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Feel the Power of My Ignorance!

July 11, 2006

I know I shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (I’m not going to bother with an IMDB link; you know where to find it) now holds the box office record for the biggest opening weekend ever, but I am.

There was a time when the biggest box office hits of all-time were all classics: Gone with The Wind, The Godfather, E.T., Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it all started going downhill with Home Alone. Since then, mediocre to OK movies like Jurassic Park, Shrek 2 and Spiderman have stomped their way into the list of the top 10 or so all-time box office champs (abetted by skyrocketing ticket prices). Unless word of mouth is dreadful–and there is no indication that it is–this new Pirates of the Caribbean movie will almost certainly make it into the top 15 and probably top 10 grossers of all time.

I remember fondly each movie that broke successive records for biggest opening weekend. I was ecstatic when Batman, the favorite movie of my youth, broke the record, happy that the torch was passed to such a worthy heir when T2 did it, a bit sad when Jurassic Park did it (but happy that a poor Jewish schlub like Spielberg finally caught a break), fairly dismayed–but unsurprised, and at peace with–when Star Wars: Phantom Menace did it, and a little numb by the time Spidey 2 did it. But Pirates of the Caribbean? I haven’t seen it–FEEL THE POWER OF MY IGNORANCE!!!–but the first movie would have been unwatchable if not for Johnny Depp’s phenomenal performance. And this movie is getting worse reviews than that one… which didn’t get particularly hot reviews in the first place. So I can only imagine how bad this one is.

My hunch is that the success of this new Pirates movie is really a triumph of calculated marketing. Unlike some of the movies that have broken the opening weekend B.O. records before, this movie hits every section of the market: kids want to see it because it’s Disney; teen boys want to see it because it’s a sequel and has cool special effects (plus Keira Knightley, perhaps the most perfect specimen of womanhood ever conceived. Thank you, God); teen girls want to see it because it has two hotties, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom; adult men want to see it because it has Johnny Depp, who they think is cool; adult women want to see it because it has Johnny Depp, who they think is sexy. There’s not a demographic doesn’t cover (except maybe blind deaf-mutes and recovering pirates).

But it’s not just bragging rights. After this movie and the first one, all of a sudden Gore Verbinski, the director of both movies, will be afforded clout in Hollywood reserved only for a chosen few: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and pretty much no one else. He will be able to write his own ticket. But the difference between Verbinski and the golden four is that they have talent, while Verbinski hasn’t proven himself to be any better than the Michael Bays or McGs of the world–a video director masquerading as a filmmaker.

I shudder to think how bad the currently-shooting third installment of Pirates will be…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 11, 2006 9:15 pm

    Your points are well taken. I think you are missing one major point of its appeal. Whenever a once popular genre, in this case the Swashbuckler, goes through a period of remission, the movie that can break through the studio reluctance takes on greater importance, and has greater appeal, both because there is an unquenched thirst for such a movie from older viewers and false sense of originality for younger viewers. We saw this phenomenon writ large with the Sword-and-Sandal Epic in “Gladiator” and, in a different way, with the Western in “Unforgiven.”

  2. July 12, 2006 2:54 am

    Interesting theory. I was about to say I don’t buy it, because the pirate movie hasn’t been anything more than a minor subgenre for a long time, but then I realized you’re not talking about pirate movies per se, but talking about a very interesting generic creation, the swashbuckler. As best as I can tell, it typically stars a handsome, charming man as some sort of hero of olden times and elaborately coreographed swordplay. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a legitimate swashbuckler during my lifetime–the only exception being The Princess Bride–but it was a major Hollywood staple in its very early days, when Errol Flynn and Rudolph Valentino were big box office draws.

    It makes sense that the genre is practically dead. As movies became more sophisticated in the late ’30s, and filmmakers started to realize that you don’t need to shoot a movie like it’s on a stage–that you can actually get close up to an actor’s face–there was less need for actors to be athletic and more need for them to be expressive. Plus it seems like a particularly American hero became the norm in the ’40s and ’50s, and it didn’t matter what genre you’re talking about; this hero was typically rugged, stoic and reticent. He wasn’t graceful or particularly witty, like Errol Flynn in Robin Hood. He was a man of efficient, direct action–shoot a man, kiss a girl, light a cigarette–not a man who danced around a stairwell to evade his enemy.

    Pirates of the Caribbean is a very interesting twist on the classic swashbuckler tale because the hero is not charming, witty or even graceful. He’s gross, rude, drunk and often bumbling. Of course, from what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like the studio or the director had any intention of Captain Jack Sparrow being such a bizarre, disgusting creation–it was all Johnny Depp’s doing–but maybe Depp was just shrewd enough to know that audiences wouldn’t relate anymore to the classic charming, virtuous swashbuckler. (Interestingly, the Pirates movies also star a classic charming, virtuous swashbuckler in Orlando Bloom–who was about as interesting as an ink cartridge.)

    While I agree with your statement that there is an unquenched thirst for such a movie from older viewers, I’m not sure I agree that younger viewers are so naive to see a swashbuckler as startingly original. While they may never have seen an old-school swashbuckler in its entirety, young viewers are aware–almost too aware–of pretty much every genre. How can this be so? I think it’s from a combination of commercials, The Simpsons, music videos and The Family Guy, among thousands of influences. I know that even though I’ve never seen an original Flynn or Valentino swashbuckler I’m aware of its conventions, and I’m not sure if that’s because I saw The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or because I saw pirate movies lampooned on The Simpsons and saw Robin Hood: Men in Tights. My point is that parody is actually a very powerful cultural education tool. Which may be one of the reasons that Pirates is so successful: the movie itself is dead serious (or as serious as a pirate movie could be) about pirates and heroes and sea monsters, but Depp is playing an oversized parody of a classic swashbuckling hero. I wonder if the only way modern audiences can take classic conventions seriously is if they’re played–at least in part–for a laugh.

  3. July 12, 2006 10:26 am

    What are you, allergic to fun?!? In all seriousness, why should Pirates upset you more than Terminator 2? If you were 12 or 13 now, you would be loving Pirates right now much like you did when T2 came out… and really though the first Pirates movie was really one of the few movies of the past 5-10 years or so that people of all ages can truly enjoy, w/ the exception of some other Disney cartoonish movies, and besides who doesn’t like pirates? and the movie wasn’t even rated ARRRR!! Would the movie have been any good if Johnny Depp didn’t blow it out of the water? Debatable…but you could say the same about your beloved Batman and Jack Nicholson or T2 and Arnold (not that he was a great actor but you get the idea) Question: what do you make of Titanic and its box office records? Does that bother you despite its awards and whatnot as it is much more of a gay (in a prejorative way, rather than guy banging another guy way) movie? Personally I’m more ashamed that I enjoyed Titanic than I am about P of C… Yes it’s predictable and cheesy, but it’s a good time…and why no love for Spidey 2? not that it was the best movie around, but it did have some interesting ideas ( using the idea that he couldn’t keep a job and had no money was pretty cool and who can blame people for wanting to see when he would hook up w/ MJ?) Anyways see the first pirates, it = good times

  4. bro permalink
    July 14, 2006 8:49 pm

    actually zorro beat the first pirates to the punch. it certainly stars a handsome hero of olden times and sword play. it came out of nowhere just like pirates, and while it obviously wasn’t as successful as either pirates movie, it was a surprising success at the time. i’ve never seen it, but i assume it was also family friendly. so i guess the secret to making a sucessful family film that isn’t animated or doesnt star tim allen or macauley caulkin is to recycle an old genre and amp up the action

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    July 15, 2006 4:14 pm

    Good point on Zorro. I didn’t see it either, and it didn’t occur to me when I was trying to think of a modern swashbuckler. The Princess Bride was as close as I came, which I think MOWC mentioned, as well.

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