Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter

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In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.

When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?

Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?

Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance)  while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.

The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.

The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.

Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.

This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.

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By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).

Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2017

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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Filed under Winter 2017

From Nicolas Cage To Racism In The Movies

Nicolas Cage in Time To Kill

Nicolas Cage in Time To Kill

Ever since the early 2000s it’s been in vogue, at least on the Internet, to make a mockery of Nicolas Cage. Of course, some of Nicolas Cage’s films have been, as they are in every actor’s career, lacking, that should not detract from the artist’s work as a career-spanning whole. In fact there are a number of films Cage did early in his career that are worth revisiting and may help restore some of the public’s respect, a respect I believe Mr. Cage deserves. It is important, however, to remember that for the most part Cage’s early career was set against being typecast, and found the actor taking a variety of roles in a diverse selection of films; a tactic Johnny Depp would also employ during the early days of his film career. That all said, the film I would like to draw attention to is the Italian film by Giuliano Montaldo titled Le Raccourci (which in America was released as Time To Kill) from 1989.

Cage’s character Lt. Silvestri is the focus of this character study, an Italian musketeer stationed in Africa in the year 1936. Upon wrecking a truck, Silvestri, suffering from a toothache, sets out across a desert. There he encounters an Ethiopian woman, whom he rescues from an assault, only to accidently shoot the woman on accident while attempting to kill a snake. Silvestri had, by the time he kills the Ethiopian woman, had intercourse with his companion. By the time Silvestri rejoins his regiment headquarters, he suspects he has contracted leprosy from the Ethiopian woman. The remained of the film chronicles Silvestri’s slow psychological deterioration as he copes with his suspicions.

Cage’s performance is pointed and subtle, negating cliché by adopting a very natural quality devoid of the heroic nature attributed to male leads in this kind of genre picture. What is more interesting is how Montaldo uses leprosy as a metaphor for Silvestri’s guilt. Silvestri, an Italian and clearly Catholic, is unable to reconcile his actions towards the Ethiopian woman and the fate which he believes has befallen him. For Silvestri, leprosy has become the penance he must pay for his deeds. On a grander scale, Silvestri’s emotional turmoil and how it was brought about becomes an allegory for 20th century Imperialism and its long history in the Western world. Thusly, with one simple narrative arch Montaldo is able to chastise both the debilitating effects of Catholicism on the modern world and the constant intervening of the Western world in the affairs of Africa and the Middle East.

Robert De Niro in The Mission

Robert De Niro in The Mission

Themes of anti-Imperialism and pro-isolationism, as a political concept, had become a trend in big budget dramas of the late 80s during the first Bush administration. Director Roland Joffe tackled such themes in his critically acclaimed film The Mission (1986) starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro. And, like Montaldo uses Silvestri, Joffe uses the Robert DeNiro Rodrigo character to articulate the contrast between the moral right and the political wrong. Though The Mission is set in the Amazon Jungle of the 1750s, the film has the same points to make about Western intervention in other countries. However, Joffe’s film advocates a universal spiritual understanding between cultures that may in fact be the answer to all conflict. The issue with The Mission therefore becomes that this spiritual ideology is rooted in none other than the Catholic Church, a concept in direct opposition to the sociological thinking at work in Time To Kill.

Both The Mission and Time To Kill suffer the same ultimate fate of being the contrived liberal re-imagining of history where the proponents of change are martyred on the altar of racial equality. That is to say that despite both films’ efforts to be as sympathetic to the native peoples depicted therein, neither filmmaker is capable of understanding those people to the degree with which they understand themselves. So the films struggle to approximate a Western audience’s idea of those native peoples without adhering to the racist iconography that would signify bigotry or ignorance. Both films would have fared better had they adopted Werner Herzog’s approach to depicting a native people in his film Fitzcarraldo (1982).

What Herzog does that Joffe and Montaldo do not is to keep the native peoples as foreign to the audience as they are to the film’s protagonist, which is of course Klaus Kinski. In this way Herzog demonstrates the ignorance of invasive settlers and the absurd assumptions with which they come equipped while simultaneously equating the appropriation of native people’s lands with the egotistical wish fulfillment of Kinski’s opera house. Herzog avoids the Pandora’s box that Joffe and Montaldo open in their films. Unlike Herzog, Montaldo and Joffe are immensely concerned with humanizing a non-Westernized culture in Western terms. So, no matter how well meaning, racial archetypes still pervade the film, even if only on the peripherals.

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman?

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman?

Como Era Gostoso O Meu Frances (1971) or How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman? is still the definitive film text on Western expansion and Imperialism. Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman shows the European Imperialist much in the same way Herzog depicts Fitzcarraldo, though in this case with the Brazilian natives as the film’s center. In one of cinema’s rare instances an audience is able to see and understand the invasive nature of Imperialism and the strangeness of European culture from an outsider’s perspective. Dos Santos avoids Western iconography and cinematic signifiers. Instead, the film contains 90% wide shots that are almost always static, conjuring a kind of theatricality that is thusly negated due to the lack of communication via dialogue in the film. This literally casts the audience as outsider observers, constantly aware of how powerless they are and how inevitable the culture clash is. By subverting with his cinematic style any strong emotional attachments to the film’s characters on the part of the audience, dos Santos is able to convey his anti-Imperialist and his anti-Catholic ideology without the baggage that is inherent in the approach Joffe and Montaldo take to similarly themed films.

What remains the most startling conclusion here has actually very little to do with the effectiveness of A Time To Kill or The Mission. Rather, the major problem with Western filmmaking is that despite the film’s subject, entertainment value must remain the priority. How else could Steven Spielberg’s anti-slavery film Amistad still manage to be grotesquely racist?

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2014

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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