I’m very pleased to have my most recent essay, on the nature of franchise films in Hollywood, featured on the website for Bright Wall / Dark Room.
On the face of it, there is something alarmingly cliche about the new Star Trek movie, which clones a bunch of now-familiar Hollywood tropes into the comforting confines of the Starship Enterprise. From a storytelling standpoint, what I found most troubling was the ongoing Hollywood slavery to the concept of the ‘arc.’ Anyone who has read anything about the way screenplays are structured will be familiar with this concept, which states, essentially, that characters must start in one place and end in another; there must be a personal change as well as a physical one.
Or, The AFI List Project, #7: Lawrence of Arabia
I don’t know that Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made, because I’m not sure that, in questions of taste, it’s possible to affix such definitive and concrete labels. I am sure, however, that it belongs to that very select group of films that have to be a part of that conversation; it is one of the few movies in history that delivers both deep narrative complexity and substantial sensual entertainment. And, if we are to discuss film as a visual medium, there may be no higher example of the visual art of moviemaking than Lawrence, with its vast landscapes and vividly saturated photography. Seen in a movie theater, one becomes aware that it is something akin to a miracle of cinema.
On Sunday, this year’s Best Picture winner is going to be crowned, and all indications suggest that the big winner on the night is going to be Argo. No one seems to be particularly upset about this – something of a relief a year after all the spittle spewed by cinephiles over the victory of The Artist – but it does mean that Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, the two movies on the docket that probably have the most fervent groups of supporters, are likely to be shut out completely. That’s not upsetting to me personally – neither movie made the cut on my top five films of 2012 – but both films, as the objects of such fervent (if minority) admiration, as two of the most controversial releases of the year, and as the two best examples of contemporary American auteurism to be found in 2012, are deserving of further exploration.
It seems like, everywhere I look, pundits reviewing 2012 in cinema are nodding their heads in approval and talking about how it was a “great year” for the movies. In comparison to what was, by any metric, a dismal 2011, they’re justified in doing so: at least this year the Best Picture Oscar won’t go to a creampuff French silent film about a Hollywood that never existed. Still, as I survey the year, I can’t help but feel that those pundits are letting their relief that things were better in 2012 cloud their understanding of what the year really represents.
Now that we’re fully into the swing of the awards season, with Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe winners already announced, it’s clearly past time for the most important and definitive account of the past year in movies: the Jentleman’s analysis of what went wrong, what went right, and what to take away from the year in cinema. As with last year, I’m kicking off with my ‘Worst Of’ list, mostly because it’s reliably my favorite essay to write in the year. Here at JFJ, the focus is usually on the thoughtful, constructive analysis of cinema, meaning there’s little room for vitriol and bloviating (though who knows how my readers construe the Journal in general…) Still, if there’s anything more pleasurable than the thoroughgoing love of a great film, it’s the experience of pure, unadulterated contempt for the depths of the cinematically inane.
I started writing a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest offering The Master a week ago, in the aftermath of seeing it projected in glorious 70mm at the Arclight Dome in Hollywood. Yet the more I tried to say about it, the more I found myself wandering in different directions that had little to do with the movie I had actually watched: reflections on American auteurism, contrasts between the new film and Anderson’s previous work, and commentary on Anderson’s use of 70mm are all relevant to how we think about The Master, but all of them deal with the film as it exists in cinematic discourse rather than with the work of art itself.
Or, The AFI List Project #60: Duck Soup
Comedy, especially satire, has never aged as well as drama, even from the ancient days. Aristophanes may be considered the first comedian, but it takes a thorough updating to make his satires watchable; the plays of his peers Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, meanwhile, can reliably be found, with few adjustments beyond translation, on stages across the world. It is no different in the movies: of the great comic acts of the first part of the century, it seems to me that only Charlie Chaplin’s films are still widely consumed, while the likes of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers are remembered more as names and through their influence on later films than for their works themselves.
The Best Lack All Conviction: “The Avengers,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Crafting the Cinematic Villain
Blockbuster season is the time in the cinematic calendar when studios and directors are given the freest license to paint with broad, unsubtle strokes, and 2012, so far, has been no different: if we leave aside the refreshing ambivalence of The Hunger Games, this summer’s fare has offered up plenty of stark, dualistic storylines pitting the forces of good against those of evil. None of them, however, have quite managed to hit. The Avengers, despite its record-shattering march into the rarified air of box office history, relies far more on pageantry and witty squabbling to entertain than on any genuine sense of peril. Snow White and the Huntsman, meanwhile, tries to complicate its fairy tale villain by giving Charlize Theron lots of space to monologue about how men mistreat women, even as the movie sticks to a conventional fairy tale structure of good overcoming evil. Prometheus, out this past weekend, doesn’t even have a recognizable antagonist, unless one wants to shoehorn the huge pale aliens that apparently created its creepy-crawlies into that box.
Much hullabaloo has been made about the relation of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to the Alien franchise that he began back in 1979. None of that, it turns out, was justified: this is a straightforward prequel to Scott’s original film, bearing scenes and sequences that seem directly copied from its predecessor while gluing on a ponderous philosophical exoskeleton that is largely mumbo-jumbo and that seems to run parallel, not integral, to what is happening on screen.