Thursday, September 24, 2009

Credibility Against Time: who gets the Benefit of the Doubt?

Okay, so this blog I just started reading -- Cinematical -- recently posted a little piece on which filmmakers should get the benefit of the doubt. As you may or may not know, that speaks directly to the purpose of this blog, and to my philosophy on media consumption, as well. So I thought I should provide some sort of response.

It seems like cinematical's talking about our willingness to assume, going in, that a film is going to be good, which will prompt us to work a little harder to validate this expectation. It's amazing how much of film culture is a big mess of unsubstantiated opinions and conjectures... "It's an [insert director], you know it'll be good"... "Man, I can't believe [insert director] would take a project like this"... "He's been so disappointing lately"... "His early stuff was SO good"... etc etc etc. It's a whole cultural preoccupation -- estimating the value of movies, and then measuring each film we see against our expectations for it.

It just so happens that a lot of these expectations are historically accountable, increasing after big Oscar wins or impressive debuts, and decreasing when a director loses his novelty, or takes some bad projects. So I figured, why not give this phenomenon -- which, for convenience sake, I'll call "artistic credibility" -- a graphical treatment? Why not look at a few directors who have gained, maintained, and lost the fickle favor of public opinion, and see how things changed along the length of their career?

I graphed my own totally personal perceptions of a few filmmakers' credibility. I treated each movie as a chronological unit (rather than using years, etc) because I think that's how it works in the heads of fans... we measure periods in terms of "first/second/third movie," unless the director is massively prolific and there isn't a clear shape to their career. In this graph, I cover Michael Moore (a big nexus of credibility issues), the Cohen Brothers (in honor of the article that inspired this post), Oliver Stone (an interesting case of changing assumptions of quality), Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan. Check them out... click for a huge version of the image.

Okay, a couple interesting things. The directors with big debuts (Oliver Stone and M. Night) are the ones whose credibility eventually trailed off (rather quickly in M. Night's case). In contrast, Ang Lee and The Cohen Brothers are still going strong, despite some duds in their movie careers (The Hulk? And yet we still love him!) Their trick seems to be a combination of award-winning features (Fargo, Brokeback Mountain), plus cult hits (Big Lebowski, Crouching Tiger) by which these filmmakers leverage both the broad public perception and the esteem of critics and educated taste-makers.

Also note that the directors who have lost credibility are the ones with very consistent styles (aka gimmicks)... M. Night, who creates end-twisting thrillers, Michael Moore, who creates provocative leftist documentaries, and Oliver Stone, who creates serious, politically-themed dramas. Stone has done a little better, overall, because he leans more on a style than on a gimmick. This contrasts with the enduring credibility darlings, Ang Lee and the Cohen Brothers, both of whom exhibit a wide range of film output.

I think, if I go back to this, I need to add some more. Kevin Smith is an ideal case for this kind of graph, having gone through a sudden complete drop in credibility when he renounced the Askewniverse. I wouldn't mind including the Wachowski brothers, either, since their Matrix movies were met with such volatile public reactions.


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