We have reached the tail end of the Dog Days, where my choices seem to be either to do one or more of The Brothers Grimm, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Supercross, Pretty Persuasion, and the Disney computer cartoon, Valiant, or else to do the customary but not compulsory summer postmortem. The selection of movies in itself propels me, or perhaps that ought to be repels me, down the second path. August, although thought of as the doldrums, has become an unusually busy month for a film critic. In the preceding months of the season, May through July, each week could more or less be counted on to bring one whopper conceded beforehand to be the next Number One Movie in America, plus a throwaway or two for "counterprogramming" (e.g., the Hilary Duff fan club, the Lindsay Lohan fan club). August, on the other hand, is a free-for-all, a dumping ground for product projected to have a short shelf life, not big enough, not "leggy" enough, to be runaway blockbusters, and not good enough to compete for spots in the annual awards ceremonies and Ten Best lists. For the latter purpose, the movie year has shrunk to a third of a year or even a quarter of a year. The rest is but prelude. Fall has been set aside for gaining prestige. Summer is for making money.
In that regard, the dominant theme of the current summer went by the name of The Slump: nineteen consecutive weeks (or longer than just this summer) when box-office receipts fell below those of the comparable weeks in the year past. The curse was finally broken by Wedding Crashers (I believe that was the one), yet the mood didn't lighten. My own response to The Slump, whenever I'd be reminded of it, is that it is of no matter whatsoever to the viewer of a movie, be he laid-back layman or note-scribbling critic. If it must be a subject at all, it is a subject for the business pages of the daily paper, cheek by jowl with car sales and hotel occupancy rates. To be watching a movie and wondering things like how much it cost to finance, whether it can possibly make back its investment, why it failed to get over the hump of The Slump, is tantamount to reading a novel (if you can imagine doing so) and wondering how long it took the author to write it, what his percentage would work out to in an hourly wage, why it failed to climb higher on the best-seller chart. Neither, respectively, has anything at all to do with the viewing or reading experience.
But of course the whole point of The Slump was that people, in significantly increasing numbers, were not watching movies anymore. Why not? Of all possible explanations kicked around these past months, the one that most appealed to me, the one that made the most sense, was the one that pointed out that people instead were watching DVDs. True, they had been watching DVDs for a lot longer than nineteen weeks, and videos for a lot longer than that, but the circumstance that has only recently changed is the shortened wait -- the narrowed window -- between the release of a movie in theaters and its release in stores. Monster-in-Law, one of the summer's modest winners, will be on the shelves before Labor Day weekend. After that, the deluge. Summer can replay itself all fall.
DVDs are now comparable to what used to be called, in Variety-ese, the "nabes" -- the neighborhood movie houses -- back when there was a distinction to be made between the higher-priced first-run house downtown and the cheaper second-run house in the suburbs, back before multiplexes, back before the standard distribution policy of wide release, back, in short, before film studios figured out how to circumvent or minimize the iffy effects of critical reviews and word-of-mouth. The shortened wait for the DVD release has at its root the same motive as the wide release in multiplexes: film studios just can't wait to make their money. One reason why this explanation appeals to me is that it would justify me in turning a deaf ear to all their bellyaching about The Slump. It would mean, first, that The Slump was their own damn fault, and second, that they merely will have to wait a while longer to get their money. The frugal filmgoer, who once saved his pennies for second-run, now saves them for rent.
A more enjoyable explanation, for simple hilarity, was the attempt by serious-minded critics to see in The Slump some positive signs of an improvement in the public taste, a raising of standards, a general fatigue with the tried-and-true formulas of sequels, remakes, special effects, stunts, and whatever else the critics had been grousing about. The trouble with that theory, otherwise known as wishful thinking, is that most of the season's biggest hits, even if slightly smaller hits than last year's, were effects-laden "franchise" films or would-be "franchise" films (Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, Fantastic Four) and remakes made bigger (War of the Worlds, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Longest Yard). The remainder were Madagascar, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and that slump buster, Wedding Crashers, smart-asses, all, in differing degrees. It is hard, on that view, to imagine the producers of The Island deciding that where they went wrong was in not trying to do another Million Dollar Baby. That, by certain people's lights, would have been Cinderella Man. (The lesson there: if you're doing a working-class underdog drama, you can ill afford to have your star throw a telephone at a menial while on a promo tour.) It is not hard, however, to imagine the producers of The Island deciding that where they went wrong was in not signing up Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. A simpler way to discount the theory of improving taste would be to assert that if taste had improved, Dark Water would not have gone glug-glug. The craving for a zinger ending at the expense of logic, an ending like that of The Sixth Sense or The Village, an ending unlike that of Dark Water, amounts to a craving for frivolity. Ditto for a craving for exorbitant special effects.
Hardly had the ink dried on my pronouncement that, for me, the event of the summer was the unseasonal release of the "extended" version of Major Dundee (resigned as I was to live in the past), when along came this very Dark Water. And immediately I had to sit down and have a little talk with myself. Even though the trailer looked promising, and even though I root for Jennifer Connelly the way I root for the Minnesota Vikings (i.e., without hope), I did not anticipate liking it terribly much: no more than such other Japanese transplants as The Ring and The Grudge, possibly a bit more than the same filmmaker's Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries. But after sitting through it and liking almost everything about it, I was forced to ask myself what more I expected from a movie these days, what more I was holding out for. The habit of pessimism, dissatisfaction, and apathy is the sort of slump a filmgoer must truly worry about. Dark Water gave me everything I can reasonably ask of a ghost story, everything I got from The Innocents or the 1963 incarnation of The Haunting. Theme, development, resolution. Beauty, emotion, intelligence. Atmosphere, mood, tempo. And oh yes, gooseflesh. It is just barely possible that a ghost story could give me more than I can reasonably ask, but it has happened only once or twice in a lifetime, Portrait of Jennie, maybe Curse of the Cat People.
I count the summer a success, and I don't do my counting to the right of a dollar sign. I need only count as high as the number one. That's more than I get in some summers. I got my fair share of laughs, too, quite apart from the improving-taste theory. I did not get them from Wedding Crashers, The Longest Yard, or The 40 Year Old Virgin. I got them from the uncommonly clever Bewitched, undampened by its "disappointing" box-office, and from the off-the-radar Broken Flowers and Me and You and Everyone We Know. And I got something else as well, not a lot, but something, from the likes of Howl's Moving Castle, Batman Begins, Land of the Dead, War of the Worlds, Four Brothers, Red Eye. Gravy.