NR: On Untitled Satires

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections!

One of my favorite writer/director teams of recent years is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman (strike that, reverse it), responsible for ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’, thoughtful, poignant movies about creativity and other dreadful things.  Kaufman and Jonze, as explained in a SlashFilm article, are reuniting for an untitled satire (not the title, of course, but it tickles me to think that it could be).  Apparently it’s “about how world leaders gather to figure out all the seismic events that will take place in the worlds [sic, maybe?], from oil prices to wars that will be waged.” Which is a lovely concept.

Cover of "Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)"

Cover of Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)

Which is what I love about these guys: They don’t skimp on big ideas.

I see a disturbing sensibility in too many creatives; the lack of enthusiasm for really off-the-wall ideas, genre-bending or genre-less concepts that are so interesting in themselves that they buy the audience’s attention from the get-go.  As a cinephile, uniqueness is way at the top of my subconscious list of things to look for in a potential viewing experience.  I don’t go to very many films or watch too much television.  I’m James the Unmerciful, mediocre filmmakers beware.  In truth, I do try to look for the good things in film in general and in specific movies, even bad ones.  This is why my reviews typically are of cream-of-the-crop stuff.  I’m a picky eater.  I realize many folks are casual in their relationship with the cinematic arts, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make films for the lowest common denominator.  Bad movies either fade or live in infamy, and when they achieve the latter they often define their creators’ reputations.  Not a place a creative wants to work in, unless you’re Tommy Wiseau.

It’s entirely possible to execute a great idea horribly, but it’s always better to start with the best ingredients, even if you bake the cake too long.  At least you (or someone else) can use the recipe later, and people might even forgive you for it.  In the business of screenwriting, I get it that producers like to buy stuff that duplicates the latest big thing in spirit, but there’s always the question, “How did that popular thing get made?”  Somebody has to take a risk, and it might as well be the writer.  If the writer takes big artistic risks but doesn’t skimp on excellence, and if they show tenacity, their work might get sold and the project’s distinctiveness could very well carry over through the process.  There’s never a guarantee of a big hit.  There’s that Hollywood aphorism that “Nobody knows anything”, and there’s some truth to that.  Nobody knows absolutely what will get a massive audience and a billion dollars.  If we knew, we’d be Harry Seldon.

I recently watched a documentary on the composer Philip Glass, and he said something along these lines: “If you don’t have to invent a new technique, chances are you don’t have anything new.” So instead of recycling the latest garbage, try for something absolutely insane.  If you get nervous or wise, you can always tone it down later.  Creativity is a gamble, but it pays to bet radically, let the chips fall where they may.  At least an attempt is made to rise above the mediocre.  The world needs more bizarre untitled satires, chronologically mismatched film noirs, movies based on dream logic with ambiguous endings, and something that only exists in your brain, or else I’d reference it here obliquely.  Big ideas stick with us, and they stick with their creators, and audiences get stuck on them in turn.  It all rolls into a giant ball of timelessness we like to call Classic Cinema.

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NR: Write This Way If You Want To Live

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I keep chiming in on science fiction topics.  Go figure.  Today it’s the future of the ‘Terminator’ series, which suffered from not one, but two mediocre revival attempts.  Or so I hear, as I have not seen ‘Terminator 3’.  In any case, McG’s ‘Terminator: Salvation’ didn’t go over too well, and now Universal is batting even more revitalization ideas about the field.  SlashFilm has a few words to say about the situation.  My two cents follow below the poster.

‘Terminator’ is a B-movie, a synthesis of slasher flicks, apocalyptic paranoia and very large firearms.  It revolves around a simple mythology, the endless conflict between humanity’s messianic defender and the ghosts in an army of machines, a war that spills out into logic-defying time travel.   It’s the worst case scenario of the Computer Age as conceived circa 1984.   Every subsequent installment revisits these themes and, rather than manipulating them into new, terrifying shapes, allows them to stagnate.   By ‘Terminator 2’, James Cameron’s final entry, it was obvious that the concept couldn’t go any further in its present form, so Cameron intended to let it go.   The film made a lot of money, however, so those blessed with the franchise rights were determined to keep it alive.   The next two sequels, separated by margins of 12 and then 6 years later, respectively, undid Cameron’s imposition of finality and then undid themselves.  What was necessarily convoluted has become hopelessly confused.

‘Terminator: Salvation’, though, was on the right track.  It brought us into the glimpsed post-apocalyptic war.  It did not deliver on the suspense implicit in the scenario, however, proving largely toothless and shifting the focus from messianic John Connor to a previously unknown character.  When we should have experienced the horrific urgency of Connor’s war, instead we visited yet another illogical time travel plot.

So, should ‘Terminator’ be left to rot?  I don’t think so.  All stories are reinventions.  I don’t find it necessary to complain about sequels or reboots in themselves, only to deliver justified criticisms when they go typically wrong.  There’s no reason a crack team of filmmakers can’t rightfully reinvent ‘Terminator’ to channel the original’s suspense and push the story in an unprecedented direction.  ‘Terminator’ can live again, but it must become unpredictable, passionate and adult.  It should be dangerous.

NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway.  Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly.  He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age.  His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities.  Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below.  Behold!

The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked.  The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems.  Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor.  Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry.  If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.

What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show.  I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing.  In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity.  He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut.  Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’.  Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction.  The payoff must equal the setup.  So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.

What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie.  If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude.  Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:

Striking images.  Bone-rattling sounds.  Terrifying.  It cast a spell on me.  The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:

The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:

Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution.  ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told.  In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end.  It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater.  This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder.  The adventure continues in our hearts.

‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign.  The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.

The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia.  Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking.  The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood.  Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children.  As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film.  J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation.  So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.

If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come.  Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.

NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.

NR: The King of the Monsters

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

There are a couple of film series that I watch purely for nonsensical gratuitous action-packed thrills.  One is the acclaimed ‘James Bond’ series, and the other is Toho Ltd.’s legendary slice of cheese, ‘Godzilla’.

After 50 years in which Toho produced 28 films, the series went into hibernation, awaiting a third reboot. Now, working with Legendary Pictures (responsible for reboots such as ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’), Toho shall wake the king of all kaiju for a Hollywood film in 2012. The last time Toho left the series in American hands, it turned out as a drive-thru action picture, not a feast of monster mayhem. The folks at Legendary seem to understand the franchise’s essence and appeal, however, so I’m quite positive about the project.

Now, as Collider (among others) reports, Legendary has hired the reboot’s director: Gareth Edwards, a new kid on the block.  This guy just brought us an independent monster movie, appropriately titled ‘Monsters’, that I, unfortunately, missed in the preferable theater experience.  The critical reaction was mostly positive, citing it as intelligent, emotional, and effective, and Edwards’ reputation got a level up.  I wish I could say something of value about his skill set, ideas, etc., but so it goes.  There is reasonable doubt of whether Edwards is too green to handle a project the size of ‘Godzilla’.  It’s a lot on his shoulders, and I would understand if he played it safe, or went with the studio’s agenda without much resistance.  In question also is his ability to handle a larger-than-life action picture, having jumped from conservative filmmaking to a film devoted to colorful excess.  I can’t answer either question, of course, but it has me somewhat worried.

‘Godzilla’ is a B-movie icon because of the violence inherent in the premise. Still, the creature was born from legitimate fears.  It’s not only possible, it’s certainly preferable to tell the story about the apocalyptic paranoia at its heart.  This, hopefully, is why Legendary hired Gareth Edwards.  I hope that he can prove the monster’s transcendence.  He’ll also have to deliver on the fiery intensity, awesome visuals, and monster mashes the franchise is known for.  For what my wishes are worth, I wish the project luck.  Go for it, folks.  Earn my ten dollars.

NR: Meet Me On Holodeck 3

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Today, piggy-backing off Collider’s report, I’m talking about 3D‘s evolution.  Thanks chiefly to James Cameron, nearly every major Hollywood player has bet it all on 3D.  I’ve been down on the technology in the past, as I prefer classic cinematography, but it is quite seductive.  Its justifies its existence by excellence and its potential to evolve into a daughter medium. Now, due to such innovators as Apple and Nintendo, the technology is outgrowing the need for uncomfortable, dimming glasses. Heck, in twenty years, my kids might be asking me for a holodeck without safeties.

Okay, so that’s unlikely for several reasons, but it’s clear the virtual world is outgrowing its bounds and establishing a beachhead in reality. We won’t dodge Agent Smith in The Matrix, we’ll be dodging him in the suburbs.

Okay, so that’s highly unlikely, too, but tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside, in a world economy fueled by ever-accelerating demand, 3D tech is sure to develop into a new brand of escapist virtuality easily distinguishable from cinema. Traditional films may find themselves in the place still photography is now to motion pictures; not disregarded by any means, but perhaps playing a semi-ancillary role to the “highest” medium, whatever we call 3D then. Obvious, this new virtuality effects video games as well. Just as older, simpler forms of gaming remain popular as increasingly complex systems grow, it’s likely that 2D gaming will survive, but in my mind’s eye, the effects on the gaming industry will be far more profound.

Whatever the case, it’s not necessary for film lovers to bemoan the inevitable rise of 3D, but it’s probably a good idea to catch up on William Gibson and Philip K. Dick novels, for when things get weird.