Gather in the Drawing Room

30 November, 2022 at 9:43 pm (film)

My current practice of saving certain articles until I have time to concentrate on them has meant that I found out about the Fake Teenagers Festivus Blogathon a couple days late. Looking at my collection of oft-revisited physical media, I’m not sure what I would have immediately leapt to cover — perhaps Edward Scissorhands, which featured a 20 year-old Winona Ryder and a 22 year-old Anthony Michael Hall — but my secret goal of becoming relevant as a figure on Film Twitter will certainly be harder to achieve if I’m not pursuing clout and chasing trends before Twitter inevitably wheezes its final death rattle. Which means I will need to read movie commentary and articles, not at some distant leisure and certainly not after waiting a week for new cinema releases to lose lustre so I can see the film with a minimal audience on a Tuesday night. No, I might need to cultivate the anxious, wide-eyed panic of someone consumed with worry about no longer being streets ahead.

The recent film I did get a bit of a jump on was Glass Onion, which ended its limited theatrical release yesterday night before pausing to return as a cozy staple on Netflix in a month’s time. It was important to me to see Glass Onion in cinemas, as I have seen all of Rian Johnson’s film output in theatrical release so far, and I didn’t want to break the streak.

I believe I heard about Brick back when I was haunting the corridors of the TwitchFilm website (which I probably discovered chasing breadcrumbs about the theatrical release of Serenity, for my sins). I drove from grad school in Western Mass to the Coolidge in Boston to see a screening of Brick, and while I was disappointed with the fidelity of the digital projection, I was at least glad to have seen it in as large format as possible. The essential flashy conceits — the noir trappings, the arcane Young Person Code, and the curious mechanism where the plot of the film is being acted out by the high school theatre company while it’s still happening to the protagonists — were all attractive and clever, but I really responded to its essential technical filmmaking: the photography and the sound mix. I found myself won over by the choices of putting the strong, distinctive images together with the borderline absurdist touches that occurred throughout the script and production (Lukas Haas’ character’s accumulated quirks — the floor lamp in the back of his van, his mom’s chicken-shaped juice jug, and his attempt at making a human connection with JGL over the Tolkien books — all had me convulsing with laughter). It felt like a visual voice I wanted to continue to know, and it got me to follow Johnson’s career ever since.

A cinemascope-cropped still from Brick, featuring Lukas Haas and a pitcher incongruously shaped like a chicken.

I was already in the tank during the mostly underseen Brothers Bloom, and I remember — years before I knew the word “parasocial” — the wash of warmth I felt when I found out about his downloadable, in-theatre commentary track for Looper which struck me as a canny way of interacting with fans and potentially bolstering repeat viewings (even though he apparently thought that commentary tracks “should not exist”). Speaking of repeat viewings, I saw Knives Out three times in the cinemas: I was lucky enough to catch a local press screening with the Boston crew, and then I felt the need to return after seeing Sleuth in a repertory screening of Knives‘ influences (a series which contained a print of The Last of Shelia ages before all of the articles explaining why Stephen Sondheim has a cameo in Onion — a print I didn’t watch at the time, more fool me…) in order to see if there were more homages than the scarecrow sailor in the Thrombey estate montage at the beginning. And then a whimsical third time to indulge in Johnson’s downloadable commentary. I’ve not yet been disappointed. [Yes, that does mean I’m one of those awful people that still revere Last Jedi. Sorry/Not Sorry, fanboys.]

A friend of mine was bemoaning the fact that Glass Onion isn’t already available on Netflix, and that he has to wait until the next holiday to be able to join in the conversation. Despite having had early access, I believe understand the frustration of a not being able to see a film that’s produced by the Netflix brand and therefore associated with certain cultural expectations. Netflix has successfully created a sense of requiring being current, and while Netflix releases may have largely lost their omnipresent potency, there is still the pop-cultural habit of needing to watch a drop sooner rather than later — or at least being aware of the rumblings of conversation, so that one can carve out time to binge something newly on offer if a new Netflix “Original” suddenly is on everyone’s lips once again. While many in my acquaintance are frustrated with the increased à la cart costs of needing to maintain subscriptions to All The Streamers, the FOMO associated with not being able to be part of the entertainment conversation — or, worse yet, having something spoiled! — because one has dropped or paused a streaming service certainly keeps many people on the hook. Even if it’s a tether to something they may mostly use only for frustratedly surfing through distraction options on a Friday night without ever actually selecting a title. So, the fact that the reviews are out for Onion, but it still isn’t available through the company that paid, oh, around $400 million for it, is clearly itching powder in the longjohns of people who relish currency.

A note on that pricetag. Acknowledging that I don’t know anything, I — like many — was kind of astonished by that number. But after reading the New Yorker profile of Johnson released as part of the Onion press cycle, I feel like I understand more of why it was so high. Despite de juré rules to the effect that streamers must continue to provide residuals to performers who created content for the platforms, there persists — probably based on reality — the de facto belief that the long-tail of payout from projects has decreased significantly in the age of streaming. So when Johnson talks about the payment from Netflix as being the equivalent of not expecting continuing checks because of the movie eventually playing on TBS, that if Onion “is going to be a movie that does what the first one did—and, as opposed to this payment and that payment down the line for the lifetime of the movie, it’s doing it all at once. …[Then] the math… does start to make some kind of sense.” And split up over two films, which one expects to continue to have the same kind of Deadline-headline-savvy casting, means that the initial cost is actually much smaller than it appears at first blush.

Despite one or two speculative, hopeful sentences upon the announcement of the theatrical run that mmmaaaaaybe they’d let it stay longer in cinemas if it did well, especially considering how much Knives Out lingered, Onion‘s brief stay feels like it was locked in stone as part of the initial negotiations between Netflix and the cinema chains. The fact that it did fairly well, financially — by Vulture‘s calculations, it averaged $25,000 per cinema released, which was $10K more than Black Panther during that same week — was never going to move that needle. So, only a week in cinemas, in a move that seems to have been more designed to meet Johnson’s theatrical desires and as a teaser for Netflix more than out of any awards-season aspirations — the Times dismisses Onion as an unlikely contender based on the fact that it’s a sequel and that the first film couldn’t manage to “snag anything more than an original-screenplay nod.

Unfortunately, I was personally hoping for some sort of awards chat, because otherwise my ability to acquire any Benoit Blanc merch is going to be severely limited. I say “merch”, and it’s not like I really have a lot of promo items from the Johnson oeuvre or that I need more clutter in my life. Sure, I may have a promotional Looper pocket watch, and I may have tracked down an autographed insert from the Mondo release of the Knives Out soundtrack, and I may enviously keep my eye on eBay for the off chance of securing the Riki Lindhome cover, despite having been considerably lucky with my random selection the first time ’round. Did I bid on the New Yorker article about Benoit Blanc and the Boston Globe obituary of Harlan Thrombey, but steer clear of the rabid fans who were entranced by Chris Evans’ sensual wool sweater? You bet I did, but to no avail. The hype had taken off by March of 2020, and I lost and lost hard to people with deeper pockets than my own.

So what am I concerned about? That Netflix doesn’t need to merch their offerings. The likelihood of a soundtrack album or a Blu-Ray release for Glass Onion isn’t guaranteed. It turns out there are more commercial album releases from Netflix original pictures than I might have anticipated, but I certainly don’t want to get into an equivalent bidding war as I did three years ago with eBay people if there are hot-ticket For Your Consideration items for Glass Onion. The borrowed prestige, limited availability, and speculative value — on the very off chance that it wins! — can make initial prices on any possible limited soundtrack release or fun puzzle box or Mondrian recreation cost more than its practicality. Which doesn’t stop me from wanting any such hypothetical rarity, it just makes me sigh at the sheer war profiteering of the invisible hand of the market.

I think I listen to the soundtracks to Brick and Brothers Bloom more digitally than I do in the car on in the living room on the traditional stereo, but that also has to do with their initial availability to me — I’d never come across any physical media releases of Johnson soundtracks prior to Last Jedi, and so iTunes digital options were seemingly the only options. This helps make any album release much more desirable than just the traditional hype ephemera. And while I can now buy the whole soundtrack, for awhile, part of the Onion promotion train was the mild drip of individual slivers of sound, designed to create anticipatory atmosphere. Vanity Fair hosted an “exclusive” track that was a “String Quartet in B-flat minor”, and the theme that accompanied Janelle Monae’s character Andi also got it’s own drop. But I very much enjoyed Dark Horizon’s canny article where the allowed a listener to compare Nathan Johnson’s main theme to Onion with the lush swells from Nino Rota’s score for Death on the Nile. When the assembled cast boarded the ship that ferried them to the island setting for the film, I immediately thought of Nile‘s main theme, and it was fun to hear how much they serve the same function while not actually sounding very much alike at all. Very impressive that Johnson was able to evoke the mood and effect of Rota’s work without having to mimic him in the least.

There has been a slow funnel of Netflix releases to the Criterion Collection, so I can hope that there might be an excellent Blu-Ray of Glass Onion at some point in the future. Of course, I’m still waiting on Mank, and that’s a director who is already represented in the Collection canon, unlike Johnson. And I’m waiting on word that Confess, Fletch might exist in some form beyond as a mild temptation to subscribe to the Showtime app.


Related Links:
EDIT: A few days after posting this, Kyle Buchanan interviews Johnson in the NYT about much of the issues regarding Onion‘s profitability and distribution.
Apparently, there was a showcase of orchestral performances of the scores of upcoming Netflix films, including Nathan Johnson’s Glass Onion.
The Guardian establishes a list of Glass Onion‘s sources and homages.
Johnson is interviewed at VultureFest, which I remember as being New York based, but which is now annoyingly on the wrong coast. Previously, they were able to catch an even more advance viewing of the film at TIFF.
The Boston Globe talks about the Thrombey mansion’s actual location, and its pedigree in other films, and the Washington Post interviews Johnson about his engagement and process with mystery fiction.

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