At university I took a minor in Film Studies to complement my major in English Literature. I took a variety of classes covering most of the major bases of the topic: pre-sound, history, technical aspects, critical theory, etc. One of the areas which piqued my interest, and which I’d probably have delved into if I’d stayed within academia, was “reception studies“.
In contrast to the often rather closed and stifling view of films as artefacts to be decoded by expert critics, reception studies concerns the film’s life in the outside world; how it was marketed and distributed, how audiences saw it, whether or not it was successful (and what that says about audiences’ tastes, prejudices, the cultural climate, etc).
I started thinking about this again recently when I was considering the mystery of why some films simply don’t find their audience. I’m sure we all know, or have known, a man or woman who, despite being intelligent, funny, charming, attractive, etc etc, simply can’t seem to find the right partner, no matter how hard they try. You think – they’ve got so much going for them; why are they still single? (No, I’m not saying that being single is inherently sad – just if you don’t want to be). These films are like that; they’re funny, clever, good-looking and entertaining, and yet no-one sees them.
I’m not talking about worthy films which are unsurprisingly ignored at the multiplex – there’s a reason for Norwegian existential dramas not setting the box office alight (except in Norway, perhaps) – but films which should have been big hits. The AV Club ran an article a little while back on what they referred to as “The Elusive ‘Good Movie’“, and a lot of the films I’m thinking of fit this description. A couple of them – Galaxy Quest and Diggstown – are mentioned in that article. No less an august personage than David Mamet even went so far as to describe Galaxy Quest as “an almost perfect movie”, and yet it was never (in my opinion) as big a hit as it deserved to be.
These are not deliberately quirky or “difficult” movies which were never going to escape from the arthouse – they were designed to be popular entertainment, they were made with skill and care, and…people just didn’t go to see them. I think my favourite example of this “could’ve done better” genre is “The Long Kiss Goodnight“. Maybe audiences hadn’t yet forgiven Geena Davis and Renny Harlin for their previous collaboration, but any film featuring Brian Cox in the kind of scene shown below gets my vote.