Talking Movies

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

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May 9, 2010

Saving Superman – Some Suggestions

Christopher Nolan has been formally entrusted with ‘mentoring’ a new Superman film for Warner Bros (before 2012 in order to avoid nightmarish legal complications). This means he’ll be inundated with inane ‘The Dark Man of Steel’ scripts, witless nonsense featuring a fight with a giant spider in the third act (yes, Jon Peters, we’ve all seen Kevin Smith’s routine about your idée fixe), and disastrous attempts to follow on faithfully from Superman fighting a giant island in the third act… So, here are some suggestions for angles that might help make the original superhero soar again.

Clark Kent is the base of reality on top of which you build the fantasy of Superman, creating what Richard Donner carefully described as verisimilitude rather than realism. Why not really go to town with world of the Daily Planet so that it comes off as a bustling amalgam of His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men? Clark’s ability as a journalist has propelled him into the world’s leading newspaper – he doesn’t have to bring down the President but have you ever seen him do anything at that office besides fall over the furniture? It would be nice to see Clark file some copy… It would also be refreshing to see Lois Lane engaged in investigative journalism rather than just being in peril – how typical that she won her Pulitzer in Singer’s film for an Op-Ed piece. Jeph Loeb and Darywn Cooke write Lois terrifically because in their stories it’s her overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop that always gets into her danger: Lois is a ‘newspaperman’, she lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you.

Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. Lois sneered at Superman’s motto ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in 1978 but he reclaimed the phrase for righteousness – it didn’t have to mean Watergate in that film, and it doesn’t have to mean the War on Terror now. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics. Superman was released after the disaster of the Nixon years, surely any new film would tap into a similar shift in the zeitgeist of American self-perception?

As for the other side of the Supercoin enough with the shady land deals of Lex Luthor already! We don’t need a new rendering of Superman’s origin myth but it would be nice to re-imagine his first encounter with Lex Luthor to cinematically introduce Lex not as a dodgy estate agent but as a billionaire bent on world domination. What makes Lex the best nemesis for Superman is his challenge to Superman’s code. Superman could snap this puny human’s neck in a fraction of a second except he would never do that. Equally Lex would never be sloppy enough to leave any incriminating evidence of his wrongdoing. It would be nice to see Superman’s immense and growing frustration from being unable to expose or punish a white-collar criminal who he knows to be corrupt and depraved while the world only sees and sympathises with a noted philanthropist being unjustly victimised by an alien with the powers of a god. This is to say nothing of the potential for dramatic conflict if Lex Luthor was to run for President testing Superman’s code to the limit as the greater good would be imperilled by his moral insistence on bringing Lex to legal justice. As for sequel villains, Singer was unwilling to stray from the Donner template of General Zod, but if the preposterous Smallville was able to pull off a fine Brainiac when Steven S DeKnight wrote the part for James Marsters in T-1000 mode as the Kryptonian A.I., surely a similarly styled Brainiac can work as a filmic villain too?

All anyone talks about when it comes to re-launching Superman are the problems – from the blandness of Superman, to the weakness of Lois, to the dramatic inertia of invulnerability, and the scarcity of traditional super-villains with universal name recognition compared to Batman’s extensive Rogues’ Gallery. Would it not then make sense to hire comics writers who deal with these problems on a monthly basis? Mark Millar alleged two years ago that he had an outline for a re-booting trilogy. Ask him for that outline! Hire Jeph Loeb to do a draft of a script. Beg Darwyn Cooke to write a treatment. Contact Paul Dini, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Round up all these guys and stick them in a writers’ room in the Warner back-lot. Hell, even see if Alan Moore could stop filing law-suits for long enough to contribute some ideas.

Superman is tricky to pull off cinematically but if the thought of writing

INT. DAILY PLANET-DAY Clark moves towards the window and opens his shirt.

doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of some of these writers then and only then will the possibilities of re-launching Superman have been dwarfed by the difficulties.

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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