“Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an excessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary. More than 3 million people are compulsive hoarders.”
So viewers are reminded at the beginning of each episode of the A&E hit Hoarders. I'd argue there are many more hoarders than that. Like, tens of millions more, targeted by film and television executives and so-called “creatives” in Hollywood, whose narcotic fodder captivates an addled American culture. Franchises. Reboots. Adaptations. Franchises based on adaptations. Reboots of franchises based on adaptations. They keep coming and coming. They lean and teeter and fester from season to season, year to year. They promise entertainment and symbolize security — the deep comfort of continuity.
But one step back and one long look at the clutter we've amassed — I mean, they made a Cats & Dogs sequel, for Christ's sake — could send even Hoarders' fearless psychologist Robin Zasio into paroxysms of terror. We've got a problem, folks, and it demands an intervention.
I'm serious. The Wall Street Journal's resident curmudgeon Joe Queenan was on to something a few weeks ago when he addressed 2010 as perhaps “the worst year in the history of motion pictures.” Sure, his facile acknowledgment that “Hollywood likes to play it safe” by milking billions of dollars from franchises, from Transformers to Twilight, isn't quite the intellectual wrench in the assembly line we need at a time when sophisticated, original ideas for adults are at a cataclysmically low ebb. But it's what he noted right afterward — “This is an industry that actually makes sequels to bombs … simply because the subject matter of the film is at least familiar to audiences” — that indirectly pinpoints the real problem: us. We keep everything.
If 2010 has shown us anything, in fact, it's that as a few key franchises stagnate (Iron Man 2), decline (Sex and the City 2) and finally conclude (Saw, Toy Story, Harry Potter), this nation of pop cultural hoarders may be running out of room, emotionally and physically, to stockpile some of this stuff. According to a report last month from trade organization the Digital Entertainment Group, DVD and Blu-ray sales in the first half of 2010 were down 7.1 percent from the same period in 2009, suggesting that the actual physical accumulation of huge volumes of garbage was no longer an imperative of cultural consumption — unless you count downloads and video-on-demand, which were up 23 percent from last year. Hey, at least it's contained to a hard drive. That's a start.
But many fetid piles remain at the multiplex, and again, if you've ever seen Hoarders, you know that the denial pangs kick in right around the time the work crews arrive with their dump trucks. It's natural for us to suggest that we don't really have a problem — to hyperventilate tearfully at the lip of the trash can that The A-Team and Clash of the Titans have sentimental value rooted in our childhoods. Or that we have just the place for Prince of Persia and the rest of the video-game adaptations moldering in the corner, rimmed with dust bunnies and cat shit. Sometimes we'd be right: Random discoveries, like Piranha 3-D or even Todd Solondz's quasisequel to Happiness, Life During Wartime, can seem like revelations, reminding us of the benefits of more selective, adventurous redundancy.
Most of the time, though, we're just compounding the problem. Take the ongoing fervor around Marvel Studios, the geek enablers who, in a little more than two years, have given us the diminishing returns of two Iron Man films, an underwhelming Incredible Hulk and promised Thor, Captain America and its massive all-hero gangbang The Avengers. This is simply unnecessary and unhealthy (and we should know it), but Hollywood wags love to remind us that had viewers not unloaded $1.2 billion worldwide on two Iron Man films in the first place, then we wouldn't be stuck in this suffocating comic-book miasma.
That's one of many “reasonable” excuses we can always expect from the industry, as we tumble down the OCD rabbit hole. It's also a lie — a smug, blame-the-victim canard that reminds me of the Hoarders episode in which a guy went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in order to build up his 60,000-piece beer-can collection (not to mention the second garage that accommodated it). Could you imagine if the show consultants had not only said that was healthy but delivered another 10,000 cans and passed along the bill? It would be criminal.
Yet that's essentially what Hollywood has done — often with the complicity of brands like Marvel or Hasbro, whose deep pockets underwrite the adaptations of crap we've had idle and buried in the closet for decades. This upcoming Battleship movie is particularly hilarious: Universal apparently needs $200 million to make a whole film around a game no one's played since some pre-adolescent road trip in the years before iPods and in-car DVD players. And don't forget DreamWorks' View-Master film, which at least has the topicality of 3-D to motivate digging the stereoscopic junk out of our unused toy box. It's not limited to kids' stuff, either: That same craven opportunism motivated this fall's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, refracting today's economic woes through Oliver Stone's '80s nihilist prism because … why, exactly? Because Shia LaBeouf said “yes”?
“Worthless, hazardous or unsanitary.” Think about it before your next date movie, family outing or pricey journey to the theater. Do we really need to keep all those old horror franchises in our living room? (And does dusting them off every year or two constitute “sanitary”?) Is the perpetuation of this superhero or that comics icon really worth the peril of living with studio mice gnawing at our imaginations?
Are we ready to cut our losses, clean cultural house and start fresh — assuming the house is even inhabitable anymore?
Here's your breathing mask and your garbage bag; let's get to work.