Friday, May 20, 2011

Film Tropes and Twists in the age of Information Overload

Nathaniel at Film Experience Blog makes a passing remark about Von Trier's bizarro Nazi situation, and then turns his attention to a more interesting issue (Thank God): is it possible for us to be taken off-guard by a movie these days?

Nathaniel's right, these are changing times. Django Unchained's script has already leaked and been circulating, and in no time at all -- literally with the simple perusal of a fellow blog -- I know it's going to be perhaps his most controversial movie yet. In terms of speed and density, discourse has outpaced the ability of the audience to engage their cultural artifacts. Movie reviews will offhandedly remark that "the twist was (effective/implausible/predictable)" and think they're being opaque, but they're not. Even knowing that there's a twist in a movie will alter your entire perception of the film.

This is a curse that seems to have uniquely affected M. Night, although in very arcane ways. His career peaked right at the moment when basing a movie on a "twist" was still possible, and this was a big dramatic mechanism for him, especially in his early movies. Since those groundbreaking revelations in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, people have lost their appetite for his retroactive game-changing reveals, and his whole artistic identity took a hard blow. People were lukewarm on The Village, cold on Lady in the Water, and positively hostile toward The Happening. Honestly, I thought Lady in the Water was interesting, constructing a subtle fairy-tale ecosystem, hermetically enclosed within the ruins of crass vacation motel kitsch.

And M. Night hasn't been able to recover his artistic footing. He seemed to be flirting with self-conscious irony in the marketing of The Happening, but it did nothing for him (not many people even picked up on it). He tried to move into zeitgeist CGI popcorn blockbuster territory with AirBender, but nobody bought it. I think it was just too big for him. And while I still think the whole Facebook "Send M. Night back to film school" meme was unnecessary and mean-spirited, I still acknowledge that these were unfortunate twists for a twisty director.

Of course, Nathaniel's making the same point about Von Trier's work (did you ever think you'd hear M. Night in the same analysis as Von Trier?). He's pointing out that, though AntiChrist didn't depend on twists and surprises, it DID depend on the visceral reaction you get out of seeing something sudden and gruesome happen on a cinema screen. Same, I think, with Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, which I just rented this past week. It's on NetFlix Instant -- what more clearly signals that a film's lost its "arthouse shock" credibility? At any rate, I suffered the entire time from Information Fatigue. The visuals were bizarre and breathtaking, but I also kept thinking, "Wasn't there supposed to be more sex? When do we see the fetus? Is it time for the shocking climax yet?"

This also describes the reasons that I've been indifferent toward a lot of the "mind-bend" movies on tap lately. I'm Still Here, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop -- these all sounded seriously fascinating, but I never pushed myself to go see them. Knowing, ahead of time, that they all depended upon self-sabotaging twists and revelations gave me the sense that I wouldn't get anything real valuable out of the experience of actually watching them. Like the rest of the wired-up world, I can't really be caught off-guard any more, and even suspecting that a film is trying to sucker-punch me has the automatic effect of turning me off to it.

Nathaniel frames this as a lack of appreciation for the unknown, and he wonders "if this will cycle back culturally to valuing secrets". I don't think that's really the root of the problem. I think it's (as I said above) sheer speed and density of information that's shining this punishing light into the dark spaces of discovery, and I don't think it'll go away. Information is kudzu, climbing all over everything, and there's no reason to think it will suddenly backtrack and become respectful.

I think, instead, the medium will have to adapt to the environment.

After all, there are some aspects of the film-attending experience that are immune to information-dilution. The key quality that's going to survive information-overload is the pure sensory experience, the synthesis of visual and sound that only activates at the moment of apprehension. It's something that Aaronofsky has really been straining to perfect, and it's worked out well for him... you could describe Black Swan or (even more so) Requiem for a Dream shot-for-shot, and you still wouldn't take much away from the immediate visceral experience of actually watching the films.

Cinematography and sound-editing are going to be EXTREMELY important in the future, perhaps more important than writing or timing. You can prepare yourself for a twist or a jump-cut or a shocking scene, and by preparing for it, you'll blunt its effect on you. But you can't prepare yourself for an incredible, surreal, perfectly toned close-up or photographically-composed landscape... at least not in the same way. Films like Blue Valentine and Never Let Me Go can sustain a heavy assault of spoilage, and they're still beautiful films that draw in the eye.

And here's the thing -- I think even the slow wits in Hollywood studios are starting to understand this. The great films of previous decades -- Deliverance, Blade Runner, Terminator II -- were relentlessly plot-driven, labyrinthine in their shifts in momentum, exercises in pacing and expectation and unexpected dialogue. Newer blockbusters, films like Avatar, Bourne, and now Thor, don't try to play on anticipation and disclosure like those older films did. They allow their plots to form organically, around tried-and-tested myths and tropes, so that they can be concerned with the immediacy of experience, the shaking of the camera and the complete sensory immersion in Asgard or Pandora.

Critics will groan over the lack of creativity in writing, about the utter failure of originality in the era of the adaptation, but subconsciously, they'll appreciate the increased emphasis on the senses: Zack Snyder's slow motion, Christopher Nolan's formal experiments in montage and sequence, Tarantino's use of well-known tropes to create truly inspired single moments. And even as they complain about those plots, they will also spoil them for us, and in the future, it won't particularly matter.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Thor: Get up on your soap box, Blondie!

Thor! Critical response: widely assessed as "definitely good enough," except for a few particular critics, who totally couldn't get into it. The most unique film of the decade? Or of the superhero era? Or of the summer? Or of the month? Probably no, on all counts. And yet, it was worth making, and it's worth seeing -- not just because it worked as a film (it did), but also because it's a wise decision, fellow movie-watchers, to experience this critical part of the Avengers saga that's been developing over the last few years.

Now, I know that a lot of people think this film is very pedestrian, and only really functions as a long-form preview of the Avengers movie. There is some merit to this criticism, but don't take it too seriously... just because it's part of a slowly-developing mythology, and a lot of the film is hitched to this larger, half-formed "Avengers" thing, it doesn't mean it's a bad film. Or even an incomplete one. Nay; in fact, I think one of Thor's accomplishments is that it's both a significant part of a massive whole, and also a self-contained, fully-realized burst of myth-making in its own right.

The film is not ground-breaking. It hits a series of essential comic book beats... a half-hearted romance, a spiritual awakening on the part of the protagonist, an apotheosis, a return to the fray to redeem himself. Most of these are just monomythic tropes, retrofitted to the comic book genre, just as they've been retrofitted to pretty much every other action movie since the dawn of time. Then, it's also got some more precise parallels to its Avengers predecessor, Iron Man: a warlike playboy undergoes a personal struggle that leads him to a place of newfound respect and compassion; he takes on the traditional Hero role, and ultimately has to defeat some monster linked to his own past... Thor battling his brother, Tony Stark his old business partner. Yes, it's a formula, as also seen in Spiderman, Batman Begins, The Lion King, etc etc. Thor commits no crime in adopting the template.

We all know that narrative innovation is not why you're seeing this film. There are other, very good reasons to go see it. First and foremost, Thor nails a very particular tone in both the character and the setting. It's a wide-eyed adolescent idealism and naivety, something that plays as mythic/Shakespearean melodrama in Asgard, and then seems a bit clumsy when displaced into New Mexico. It's all about the fact that Helmsworth's Thor is the perfect virile man, with just a touch of boyishness, and a dash of tenderness to endear him to the female population that he's set to win over. The overserious myth undermines itself in the awkward details, Kenneth Branaugh's touches of craftsmanship. "We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud."

The character AND the setting. This is important. That "stay golden" feeling permeates the whole film, from the artificial golden Olympian walls right into the center of the family conflict, with all that courtly drama and those epic speeches and heroic posturing. We come to understand Thor because we see where he comes from. Nobody from those hallowed halls could be cynical, or jaded, or shackled in self-consciousness. This is a land where everyone is regal, and even here, Thor is the son of the king!

So it works. All by itself, as a movie, it works. It's a routine action romp with some big aluminum costumes and grand CGI sets, lots of lens flares, and the appeal of both an outrageous epic courtly drama and an endearing fish-out-of-water action comedy. The same character inhabits both worlds, so ultimately this hero-coming-of-age theme bridges the gap between them.

But it also works as part of something larger. And though you may hate that you seem to be paying for part of something unfinished... really, it's not so bad.

Did you ever watch wrestling? Before every major match, each wrestler gets an entrance sequence. He comes marching out, accompanied by a theme song, and for the bigger matches, there's often a whole stage show, a band, fireworks, a gospel choir, a massive Alice Cooper-style skeleton. For those few minutes, that wrestler basks in the glory of his own identity, merged with his surroundings, establishing his own mythical space.

Or, on a smaller scale, consider the recent character-based trailers for X-Men: First Class, providing individual bios for Banshee, Havok, Beast, and Mystique. You don't have to just jam all the major players into some grand scheme that reduces each of them to a particular role, a narrative chess piece. Without his little trailer, Banshee might always just be a cog in Professor X's wheel (pun less relevant for this film, but whatever). I think the studio owes him this little bit of promotion, a little personal space where his light can shine.

This is what the Thor movie is, in terms of the Avengers. It's an entrance, a character bio -- a platform for Thor to represent himself, where we can fully understand and invest in his character. Same as Iron Man was for Tony Stark. Same as Captain America will be for what's-his-name.

These three individual movies will allow Marvel to set up the cosmic relationship between these three elemental forces. Tony Stark, the savvy, smart-ass pragmatist, represents business and technology, the human technocracy at work in the modern world. Thor, with his wide-eyed Olympian power, will represent the mythic human spirit, man's timelessness and capacity to overcome our puny physical limitations. Captain America, the boy-scout, the nationalist, will represent patriotism, the collective historical spirit of pride and leadership and purpose. Technology - Spirit - Patriotism. And if the Hulk is in there, he will have to represent nature, the animalistic rage of the untamed world, which man finds within himself when he gives free rein to his fury.

Iron Man was already set up. Now we've got Thor, fully fleshed out and forged in his Olympian hyperreality. Next, we need Captain America, rising up from the smoke of a bygone World War. Then we'll be ready to see them get put together, directed by the Wheedster, and the fireworks can begin.