Sunday, January 06, 2008

Trends to Watch Out For in 2008 #1: the derivative cinema

This is a three-part entry on some trends I've noticed in the cinema coming in 2008. I did a short review of upcoming movies, mostly using the list found here: Slashfilm's Must-See Movies of 2008, and I came to some thoroughly premature judgments on the films we have to look forward to in the coming year. First, I'll dispense with the over-generalizations.

I can't BELIEVE the number of films that are built on recognizable source material. I mean, I know these have always been out there... adaptations, sequels, and remakes... but now, in 2008, I feel like a sweeping majority of films are depending on their source material for their marketing appeal. We have: films based on books (Lovely Bones, Spiderwick Chronicles, Choke, Angels and Demons, Time Traveler's Wife, Horton Hears a Who, 21, etc.), books based on franchises (Indiana Jones, Prince Caspian, Star Trek, Harry Potter, James Bond, Hellboy, Speed Racer, Get Smart, and Bruno), movies based on highly recognizable directors' styles (Scorcese's "Righteous Kill," Kaufman's "Synecdoche", Guy Ritchie's "RocknRolla," Pixar's "Wall-e", and Shyamalan's "The Happening"), and all sorts of other recycled cultural material, cluttering up our movie screens.

Now, I haven't actually verified that this is an exceptional year in this respect. What percentage of movies, historically, are based on entirely, or mostly, original screenplays? I know a lot of the greatest films, from The Godfather and Clockwork Orange to the Lord of the Rings movies, have drawn their genius largely from the genius of their source material. But there's something singular about stories written entirely for the screen... people like M. Night Shyamalan and Guy Ritche, and movies like Memento and The Matrix... these all seem to be really pushing the boundaries of the art form, and of the art of storytelling.

I don't have a strong thesis here, and I'm talking around a phenomenon that I can't quite put my finger on, but these are stories written specifically to take advantage of the two essential characteristics of film, those that differentiate it from both visual art and from written stories. They take the chronological aspect of storytelling, which can't be reproduced in a still image, or even in a sequence of stills, and they combine it with the visual immediacy of visual art, which can be described, but never really captured, in writing.

And I think Memento and The Matrix are perfect places to find these phenomena. Could Memento, a bewildering head-trip of paranoia and backwards narrative, have taken place anywhere but in the realm of film? Sure, a written story can be told backwards, but when you're reading the words on a page, you have time to process the descriptions and mull over the implications of the broken sequence. Without the forward momentum of the screen, with its edits and scenarios, there would be no way to step into the shoes of short-term memory loss. This was a great movie, but it was also a profound experiment in portraying the debilitating experience, rather than simply the story, of a crippling brain dysfunction.

The Matrix was another story that couldn't have been told in the same way in any other medium. It combined the choreographed art of the kung-fu movie with film's power over time and space, slowing, stopping, and disrupting the physical laws that kung-fu depends on. In a movie about the break between reality and simulacrum (to use an unnecessary academic word), it's critical that the audience experience the difference between real and virtual space. Again, film's niche is as a chronological, sensory medium... chronological in that it captures a sequence of events over time, and sensory in that it involves direct, rather than described, experience.

The visionaries of the future of cinema are going to be the people who create stories to be told specifically on screen, harnessing the power of film and using it to construct something that couldn't be done anywhere else. These are the writers and directors of original screenplays.

So back to 2008... I can honestly say, I think some of the most daring work coming this year is going to be the work created exclusively for the screen. The first and most obvious example is Cloverfield, which harnesses the silver screen's ability to depict a reality that seems too strange and threatening to imagine. In the same way that Blair Witch Project used the camera to situate the viewer directly within the sensory space of the characters, so Cloverfield (from what I can tell in the trailers) will put the audience in the middle of an apocalyptic panic. If it does its job well, it will test the limits of the medium and show us all something we've never seen before.

The other film that seems to push the boundaries of storytelling is Teeth, a strange-looking film about a girl whose vagina has... you know... mastication apparatus. Now, this is traditionally a figure of speech, a verbal trope that represents males' fear of unleashed femininity. In film, where we have to deal with direct sensory input, Mitchell Lichtenstein will have the opportunity to make that metaphor a literal reality for us. That's a disturbing but brilliant take on film's power over reality, its ability to turn an idea into an intimate experience.

That's my first take on film in 2008. Stay tuned for two more entries: first, a look at a strange "replacement movie" phenomenon that will surface in comic book films, and second, two upcoming movies that may use an intimate lens to revitalize the horror genre.

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