Tag Archives: James Cameron

Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Sister Act & True Lies: Genre In The 90s Blockbuster

The mechanics of genre are as complicated in their motives as is their perpetual state of flux as these mechanics adapt to follow new trends in media.  The most obvious case being the Western, whose metamorphoses at the hands of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci indicated not only a desire for more sex and violence in the genre, but a more Freudian approach to the films’ characters.  In fact, most books dealing with an overview of cinematic history divide the progression of the Western into two distinct halves; before The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) and afterwards.  Despite the obvious differences between the Westerns of “then” and “now”, there are in the genre a set of unchanging aesthetic principles, and it is these principles that define the Western, justifying the very label of “genre”.  Westerns typically center on a protagonist finding redemption and overcoming his or her own inherent “evil” for the good of a community or a virtuous protagonist at odds with a massive “evil” force such as Apache, avalanches, sand storms, cattle barons, a gang, etc.  It is in these two basic character and narrative types that the Western attempts (and rarely succeeds) to construct an allegory for America.  But not all genres are as dynamically defined or as popular as the Western.  Some genres are so obscure that they exist only as sub-genres under the umbrella of larger and more abstract categorizations like “comedy”, “drama” or “horror”.

Sister Act

When The Walt Disney Company released Sister Act (1992) through Touchstone Pictures they sold the film as a family comedy and targeted parents with children between the ages of 8 and 14 as their primary demographic.  In part this was meant to cash-in on the built-in fan base for Nun comedies instilled in the parents by Sally Field’s The Flying Nun television show as well as to appeal to those who grew-up and were fans of Motown.  But to be fresh, new, and exciting Sister Act could not follow the formulas of The Flying Nun or other popular depictions of Nuns in the media like Lilies Of The Field (1963) and The Nun’s Story (1959) anymore than a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle could recreate the lack of success of Nuns On The Run (1990).  Instead screenwriter Joseph Howard and director Emile Ardolino returned to a tried and true Disney formula freshly imbued with the same nightclub edginess that made Pretty Woman (1990) one of Disney’s highest grossing films of the nineties.

The tried and true Disney formula I refer to first occurred at the height of Fred MacMurray’s tenure with the studio.  The basic premise, exemplified by Follow Me, Boys! (1966), concerns a protagonist who is forced to take charge of a group of misfits and imprint these misfits with the protagonist’s own personality traits, thus creating a surrogate family where the protagonist belongs.  Ironically this formulaic plot is the antithesis to popular culture’s preferred depiction of Nuns since the boom of the porn industry in the early seventies.  From Boccaccio’s The Decameron to Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) to Norifumi Suzuki’s School Of The Holy Beast (1982), Nuns have been portrayed as lesbian sodomites, a far cry from the sweet and familial Nuns under Maggie Smith’s care in Sister Act.  Oddly, Disney took it upon itself to project its typical family film plots into arenas where one would hardly suspect.  Where Sister Act puts Whoopi Goldberg into a Nunnery to rejuvenate the family film genre, Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) puts Ray Liotta, Danny Glover and Denis Leary in Vietnam with an elephant to keep up interest in their live-action family films.

In short, Sister Act is the redressing of a genre to perpetuate box office receipts.  This is not always a negative trend in the cinema, and in the early to mid-nineties it was a hugely popular approach.  Which brings us to James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).  What Cameron sets out to do, and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging.  The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places.  For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead.  Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton).  The subject of marital difficulty is not often a part of the action movie vernacular in this respect.  Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved.  Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstance in which the situation has come to exist.  The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess.  This very well could have been the case if not for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).

What both True Lies and Sister Act are indicative of is a desire to manipulate genre to re-sell narratives and celebrities all too familiar to audiences.  The degree of innovation, however successful or not, points to the possibilities that are often overlooked in favor of remakes or adaptations from other visual media.

-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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