An Undead Cowboy in King Arthur’s Court: Summer 2013 in Review

October 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was in a library when I had my brightest fantasy about the movies shattered, and it was only a few months ago. It had been fragmenting for years, anyway. I had thoroughly embarrassed myself about an hour before, eager to meet one of my academic heroes in Dr. Thomas Schatz of the University of Texas at Austin, whose writing helped me through a long and stuttering paper on Westerns that consumed my junior year. I spent the following year in and out of the office of his former colleague, Dr. Horace Newcomb, who until this June was director of UGA’s Peabody Awards and mentored me through another rambling paper, this time on TV. We spent some time talking about Anthony Mann after he asked to read my Westerns study, and I got some brief chiding over my inability to stray too far from the auteur theory. “You should know,” he advised, “that nobody really takes that stuff seriously anymore.”

But it was Schatz whose brief words brought everything into focus for me, as in his talk that afternoon in the Russell Special Collections Library he called auteurism “the founding myth – if not the original sin – of film studies.” It was in his characterization of that theory as a myth that I was able to look back on what drove me to write long papers about the movies – in particular, a book, EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS by Peter Biskind, a vivid, gossipy history of American movies in the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. Accuracy or general kindness toward its subjects aside, it’s a book that can possess you, if you’re a young movie nut with a serious daydreaming problem.

And it wasn’t quite the idea of auteurism-as-myth that broke the spell, because there are underpinnings of that theory I believe in still. Rather, auteurism reminded me suddenly of something like chivalry, at least as a principle best embodied in the clan of Movie Brats fresh out of film schools (including Scorsese, Milius, Coppola, De Palma, Carpenter, Spielberg, Lucas) gathered in living rooms critiquing rough cuts of each other’s pictures like Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. In the New Hollywood of of Biskind’s book, along with countless other dreamers over the decades, I had discovered Camelot.

I use the New Hollywood as a tactical approach to discussing the summer movie season because the former continues to fascinate me, even as my readings and viewings give me more critical distance from the pie-in-the-sky dream I had a few years ago; the latter, on the other hand, gets increasingly hard to muster up enthusiasm about. The decision even to talk about movies in seasonal terms is rather arbitrary, based on a business strategy that clusters eye-catching prospects together in three or four months of the year, while saving a few for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

But this is the truth of loving cinema as an American: almost any of us who study them or write effusively about them do so because we loved American movies first, because we loved the Old Hollywood or the New, and even if these days we derive more satisfaction from testing the waters of a new movement in foreign cinema or get our kicks from burrowing still deeper into the past and calling for a reconsideration of underseen pictures or underappreciated careers, it’s the summer season in which we are forcibly reminded that the splintering media of the 21st century has not eliminated the studios, that they still survive and want us to love them again. Even – no, especially – just for our money.

“Survive”, anyway, is the operative word. Just recently we heard that Peter Jackson’s trilogy adaptation of THE HOBBIT has ballooned to a $561 million budget, or $187 million per film. Thirty years later, with a $1.01 billion worldwide gross for the first film in the trilogy, Hollywood has figured out how to turn a profit on HEAVEN’S GATE.

That mystical quality of the New Hollywood, the gauzy history which made it such an alluring Camelot, was its transience. It disappeared practically as soon as it could be named. Make a graph of the movies, one axis for time, the other for the success or failure of the Movie Brats. Chart the ascents and the crownings of Spielberg and Lucas, the latter who spent years as an acolyte of the magnetic Coppola, against the failures of other wunderkinds – Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Friedkin’s SORCERER. A process of genre experimentation, of extracting the replicable elements from a string of distinctive hits, became a process of elimination. Great pictures that ballooned beyond the curve could be forgiven – if they were also hits. In the twilight hours of Camelot, any failure was the fault of a megalomaniac in the director’s chair. Ironic, perhaps, that the project which stalled the career of the tempestuous Friedkin was an Americanization of THE WAGES OF FEAR – in short, a remake.

Even our earliest blockbusters remain Grail-like objects for their mannered sense of space, their metronomic parceling of time into scenes of suspense and emotional groundwork in equal measure. Spielberg’s heir apparent, J.J. Abrams, gave a lecture at a TED conference that used a clip from JAWS, in which Roy Scheider bonds with his young son, to demonstrate this principle – the forward-thinking Abrams, man of a dozen franchises, television series and fashioner of summer tentpoles, reaches back to the 1970s for his inspiration.

Can we locate such economy in his features? It’s more readily apparent in the outwardly retro SUPER 8 than his STAR TREK, even less so this year’s sequel, badly titled: INTO DARKNESS. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, all pastels and miniskirts and equality for all, never truly made it to the screen, damaged as it seems by the time a white, trenchcoated Khan swoops onto the screen and Carol Marcus receives the most perfunctory ogling of the year. Through the wreckage of the Enterprise and a couple of exploded cityscapes echoes the voice of Peter Weller, his Admiral Marcus bitterly defending the choice to arm up the peaceful federation, to compromise its dream of universal utopia in exchange for safety and an assurance of continued power.

Most critics happily read the exchange and its ensuing fallout as yet another iteration of the 9/11 metaphor, Marcus as Bush, Khan as Bin Laden, engineered as an ally but quickly grown wrathful beyond control. We have enough of these pictures – MAN OF STEEL even gave us a Metropolis bathed in falling ash. What Kirk and crew fight to reclaim isn’t so much an explicit analogue to our contemporary reality – and tangible historical moment – as it is the ideal of innumerable compromised ventures, after the fashion of so many with democratic ideals that inevitably became compromised by those seeking safety through autocracy and the consolidation of power: the promise of the New Hollywood, the folly of a Camelot.

Everyone remembers the works of the ‘70s that pointed the way forward for Hollywood, the prototypical blockbusters, one of which paid for an entire ranch in Texas largely devoted to not making movies. And these are the pictures that created the new model for genre filmmaking, one that lasted for many years until it arrived as the strange beast we have today. Filmmakers of the New Hollywood believed that a genre, even one as hallowed and stodgy as the Western, could be many things. For Monte Hellman it could be the stage for an existentialist nightmare worthy of Beckett. For Sam Peckinpah it could provide background for a bloody, tequila-soaked buddy comedy with Warren Oates and a severed head. For Arthur Penn, it was a picaresque sort of alternate history of America’s relationship with its native peoples. Briefly, it was also a musical – you get the point.

Not only can genres still do as many things in 2013, they often do them all at once. Call it a marketing ploy, born again of sheer desperation: if we can’t tell what the people want, we’ll try it all. The overstuffed THE LONE RANGER was 2013’s best example of this tactic, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski in the same tandem operation that engineered the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, a peculiar yet massively popular cocktail of tones and genres. THE LONE RANGER is less assured than the first PIRATES entry, CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, perhaps because its visual allegiances to a particular, well-defined film genre makes it more difficult to achieve the same blend.

Nevertheless, RANGER has almost a linear arc of maturation, sorting through stabs at horror, burlesque, black comedy, and historical epic before climaxing in its most purely enjoyable sequence, a roaring traintop scene of action and acrobatics scored by the William Tell Overture, the Western brought back to crackling, exhilarating life by modern special effects and adherence to certain timeless sounds and images. There’s a calculation here: audiences might have been turned off if the film had opened with such unabashed nostalgia. Preserving it for the resolution of an unwieldy movie is both a canny marketing move and a masterfully cinematic flourish – in the classical style.

The notable studio-produced genre pieces of today tend to be more about evoking specific movies than actually studying their form and attempting to recalibrate a successful visual and narrative structure. THE CONJURING, the high-profile horror release of the summer, makes deliberate callbacks to THE EXORCIST with period clothing and foreboding lead titles, but doesn’t actually resemble that film in any meaningful way. An early tracking shot follows the Perron family as they move into their new home, to the tune of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season”.

Yet THE CONJURING doesn’t much care about a particular time and place, save for the raison d’etre lent by its “From the TRUE CASE FILES of Ed and Lorraine Warren!” premise, and the slight plausibility the ‘70s setting adds to the haunted house. It’s preamble to a carnival ride, one which takes the vitally effective setpieces of director James Wan’s haggard, altogether liberated INSIDIOUS and squeezes them into an artificially commercial framework, complete with an emotional finale that rings utterly hollow. The great scares of THE CONJURING come at the expense of Wan’s natural instincts that kept INSIDIOUS hurtling along from one scream to the next, slamming a door somewhere whenever it seemed something like a character arc was beginning to form, with a welcome disregard for safe spaces like daylight or the outdoors; narrative conventions that allow for measured pacing, no matter how inorganic these pauses are to the material.

Yet the only clearly defined genre that remains in the summertime is the superhero picture, which  took a decisive turn backward this summer. Many interpreted the hard sci-fi sheen of Warner Bros.’ MAN OF STEEL as an attempt to carry the outdated Superman into the future; it is actually a conscious throwback to the 1986 John Byrne origin series of the same name, itself reworking the people’s champion into a remnant of a pulp fantasy world, visualized in the film’s overture on a dying Krypton adorned with jagged spires of rock and phallic spacecraft. The striking moral ugliness of the picture’s climax, being otherwise a product of severe narrative sloth, grafts onto this origin story the pessimism of other decades-old comic book events, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN among them. Regardless, the screenplay by Batman scribe David S. Goyer can’t shake the divine implications of the ’78 SUPERMAN, resulting in a muddied picture trapped under the crushing weight of the ‘70s blockbuster legacy.

THE WOLVERINE fares better, probably for not trying to redefine its hero as something ugly and wooden. Freed of the limitations of team-oriented X-MEN movies, Logan actually does become something of a pulp hero in James Mangold’s adaptation, a fish-out-of-water story in which the title character finds himself out of place in another movie. Well, that’s not quite the case. There was some sniggering online over a list of influences Mangold released to the press, which included Westerns like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES but also quiet domestic dramas like Ozu’s FLOATING WEEDS and TOKYO STORY, plus Technicolor classic BLACK NARCISSUS. Near-incomprehensible action scenes obscure what the director might be getting at, but the moments in which Wolverine has to pit his claws against swords and intrude on moments of intense family dysfunction are the best in the picture, making the disappointment when C-grade supervillains appear for the showdown all the more crushing.

As an outspoken film buff and able studio craftsman, Mangold is a good example of the different pulls of ‘70s attitudes on mainstream cinema: either to use other pictures as a cosmetic framework for more modern filmmaking, or to distractingly pile influences atop a shuddering blockbuster apparatus that cannot support certain modes of storytelling. Attractive as the challenge may be, Ozu and Emmerich simply don’t mix. More than ever, American movies are being held prisoner by their predecessors, restrained from growth in the hopes of capturing former glory even as the concerns of marketing departments have contorted the structures of narrative and production that great entertainment needs to work.

But my favorite film of the summer was PACIFIC RIM, not the year’s best movie but almost certainly its most assertive. We are lucky to have it. It is, first of all, not afraid to be about what it’s about: a world in which interdimensional monsters overrun the earth and a transnational coalition develops giant robots to fight them. The poster, depicting one such faceoff (the monster, called a kaiju versus the mecha, a jaeger), seems weary: you’ve seen this before, pay for it again, won’t you? But the film, directed by horror/fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro, has somehow shrugged off the load of expectations on its shoulders. It not only cares about the development of a non-romantic bond between the two pilots who are its heroes, but crafts a unique plot mechanism through which to channel their relationship. The mechanism, called “drifting”, stresses that to pilot a jaeger two human minds are necessary, but they must be compatible and able to work in seamless synchronization.

This sets up not only the sort of narrative seen in everything from buddy cop movies to romantic comedies, but also PACIFIC RIM’s most moving sequence, in which the pilot played by Rinko Kikuchi falls out of the drift during a test of the jaeger and drags her co-pilot (Charlie Hunnam) into a vivid flashback of her childhood trauma, the best scene in any movie this summer. It is, of course, purely functional in a psychological sense, giving a vital motivation to Kikuchi’s tight-lipped pilot. It becomes the summary of PACIFIC RIM’s success on the appearance of Idris Elba’s stoic military man, the commander Stacker Pentecost, who saves Kikuchi and emerges from his jaeger against a brilliant golden sky, beaming down at her like St. Michael.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called it “a shot that would make John Wayne cry” in his review, but the most important thing about the scene and that shot in particular is that it works even without STAGECOACH. Del Toro doesn’t deliberately invoke John Ford, or even Howard Hawks, whose ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS springs to mind during the scenes of supporting players bantering in the hangar. His film is, instead, if not a turn in the tides of commercial filmmaking then a grand opera of manga and mayhem. Its visual language reminds us that no shot can be a true quotation, that each image contains multitudes of overlapping histories, of John Ford, of Idris Elba, of Guillermo Del Toro, or of John Wayne.

Best of all, PACIFIC RIM has no interest in resurrecting Camelot. Its success internationally points to the potential for great filmmaking within a commercially viable mainstream model. Its filmmaking is modern, the supporting players given vivid designs and mannerisms that let them maximize the brief, punchy scenes that are the stuff of contemporary screenplays. The climax fizzles somewhat, but it lets me bring the essay full circle, even as the patterns of blockbuster moviemaking resist clear arcs. The final act of PACIFIC RIM takes place underwater, in the titular ocean, in a battle that will determine the planet’s future. It is, in other words, the sort of lake into which Del Toro and his crew plunged on an altogether different mission, not caring about the cult of the auteur or about sneaking arthouse quotations into their work. But it is here that they dove, reaching out to the bottom, and grasped with their fingertips the hilt of a dead king’s sword. – Brendan

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