Pour a tall glass of your favorite brown liquor, and keep it stiff, because it’s doomer mode over at Merry-Go-Round Magazine. Editor Kevin Cookman tasked Editor-in-Chief CJ Simsonson with talking him off the ledge in a conversation about the general state of algorithm-indebted cinema and may have ended up pushed off the precipice instead.
Kevin Cookman: If you want to understand the entirety of the current film climate, look no further than this past weekend. I come to you, CJ Simonson, the God of Merry-Go-Round Magazine, the current Big Papa, the Daddy [Editor-In-Chief Note: I did not pay him to say these things, promise—CJ], to really help me through my Schrader-esque downfall into nihilism. Hopefully you’re not there too, otherwise this is just going to become a teary circle-jerk. Can I tell you what happened over the last few weeks?
CJ Simonson: Lay it on me.
KC: Jordan Peele’s NOPE premieres to around $45 million, THE GRAY MAN basically didn’t premiere, Comic Con returned, there was more VERTIGO discourse (again), and, tragically, Bob Rafelson (FIVE EASY PIECES, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, HEAD) passed away. Let me just ask you straight up: what the fuck is happening to movies?
CJ: I don’t know, man. There was a part of me leading into the weekend that was thrilled to be able to talk about NOPE and THE GRAY MAN, two big original concept films. Regardless of whether we thought they were going to be good or bad—and we probably had assumptions about which would be good and which would be bad—that still was exciting. It’s been a strange summer of films where we had a month where there simply were no movies, unless you wanted a bad JURASSIC WORLD or TOP GUN: MAVERICK for a third time. There’s a chiseling away at what we once deemed important in cinema and that’s where we lead to the WAKANDA FOREVER trailer surely breaking records upon its premiere.
KC: On the night it dropped, I saw the Marvel Studios tweet sitting at around one million likes.
CJ: I thought it looked fine? It just looked like AVATAR 2.
KC: Startlingly so.
CJ: It should’ve been a weekend where Peele started his cruise to $200 million and we celebrated how a horror movie with quote-on-quote original ideas is somewhere in the culture at all, and instead a lot of that was overshined by all eyes and ears on a B-tier WANDAVISION villain getting their own show.
KC: Seeing Marvel’s Phase 5 timeline reminded me of just four years ago when Feige would unveil a full decade of movies in a timeline, not two years’ worth.They went from foreseeing how I’d be complaining about Disney for a full leg of my early adulthood to how I’d be complaining about Disney during another job hunt.
CJ: I’ve skipped the Marvel stuff. Whatever phase we’re on now, I let it pass me by. Skipped SHANG-CHI and BLACK WIDOW, watched WANDAVISION because folks were talking about it, LOKI was in the background while I boxed up Christmas presents, but I wasn’t engaged. I wanted to see LOVE AND THUNDER because I kind of liked RAGNAROK so I sat and played catch-up, and when you marathon these movies in the way the content stream wants you to watch them, not only is this the weakest phase of Marvel in general, but I also found myself exhausted by how glib and smug they all were. They all know they aren’t particularly great, and there’s nothing there to challenge any of them in the marketplace, so even the agnostics are forced to the conclusion that these movies are what they want. At the very least, TOP GUN is refreshing for how it exists outside the continuum of popular culture, harkening back to another era of film culture entirely. When was the last time an MCU or STAR WARS movie wasn’t the box office #1 come the end of the year?
KC: The Marvels are so dominating, and yet you, someone ingrained in media, can still go about your life as a cinephile avoiding them and not miss much whatsoever.
CJ: I missed nothing. Here’s what I missed: SPIDER-MAN pointing memes, a nice little renaissance discussion of Sam Raimi—something that itself exists outside of the mainstream. My brother saw MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS and he has no fucking clue who Sam Raimi is. Even the interesting aspects of these movies are not things that actually translate.
KC: We did a full Sam Raimi ranking here at the magazine, and it felt fun and good, but when MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS came out, the streets were, myself included, very performative about showering him with roses. We were desperate to give one of these movies a new shade of paint, and this new shade of paint was getting to write legacy pieces on a revered genre director and possibly overpraise him in the process. We needed any sprig of life to flow through this bloated corpse. The Comic Con schedules are interesting for every reason that they’re uninteresting: Disney revealed new titles, but they essentially revealed the release calendar of every movie dropping around those Marvel properties. And that counts TV now, too, so there goes the TV calendar. There’s no such thing as counter-programming anymore, lest we further mourn the death of the mid-budget drama or comedy (which has been in hospice care since the mid 2010s) and how those transformed into cluttering mini-series or, better yet, series orders that offer full wages to its staff come season 3 and are suspiciously canceled at the end of season 2 so they can return as a rebooted season 1, but enough about DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN. So even if you don’t care, you’re forced to care about everything coming out in the next two years despite being a grown adult. CJ, you should not know that THE THUNDERBOLTS is going to close out Phase 5, but you do, and you will also probably be able to name every member of The Thunderbolts.
CJ: The public interest as of late appeared to be waning, and it might be COVID—it probably is COVID—but BLACK WIDOW didn’t make a lot of money. SHANG-CHI did fine. THOR had a ridiculous drop in week two. Are we reaching a fatigue point where studios watch the roster struggle and decide they can go up against a Marvel movie on opening weekend? I don’t know, maybe! BULLET TRAIN as an original IP is intriguing, and that’s a movie that shifted its release date for a nice, isolated $100+ million window. It might be dogshit, it might be great, who knows? If you want to play the role of The Cynic, and me finding a little bit of light on the other end of the tunnel, then BULLET TRAIN would indicate to me that there are some studios who still want to push original stories even if they are insanely glossy and not particularly interesting.
KC: Since counter-programming on a movie-by-movie basis is dead, and seasonal counter-programming where some sprites of ever-diminishing originality escape from Disney’s year-long chokehold is the new wave, tell me if NOPE and THE GRAY MAN instilled more hope in this version of the future you’re seeing.
CJ: Yes! And it’s because of the people behind the movies themselves. The gravitational weight that Peele is able to walk out of NOPE with is noticeable for studio heads. US didn’t have that. It did very well at the box office and people talked about it, but I get a sense that NOPE is making a bigger imprint (hopefully?). And Joe and Anthony Russo are not interesting directors, but I get a sense that the success they’ve had with Marvel (and I’m sure Netflix will tell us in the next few weeks that 500 million households watched THE GRAY MAN) has given them a similar weight within the industry. That’s how the real tide of change will come: obviously from these directors, but from the wave of work from their production houses. The Russos have around 50 things in the hopper, most of which I have no concept of what they may be, which is, I mean, a little appealing, right? They’re cranking out a list of titles with no numbers or colons.
KC: I feel you, at least things are being made.
CJ: At least things are being made! THE GRAY MAN is unfortunately what tends to be the high bar of what these streamer films end up looking like, and I fear that BULLET TRAIN will as well—a poorly cobbled together series of action sequences that ape other more successful franchises—but let it be known that I’m infinitely more excited for JOHN WICK 4 or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING, movies that both of those properties are desperately trying to pull from.
KC: Even those two films you’re legitimately stoked for are what would’ve been the run-of-the-mill mega-blockbusters in 1997 that would spur a twenty-something Paul Thomas Anderson into a rant over the demise of cinema. The way I hear MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE spoken about today is like someone describing the current creation of FITZCARRALDO. The bullseye has moved and these mega-IPs are now the closest we have to a center stage arthouse talking piece.
CJ: Watching real things happen on a big screen is exciting! We love MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as a piece of major IP because, oh shit, there are real fucking cars driving through the desert, and they actually jerry-rigged a human body onto a high-speed javelin pole. I get to watch Tom Cruise fly a plane or break his ankle. THE GRAY MAN has a little bit of that. There’s a great chase sequence in the middle that looks very expensive, and the money seems to have been put into making as much of that action as real as can be, but there’s also some rough CG backgrounds. When audiences talk about this auteurist idea that a camera capturing real bodies performing real stunts is representing what the indie sphere represented 20, 30, 40 years ago, it comes from the fact that we see so few real images. We’re stuck in the uncanny valley, and these films are the bursts out of the stranglehold. These movies made by mega-billionaires in their ivory towers become important, and the means don’t matter anymore because we’ve been so deprived. It’s like those movies in the post-apocalypse where someone hasn’t seen a plant and they suddenly see a seed sprout.
KC: Positioning THE GRAY MAN in any optimistic worldview of how we’re moving forward is psychotically optimistic behavior from you. How could you literally see anything in this movie? How were you even able to tell that a CG background was rough? I couldn’t see through any of this fucking mud.
CJ: I did walk in with basement level expectations, and that’s always fairly helpful with these kinds of things. I was ready to punch out! The opening with the bisexual lighting and a fight in some fireworks cannon… I had no need for this, I’ve already seen tons of movies go for the JOHN WICK thing. And that was a lot of the film. Also, and this is really stupid, but, listen, watching a movie that is ostensibly winking and nodding the whole time about the CIA having done some terrible things was pretty insane. I love Ryan Gosling and I will allow him to cook, no matter what mediocre action movie they want to give him. And it was only two hours!
KC: Blink twice if you need help, just blink twice.
CJ: The Russo Brothers are in my living room right now with a gun to my head if I don’t agree that THE GRAY MAN had French New Wave influences. I’ll have you know, I watched EXTRACTION afterwards because we were just on a fuck-it run. If we were going to watch bad Netflix actioners, then we might as well do it, and it’s significantly better; actually directed by a stunt person, it’s got Chris Hemsworth, and David Harbour’s in it for two seconds. You look up the manufactured buzz around that in 2020 and it’s the same ol’ “this is the biggest film Netflix has ever released.” And it’s this movie I’d never heard of before I turned it on this weekend. Did you know anyone who watched THE GRAY MAN?
KC: THE GRAY MAN matters insofar that people who are tapped into the timeline are curious about what Netflix, a company publicly flailing in the economic marketplace, has decided to put their chips into as their most expensive movie. It’s the film’s greatest marketing play, and, frankly, its only marketing play. How many pounds of money per second can possibly be shoveled into a furnace? If I want to go full THE GRAY MAN psy-op mode, really put on my “CIA is evil” helmet, it feels like Disney is the Chicago Mafia and Netflix is the tommy gun wielding enforcer mowing down an entire family because the father didn’t pay back his debts. There’s a beautifully grisly coalescence between these competitors where Disney is flattening the playing field and Netflix keeps swooping in with technically original movies. In that dynamic alone, a one-star piece of shit on Netflix turns into a forgivably forgettable 2.5 star evening because at least there wasn’t a cape.
CJ: It’s remarkable the chokehold that will have. As a consumer, I will 100% press play on something because of that fact. I’m not sure I’m in love with NOPE, and I don’t think I’m in the minority. I’m not sure where the Steven Yeun subplot fits in and the themes amount to little more than fun topics for Jordan Peele to talk about during YouTube interviews, but that doesn’t matter. If someone asked me if they should see NOPE, I’d tell them it’s this big original action-horror blockbuster… You should absolutely see it. I don’t care if it was only good instead of great: its sheer existence is reason enough to see it. Peele’s next movie is happening regardless. I’m more so hoping that someone else gets to make their new version of WAR OF THE WORLDS, and that that movie has some small crack at being shown somewhere that won’t immediately bury it.
KC: At its apex, NOPE is a terrific play on FRIGHT NIGHT, and at its nadir, it’s basically LADY IN THE WATER. I’m recommending it as a breath of fresh air, as “there’s nothing else like it right now.” Pre-2019, I’d maybe say you didn’t have to see NOPE, and instead could just take a gander at the works of the 70s through early aughts that Peele is more interested in than his own work. We’re on the heels of yet another Film Twitter discourse over the all-time cinematic canon. We should always be disrupting the canon, but we’re also at a point where we are churning out movies at an unstable rate. Five months ago, three of the biggest celebrities alive starred in RED NOTICE and not a single soul talks about it, yet the company that made it still touts it as their biggest financial success. The content pump-and-dump has eliminated staying power, and that sort of thinking is imbued in greater film culture. We are heaping tons of praise onto NOPE because we are subconsciously throwing away everything else that’s come before it. Films have never been made out of love and respect for the game, but there’s something different in the consumer waters, and it’s a difference that’s been incepted by the two mega-corps who control all media we both talk about (and don’t talk about).
CJ: It’s just going to get worse. RED NOTICE will never be discussed because content is being pumped out at a fever pitch that we’ve never seen before. Our brains are not built for the whiplash of going from STRANGER THINGS into NOPE into Comic Con. Gone are the days of sitting on a film for weeks on end. Content is alive for the amount of time you watch it in the background, and dies the immediate moment it ends. Will we only become more forgiving as time goes on? Sure, with movies like NOPE, but specifically with movies like THE GRAY MAN, which may be less deserving of my initial optimism. We could take this same approach with multiple avenues of culture and come up with multiple unfortunate answers. The middle ground between movies is only going to grow more disparate, and that means movies at the top are going to get a slightly longer leash while movies at the bottom will receive an immense amount of support not because of merit, but just because they exist.
KC: And it’s just the select few! Anyone reading up until this point is likely screaming “EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE” and how that film is heralded for its directors’ modest starts, low budget, and creative liberties. That’s another film that’s produced by The Russos, so it presents a conundrum where even the kids who are allowed to play with the big boys are ultimately chosen to enter the club by the big boys: there’s no disruption whatsoever. And those big boys are more charmless than they’ve ever been. I have no idea where the Russo Brothers get off on decrying the act of attending the cinema as some elitist out-of-touch practice when the theatrical model has ensured that all future generations of Russos never have to work an 8-hour shift in their lives, but go off, kings.
CJ: And that’s to say nothing of the fact that EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, while being a movie I quite enjoy, certainly isn’t without its relative position in the market. There’s nothing quite like it right now, but there’s also not very much that’s interesting in general right now. The achievements are compelling, but it’s a largely derivative work. It’s getting just as much the benefit of a doubt.
KC: We’ve been talking big picture, but to bring things to our homestead, I even feel this fatigue and burnout in how we write at Merry-Go-Round. Always feel free to reach out to write for the site, but we have gone through writers at an exponentially higher rate than usual. My film section has churned through critics who entered the space bright-eyed and then had the desolation wash over them once they took a good hard look at the landscape. People who are as interested in entertainment and culture as us are facing the brunt of a coming extinction. In the spirit of NOPE, how do you correlate spectacle to the litany of horrors surrounding you? Our streaming spectacles are not quite adept enough, impressive enough, or alluring enough to wow, and are instead making those surrounding horrors that much more prevalent. THE GRAY MAN in its puerile craft is only highlighting what I’m trying to distract myself from. We’re still going strong here at the website—obviously you’re reading this piece—but there’s a large section of people who made movies a major part of their lives who are now reassessing their passion. Shit, if you’ve been reading my features on the site since early 2020, I’ve basically been using Merry-Go-Round as a column to record the fall of Rome, with a dash of film critique. Maybe staring at these vapid images isn’t the way to maneuver through life. I don’t blame them. There’s not much to work with.
CJ: Just as our collective consciousnesses are going to have a harder time digesting this information, and as our attention spans shrink and shrink, so will our ability to talk about all of this stuff.
KC: We gotta keep up the good fight, baby. Heroes of the 70s might be dying by the bundle, and the Zoomers might be caught up in a puritanical war of ideas over the worth of vintage cinema, but the will to fight on and keep analyzing these things is all we have.