Tuesday, June 3, 2008


    ‘Nailed’ to the Creative Cross

The battle between art and commerce has come to our fair city in the form of the big-time Hollywood production Nailed.   As of this writing, the shoot has been shut down by the unions — for the third time —  over its production company’s financing woes. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) now faces the grim reality that his modestly budgeted film.

    Perhaps by the time of this column’s publication, all will be righted and the production will sail onward toward completion of principal photography. If not, it will be a shame — not a tragedy, mind you, just a shame: After all, it’s only a movie. But my instincts are telling me this would surely have been the most interesting and artful film to have been made here in Columbia, and for that reason alone, I’d love to see it come to fruition.

Scripted by Futurama staff writer (and vice presidential daughter) Kristin Gore, the movie is funny, smart and has a message about the need for a revamped health care system in this country, according to a crew member.

    So, surely a film with such a pedigree behind and in front of the cameras (A-List talent like Jake Gyllanhaal, Jessica Biel, and Catherine Keener) will not only be completed, but presumably find a wide release to the multiplexes of America and the world.

    But then I thought about the subject matter. And while the plot elements suggest a rather ribald surface narrative (a woman gets libidinous after an errant nail enters her cranium, which inspires her to lobby Washington about the state of the health care system — seriously), a film of this type is rapidly falling by the wayside in the Spielberg/Lucas Hollywood of 2008, which is about front-loaded, sure-fire blockbuster products that will make gobs of money (and that take gobs of money to produce). A mid-level independent production with something on its mind — not unlike Russell’s intellectually ambitious but narratively clunky 2004 effort Huckabees — is fighting an uphill battle in today’s movie industry to get greenlit, much less released.

   I’ve spent a great deal of time loving and thinking about the cinema since I was but a lad, and while I’ve always been a bit of cineaste, it was those very blockbustery products like Star Wars and Jaws that really grabbed my attention, and of course the attention of millions of people around the world. I even went on to make my own small films as a student, so inspired was I by the grand entertainments of my youth.

But at what cost have those beloved megahits and all their progeny come to embody the most ambitious of what our film industry has to offer?

   The American New Wave of the 1970s, this column’s favorite period of American film, typified a wildly different mindset on the part of producers and executives than those in the wake of properties like the Indiana Jones series, which had already returned over a billion dollars in revenue even before the recent re-launch of the brand name. Studios that had previously financed and released films that challenged narrative convention and style were suddenly and irrevocably given marching orders by the corporate parents to whom they were beholden: Make more of those big ones — you know, the whammie go-zillion-dollar, first-weekend-super-successes.

Let’s face it: Money talks, and artistic ambition, depth of theme and meaningful subtext are shown the side door. But this is nothing new in the world of art and artists.

   The irony is that the legendary period of ambitious and challenging American films more or less ended on a sour note at the time of Michael Cimino’s indulgent debacle Heaven’s Gate in 1981, and because of money: The four-hour western cost United Artists a then-unheard-of $35 million.

    But consider this: Now the average Hollywood studio production (assuming name actors are involved) costs a cool $100 million, once you throw in all the advertising and stuff like the prints. What an albatross around a true artist’s neck, though, the pressure of knowing that to succeed, you’ve got to hit it out of the park two and a half times just to break even — which in this case translates into a quarter of a billion dollars. No wonder our entertainment is for the most part so puerile and obvious. There’s too much money at stake to take chances.

   So here’s to David O. Russell and the crew and cast of Nailed: Keep fighting the good fight. I know that if you’re having trouble getting the bucks to finish, it must mean you have something potentially interesting on your hands.

Don McCallister is president of the Five Points Association.

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