Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nods to Convention

When you see a lot of movies, you notice little things. You notice things buried deep. Or sometimes these are obvious things that anyone might notice, but which don't bother people who maybe see a smaller, more homogeneous range of stuff than you do. I made my way to Pacific Rim, encouraged by reports here and there that it was actually a good movie - i.e., if Hollywood must make giant action setpiece blockbusters, this is how they should do it.

I'm not sure what I missed here, but pretty quick into the movie I couldn't wait for Pacific Rim to end. It was unbearable for me. It's not that it's really that awful a movie; it's that I was deflated by how utterly conventional it seemed. We've seen everything here before. I guess you can call it "homage" to the old Japanese kaiju films, and mecha anime, if you're being charitable. But really it just reminded me of all the huge blockbusters featuring a tired narrative arc. Even the brief touches of comic grotesquerie - presumably hallmarks to let us know this is "a Guillermo del Toro film" - are just tired rehashes of things GdT, and others, have done much better elsewhere. (I do like Pan's Labyrinth and Mimic. The former strikes me as a fairly successful example of how to do both fantasy genre filmmaking & prestige seriousness without scrimping on either side; the latter seems to me a solid example of termite art.) I would have much preferred Pacific Rim open with, say, some comic whimsy and truly weird images (not just boilerplate CGI "big action"), and then gradually build its was across two hours to its requisite emotional payoffs. Instead, what the film does is frontload a lot of emotional third-act sort of bullshit before the title card even comes up, and then it keeps returning to mine this vein as though unaware that it never really earned any of the emotions. Everything we know about the characters comes through voice-over exposition, or hammy dialogue. It's all cheap, it's lazy, it's juvenile - and not in a good way. You can see the plot devices creaking; they're almost skeuomorphic, as though they've been handed down as the impressions of story structures and plot devices that once might have moved us.

Just for example: Why must Idris Elba be so nobly silent about his history with Rinko Kikuchi? The answer, I think, really just has to do with convention - "we need backstory here, people!" - and a myopic, ungrounded dedication to trying to flesh out story without actually fleshing out story. I won't join the cult chorus who lament this film's disappointing box office returns; it's a lame piece o' work without character or feeling.


There is a flipside, though. You've probably seen absolutely everything in The Conjuring before too - assuming you've seen 1970s US horror films and/or early 21st century US mid-budget horror films. Like Ti West's The House of the Devil, The Conjuring is a loving textural recreation of an older generation's horror movies. You get the vintage clothing and hairstyles; the close-ups of old technology; the beautiful sound design of a large, big, quiet house with creaking hardwood floors and old heavy doors. (You can almost overlook the shoddy production design of the family photos, which screamed Photoshop to me.) The story is like director James Wan's Insidious (itself a reimagination of Poltergeist) injected with a healthy dose of The Amityville Horror. The premise and backstory are pretty generic, down to the ways past evils are roughly sketched and alluded to through flashing vignettes. Even the shock gags are fairly routine: you often know exactly when they're coming.

But I felt, and appreciated, that the filmmakers already knew this, themselves. (In fact the very last shot before credits roll plays upon this mutual acknowledgment of the conventions of timing out scares.) And it's because they understand their tools so well that The Conjuring is a massively awesome film under certain parameters.

Despite bringing little new to the table, everything here sings. It vibrates. This is the work of a very clever, sensitive director working with a cast and crew who seem to all be on the same wavelength. It's probably one of the scariest films I've ever seen.

I hope that James Wan does not settle into a comfortable, lucrative groove of being a shock-n-awe pastiche merchant. Because he might end up making really impressive and innovative works in a tradition of popular cinematic art. I don't mean the extension of classical film aesthetics as bulwarks against social and technological change. I mean the noble goal of trying to tell stories through sounds and moving images to people as if they are not mere demographic automata, as if they are not stupid, as if entertainment might be something more than catch phrases and adolescent revenge fantasies taken far too seriously. Wan might have it in him. I'll be hoping.


Yusef Sayed said...


enjoyed this post very much and will look forward to seeing The Conjuring!

I'm slowly reading Timothy Corrigan's excellent 'A Cinema Without Walls' from 1991 and early on he articulates well the shifts in filmmaking after 1970 that led to the sort of film I imagine Pacific Rim to be (but I haven't seen it):

"these contemporary blockbuster movies became the central imperative in an industry that sought the promise of massive profit from large financial investment; the acceptable return on those investments (anywhere from $20 million to $70 million) required, most significantly, that these films would attract not just a large market but all markets....To attract that mythical universal audience, this kind of movie must always be 'made' before it is actually made, either through the promise of a particular star or group of stars, rumors of spectacular new technologies, or astonishing production costs. It must always exist, first and foremost, as an advertisement of promises it usually cannot possibly keep; it must create an audience that does not in fact exist."

Money making above all, as bland as possible to capture the largest potential audience, and sure to disappoint. The setup is all too familiar and long established. I'm not sure what you were expecting! haha.

Weird, while I was typing all of this out, an advert for The Conjuring came on the TV - I had never previously heard of it! Spooky...

ZC said...

Thanks for your comments Yusef - I saw you've been reading Corrigan earlier today when I read your excellent World's Greatest Dad pieces.

What's so depressing to me about the Blockbuster Age is that this search for 'all markets' nevertheless works through the fragmentary logic of demographics. Rather than explicitly trying to make movies "for everybody," as the classical Hollywood studio system sought to do (and as healthy film industries the world over have often done), big tentpole pictures seem to just prioritize the key demographics and assume that these market research caricatures represent the populace.

I often see commercial films I really like, and think are fairly satisfying and interesting entertainments. But they're typically more mid-budget things ... the superhero movies and the big setpiece/effects films, the ones that are mega-expensive, just seem like they're trying to pummel me and everyone else into bored submission! (And yet every $150 million comic book movie that comes out will have a small group of semi-decent critics swearing up and down that this one is really something special.)

Jon Hastings said...

re: the critics swearing that "this one really is something special" - I'm reminded of the intro to THE AMERICAN CINEMA and Sarris' discussion of forest critics vs. tree critics. That is: shouldn't it be possible to say: "Even though the idiom of these blockbusters doesn't vary from one movie to another, individual filmmakers can still use this idiom in (potentially) idiosyncratic and interesting ways."

(The current discussion in the comments on Dave Kehr's blog has touched on these issues, too: how is the formula for today's blockbusters different from the formula for classical H'wood westerns, etc.? Or, rather, how are the structures that these productions take place in different?)

Not that they necessarily DO do that or that it's all that common or that it's as easy for them now as it was for Anthony Mann. But I'm thinking of something like IRON MAN 3, which I thought showed signs of Shane Black's "voice" and even if I wouldn't call it "something special" I would want to make a distinction between it and the other Marvel movies. It's still one of those movies that pummels you and it's mostly pretty ugly, so maybe the more idiosyncratic and humane elements of it don't really matter. Maybe those elements would only matter if we didn't have a choice of watching anything except blockbusters.

Anyway, I don't really have a point, although I am planning on seeing both THE WOLVERINE and DRUG WAR tomorrow and I'm hoping that I'll like both of them, but I'd only put money on liking the To.

ZC said...

I didn't see Iron Man 3 because I was pessimistic. (Mind you, I thought the first third of Iron Man was probably as enjoyable as it gets for this wave of superhero blockbusters.) But even the case of personal expression, of 'voice,' gives me little if any comfort. Christopher Nolan's authorial touch comes through in the Batman trilogy ... I don't really like those either. It's a subset of auteurist criticism I don't really follow, i.e., that what matters most is personal expression (and what matters most in commercial cinema is using the system to nevertheless produce such expression).

Which is to say that just because something is dominant (current H'wood blockbusters analogized to classical H'wood studio cinema), doesn't mean we should assume that it's ripe for examination; that it will yield patient and loving analysis. We should ask the question and try to be open to any answers of course. But I think it is good to remind ourselves that the history of this criticism vis-a-vis classical Hollywood cinema came about because there was a widely acknowledged "genius of the system." In this context it made sense to see how even this system could form a backdrop to less institutionalized forms of authorial expression.

But I'm not sure anyone is really convinced by such a thing as the genius of the new blockbuster system. It doesn't mean there aren't ever any good big-budget Hollywood films (though I find myself straining to think of great recent ones). But praise of these films is often couched in their exceptionalism to a system that, itself, just sucks.

ZC said...

A lot of this has been covered & discussed lately regarding the prevalence of Save the Cat (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.single.html), but I think beyond even well plot & theme, there is a malaise of sameness plaguing so much Hollywood.

Yusef Sayed said...


lucidity is not eluding you! Very interesting comments you've added here recently.

From the Slate article: "Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula."

I'm not familiar with the book mentioned in this article but the way in which it claims that the book is being utilised, with the finished film often following the screenplay minute-by-minute would mean not only a lack of original screenplays, but that film editing is no longer such a creative process, merely a putting into place exactly what the screenplay dictates. Is this why there's so much fidgety nonsense within those strictures, the only wriggle room left?

Nobody wants the hassle of working through the possibilities of the filmed material, to hit brick walls and turn things upside down. There's no time and too much money to lose I guess. Depressing.

Sachin said...

Zach, you mention exactly what I thought during Pacific Rim, specifially why was it getting this praise when everything about it is so conventional. And then there were the ugly monsters. I started longing for the traditional Kaiju and felt they were more majestic than these ugly faster beasts.

I remember reading how George Romero didn't like how the newer version of zombie films, inspired by video games, made the creatures much more faster than what he had done initially. Similarly, I felt the same in Pacific Rim that all the mosters were amplified in ugliness in keeping with the blockbuster expectations but were far removed than the original kaiju.

The funny thing is when some of the positive reviews of The Conjuring started coming out, my first reaction was that I was not getting fooled again :) So I stayed away. But I like what you say in that the film shows what is seen before still manages to make an impression. That I can believe. After all, I still think the opening 10 minutes of Saw showed a lot of talent in creating such an engaging atmosphere. So Wan clearly knows his way around. And he picks up the Fast & Furious next so that should be fun.

Christine said...

This is great!