Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Abandoned hope in the blockbuster era

The last film I saw in the theatre was Django Unchained and that was in January. It's now the summertime, and the multiplexes are positively throbbing, vibrating with the sounds of million dollar spectacles of pixels moving across the screen to the delight of audiences. I am not one of them anymore. It seems that I've fallen out of love with the theatre experience, along with the blockbuster phenomenon.

I haven't seen Star Trek Into Darkness, nor Iron Man 3, nor Man of Steel. However, I'm starting to feel the societal push for me to see these films. As all three blockbusters are worldwide experiences (though only depicting a small world themselves called Amurika), they are impacting and influencing culture. I am unable to visit a pop culture website without tons of ads, reviews, and essays about the films. I am left out of the conversation because of my lack of desire to see the films. I want to discuss them; I just can't be bothered to actually experience them. So, there's a cultural impetus, a responsibility almost, to see these films in order to not be left out.

This is sort of similar to last year, when The Avengers came out and felt absolutely no desire to see the film. I eventually went and saw the film because I was tired of memes, pictures, jokes, and people telling me that it's the greatest movie ever. So I saw it, and predictably, I was bored by it. Even now, a year later, I'm feeling bored by The Dark Knight Rises. While my initial reaction was "I love it," I'm willing to concede that I was mistaken. None of these blockbusters are interesting. They're empty vessels with overly convoluted plots, similar structures, and action for the sake of it.

Jonathan McCalmont, a critic that I very much respect, has a theory that the depoliticization of films is the symptom of a matrix of factors, with the biggest being the budget. The modern blockbuster has a huge budget that in turn requires a large profit in order for the studio to maintain profitability in the eyes of its (non-creative type) shareholders (who are probably other corporations rather than people). In order to achieve that large profit, the film must be successful in domestic and international markets. Thus, films must be easily translated, must appeal to different cultures and peoples, and must be accessible. This very accessibility limits the emotional palette with which the film can work, and substitutes endless action sequences for nuance and subtlety.

We can then thank (or blame) the vast labyrinthine gears of capitalism for the emptiness and shallow nature of blockbusters. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as The Dark Knight attempts to say something almost revolutionary ("hey maybe the structures we believe in aren't infallible"). But this is an example of Zizek's interpassivity: cultural objects do the labour of criticizing capitalism for the subject, so that the subject does not feel the responsibility of doing that themselves. The guilt of knowing that one must speak out is assuaged when a large blockbuster film speaks out for the subject.

Blockbusters are then depoliticized by the structures of capitalism and simply become singular items in a series offered by endless waves of production. Not only can this be seen in how the films are produced, as there is no respite between film releases, but also in the very films themselves.

Every blockbuster film produced is never meant to be isolated or discrete. Instead, it's always designed for a franchise. In other words, the risk of producing a new intellectual property is diminished due to the investment and subsequent returns of the sequel. Star Trek was only greenlit because it was an already established intellectual property (which means no one had to do all this work introducing the idea to countless millions) and because it comes from an already established franchise (a subtle but distinct difference).

Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man were explicitly designed to be a part of a franchise, with the hope that a huge return would be seen once the franchise had come to a head. The Avengers broke numerous box office records and was an exceedingly profitable film.

In each of these aforementioned films, there comes a tease. This is the mechanism of which I meant by the endless waves of production. Once the film is complete, the audience is no longer excited by the film they just watched, but by the anticipation of the next film in the series. Their whole enjoyment is dependent on the promise of continuing adventures.

While the Marvel Studio films are an excellent example of this rapacity of film production, the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who might be even more emblematic. Each episode of the previous season was promised to be a mini-blockbuster, but each "film" only served to tease the mystery of the "final" blockbuster, which of course was simply an hour long tease for the next episode.

Audiences are essentially being told when to be excited. "GET EXCITED FOR THE NEXT THING" while the current thing is still happening. This is the apotheosis of consumer culture. Each blockbuster film, empty, soulless, depoliticized, shallow, is l'objet petit a.

As Zizek writes, "while the object of desire is simply the desired object, the cause of desire is the feature on account of which we desire the desired object (some detail, tic, which we are usually unaware of and sometimes even misperceive it as the obstacle, as that in spite of which we desire the object)." The films themselves present themselves as both the object of desire and the cause of the desire for the desired object. Each item in the series of advertisements (another endless wave of production) simply teases the inevitable tease that is the film itself.

This constant anticipation has, of course, an unintended side effect within the overarching structure of the production of blockbusters. Each film, independent of intellectual property or studio, must somehow compete with the very aesthetic. That is to say, that each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release.

With The Dark Knight, Gotham City is in danger of being blown up. In the inevitable sequel, Gotham City must, by the logic of escalation, must be blown up. And it is.

In a sequel by aesthetic only, Man of Steel can't simply have Superman and Zod do battle in Metropolis as Bane and Batman did. Rather, an entire city, millions of people, must die for the stakes to be appropriately high.

The moment a blockbuster doesn't have ambitions as high as this, the audience will reject it. Audiences are being desensitized to the scale, the destruction, even the palatable feeling of danger. After all, how many times can the world be in danger of annihilation if it happens all the time?

In the titular film, the Avengers assemble to combat Loki, a fascist who is lazily compared to Hitler. How could anyone begrudge the Avengers from fighting what is essentially a Nazi? Thus, their battle with Loki is not ideological but simply an attempt to maintain a specific political and in turn economic order. Both Stark and SHIELD are massive job providers and contribute to the health and wealth of the nation. In a throwaway scene that emotionally contradicts a later scene, Stark reveals that he's building a mechanism for sustainable, renewable energy. Out of the goodness of his heart, or simply for sheer profitability? Of course, Loki's intervention signals a possible shift in the paradigm. If Loki manage to enslave the human race, then how is anybody going to make a profit? Or even worse, what if they lose their wealth? Thus, the Avengers assemble simply to prevent the change in status quo.

Loki is provided with no motivation other than "conquer all he sees" which is frankly, boring. But since the film must be marketed across the world, almost everybody can get behind the idea that Loki must be stopped in order to prevent domination. It's a shallow motivation for a villain.

But it can't simply end with Loki's defeat. Rather, The Avengers, like all blockbusters, must tease that the villain the heroes are fighting isn't the mastermind at all. Rather, there exists another structure behind that. The film then teases the next threat... which will be inevitably defeated at the hands of the jingoistic superheroes.

Surely, Zizek would argue that modern blockbusters, once depoliticized, offer a fantasy in which there exists more dangerous structures such as total enslavement than more banal structures such as class disparity or racism. The fantasy posits that if the more frightening possibility can be defeated, it stands to reason that the lesser, more realistic structures can be too.

However, this presents its own problems. If audiences are too busy imagining the fascist villain being defeated by punching, how will they ever have time to imagine the end of more insidious structures, ones that are lived reality?

What will be the next step in superhero films after audiences have become bored with the fantasy of the destruction of Earth? Obviously, the destruction of the galaxy. And from there? Why, it must be the Universe: the total annihilation of the Universe while shareholders in Marvel Studios count the rising box office totals.

Blockbusters are exhausting. They're long, overly complicated (due to the escalation logic as formulated up above), and joyless. They function by teasing the next instalment, the next empty threat, the next group of pixels to fight with other pixels.

I haven't been a film in the theatre because I'm neither interested in the films, nor am I interested in giving money to produce more of these blockbusters. I won't see Man of Steel because frankly I just don't care.

Let's have a new superhero paradigm. There's nothing wrong with telling grand scale epic blockbusters. There's still tons of good stories to tell with these corporate figures (such as Batman). So let's take a risk and watch something that challenges us, rather than toadies to our most superficial desires for SPLOSIONS AND PUNCHING. I reject the current model, but I hope for many new models!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

American Elsewhere


When I was 14 or 15, I was visiting my grandparents in Calgary all by myself. On a particularly lazy day, I was allowed to venture forth from their condo and explore a small area. Of course, my first destination was and always will be, a used bookstore. There, I came across a silvery shiny blue paperback of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show. At the time, my reading consisted of alot of beginner crap like Stephen King and cheap horror paperbacks from the 1980s (an era for which I still retain fondness). Barker's novel (which David Foster Wallace hated btw) promised a territory of reading unlike any other I'd ever read.

Structurally speaking, The Great and Secret Show was unlike any other novel I'd read up to that point. Rather than the traditional narrative of ordinary folks introduced to a small town with secrets that reveal themselves slowly and methodically, Barker has everything revealed in the first 80 pages. After a time jump in which our focal characters age 20 years, the action starts and never lets up: a war between two impossibly powerful humans using pawns and ghosts and creatures and nightmares. It's a strange novel if only because I hadn't expected the story to get to the "good stuff" so quickly.

Similarly, Barker's Coldheart Canyon resists the same structures of ghost stories. Instead of the protagonist being slowly driven mad by hauntings, everything is revealed in one quick burst, with the rest of the novel being an ever escalating series of confrontations and horrors.

Both novels are characteristic of Barker's tendency to get to the "good stuff" which is to say the horror that I so desperately craved as a teenager. However, Barker's horror novels are not traditional (as aforementioned) and fall under the nebulously defined but generative category horror-fantasy. This is where the non-standard stuff goes like say Alan Moore's Swamp Thing or Laird Barron's short stories. These are horror stories that evoke other worlds, other creatures not from mythology or folklore.

In other words, H. P. Lovecraft's influence looms over all of this, including Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere.

Bennett's novel works within the same category as Barker's Great and Secret Show and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Bennett listed that novel as an influence on this text. Both work with vast concepts across a small town canvas and feature other worlds only glimpsed that hint at dimensions and creatures not possible in our universe's physics. In other words, the exact type of pulp that I loved as an adolescent and that I still love now.

However, Bennett's novel lacks the elegance of Barker, but retains a better grasp of efficiency. In American Elsewhere, ex-cop (ugh) Mona Bright discovers that she has inherited a house in a town not found on any map. She goes there to discover more about her mother who committed suicide when Mona was a child. In Wink, New Mexico, she is confronted with a strange town, strange people, and endless rules about staying indoors at night, not touching the strange geodesic dome in the town square, and never ascending the mesa to the old abandoned government laboratory.

Of course, once the laboratory is introduced into the plot, the experienced horror-fantasy has already gleaned most of American Elsewhere's secrets: another world, vast unimaginable creatures, a battle on an epic scale, nauseating chitinous creatures from nightmares, all discovered in the name of science.

Mona, a biracial tomboy who no patience for nonsense (ugh), seeks to discover the truth about the facility where previously unbeknownst to her, her mother worked as a scientist. Along the way, she meets strange people who play Chinese checkers against unseen opponents, an old lady who hasn't aged in thirty years, a man who has replaced all the parts of a car's engine with detritus found in the kitchen, a child who has secret meetings with a fish-lady, and other strange things.

However, like in Barker's novels, Bennett wastes little time with the traditional structure. After an extended introduction in which he slowly moves the pieces in place, the remaining 400 pages are breathlessly paced and relentless.

Sure, Bennett's novel unfolds in somewhat predictable ways, but the narrative has a certain neat and tidy logic to it, so when I closed the book, I was utterly satisfied with this engrossing read. Stories, after all, have structure and rhythm and balance; Bennett understands this and has constructed his text accordingly.

He's clearly worshipped at the altar of Stephen King and its imitators, because he populates his Wink, New Mexico with the same type of "aw shucks" American realist characters that have dominated fiction since King's meteoric ascent to godhood. The human villains of the piece (because there are always human villains in these types of stories) could have been culled straight from Needful Things or IT. Characters are introduced in long prologues (always after an "act break" which speaks to the efficiency of the composition) that reveal their weird but relatable backstory. It's not... tedious, but neither is it... elegant. Rather, it's simply economical.

In typical Barker and King fashion, the whole point of introducing a large swathe of characters is to quickly dispatch them to show how important or frightening the main antagonist is. I can identify these tropes, I can understand their function within the narrative, I can despair at their predictability but nevertheless, I feel a frisson of excitement every time.

Where Bennett succeeds most is not simply his replication of a Lovecraftian menace, or a King-esque small town, or a Barker-esque clash of titans, but also his deep comprehension of how to mix and match these elements for pure efficiency, a word I've used a couple times already to describe American Elsewhere. Despite the novel being almost 700 pages, there is very little fat or excess. It's an economical novel that must do what it must do for the sake of the narrative logic, and has no spare time to traipse around in detours. Bennett has also learned from the altar of Elmore Leonard: "try to leave out the part that readers skip."

Alas, not all is perfect with Bennett's novel. While I applaud the use of a female protagonist, Bennett sort of stumbles with his characterization of women in general. They come in two forms in American Elsewhere: meek/submissive and aggressive/powerful. Mona is a powerful woman who has learned all of the masculine traits which comes in handy, narratively speaking. The other lead female is Gracie, a meek girl who has become... the concubine of one of the powerful alien figures. Which is gross.

In the last part of the novel, when the shit is hitting the fan, he deploys some essentialist balderdash: the hoary cliche that underneath every powerful woman, there's a strong maternal instinct that will suddenly take over and redeem her ruthless behaviour. It's not nice, but it does make sense in the narrative's logic.

Also, I was quite sceptical about the mixed race aspect of Mona, but Bennett only brings it up in the beginning in order to set a physical dimension to the character. It's not really anything that defines Mona, but is part of her identity.

American Elsewhere is a good horror-fantasy. It's not a game-changer, it's not doing anything drastically different, but it's certainly efficient, entertaining, and not terribly racist, sexist, or homophobic (which is saying something considering how pervasive all those things are).