Considering the Visual (tv and film articles)
There is no Rule 6: The more time passes, the fewer pieces of culture from the past are remembered. The law of diminishing returns, really. Which is a shame, as certain chunks of past cultural works played an integral part in developing and influencing the culture of the present day (and all the years in between), and it's always good to know the history and context of these works.
This is a rather serious opening, note, which is a bit of a shame, really, as the culture I'm referring to is Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Now I'm aware that Monty Python is certainly not an obscure, long forgotten British comedy troupe. Only three years ago they did a ten night stand at the O2 arena in London. Their films are regarded as some of the best comedy of the last half of the twentieth century. There would only be a few people who would disagree that they had Beatle-like influence on modern comedy.
But the movies and the cut-up YouTube videos of their best/most famous bits are cheapening their legacy.
Monty Python means movies, albums, stage shows, books and solo success, but Monty Python's Flying Circus was the television show (and their introduction to the world), and not watching it how it was meant to be seen (rimshot) is kind of missing the biggest thing these five Brits and one American did for modern comedy. It was a skit show, yes, if it had to condensed into two words, but it was a skit show that constantly pulled the familiarity rug from under you. The acknowledgement by them that you were watching a skit show was pervasive, mocking, and occasionally frustrating. Sometimes getting a laugh (even from the 'Cheap Laughs' next door) wasn't the point. The point was a healthy bit of what Guy DeBord called 'detournement' (ahem, twisting dominant/capitalist conventions and norms on their head, usually in forms of parody or mockery).
And now for something completely different:
21st century Western democracy is facing its biggest series of crises since the Second World War (the occasionally Cold War near-dip into 'hot war' notwithstanding). As opposed to listing them here, you can just watch/read the news.
We are not handing this gracefully.
We are all getting very silly.
We are rapidly populating and polluting a planet that cannot handle much of either (and a sizeable chunk of the populace and powerful don't think the second one is an actual problem).
Our own power to change large-scale issues like economic inequality, social (in)justice and climate change is greatly reduced, as more and more of these decisions are placed in the hands of a powerful few.
What we are reading or watching on the internet immediately comes under scrutiny for its credibility and accuracy.
We are being marketed to constantly, and if politics is being sold to us the same way cars and toothpaste are, then suddenly politics begin to appear as disposable as toothpaste.
A simple empty slogan can quickly shutdown any important political discourse ('Fake News!'), and no one seems to have the attention span to read/listen to a detailed, thought-provoking account of challenges in our future.
A reality TV show host is President of the United States. And not a very good one. Donald Trump talks about complicated political issues like international diplomacy, military operations, and national health care as if he was talking someone into buying an overpriced penthouse apartment. And that is horrifying at the same time it is hysterical.
Oh, and maybe some political leaders and judges are perverts and… cross-dressers?
But what links our modern postmodern experience (political or otherwise) to a bunch of well-educated British comedians and one American is just that: links.
(And of course they do a skit about the challenges of linking sketches together)
The television show Monty Python's Flying Circus challenged and tore to pieces the notion of a fluid and logical path from one idea to another. Do away with punch-lines, switch the focus of the skit to someone in the background, abandon skits halfway through (and then apologize for doing so), shatter and re-shatter the fourth wall. Give attention to a screaming idiot standing in a stream for way too long. Whatever is revered, go ahead and mock. Whatever is mocked, go ahead and revere.
And the silliness of the material (flying sheep, weaponized humour, homicidal barbers, newscasts for various animals, Spanish inquisitions, dirty Hungarian phrase books, and spam, spam, spam) was the glossy sheen, with the piecemeal style of these ideas (and counter-ideas) being the intrinsic style that has come to exemplify the online experience (and for more and more of us, with our phone practically bolted onto our palms, this experience is the primary experience of reality). The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan said, and Monty Python told us that everything was getting very absurd, in both content and form.
This was on BBC 1 on prime time in 1969, which was the equivalent of Thursday Night on NBC in the nineties. There wasn't cable, you could count your viewing choices on one hand. And this show was one of the options. A accidental half-hour look at the future played for laughs that was at once both instantaneous and disposable (a fifteen second skit like 'Conjuring Today') and interminable (the Johann Gambolputty documentary). A half-hour Python episode could feel like a full length film, what with so many ideas quickly squished together.
It is a piece of culture that mirrors how we live almost every moment of our lives today. Your brain will engage with a new story, a gossip story, a text to a friend, a scan down your newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook, a couple levels of a quick freemium game, checking the weather, a place close by for food that might have a current app ordering deal, all in a few minutes. Then you'll go back to the job you were supposed to be doing all along. And that first news story, perhaps one of a dozen headlines you already missed because how can you possible take it al in, there's just an overwhelming amount of information each morning before you even get your problems, is already slipping out your head, only five minutes after reading it (this disorientation was baked right into the Flying Circus shows).
Suddenly everything has a sense of Deja vu hovering over it (Python also does a great bit on Deja vu). Everything is overly familiar but is never identical. Everyone has an opinion on a matter they only half understand. Everyone is making political decisions every time they take out their wallet and don't even know it.
Python was rarely explicitly partisan, never really favouring the left or the right, and certainly mocking the foibles of both (one notable exception: in the skit, 'how to recognize different parts of the body', Margaret Thatcher's brain was suggested to be in her lower leg).
Coming out of sixties social movements meant there was certainly a rejection of the old ways (stuffy old bankers and easily offended old women), but they had no problem making fun of the naivety of the youth (sorry hippies, kids shows, Cartesian dualism).
Additionally, satire was never really the goal. In fact, they'd rather just go one level deeper and mock satire itself, by occasionally having it flash on the screen when a particular skit is running off the rails.
They were political without intending to be political. A scenario that seems to infect almost every bit of culture these days. In 2017, to watch program A or listen to artist B suggests your views lean in a particular way (typically assumed to be reflecting the artist). Today, divisive-ness seems to be the point. For Python, it was to be able to laugh at divisiveness.
The second season skit, 'Election Night Special', perfectly skewered the cable news networks' breathless, manic reporting of results, decades before CNN and Fox News. Predictions that didn't come true, graphs that were inherently meaningless. And as far as imprinting your own political beliefs, go right ahead: There was the sensible party (and a reasonable-looking candidate in a suit with a normal name) and the silly party (a bizarre looking person with a name like Jethro Q. Walrustitty), and sometimes the result was a lot closer than you'd imagine (there was also a slightly silly and very silly party).
A disastrous television appearance that becomes gifs and memes in seconds these days was perfectly encapsulated in the skit asking how far a minister can fall. Literally, as it involves a pol giving a speech who falls through a crack in the earth, the camera never cutting away as he tries to continue to speak.
Country rubes lethargically attend a Hilter rally (please note the intentional misspelling). The Upper Class Twits of the Year is a bunch of rich idiots failing at series of kids games on a football field before group suicide.
The future was hard to depict thanks mainly in part to the rather small operating budget, but you didn't even need poorly designed robots to show a possible dystopia:
-A theological surveillance state (The Church Police)
-A less-theological, drone-focused surveillance state (How Not to Be Seen)
-A profitable surveillance state (Blackmail)
-a crooked police state ('Police Raid')
-the worst people ever running for parliament (The North Minehead By-Election)
-Hellish marketing (Conquistador Coffee)
-Free-market capitalism (bartering job interview, the Stock Market report)
-A peak into our reality show culture ('The Most Awful Family in Britain')
-military rule and school shootings ('School Prize Giving')
-cannibalism (Lifeboat/Undertaker's Sketch)
-suicide (Falling from buildings)
But most pervasive is the passive absurdity that we now take for granted in our overwhelming and incessant news culture. Politicians and their paid puppets contradicting themselves within the same sentence. Any excuse could be spewed up in the face of evidence, from ‘I don’t recall’ to ‘there are alternative facts’. It was all there, fifty-odd years ago, on the BBC, but at least then it was played for laughs:
The Dead Parrot Sketch and Cheese Shop Sketch in their entirety.
Two wrestlers fighting to settle important theological matters.
Discussing the matter of the afterlife with a panel full of dead people.
Interviewing the man who always contradicts people.
Plus all the practical tossed off one liners that border on stupid, but are said with perfectly straight faces ('The man who scored all six goals in Arsenal's one-nil victory over...', 'I'd like to be in programming but unfortunately I have a degree', 'I forget my name at the moment, but I am a merchant banker' 'but there, let us leave the art critic to strangle his wife and move on to pastures new').
And it's funny, in part because it's so bizarre and unpredictable. You were kept on your toes because all expectations of what a television program and humour had to be were thrown out the window. Pantomime horses that work at banks, a ministry devoted to...silly walks, an interview with politician that includes the following line: 'First I'd like to answer that question in my regular voice, and then in a silly, high pitched whine.'
Or at least it used to be unpredictable.
How decisions are made in Monty Python skits are close to how political decisions are actually being made today. We watch the news with the same level of uncertainty, but dread has replaced levity.
Donald Trump as the man who is alternatively rude and polite. Roy Moore as the dirty vicar. The Minister for not listening to people is...contemporarily apt. Their 'Apology to Politicians' is incredibly cathartic (and a lot less silly) today.
The jokes are coming to life.
Not only that, but it was a unending blur of 'what the hell is going on?', a sort of safe space for an inconceivable reality masking itself as lunatic humour. In fact, Monty Python stopped being television during the golden age of television. If a program was a half hour long and began with a title and ended with credits, well, they'll screw with that, too. Shows don't begin properly (is it the movie 'The Black Eagle' or a skit show?), shows end early (and they would apologize), they used an actual BBC special announcement backdrop and made bizarre announcements.
They got actual newscasters to take part close to the end of the episode so people would think the news had started, but was actually a fake out, and there was more show to sputter out. A fake 'new' talk show begin at the end, with Ringo Starr about to be interviewed, but the whole thing immediately get shut down.
The only thing they weren't allowed to do was a Terry Gilliam idea: Slowly make the sound of the broadcast quieter and quieter, forcing people at home to turn up the volume at their end. And after about fifteen minutes, hit them with a huge blast of sound that might blow out their cheap 70s era television speakers.
They tried to take apart the televised medium for shits and giggles long before the televised medium fell apart by its own obsolete inertia. Now there is 'always' something on, whenever you want it, however you want it, and it all becomes a sort of background fridge buzz.
If we live in a time of cultural shattering and bureaucratic absurdity, Monty Python gave us a glimpse of what it might look like in forty five episodes of their half hour TV show (and their three films also stuck a thumb in the eyes of almost every movie trope and cliche). Now it's not even played for laughs. Now it's a series of instructional videos.
Let's hope The Colonel doesn't walk on and tell us that our civilization has become far too silly and have it cut to the cartoon.
Here's the link (!) to the official Monty Python YouTube page, with some of their best known skits as standalone skits, although watching the full half-hour episodes are strongly recommended to get that WTF feeling.
Episode 2. Sex and Violence
Episode 9. The Ant, An Introduction
Episode 12. The Naked Ant
Episode 15. The Spanish Inquisition
Election 19. It's a Living
Episode 24. How Not to Be Seen
Episode 25. The Black Eagle
Episode 26. Royal Episode Thirteen
Episode 30. Blood, Devastation, Death, War and Horror
Episode 31. The All England Summarize Proust Competition
No Escaping Escapism
No, movies don't suck more than they used to. That would be too easy a dismissal. Movies that make it to multiplexes are carefully created in board room laboratories, meant to provide maximum enjoyment to the most amount of people as possible. Its faults are its adherence to formula and to a sort of polish in scriptwriting, acting and narrative style that reminds you of every sort of movie you've seen before that was good. And yes, of course the movie studios design films this way to make as much money as possible, but for you to spend your money, they have to cater to you. They are trying so, so hard to give you what they think you want.
It's a world of superhero flicks and super-feel gooderies. Where the good always triumphs, at least for the time being, until the next installment eighteen months later. Everyone looks great, everyone has something smart to say, and even people's breakdowns and failures have a noble quality to them. Nothing too bleak, nothing too weird. We have real life for that.
It's difficult to criticize movie studios pandering to their audience. The shows, films and overall culture the entertainment industry provides is what they think we want. They're trying to make us happy and content (for cynical reasons of course: to generate more money).
Life is getting harder and more stressful for the average person, and the art and culture we seek in response has to balance these difficulties out. As we become more powerless in a more complicated world, we look for easy and simple solutions in our entertainment (and even when these escapist forms do bring in some contemporary issues, the good guys do indeed triumph just in the nick of time). Even reality television is staged in a way so that there is a satisfactory resolution to whatever ridiculous (non)crisis a contestant or family member has to deal with that day.
To balance out the feeling of political and economic powerlessness, our choices for what to place in front our eyes and ears have grown exponentially. Everything is at our fingertips. Immediately. Almost any sort of basic knowledge you want is available on Wikipedia, and if you want to further your research in any way, there are free courses available through all sorts of websites and apps and digital bookstores. Any sort of breaking news can now be known by everyone, at almost exactly the same time (depending simply on whether you signed up for any sort of BBC or Google news alerts). We can know what is happening to our world in essentially real time.
But we - as individuals - don't have the ability to quickly make decisions or adapt in any sort of way to this breaking news. It's not our role, whether we want it or not. These decisions are still in the hands of monolithic-like institutions and enterprises that (ideally) act in our collective best interest. Knowledge is still a form of power, but agency is not so similarly distributed. Whether it is escalating tensions between global superpowers (or unstable non-superpowers) or the debating of domestic political policies in the capitol, we helplessly grin and bear witness it.
Our expanded choices as consumers of culture are scarcely a replacement, but we should definitely acknowledge that at the same time, we run to these diversions and pleasures with open arms. And the newer the tools available to allow us to wallow for hours on end with shows and video games, the less we know how they are going to affect the structure of personal and political power in the long run.
It can be argued that every technological advance has some level of human isolation or disconnection built into it. This is especially true - perhaps paradoxically - with communication advances. The telegraph, the radio, the television and the Internet have all increased the ability to talk to people much more quickly, but due largely in part by being able to cut out the many people who beforehand would have helped carry a message across a city or nation. Radio and television especially were heavily criticized for removing thoughtful discourse completely, replacing it with the wholly passive activity of simply sitting quietly and absorbing whatever come out of the speaker or screen.
It was never really argued that people forgot the difficulties of the industrial revolution, the two world wars and the depression in between simply by listening to the radio, or that the fear of nuclear war sent millions of westerners into their living rooms to watch television. But with the fading influence of organized religion, it made for a nice opiate replacement. And it's not like people were more resilient then or more cynical now. We change our behaviour and perception simply because the opportunity is there. If we can get away with hiding our heads in the sand for a bit, we'll do it, with whatever’s the new popular device.
Communism as Marx conceived of it may be an eternal pipe dream because of the basic fallibility of human nature (as we organize in larger and larger groups, certain people must be given more power than others in order to effectively delegate), but he nailed it on the head with his theory on Alienation. During the Industrial Revolution, Marx became increasingly concerned that the gap which was being created between the creation of a product and the purchase and use of it. Before factories, you pretty much knew where your table, shirt, and milk came from. You made (or milked) it yourself, or you bought or traded for it from someone down the street who made it or milked it. With technological advances in transport throughout the twentieth century (first rail, then cars and trucks, and then airplanes), these products came from a few towns over, then the other side of the country.
Today the gap is wider. The ease of international trade and truck-to-shelf inventory procedures means that not only products from the other side of the planet are sold at corner stores, but the parts made to build said products ate shipped from multiple nations to a single manufacturing location (from where the product, once completed, is sent back across the globe).
The effects of this are complicated. Local factories close because even with increased transport costs, it's cheaper to build products on the other side of the world. This can devastate entire towns, enrich a small and wealthy contingent of company owners, and passively support terrible working conditions in developing countries. There comes a sense of disposability when you don't know the maker of the product or service you're using. The further we are from the person who made our shoes, and iPad, or grew and picked our Granny Smith apple, the further we are from the understanding the symbiotic relation between finite resources and concepts of value and fairness. We don't consider that people in Malaysia or Guatemala are paid only a few dollars a day for a job that would pay at least ten times as much (maybe twenty times) in the West. Focusing how much money we're saving when buying at big box discount stores means we don't think about how fellow men and women (and children) are working in sweatshop-like conditions in Bangladesh to make these goods.
And increasingly in the early 21st century, it seems like there's little to nothing any of us can do to change this. That international capitalism is too indomitable of a force to be regulated, let alone completely dismantled.
All of this is overwhelming.
Sartre notes that with freedom paradoxically comes responsibility, and that we flee from the latter in most cases when it becomes onerous or uncomfortable. We don't like being confronted with truths about our buying choices, or that, because we live in a democracy, we share a slice of responsibility for whatever the government does because - for better and for the much, much worse - we are the government.
And these days, when practically everything feels like a bad news (and good economic news only falls upon the super rich), there's an emotional toll as well. Bad news is draining. Helplessness is draining. Responsibility is draining. When it seems that everything matters, that every little piece of information needs to catalogued and reacted to in some way (because if we don't, then things will just get worse), the exhausted seeking for something that doesn't matter at all becomes all the more important and pervasive.
And robots and superheroes and reality television doesn't matter.
(And, of course, for the thousands of people who work even tangentially in film and television, these movies and shows do indeed matter, as it's how they make a living. The escapism industry (hey, let's throw in video game companies, too) is a multibillion dollar one, and suddenly 'doesn't matter' is beyond understatement. It's just plain wrong)
These responsibility-free escapes come in all shapes and sizes, and with the tent pole blockbusters and HBO super series becoming viral memes for the week, we can wax poetical about this character's sacrifice or that crazy scene, and rant and rave with endless emoticons and paragraphs on Twitter and message boards and wait for responses and likes and make some sort of connection with someone across town or the world who feels the same way you do (maybe not about religion or politics, but about Spidey's new Aunt Mae or Sansa Stark).
And if escaping to where everyone already is isn't for you, don't worry, everything's also gone niche, and it only takes a few google searches before finding on that you think will fit you like a glove (and hey, if it isn't so hot, immediately bail on it and head to something else three reddit threads or two YouTube channels over).
TV shows for the thousands, music for the hundreds, memes for the dozens.
The unending golden age of television (even as 'television' might mean watching a stream service on your iPhone) appears to be much better equipped for throwing wrenches in our mental works. Twists upon twists upon twists, cringe-worthy comedy, cooking shows for snobs, cooking shows for slobs, and more anime than you ever thought possible (some of them not even involving giant robots). These shows can be weirder, slower-paced, more character-driven (or Eric Andre-driven) than fare that is carefully designed in board rooms by committee, but something must be said for the movies that still attempt to be escapist fare for all.
Inclusiveness is a difficult enough task in every aspect of our civilization (from employment to religious services), but it's also difficult in a two and half hour popcorn flick where at least a third of it has to be shootouts and car chases (even the heroes acknowledge this: "You know what's about to happen, do you wanna punch your way out of this?" Black Widow asks in Captain America: Civil War).
They are meant for global audiences, not simply American/Western ones. Any references in small talk that might not be understood perfectly in a particular region are gently tweaked and smoothed out. And no matter where it's being marketed, never have the lowest common denominator (note: this euphemistic term has outlasted many others to describe stupid people) scratching their heads during the credits.
Now, would it be better if studios provided more thought-provoking fare which challenged audiences' expectations not only how films can address contemporary issues, but of how films themselves are put together?
Well, 'better' here is a bit of a loaded word. Critical consensus and lowest common denominators are very infrequent bedfellows, and who's to say which is superior (as far as cultural impact goes, the latter might win the sprints, but the critics (simply by the act of frequently writing about the films they enjoy, and compiling lists and academic papers) win the marathon, with medals being historical context and preservation)? The simple answer of letting people like what they like and letting them wallow in a narrow slice/shallow pool of culture is no problem at all (better someone is ignorant of Chinese cinema influence rather than Chinese economic influence).
'It speaks to me' is a term thrown around when buying an abstract painting (or really, in films or shows when someone is buying an abstract painting), yet it can apply to why anyone likes...anything. But there is always a natural urge to want other people to like what you like. Being able to talk Star Wars with someone is like finding someone from the same city you were born in, but being able to talk Italo Calvino (or The Red Green show) is like finding someone who grew up on the same street. There's that much more of a connection because you're both aware of how you're part of a much smaller and incidentally exclusive club (and once again. Exclusion in sociopolitical affairs can be dangerous. Not watching the same TV shows as others is no problem at all).
And if imaginary stories don't do it for your need for escapism, how about some real ones, forced onto the field, court, rink, or pool? Sports are wonderful because they can encapsulate human ingenuity and strength while not mattering any more than whether Superman lives or dies at the end of the movie, because (ideally) no one dies at the end of the game (and if someone gets injured, well hey, that's just the beginning of their comeback story, which the fans love).
(but of course, sports are also such a huge escapist industry that - for the thousands of people are dependent on the jobs that organized sports provides, from the players to the food vendor - it certainly damn does matter. Especially if the season is a good one and tickets get sold out and more merchandise is bought)
But caring only about tv, movies, music and sports and cultural miscellany is no answer, either. Near permanent escapism from the difficult realities of personal and public life is not an acceptable choice. Always fleeing responsibility is (wait for it) irresponsible. The antidote for overwhelming feelings of alienation is connection, either through acknowledging our collective powerlessness (and attempting to rectify this), as well as embracing a more unrealistic and 'perfect' temporary escape. And finishing this article with such a noble and important recommendation means we’ve earned a few hours of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild playing time.
A Long Time Ago, in an MI6 Office not far away…
[Spolier Alert: We discuss the new Bond film here]
Spectre, the 25th (official) James Bond film has been out for a little over a week. Fourth time with Daniel Craig, and critics are saying that the freshness of the reboot isn’t there anymore.
Fourth Time Around isn’t supposed to be fresh.
[Aside Time: ‘Fourth Time Around’ is also a track from Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which is considered a homage/rip-off of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, which was said to be a homage/rip-off of Dylan’s style of songwriting at the time that John Lennon was nicking left and right (also: ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’). The last line was thought to be a warning to Lennon from Dylan: ‘I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine’. Stealing, borrowing, rebooting. If it’s good enough for the movies, it’s damn well good enough for music]
Fourth time around, you’re supposed to be nestled into cruise control in your Aston Martin, firing your Walter PPK with one hand and counting the box office money with the other ($550 million worldwide box office so far). Don’t get all hot and bothered about accusations about getting stale and leaning a bit more on cliché. Sure Spectre is the fourth of the reboot, but it’s the series’ 25th. 007 runs on cliché.
And for the fans that somehow have inflated expectations about a Bond film, that’s only a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s going to happen when The Force Awakens drops a month from now.
Star Wars is back. But you’d know that if you checked the internet or the cereal aisle in your grocery store. Yes, the best way to experience the epic space opera is to take out a second mortgage and by absolutely everything, from Loopin’ Chewie to the Ligthsaber Dildo (the former is real, the latter is inevitable). It’s a time honoured tradition. When the first round of 1970s Star Wars toys weren’t able to be manufactured and shipped for Christmas, the toy companies sent pieces of paper with pictures of the toys on them for the kids to play with.
So yeah, let’s take a look back through the sands (Tatooine? Egypt?) of time, all the way back to the summer of ‘77. That July Roger Moore delivered arguably the best Bond movie in the canon (may the debates never end) with The Spy Who Loved Me (Skiing! Jaws! The submarine car!), but that summer really belonged to George Lucas’ strange left turn follow up to American Graffiti, Star Wars (going from 1950s nostalgia in the Midwest to blowing up planets and mystical super powers).
Conventional Wisdom is that Jaws and A New Hope (as the flick was later re-titled) began the era of blockbuster (which continues to this day), but making a boatload of money has always been Hollywood’s goal. It’s just that these two films were actually good. Prior to this, creature features and sci-fi flicks were considered cheesy B-movies (2001 was clearly the exception, but it was light-years away from Planet Nine From Outer Space). By 1977 there had been 10 Bond films (and three actors playing him), and all the tuxedos and sports cars couldn’t mask the fact that it was still a ridiculous teenage fantasy of saving the world by shooting people and saying clever things. Done over and over. But there’s only so many action archetypes to go around. When Spielberg remarked that he always wanted to make a Bond movie, Lucas replied that he had an idea ‘better than Bond’, and it ended up being Indiana Jones (Roger Ebert famously remarked that Raiders of the Lost Ark was a movie made out of all the best bits from Saturday Morning serials).
‘Borrowing’ was rampant. Hell, The Spy Who Loved Me had an evil businessman feeding people to his shark two years after Jaws (and a character named Jaws), and 1979’s Moonraker capitalized on Star Wars’ popularity by sending Bond into space.
And because of the success of these genres (hyper-escapist spy-monster-space, if we had to gumbo them all together), the blueprints/formulas of all these films have been cookie-cuttered to no end.
Now it’s no longer ‘how to make a successful sci-fi franchise’, but ‘how to reboot a recently successful sci-fi franchise’ (although with continued duds like The Fantastic Four, The Punisher, The Green Lantern, Dredd and Ghost Rider it’s clear Hollywood hasn’t perfect the latter. Or maybe failures of the genre are just the natural causalities of betting on the bubble, as some of them are going to be made half-assed and not make any money).
But you can always keep trying. Hell, even if a successful franchise seems to be running a bit low on creative juices even as it brings in the money, why not start it up all over again?
Spiderman, X-Men. Superman. Batman (and soon to be Batman and Superman. Well Batman versus Superman, but really, come on. If they’re not fighting some super evil villain side-by-side in the third one, then the terrorists really have won). Start again with new actors. Go back in time. Super reboot powers, indeed.
But both James Bond and Star Wars stand slightly apart from this glut of superheroes. Their releases are bit more tempered. Star Wars films came out every three years (although, they’ll apparently be cranking them out from now on…). Bonds have waxed and waned, averaging every two years for most of its run, but now gaps between films can grow longer.
Meanwhile, The Marvel Cinematic Universe is seven years old, but it already feels considerably longer, thanks largely in part to twelve films being released since then, with another eleven in the next four years.
That’s the plan anyway. Cinema audiences can be notoriously fickle (critical acclaim does not necessarily translate into bigger money, and diminishing returns of the same formula can diminish very, very quickly, forcing cancellation of a lot of other projects meant for the future). With a total of twenty six superhero films meant to come out in the next four years, we may never want to see another cape or mask for a very, very long time.
Meanwhile, James Bond’s first (official) film came out in 1962, and Star Wars is about to hit forty. Portion control was a big part of their continued success (absence makes the heart grow fonder), but narrative simplicity is/was also a big help.
Star Wars isn’t shackled to ensuring the continued existence of life on earth. They blow up planets as a form of interrogation. Telekinetic abilities, violations of all things science, you’re making up history as you go along. From a storyteller’s standpoint, it’s a blank canvas (but you can certainly paint yourself into a corner, as the Prequel Trilogy showed us).
(Maybe this is one of the reasons that Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best received and promising series of the Marvel Universe. No need to save the earth all the time (and practically destroy it in the process). And if the job is to (as it were) guard the whole galaxy, then it’s okay if you lose a planet or two along the way)
Writing Bond can be even easier, as everything comes second to making him look good. With the exception of a few minutes at the beginning when he exchanges pleasantries with Moneypenny and curt words with M, he doesn’t have to share the screen with a cabal of superheroes, some of which are gods in other universes (really, what the fuck is Thor doing hanging around Hawkeye?).
007 films have long been episodic (as opposed to serial). What happened in the last doesn’t really come into play in the new one. What didn’t work can be scrapped (including the guy playing Bond) and what worked can be kind of repeated. Hell, even when they kept Blofed and his terrorist organization Spectre for a few films in the late sixties and early seventies, the actor playing Blofed kept changing, and no one referred to the time they met in a hollowed out Japanese volcano.
Spectre’s original goal back in the sixties was simply meddling in the Cold War and getting the United States and the Soviet Union to start launching nukes at each other, at which point the evil terrorist organization will swoop in and take over the smoldering ruins.
Spectre in the 21st century doesn’t have two world powers fighting in proxy wars across the globe to screw with. Now we all live in a big free market machine with haves and have-nots until we run out of resources, which is a pretty easy situation to take advantage of if you’re a evil terrorist organization (or a investment bank, for that matter).
The criticism lobbied at Spectre – and not without merit – is that it’s trying to raise the emotional stakes of the Craig films by uniting the events of all four of them. Blofed says quite clearly that he’s been the one behind all the other villains ruining James’ life, and there are clear references to past lovers, villains, and maternal figures. While it’s breaking a big Bond commandment right off the bat, it could work if handled properly. But Spectre bungles it with some dry audience hand-holding exposition, uncreative nick-of-time rescues, and one too many terribly thought out death traps by Blofed (who is supposed to be the world’s greatest supervillain). Which is the exact sort of cliché we expect from James Bond. Despite this, as long as killing evil weirdoes and having sex with attractive women is cool, there will be a place for James Bond in this world. The longest gap between the films has been six years (1989 to 1995), but even that re-invention (Brosnan replaces Dalton, Cold War is over, M is a woman) wasn’t the first. After Sean Connery bowed out after four films, the producers announced that Bond was bigger than one actor, and that they planned to make more of them with other actors (but they went back to Connery after a single film with Lazenby, the kinda underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
Bond is supposed to be forever. The success of Daniel Craig starting the story from the beginning (did it really feel that way, though? Yes, it started with him getting Double-O status, but he caught up to speed with the chases, fights, screwing, and exasperating M pretty fast), means they always can (and if they can do it in the movies, they will) reboot again and again.
But tweak gently with the formula. Elements of contemporary culture and society are always being infused into movies about an eternally suave killing machine. And those changes can come in the form of accurately reflecting the world more appropriately (better roles for women, for starters. Judi Dench added a stellar balance of professionalism and sentiment to her portrayal of M. She also offered up shades of a maternal figure in the reboots with Craig), or tweaking Bond himself, showing a bit more emotion than in the past There’s the oft-forgotten scene in Casino Royale of Craig helping Eva Green recover from shock (after watching him kill a bunch of henchmen) showed that Bond has to have at least a thin streak of humanity flowing through him.
Bond is closer to a superhero or a jedi knight than any of us, even if he is supposed to live in a world familiar to us. Certainly cold, dismissive, and exploitative in his killing and womanizing, but still personifying and acting upon noble values and beliefs in the most exciting way possible.
Certainly we would all agree that defending one’s country and trying to achieve world/galactic peace for all are treasured human achievements, but it’s not really done in real life with lightsaber fights, telekinetic swamp training, car chases, and constant sex with beautiful people.
But you don’t go to the movies to see M talk with politicians, or Mon Mothma broker treaties with various star systems (deep cut?).
For escapist entertainment (which spy and sci-fi frequently fall into), oversimplification of good and evil is pretty much the norm. Even in the recent Bonds, where some CIA agents are crooked and multinational amoral corporations replace terrorist organizations with shell corporations, there’s no crisis of conscience for Bond (well, maybe to save the woman first). Six Bonds, four M’s, three Q’s, a handful of Moneypenny’s, and now the same bad guys. Massage that golden goose. Because James Bond is replaceable.
Luke Skywalker is not.
Nor Han Solo or Leia Organa.
The Force Awakens may never live up to the inevitable mega-hype machine, but the first time everyone who is old enough to vote sees the old gang again, there will be the sigh of relief/dopamine shot/orgasm/post orgasm cigarette.
The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy had an uphill climb from the time they were announced. Sure ‘how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader’ is a tantalizing prospect for a film, but it pretty much means nobody from the original film was going to be in it, except for a young Obi-Wan. Which means you weren’t just starting from scratch character-wise, but trying to replace heroes and villains who had become iconic in the last two decades. It was never just the lightsaber duels and Death Star dogfights that made people love the Original Trilogy. It was who was doing them, and having the audience care about the characters.
There are some brilliant action sequences in all three prequel films, but you don’t really care that much about who survives the outcome (granted, this is partly due to the fact that you already know who survives the outcome, which is another challenge for the films: It’s hard to make people excited when they known how it all ends).
So when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for a cool 4 billion, you knew they weren’t going to make the same mistakes. They were going to get everyone’s favourites back together, over hoth or high water. Guaranteed moneymaker, and it becomes a springboard for the future (of making more money).
It’s the classic bait and switch. You go for the heroes you know love, and come back for the exciting and fun new recruits. That’s the idea. That’s really what the studio executives at Disney are shitting brocks and crossing their fingers over. Mark, Harrison, Carrie, and Peter all qualify for seniors discounts. How much longer can they play these characters? (which makes the possibilities of Skywalker or the Solos dying at certain points in this new trilogy all the more exciting/nervous/gut-wrenching)
That’s the real challenge for JJ Abrams. It’s gotten to the point where you can assemble a team of special effects experts to give audiences eye orgasm after eye orgasm, but that doesn’t sell toys or t-shirts. Swapping Luke Skywalker for another plucky, bright-eyed, Empire hater is much harder.
More so than any other film franchise, Star Wars depends on the merch to carry it into the next level of money making. Billion dollar films is one thing, multi-billion dollar swag is something else.
And that can’t be made in factory. That has to be made with nebbish storytellers in a Hollywood bungalow. You have to create the idea of cool, heroic people (and villains you love to hate) in your mind, then with words on a paper, then with actors saying them on a giant film set.
And the whole thing can fall apart at any time.
Engaging characters never happened in The Prequel Trilogy. Jar-Jar Binks is held up as the archetypal failure, but at least he’s remembered for being terrible. Everyone else is forgettable. Qui-Gon, General Grievous, Fett Senior, Darth Maul, and the less said about Padme and Anakin falling in love, the better.
From an acting standpoint, the entire trilogy would be unwatchable if it wasn’t for Ewan McGregor who seemed to use force-like powers to channel a young Alec Guiness to play Obi-Wan perfectly (also good: Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, who played dignified menace better than any other villain in the three films).
The Original Trilogy had such a massive influence on how every sort of sci-fi/fantasy/super-hero movie would be made from then on, that by the time Star Wars returned with the Prequels, everything about it felt stale and cliché (and not in the acceptable James Bond way). Ten years later, it’s all happening again. Without George Lucas. Instead with the guy that rebooted Star Trek to great success.
May the force be with him, because Tomorrow Never Dies.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this, because You Only Live Twice.
TODAY THE BOX OFFICE, TOMORROW THE LAND
Soon 'independent film' will take on a new meaning. Mark our words, in the next three years or so, an 'independent film' will be any movie that is not related to a multi-billion film-comic-toy-entertainment franchise hybrid in some way.
Furious 7 and The Avengers sequel have both hit one billion dollars (pinkie to the side of the mouth). You can't argue with money (why would anyone, if that's the chief reason they're making these things). A film executive can relax for a moment, a week, a month, and then wonder if they can hit that mark a second time (or third or fourth or eighth). A film franchise has never been more like a restaurant or clothing store franchise than today. Sequels used to be a consideration if the first film made a lot of money and everyone involved thought it was a good idea (and sometimes they were wrong). Now it's expected, now it's part of the pitch for the original movie (and why the actors have to sign up for possibly playing their character in a boatload of related films). If you have yourself a golden goose, hook it up to the best medical equipment available (your Joss Whedon respirator, your British actor drip), and massage out each egg.
And making this work just so requires a very specific formula. These movies are made with a fine-tooth comb, with dozens of executive notes stuck to each fang. The action sequences are here, here, and here (and here and here). This is exposition scene one, that is exposition scene two. Here's the scene where the two protagonists who have butted heads previously bond and agree to work together. Here are the five lines of sexual tension you have to sprinkle over the first half.
[Do yourself a favour and watch The Empire Strikes Back. You'll be amazed at how many contemporary big budget sci-fi/action films try so goddamn hard to be that good]
But this formula still works where it counts. People see these blockbuster films in droves (and spend more money on merchandise and ephemera related to it). The makers of these franchise flicks are chained to their own success. You can't fuck with it, you can't take risks, you have to use the cookie cutter and colour inside the lines.
So 'are they good' is beside the point. If they bring in the green, they're good enough. Not quite critic proof, but even a shrug from a majority of them will be enough to keep the stench of 'cinematic dogshit' off the porch (and anything Michael Bay touches seems to be impervious to reviewer beatings, anyway). Anything more hostile than a shrug, though, and people might actually avoid the film (and once again Michael Bay is the exception. Hell, maybe Michael Bay's films are supposed to be that sort of over the top bad. Like Uwe Boll with nine figure budgets).
This is in part because hype and the perception of the movie as an event is as essential to the bottom line as the movie itself. Whatever challenges in production, whatever gossip related activities the actors have engaged in leading up the release, if the toy inside the happy meal is covered in some sort of poisonous chemical, all of this becomes part of the 'story of the film' which the public participates in when they go see it and then tweet about it afterwards (or during, if they're an awful person).
And no one can be sure if this sort of publicity or awareness will backfire, if the promotion is too overpowering, too tepid, too stupid, or accidentally offensive to a certain segment of the prospective audience. Or if any of this becomes a factor at all to an underperforming box office return ("I'd attribute the product failure to fundamental shifts in our key demographic, coupled with the overall crumminess of Poochie"). All of this involves even more money, so of course you have to rely on a straightforward story of good people with superhuman powers fighting bad people with superhuman powers on top of exploding vehicles and buildings.
Even the refreshing, high energy and occasionally weird Mad Max Fury Road is a high concept, can't really fuck this up reboot.
But because it came in second to an actual sequel (Pitch Perfect 2) on its opening weekend, Mad Max has been crowned the sleeper critical darling of the summer (and we haven't even actually hit summer), the 'Edge of Tomorrow' of 2015 (that's how we're classifying films now. Matching up criteria wholly outside of the film itself: box office performance and critical reception). The film that people want a bit of chilli sauce on their movie-going experience, since everything else is essentially on autopilot. We got more Marvel (Ant Man), a return to Jurassic Park, some easy-as-store-bought pie comedies (some are sequels), disaster flicks, Pixar, middle-of-the-road feel-gooderies for the awards season, then the new Star Battles a week before Christmas.
This is the movie experience in 2015 until...whenever.
And it's not going to change.
Which leads us to Tomorrowland.
This film has been out for ten days. It's made about $100 million (against a $190 million budget plus another big secret number for promotion. And that’s definitely something that has to stop. You shouldn't make a movie that costs that much unless it's based on a comic book or it has the word Spielberg somewhere in the main credits) and the critics are ambivalent. Which is enough for the story of the release of the film named Tomorrowland to end with the conclusion that the film is a disappointing flop.
A damn fucking shame, since Brad Bird and his crew and cast are firing on all cylinders in what is certainly the most fun and challenging big movie of the summer.
Tomorrowland's a bizarre hybrid of blockbuster, art film, character driven, celebrity led, original idea based very loosely on an area of an amusement park, looking at how people in the fifties thought (hoped) the 21st century would look like. Now, conventional wisdom holds that the more juxtapositions you dump into a two hour story, the higher the odds of it crashing and burning into a mess (and not even an over-the-top, future-cult-classic mess).
But Tomorrowland succeeds (and there are SPOILERS to follow), and even lands the hellishly difficult 'inspire without preaching or begging' manoeuvre with only a hint of a stumble. There are flourishes of Brad Bird's (and co-writer Damon Lindhof's) creative and off-the-wall mental wanderings left and right (not sharing the bottle of pop, the swag in the collectibles store, rantings about Tesla and Edison, a pathetic on-and-off climatic fistfight).
Does it deliver the summertime goods? Damn straight. Shiny, sweeping epic expanses of what the city of the future could have been. George Clooney as a grumpy recluse fighting of an army of perky, murderous androids (in the Catskills and at the top of the Eiffel Tower). Waddling tank robots fighting each other. Jet packs bringing the story full circle.
But it's also for kids and never too dark and there's a streak of humour and humanity throughout. It's like The Avengers without the heaps of expectation baggage and narrative necessity. The protagonists in Tomorrowland have the luxury of wallowing in their motivations and flaws. Be warned, there's acting in this movie. In summer blockbusters being an able to deliver lines well is usually secondary to delivering explosions big.
Clooney plays against type, a man already bitter and being dragged into another adventure by two earnest young women. And he plays it well, gnawing on just the right amount of scenery (or he's so good you can't tell he's phoning it in). But his role wouldn't work without the dual engines that actually push the movie forward and fill with fun, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, as a young woman with a flair for inventing and a mysterious girl who team up to save...oh, let's say, hope. There's genuine laughs on their road trip to meet Frank, and they're able to change Frank's mind not only by reminding him how to be giving and generous again, but by doing a good fucking job at kicking ass and taking names. Mad Max has been given attention for having several strong and long overdue roles for women, and Tomorrowland is in the same boat.
And they all hold their own against one of the best villains of recent memory because David Nix is barely a villain. He's played by Hugh Laurie, doing his best to be charming, dry-witted and noble and succeeding wildly. When you understand and can practically sympathize with the villain's motivation (but still hope he gets all blowed up), you got something special on your hands.
And you sympathize with him while still cheering on the heroes because everyone's trying to do what they think is right. Saving the world on one side, saving the world by destroying it on the other. Fixing what's broken or letting it break and starting again. The latter justified in many a movie with the argument that the world is wicked and needs a nice bit of cleansing fire (think Noah). And the villain takes the position of 'willing to do what needs to be done', which is the PR term for letting billions of people die.
Which is more horrifying but in some lazy and cynical sense easier than fixing the myriad of problems we currently have on our hands. Traditionally our hero(es) always overthrow these apocalypse pushers and wipe their hands with a 'job well done' sense of satisfaction, and leave the fixing to... almost everyone the story didn't focus on. (Super) heroes are supposed to stop the bad, not necessarily start the good (picture The Avengers rebuilding all the cities and villages they fought in and around, or pushing for fair trade).
Tomorrowland finds the courage in its robot and jet packing loving insides to take a well-meaning peek at what it looks like to actually make the difference in the real world (it helps that one of its chief explorations is the question of reality, and how we perceive and change it).
This is not a typical trope in big money films. There's an article on here (LINK) about Interstellar tried to talk about fixing the world in a roundabout way, and now here's Tomorrowland, where the unambiguous goal is to save the planet by using hard work, positive thinking, and imagination.
No wonder it's flopping. It's a sci-fi movie that hits too close to home in the end. Audiences want superheroes to fix imaginary, fantastical problems. Not be told that they have to do something themselves ("Wait a minute, am I being emotionally manipulated to do something about the poor state of our society while trying to have a good, mindless time?")
The movies ends (again, spoiler alert) with dozens of people (all ages, all cultures) arriving in the Tomorrowland dimension having touched the transporter pins left for them by recruitment robots (that's one hell of a sentence). It feels a smidgen out of place, a touch forced. Nebulous enough that if you weren't here for the two hours previous, you'd think it was a commercial for a massive, irresponsible corporations, from a cell phone provider to Bank of America to Exxon-Mobil (or really, to be honest, Greenpeace or any other big-name charity, since everyone uses the same PR ad techniques to jerk on the heartstrings).
It’s an ending without a hint of cynicism, and without any sort of acknowledgement that there will be a sequel, that is part of a Hollywood money machine. It’s pure, and designed to be wholly inspiring to its audience, whether they’re eight or eighty.
And that’s what makes it weird.
Because about five minutes earlier George Clooney dumped the exploding robot-corpse of his childhood sweetheart into a machine that can tell and alter the future.
Certainly a fucked up leap.
And the principles know this. Bird, Lindhof, Clooney. Keep ‘em on the edge of their seats with the stuff of blockbusters, and then lay on a sprinkling of good-intentioned guilt trip. It can’t be in the hands of superheroes. It can’t be part of a happy meal. It can’t be revealed in a mid or post credits scene. It has to stand up on its own (which also makes the fact this is a Disney film based on a amusement park area all the more confusing and full of doublethink. Maybe the ‘story’ of this film is why it’s being dismissed. Maybe the same company that owns Stars Wars and Marvel can’t be making films that try to go against this powerful grain).
Yes, movies have the power to change people's attitudes, but how that actually manifests itself on a broad and meaningful level in a post-industrial, interdependent civilization is hard to ascertain (Bob Dylan: "Songs can't save the world."). Whatever agenda one is pushing, ideally it would be accompanied with some semblance of real-life examples and practical application. It’s hard to do this in a sci-fi film that acknowledges that civilization is in trouble for a huge host of complicated reasons (war, famine, disease, inequality, pollution, lack of resources, etc.). Scientists of all sorts have warned that in terms of resources and the environment that we’re reaching a ‘point of no return’, and so it’s no surprising that the cold and rational David Nix would conclude that such a terrible fate is inevitable.
Which is why it’s up to the innocent and can-do spirit of youth (in the form of Misses Robertson and Cassidy) to come to the rescue (and redeem George Clooney). After all, trying to save the world is one thing. Trying to prove that it's worth saving is something else entirely.
Interstellar and Art as a Tool of Social Change
(no real spoilers here, but there is talk at length about the problems on earth depicted in the film, and we’d say that to best experience Interstellar is, as per the wise words of Frank Constanza, ‘to go in fresh!’)
Oh, it's a fine film. A great blockbuster film. A real inspiring mindfuck.
It won't change the world.
(Oh, I appear to be the only person to even entertain the notion that it could possibly change the world. That a film about the end and re-beginning of humanity would perhaps force or inspire us to take a look in that figurative mirror and ask what we are doing here and what we could be doing better. That a film whose core crisis is mass starvation and resource depletion might start even a informal dialogue between friends and family this holiday season over how much more food and energy is costing them these days).
No, it’s 'just a movie.' and 'it can't possibly happen to us.'
I certainly goddamn hope so.
Earth is dying (we’re talking about the movie right now) because very few crops will grow and massive dust storms continually ravage the landscape. Everything takes place in Midwest America so the state of the rest of the world is never directly addressed, but since the gist of the film is about figuring out how to send the future of humanity to live on other planets, it’s safe to assume they aren’t living it up in China.
On top of that, revised history is now taught in school as to not get the kids’ hopes up, or because one of the teachers actually thinks that the Americans faked the moon landing (which is one of the many nods to Kubrick in this film (he helped NASA film the Apollo 11 mission on a soundstage, according to ‘moonthers’)).
So it’s a dire situation that in no way parallels current world events. It’s not like rising waters and an increase in devastating natural disasters is going to make a dent in the global agricultural output. We shouldn’t worry that Beijing has to close down factories, offices and school for a week leading up to the APEC summit so that the air will be breathable for visiting dignitaries. And it’s not that big of a deal if we’re using 20th century teaching methods knee deep in the 21st, creating a populace that’s underprepared and overeducated to stumble into the widening underclass.
(some dour, dark sarcasm there. We should go see a Christopher Nolan film to feel better about ourselves!)
So how can we get important, monumental, life changing ideas into the world without them having to be reaction to a terrible disaster or a prevention for an impending disaster?
Certainly it takes more than a movie, but a movie can play a small but helpful role (movies – and art – are like supporting players in the story of human civilization). And individuals or small groups of active or like-minded people may only need one more nudge of inspiration (like gravity) to actually make a difference.
And we have to rely on these little idiosyncratic cultural nudges, because the opinion that the monoculture has almost completely shattered into a thousand pieces is no longer much of a debate (and the positive and negatives of this occurrence can be debated elsewhere). It’s hard to find a movie, song, TV show, or piece of art that everyone is familiar with (let alone one that everyone can be positive about it).
A handful of blockbuster Hollywood films are the closest we have of everyone being on the same page and being able to have small or deep talk about something they experienced as a form of entertainment with maybe perhaps a hint of didacticism. This is particularly true as worldwide box offices are almost always besting the North American grosses for these tent pole films (with Nolan’s own name being a tent pole in itself). The style of filmmaking and any possible messages within are reaching global audiences, not just Western ones.
Christopher Nolan is the unique position of being able to creatively reap the benefits of elevating the superhero movie to something more than costumed guys punching each other. The Dark Knight was so successful at bring realism and humanity to comic book films that everything else before (and almost everything after) comes off seeming ridiculously silly. The Prestige was his first film to add doses of science fiction into a realistic (in a movie sense) world, and it was handled so superbly and believably that it’s no surprise that Interstellar succeeds in the same way (that the audience doesn’t question the feasibility of the technology, or how it can be used to save the day just in the nick of time).
And it’s this seamlessness of combining action scenes and plot twists with questions about memory, justice, ethical boundaries, destiny, and philosophy that makes Nolan that much better than his many big studio contemporaries.
The films aren't graduate theses, nor are they meant to be. The heavier topics can trigger broad and shallow queries that audiences can chat about in cinema parking lots and on home sofas. All art can be a jumping off point for further learning from any topic the art addresses.
And there is certainly something to be said for art that can reach many, many people.
Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is probably the last movie that doesn't have characters from DC or Marvel that was popular enough to be spoofed in other pop culture realms and discussed by film fans and critics alike. And while ‘dream invasion’ is ridiculous enough to obviously not start a privacy debate, a world where there is a political, social, and financial advantage to know every little thing about someone along with an ability to do this (thanks for the info, Snowden) is a lot closer to home.
And ‘saving humanity’ is a lot less controversial than the government tapping your everything. It’s something everyone can get behind. Especially if it’s done in a heart pounding and inspiring way with a (spoiler alert) happy ending. Interstellar can't help but be a Nolan film. It is wrapped up tight, with no loose ends (unless you’re a picky/amusing astrophysicist spotting tiny errors that no one without a PhD in a scientific discipline would notice). The flaws are brisk, familiar and offered up in a nice glossy sheen. There are no surprises about the surprises.
A Nolan film is full of incredibly elegant construction of familiar figures and tropes that are tweaked rather than wholly deconstructed. It’s not paint by numbers, but it’s not an earth shattering revelation, either. He is the Salvador Dali of contemporary mainstream film.
As mentioned in a previous article (click), Nolan can work the suspension of disbelief (and the hiding of its wires) to the point of where he becomes an auteur of a not particular auteur-like quality: The Best Blockbusters in the Business.
So what do we want from Interstellar (in addition to two and a half hours on the edge of our seats)? What can we want? How likely is it that our current resource-vacuuming policies will create a dust-filled, wasteland-like future? What kind of plan B’s and C’s do scientists have? What kind of technology should we developing?
In the face of these queries, Christopher Nolan will sensibly say something along the lines of, 'no, of course it's not supposed to change the world, to be the catalyst of changing our entire outlook on our relationship not only to this planet but the cosmos at large. But if it has people talking about it, great.'
The man has settled on saying he hopes the film will reignite out interest and passion in space flight, which is certainly a more sensible and less politically sensitive stance (if certain pundits were accusing him of trying to name check Bane with Bain Capital in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, certainly they'd see left leaning radicalism if Nolan explicitly made climate change a cause of the Interstellar's destructive dust). I firmly believe that Nolan wanted to entertain us first and foremost. The Dark Knight was always about Batman catching the Joker in the coolest ways possible first, and a freshman university essay on chaos and vigilante justice second.
But a troubling future will always ring a bit truer because we're constantly inundated with damning facts, statistics and personal experiences that strongly suggest a troubling future. That said, hopefully we're a long way off from that film's depiction of a planet dying at a rapid pace.
Dystopian films have been a big draw recently, but always with the ultimate promise that things will get better. Art can offer the positive note that reality simply cannot guarantee. Consequently, art has traditionally been a cheerleader of change, never a quarterback.
Certainly figures central to any sort of social, economic, or political reform would attempt to use cultural property to extend their message as broadly as possible (and I'm being as general as the use of flyers, posters, and website banner ads here). Even Good ol' Joe Biden gave us all a 'sounds good but not exactly ironclad evidence' example of this when he suggested that America's change of position on gay marriage is due in part to the popularity of Will and Grace (a sitcom with two gay main characters).
Some of the most emotionally powerful and affecting works of arts come in response to a tragedy, and so can be seen as part of a general push to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Picasso's antiwar masterwork Guernica was created in response to the fascist bombing of the Spanish town of the same name in 1937 (note: despite this, wars have continued to this day, more or less without interruption).
Folk music was a champion of many causes throughout the twentieth century, from poverty to civil and equal rights. Although Bob Dylan oversimplified the role of art and culture - and broke more than a few hearts - by saying 'you can't change the world with a song', not long after he left his early protest folk work in the dust.
A cynical statement to be sure, but as the optimism of the first half of the sixties gave way to entrenched situation in southeast Asia and a Nixonian White House (with all the justified mistrust it brought), it was clear that any sort of communal utopia was much too lofty a goal.
Kurt Vonnegut later observed that the collective effort of the left wing to stop the Vietnam War ultimately became the equivalent of throwing a pie off a stepladder.
This has much to do with the incredible amount of money tied up in these endeavours, which tends to drown out many ethical (or in the case of the issue of combating climate change, scientific) arguments for reform to the status quo. It also doesn't help that a lot of art with social/protest bent is made in part to (re)energize people who are already supporters of the cause. Left wing filmmaker Michael Moore has admitted freely that he has essentially been 'preaching to the choir', but playfully defends this with 'sometimes they need a good tune'.
That is, art doesn't convince the same way money can (even while money can play a sizeable role in society’s valuation and consideration of art). In the context of advancing social change, at the very least art can give someone a political pause. A momentary consideration of an issue or crisis from a fresh and/or unique perspective, regardless of how much prior information or experience they are bringing to the piece.
An agonized face in Guernica might make a politician - or a citizen who is debating as to whether they should vote for said politician - reconsider their support for any sort of foreign military action or accepting money from a weapons manufacturer. Maybe for a second, maybe for good.
But we cannot demand or expect this from art. If the criteria for a successful piece of political art is that it played a large role in political change, then every piece of art is a failure (Fairey's 'Hope' poster for Obama's 2008 campaign looked nice on a wall, but didn't make anyone vote for Obama who wouldn't have already done so).
The internet has created a unique environment for grassroots political organizing.
It's easier to join a movement than ever before, but in most cases participation for whatever political cause you're supporting is not much more than signing a digital petition (typically requiring one of your junk e-mail accounts) and sharing a link on your facebook or twitter page.
Such an open and egalitarian field can yield mixed results.
After a Greenpeace-led campaign, Lego ended its partnership with oil company giant Shell. Part of the campaign included an internet commercial showing an arctic landscape made of lego pieces (including polar bears) being flooded in black goo as Sarah McLachlan sings a piano ballad version of the song 'Everything is Awesome' from the Lego Movie.
It’s a strange process, finding the way to frame an issue in a way that its message (usually reduced to being as simple as possible, unfortunately) can go viral. Kudos to Nolan’s Interstellar to lead from behind. Now there needs to be a more overtly sociopolitical step for the issues it raises to be discussed in the public forum. For the many drawbacks that the internet has when it comes to discussing important and complicated topics that challenge modern society, it still makes accessibility even and fair for all (huzzah for net neutrality). Science fiction has become the biggest business in the world of art and culture, and hopefully scientific non-fiction will play a greater role in the world outside of it.
On the other hand, after trying to get people politically motivated by promising to respond to every petition that garnered at least 50,000 signatures, the White House found themselves explaining why they would not pursue the construction of a Death Star.
“Every artist worth a damn in this country was terribly opposed to that war, finally, when it became evident what a fiasco and meaningless butchery it was. We formed sort of a laser beam of protest. Every painter, every writer, every stand-up comedian, every composer, every novelist, every poet aimed in the same direction. Afterwards, the power of this incredible new weapon dissipated. Now it’s like a banana cream pie three feet in diameter dropped from a stepladder four feet high.” (Vonnegut, 2003)
Living on the Edge of Tomorrow
'Edge of Tomorrow' is the new Tom Cruise, $178 million budget summer sci-fi action flick that is already tumbling out of the box office top ten, despite great reviews and a boatload of money already made in overseas markets. It's a film about Cruise reliving the same terrible day over and over again because he keeps getting killed fighting aliens (in true video game style) on or around the beaches of Normandy in the near future.
There's quite a bit to unpack in that opening paragraph, about the state of Tom Cruise, the contemporary film industry, and the ever-present sense of deja vu.
-Tom Cruise is alive, and terrifyingly not old looking (he's about to turn fifty two). This is his second big sci-fi action flick in a row where things get totally bizarre. In last year's Oblivion, he played an honourable astronaut turned soldier whose body was cloned by aliens and whose clones overran the earth, killing hundreds of millions of people. (note: to show how much Oblivion didn't work, the described moment above was told as an anecdote by co-star Morgan Freeman to an incredulous Cruise. That's right. What would easily be the most impressive and talked about scene in the movie wasn't made, it was just alluded to. Fortunately, Edge of Tomorrow does not make this mistake).
There is a slight notion of 'career revival' for Cruise in the wake of this film, since the critics are really championing it (more on that later), but this man doesn't need such notions. Tom Cruise was making blockbusters before Will Smith was telling us that parents just don't understand. He exists outside the normal parameters of Hollywood. He rarely does interviews, but it seems like everyone knows everything about him. He is one of the most recognizable stars in the world, who seems to have a genuinely affable demeanour when dealing with fans, while remaining extremely private once his job is done.
His comedic turn in Tropic Thunder shows that he will make fun of himself to a degree. His public persona yes, his personal life no.
This make sense. There seems to be a balance there, that occasionally tilts with issues concerning relationships and religion. But that happens to almost everyone. In your life, friends, acquaintances and co-workers will talk about you for whatever you did or said to the partner who left you, or some strange lifestyle decision you made. The man we're discussing here just has the unfortunate luck to be a superstar, and therefore his challenges in life also double as our water cooler fodder.
And we're used to this being the case, and - three decades after Risky Business - he must be used to it as well, or as much as anyone in his situation could be. Just by being in the public eye and making a movie where he plays 'Tom Cruise', Tom Cruise makes this crazy, mixed up overheating world feel like it makes just a bit more sense. And just to clear, we're dealing with the idea of 'Tom Cruise', not the man. The idea of 'Tom Cruise' - like any public figure - is more about our relationship with activities the real Tom Cruise participates in, combined with any slivers of information we glean from his personal life. It's a mixture of judging someone's job and home life we only kind of know, and then trying to make person out of it. And we do that to some degree with everyone we ever meet. The advantage for doing this with a celebrity is that there's more common ground with talking to others about them, since a celebrity is better known than the person in the next cubicle over. We compare this slightly or greatly exaggerated person to how we're doing in our own lives. In other words, how we see Tom Cruise is, for better and for worse (which entirely the point), how we see ourselves and each other, if we suddenly have to relate in some way to someone who's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Suddenly considering what to do when dealing with someone who we all want we want to be, along with how annoying it can be if it all works out too well. A bit too perfect, a bit strange, and probably not as tall as we really hope.
-if you make something that costs $178 million, you are making a summer sci-fi action flick. Repeat: You are making a summer sci-fi action flick. PG, of course. Alien guts can explode in all sort of creepy weird ways, but people must die off screen, or in a bloodless hail of bullets, or in a comically (but still bloodless) squashing or smashing. The movie will have a happy ending (unless sequels are planned, which is the case a lot of the time, which means it will have a cliffhanger ending). It will not challenge any preconceived notions of what it means to be a person, but merely reaffirm that you have to work hard to succeed (which at first seems like a pro-capitalist mindset, until you realize that the hero never does it alone. Heck, look at Star Wars. Luke needs the help of his sister, the crew of the Millennium Falcon, the droids, and the force (socialism at its purest) to defeat evil).
-it's not enough to be 'high concept' anymore. It has to be 'high concept sci fi' for nerds, because nerds (and here I'm going to making large assumptive leaps of logic) are good with computers which means they make good money, which means they have a disposable income to actually pay for movie tickets and associated swag. They are a coveted demographic, is all I'm saying (further evidence: hey, what's with all these superhero movies?).
So spend money on the people who have money to spend. Make movies for them (this one has aliens, futuristic battle suits, and kind of time travel). Easy peasy, right? Well, no. Easy answers are fine for inside the movies, but outside in the real world, spending more money increases the chances of losing more money.
Better to cancel something in the early development stage than watch it slowly limp to the 'completed film' finish line and have it die at the box office or go right to Netflix or an online rental store (which is the new, endless VHS and DVD discount bin).
It was never a matter of art versus money. It was always a matter of making money versus not making money, and the studios did all they could to give their contender all the help and hype it would need. Speaking of which...
-Edge of Tomorrow is 'already tumbling out of the top ten'. Buzz is hard. 'Movie formulas' is the term for films made with a specific series of instructions, like an ikea desk. Ideally films built out of formulas will do well at the box office, since they're chock full of the stuff that worked for previous box office hits. The term 'ideally' is used, because this doesn't always work. That there are box office bombs is proof of this. If Hollywood has really perfected the 'movie formula', every film would be a hit, or, at the very least recoup its costs completely.
The main variable is buzz. People talking about the film before it comes out, and while it's in theatres. A successful marketing campaign can increase the amount of buzz, but buzz doesn't directly translate into box office. It certainly helps, especially after a movie opens and people keep telling their friends about it, or some nerd (!) makes a gif of Tom Cruise getting hit by an armoured personnel carrier over and over again.
'Edge of Tomorrow' had weak buzz, according to Hollywood insiders (ah, Hollywood insiders. We picture studio execs spilling the beans to some reporter at a swanky party), which may be an easy excuse as to why it's not still playing strong across the North American continent.
Plus, with box office numbers being so ridiculously important these days, studios and movie-goers see a film slipping out of the top ten box office as a sign of it being a bad movie (or a failure of a movie). 'Edge of Tomorrow' falls victim to self-perpetuation: People aren't going to see the movie because people aren't going to see the movie.
-'despite critical reviews'. Ah, the critics! Remember them? Remember thumbs? Remember the hideously reductionist matrix of two thumbs equals great, one thumb equals okay, and no thumbs equals garbage? Well now it's been replaced with an aggregate of all the reviews for a film, so you REALLY know whether a film is good or not. On Rotten Tomatoes, Edge of Tomorrow is at 90%, so it's...gotta be an A-plus film, right?
Thanks to the internet, the adage 'everyone's a critic' is truer than ever before. And with facebook, twitter, instagram, and every other website or app that can tell the world what you're doing and thinking right now, every film is now at the mercy of immediate, knee-jerk reactions of the general populace.
But not really.
The critics were never the gatekeepers of the box office hits, and there's so much other flotsam and jetsam in cyberspace that your recommendations (whether a two thousand word piece on the film (hey now!) or just a bunch of exclamation marks with the title as a hashtag) fall on already deafened ears.
One of the biggest film franchises of the last ten years is Transformers. This despite middling reviews and that it's practically impossible to find anyone post-puberty who would say they're very good. From a critical and cultural perspective, they're junk food. But they're also...wait for it...a series of summer sci-fi action flicks (see above).
-'a boatload of money in overseas markets'. Fickle North American audiences whose interest in star power has waned should beware. There's a new hip crowd in town and they're called everyone else in the world.
Todays press junkets don't really have a movie star talk to forty interviewers for five minutes each in a room at the Chateau Marmont. Now, Tom Cruise and other big budget celebrities like Will Smith and Jennifer Lawrence travel to four continents and attend oodles of premieres in Mumbai, Rio, Paris, and Shanghai because that actually makes a difference (Tom had them at hello).
So now movies - especially 'star vehicles' - may be tweaked to attract the global common denominator. In the past, a film might be dumbed down a tad to play a bit better in the area between Los Angeles and New York. Now even more edges of specific Americana must be dumbed down as to not alienate or confuse the crowds in Istanbul and Beijing (the 'Iron Man 3' that played in Chinese cinemas had extended scenes with Tony Stark meeting with a scientist played by Wang Xueqi, a famous Chinese actor).
Summer sci-fi action flicks were already pretty broad, but they're only going to get broader.
-'Edge of Tomorrow' is a high concept film that combines Groundhog Day, Saving Private Ryan, and every movie involving aliens who are woefully underdeveloped character wise, save for the desire to kill people and take over the world. But the filmmakers know that they are cannibalizing past successes, and so 'Edge' plays with our expectations wonderfully. Tom Cruise plays a sleek, fighting-adverse PR-spouting major who is suddenly forced to strap on a bulky mecha-suit and try to kill aliens on a French beach. And he sucks at it and get killed and it's great because it's Tom Cruise failing at every possible step, which is not supposed to happen to Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise gets humbled and learns something in other Tom Cruise movies, but here we get to watch Tom Cruise die again and again (and again)...before learning something (namely how to actual start kicking ass and killing aliens). He gets shot, squished, exploded, hit by cars, and put out of his misery like a wounded animal, and it's all good, in fact, it's all great.
Emily Blunt plays the tough as nails not love interest. And this is also important. In Groundhog Day Bill Murray slowly woos Andie McDowell. In 'Edge', Cruise grows feelings for Blunt as they kill aliens together, but the filmmakers are able to build an emotional connection without pushing too hard and awkwardly for happily ever after.
Even the handling of the kooky scientist who develops the technology that could save them all is at least smart, funny, and presented in a way that acknowledges the audience knows all the traits and duties of the kooky scientist.
The pacing for the necessary repetitive aspects of the film (to teach the audience what Cruise is going through again and again) is brisk and winking. 'Edge of Tomorrow' never 'talks down' to its audience, but rather respects them, having faith that they'll piece two and two together just as its protagonist does.
It is also based on a Japanese graphic novel named 'All You Need is Kill', which is quite a wonderful title. And while people rightly grumbled when it was announced that it would not be the name of the movie adaptation (a bit too dark, apparently), 'Edge of Tomorrow' is a good backup, considering it is perched upon the very heart of the 'big movie' conundrum of right now.
-the film cannibalizes a milieu of cultural tropes and influences, but it also takes a page from actual history be re-imagining the d-day landings. You can't attack northern France for any reason without this comparison being thrown at you, unless you're Henry the Fifth. And you can take the easy way out and just make the comparison of aliens to Nazis, or you can acknowledge the wonderfully un-conquerable island of Great Britain, or you can see it as a commentary on the endless futility of war, fighting once again in a familiar place (in Cruise's personal case, over and over again), with peace never in sight. War is never over. We've always been at war with the aliens.
-Cruise's learning curve borrows heavily from Groundhog Day, but these cycles of slight advances before imminent death will strike a particular chord with gamers. Edge of Tomorrow is the successful adaptation of the video game experience. Learning through constant death, and only getting a bit further with every go around. Each new life for Cruise (or Mario, or Master Chief, or whoever) might only mean making it to the next enemy or pratfall. But with endless lives, the only real death is frustration and giving up the entire endeavour (which Cruise, to his cowardly credit, tries to do at one point). This feeling that our protagonist has mirrors those held by millions of gamers over the last three decades, from Donkey Kong to Battlefield 4. Whether it's 'stuck in an endless time loop' or 'I've got to go and do my homework', the emotions churning in you to advance, to see if doing one thing slightly different and maybe succeed, is always in the back of your mind
'Edge of Tomorrow' captures this perfectly.
This film is the future, even as it's 'tumbling out of the box office top ten' (making $320 million on a $178 million investment isn't great, by some idiot's standards).
A Tom Cruise film becoming a cult hit is an odd notion, and 'Edge of Tomorrow' seems to be proof that standards for success have always been a bit warped, but long term influences on popular culture take time to take root. And this has been proven, over and over (and over and over, death be damned) again.
In Celebration of Unhappy Endings (and the snobs who like them)
The best movies are downers (and without getting too much into defining 'best', most of the films cited here are those that frequently on 'best of' critics and publication lists as compiled on the wikipedia page, 'films considered greatest ever' (and yes, that includes the Sight & Sound polls)). But don't take my weird-filled word for it, look at how some of the greatest films of all time wrap up.
THIS IS YOUR SPOILER ALERT. YOU WILL NOT BE GIVEN ANOTHER.
Gone With the Wind - Rhett to Scarlett: 'frankly my dear I don't give a damn'
The Rules of the Game - jaded lover shoots the wrong guy
Casablanca - Rick doesn't get the girl, might fall into Nazi hands
Citizen Kane - we find out what Rosebud refers to, but the grumpy, old complicated man who's full of regrets is still dead
The Third Man - Harry Lime is dead, his ex blows off his friend (and the film's protagonist) Martins at the funeral
The Bicycle Thief - father alienates his son after getting caught trying to steal a bicycle (because his was stolen earlier, although we're not sure why it's necessary to add this point, perhaps because we erroneously believe that this movie is less familiar than most)
Tokyo Story - mother dies, children head back to Tokyo, long-time widowed daughter-in-law feels like she's doomed to be alone
The Seven Samurai - the Samurai saved the village, but the remaining ones lament their lost brothers, noting that the villagers won at their expense
Paths of Glory - the three soldiers are shot, the French girl sings a heartbreaking song in the tavern
The Seventh Seal - Death gets the knight.
Vertigo - a damn nun sends Judy 'accidentally' falling to her death.
Dr. Strangelove - nuclear bombs go off around the world (to the tune of 'We'll Meet Again').
Bonnie and Clyde - they get mowed down in a hail of bullets. A lot of bullets. In slow motion.
A Clockwork Orange - Alex is rehabilitated, so he can once again be evil by choice.
The Godfather - Michael finds his inner soullessness, has a bunch of people killed, including his brother in law
The Godfather II - Michael expands on his soullessness, his wife leaves him, he has his brother killed
Apocalypse Now - Willard kills Kurtz, has the Air Force blow the camp (full of native soldiers) to smithereens
The Empire Strikes Back - Luke gets his ass kicked, finds out his Dad is full-on evil, Han gets frozen in carbonite
Raise the Red Lantern - Songlian goes insane, wanders around in a daze
Pulp Fiction - Vincent's gonna get shot to death by Butch in a couple days
The Dark Knight - Batman takes the fall for the police officers the deranged (and now dead) Harvey Dent killed, becoming an outlaw
Whew! That's a lot of death, and lot of terrible revelations. And the people that like to pound out words about these films (occasionally referred to as a 'critic') can always find something else to say about them, and how their dour endings are fine commentaries on the human condition (Apocalypse Now: civilization encroaching on nature; Pulp Fiction: the shifting narrative reveals interconnectedness and the inevitable).
Now this list is certainly selective. I've left off some well-loved and critically acclaimed movies with happy endings (The Searchers (John Wayne doesn't kill the girl), 2001 (humankind begins its next stage of evolution), The Shawshank Redemption (Red meets up with Andy on a beach in Mexico)), but overall they're the minority here.
And many of the films listed above should not be confused with still very good films with full on depressing or bizarre endings. Among them: 8 1/2, Persona, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Grave of the Fireflies, Fight Club, Dancer In The Dark, and Requiem for a Dream.
What does it mean that so many of the frequently named 'greatest films' eschew the traditional happy ending?
An over-saturation of films with happy endings lessen the impact of that sort of ending. This is not to say that bucking the trend is the way to go. The public is perfectly fine with happy endings. Box office winners and modern blockbusters have them in spades. Few people go to the theatre to watch two children in postwar Japan die of malnutrition (Grave of the Fireflies). A Saturday night's entertainment at the multiplex can be cheap and fun in a dumb, forgettable sort of way and no one's complaining. Bad guys vanquished, true love found, and big money made.
But if the creators and audience wants something a bit more....well, anything beyond that formula, really…it gets harder. Both to make the film work and for the masses to embrace it ('embrace' meaning 'pay to go see it', which is the measure for whether films are successful in the studios' eyes).
A film's got to be great from start to right-up-to-the-finish to have a finish that has been done a thousand times before and not come off as predictable and clichéd.
But it's got to be an unforgettable masterpiece from title to credits for an ending that challenges the expected ending.
The public's embrace of familiarity can be seen as a frustrating challenge for a filmmaker or artist who wants to connect with their audience (although it should be noted here that some filmmakers and artists don't care about the audience's reaction at all to their work). A producer/writer/director can settle for the predictable, tweak the formula just a bit, or blow it off (up?) completely.
Unique films are more likely to have unique endings. And unique is pretty vague term. Is the artist making a break with the currently familiar narrative content and/or style? Are they trying to make a conscious effort to make a comment on contemporary society? In either case, it's not only the artist that plays a role in this break from formula, but the critics who interpret the move as such.
Looking over the movies that are remembered and held up as masterpieces, a pattern emerges, where the unhappy or simply 'fair' endings carry more realistic emotional weight than feel-good ones. And realistic is more useful when you want to compare it to reality (which is full of disappointment, tragedy, tribulation, and other topics that can people can look over for education or ‘fun’). For most of film criticism, death is eternal, 'happily ever after' is not.
Yet we should contrast this with some of the most popular films of all time.
First of all, there's some overlap. Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the highest grossing film of all time, with The Godfather (and its sequel), Empire Strikes Back, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight also making plenty of cash for the major studios behind them. And that's really about it. Citizen Kane was a commercial flop. The litany of foreign films on the list above did pretty good business in their respective countries, but were not what we would consider a hit. But over time, many of these films through re-release (and more recently, on VHS and DVD) turned decent profits, and that's largely in part due to critics and film buffs unrelenting push that 'hey, this is a great flick!'.
But hindsight is 20/20. As far as studios bankrolling these projects, years before they ultimately enter a movie theatre, there's a risk in unhappy, ambivalent (but narratively appropriate) films. People certainly do like watching movies end in happily ever after marriages, the bad guys exploding in a helicopter, the hero riding into the sunset to fight for truth and justice the next day, and the balance restored to the greater community (whether it's a tiny fishing village on the shores of the North Atlantic, or a galaxy far, far away).
For films with anti-heroes or overtly sympathetic antagonists, that justice is served frequently has to suffice instead of full-on happy ending, but it still can leave the audience satisfied.
Entertainment has always been a form of escape for most citizens, with 'education' and 'creative/personal expression' usually vying for second and third place. And when you see the films that top the box office lists every week (even films with simply average ratings can become forgotten a month after release), it's not hard to feel like the lowest common denominator has the biggest say in what is the weekend fare for the rest of us. But that's a pretty easy and clichéd reaction (on par with the endings of said films). That critics would decry the taste of the general public suggests a blind spot regarding their own profession.
It's pretty easy to take a jaded and cynical approach to your career over many years, whether you're a construction worker or a heart surgeon. And the same goes for the film or art critic.
Someone who isn't stuck watching three films a day - and instead spent eight hours in front of a computer or renovating kitchens - is probably going to be satisfied with the movies that make up the Fast and Furious franchise.
Results from test screenings frequently request 'happier' endings. Two famous examples involve eighties sci-fi films which - with their original 'downer' endings - are praised by critics. With pressure from studios, Ridley Scott's Bladerunner had Deckard and Rachel escaping the dreary city of LA together as the sun finally shines. The Universal Executive cut of Terry Gilliam's Brazil had Sam and Jill, uh, escaping the dreary city without a name together as the sun finally shines (hey, they're archetypes for a reason).
When critically praised strange or sad films play to empty theatres, excuses have to be made. 'Ahead of its time' is a label that benefits from the fact that you have to wait for the 'ahead'. If you're going to end a film with a dead man's cherished possessions burning up in a fire, how about at least throwing in a wacky sidekick?
Citizen Kane came out over seventy years ago. Everyone involved in its creation is dead. But its legacy is secure, indomitable, and that's thanks in large part to filmmakers influenced by it, and the critics.
The role of the critic is expected to be a fairly straightforward one. Educate and enlighten through inspiring print and pontificating. Their expertise and familiarity with their chosen art/activity is meant to separate their opinion from that of the average layperson.
Ideally their relationship with the general public is one of instruction, recommendation, and illumination. At worst, it's a bunch of pretentious douchebags telling the unwashed masses that they're wasting fourteen bucks for the latest flashy but forgettable studio shit pile.
Make no mistake, it's a privilege that one is paid to watch/listen/experience art and entertainment and then write/talk about it. It's almost baffling how talking about films or any sort of art became less of a past time of the leisure class and more of a role to play in the community.
[and just as critics can overpraise the material that enthrals them, it doesn't take much for them to overpraise and exaggerate the importance of the role they play in said community]
Obviously the public's taste still has to play a major role in the reputation and possible legacy of a film, but those that continually push certain films as 'culturally significant' (to use the Library of Congresses' term) as part of their duty/role/pay-cheque/choice are doing so with works that frequently diverge from what's most popular with the public. Critics best of lists rarely match with top box office earners at the end of a given year. The few over the many. Elitism over egalitarianism.
But it must be remembered that the goals of these two groups are not exactly the same. The public usually just wants to have a entertaining Saturday night. The critic would like the added bonus of something resembling clever writing, inspired performances and iconoclastic directing (and hey, maybe something entertaining, too).
Not a nanny state for arts and culture, but certainly a plethora of nanny suggestions for a slightly more refined evening.
For critics, the public's entertainment has to be investigated, analyzed, categorized, and properly tagged for future generations. They are the wards of culture (not exactly self-appointed, as they fill a vacuum of curiosity by people who are interested to expand their arts awareness and are looking for guidance and suggestions), lauding or turning up their collective noses at films that challenge, reflect, represent, and question not only the nature of telling stories but the nature of the world in which telling stories is an expression of something greater.
What art pushes boundaries, what questions them in unexpected and innovative ways?
What does A Separation say about the role of women in Islamic culture, what does Transformers say (if anything) about the military industrial complex?'
Essays of varying length and academic quality can be written about these topics, but to find the consensus as to which films from which periods deserve the most attention can be done by simple aggregation.
To wit: Ask a bunch of critics the best films and tally up their responses.
It's crude, as compared to reading a collection of essays in all the issues of Sight & Sound that focus on Rashomon, but critics are supposed to provide us with the shortcuts so that we don't have to make the many cinematic missteps to find the good stuff.
Picture time capsules. It's their incidental job (after saying whether the film is amazing, terrible, or somewhere in the middle) to carry culture over to the next generation, even if most of the generation in which it was produced missed it. What will be popular years from now? What should be popular years from now? Critics don't necessarily wake up each morning thinking that, but they see so much of the same thing (safe, clichéd story lines with rote happy endings) that anything different immediately stands out, becomes more appealing.
Critics gets sick of the big new thing first, because they always get the first wave of imitators before the rest of us. But that's just part of the process of always looking for the big new thing (it used to be found at big international film festivals, then at smaller, less well-known film festivals, and now somewhere in the subterranean bowels of the internet).
The general populace comes later. Maybe.
Ideally we're challenged, we adapt, we alter our expectations.
Take Tokyo Story, Ozu's 1953 depiction of an elderly Japanese couple who visit their children in Tokyo, most of whom don't have time for them.
In 1953, it was groundbreaking in its depiction of the minutiae of family life. The mother quietly weeping herself to sleep because her daughter-in-law hasn't yet re-married after losing her husband (and the mother's son, obviously) after the war is still heart-wrenching. And ultimately the mother has a stroke and dies, and the youngest daughter laments to the aforementioned daughter in law, "Isn't life disappointing?"
And she responded with a half-forced smile, "Yes, it is."
A revelation that flies in the face of what we expect from film. And not just when Tokyo Story was made, but today (perhaps especially today, where the only guarantee of reaching the masses is making a film based on a superhero or already successful book).
And so the role of critics continue to be essential, as they are the ones who continually look for artists searching for a new and meaningful way to express themselves in their respective medium - and maybe even have a dash of contemporary social commentary to boot – which is a search that is supposed to be one without end.
And the cycle of a subculture becoming mainstream culture is another familiar trope: Discovered, praised, rehashed, dismissed.
We'll let ourselves be endlessly reminded of the futility of humankind.
Until 2001: A Space Odyssey becomes a documentary, we'll hold on to our unhappy endings.
Hayao Miyazaki and The Children's Spirit Crusade
Hayao Miyazaki has become unstuck in time.
And what he found along the peaks and valleys of the eternal now he funnelled with great care into his stories.
The brightness and brilliance of childhood.
The hidden and majestic tales of history lost in the overt and insufferable pages of history.
(Hayao Miyazaki was born that much we are sure of but the rest of his personal life is a personal matter and we are more interested in sifting through the things on the margins of the personal the dreams and visions of a restless imaginative spirit on one end and the completed animated films on the other the fact that it had to transition through a hand is something our eyelids get heavy over although we will concede that certain places the body that held the mind of Miyazaki visited has inspired the visual landscapes of his films the forests of Yakushima upon Princess Mononoke for example)
Sometimes magic is real.
That's what gives it its power. Its impermanence. Its inability to be properly pinned down and examined with scalpels and microscopes and chalkboards full of theories and equations.
Now magic won't save your life or make you a fortune in the stock market. It won't even clean your eaves-troughs.
But it can change the passage of time and the shape of your heart. And it seems to be in abundance when one is watching a Hayao Miyazaki film.
So. Them. The films. Yes.
The Cat Returns is a well-regarded entry in the Studio Ghibli oeuvre (note: Miyazaki is the executive producer, not director of this one), but never quite got the masterpiece level praise that Spirited Away received (perhaps because it came on the heels of Spirited Away), so let's start there.
Haru, a high school student who has a crush on one of the boys in her class saves the life of a cat crossing the street (through some sweet moves with a lacrosse stick) and in return the cats offer her mice and catnip. Why? Because the cat was a prince in the Kingdom of Cats, obviously. Then she's taken to the Kingdom of Cats to marry this Prince Cat, and only the Baron (another cat) and his friends (a really fat cat and a crow) can save her and return her to the human world where she belongs.
Yes, it sounds like I've regurgitated the back of a DVD cover. And sure, probably it sounds like typical kiddie film fare, but there's something the way all the elements of this film come together to make it come off as an epic, inspiring adventures (that clocks in at 75 minutes). There is a level of maturity and confidence that's never come through in a Disney film. A complete lack of condescension towards the audience. These aren't films for children. They're films for people, but you will feel like a child watching them, enraptured at how every plot twist and pronouncement seems fresh and original.
The archetype shine. The heroine overcoming her own fears doesn't foster a single eye roll from the audience. You can't help yourself from grinning ear to ear at the majesty of Haru walking down a stairway made of crows high above the city of Tokyo.
And Spirited Away is better. Miyazaki is at the helm of this one and it starts just as normal and gets even weirder. Chichiro is ten and she just moved into a new town and is feeling alone and... her parents gets turned into a pigs in this abandoned amusement park they visited which on the edge of the spirit world and now Chihiro has to work in a magical Japanese bathhouse to find a way to transform them back! It's a place full of giant babies, twin witches, a no-face, emetic dumplings, the stealing of names, tiny soot callbacks to My Neighbor Totoro, and dragons.
Y'know. Kids stuff.
And it's through the eyes of suddenly-thrust-into-the-role-of-heroine Chihiro, who suddenly has to act years beyond her age. Some Miyazaki protagonists are born/created with this quality. Chihiro has to earn it, and she does so in an elaborately designed dreamland. Not only is attention paid to the smallest detail (the lanterns, the door handles, the stuffed animals in the baby room), but to elaborate action sequences as well. Oh, and the expansive visuals of the evening tram ride are breathtaking. Pixar would slay a thousand Brad Birds to be able to take a peak into Miyazaki's brain (instead they have settle for helping Disney make english dubs).
It ain't easy being a kid. And once you start to get the hang of it, you ain't a kid no more.
Miyazaki seems to grasp this intuitively, and uses it as a springboard into making the good ol' bildungsroman archetype into - gasp - something fun and exciting.
And it doesn't matter if you're a girl worried about making new friends who ends up having a crazy adventure (Spirited Away) or a Princess in a post-apocalyptic civilization that needs to keep giant insects at bay who's therefore more prone to have a crazy adventure (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind).
Being a kid is hard work, and sometimes the challenge is just finding the courage to complete the task in front of you, whether you're destined for it or not. The pre-Ghibli Nausicaa tinkers with the fisher king narrative just enough to keep you guessing (where you can't possibly see how the heroes are going to get out of one sticky situation after another), with amazing visuals keeping your eyes unendingly peeled.
['there has to be something else' is always a start and sometimes it's the impossible and sometimes it's a type of magic that is so mundane no one in the worlds of Miyazaki's creations bats an eye when they see a witch or a talking fish or someone with psychic powers and this makes it all some simple to write off these films as kid's fantasy but for kids it's never so outlandish and farfetched and let's just say fake as adults always make it to be and that's what Miyazaki has been able to do to make magic feel like it's just there around the corner or over your shoulder]
One of the chief joys of Miyazaki's films is their reluctance to offer up an oversimplification of basic themes.
Clear villains are hard to come by, and resolution is stressed over full out vanquishment. And that means you have to throw certain narrative expectations out of the window, which is great because you never know how everything will work out, or even if it will work out.
The loss (and possible re-discovery) of innocence!
Because innocence alone is too easy and simple of a description (practically boring, really).
There are certainly great heapings of the joys of childhood in his films, but these moments are always carefully tempered with the inevitability of maturation and acceptance that many things in life are out of our control.
Even the happiest film in the world, My Neighbor Totoro, revolves around the possibility that Mei and Satsuki's mother might die in the sanatorium from the undisclosed illness she's suffering from.
It's Miyazaki talent that allows him to balance out these moments of great emotion and grounded familial conflict with the rescue of Mei by a half-cat/half-bus.
Realistic fantasy is an oxymoron, but great tales can rest on such contradictions.
Witches and wizards are a familiar part of life in Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle. Spirits, demons, and magical forests abound in the period drama that is Princess Mononoke. Terrifying creatures and a chaotic jumble of old and new technology are present in Nausicaa.
These collisions can come apart in farcical shambles in the wrong hands, but Miyazaki burned off all his hands' questionable inclinations in a cleansing fire years ago.
And it's not just a matter of balancing the two contrasting ideas/themes/environment, as the speed at which the mundane transforms into the magical is another Miyazaki hallmark.
A family walk around an abandoned amusement park goes wrong in a hurry (Spirited Away). Mei is playing outside stumbles across two tiny wood spirits that inadvertently lead her tumbling down a rabbit-like hole where she lands right in front of the dozing Totoro.
Haru goes from worrying about boys in her class to worrying about her impeding marriage to a talking cat. And what starts off in realistic, modern day Tokyo ends in a magical world where, with its zaniness and over the top action sequences, the last third is practically a homage to Warner Brothers Cartoons.
And in the midst of this, Haru (currently transformed into a cat and wearing a wedding dress (long story) is being carried up a massive spiral staircase by her cat-in-shining-armour The Baron, and at one point looks up at him with a sort of schoolgirl awe and crush. Then he looks down at her and catches her gaze, and she immediately looks away in embarrassment.
It's a moment of genuine and realistic emotion in the most bizarre of places. And it works, which is a form of magic in itself.
Hayao Miyazaki sleeps beside his stories. Oversees individual cells, hovering over animators' shoulders like a benevolent vulture. Spit shines the dialogue nightly. Builds and cuts away at story lines like a sculptor with his marble. A smooth operator who hides the strings beyond plain sight. When he pitched Nausicaa as a standalone script he was told that all projects should be based on a pre-existing magna series so he went and wrote a Nausicaa magna series. He slew ten animators until he was satisfied with Totoro's cuteness and geniality.
[no man is an island but some men and women can spend a lifetime building one and populating it with whatever they fancy and on the island nation of Japan there is a man who builds islands out of imagination and ink and all the other words that drip out of accolades and introductions and honours that dance around the practicalities necessary to actually churn out a great film and instead focus on that suddenly overused word that happens to be magic because box office returns and golden statutes mean nothing compared to the feeling of a person whose eyes are boring holes into the film playing in front of them mesmerized at that first appearance of the Forest God in Princess Mononoke)
Now is the part where we acknowledge the crew. When Miyazaki helms a project, he directs, writes and storyboards the whole thing himself, but he's damn well smart enough to surround himself with top talent, the animation team at Studio Ghibli (check out Ghibli cohort Isao Takahata's heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies) and the always talented rotating cast of voice actors. While Ghibli films are typically given limited release in North America, quality speaks for itself, and A-list actors and actresses take on the character roles in the English dub.
Yet, animation has long been seen as a child's genre in North America, and we are all the poorer for it. Perhaps in some ways this is what make Miyazaki's and Studio Ghibli's films so powerful. While Disney and Pixar can constantly make a visually stunning film, there's not always a pulling of the heartstrings or tapping on the noggin. With Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and many others, the emotional weight and maturity is presented so artfully, that they are able to expand our very narrow Western range of expectations of what an animated film can be.
And now Hayao Miyazaki steps off the stage, into well earned retirement. A storyteller leaving on his own terms, at the sustained height of his powers. He’s acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, has been working for nearly five decades, and it seems most likely that he’ll never fully grow up, never fully act his age, and never understand why anyone would bother not looking around the very next corner or ignoring the mysterious box in the corner of the dusty attic.
That’s where the stories are.
That’s what we can all remember.
I wouldn't trade that knowledge for a fleet of cat-buses.
When Epic Breaks Down: Pop Culture of Summer 2013
It's summer, and it's time to get serious about fun. Blockbuster films! Number one albums! The Chicken Dance!
But this season our hallowed creators of culture are putting epic under the knife and cutting it up real good. Forget saving the cursed kingdom/princess/soul, the inevitable happily ever after, and the straight line from apprentice to master. They know you know that shit back and front, and it's time to change up the design, leaving only the barest foundations in place.
Pushing the envelope is not always in the cards for pop culture. It's usually saved for the margins, influences which slowly and carefully tweak box offices and first week sales. But this summer we're apparently going for broke. The results are a bloated brilliant mess of a resurrected television that's shoved in your face all in one go (rewarding repeat viewings), a taut and twisted LP from a guy sick and tired of having it all, and zombies, zombies, zombies!
Arrested Development Season Four and Cultural Binging
It's the end of June, which means the long anticipated season four of critically acclaimed and rating challenged Arrested Development (please note that I have fulfilled the requirement of using those two terms to describe the show in the opening sentence) has been out for five weeks, which means it's old news and we can focus on being excited for Dan Harmon's return to Community.
So yeah, this article is late to the party. And we're okay with that here. It's nice when being lazy can dovetail with the quasi-luddite excuse that we don't feel pressured to consume the latest bit of pop culture and then shoot out a hastily written review or blog post or tweet or tumblr whatever (we waited four months after its release to write about the latest Radiohead album).
Not that there's anything wrong that.
Hey, remember Seinfeld? Remember when new episodes of that show were only on once a week at the exact same time every week?
Those were the old days (no reason to toss in the word 'good' there). If you really loved it, you had to plan your life around television, but at least the broadcast networks tried to meet you halfway and put on the good stuff in the evening, when you were home from work or school. Proto-cultural binging came in the form of syndication, where you could watch the same Simpsons episode four times in one day because four different channels were on the same schedule. Or maybe you taped everything with your VCR (which is what Jack Valenti was afraid of), and kept an organized library of every Taxi and Hill Street Blues episode, as well as some Monday Night Football games.
DVDs (get 'em while they're still around!) were the big step, with entire seasons of TV shows fitting on three to five discs. Now you could kill an afternoon by watching nine episodes of Cheers in a row. Or you would purposely avoid all of the Sopranos' that season, just so you could gorge on them in a weekend when they're finally released as a box set.
But by 2010, it was time to get un-physical. Now with the push of the button you can DVR your favourites, second favourites, and something you'd never heard of that you accidentally recorded. And Netflix filled the void for what wasn't on TV. An ungodly amount of movies (some of them even pretty good) and TV series, all for the low, low price of your friend's Netflix account password.
That's now. Everything at your fingertips, which means you can be that much more choosy. Homeland not floating your boat fifteen minutes in? Dump that shit and move to Breaking Bad. Or Girls. Or Mad Men. Or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (it's a good, weird adventure story).
And lo, the ancient networks floundered, and HBO fretted over internet piracy of its product, and Netflix decide to cut to the chase and just gave us a season of Arrested Development in one go. Fifteen episodes, ranging from twenty eight to thirty eight minutes long. All of them available at the exact same time. Bizarre numbers for television, but then, it's not exactly television.
It's a big wad of entertainment circa 2013, existing for a target niche of diehard fans, DVD-discovering bandwagon-ers, and just curious enough members of the general public who wonder why all these entertainment websites are in a froth over a show that apparently ended six years ago (and no one watched and was critically acclaimed).
Too much of a good thing isn't the right way to say it.
We're still on training wheels when it comes to this sort of thing. And our natural, youtube, twitter trained brains are all set to absorb it fast, make a judgment call on it fast (blasting it into cyberspace via single sentence), then move on to the next piece of culture that glistened in such a way that you were invariably drawn in, at least for a thirty second sneak peak.
And for a lot of pop culture, that's enough. You pretty much get all you need to understand 'Gangham Style' in totality about two minutes in.
But Arrested Development is different. There's a slightly larger chunk of responsibility dropped into our laps. Watching/listening while doing any other sort of household activity is not an option. You have to develop a strategy. Keep a reasonable pace of absorption, or pay double the amount of attention and analysis if you're going to take it in twice as fast. Unless you're willing to double back and re-watch, which is easier than ever all of a sudden. You don't have to miss a thing ever again. Reflection and deliberation relying on your own memory alone has become an optional exercise.
The culture you love is only a click away. You can pick up your phone or tablet and listen to your favourite song, the scene from your favourite movie, and look over the favourite painting of your favourite actor from the scene in your favourite movie.
Thanks to youtube and DVRs you can watch what you just finished watching a second later, but even then, you typically had a week before the next episode became available. No longer. Now, instead of getting a weekly fix, you can shoot up and up and up.
Klosterman noted that this has allowed for such in depth, near-obsessive analyses of cultural works, such as the interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, as depicted in the documentary film Room 237. Since one of the interviewees believed that the film was Kubrick's subconscious way of confessing he helped fake the moon landing, it shows one of the problems with such immersion. And if that's the extreme reaction, then perhaps the moderate one is burn out coupled with indifference. Maybe it's hard to form a respectable opinion after watching eight-plus hours of Arrested Development in a weekend. Maybe the last thing you want to do is reflect on what you just seen and heard.
We have to re-learn how to absorb the message, since we've spent the last twenty-odd years getting used to the change of medium.
Arrested Development is certainly a good pick to usher in the era of culture binging (even if the political drama House of Cards beat it by a few months). It's fast-paced but there's a narrator there to guide us. There's references to jokes from previous episodes that are not essential to getting most of the ones being currently flung at you. It can be exceedingly simple (it's about a riches-to-rags dysfunctional family) while revelling in the opportunity to be ridiculously complex (here's the new season's chronological time line, spoilers obviously:
And for saying all that, I'd recommend watching the seasons beginning with one if you're a Gobias rookie (if you don't know what this means then you are).
As far as season four goes, the format of single-character focused episodes seems to have more drawbacks than advantages, as one of the joys of AD is skipping to and from multiple plot lines in each episode. It kept the show fast paced, nimble, with jokes having to be carefully packed into concise scenes that had to carry the narrative along.
We lose that here. Despite the depth and uniqueness of each character on the show, forty odd minutes predominantly following one of them can get kind of exhausting. The narrator (executive producer Ron Howard, who also plays movie director Ron Howard) is sometimes working on overdrive, giving us paragraphs of exposition, as if it actually has been a week since we last tuned in.
Creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz has pointed out in several recent interviews that cast availability was the main practical reason for arranging the season in this fashion. But he decided to turn bananas into Mr. Banana-Grabbers (with animation rights retained), pointing out that by doing something different and off-the-wall, it's actually following Arrested Development's rule-breaking and genre-bending/deconstructing spirit.
Fair enough. The other standbys for this show (great acting by the cast, broad jokes, narrow jokes, callback jokes, jokes you haven't even gotten yet) are there in spades. The expectations for the return of this series were stratospheric, so it only makes sense that something you inhaled like it was a Big Mac doesn't taste as good as the three seasons you were able to dote over and let marinate in your brain for many years
This was a big step. This is the future.
Give it time. You'll get used it.
Yeezus Has Landed
You gotta hand it to Kanye West. He's able to turn a ten track, forty minute album into an epic listening experience. That's Sgt. Pepper-like magic there (yes, I've gone for a Beatles comparison this early. It's what sustained brilliance and number one albums get you).
Because for all intents and purposes, Kanye's last album - 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - should have been his epic. Long songs (meaning a long album), tons of guest stars, crazy samples, and an ambitious, symphonic sounds that ends with a battle cry for the future of the United States, courtesy of Gil Scott-Heron.
With the arrival of Yeezus, West's second trilogy is complete, and if the first was three hours of hip hop classicism, then the second pushed the genre into new and bizarre places.
2004's College Dropout, 2005's Late Registration, and 2007's Graduation was about proving himself as hip hop artist in the first place, not simply a talented producer that belonged behind the mixing board. It was a learning experience for both artist and listener, complimented by the school theme that runs (albeit loosely) throughout the three albums.
So while the beats were impeccable and original, we quickly understood that Kanye wasn't exactly going to come from the same place lyrically as many of his contemporaries (and to cushion this blow, there were a lot of guest stars early on). He didn't grow up in the same environment as Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamarr, Eminem, Easy E, or 50 Cent. Kanye's most personal moment from College Dropout was 'Through the Wire', which detailed the event of being in a car accident and getting his jaw wired shut. Kanye never tried to be someone he wasn't, which is pretty real. On Yeezus' 'New Slaves', he acknowledges that his mother faced many more traditional challenges of post-segregation and marginalization than he did.
This did not deter the public, so there were hits with fun hooky samples: Jesus Walks, Slow Jamz, Diamonds from Sierra Leone, Gold Digger, Stronger. He made a touring hip hop show that was actually worth attending. And he wore those white glasses that looked they were cooler than more trouble than they were worth.
Ultimately, Kanye West became as cool as his songs sounded.
(Un)fortunately, he apparently found this unfulfilling, and he took a scorched earth policy to himself and his music.
And while this deconstruction/reinvention might take years for an artist, West - thanks to some celebrity missteps dotted through his ascendancy to the cover of People magazine - was able to deliver 808 & Heartbreak only a little more than a year after Graduation. Cold beats and autotune, lyrics that lament the end of relationships ('you spoiled little LA girl' is a sing-along at one point), the fun of everything that came before was popped like the heart balloon on the album's cover.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a manic-semi apology for being an egotistical jerk, whether to the women he loved, the women he fucked, the public who adored him, the public who couldn't stand him, or his own better judgment. Which would have been a downer if it didn't sound momentous. Not much hovers under five minutes except the outro. With lush piano ballads and Sabbath samples, Kanye and friends have trouble reconciling with the hangover from having too much money, success, fame, and power.
If College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation was about trying and getting, then 808 & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Yeezus was about having and losing. With that last one being the deepest, dirtiest, and most disorienting cut.
Yeezus opens with what at first sounds to be laser guns, and it's only after a couple more (non)beats do you realize it's the song itself. And in the middle of' On Sight', the track stops on a dime and a choir sample gleefully announces Kanye West's mantra for the summer of 2013:
'He gives us what we need, it may not be what we want'.
It's quick flash brings to mind the Stones' epic.
The schizophrenic nature of the album is like that dichotomy. Jagged, cold, hollow, banging samples, with Kanye boasting of his abilities or confessing his failures.
Consider the exorcism-like screams in 'I Am a God', as if West's being rewarded or punished for such an egotistical pronouncement.
It's a good thing a god can't blaspheme, because he gets damn close by rapping about civil rights and fisting in the same line on 'I'm In It'. That's about the closest he gets to channeling Tyler the Creator, although bringing up the Odd Future frontman is relevant, as the music on Yeezus is just as confrontational and radio-unfriendly as anything on Goblin or Wolf. It's Death Grips with a slight pop twist (which I suppose says a lot about Death Grips).
At the same time it never feels like Kanye is trying to push our buttons, and that in part comes from his eternally underrated skills on the mic. His clever wordplay makes it at first sound cerebral, and only later do you realize he's revealing something about himself. It's never quite 'fuck you', but a very enthusiastic 'fuck yeah', followed by a very emotional 'fuck me'. Kanye doesn't really need to start a beef with other rappers, because he's too busy beating himself up.
And even if he revels in hedonism via 'I'm In It', the album's centrepiece - 'Blood on the Leaves' - is a six minute (yes, epic) lament on the end of a relationship, shoehorning chopped up Nina Simone samples with a heavy as hell TNGHT beat. Love and lust can sometimes overlap on much of Kanye's discography, but now both can be used as a weapon. As far as the latter is concerned, the politically-tinged 'New Slaves' offers us, 'I'll fuck your Hampton spouse, cum on her Hampton blouse, and in her Hampton mouth."
But despite harsh words over, alarm siren wails and un-toe-tappable beats, Kanye remains a romantic at heart. While King L raps about selling drugs on the penultimate track, 'Send It Up', Kanye has a conversation with a woman in da club. The man's still looking for love, and seems to find it on the almost warm as hot cocoa closer (at least compared to what came before), 'Bound 2'.
It must be noted that West is by no means the first artist to push the bounds of his respective musical genre. Many other lesser known artists have been experimenting with this sort of 'alternative hip hop' work for years (and decades, really). Kanye however is the best known artist to incorporate these lesser-known sounds and approaches into his own work, bringing attention of these sub-genres to a wider audience.
It's the same as Radiohead, when they introduced electronic, jazz, and classical musical artists to the OK Computer-worshipping rock kids with Kid A and Amnesiac. Which is a good comparison, if we're looking for musical projects that carefully hover around the idea of epic (or rock criticism terms like seminal and trenchant). In terms of critical acclaim, musical influence, ardent fanbase, and the ability to top the charts and headline festivals, the only artist close to Kanye is Radiohead, a band known for trying to stop bloated, unoriginal musical ideas before they start. They're a band that acknowledged in interviews their music was hard to take in more than fifty minute chunks (which is why the 1999-2000 recording sessions were split into the two aforementioned albums), and frequently lamented that prior albums were always a couple songs too long.
If one were to be crude, they might say that Yeezus is Kanye West's attempt to get (Radiohead frontman and electronica/alternative hip-hop aficionado) Thom Yorke's attention. Regardless of whether it works, it's a goal from which we the listening public are all the beneficiaries of.
It's easy to say that West isn't aiming for the top of charts (even though he's hit it with Yeezus), and that he's not even trying to win a grammy or garner critical acclaim (even though the latter has happened and the former is likely).
He doesn't have to now. His public persona is such that it can improve the overall listening experience of the music he creates. This synergetic approach to art and music is not as surprising as it might seem when one realizes West recently compared himself to Steve Jobs (another egotistical blowhard up to his neck with the talent of creating something amazing out of disparate parts).
Kanye West is fascinating because he doesn't turn the character off for the public, whether on his records or on the record, in interviews and promotional appearances.
Of course, behind the spotlight he can be someone completely different. Justin Vernon noted that in the recording studio the man is quieter, more reflective and generous. As if it's typically in front of a microphone that West becomes 'Yeezy'.
Hip-hop stars - more so than any genre of popular music - live and die by their reputations, whether it be gangster (Snoop), gangster-turned-CEO (Jay Z), psychopath (DMX, Eminem), eccentric (Andre 3000), and Kool Keith.
Yeezus is the (il)logical, captivating conclusion of a three album cycle made by a man who might be frustrated by having it all. And the fact that we don't know for sure makes it all the more impressive.
World War Z: The A+ B movie
Some of World War Z is eye-rollingly dumb, but the Z stands for zombies, so you have to tweak your expectations as soon as you buy your ticket.
Flicks involving zombies, monsters, and superheroes - and animated films that feature monsters and superheroes - aren't exactly chin-scratching culture, but World War Z bring the seriousness of the Bourne films to stopping hordes of brain eating monsters.
There's no catchy one-liners, no slow motion triumphant kills, no [SPOILER ALERT] clear happy ending, instead replaced with just a minor resolution.
And it's engaging because it's serious, and it's fun because it does a good job at drawing us into the reality of this apocalyptic scenario. It's 28 Days Later (the zombie film with an indie heart) on a Brad Pitt, global scale.
The original B movies were meant to be serious explorations of a ridiculous premise. These films typically dealt with doctors, scientists, and military meddling with (or being forced to confront) forces beyond their control. They were only silly by accident, thanks to cheap effects, hackneyed plots and dialogue, and classic overacting.
Jaws brought a more nuanced and mature approach to a ridiculous premise. It helped that Spielberg used problems with the effects to his advantage (less shark means more anticipation for shark!).
The man's followup, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, brought a seriousness and master of craft to the theme of many b films: Aliens.
This other film called Star Wars also helped.
And, lo, the blockbuster was, well, not exactly born, but certainly now agreed to be a very good business decision.
With earth (or galaxies, nubile teenagers, and small Nantucket towns) in peril every summer, a hero had to come along and set things right in an epic sort of way.
In WWZ's case, it's former UN worker Brad Pitt to the rescue. And once he leaves his kids to fight zombies he doesn't have much fun, but his all business is our all pleasure. Zombies are the threat, but the setup still means tough guys with big guns shooting at the enemy.You honestly wouldn't be surprised if Matt Damon showed up halfway through to lend a hand.
The connection to The Bourne trilogy (sorry, Bourne Legacy) is not surprising. The Bourne Identity came to theatres twelve years ago, and it's impact on the action genre since then - how it's shot, how it's edited, it's brisk narrative, it's resolute, stoic characters, it's vague political/social commentary - is immense.
Modern action movies have always straddled the line between serious and b-films, but even the best films of the genre winked at the audience, adding a bit of humour or heart to alleviate the tension and explosions. Predator and Die Hard come to mind. Heck, even Eastwood's cold-as-steel Dirty Harry had five or six one liners in each film.
The Bourne Identity dumped that in the river (although Frankenheimer's Ronin is a good Bourne prototype), taking a brooding, silent supersoldier over a tough, wisecracking cop. And now we get The Bourne Formula applied to the most ridiculous of premises: Zombies!
Closest thing to a laugh in this movie is the small talk of the soldiers that are always wary about helping Brad Pitt and his crazy schemes, since it probably means most of them are going to bitten by zombies, and then shot to pieces by their friends.
And those little relatable moments are important. They're need to keep the suspension of disbelief strong in WWZ, but they can't overwhelm them and enter the realm of melodrama. Others scenes include Brad Pitt ready to jump off a building to stop himself from attacking his family when he wasn't sure if he'd been infected from the zombies he was just fighting. Another is when soldier goes back out of a plane to his doom to release the fuel hose on a runway full of zombies, saying "Israel [the plane's destination] better be worth it!" (his professionalism is impressive. Most impressive). Also of note is Pitt's impromptu and practical goodbye to his family in the lab.
These little things keep us engaged in ways that explaining cliched methods to stop a zombie plague never could.
Some critics are trying to sift through the bodies in WWZ and find some sort of political commentary. And as much as you can note that George Romero's original Dawn of the Dead was a comment on consumer culture (the dead-eyed undead lurching through a mall!), it was shooting zombies in the head first, and a materialist treatise second.
An Israeli defense official tells Pitt's character that his country was able to put up travel restrictions and defenses (a wall! Even though they kind of already have one) quicker than others is because they always treat any threat extremely seriously. Nlo9om7 \
bo matter how paranoid they might appear, or how much it might interrupt everyday life.
It was also noted that North Korea had less of a zombie problem, because the army removed the teeth of millions of citizens. Granted, this was told to Pitt by a deranged ex-CIA agent behind bars, but this and the Israel thing was enough to catch attention by some serious writers, wondering what we are to make of this:
Does this advocate a sort of Dubya-Cheney position, of using overwhelming force and extreme methods to keep your citizens safe, regardless of ethics? Since the zombies get in anyway, not really. In fact, it suggests that no matter how hard you plan and prepare, some things are out of your control (typically the work ethic of zombies).
That's how you know when you got a really good epic on your hands. When you want it to be more than just a b movie full of plane crashes and getting chased through blacked out apartment buildings.
World War Z never blinks, never lets on that it's anything but deadly serious - even when it borders on ridiculous - and that's more than enough to elevate it to the status of perfect summer entertainment.
The Millennials and The Star Wars Prequels
I like the original trilogy more now than I did when I was a kid. A New Hope actually starts kind of slow (you forget that the first half hour is mostly a gold robot bitching at a beeping trashcan) but takes off spectacularly once Obi-Wan shows up, The Empire Strikes Back is near perfect from start to finish, and Return of the Jedi is pretty good when there's no ewoks in sight (Jabba's Palace is good way to the old gang all together again, the Lando-led space battle is mint and created a second-tier catchphrase, and the Luke-Vader-Emperor showdown is really well paced, well acted, etc. I think when people rag on Jedi, they forget how effortlessly those scenes on the Death Star work to tie up much of the mythology of Star Wars, namely the redemption of Anakin Skywalker).
I originally watched the movies in piecemeal form, in the late eighties whenever they were on television, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I think I rented them from the video store not long after. I remember some of the aliens freaking me out a bit (kind of how Luke felt when he walked into cantina in Mos Eisley). I'm pretty sure I somehow knew the big family spoiler before watching Empire all the way through.
Even though I saw the theatrical re-releases of Empire and Jedi in 1997, I never considered myself as a huge fan. I never bought any memorabilia, never went any sort of event with the word 'comic' or 'con' in it, and I thought the one post-Jedi novel I read was terrible. I do remember reading a book describing all the ships and aliens in the Star Wars roleplaying game that was lying around in my grade six classroom (I know this sounds rather bizarre, that such an odd book was there, but it was, and I would flip through it when it rained and we couldn't go out for recess). Despite my accumulation of this rather useless information, I never played the Star Wars roleplaying game, but I found it impressive ('most impressive') that there was a book which went into such great detail of a fictional universe.
I'm not sure why the movies resonate so much with me now. I was never part of the generation that was able to watch these movies on the big screen when they first came out. I didn't have to wait years between releases. Maybe the best way to make a nine year old care about mythic narratives thousands of years old is to add blasters and spaceships. Chuck Klosterman wrote an excellent essay titled 'Sulking with Lisa Loeb on the Ice Planet Hoth' (found in his book of excellent essays, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) which posited that The Empire Strikes Back was the movie that first introduced generation x to disappointment, alienation, and cynicism. Klosterman points out that Luke was basically getting a degree in philosophy and physical education (not really employable), had some romance problems (the girl he kissed early in the film ends up being his sister), and his father is pressuring him into making choices he doesn't agree with (sometimes forcefully). And of course, the film ends on a depressing note, which won't be resolved for three years (a very long damn time for a ten year old).
And so when this generation finally became adults in the legal sense of the word, it was a time of post-Cold War meaninglessness (Fukuyama penned, 'The End of History'), grunge, ironic detachment (the best kind of detachment!), and a resentment towards the elders that - instead of taking the form of tuning in and dropping out - meant acting sullen in secondhand clothes and complaining about globalization on an old couch. Sounds link a pretty good example of life-imitating-art to me.
I missed gen x by a couple years. I'm lumped in with the millennials, which can roughly be defined as having the internet by the time puberty started. It sounds like a rather childish measure, but that's a big difference. We were offspring of the late-boomers and early generation x-ers. The things that were lightly mocked about yuppie parents in the eighties (everyone gets a trophy day, designer strollers, play dates, peanut butter-free schools, soccer moms) became the norm.
The nineties were a period of non-stagnation in the global economy, in part because the internet hadn't yet crippled print culture or the entertainment industry and no one felt the blowback of the Wal-Mart effect (selling stuff so damn cheap pretty much means your suppliers have to make the stuff in Asian sweatshops for cheap, laying off domestic workers by the thousands). With the Cold War over, the one big problem (nuclear war between superpowers) became several slightly smaller ones (the environment, global inequality, green energy), which at first glance seemed a much more manageable proposition.
Everything was working pretty okay even as the gen x-ers griped about it, and you expected things to get better, as long as that pesky Y2K thing got fixed in time.
It was in this environment that George Lucas announced he was going to release another set of Star Wars movies. Gen X got the first three, and now my generation was going to their very own.
So while I can love the Original Trilogy for being an awesome story that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far away, I find myself having to look for meaning for my own generation in The Prequel Trilogy. For those who forget - intentionally or not - this includes 1999's The Phantom Menace, 2002's Attack of the Clones, and 2005's Revenge of the Sith.
As a whole, they are mediocre at best. The action scenes are much more accomplished than in the Original trilogy, and while a lot of that can be credited to the Industrial Light and Magic team being on the cutting edge of computer graphics (like they were in the seventies for most special effects in general), a lot of credit can go to directors like James Cameron, and John Woo who raised the bar for action films in general throughout the eighties and nineties. The acting, writing, and plot? Well, we'll get to that.
Despite my claim of not being the biggest Star Wars fan, I did see The Phantom Menace on opening night in 1999 with several high school classmates. In terms of pop culture that didn't involve Britney Spears introducing herself to the world via schoolgirl uniform, the first half of 1999 revolved around the release of this film. We're used to an over-saturation of tie-ins and synergy for the blockbusters flicks today, but it was The Phantom Menace that pioneered this practice (of course such massive promotional pushes existed beforehand, modelled on A New Hope). Themed pinball machines were created for it. The Phantom Menace was so highly anticipated that the trailer for the second Austin Powers film (which would also come out that summer) spoofed its impending arrival.
So the movie was a big draw for people who obsessed over Star Wars, people who thought the first three Star Wars were fun movies, and people who who were easily influenced by whatever was being blasted at them from billboards and television commercials.
Anyway, we were there on Wednesday evening, sitting in a packed theatre that had already been showing the film repeatedly since midnight. When it was over, we all agreed it wasn't very good. All of it felt very childish and boring, and in a way that no part of the Original Trilogy (even when considering the damn Ewoks) approached. And it looked wrong. CGI that was so good it was obviously not real. At least in the late 70s some guy actually built an alien mask or costume you could hold in your hands. It was hard to get excited for a battle when most of the combatants were pixelated.
Narrative wise, it was a whodunnit - who's behind the trade blockade of the planet of Naboo? - that deviated from its premise for most of the film, as if looking into anything else was more worthwhile. A healthy dose of the film is devoted to getting Anakin Skywalker off his home planet of Tatooine (and not to knock Jake Lloyd, the actor playing eight year old Anakin, but if it's hard enough for adult actors not to make Lucas' lines seem wooden, what chance did he have?). And if that's supposed to be the point of the movie (focussing on Anakin), why isn't it? Why is it an awkward lump in the middle?
Then there's Jar Jar accidentally becoming a battle hero, and an eight year old piloting a ship and blowing up larger ships only half- knowing what he was doing.
The dialogue is mostly exposition, and a lot of it is painfully obvious not only to the audience, but to the characters being addressed. And there's no sense of urgency. No one raises their voices, no one barks orders, no one breaks out of this sense of indifference (and yes, that's kind of expected for Jedi knights, but at least in the Original Trilogy Obi Wan and Yoda were given some clever quips and observations). There is no attempt to give any character to the characters. Practically everyone is of the same temperament and says nothing worth listening to.
The closest thing to someone even remotely interesting is Senator Palpatine, and it's rarely a good sign when that's your antagonist. On the other hand, writer Todd Alcott notes that he can also be seen as the protagonist of the film, which certainly implies a major narrative dysfunction. Alcott's excellent deconstruction of the 'protagonist problem' can be found HERE.
More importantly, no one knew what was going on. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were detectives and then bodyguards. The scheming alien industrialists that looked a bit like Greedo complained about the deal they were doing with this mysterious other. The Jedi Council didn't trust Anakin Skywalker at first, but then changed their minds, and they couldn't understand where this one Sith - Darth Maul - came from.
Who knew what was going to happen?
We did. The audience.
And not just a little bit. We had a six and half hour spoiler alert that is/was one of the most beloved and popular movie franchises of all time.
One can argue 'it's not the destination but the journey', but a lot of people have some great memories of that destination, so this new journey we're being taken on to get their better be pretty good.
While The Phantom Menace gets the brunt of the criticism, the next two films don't fair much better, full of awkward romance, more terrible dialogue (instead of wisdom, Yoda barks orders about creating defensive perimeters), and narrative inconsistencies that linger like dust under a couch. No one realized a clone army was being built? Not a single Jedi Knight realized there was an actual battle plan (Order 66) that involved their destruction? Anakin was unhinged by a bad dream?
The Prequel Trilogy had huge shoes to fill, and perhaps it was doomed to failure from the start (even if they were good) because of the power of nostalgia. Both gen x-ers and a hell of a lot of millennials had internalized much of the Original Trilogy, forgiving its flaws and canonizing everything that was good about it (perhaps some of the public outcry Lucas received for changing parts of the films for the 1997 release - namely 'Han shot first', but also that terrible extended song sequence in Jedi - was a sign of how so many people had such strong affection for this world).
So there was a lot riding on this new set of films.
Darth Maul had to be more menacing Darth Vader, Queen Padme had to be more assertive than Princess Leia, Anakin Skywalker had to be more idealistic and exciting than Luke Skywalker, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had to be better at charmingly helping Anakin than Han Solo and Chewbacca were at helping Luke. None of these came to fruition. Notably, Mark Hamill doesn't get enough credit for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker's youthful exuberance and idealism in a way that never became grating. Ewan McGregor's approach to his role of a young and middle aged Obi Wan Kenobi is the best thing about the Prequel Trilogy, and many times he prevents the films from being - how can I put this - pretty bad.
The problem of course is that we know exactly what happens to Obi Wan. He cripples Anakin/Vader in battle, then lives on to die in A New Hope. The story arcs of the other characters in the Prequel Trilogy are supposed to be more interesting because we don't exactly know how Anakin was turned to the dark side, how Luke and Leia's mother dies, or how Palpatine gains power.
And we find out all these things, but they're not particularly interesting stories, or well put together. Certainly not worth the six and half hours they're given. The Jedi are trying to figure out who the Sith lord is, the one pulling the strings of all the evil people in the galaxy, and the audience knows it's Senator Palpatine. A character that many other characters - Jedi included - interact with, and, at one point, rescue, throughout the trilogy. In a space opera where physics are ignored (light speed! Loud explosions where there's no air!) and believability is tested (Darth Vader doesn't seem to realize he's torturing his daughter in A New Hope), the things that keep our suspension in a state of disbelief is surprise, and that is sorely lacking in the Prequel Trilogy. And the main reason: because the story's told out of order, and that can really ruin the surprise.
Lucas finds himself having to stretch out a less-interesting part of an epic tale (now looking to be nine films long), and if you can't offer up a good, tight, easy-to-follow narrative, then you are forced to rely on explosions, impressive looking set pieces and lots of plot via dialogue so we just might care about the explosions.
Although it's not exactly fair to say that Lucas 'phoned it in' story-wise, character-wise, and dialogue-wise in The Prequel Trilogy alone. Harrison Ford said to the director during the filming of A New Hope, 'you can write this shit, George, but you sure can't say it', so the problem's always been there.
The Original Trilogy deal deftly with clunky dialogue and ancient myth archetypes because both were infused into an easy-to-follow and exciting story. A New Hope also had the benefit of starting in the middle of the action. Sure it opens with the expository text crawl, but you really don't need it. Everything revolves around one thing: The plans for the Death Star. That's all you really have to remember. The opening scene reveals all: Clearly the human looking people with the hot bun-haired woman are the good guys (and gal), and the dudes in masks invading their ship are the bad guys. The fact that the goods guys (and gal) got their asses handed to them means they're going to need some much better heroes to defeat the bad guys. Enter the kid who represents the fisher king archetype, the wise old man, the kid's symbolic brother, and the brother's helpful wookie. Suddenly the chase is on! And never really lets up until the Emperor is thrown down into a near bottomless pit, a whole two and half films later.
Everyone's goals are always clear, and every moment is pressing. Plans have to be delivered (or intercepted), people have to be rescued (or captured), ships have to be fixed (or destroyed), giant stars of death have to be exploded (or do the exploding). Luke barely gets a moment's peace on Dagobah before his force sense starts tingling and he has to go to Bespin to save his symbolic brother and actual sister.
In chase scenes, everything becomes more compact, every line has to carry a directive and a bit of character. It's why you can get more chemistry out of Han and Leia yelling at each other for thirty seconds than out of Anakin and Padme whispering sweet nothings to each other for five minutes.
It's not that thrill was gone by the time we got to The Prequel Trilogy, we just knew that the thrills came later. Together, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are a perfect example of how something with so much promise could go wrong in so many ways, since there's deep problems not only with content of the story, but of the overall presentation of the story itself. And that's why it's perfect for the millennial generation. We are confused how to properly use the bevy of tools in front of us, are looking back when we should be looking forward, and are trying awkwardly to stand on the crumbling shoulders of past successes.
We raised our expectations because we were raised on raising expectations.
From the early eighties onwards - pretty much around the time the Original trilogy wrapped up - the baby-boomers filled their upcoming mid-life crises with rampant materialism and free market policies, generation x let the chip on their shoulder grow and fester, and the millennial kids gorged on sugar, watched animated shows that got more and more postmodern (by the early nineties, the Animaniacs were spoofing Apocalypse Now and The Day the Clown Cried) and were given as much meaningless structure as their parents didn't get when they were young.
And then there's the internet, the effects of which the world economy is still trying to recover from. The filesharing program Napster came out the same year as The Phantom Menace, ushering in an era where paying for anything which could be transformed into a digital, ephemeral format became optional.
People complaining on the internet began to affect the bottom line of certain artistic and commercial endeavours. While 1997's Batman & Robin is the primary example of negative internet buzz torpedoing a blockbuster movie, The Phantom Menace suffered from the online buzz of everyone wanting it to be great. And the internet became ground zero of the revolt against it once the fans and critics actually saw the film.
And the amount of information that could be stored on a DVD (which could ultimately be transferred into video files on your computer, and then shared across the internet for free) meant that old movies, cult movies, and entire televisions series was at all our fingertips. We were awash in cultural epochs (and junk) that defied space and time. Nostalgia crumbled as we could watch Twin Peaks, Happy Days, and Spongebob Squarepants sequentially with three clicks of a button.
The immediate dearth of monies flowing into the entertainment industry freed/marginalized musical artists that weren't pumping out Top 40 hits, made blockbuster movie season all the more crucial to a studio's bottom line, and forced network television to cancel any show that wasn't a hit after three episodes. You had to be a hit fast, you had to accelerate the entire process of creation and marketing. And this seeped into the production of news coverage as well. Crucial information as a whole became too big to properly order and comprehend. It all became a giant, complicated machine with dollar signs dripping out.
The impact of the internet - computers talking to each other, to really call it like it is - on global society was an continues to be massive. In pop culture terms, it's as big as Star Wars. A faster internet connection time meant everything had to speed up, including the actions and reactions of our pop culture creators. We were sucking up more movies, tv shows, music and memes than ever before, as well as disposing them just as quickly and looking for the next fix. We millennials quickly built up a resistance to overplayed and familiar archetypes. If the culture-creating community was going to trot out predictable story lines that Saturday morning cartoon embraced and mocked in near tandem, they better at least slather them in winking self-awareness.
But Star Wars wasn't going to do this. And in mastermind Lucas's defence, he had the difficulty of trying to appeal to both older and younger fans, each expecting different things (the former wanting practically the impossible, Empire-like intensity but still fun, and the latter just wanting straightforward, easy-to-digest fun). The heightened expectations of the older fans - I suppose I better include myself in this group - was going to be impossible to meet. And while I don't converse with many people who were eight in 1999, The Phantom Menace and the next two films don't seem to hold that kind of appreciation among that age group that the Original Trilogy did for eight year olds in 1977. The underwhelming reaction to the recent 3D theatrical re-release of Phantom suggest this is the case.
So yeah, The Prequels were visually (that is, superficially) impressive but suffered from several structural problems, as well as inflated and impossible expectations.
Sounds like the plight of the millennials, if you ask me. And while generation x had about ten years between the bleakness of Empire and the time the world revealed itself to be pretty damn lame (even though the world they found themselves in when they were in their late teens and twenties was in much better condition than today), everything went south for the millennials during the release of the Prequel Trilogy and continues to this day.
This is the one of the problems facing the millennials. Our place in the modern world is confusing, contradictory, and nowhere close to meeting our expectations, even as we have a vague sense of our place is supposed to be. A possible example: be a responsible global citizen by supporting policies that will reduce inequality and environmental damage. But to reach those goals requires navigating such a complex socio-political-economic system that success for not just a small handful seems impossible.
Financial reforms remain a tangled mess that a small but powerful group of bankers are able to defang by pressuring politicians to not apply them. An environment that is growing more unstable by the day, in terms of weather and resources available for world population who's needs are still on the rise. Energy policies that still revolve around holdovers from the nineteenth century (coal and oil), industries which smother and denigrate any sort of modern innovation such as wind and solar.
Technological innovation that the average person can actually access is limited to the power of the smartphone they have in their pocket. It's features are undoubtedly impressive, but it's window dressing when compared to the obvious changes that need to be done (it's our version CGI actions sequences. Sure you can play scrabble on your phone, but that's not going to get you a job).
The Prequel Trilogy is the unintentional cultural representation of the plight of the millennials. Plenty of hype, high expectations, and it all went wrong because of a story that didn't quite fit the times and a focus on flash and showiness instead of anything meaningful. Klosterman's Empire analysis showed that Luke failing in that flick was the unintentional cultural representation of the plight of generation x, but at least Empire Strikes Back was entertaining. For the millennials, the problems outside the trilogy's story lines reflected their own (although the films did track the death of a bloated, bureaucracy-filled democratic republic and the consolidation of power to a small group of powerful people who worked in the shadows, so we can add that analogy to the pile).
The growth of the nineties started to crater right around the release of the first film, as the exciting but ultimately empty early internet start-ups (pets.com, Infospace, freeinternet.com) began to declare bankruptcy. When Attack of the Clones was released in 2002, the massive scandals of Enron and Worldcom showed that record profits were falsified to hide monumental losses. By 2005 - Revenge of the Sith - oil prices were skyrocketing and the only good news in the economy was the seemingly unbelievable growth of the housing market (no comment). Question of executive privilege and how the war on terror was being fought were finally being asked in the news media, as Queen Amidala noted that, 'this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.'
Just as the legacy of the franchise's past successes weighed heavy on its shoulders, the millennials find themselves facing a world where they can't possibly match what the baby boomers and generation x achieved, mainly because the foundations these previous generations had are no longer functioning as successfully. Student debt, rising living costs, unemployment and underemployment for blue and white collar workers alike, governments that owe more than they take in thanks to the previous generations' profligacy, and global instability that can possibly interrupt things taken for granted like trade and travel.
What makes it all the more maddening is that people of all ages seem to agree that these are all pressing problems, but couldn't begin to even solve them. Just as Lucas couldn't help but finish the Prequel trilogy without improving its quality, even after the disastrous reception of The Phantom Menace. Everyone is stuck trudging forward to diminishing returns.
In the halls of power there is a careful acknowledgement of these problems, as many politicians and business leaders acknowledge the need for change but are wary of proscribing solutions that may jeopardize their own livelihoods. The ever important sheen of looking like you're correct, that you're not making mistakes, must be maintained at all times. Focus on soaring speeches that promise better times ahead and minimize the important of swallowing bitter pills at present.
The Prequel Trilogy similarly is visually stunning but empty. Its pioneering computer generated effects create dazzlingly futuristic cities and vehicles (despite taking place 'a long time ago') as well lifelike alien creatures, but the humans that inhabit this world act stiff and wooden. They speak in platitudes. The world of good versus evil is crumbling as it becomes apparent (much too late) that friendly Senator Palpatine is actually evil Sith Lord Palpatine. The story held nothing of interest because we knew the back half of it (you know, the half with all the excitement, like any good story). We got very slow and meandering narratives. Contradictory actions and half-baked plot points that ultimately go nowhere (Obi Wan discovers the clone troops! But the Clone Wars happen anyway).
Not unlike how global issues - from fiscal cliffs to environmental talks - are addressed today. Speeches that say nothing. Middling compromises that do nothing to alleviate the real problems at hand. Everyone reasonably suspects things are going to get difficult in the upcoming decades, but no one can really articulate or put forth a clear plan of action.
If The Empire Strikes Back primed generation x for disappointment, then the Prequel Trilogy bludgeoned that notion into the millennials, and in a superficial and trite fashion that befitted the popular culture and socio-economic malaise we seem to be mired in.
At least for gen x the pill they were given was sugar-coated. Calling a generation aimless or lost is old hat, but the millennials are going to have to try very-
Or do not.
There is no try.
PT Anderson's Absent Centre
(since The Master is still in theatres, I suppose I should preface this with SPOILER ALERT)
I watched The Master and I never saw the credits coming.
Same with There Will Be Blood and Magnolia.
There is always something missing in the films of PT Anderson, and thank god for that. A majority of the films that make it to the cineplex today seem to be based on a carefully calculated overload. It doesn't matter if you're watching a blockbuster action film, period drama, or romantic comedy. They all have everything every other film in that respective genre had, only this time a little bit more, a little bit stronger. If it's going to be an action scene, it's going to be more unbelievable and chaotic. If it's an awkward comedy bit, it's going to be even more over the top. And if it's a historical piece, it's going to be hammered home that this is one of the most important moments in all of history (according to The King's Speech, one of the biggest challenges during the onset of World War II was getting the King of England to speak properly).
There is an overabundance of nearly everything in mainstream film these days, so that why the work of Anderson is so refreshing. What's missing in his films is that level of comfort and assurance that most films - or even most bits of popular culture - have running through them like train timetables. You know what's going to happen in them, the only possibly unique or unusual aspect to them is how. Even contemporary masters of genre (Nolan for dark superhero epics, Apatow for raunchy comedies with a bit of heart) have a series of rules they seem to be unable to shake. There are surprises to be sure, which can at times be both exciting and fun, but never disorienting. And even if the ending is not outright happy, it certainly feels appropriate, that challenges were overcome, scores were settled, and the future seems a little more properly set.
Not so with Anderson. The audience for his films has to earn their satisfying endings by working with what Anderson has given them. He builds worlds and then gives you only snapshots. You can imagine his plethora of characters living beyond the page of dialogue, beyond the sudden cutaway, and you can't help but wonder what everyone gets up to if that scene didn't end just when it did.
The multi-narrative epic Magnolia best exemplifies this, but even when his films focus on one person, it's the power of the ensemble cast that makes everything that happens that much more believable. In Boogie Nights, everyone surrounding Dirk Diggler has just as many personal problems as he does, and so the idea of the rise and fall of the adult film community feels that much more approachable. Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview is in every frame of There Will Be Blood, but its terrified or scheming people around him that gives him his power and our sympathy.
At the same time, there's a desire to get away from these people and their experiences as quickly as possible, because you cringe in the situations that they find themselves in. There's an awkwardness in many of the confrontations and hostile moments in Anderson films, and he never stops after a cutting line or a long hard stare. You don't know when the peaks into these lives will end.
The negative and scarring reactions that abjection theorist Julia Kristeva finds rooted in the more extreme actions of humanity manifests itself in mundane microcosms in The Master, There Will Be Blood, et al. Lancaster Dodd's daughter telling him that she believes Freddie Quell can't be trusted and that he wishes to sleep with her is particularly unnerving since she is the one that has made advances on him. Daniel Plainview's so-called brother admitting to him at gunpoint that he is a fraud is more heartbreaking than shocking. There's also Tom Cruise's character emotionally shutting down while being interviewed in Magnolia. And of course Freddie's inability to heal and integrate himself into the philosophical movement known as The Cause - and the more traditional 50s style nuclear family that the film seems to support, at least on the surface - is able to come across as wholly believable and maddening at the same time.
Because we're so inundated with happy endings from most films, we want to see quick and painless solutions to these seemingly mundane, easily resolvable problems, but we cannot rely on the traditional storytelling narratives to do it for us. We are lost in a sea of uncertainty, with problems being only half-solved as more rise to the surface as time passes.
Concordant with this, the audience doesn't know when these films have made a narrative turning point until they're long past it. Jumping days, weeks, or perhaps years in time with very little early indication that this has happened, we find ourselves having to immediately make hasty assumptions about these temporal gaps and what may have transpired within them. All while trying to pay attention to the scene playing out in front of us.
What would be climaxes in other films - Freddie confronting Dodd over whether the entire movement is a sham, larger companies attempting to buy out Daniel Plainview - are placed in the middle of The Master and There Will Be Blood, respectively. And in the case of the multi-character epics of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, individual climaxes tumble out, one after the other, so even then one is never sure at what point we are in the ultimate narrative arc (if there even is one).
So with such an unsteady footing and no clear resolution ever in sight, apparent loose ends will inevitably dangle, and it rests on the audience's shoulders to stitch it them up as best as possible.
This is no small matter. Films are frequently portrayed - at least in multiplex pre-shows and Oscar montages - as a form of escape, magic, and dreams coming true.
The closest we get to that sort of thing in an Anderson film in the raining frogs in Magnolia (and a nod to a terrible, disorienting biblical plague, it should be noted), an occurrence whose effects randomly dole out reward and punishment.
No, responsibility and hard work is usually what we are allowed to leave with the cinema employee when he or she rips our ticket (the only thing we have to after that is turn off our cell phones). Blockbusters are chained to a formula of fun, and even the odd darker, more complex turn (say, Nolan's Batman trilogy), has explosions, sex, one-liners, and good triumphing over evil.
There's fighting in The Master, but it's messy and bordering on pitiful. There's an rather odd semi-dream scene of a several woman - some in their sixties - dancing naked with clothed men. And even though Hoffman's character is a charming cult-like leader, he doesn't triumph or fail against towering ideological opponents, but rather argues only once with a nebbish doubter at a dinner party (and once again, it's to Anderson's and the ensemble cast's credit that because these characters are so brilliantly written and portrayed that you - like Freddie - are upset and feel terrible when Dodd and his followers are challenged, even politely).
Conflicts with institutions are unremarkable. Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license and inflicting minor damage on a yacht, and he goes quietly. Freddie does not, kicking up a hell of a fuss to defend his mentor and father figure.
The following jail scene can be reduced to the following exchange:
'You're a fraud!'
'You're a drunk, and I'm the only one that likes you!'
And that's really what The Master - and much of Anderson's oeuvre - boils down to. Broken men and women trying to make do with their flaws. Lancaster and Dodd try to help each other, fail, and ultimately part ways. Everyone in Boogie Nights can't adapt the changing times, wishing it was always a 1970s pool party/porno shoot. In the most revealing scene in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview admits he doesn't really like anyone, he sees nothing good in people. It's a trait that ultimately ends with him living all alone in an empty mansion, having driven away his adopted son and beaten his nemesis to death with a bowling pin.
While these character flaws are universal archetypes, it's Anderson's almost unmistakable style that makes his film - and the characters that inhabit them - wholly distinct and original. His films can be unsettling, and that is meant as a compliment.
They come on slow, and slow is not the type of thing that financially successful films are made of these days. It's up to salivating critics to rave over Anderson's auteur-ness and a cabal of hardcore filmgoers to slowly usher in memes from his work and let them saturate into the greater cultural consciousness ('I drink your milkshake').
Is The Master brilliantly shot, acted, written, edited? Definitely.
Once the credits roll, while you suddenly think to yourself, 'wait, is that it?' Possibly.
Closure in all his work is slightly hollow. It's implied, but never set in stone. Certainly there is an idea of protagonists coming full circle, and one would like to hope that the bildungsroman archetype is in operation. Dirk Diggler is back to having sex on camera, almost everyone in Magnolia will have to wake up the next morning, clean up their mess and do whatever is expected of them, Daniel Plainview has beaten his nemesis (literally), and Freddie Quell is in bed with an English woman, half seriously asking her the same questions Lancaster Dodd asked him earlier.
Just as we are given only snippets throughout of these character's rich and detailed lives, the end of the film is really only the end of the period of time Anderson is allowing us to examine. Especially with The Master, where we learn very little about how well Dodd is faring in England, and whether Freddie is asking the girl he just slept with Dodd's questions because he wants to start his own movement up, or whether just for shits and giggles. Dodd's new English headquarters is massive and imposing, but like his temporary luxury residences in America, it could be just for show.
And these deeply rooted unknowns are the sorts of things critics can latch onto and write essays about (ahem). You can re-watch these films, but it's not necessarily a matter of catching something you missed. Instead you will be that much more aware of what's missing, and how the film succeeds in unique ways because of that.
Not surprisingly, this style of barely-show-and-certainly-don't-tell style is the hallmark of Anderson's mentor, Stanley Kubrick. For both auteurs, morality is hideously ambiguous, the perfect camera angle is god, and the moments of pure emotion are hidden deep beneath the grand and sweeping themes their films supposedly address. Dodd saying goodbye to Freddie in his giant London office by quietly singing him a whimsical music hall song is heartbreaking, and isn't that much different (at least in terms of an emotional thematic and narrative resolution) from Hal 9000 singing 'Daisy' as Dave Bowman turns him off for good. The Master is meant to be about a charming cult leader, and 2001 is meant to be about man discovering intelligent alien life. But the most powerful moments of these films address more personal concerns. Anderson's film also (or mainly) explores a prodigal son/father figure relationship, and their parting is where the film connects with audiences most strongly. Kubrick's film poses the query of how the automation of most things (in part the creation of artificial intelligence) has made people seem less human, and only by destroying Hal (who, in all fairness, did kill a bunch of people) is humankind able to 'be' human and evolve by going through the Stargate.
The praise heaped upon Anderson since 1999's Magnolia has made him perhaps a heir to Kubrick (the two met on the set of Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut), and the man seems to be giving the most Kubrick-ian reaction over it by not seeming to really care about that and only trying to make great, strange, uncompromising films.
So with that in mind, it seems rather ridiculous to say that The Master is the movie of the year. It seems to imply that films released in a particular twelve-month period are competing against each other for trophies and box office receipts. And while so many films appear to get caught up in this apparent race, this particular one (and much of Anderson's work) seems to have nothing at all to do with such trivialities. By turning away from mainstream style and expectation, The Master gives its audience an insular and nebulous experience. What it's missing seems to be something we have too much of, anyways.
|what if you only knew what you didn't want?|