Every now and then I find myself in the unusual (and not always desirable) position of championing some cause that seems to fly in the face of mass public opinion. I guess it is not altogether unfair to blame my parents for this tendency; after all, they are the ones who drummed into my mind as a child the importance of standing up for what you believe, and the notion that what is popular is not always what is right.
Sometimes those battles place me on what some would consider to be the wrong side of debates concerning the burning issues of the day. I thought I might find myself in such a situation last week when I devoted my weekly newspaper column to voicing criticism of the proposed elimination of Oklahoma’s income tax; after all, nobody - and that includes me - likes having to pay taxes and so it stands to reason that anything that would reduce our tax burden is going to be popular. The problem with the plan proposed by our Governor, Republican Mary Fallin, is that it claims to be able to eliminate the income tax WITHOUT raising other taxes or eliminating funding for core state services. Now I'll be the first one to admit that I wasn't the best math student to ever pass through the hallowed halls of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, but if a relative dummy like me knows something isn't adding up you can bet your granddad’s Ovaltine Decoder Ring that it's a bad idea.
So imagine my surprise when I attended the monthly Johnston County Legislative Luncheon on March 23 and heard the concerns and criticisms I voiced in my column echoed not only by Democratic State Representatives Paul Roan and Wes Hilliard, but also by Republican State Senator Frank Simpson. I’m telling you, if I had been there as a private citizen rather than as a representative for the local newspaper I would have stood up and cheered. None of which has anything to do with the REAL subject of this essay, but I'm getting to that...
More often than not, the crusades which I find myself setting out on revolve around issues that really mean little or nothing in the Grand Scheme of Things, but which for whatever reason (sometimes I’m not even sure myself) are important to me as an individual. The fact that friends and family keep telling me that these crusades are usually just a waste of time and energy generally has little impact upon my resolve and enthusiasm in such instances; others may not care but I do, and that’s good enough for me.
Case in point: My efforts in defense of the science fiction film John Carter, which was unfairly dubbed a failure by many before it was even released and accordingly has seen admittedly disappointing (yet conparatively respectful, when you look at the “big picture”) box office returns in its initial few weeks of release.
Let’s get a few “givens” out of the way before going any further...
Given No. 1: Yes, the film cost around $250 million to make but opened domestically to a modest box office of $30 million in its first weekend. (Overseas the film took in more than $70 million - that's almost $11 million MORE than The Hunger Games' international take in its first weekend - for a global opening weekend of more than $100 million, and it continues to do well overseas weeks later; for some reason, however, the naysayers refuse to take its international success into account.)
Given No. 2: Yes, I was predisposed to like John Carter no matter what. I’ve been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs – the author responsible for both the “John Carter of Mars” and “Tarzan” novels – ever since I read my dad’s Ace and Ballentine ERB paperbacks when I was in the third grade. For many readers of my generation - those of us who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s – Burroughs was to us what the creators of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” have been to my children’s generation. (Although my sons make no bones about the fact that they both prefer Burroughs to J.K. Rawling and wouldn’t touch the “Twilight” books or movies with a 10-meter cattle prod...)
Which brings us to Given No. 3, and the argument that has repeatedly been thrown in my face by some of those who have been glad to see John Carter fail. They point to the success of the recent cinematic remake of 21 Jump Street - which hit Number One in its first week of release - and tell me that the studios could make six Jump Streets for the cost of just ONE John Carter. To be fair, I've never disputed that fact. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the films in question; all six Jump Streets would still STINK in comparison to John Carter.
The argument could be made - in fact I have made it elsewhere - that Jump Street's better financial success says more about the idiocy of the modern mass audience than it does the about the actual quality of either film. Of course every time I say that I automatically get labeled as a "cinematic snob," which to some degree I suppose is true; if something doesn't appeal to me, I'm not going to waste my time with it. I didn't have to take a taste of that Brussel sprout my mother once tried to feed me to know that I wasn't going to like it, and by the same logic seeing the trailers for both 21 Jump Street and the forthcoming Three Stooges travesty was enough to convince me that they are the cinematic equivilent of that @#$! Brussel sprout. (I just wish I'd heeded the similar premonition I had last year before going to see that gawd-awful Seth Rogen Green Hornet movie...)
After nearly a month of release John Carter was still listed among the Top Five domestic moneymakers for the weekend of March 23-25, which these days is a pretty decent accomplishment when you consider all the competition movie theatres face for the public’s entertainment dollar (and even more impressive when one realizes that this was the weekend that saw teh release of the media-driven juggernaut that is The Hunger Games). There’s still future DVD sales and television distribution deals to be considered as well, both factors which have been known to drive films initially considered to be duds into the black.
Which is why such films as Head starring The Monkees and Kevin Costner's Waterworld - two decent films which both fell short of succes on their initial release - are not included on any lists of "box office bombs" that I've ever seen. Waterworld in particular took quite a drubbing, thanks in part to a merciless assault on the part of a number of critics and self-proclaimed pundits who were still cheesed off that an earlier Costner film they had dismissed as a failure prior to its release - Dances With Wolves - went on to be not only a financial success but also the first western since 1931's Cimmaron to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Call it Given No. 4: The profitability of home video sales has during the past several decades added additional opportunities for films to recoup losses and eventually become profitable - which in turn greatly lessens the significance of US domestic grosses as a predictor of a film's overall success. So there.
Besides, it often takes a while for audiences to realize what gems some movies are. People sometimes forget that a number of films that are almost universally hailed as popular classics today - including The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane and It’s A Wonderful Life - were NOT considered successes at the time they were first released. According to some articles I’ve read, The Wizard Of Oz in particular didn’t get out of the red until MGM sold the TV rights nearly two decades after its initial release. And It's A Wonderful Life pretty much owes its modern "classic" status to all those marathon TV airings during the years when the movie was believed to have fallen into the public domain.
Time is therefore clearly on John Carter's side with regard to whether the film is ultimately seen as a success or failure. It helps that the movie has generated such vocal loyalty among its fans, thousands of whom are talking the film up on the Internet and have even launched a petition asking Disney to move forward with sequel lans. (The principal actors reportedly signed on for a trilogy - and if there is room in this world for all those insipid horror film series like Saw and Final Destination and Friday The 13th, then by God surely there is room for at least one more John Carter film!)
And thank God those fans are out there, otherwise those idiots who think Avatar is the pinnacle of science fiction filmdom might never have any hope of being properly educated about not only the quality of this film, but its importance to the history of the genre. Honestly, I think if I read one more moronic comment about how John Carter "ripped off" Avatar or Star Wars, I might just be moved to violence.
What part of the public acknowledgment by George Lucas and James Cameron regarding how they were both inspired by Burroughs do these pinheads not understand? Are they purposely avoiding the many articles noting how ERB's Mars novels influenced the creations of Flash Gordon, Superman, and Star Trek, or about how the success of A Princess Of Mars also paved the way for sword-and-sorcery heroes like Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melniboné?
One valid criticism that has been leveled against Disney has been that they mishandled the marketing of the film. A great many ERB fans have stated that the film might have performed stronger out of the gate had the ads emphasized that it was based on the works of ERB. But some of those who seem to be taking particular delight in hoping the movie will fail have countered that playing up the Burroughs connection would not have helped. One particular idiot I found myself debating with online actually had the nerve to refer to Burroughs as an "unknown author."
Unknown? Come on! We're talking about an author who made the Writer's Digest list of 100 Most Important Writers of the 20th Century. A man who has influenced the likes of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Michael Moorcock and Carl Sagan in addition to those creators listed above. A man mentioned by name in one of the most popular novels of the past century, To Kill A Mockingbird. A man whose historical novel I Was A Barbarian bears great similiarties to the much later film Gladiator, and whose westerns The War Chief and Apache Devil portrayed Native Americans in a sympathetic light decades BEFORE the aforementioned Dances With Wolves. A writer whose most famous creation - Tarzan - is considered one of the three most important and best known fictional characters of all time (Sherlock Holmes and Superman being the other two).
Yeah, NOBODY has ever heard of this guy...
When push comes to shove I know it's probably a losing battle. The anti-Carter crowd are hell-bent on labeling this movie as a failure, and all the information countering that preconceived notion is swept aside as inconsequential. (Hmmm.. it suddenly occurs to me that they must be fans of Fox News. Sounds like the same kind of mindset to me.) And even if the film does eventually perform well thanks to TV deals and home video sales, they'll still point to it as a bomb because it didn't make back it's entire production cost in the United States in its first day of business. (Offhand I can't think of ANY film that has managed that particular feat, but try telling that to these people.)
I don't care. Let them put it down. For me the bottom line is the power of the film itself – the effect it had on me and on others as individual audience members – rather than the beliefs of those who can’t look beyond profit margins, the lack of taste displayed by those who think Jonah Hill is funny or the ignorance of pinhead reviewers who believe that a movie based on a 100-year-old novel is somehow derivative of all these books, comics, TV shows and movies that came along later.
Based on the outpouring of love the film has received from its fans, John Carter can be only seen as a success. A qualified success, perhaps, but a success all the same. And all the finger-wagging and naysaying and lengthy lectures about Hollywood economics does not change that fact one little iota.
Leave to a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet prevail. The same is true for fans of John Carter, who will eventually be able to look back and say "We told you so!"
I’m not saying John Carter will one day be as revered as The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars. But it’s MUCH better than the naysayers and the bean counters would have you believe. And it WILL stand the test of time.
You can bank your granddad’s Ovaltine Decoder Ring on it...
In : Opinion
Tags: pop culture tv and movies erb