Big or Mall Copincidence?

What are the chances of films on the same subject getting made at the same
time? It should be unlikelier than two holes-in-one in a row, stranger than
getting hit by lightning twice and surviving, freakier than twins
spontaneously combusting.

First, film rights are negotiated, production deals are made, scripts are
assigned, written, and rewritten, crews are formed, actors are cast, and then
the film is shot, edited and released. All that can take years. So how can
movies in the same vein come out so suspiciously close together? Is it
industrial espionage, or lack of creativity, or lazy borrowing from similar
sources? (Comic-book films tend to bleed together lately; the Punisher alone
has been brought to screen three different times in the past 18 years,
apparently because the first time was not punishment enough.)

Two years ago, when word came out that three films on Salvador Dalí
were in the works, a producer of one of them shruggingly explained the
coincidence as film-makers “pick[ing] up on the vibe.” Three
Dalí films is nothing, though: “At one stage, we counted up to
nine.” The vibe, in this case, was the centenary of the
surrealist’s birth, and the three films have since become two (one is
due this year, starring Antonio Banderas as the artist; another, starring
Pacino and directed by Andrew Niccol, seems to have fallen through; the two
different films’ producers quoted in the 2007 Times article are no
longer connected to any Dalí biopics.)

1998 saw two “the sky is falling” flicks: Armageddon and Deep
Impact. 2005 and 2006 saw the same authorial wit flashing in from above, as
two films about Truman Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood crashed to
earth. (Many critics thought the second, Infamous, was better, but Philip
Seymour Hoffman’s vehicle was first on the scene and scooped up the
bigger prizes and profits.)

And now, in the past few months, as another decade approaches, we have been
blessed with the twin birth of … mall-cop movies. Why the second-coming of
mall-copdom that is Observe and Report? After AIG, Goldman Sachs, Bernie
Madoff and Allen Stanford, is Seth Rogen the fifth horseman of impending doom
in these dark days of capitalism? What’s in the stale, recycled indoor
air? Is there a vibe, sort of like the rumble of a Fantasyland
roller-coaster, to be picked up on here? Any deeper levels, say down P2 or
P3, to this coincidence?
Nah. Probably not.

The cynic in me says that Hollywood is getting as lazy as they showed Paul
Blart: Mall Cop to be, a pudgy guy who got around on a
segway—they’re just turning to the local mall for some easy comic
inspiration, getting mileage out of one of those petty, power-drunk,
perspective-less authority-figure characters. Observe and Report has shifted
it into darker, vacant-storefront territory, making Rogen’s cop a
Travis Bickle figure in a movie that tries to turn its comedy Scorsese-black
(the film even flirts with a date-rape scene less for laughs, New York Times
critic Manohla Dargis argues, than to “turn the pain and humiliation of
other people into a consumable spectacle”).

The critic in me says that maybe the plots revolve around malls and mall cops
because that’s where most people go to see movies; so the realist says
that the marketers and execs who often drive these vehicles in Hollywood are
targeting their most captive demographic—mall-goers—by setting
these stories right where they watch them. But I won’t offer the easy
criticism here—I’ll let Dargis do that for me in her sarcastic
conclusion to her review of Observe and Report as less an artful comedy than
an artful dodge: “sit back and relax and enjoy the show. That, after
all, is precisely what Hollywood banks on each time it manufactures a new
entertainment for a public that—as the stupid, violent characters who
hold up a mirror to that public indicate—it views with contempt.”
So, with these movies, Tinseltown is being most honest with how it sees
us—as slack-jawed, shuffling mall-rats without a critical taste for
anything better than what the food-court churns out.

But, taking the long view—like the map of a two-level, four-stage
mega-mall—the process that leads to two mall-cop movies plunking
themselves down, back-to-back, is more complicated, and laborious, and no
doubt innocently coincidental, after all. Still, in a city like Edmonton,
where not just movies but moving has been intimately connected to
shopping—transit centres, downtown walkways and university pedways
always seem to run like arteries back to the diseased hearts of
malls—one can have a dream. The small, eternal optimist deep within me
hopes that these flicks, unintentionally, are the last gasp of a dying indoor
shopping sprawlscape—with the economic meltdown, we will return to
local markets, to small businesses, maybe even to films set in corner stores
and neighbourhood shops. Then we can get on with not just moving (like Blart
on a segway), or watching (Observe and Report) but actually talking with each
other, to each other, between our crassly commercial channels and beyond our
regularly scheduled programmed routes. V 

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