Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #7

Re: Once (2007)

I always look forward to reading your reviews, as they are consistently insightful and thought-provoking (not to mention that most of the time they’re right).

One thing which I’ve appreciated is that I’ve never seen you criticize, say, American movies just because they’re American, or praise indie movies just because they’ve escaped Hollywood, etc. It doesn’t make any sense to do so, I think, but nevertheless it is often done.

In that light, I’m wondering in what sense to take your final ’graph in your review of Once. The disjunct here seems too neat, and to reflect a stereotype (of there being a difference between “crowds” and more refined viewers) which does not need reinforcing — since in my opinion most people straddle both groups, depending on a host of factors including the time of day. And, of course, “Once” did play to crowds — it reached a vastly greater audience than anyone seems to have expected — but those crowds weren’t looking for disposable entertainment. Clarification, please?

Great question. Thanks.

First, as you infer, I’m certainly not against anything popular for being popular. My top 10 lists over the years have included the likes of The Incredibles, The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man 2.

Even “disposable entertainment” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as it goes. I’ve enjoyed and recommended films like Flushed Away, Inside Man and Seabiscuit, none of which I feel I must see again before I die. I’d consider them all “disposable entertainment” (Flushed Away almost by definition!), but that doesn’t mean something to look down one’s nose at. (To Jeff Overstreet’s rhetorical question in Through a Screen Darkly concerning whether he advocates film snobbery, I’m happy to give the same answer he does: “Great Naked Gun… no!”)

Having said that, when we talk about “playing to the crowds,” some perspective might be helpful. Once is currently closing in on $10M domestically and $17M globally. In relation to its negligible budget ($150K according to Box Office Mojo), that’s astoundingly good. Still, it’s been seen by fewer people than such certified flops as Lions for Lambs, The Invasion and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. What makes the latter films flops, of course, is that with their vastly higher budgets they were expected to play much more successfully to the crowds.

Look at the kinds of films that wind up at the top of the box-office charts: In 2007 the top five films were Spider‑Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

These weren’t just movies that happened to have bigger budgets than Once. All five are franchise films; all are adaptations of previous mass-marketed properties (unless you don’t count Pirates, an “adaptation” of a theme-park ride); all but one are multi-sequels (a trio of threequels and a five-quel [pentequel?]), plus, um, a Michael Bay adaptation of a TV cartoon with battling robots and Megan Fox. If you scan on down the list of top crowd-pleasers, the same kind(s) of films crop up again and again.

Having said that, of course you’re right that a lot of those people would also like movies like Once — just as a lot of the people in the crowds might like the songs the guy sings at night. If they ever stopped to listen. On the other hand, nothing is more likely to help a film like this find its audience than pointing out that it isn’t exactly Hairspray (which, for the record, I enjoyed), which is what I was trying to do.

Hope that makes a semblance of sense.

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