Christopher Guest & Co. return to the big screen with a film spoofing, of all things, The Gold Rush. Well, of what we're chronicling here — Oscar buzz and hype — and how it often short-changes you, the movie fan ...
By DOUGLAS J. ROWE
NEW YORK — ‘‘Home for Purim’’ is getting big-time buzz.
Even before filming is finished, a blogger is saying the movie’s leading lady gives a performance ‘‘that can only be described as Oscar-worthy.’’ Soon two other cast members are deemed award-worthy. And the trades, TV and radio are picking up on all this.
It’s just the kind of film that can become an art-house darling, too — a quirky (hokey, actually) World War II period piece about a Jewish family in the South who have gathered for the dying matriarch’s favorite holiday. Yiddish words spoken with a drawl — brilliant!
But before you tell your friends, know this: ‘‘Home for Purim’’ is the film-within-a-film in ‘‘For Your Consideration,’’ Christopher Guest’s latest ensemble comedy, and his send-up of independent movies and the hype that sometimes surround them could be a documentary (though, this time it’s NOT one of Guest’s mockumentaries).
Just as in real life, once the movie comes out, the hubbub rings hollow, and some cinephiles are left to wonder: What was all the fuss?
Good little films for grown-ups such as ‘‘Sideways’’ and ‘‘Lost in Translation’’ eventually meet with commercial as well as critical success. (Each won a screenwriting Oscar.) But sometimes highly publicized indies disappoint moviegoers.
They can't contain themselves
The process usually begins at film festivals — Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, in particular — which serve as ‘‘a kind of New Hampshire primary of filmdom,’’ observes Dennis M. Maher, an associate professor of theater arts at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Industry types and entertainment journalists see something they consider special, and cell phones, the Internet, news columns and air time are then devoted to spreading the word.
As Martin Scorsese says, that motion picture often is a pleasant surprise, especially when it comes from a new director. So the first wave of people who see it feel a sense of discovery about something unique.
‘‘You want to tell people right away: ‘Hey, I just saw this great picture.’ Your next party, you’re at a dinner party or wherever, you want to tell people,’’ the director says in his typical Gatling-gun delivery, ‘‘and you mention a film that not many people have heard about. And that’s kinda nice. And also it’s kinda exciting because there is something out there.’’
But while a recommendation from a great director packs undeniable heft, there are more and more poseurs, sycophants and wannabes who attend film festivals and feed the frenzy, says James Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton.
‘‘Of late, the great unwashed have reared their ugly heads, thinking their self-proclaimed status as movie buffs entitles them to claim not only the role of aficionado, but also the privilege of mingling with the in-crowd at trendy film festivals,’’ Farrelly says. ‘‘Lord preserve us from the empty-headed pseudo-aficionados and groupies — and the critics who indulge them — who think they can play cinematic mind games with us!’’
So beware those with film festival fever, a kind of groupthink heightened by a desire to be hip.
‘‘The upscale art-house audience does like to be on the cutting edge and see hot films before they become national hits. They like having the bragging rights of having seen something like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ before everyone else,’’ says Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
And then the hip fuel a hype that can seem relentless.
‘‘It’s a funny thing ... It’s the amount of time in which people are told that a picture is really good. If it takes over a period of, like, two months — I’ve had a few friends (who said): ‘If I hear THAT one more time about this picture! If I’m gonna go see it, it better be the greatest film I ever saw.’ And they sat there like this,’’ Scorsese says, crossing his arms and looking stern.
Being our Guest
In ‘‘For Your Consideration,’’ the hype stems from a flimsy foundation — a mention on the Web from a source of iffy authoritativeness and credibility.
‘‘See what a little bit of buzz can do in this town! A little bit of fairy dust and POW! Off to the races,’’ the excited unit publicist (played by John Michael Higgins) says in the movie.
‘‘We wanted to make it, unbelieveably, the opposite of something concrete,’’ says Guest, whose earlier films ‘‘Waiting for Guffman,’’ ‘‘Best in Show’’ and ‘‘A Mighty Wind’’ used much of the same cast. ‘‘We wanted to make it something floating in the ether. What do you mean, a rumor on the Internet? What?!? What?!? Where did that come from? We wanted to make it nonspecific. And to show just the power of how that then becomes something. And that eventually Variety is writing about it.’’
And not only Variety. Guest’s movie has an inspired montage lampooning shows such as Leno, Letterman, Charlie Rose, ‘‘TRL,’’ Opie and Anthony and ‘‘Entertainment Tonight’’ and how they jump on the juggernaut.
‘‘It’s impossible to fully control a film’s buzz,’’ Pandya says. ‘‘Distributors work hard to try to have the peak of the buzz coincide with the film’s release, and then pray for the best.’’
He points out that ‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ sustained its film festival buzz. ‘‘Super Size Me’’ was another that maintained it through its release, but ‘‘Girlfight’’ split top honors at Sundance, then tanked commercially.
Hype not always a good thing
Similarly, some movies have received enormous Internet hype but with varied results. ‘‘Snakes on a Plane’’ tanked. ‘‘Borat’’ has become a smash.
Darryl Macdonald, director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which will take place Jan. 4-15, feels that no matter the buzz, a ‘‘festival film’’ will have difficulty reaching a broad audience because ‘‘by definition’’ it will ‘‘only appeal to a niche audience.’’
‘‘Festival programmers are automatically on the lookout for more cutting-edge films or filmmakers, and feel their event’s reputation may be enhanced by being the place where the ‘next hot thing’ or hot talent emerges,’’ Macdonald says. ‘‘That doesn’t necessarily translate to a mass audience, even if it is appreciated by cinephiles or esteemed movie critics. So festivals may, by their very nature, give rise to films that are doomed to failure in a wider marketplace.’’
Jeff Ryder, director of the Writing for Film and Television program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, suggests that the reputation of indie films can become overblown because of their stark contrast to the current fare coming out of Hollywood.
‘‘Compared to ... ‘Pirates of the Caribbean, Part 27,’ the little low-budget festival entry is going to be lauded as groundbreaking and innovative, simply because the competition is so artistically inferior,’’ says Ryder, a two-time Daytime Emmy winner for writing the soap ‘‘Guiding Light’’ and a former executive at NBC and MGM.
‘‘These films will never appeal to the pubescent video-game junkie who Hollywood caters to and reveres,’’ he adds.
And those are the people who would never go to an arty film, Macdonald says, because there’s a three-tiered ‘‘stratification among filmgoers’’ — those drawn to movies driven by ‘‘high concept,’’ special effects and big stars; those attracted to art films while their main diet is quality Hollywood fare with major stars and strong story lines; and those who simply seek genuine art-house films.
Of course, big-budget movies are hyped, too. But the genesis of their publicity is quite different.
Since ‘‘The Da Vinci Code’’ was adapted from an enormously successful book, expectations were huge. Critics were tepid, but megaplex cash registers rang.
‘‘I learned a long time ago to just say: ‘I liked it. I think you should take a look — if you want. It’s a certain kind of thing.’ I play it down,’’ Scorsese says, laughing uproariously.
The director, whose films include ‘‘Raging Bull’’ and ‘‘Goodfellas’’ as well as the current critical and box-office hit ‘‘The Departed,’’ knows a tout from him carries a ton of weight. ‘‘That’s why I’ve been very careful.’’