I don’t plan on doing a Top Ten List for films that came out in 2012. Call this a less in-denial analysis about how storytelling continues to suffer in the movies. For anyone who would like to know, my two favorite movies of 2012 were The Grey and Looper. Those two films in my mind embodied what I feel are two of the strongest components for any story: Sacrifice and Consequence.
What are willing to give up for what we want? What price do we pay for the choices we make in our lives? The Grey is not simply a movie about survival. It’s main character Ottaway, played by Liam Neeson, is dead already, having lost just about everything that was important to him in his life. And yet, in the movie he becomes the last survivor as the other victims of the plane crash are picked off one by one by deadly wolves. Every one of those men depends on him for their very survival. And even when he’s failed to keep them all alive when everything else in his life has turned to shit, and the final showdown happens between him and the wolves den, regardless whether he lives or dies, he’s makes the choice to go down fighting. The actual battle and the outcome isn’t important, which is why the film ends on that note. But for a man who has nothing left and still chooses to fight, its what personally defined that character as a hero for me.
With Looper….Holy God…that movie is ripe with consequence. And ultimate sacrifice. What Bruce Willis’ Old Joe gives up to save his wife and change the future…he sacrifices his soul and his humanity, and falls to the dark side. I saw this film a twice, and it’s amazing to watch because when we watch the diner scene between him and Young Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt, in possibly the best performance of his career) we actually believe Willis is the older and wiser of the two, because we also believe Old Joe is the hero. But that’ all changes dramatically. When I watched the film a second time and saw the diner scene, knowing the outcome of the film, it was amazing to see how much Old Joe hadn’t changed at all, but was really a man who could never let go of the death of his wife. Everything he imparts on Young Joe relates to that. What he gives up in his humanity just to hold onto the memory of his wife is far more horrifying than we could ever imagine. It’s really Young Joe, in the spirit of his youth, who finally sees the continuous cycle before him, and makes the ultimate decision to break the cycle and change the future for the better. What’s more important though is that it’s a complete, tight story, and it comes to a satisfying conclusion.
What’s frustrating to me about movies now is the fact that all we really see are characters wandering. They’re not really shattered by life or fucked with on any particular level. All it really seems to amount to is a lot of intellectualizing by the filmmakers…a lot of philosophizing on the meaning of the character’s journey. But that’s all that is. What I don’t see is stuff actually happening to the characters on screen that leaves them burned. Especially in animated films.
Paranormon is a big one I was furiously angry with. What I felt people really responded to with that film was Norman’s ability to make long winded speeches about acceptance and being yourself. But if you actually look back and watch the film, he is almost completely non-proactive. He wanders through the movie with a lot of crazy shit happening around him. And when I watched him give this important life altering speech to the little girl witch at the end, I kept asking myself “where did he learn this? At what point in the journey did it inspire this sudden wisdom about life?” It never happened. That knowledge was words put into his mouth by writers. It was never earned. A lot of people said they cried at the scene, and I suppose you could say it was a well written speech. But I could see a lot of strings pulled, a lot of audience manipulation, playing on what the filmmakers knew what would push the buttons of the Facebook generation of audience members emotionally. I swear, it’s so easy for any media now to push the right button in people to get them to react emotionally. Most people will act on their emotions without ever thinking what brought them to it in the first place. It’s so safe and easy for filmmakers to do this, who make the audience think they went on a journey when in fact nothing happened at all.
It’s also why I got so angry with Django Unchained. I did hear a lot of hi-brow talk about why this movie is supposed to be culturally important to the black community and the parallel significance Django’s journey of the Gods in his journey to reunite with Brunhilde. It makes the film sound very smart. But in all honesty, it’s a lot of intellectual horseshit. It is! Sorry to sound so blatent, but apart from a lot of talking and speeches, what did we actually see that could allow us to invest in Django’s use of violence against white men? Django is not educated like Dr. Schultz. While Django himself is intuitive, he’s going to respond more to his emotions than anything. But there’s nothing that happens to Django in the film to actually scar him, and to justify in himself why he needs to kill, period. In the movie, he’s being told what to do by Dr. Schultz, who is white. So is Django really a hero in charge of his own destiny, doing what he himself thinks is right? Or is he just being manipulated by this white bounty hunter, doing the work of a white vigilante? At what point does his mentor fail him, and at what point is he doing what he does for himself? Maybe that was the point of the film, but the movie itself never once bothers to raise any of these questions. We’re also constantly teased that something horrible is going to happen to Django and then it never happens. I may have been the only one in the theater wanting to scream, “CUT HIS FUCKING BALLS OFF ALREADY!”. I just wanted something…anything to happen in the story that would make me sit up.
Lincoln was the same way, a by the numbers account of the passing of the 13th Amendment when in reality we have almost no reason to invest ourselves in what’s happening or really care. The most drama we get is the soap opera of Lincolns family life. Same with John Carter, played by good looking lead character who shows almost no emotion, and faces off against villains he has almost no personal connection to. Same with Avengers, Prometheus, Dark Knight Rises, etc. Prometheus tries to hide behind the same intellectual hi-browness that the story is actually saying something, when most of us could see how laughable and stupid and empty the characters really were, in a story that makes almost no sense from a logical stand point.
The other problem is the issue with franchises. That’s the trouble with these films from a storytelling standpoint: they don’t end. They refuse to end or complete the story, turning movie going into big budget TV soap operas. It’s important for more people to see stories that conclude in ONE FILM. This idea of making sequels or throwing in big twists aren’t really there for the sake of the story. They’re put in to bait the audience to want more. To come back for the sequel. And once they wait a year for the sequel, they’ll throw in even more twists to set up the next film and the next film, where there’s really no end in sight. What’s so funny though is that the more these films prolong their life, and then finally decide to end, the audience is almost always pissed off and disappointed. I think the reason for this is the fact that the ending wasn’t planned until the last minute. The audience is searching through this whole journey they went through with 5 previous films only to reach the end and go…”that’s it?” What was the point of that? The answer is there is no point because the story was never planned. It was just made up as they went. Audiences will get angry, but then they’ll go back and fall for the same trick over and over again.
It’s the same for the over intellectualizing of movies like Django and Prometheus, and the preachy message in films like Paranorman. It’s bullshit. They’re making up excuses to the audience as if the film has something to say, when nothing really happened in the film at all. But you we’re tricked into believing something happened. So I guess my question is why do we constantly see movies that are doing this? My guess is the struggling dinosaur that is Hollywood. They’re using every trick, 3D, 48fps, special effects CG realismsm to get people in theater seats. And they’re not going to risk abandoning their audience by having something actually happen to the characters. In the digital era, there’s a lot happening. Everyone thinks you can do anything with CGI special effects and that thehere are no limits. But there are limits. You can only make it look so real. You can only push it so far. But once you’ve achieved that look of absolute convincing realissim, where do you go from there? To me that was the wonder of Practical effects in its heyday when nobody c could gueess how an effect was achieved with such clever use of photographic trickerytrickery,an, and the audience completely gave into the illusion. But now everybody knows what they’re watching was done on a computer. There’s no surprises left. The only sense of wonder the audience will have left is what the story can bring them. But a we seem to be at this juncture now. Hollywood wants people to notice everything BUT the story. Pixar likes to say “Story is King”. Well, that’s just phony PR now. Pixar is just as guilty of over intellectuaoveualizing their stories, trying to make them appear smarter than they actually are. Alot of studios, filmmakers, etc. all seem to have lost their way“illusion in an effort to keep a sinking ship afloat. While there may be a lotret of gloating about how profitable the entertainment industry is doing, what I really see is the beginning of the end of something. I don’t know what it is per say. Some say it’s idea of home theaters, where people can get a better movie going experience at home withoutt the audience, in HD no less. There are caa lot of problems with digital in the foreseeableforeseeable future by film experts. It can degrade just as much as normal film. New ways haven’t been found yet to really truly preserve digital informationmaf. Hollywood may have gotten themselves into a hole they can’t dig out of.
So where is the future headed? No one is completely certain. But from the kinds of films I’ve been seeing the last few years, I think we’re in trouble. It’s thankful for us there are a few people left who still know the value of those crucial elements of storytelling,, where we get to the honest truth about the characters that have to put everything at stake. Sacrifice and Consequence. Hollywood itself is going to have to face s some sacrifice of its ownat sooner or later. As soon as somebody admits they’ve hit an iceberg. t p,A