I haven’t quite finished with the paragraphs produced by Steve’s friend, the good Randolph, in response to my thoughts about the ‘functional extinction’ of classical music; but before I go through the rest of what he wrote about the situation as he understands it — so fascinatingly different from the way I understand it! — I want to elaborate a little on the particular nature of the mess we’re in, arts-and-culturally speaking.
Specifically, I want to say something about what ought to be a classic ‘case study’ in the corporate enfoldment of our so-called civilisation — and its consequences for the public’s awareness of art and all the stuff that happens instead of art. My text is the graphically obscene saga of the production and marketing of the 1993 Hollywood would-be blockbuster Last Action Hero, starring that year’s most bankable figure, Arnold Schwarzenegger: I submit that no-one who reads what I am about to type up from my file of accumulated print-outs and clippings will fail to see the true nature of the corporate incubus pressing down on the heart of our sleeping culture.
Take all this in, if you will. In 1987 the consumer electronics giant Sony bought CBS Records Inc. for $2 billion; then, in 1989, they paid the Coca Cola Co. $3.4 billion for Columbia Pictures — so creating Sony Pictures Entertainment. Three years later, and they’re looking at Last Action Hero as a money-spinning Summer blockbuster — and paying $150,000 for the original script.
But there were respects in which the original script was not quite what was needed. Among the countless changes wrought in a succession of re-writes involving more than half a dozen screenwriters — including one whose other action films the movie was intended to parody! — the plotting and scripting were amended so as to allow ‘placement’ of two new Sony consumer-electronics products: Schwarzenegger’s character was to use the soon-to-be released Sony mobile phone — while his teenage sidekick listened to music on Sony’s new player for the 2.5-inch MiniDisc (remember that?).
The soundtrack was compiled as a means of showcasing Sony’s recording artists, with more than half the music in it deriving from the catalogues of the Columbia and Epic labels now owned by Sony Music Entertainment. Four prints of the film were to be specially encoded to play in theaters equipped with a new, state-of-the-art sound system — Sony Dynamic Digital Sound –which was then to be marketed worldwide by Sony Software Corp. As far as the film’s actual footage was concerned, some stretches had to be suitable for use in a planned simulator ride — and others for incorporation in an interactive video game that Sony Electronic Publishing was scheduled to sell the following Christmas. Along with this, it was intended that a virtual-reality version of the movie would be shown at Loews Theaters in Manhattan — Loews being a chain owned by, uh, Sony.
At the time of release, Last Action Hero was reported to have had a budget of $60 million (with $15 million paid to Schwarzenegger as star and executive producer, and something a little short of $1 million going to veteran screenwriter William Goldman for four whole weeks spent ‘doctoring’ the latest version of the script). The spending must have continued beyond that, however, because nowadays you’ll regularly see $85 million and more quoted as the total budget.
The ‘initial'(!) advertising budget for the movie was apparently $15 million; set against that expenditure, however, was the deal worth between $12 million and $20 million (it depends on who you ask) with Burger King Corp. for the marketing of Last Action Hero cups in the chain’s innumerable outlets — and a $5 million deal with toy-manufacturer Mattel. In addition to those arrangements, 25 other companies paid for a piece of the expected action: there were Last Action Hero pinball machines, comic books, trading cards, T-shirts, beach towels, calendars, and — I am reliably informed — pyjamas.
Before the film’s release, a huge, inflatable Schwarzenegger (is there any other kind?) was designed and constructed for display in New York’s Times Square. Not content with that, the studio also spent a reported $500,000 — yes, half a million! — to get the names of the star and the film put on the side of a NASA rocket scheduled for two years in orbit. Though I’ve never seen a single film clip or photograph of the launch actually happening, the industry story at the time was that NASA even agreed to delay the rocket’s lift-off for three weeks, until the actor was available to push the launch button himself…
Now, while all the above constitutes the sort of tale from which one may draw many different kinds of conclusion, I’ll highlight here the ones that strike me most forcibly. First, while so many people were so busy spending money to make money, the film itself was seriously short-changed: even an untrained eye like mine can see that parts of it are close to unfinished, with saggy editing, poor timing, inadequately coached dialogue, obtrusively sub-standard optical effects, some disruptively pointless moments of tastelessness, and the kind of ‘centrifugal’ feeling to its screenwriting that betrays the lingering remnants of input from too many different angles. All of which is a serious shame — because to my mind this is a film that genuinely deserved better: with so many good and witty and even clever ideas in it, it really should have been more funny, more meaningful, more barbed, more light-hearted, more hard-hitting, more fluent, more sheerly artistic in the relevant respects — and, as a result, more widely and deeply cherished…
As you can probably tell, it’s a film that I actually love — albeit in a rather intermittent and guarded way — and at least one moral of the tragic tale would seem to be that the only thing that prevented the creation of an artefact worthy of serious affection and even deep engagement was the sickening orgy of money-grubbing that — paradoxically — seems to be the only context in which a society mired in a collapsing late capitalism is able to get a big and complex film project to happen at all. In this particular case, the multi-national festival of corporate parasitism not only meant that the studio had to get through the entire project in less than ten months, but also led to the film being rushed into the cinemas just in time to open against the second week of Jurassic Park. (I take it I needn’t explain that bit any further.)
I’ve said that I love the film — or partly love it, or love its potential, or whatever — so I’d like you to see something of it. Here’s the trailer; and, yes, that is Anthony Quinn — or, at least, it would have been, had he been given anything worthwhile to do:
The second point I want to make relates to the one I made the other day about corporate-owned mass-entertainment products monopolising our entire society’s cultural awareness — pushing off the table the repast that is our population’s actual artistic heritage, and replacing it with profit-seeking baby food (which is what Last Action Hero partly turned out to be, at least in our universe). And as this film’s short but intense carpet-bombing of the mental marketplace demonstrates, the process of displacement and marginalisation is carried out by means of a massively over-funded alliance between a ghastly stridency and a wholly spurious urgency. The result is that while essentially nobody in our culture is allowed to be entirely unaware of the latest wave of diverting disposability breaking over them, truly hundreds of millions of our fellow-citizens have literally no meaningful idea of what their other arts-and-entertainment options might be, or might once have been. Don’t believe me? Then at least let me present three genuine questions from normal, educated adults that I’ve either been asked directly or had relayed to me during my time in the real world:
‘You know, when you go to a classical concert, is it like being in the cinema — where they turn all the lights out…?’
‘What is Hamlet actually about…?’
‘Is Bach still alive…?’
Last Action Hero is now available to own on DVD and as a Blu-ray release with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack.
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