Tag Archives: Star Wars

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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Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-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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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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On Harrison Ford

This piece is dedicated to my good friend and trusted cinematographer Steve Schneider.

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Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to two Tom Clancy novels in the late eighties that they turned over to Phillip Noyce, a veteran director of thrillers, to direct as vehicles for actor Harrison Ford.  In both of Noyce’s films, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear & Present Danger (1994), Harrison Ford plays CIA Deputy Of Intelligence Jack P. Ryan, assuming a role played by Alec Baldwin in the film The Hunt For Red October (1990).  These two films were a successful attempt by Paramount to cash in on the anticipation of the first Pierce Brosnan Bond film Golden Eye (1995) and the box office sensation that was Harrison Ford.  As films Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger are both modest espionage thrillers with very little in the way of anything exceptional to offer audiences.  What is interesting about these films is how their star, Harrison Ford, acts as a kind of barometer to a change in taste and a change in the times.

Consider Harrison Ford’s two previous franchises, where he played two very similar but equally iconic characters, Indiana Jones and Star Wars.  As either Dr. Henry Jones Jr. or Han Solo, Ford epitomized the freewheeling’ and independent macho male with a darker, more sensitive side.  These two characters reflect a baby boomer ideology, a perception of what it means to be “a man” as the seventies faded into the eighties.  Neither Indiana Jones nor Han Solo have any responsibilities except to themselves and their own ideals, and both characters also function as chivalrous romantics.

By the time Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan on the big screen, nearly a decade had passed since he last played Han Solo in Return Of The Jedi (1983).  In the decade that had lapsed the baby boomers that thrilled to the adventures of Han Solo and his courtship of Princess Leia had all gotten married and found a means of a stable income.  The situation baby boomers found themselves in during the early nineties is very similar to the domestic life of Harrison Ford’s character of Jack Ryan.  Ryan is married, he has children, he has a stable job, and it is even alluded to that he was a Vietnam War veteran.  In this way Harrison Ford’s life on screen mirrors that of the audience just as it had in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

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Even the threats to Harrison Ford’s happiness metamorphosed on the screen from Nazis and Death Stars to terrorists and drug cartels.  Jack Ryan’s (and in turn Harrison Ford’s image’s) concerns are real ones, are problems that are as tangible in the “real world”, or at least as tangible as a Hollywood blockbuster can afford to be.  But this shift away from the fantastic does not carry over into the kind of action hero antics Harrison Ford finds himself in.  Ford as Jack Ryan is still as superhuman and pure as Indiana Jones or Han Solo.  This suggests that audiences associate Ford’s aptitude for heroics on screen not with his characters but rather with himself, the actor playing the part.

-Robert Curry

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Star Trek: The Kind Of Blockbuster We Need

If you know me personally, then you know I idolize Captain James Tiberius Kirk.  I’m not embarrassed.  Anyhow, last weekend I saw my brother.  Like any time we get together Star Trek comes up.  We both love Star Trek.  So, I’d just like to thank him for always making time to talk Star Trek with me, cause without those conversations, you would not be able to read the following article.

The Hollywood blockbuster has become a staple in the American experience.  At Christmas or during the summer, studios unleash action-packed franchise films to audiences craving escape.  Of all the Hollywood franchises and blockbusters, the original six Star Trek features are among the most iconic and the most unconventional.  Helmed by Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, Jack B. Sowards, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner, the Star Trek franchise was able to revive itself after a long hiatus and launch numerous spinoffs.

But it is the conventions of a Star Trek film that make them a different kind of blockbuster.  Films like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, the Rambo films, and Aliens all have a distinct affiliation towards big special effects, an abundance of action, and a lot of cheap thrills.  While on the other hand, your average adventure with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has a lot of special effects, a little action, and some suspense.  The reason Star Trek is still successful as a blockbuster despite these differences is the characters.  During the three years Star Trek ran on television, it established its characters with audiences nation wide.  In fact, it was the audience demand for more Star Trek that brought about the six subsequent films.  That said, each Star Trek film has had the luxury of telling the story of the characters James T. Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) rather than manufacturing a fast paced narrative in which character comes as a second priority.

Every Star Trek film has at its base a revelation.  In Star Trek: The Motion Picture Kirk comes to realize his higher rank and older age have distanced him from the man he once was at the helm of the original series.  In the second film, The Wrath Of Khan, Kirk must not only atone for Khan’s fate, but for that of his broken marriage and abandoned son.  Each film works like this, foregrounding the personal conflicts of Kirk against what would be the narrative of a blockbuster.  But even putting it like that does little justice to the weighty messages the narratives of these films bolster.  The Undiscovered Country deals, in a strictly narrative sense, with the Cold War, and with racial tensions.  This kind of plotting makes the Star Trek films not only extremely relevant to their time of release, but again during the second or third viewing.  I am joining the chorus when I say that the endurance of Star Trek is primarily due to the timelessness of its stories, on TV or in the cinemas.

Another decidedly different factor between Star Trek and most conventional blockbusters is the age of its cast.  By the time they had completed their final film in 1992, all the cast was into their fifties.  Yet, despite the age of the films stars, only the first film sports younger cast members in an attempt to engage a new target audience.  And these two characters don’t even appear in the next five films.  What audiences wanted and expected was the now middle-aged crew of the original series.  The Star Trek films don’t shy away from addressing the crew’s age either.  Every film contains a reference or an allegory concerning mortality.  It’s a question posed to Kirk in almost every film whether he is too old to be commanding the Enterprise.

By their very nature one would not suspect Star Trek of being blockbuster gold.  The films number six and span over a decade, proving without a doubt their financial certainty.  Looking now at the blockbusters that have been released in the passed decade, one doesn’t see any blockbusters of this nature.  Even Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy lacks the clear and believable characters that Star Trek boasts.  George Lucas’ second-wave of Star Wars films are anything but natural and relevant.  So audiences are left with a void where Star Trek used to be.  Star Trek can’t come back, not in this incarnation anyway.  So a new franchise has to fill the shoes of Star Trek, providing provocative and character driven blockbusters to audiences every summer.

-Robert Curry

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