't cool, and Johnny Depp is.
In this interview the ever-pithy Tilda Swinton is asked how she chooses her roles, and she replies, as if to let us in on a bit of a film industry secret, that she doesn't — she chooses the people she wants to spend time with. As a resident of Los Angeles and occasional participant in the kind of chatty, flip-flops and shades, drinks under the palm trees business meetings that everyone thinks take place in LA (they do), I can testify that Swinton's M.O. is a universal one. Decisions about whose project gets funded, whose film gets into festivals, and who gets that second offer are all based almost entirely around who is cool. People want to be around people who have That Thing, the thing that makes us want to hang out with them and get invited to the parties they're going to. The ones with That Thing aren't all rock stars and debutantes; some are mid-level folks just making their way — but you can be sure they're going somewhere, and people are getting on board. The rest of us, meanwhile, are going through all the same motions and wearing the same clothes, and each person we meet with sees us just once, and then we wait by the phone, and wait, and wait. This is how business is done, the world over, so, inevitably, this must be how we choose our entertainment. When we give our dime and our two hours to the movies, we want to be in the company of cool people.
The odd thing about "cool" is, with all the grandstanding it has done since its entrance onto the lexical stage in the late 20th century, its topography still more or less follows the landscape of its birthplace: high school. When we are teenagers it is plain as the shirts on our backs who is cool, and who is not. Usually there is a zenith and a nadir, the suave rebel and the kid with the rolling suitcase backpack, but even in all its gradations in between, cool is sensed like a scent, immediately, instinctively. Most of us are somewhere in between; and most of us spend literally the majority of our waking hours between the ages of 14 and 18 trying to up our quotient.
From its pure adolescent form on up, cool followed the post-1960s fragmentation of popular culture in general, and mere decades after its invention it became possible to be cool in dozens of different microcosmic forms. So while the counterculture hipster was looking down on the Gatorade track star with disdain, he was desperately seeking to be cool within the narrower confines of his own particular subculture. And suddenly everyone, knives to throats within their miniature culture wars, became a common minion under the umbrella reign of "cool."
And yet, somehow — and this is what makes cool so transcendently pervasive — the collective of cool people from so many private worlds retained some kind of unmistakable common scent, detectable even to underlings outside of the subcultures, and by this sinewy connection came to recognize one another, and so the Good Old Boys clubs of yesteryear with their suits and cigars were made to give way to a New Guard, a ragtag collective of winners, back-talkers, übergeeks and snappy dressers. And the masses embraced the New Guard, because they at least appeared to be accessible and transparent, and they seemed to invite the rest of us along with them: "Come, I'll take you to the real party."
So high school remains the training ground for all of us, and the decade after becomes a bizarre enlightenment during which we discover that the way everyone was in high school is more or less the way they will stay for their whole life — ourselves included. In the cars and coffee shops of adulthood there are more obfuscating elements, plaques and suits and Blue Label whisky, but watch how anyone behaves in a bar, or how he talks about what he loves most, and the unmistakable odor of his (or her) innate coolness wafts readily about him, and the protocol that follows is exactly the same as in the high school cafeteria. The cool people are invited into the back room, and the rest of us are asked if anyone is using that chair.
So, rather harshly, I observe that perhaps the real reason for the fiscal train wreck that Cutthroat Island became is simply who Geena Davis is — and probably, by extension, who her husband-cum-director Renny Harlin is as well. Davis dresses the part, has some good one-liners, and kicks a lot of scallywag ass. She's attractive enough, in a sister-in-law kind of way, and she's as three-dimensional as any blockbuster hero of the same era (which is to say not at all, but that doesn't much matter). But her aura is unmistakably that of the teacher's pet trying to sit at Ferris Bueller's table; she's the good-looking innocent with a little bit of aplomb who got the thumbs-up from the guys when they told her she would play a pirate (once the paragon of cool), not realizing that they were then turning around and chuckling about how silly she would look behind her back.
Johnny Depp, meanwhile, has always been cool. Perhaps the resounding weakness of the largely wonderful Edward Scissorhands is the sense that Depp doesn't quite pull off the gawky ineptitude of the title character; the impression is of a charmer who's in on the joke, wearing the Halloween costume of an outcast. (The character, not ironically, has become a totem of hipster coolness in the years since.) For the role of Jack Sparrow in Curse of the Black Pearl, Depp famously jousted with director Gore Verbinski, in the end successfully lobbying to make Sparrow into one of the most bizzaro characters ever to grace a mainstream studio production. The Sparrow Depp created is a lilting, lollygagging mop of filth, charm, and endless ingenuity, based largely on — who else? — Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards. He's also deftly magnetic and undeniably cool.
And lo, the first film made more than $300 million through U.S. ticket sales alone.
There's little question cool still runs Hollywood. Like a good 21st century entrepreneur it has franchised and globalized itself, but the glaze is the same. Lisbeth Salander will be the next most fascinating incarnation of fringe cool to make her way improbably onto multiplex screens; it will be interesting to see how she stands up to the inevitable scrutiny by the male American establishment and Sony's nothing-sacred marketing campaigns. In the end she may be turn out to be merely a post-punk feminist sheep dressed in a carefully packaged wolf costume put together by a series of male authors and directors aiming to provoke but not transcend.
But as a member of the struggling less-cool, and moreover as an ardent fan of a certain pirate heroine, I write for a motion to "look closer" (as a dryly cool Kevin Spacey character once said) around the fringes of cinema and representation, for all that is patently uncool. Stanley Kubrick, Jeanne Moreau, Hans Zimmer, Ellen Ripley, Iranian cinema — these have had, or are having, their day in the sun. When was the last time you heard a bespectacled Silver Lake cinephile waxing adoration about Bollywood, Felicity Huffman, Ann Hui, King Kong, Titanic — or heck, at the moment, Tintin? There are so many diamonds in the rough among us, things without a tracy of irony, things of pure emotion, and at times they are geeky and ungainly compared to their peers in the back of the schoolbus. But if we insist that we are sentient, that we have taste and a will to shape our culture, why should we still posture as the admiring crowd, watching the cheerleaders strut around the field, when behind the bleachers we know the kid with big glasses may be writing the next great novel?