Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jurassic Snark: 13 Ways of Smirking at a Blockbuster

Chris Pratt running from his new acquaintance in "Jurassic World" -- it's all our own damn fault.
 I liked it, actually. Yes, I did. Yikes.

“Jurassic World” is enjoying the biggest movie opening of all time. It’s a remake in all but name of the original “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster about genetically revived dinosaurs and the CGI mayhem that ensues. Many of my fellow critical pygmies are busy jabbing their tiny javelins into its ankles. I’m going to join in – it won’t accomplish anything, it’s just fun.

To criticize the most successful film ever made to date takes the temerity of an ant attempting to upend a bulldozer (although with “Ant-Man” coming out soon, that image may become obsolete). Spielberg is the most successful storyteller in human history. You want to give him a few notes? It’s not going to impact the film’s success, impact, or sequels. And in fact the movie’s lowest-common-denominator appeal is an important choice that presages what your next 30 years of mainstream films is going to look like, whether you like it or not.

But first, there’re so many little things to carp on! In no particular order:

  1. Why is Chris Pratt staring intently at everything at all times during the film? I know his character has eyelids.
  2. In the post-Nolan era, many directors are framing their fight scenes much more closely than they used to, and editing more rapidly. The result is the action is choppy, and the antagonists difficult to differentiate. This vague thrashing about plagues most of “Jurassic World.” (Can the dinosaurs wear T-shirts with numbers next time?) The movie crams a number of compensatory schematics, maps, video imbeds, and vitals charts into the film. They don’t help that much. It is still wise to have a clean narrative line in a fight sequence. 
  3. It’s profoooooooooooundly sexist. In imitation of Laura Dern’s character in the original, Dallas Howard’s Claire, the director of Jurassic World, is a driven professional. Claire is lost in tasteful businesswear and high heels in a theme park that is, in parallel incongruity, set in the middle of a dangerous, stinking jungle. Unlike her married sister, whose two sons she hosts absentmindedly at Jurassic World until all hell breaks loose, is not a complete woman. She has no man she has borne no children, evidently: she just has a career. Tragedy. Fortunately, she becomes a tough ‘n’ tearful surrogate mother by movie’s end, and gains hot dino-training boyfriend who never blinks. That this change should still be seen as a viable issue to drive character on is, in the literal sense of the word, retarded. 
  4. Speaking of relationships, it seems that confronting fanged death is really good for them. Two alienated young brothers unite, becoming suddenly in touch with their feelings and capable of articulating them at the same time, something which has NEVER HAPPENED. EVER. Also, it looks like their parents were in the process of getting a divorce, but evidently being helpless bystanders at the potential gruesome dismemberings of their offspring snapped them back together like a couple of Legos. Thanks, T-Rex. 
  5. Really? You played the gifted child card? Is that a thing now? Making younger brother Gray a sensitive savant does nothing to make him cuter, but does provide a helpful funnel for exposition and background. 
  6. The racial hierarchy persists. The leads are white, and live. The head bad guy is white (a suitably greasy Vincent D’Onofrio) – dies last. Male lead’s helper is black – almost gets killed. The well-intentioned billionaire owner of the park is from India – dies about halfway. And BD Wong as the token Asian smart guy – saving him for sequel. The careful parceling out of subsidiary roles to various ethnicities gives the semblance of balance without actually providing any. 
  7. However, the ethnic distribution among the various park workers, security personnel, and armed bullyboys that serve as Dino Chow throughout the movie is pretty fair. It’s easy to track their character’s ethnicity, as that’s about all we determine before their infrared GoPros show them being eaten, dragged into the brush, mutilated, etc. It’s soooo CUTE when their individual vital-signs readouts go flat, one by one! 
  8. Speaking of killing, what in the hell is the point of killing Zara, Claire’s personal assistant, in a gratuitous sequence? Actress Katie McGraw should get dibs on a decent future role for putting up with this. 
  9. Another important theme of “Jurassic World” is the curse of middle management. You can’t win in that precarious position. You know how it is – you’re getting bad data from the ground troops, and the big bosses want results now and don’t care how. You make decisions that seem good in the moment, but unleash devouring herds and flocks of genetically engineered primeval beasts. A little organizational therapy, a retreat, or just some trust exercises in the office might have prevented this outcome. 
  10. “Jurassic World” is self-sealingly meta, answering its own arguments before they are raised. It creates a theme park on Isla Nublar just like any of the ones we might go to – complete with restaurants, hotels, shopping, leisure activities, etc. – the crapulous carapace of the entertainment experience .The park is a cookie-cutter copy of the capitalist shitstorm that plagues almost every tourist destination, natural feature, or activity or sight of interest on the planet. There is a Starbucks, and a Brookstone, and Samsung gets its name slapped on an exhibition hall. Supposedly, the creative team did this as a commentary. Then why didn’t they do more with the premise? Georre Romero would at least have shown a pterodactyl eating one of those hopelessly overpriced gadgets like the Motorized Grill Brush with Steam! The Consumer Society consumed. “Jurassic World” wants to have it all – it wants to be hip and ironic and earnest and political and message-y and neutral and cutting-edge and story-driven, all without losing anchorage to the lowest common denominator. 
  11. There is logic. Then there is movie logic Then there is blockbuster logic. Everything is a component, including people (note none of the tourists are killed; they are simply chased about, wounded or damaged purely for decorative effect). Do the velociraptors have shifting loyalties? Why? Because the movie needs it. Does Indominus Rex need a special skill? Then we can backfill by announcing that its genetic engineering borrows from many species, that allow it to mask its heat signature (used twice), camouflage itself (used once), and so on. If a song and dance had been needed, I’m sure mad scientist BD Wong and company could have spliced in a little Al Jolson. The most pathetic acknowledgement of this logic is given by Larry, the Loveable Loser and Living Plot Point at Jurassic World’s HQ console, who stays behind during the island’s evacuation why? “Someone has to stay behind.” Exactly. Larry knows his place in the world. 
  12. What the movie does get right is that it is totally down with the fact that it is what Ebert called “a thrill machine.” Like Indominus Rex, it does what it’s engineered to do, and it will plow through anything that gets in its way to achieve that goal. It is part of what I think of as the New Silence in cinema, a style of filmic storytelling that will play anywhere, just as silent films were capable of. To maximize profitability, films have to be able to be viewed in any country in the world. Let’s get real – if something in a movie won’t play in China, for instance, it gets removed. This restricts controversy, complexity, ideas, ambiguity, replacing them with sure bets – the template forged by Spielberg 40 years ago with “Jaws,” and perfected since. Film as video game, characters as action figures, very mechanical. A to B to C, beat after beat. Toning down any idiosyncrasies, creating a smooth and palatable smoothie of a film, is the legacy America will bequeath to the world over the next few decades. With the independent-film world toiling along in the margins, we may soon be in a mainstream film world composed primarily of CGI blockbusters and boring-ass Oscar-seeking historical dramas may exist. 
  13. “You didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” Dr. Wu’s snide comeback to the park’s owner encapsulates the vicious-cycle nature of the film’s problem, while negating any negative response to it. If only people didn’t want to see scarier dinosaurs, they wouldn’t have created a big giant scary one that happens to be a serial killer. Ah, if only our first-world appetites weren’t so difficult to sate. And hey if we don’t like “Jurassic World,” that’s our fault too. We wanted more spectacle, didn’t we? The stakes get pushed higher and higher with every film, and Hollywood will definitely do whatever it has to do to keep our attention. You lousy tourists/moviegoers, you brought this on yourselves.

 When does it end? I am sure we will get sick of superhero movies long before the projected interlocking production cycles of these huge fantasy epics are completed, and so it will be with the revived franchise of “Jurassic” – we will keep running that formula until it wears out and the zeitgeist demands something different. But people raised on lazy, condescending, unchallenging storytelling have a hard time processing more interesting work.

“Jurassic World” succeeds on its own terms. It’s not trying to change the world; it just wants to entertain us. And that’s fine. I just think we need a little more fiber in our cultural diet. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Limitation Game: How inaccurate does a historical film have to be to succeed?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing -- lies as truth?

“When you lose use the language of ‘fact-checking’ to talk about a film, I think you’re sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how arts works. You don’t fact-check Monet’s Water Lilies. That’s not what water lilies look like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That’s the goal of the piece.” – Graham Moore

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” – Mark Twain

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” – Flannery O’Connor

First of all, let’s get over our collective and recurring indignation at the fact that historically inaccurate films have been made, are being made, and will continue to be made. The furor over such recent films as The Imitation Game, Selma, and American Sniper ceased resonating shortly after this year’s Oscars ceremony. Certainly those who film writer Bilge Ebiri calls “historical-accuracy hit squads” (1) are gearing up for the next assault wave, which will begin as soon as the historical-drama Oscar-bait dramas start issuing forth in the fall.

Long before D.W. Griffith turned the Civil War inside out in The Birth of a Nation in 1915, reality on film was entirely malleable. The Edison Company’s documentary footage of American troops going to Cuba in 1898 included a spliced-in reenactment of battle. (Military veterans would later become the most vocal critics of war films that glamorized combat or presented completely spurious scenarios.) Later, in the sanitized Hollywood biopics of the 1930s and ‘40s, films like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sergeant York, Young Mr. Lincoln, Night and Day, They Died with Their Boots On, and Words and Music set the gold standard for repurposing history for entertainment and/or ideological purposes. (The representation of Custer, in particular, changes with the times -- Richard Mulligan plays him as a psychotic popinjay in 1970's Little Big Man; in the 1991 Son of the Morning Star, Gary Cole plays him as flawed but relatable.)

Errol Flynn as Custer -- one heck of a guy, according to 1945's They Died with Their Boots On.
There are a host of volumes out there on historical films and their shortcomings, most entertainingly George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World, and a notable website, History vs. Hollywood (, that continues to vet film and TV projects large and small that purport to serve as history’s handmaidens.

A movie’s primary mission is to prevent the audience form ceasing to watch it, and no one should be apologetic about that. Imitation Game writer Moore talks about how many historical films are bogged down with a boring literalness – a point well scored in Ricky Gervais’s 2009 fantasy The Invention of Lying, in which a truthful world makes movies that just consist of people reading facts out of a book into the camera.

The dynamics of good story are of essence different than the random jumble of banalities, irritations, and epiphanies that make up daily life. Our storytelling consciousness demands a protagonist, a conflict, obstacles overcome, denouements inflicted. We need closure. We like to see someone win. We want meaning.

And by golly, if it’s not there we will insert it. James Thurber’s classic short story “The Greatest Man in the World” describes a heroic flyer that is the antithesis of the ideal represented by Charles Lindbergh. He is so crass and uncouth, in fact, that the powers that be deem it better to shove him out a high window and burnish his image posthumously. John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the notions of truth, fame, and manliness are put witheringly under the microscope. At the end of the film’s revelations, the newspaper editor to whom they are made coolly replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Senator Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) gazes at the coffin of the an whose heroics made him famous in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Our addiction to truth is provisional and value-specific. We want to know that what we are watching is “based on a true story” (David O. Russell’s recent film American Hustle has an opening title card that declares, refreshingly, “Some of this actually happened”). However, we want the “truth” to conform to our sense of decorum – whether religious, political, moral, or ideological. Liberals hated American Sniper; conservatives hated Milk. Reality shows are scripted, sculpted, the loose ends snipped, the irritating unresolved conflicts ignored.

In fiction, we need to round off our experience with a wedding, a killing, a conversion. My quibbles with Imitation Game isn’t that it’s inaccurate; it’s that its dialogue is more wooden than Washington’s false teeth. In Imitation Game we get people stating their character points instead of showing them, of expository speeches below the level of a garden-variety BBC docudrama, a valedictory coda that never took place. We are told what to think and how to think it. It’s didactic filmmaking at its condescending worst.

Compare it to Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking the Code, which takes similar latitude with facts, but produces a much more complex and nuanced portrait of Turing (fortunately, Derek Jacobi reprised his stage role as Turing for a 1996 BBC adaptation). By doing so, it doesn’t build Turing into a gay proto-hero, or elide criticism of society’s continuing inability to tolerate difference, both of which I feel Imitation Game does.

But hey, Imitation Game made money, which is the bottom line. Right? I will never have any problem with creating income-generating work that helps people feed their families. And many will argue that any distortions are justified in creating a narrative that people can buy into – an entry point for learning more about the topic.

Was Cole Porter gay? Not if Cary Grant plays him. Night and Day, 1946.
This to me seems like a slippery slope, as difficult as attempting a career as a classical conductor after only whipping once through the Reader’s Digest “100 Most Beautiful Melodies” compilation. We think of FDR as a loveable scamp because he sings in Annie, and because Bill Murray played him. 50 years ago, Roosevelt was still portrayed as a demi-god, in the famous Ralph Bellamy Sunrise at Campobello interpretation. Perhaps half a century hence he will be as demonized as only my Republican ancestors were capable of stigmatizing him (my grandfather was the only guy in the state of Nebraska to vote for Goldwater).

Think about the poor saps that had to play Stalin. The Soviet dictator had not one but two actors, Mikheil Gelovani and Aleksei Dikily, who, in film after patriotic film, were inserted as Stalin. The deification of the Stalin character helped to imprint a cult of personality diametrically opposed to the conscienceless killer American students have been taught he was.

Mikheil Gelovani as Stalin
After Stalin died, all these roles were banned or snipped out of the offending films, and the two actors couldn’t get work due to their association with the role. Since then, he’s been portrayed as a monster. In resurgent Russia, where popular affection for him remains, will he become a heroic screen character again? If need be, certainly.

So – how far do we take it? Do we retool every true story without remorse to make it work on screen? When does a story reach the tipping point, so that it becomes just one more piece of misinforming crap that has to be overcome to achieve real understanding? And do documentaries, with their similar need to compress and simplify, do any better? I moderated a dialogue on this topic once at the Boulder International Film Festival, among a dozen filmmakers of both narrative and documentary films. The talk went on for two fascinating, heated hours and could have gone on for much longer.

Every film sits somewhere on the spectrum between slavish attention to detail and complete disregard for same. When we dumb down a story so people will get it, we lose the not-so-inspiring but necessary wisdom that comes with maturity, the fact that real truth is far less inspiring than we would like it to be. 

1.     1.  Bilge Ebiri, Vulture, “Oscar Films and the Prison of Historical Accuracy,” 1/7/15.