Monday, May 21, 2012

Smart, Clever, And Finger Quotation Cinema


Near the end of last year, when writing about 2011’s best films, I discussed a sidebar relating to action pictures. The point I was intent on making was that, when they excelled in 2011, it was usually from overseas markets. Again, Asia was leading the way, but there were also inspired efforts from France, India and Brazil, all emphasizing straightforward thrills and interesting, if simplistic, subject matter.

America’s answer to this was Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” In adapting the James Sallis source novel, Refn had made a film unforgettably perverse, even diseased, stylistically so intense and unforgettable that it called attention to the story’s own superficiality. Ryan Gosling engages in a romance and befriends a child while making life-changing career decisions, and at no point does he adopt a name. He may not even have a personality, as he speaks softly and lets his fists do the talking for him, occasionally wearing a sly, vaguely sociopathic grin regardless if it’s warranted or not.



“Drive” fascinated me, but it also repulsed me and put me ill at ease. From a distance, I appreciated Refn’s craft, and moments in the film are cinema magic, Refn having long proven himself a master with musical cues, grotesque violence and slow motion. But he had made a fetishistic film that celebrates violence and depravity. There is worth in this, particularly in the nightmarish vision of a masked Driver (of course he’s “named” Driver) stalking his ultimately overmatched prey on the sands of an empty beach, our hero a situational Michael Myers under the romantic moonlight. “Drive” is comprised of such standout sequences that grab you by the throat and tickle the eyes. But as “Drive” ended, I was glad.



I’m beginning to wonder if this is a deeply personal reaction than it is a statement of a film’s intrinsic worth. “Drive” is not merely just an action film, but it utilizes action movie tropes and ideas to present a morbid tale of one man caked in blood, determined to do “what is right.” The film’s perverse thrill comes in the supposed muddying of the waters as far as “what is right,” but take “Drive” at face value, and it’s not much of a moral conundrum -- there are bodies lining the streets at the end of this film. Taking to the streets in your blood-soaked scorpion jacket, wielding a hammer is, from a moral perspective, wrong. But from the framework of a film, where heroes engage in might-makes-right, it’s a bit more complicated. “Drive,” which features a protagonist who stunt-drives for the movies, seems compelled to play with the rules of genre filmmaking. But at no point is it concerned with the real life beyond the screen, suggesting why cinephile audiences responded stronger to the film than general audiences.

Contrast that with one specific international offering of 2011. “13 Assassins” was Takashi Miike’s finest, a taut, mature revenge story where one man assembles a crack team to take down a vicious tyrant, with the normally-winky Miike adopting a dead-serious approach to a story about dedication, social rules, and moral obligation. It’s villain wouldn’t have been out of place in “Drive,” and yet “Assassins,” which deals with the malleable version of justice as it presents straightforward, conventional thrills, is about its characters, their decisions, their guilt. “Drive” is about movies.

It’s not a new development, that international filmmakers would show better, more straight-forward aptitude as far as action cinema. But it also has to do with American filmmakers’ desperate thirst for irony and embrace of genre shorthand (the better to subvert it) that has enhanced the film going experience for those with no interest in the human experience.



A perfect example of this is Joss Whedon, who currently sits atop of the moviemaking totem in American studio filmmaking. Whedon not only “wrote” and “directed” “The Avengers,” which stands to become the highest grossing non-James Cameron film in history, but he also co-wrote what to some was April’s buzziest film, the horror freakshow “Cabin In The Woods” The quotations on “wrote” and “directed” are more of an acknowledgement that Whedon, a storyteller with a distinct voice, is not an auteur with a specific point of view, at least not any moreso than the filmmakers who tackled “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Thor” and “The Incredible Hulk,” the films that served as chronological entry points for this latest superhero extravaganza. Take a frame from any of these Marvel efforts, try to guess the cooresponding director, and you’d have a hard time determining the visual palettes of Whedon, Joe Johnston, Louis Letterier, Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh.

Regardless, “Avengers” is far and away the tightest and most satisfying of these films thus far, a single-company effort to produce permutations of the exact same film before cramming all established brands into a free-for-all blockbuster salad bar. “The Avengers” doesn’t get weird like Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” it doesn’t get warm like “Spider-Man 2,” and it doesn’t at any point approach the moral knottiness of “The Dark Knight.” But, for the most part, it works, and Whedon deserves credit for being able to color in the lines better than his predecessors. It’s a placeholder blockbuster, one that gives the audience exactly what they want (Hulk vs. Thor, a-bombs threatening Manhattan, faceless alien drones) in a clockwork manner that suggests Whedon is a dedicated student of the last twenty years of blockbuster filmmaking. With a few exceptions, he knows what not to do, and being a comic book writer for a brief period himself, he understands how to deliver “fan service.” Why surprise when you can guarantee pleasure?

And so “Avengers” becomes the biggest acknowledgment amongst others, quite bald-faced, that it doesn’t consider “franchise” a dirty word. “Franchise” used to be a derogatory term, a way to refer to a film series as endlessly reproducing the same cinematic fast food that people loved the first time. Now it’s something of a term of endearment: witness this review claiming “The Hunger Games” “deserves” a franchise, which seems more like condemnation than praise.



“The Avengers” uses shorthand to debut Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America as characters unchanged from their previous films. Thor simply appears in a bolt of lightning, while Iron Man continues to employ the same cheesy AC/DC theme song. Captain America hasn’t been awake in seventy years, but he’s entered the real world punching, oblivious to society’s leaps and bounds. And, in the geekiest moment, the Hulk’s alter ego refers to a suicide attempt that’s taken from a deleted scene in “The Incredible Hulk.” Appropriately, Bruce Banner undergoes the closest thing to a character arc in this film, learning to be comfortable in his own skin, whether it be white or green. This seems fitting, as “The Incredible Hulk” is the lowest grossing of these films thus far. At its conclusion, Iron Man still holds court in Manhattan, Cap still seems to be property of SHIELD despite learning of their possible WMD stockpiling, and Thor, trapped in Asgard at the close of his first film, shoots back home with ease. Did this film even happen?

Whedon’s storytelling nakedly embraces the film’s serial nature, as you‘d expect: it’s the very heart of episodic TV, where Whedon earned his reputation creating “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” Change your characters or story drastically, and you lose your audience. Never mind the fact that strong concepts for television shows aren’t built to maintain a status quo for very long: the modern age of TV is realizing this, with either creator-run programs with strong creative voices (HBO, though lately to a lesser extent), short-running limited series (BBC, though lately to a lesser extent) and programs that seem to boldly change genres each season (“Lost,” which, well… points for effort). It’s a hands-off approach that Whedon employs, one that reveals him to be a good soldier more than an adept leader. Anyone who has seen a season of one of Whedon’s shows, which had their fair share of clunkers, knows that they could often be the victim of contrasting voices of limited power, such is the limitation of broadcast television. “The Avengers,” the end of one superhero franchise and/or the beginning of another without a single change in personnel, is not Whedon’s achievement, per se. They told him to make a square, insisting on how three of the sides would look and feel. His square was exemplary, in that it fit company mandate: the toys always go back in the box.

Becoming a victim of the whims of television executives likely fueled “Cabin In The Woods,” which Whedon co-wrote with director Drew Goddard, a “Buffy” alum. I am now going to spoil plot points of “Cabin In The Woods,” for those of you sensitive to such things. “Cabin In The Woods” is about many things, though one is the flicking light that involves bringing a little flair to a possibly-outdated ritual -- network television comes to mind. It’s also about the systematic urge to sacrifice young people for the sake of older men and women (or monsters?) in charge. More importantly, however, it’s about horror movies.



Whedon and Goddard send a demographically-friendly, probably-too-old group of coeds to a rickety getaway far away from society, proceeding to ritualistically slaughter them through fairly mundane horror movie means. Goddard and Whedon do a pretty good job of playing with supposedly familiar genre tropes, ignoring the fact that they seem to be mixing up two subgenres -- the hillbilly massacre craze that erupted after filmmakers tried to dumb down the appeal of “Deliverance,” and the cabin horror craze started (?) by “The Evil Dead” and revisited by not many others. In other words, unlike “Scream,” which parodied hundreds of slashers and giallos, “Cabin In The Woods” appears to be superficially goofing on maybe a dozen very particular films, in as broad a manner as possible (with the exception of “The Evil Dead” which naturally earns more than a few pointed call-backs).

But as we know from the film’s opening, “Cabin In The Woods” is also about two middle-management types who sit in a closed-off room, picking off our characters one by one. The game is rigged, of course, but like all horror films that embrace a sort of predictability, you don’t exactly know how. You eventually learn that these men, who toil away listlessly at their fantastical profession, let their indifference get the best of them, and these intrepid twentysomething get the jump on an apparently centuries-old ritual, surviving an arcane set of rules - there must always be a certain set of archetypes these scare situations fulfill, the jock has to die of hubris, there must be a Final Girl and she must be a virgin, etc.. Never mind the fact that very few horror films actually subscribe to these notions, or the perverse plot hole that it doesn’t matter whether the Final Girl survives or not, allowing her to wander through their nightmarish horror movie funhouse, or maybe even escape to the real world and… well, what would she do?

The problem with Whedon and Goddard assembling this big, dopey puzzle box is that they give us four leads with absolutely zero personality. Critics praised Whedon and Goddard’s script for being “smart” when in fact it’s actually “clever,” a distinct error that misses the point. As it is with “The Avengers,” Whedon is very smart about being dumb. In that film, he strategically keeps his characters away from moral booby traps, specifically isolating any potentially ripe dramatic ideas in favor of ironic, common pleasures. Boy, it’s a good thing that alien race has no particular personality, and no real battle plan, and make excellent cannon fodder! Oh, and lucky for us, they’re a hive mind, so deploying a nuke means 100% fatality rate! Phew. Thought we were gonna break a sweat for a moment there. And so on.



“Cabin” similarly takes the audience’s left brain out of the equation by giving us not a single moment or character to relate to. The obvious entry point would be the stoner played by Fran Kranz, though he apparently tokes up so heavily that he isn’t entirely sure if what he sees is reality. And in one moment (“I think I’ll go for a walk“) it’s revealed that he’s also susceptible to the mind-control tricks employed by the mysterious organization that mind-warps his friends and makes them both unreliable, and even more unknowable. We don’t know a single thing about these people before the element of mind-control is introduced.

A film could have all the ideas in the world (“Cabin” has plenty) but what does it matter if it’s not in service to real people, real problems, universal situations we can all understand and relate with? What is the purpose of drama if there is no moral conflict, no greater understanding of ourselves? “Cabin” eventually retreats into the literal belly of the beast, where we learn that this corporation has endless boogeymen captured in cases not unlike a candy dispersal machine, ready to be deployed, presumably, annually.

One character sees a couple of these monsters and claims it’s something out of a nightmare. The response, which frankly should have been excised from the film, corrects him: these characters CREATE nightmares. It’s a tremendous tell, one that suggests Whedon and Goddard aren’t concerned with what actually scares us as much as they’re preoccupied with what happens within the framework of the scary movies we watch. Most of the creatures are slight tweaks on popular horror movie villains, though the most obvious, lawsuit-baiting one involves a Pinhead lookalike, a la “Hellraiser.” It’s a tremendously underthought gesture: anyone who has seen the “Hellraiser” films understands that, while the public avatar of the franchise to fans, the Pinhead character might be the least scariest aspect of those movies. Never mind that most people have nightmares that DON’T concern boogeymen on average - the film can’t even keep straight what’s scary in the horror films they‘re “lovingly“ honoring.



Most of “Cabin In The Woods” moves, however, thanks to a quippy, amusing script, one that can’t resist a few cheap gags in honor of its premise. But it’s never at any point scary, though it does call to mind Sam Raimi’s comments a few years back, in that it comes across as a “spook-a-blast.” Raimi’s term of endearment could be affixed to “Cabin In The Woods,” though it was first used for his “Drag Me To Hell,” another horror-comedy that Raimi tried to undersell with that made-up word. And yet, “Drag” features both heartier laughs and more satisfying drama, revolving around a fully-realized character, a young bank employee struggling to do the right thing, beset by her dark past (overweight eating contest champ) and her decidedly funny moral quandary involving her struggling career and the fate of an elderly gypsy who may actually be possessed by a demon.

“Drag Me To Hell” piles on the “scares” and has more than a few “laughs,” but it is first and foremost a movie about a woman, and a fantastical situation with a problem that plays as universal to most general audiences. “Cabin In The Woods,” meanwhile, seems more dedicated to it’s own elaborate funhouse, obsessed with being clever more than being about people. Like “Drive,” which at least has the hand of a distinct visual stylist with an arresting, if somewhat vile, point of view, “Cabin In The Woods” is Finger-Quotation Cinema. It’s so concerned with genre, with filmmaking, with ironic humor, that it forgets why it exists. What’s the use of being clever if you’re just chuckling to yourself?

Some might blame this on Tarantino, who brought post-modern filmmaking to the American mainstream in the nineties. And yet, for all their nostalgic trappings and genre conventions, Tarantino’s movies breathe, live, and feature characters who transcend their movie trappings. Beatrix Kiddo may walk in the shadow of previous cinema-ready heroines, but by the end of “Kill Bill” she walks right out of it, into a real life, baptized by pain and loss. The shadows also cloak “The Avengers” and “Cabin In The Woods.” Unfortunately, Joss Whedon, and with him a huge swath of other mainstream filmmakers, seem content to lie in that shadow permanently.

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