The Lesbian Image, Part 1

Radley Metzger's masterpiece Therese & Isabelle

Radley Metzger’s masterpiece Therese & Isabelle

Lesbians are one of the most highly codified social demographics to have ever existed on film. In comparison to their male counterparts, the lesbian image is years behind in terms of realist acceptability among mainstream American audiences. In most cases, a lesbian who appears on screen and is not depicted as sexually active appears as butch. Meanwhile, a lesbian who does appear sexually active on screen is highly feminized. This latter variety is often depicted as two femme’s, whose appearance caters to the heterosexual male idea of fetishized lesbianism as exemplified by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). These tactics polarize the lesbian community into two separate parts, and each part is void of any sort of character dimension as pertaining to their sexuality, thusly informing the popular consciousness that this plastic approximation of lesbianism is in fact realistic.

In 1973 film critic Joan Mellen wrote, at the height of America’s New Hollywood, in her book Women & Their Sexuality In The New Film that lesbians were predominantly depicted as predatory characters. In the course of the chapter Lesbianism In The Movies she cites Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing Of Sister George (1969) as just two of many films that support her thesis. Mellen writes “they (lesbians) appear either compulsively sadistic or masochistic, always possessive, jealous, hateful, and indeed ‘sick’ (page 74)”. She then singles out Radley Metzger’s Therese & Isabelle (1968) as a notable exception to this rule. Though Metzger does in fact strip his lesbian characters of their predatory nature, in contrast to the characterization of lesbians in his previous films such as The Alley Cats (1966), he does not stray away from the masculine gaze of his camera work nor the heterosexual fetishism of lesbian lovemaking.

Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

The removal of this fetishistic approach to the depiction of lesbianism would come some five years after Metzger’s film in the form of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1973). What Fassbinder is interested in is not the sexual fulfillment that David Lynch and Radley Metzger derive from lesbian sex between two femmes, but rather he seeks to imbue his lesbian characters with a dramatic and intimate struggle for power over the other. Superficially this may appear to be a digression into the predatory characterizations of early films, however, Fassbinder does not polarize this characterization, Fassbinder is democratic, endowing every lesbian character equally with predatory traits just as he also permits his characters to exist with greater dimension than Metzger. Still, Fassbinder’s film is only capable of freeing his lesbian characters within an intimate setting in which these characters do not interact with the world at large. Lesbianism, even in Fassbinder’s hands, is still relegated behind closed doors.

By contrast, the male homosexual dandy and comic relief of classic Hollywood was always out in the open. Though these characters were often not explicit about their homosexuality, they were permitted to move through a number of locales and were afforded a variety of different interactions with various characters. Homosexual filmmakers sought to liberate their subjects in a manner opposite to that of the lesbian image. Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour (1950) was scandalized, was labeled pornography for its depiction of homosexual males interacting intimately, despite there being a literal wall between the characters in the film. As lesbians sought to move out of the bedroom and away from fetishism, homosexuals endeavored to move in. If one compares the visual langue of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s My Hustler (1965) with that of Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) it is clear that in exterior shots the lesbians in Franco’s film are highly predatory, the total opposite of the passive flirtations in My Hustler. Likewise, Franco’s interior scenes of lesbian sex are essentially soft-core porn while My Hustler becomes intimate, real, and at times gentle in its depiction of male homosexuality.

Treut's aggressive depiction of lesbianism mirrors the works of Richard Kern.

Treut’s aggressive depiction of lesbianism mirrors the works of Richard Kern.

The next step towards liberation for lesbians in film would come in the eighties and would be totally indebted to the feminist films of the early seventies. Films like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) featured female protagonists who, when motivated by masculine suppression and societal mandates, rebel by running away, taking to the road as in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) in search of a better America and a truer self. German filmmaker Monika Treut transposed the aesthetic of Wanda and The Rain People into the milieu of San Francisco lesbian counter culture in her film Virgin Machine. What Treut does is realign the sociological components of these films to suit a lesbian protagonist. In her film it is fetishism that must be rebelled against as well as the two dimensional codification of femme or butch, and opened public spaces must be sought for non-predatorial acts of lesbian love. Virgin Machine is so successful in retaliating against the heterosexual control of lesbianism in film that it provided the blueprint for more aggressive homosexual male narratives in films by Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki.

-Robert Curry

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Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance

Albert Brooks’ second feature film Modern Romance (1981) is a satire unlike few others in popular cinema. As the title suggests, Brooks’ has honed his comical eye on the conventions of romance, but the film extends into the realm of reflexivity as it parodies the directorial excess that marked the American auteur films of the early eighties. However, the primary concern of Modern Romance is in fact with modern romance. To understand the conventions Brooks’ rails against in his film it is, for better or worse, necessary to determine where contemporary notions of what is romantic derive from.

It is well known that until the First World War the intelligentsia was predominantly of the European aristocracy. The customs and etiquette of this exclusive world have been popularized by the likes of Jane Austen for over a century. In the aristocratic world of privilege education was taken for granted and marriage a means of securing position. In this environment, where women marry men of equal or superior social rank, a fantasy was allowed to evolve. This fantasy existed out of necessity, a coping mechanism to ensure individual emotional sustainability. A woman married to a man for whom she harbors no genuine affection or admiration is likely to fantasize about a suitor driven by his love for her. Likewise another scenario that is equally probable is that of the male suitor who is totally obsessed with his romantic fixation on a particular female. Both fantasies offer what in reality is sorely lacking.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

These romantic fantasies have been permitted to permeate our popular culture since their conception, from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Though it is almost immediately clear that equating true love with obsession is in actual implementation quite unhealthy for all parties involved, relatively few artists have sought to discredit this notion. Surely Jane Austen felt it fit to weave a cautionary tale or two around this dilemma in both Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Theodor Fontane warns of the emotional death of a poorly made match in Effi Briest, in which the title protagonist’s obsession with another man causes irreparable damage to her relationship with her husband. Similarly, Goethe pinpoints the tragedy of romantic obsession with his bitter and tragic The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which ends in suicide. It is Brooks’ scrutiny of romantic conventions and expectations that place his film in the same critical realm as these novels by Austen, Fontane and Goethe.

Yet, Brooks is not particularly concerned with literature. His unique approach to discrediting popular romantic notions is certainly indebted, knowingly or not, to the novelists mentioned above, but his over all concerns are in the filmic tradition of narrative, which is by all means a direct descendant of the novel. Where Jane Austen’s protagonists were bookish and intellectually inquisitive, Robert (Albert Brooks) of Modern Romance is a neurotic film editor. The occupations and hobbies of Austen and Brooks’ protagonists pits them against the conventions of the mediums in which they exist by making them aware of the conventions of these mediums, either the novel or the film. The difference is that the proto-feminism of Austen’s protagonists places them in opposition of convention, Brooks’ Robert seeks to conform to the conventions of romance that exist only in the un-reality of film.

Robert’s obsession with his on-again off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathyrn Harrold) suffocates her identity and independence as much as it flatters her. What Brooks has done was to transpose the obsessiveness that is glorified as romance in films such as Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Roundtable (1953) and Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1952) into a contemporary setting. Where Robert Taylor’s pursuit of Ava Gardner was chivalrous in it’s context, now Brooks presents it as the fantasy fulfillment of a highly neurotic editor. Robert’s gestures of affection by no means match those of Taylor as Lancelot, but the parallel does point to the notion that such behavior is masculinely romantic. This parallel is successful in Modern Romance because like Gardner’s Queen, Mary is constantly smitten by such gestures. What Brooks does add to the equation in Modern Romance is the fruition of such behavior through to its logical course in the character of Robert. If a man is so determined and obsessed with possessing his partner as Lancelot is in our “modern” society, it only makes sense that he would stalk her and spy on her; Robert does both.

These romantic attributes of Robert’s character make him completely unlikeable. His behavior constantly jockeys Mary from intimacy to expulsion, break-up through to reunion. This kind of love affair, though exaggerated in Modern Romance, does in fact exist outside of the cinema in our reality. Even people I know conform to such behavior and some even go so far as to measure a lover’s commitment by their obsessive one mindedness as it pertains unto themselves. It is a sickness, and Brooks takes no prisoners in lampooning this sociological infection that began with the aristocracy so long ago.

Modern Romance does not, however, trace this conditioning as far back as that, instead settling on the cinema itself as the propagator of such immoral inclinations. Midway through the film Mary questions if Robert’s love for her is real or just “movie love”. This statement could very well be the thesis of Modern Romance, but Brooks takes his indictment of popular narrative cinema further in his scenes with Bruno Kirby editing a Star Wars (1977) knock off film featuring George Kennedy similar to the Roger Corman produced cult classic Star Crash (1979).

This George Kennedy science fiction epic signifies the uniformity of the Hollywood machine responsible for the sociological conditioning that has informed Robert’s romantic sensibilities. In Modern Romance, James L. Brooks plays the director of this sci-fi blockbuster, and voices all sorts of concerns from the sound of George Kennedy running to the use of the phrase “bowels of the ship” in his own film because the same phrase was used in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Similarly the 87-minute version of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is explicitly referenced at the conclusion of the foley sound sequence. These filmic reference points reflect the concern Hollywood has not only for mass-market accessibility, but intellectual closed mindedness. Both are symptoms of the same sickness that has contaminated Robert’s psyche and has shaped him into the neurotic mess that he is.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

Albert Brooks manages to skillfully balance these allegations with the comedic scenarios he puts his character Robert in. Often Brooks’ criticism of our media addicted society into the subtext of scenes by allowing the scenes to play out a superficial surface comedy. This balance that keeps Modern Romance cohesive can be largely credited to the film’s co-writer Monica Johnson, a veteran screenwriter of the sitcom.

This is largely the reason why Modern Romance, along with many others of Brooks’ films, has been unable to find a long-term niche audience. Unlike a writer and director such as Woody Allen, Brooks’ films do not cater to one kind of comedic sensibility at a time. Allen’s films range from high brow dramas like Another Woman to a kind of low brow escapist filmmaking like Bananas (1971), with each film concentrating on its supposed stylistic elements. Albert Brooks’ fidelity is not to the elitist auteur notion of comedian, but seeks instead to mask the more pointedly intellectual investigations and satires of his films behind an easily accessible humor akin to that of Nora Ephron or Elaine May.

That the comedic sensibilities of Modern Romance should be so closely linked to the aesthetics of two female filmmakers is also rather telling. Quite like Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) as well as Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Albert Brooks’ comedy about the sexes does not align any greater degree of audience sympathy with either the male or female sex, opting instead to equalize the two by developing neither the male nor the female characters in a way that presents them to be morally correct nor more virtuous. The history of film shows that the majority of filmmakers who are male, from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, will construct their relationship comedies to show either the male or the female is the “right” one, thus aligning the audience with either one sex or the other. In Modern Romance the male lead is despicable and needy just as his female counterpart is overly defensive and aloof, effectively negating the polarizing sexual politics of other film directors.

The sum of these various components is what keeps Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance from any kind of popular sustainability. The film, with its loud surface and intellectual subtexts, is just too dense to sit comfortably with most contemporary audiences. In America, audiences like to be told or shown who to root for, and to be instructed as to what intellectual notion is the most politically correct and acceptable at the moment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a new codification to romantic narrative seems so unattainable and distant.

-Robert Curry

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Favorite Cult Classics That You Probably Haven’t Seen, Part 3

None of the following films is particularly outstanding nor are they that unique. What can be said for these films is that they are all tremendously entertaining and certainly memorable. But most significantly, I was exposed to all of these films with my little brother Hank or my friend Dan, whose laughs are contagious, making them an ideal candidate for any cult film audience.

Luv (1967)

Luv publicity still featuring (from left to right) Jack Lemon, Elaine May, and Peter Falk.

Luv publicity still featuring (from left to right) Jack Lemon, Elaine May, and Peter Falk.

This film is generally thought of as Clive Donner’s weak follow-up to What’s New Pussycat? (1965). But this film is as loud and as campy as a middle-aged Jack Lemon can get. It must be said that Lemon’s best scene is when he rear-ends Harrison Ford’s car and Harrison Ford gets out and punches Lemon. Otherwise, it’s pretty much Peter Falk and Elaine May’s show.

 

The Human Tornado (1976)

Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) post-intercourse

Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) post-intercourse

I love Rudy Ray Moore’s albums Eat Out More Often and The Moans & Groans Of Love, and this film is the best translation of his unique comic styling to the silver screen, mainly due to the film’s talented director (and often Rudy Ray Moore collaborator) Cliff Roquemore. In just the opening alone we find Dolemite in bed with the sheriff’s wife. When the sheriff catches them in bed, his wife accuses Dolemite of raping her. To this accusation Dolemite replies “Bitch! Are you for real?”, and then dives naked out of the window. We then cut to a naked Dolemite sailing through the air about to land and roll down a hill when the film freezes. In voice over, Dolemite asks “Y’all didn’t think I could do that?” Then the film rewinds and replays. The Human Tornado is ridiculous, crude and totally self-aware. It’s by far my favorite Rudy Ray Moore experience.

 

Vibes (1988)

Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk on location.

Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk on location.

 

This film is about twice as ludicrous as The Human Tornado. Any film where Peter Falk can quite seriously wonder aloud “Maybe she bounced” has to be seen and enjoyed. Add to that the director, Ken Kwapis, would go on to helm such films as Dunston Checks In (1996), and a cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Cyndi Lauper and Julian Sands in the leads and you have one of the greatest cult films ever made. If you still need convincing, check out this plot summary courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Lauper plays Sylvia Pickel (pronounced with an emphasis on the “kel”, as she points out), a trance-medium who has contact with a wisecracking spirit guide named Louise. She first began communicating with Louise after falling from a ladder at the age of twelve and remaining comatose for two weeks. Subsequently, Louise taught her astral projection while Sylvia was placed in special homes for being ‘different’. She meets fellow psychic Nick Deezy (Goldblum), a psychometrist who can determine the history of events surrounding an object by touching it, at a study of psychics. Sylvia has a history of bad luck with men, and her overly flirtatious behavior turns off Nick right away.

Sylvia comes home to her apartment one night to find Harry Buscafusco (Falk) lounging in her kitchen. He claims to want to hire her for fifty thousand dollars if she will accompany him to Ecuador where his son has allegedly gone missing. Sylvia recruits Nick who is reluctant but also eager to leave his job as a museum curator where his special talents are abused like a circus act.”

-Robert Curry

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Harwood & Cassavetes: Thoughts Concerning An Aesthetic

John Cassavetes and his films are noted for many things, but rarely is much attention given to Cassavetes’ collaboration with composer Bo Harwood. Like many of Cassavetes’ closest collaborators (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Al Ruban, Sam Shaw, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery) Bo Harwood contributed his talents to a number of Cassavetes’ films, often supplying sound design skills in addition to his compositional talent.

John Cassavetes and Bo Harwood

John Cassavetes and Bo Harwood

Beginning with Minnie & Moskowitz (1971) with a musical supervisor credit, Harwood made his first mark on the cinema of John Cassavetes. However, Minnie & Moskowitz does not feature any of Harwood’s original pieces, but is instead a film with a soundtrack of found music. Harwood, under Cassavetes’ supervision co-selected the tracks from numerous sources and applied them to the film. Unlike most films, these musical cues were entirely diegetic, motivated by natural occurrences, often at the hands of the characters within the film. This technique would be the dominant style Cassavetes would employ in his subsequent films with very few exceptions.

The opening music as well as the music on the beach in A Woman Under The Influence (1975) marks such exceptions. These sparse piano pieces are original Harwood compositions. But even these non-diegetic music pieces do not totally mask the diegetic sound of the scene. This not only keeps the audience grounded in the reality of the film, but indicates an interest in marrying both non-diegetic and diegetic sounds together as one (which is further supported by Harwood’s work as the sound recorder for the film). This same marrying of sounds reoccurs in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) in which Harwood will abruptly bring excerpts of his music in and out of the diegetic soundtrack without the use of fades, thus punctuating Cosmo Vitelli’s tension early in the film when he paces outside of The Crazy Horse.

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is also significant for the songs in the film, which Harwood wrote with lyrics by Cassavetes. This model of songwriting would repeat in Opening Night (1978) and Love Streams (1975). Love Streams would be the last film Cassavetes and Harwood would do together and would also mark their most complete and mature collaboration on the operetta sequence near the end of the film. This fantasy dream sequence features the actors singing their own parts while Harwood and other musicians accompany them in a string quartet. In both cinematic and musical terms this sequence is singular in all of Cassavetes’ filmography. The scene now, most appropriately, stands as a testament to Harwood and Cassavetes’ decade long collaboration.

-Robert Curry

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Jon Tomlinson

When I first started working with Jon Tomlinson he was working at Wade’s Comic Madness. I had been going to Wade’s since I was a kid since it was conveniently located near my grandmother’s house. Jon probably sold me a dozen or more comic books and action figures before I ever asked him to be in a film. I was a junior at University Of The Arts when I asked him if he wanted to be in a film I was doing for class titled Harrington Strange.

Jon and Lauren in an outtake from Harrington Strange

Jon and Lauren in an outtake from Harrington Strange

We shot Harrington Strange at my family’s house in Hulmeville in the fall of 2009. Jon came over with a bag of wardrobe options for me. He was far more prepared than either Lauren or Marissa, his co-stars. The film was shot in about four hours. This is how Jon and I began working together. I was so taken with his performance that I wrote my first film specifically for him called The Deadbeat, which we shot in a day early in December. After that, Jon was in almost all of my films for UArts.

Jon, being six years my senior, had an understanding about filmmaking, a kind of courage really. He was able to instill that courage into me. I remember preparing to shoot For The Love Of Marty and being nervous about asking Annie R. Such to do another film with me since her previous venture with Jon and I was a bit of a mess. Jon told me “it never hurts to ask”. I didn’t fully realize it till a few productions later that that sentiment is essential to the success of a project, at least with the kind of budgets I have. Since For The Love Of Marty I have employed Jon’s approach on every shoot and always with positive, and sometimes surprising, results.

By the time I graduated, Jon had acted in fourteen of my short films (Harrington Strange, The Deadbeat, Terribly In Love With Her, My Heart Once Wandered Free, For The Love Of Marty, She Called Him A Bastard, Bingo, The Man Who Loves Less Has More Power, The Baptism Of Isabelle, The Tenant Of Vanderventer Court, I Can’t Seem To Wrangle The Thoughts In My Brain, Preventorium Road, Scenes From An American Dream, and Film From A Dream). By 2012, he had been in four more (The Riots Of Spring, In The Wake Of Death, The Sweeter Dreams Of An Itinerant Woman, and Early One Morning). Sadly, for the first year of Zimbo Films I made my films without Jon. Often I had him in mind for different parts, but things just never followed through on my end. However, in 2013 I was able to get Jon to perform in two small supporting rolls in my first two features, An Atrocious Woman and Bitches.

In one of our two on screen appearances together, Jon and I in Dan Dickerson's Midnight Heat

In one of our two on screen appearances together, Jon and I in Dan Dickerson’s Midnight Heat

It was very important to me that Jon was in my first features. He is a mentor and a friend, and to exclude him from that would have been terrible. When you work in film the very nature of the medium amplifies the roles people play in your life, forcing you to remember different things more clearly than you would sometimes like. Working as I do, using a number of the same players, one can clearly trace when someone entered and then exited my life by watching my films. I guess since Jon turned 32 yesterday I have realized how glad I am that he’s still doing my films and in my life. Thank you for everything Jon.

-Robert Curry

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Favorite Cult Classics That You Probably Haven’t Seen, Part 2

One of the most attractive things about cult films is the sense of belonging they can bring. There’s an inherent elitism to cult films.  To see a particularly rare cult film, such was the case with David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) in the nineties, gives one and one’s friends this sense of exclusivity that brings them together.  Most cinephiles are familiar with these occurrences whether they recognized it or not.  When I was a teenager, making weekly trips to Movies Unlimited in North East Philadelphia, I was able to rent extremely hard to find titles to share with my friend Danny. Some films, such as Lommel’s Blank Generation (1980), weren’t just bizarre novelty escapades on celluloid but were of some critical value that lead to seeking out other films, such as Lommel’s Cocaine Cowboys (1979).  This was the nature of the video store and its function in establishing the social aspect of the cult film experience.  The three films I discuss and recommend in the following blog post are all titles I initially saw as a teenager, and had been rented from video stores back in the early 2000s.

 

The Terror Of Tiny Town (1938)

The Terror Of Tiny Town

Billy Curtis stars in the only all-little person musical western directed by Sam Newfield and produced by Jed Buell. The film is standard Roy Rogers fair except for the casting.  Many consider this one of the worst films ever made, but its otherworldly execution makes it a “must see” cult film.

 

Bill & Coo (1948)

a behind the scenes look at shooting Bill & Coo

a behind the scenes look at shooting Bill & Coo

George Burton’s trained birds are the only stars of this fantasy film in which the world is one giant bird civilization. Dean Riesner, the film’s writer/director, has constructed one of the most unique children’s films of all time utilizing nothing more than a narrator to propel the narrative and lend the feathered performers depth.  The film was so unique and so well crafted for what it was that it won an honorary Oscar the year it was released.  Adult audiences today will more likely equate their viewing experience to surrealism, not fantasy. But seeing this film as a boy I was captivated by its quirky charm.

 

The Gardener aka Seeds Of Evil (1975)

The Gardener

After making a number of films with Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol actor Joe Dallesandro starred in this oddball thriller. Dallesandro plays a seductive gardener, seducing affluent women left and right.  The primary concern of the film is not with the narrative, but rather with providing reasonable scenarios in which Dallesandro can be seen in the nude.  The Gardener is not particularly enjoyable for those who aren’t already fans of Dalesandro, nor is it anything of real substance beyond its use as a historic document of sexual sensibilities in the mid-seventies. However, the climax of the film may be enough to justify non-Dalesandro fans sitting through the first ninety minutes.

-Robert Curry

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Post-Modern Spectacles

With regards to the cinema, a spectacle is a series of images endowed with sensational content meant to tantalize an audience.  These images may occur in one single scene of a film or throughout.  What makes these particular images a spectacle is the fact that they function around a superficial stimulation of the audience derived from either the sex appeal of an actor, the scale of a special effect, or a pervasiveness in violence and gore.  Certain films employ the spectacle throughout, and rely on the spectacle to entertain the audience, keeping them hooked with superficial thrills.

Spectacle is the defining attribute of mainstream narrative filmmaking in America today.  And what is the mainstream? Any film produced by or distributed by one of the five major Hollywood studio conglomerates, ranging in style and genre from the popular Harry Potter franchise, Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby (2013) to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2013) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises (2012). These films have been born out, in terms of their aesthetic execution and concern with mass marketability, of a long standing tradition in Hollywood that has only become more and more distilled with the advent of the blockbuster or “event” film. This trend towards spectacle is a post-modern notion, dependent not only on the most rudimentary genre conventions and narrative tropes but also careful market research. As this trend has progressed, so has the bankruptcy of American film literacy.

Consider now the movie serials such as Flash Gordon and Superman. Each episode was carefully constructed to be the pinnacle of escapism and a total encapsulation of not only the serials’ genre, but also the narrative conventions that accompany the featured characters.  For instance it is inevitable that in any episode of a Superman serial that the title character would be featured in flight, that Jimmy Olsen and/or Lois Lane would get into trouble in search of a newspaper story that would some how end in a cliffhanger.  In this way, as television would quickly come to learn in the following decade, the serial not only gave the audience what it demanded (and every time with only the slightest moderation) but also left that audience craving more of the same.  The contemporary notion of spectacle is simply a grandiose effort on behalf of the studios to cash in on these conventions.

George Lucas' Star Wars (1977)

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977)

Of course the realization that a two-hour feature film with an astronomical budget could in fact function as a serial was very much the brainchild of director/producer George Lucas, whose Star Wars films popularized this technique for the first time in 1977. What Lucas and his Star Wars films did was to negate any topical political reading by ardently adhering to the conventions of the Science Fiction movie serial, a ploy that gave audiences a total escape from an America in the clutches of post-Watergate depression and a cinema of social and cultural awareness. These various components of the films and the socio-political climate into which they were released made Lucas millions of dollars.  The success of Star Wars inevitably spawned a multitude of equally successful imitations from the major studios such as Robert Wise’s Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979), Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie (1978), and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).  All of these films are dependent not only on special effects, but pre-established character types (or in the case of Star Trek and Superman, pre-established characters and accompanying signifiers) as well as a single moral commentary.  For instance, Raiders Of The Lost Ark teaches us one rough idealistic American individual is all it takes to thwart the schemes of Fascism. Where Star Wars was content with its simplification of Joseph Campbell’s scholarly concept of good versus evil, these films branch out into a more sophisticated territory where one moral issue may be addressed.

It goes without saying that not all of these precursors to the contemporary notion of spectacle were franchises.  It just wasn’t necessary to adopt the serial format literally if films of a particular genre stuck to what is best described as a stylistic blueprint. A film like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) resembles Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) enough that audiences were happy to ignore Jurassic Park’s many short comings, much in the same way Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is indebted to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer who were smart enough to bank on this format in the nineties were almost always assured a large return on their investments.  However, when one makes a film like The Rock (1996) you have to one up the star caliber and the special effects while maintaining a simplicity of narrative and character development in a follow-up feature, Con-Air (1997) and once again with the epic Armageddon (1998).  Other films that have counted on this format and audience trends and were able to find considerable success were Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible (1996), Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye (1995), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Chuck Russell’s Eraser (1996), Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987), Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994) and many more.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)

There have been successful attempts at combining the spectacle of action and violence or the budding romance between two well-established film stars with more intellectual commentaries in certain films.  John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) is a film that balances the cheap thrills of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman sporting guns and puns with a sharp piece of social commentary and a sensibility for the ironic.  Die Hard’s balance of aesthetics, though not quite perfect, is derived from the film’s self-awareness. The satirical nature of Die Hard is not common place in the action genre nor in the popular blockbuster, whose very nature is to avoid self-awareness at all costs for fear of the audience stepping out of the blockbuster’s narrative and accessing the film for what it is, pure spectacle.  However, this dilemma, when coupled with nostalgia, is precisely what has made The Expendables franchise so successful in recent years.

Many of the conventions of the nineties blockbuster spectacle provide perfect examples of the ready-made signifiers apparent in films today. The Nicolas Cage character in The Rock is a geek, boasting about his recent acquisition of a rare Beatles LP.  But we also know he is “manly” because of the steamy sex scene he has shortly there after.  In this way Cage is the sexy nerd character type and the audience accepts that, and will look for and find similar signifiers in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman (2012).  This shorthand is the kind used in old film serials, and can therefore be equated to the archetypal character conventions on which Star Wars is entirely dependent.

This approach to minimalist characterization is perhaps best exemplified by The Great Gatsby. The characterization in this film is in fact so weak that it doesn’t exist at all.  Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby, but we don’t need to get to know or understand Gatsby because we, the audience, know DiCaprio from James Cameron’s Titanic (1998) and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004). DiCaprio is always sexy, he is always deep and with a hidden dark side, and he is a self made man; these are the attributes associated with the actor DiCaprio when he is on screen so that is what the audience projects onto him when he appears in the role of Gatsby. The same is also true for both Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (2013)

But just as characterization has suffered with an increased focus on spectacle in the name of profit, so has morality.  Though some films maintain a complicated philosophical commentary such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011), most films vie for the simplicity of Zach Snyder’s Man Of Steel (2013).  After over two hours of bravura special effects and gratuitous fight scenes better suited to a video game we find the moral of the film’s story is the same as Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002); with great power comes great responsibility, so don’t kill anyone Superman. Now if we return to Die Hard for a moment we can better chart the steady decline of moral complexity as the franchise continues from the original film of 1988 to the present.  After the original film, the social commentary and satirical sophistication abandoned the franchise with McTiernan’s departure.

The biggest problem is not that films aren’t especially sophisticated if they are blockbusters, but rather the ramifications these films have had on the cinema at large.  A film like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan had all of the emotional and moral potential of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), but negated all of that for what amounts to nothing more than a rescue drama centered around a small group of men where each is representative of one clear character type and therefore without dimension.  The spectacle of the landing on the beach in Normandy, all forty minutes of murderous mayhem and alleged realism, is meant to stimulate the audience, to sell the film as a legitimate historical text into which the audience can therefore invest its trust. In this way audiences aren’t so quick to catch Spielberg’s adherence to a very conservative American notion of political correctness that is actually borderline racist (reconsider Amistad and Lincoln for a second).

This brings us back to the ramifications of these spectacles. If a spectacle is produced for a consumer, and the consumer wants more, so the spectacle gets bigger. Raising in turn the question where is there room for true artistic expression in mainstream cinema?

-Robert Curry

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