August 28, 2005

Joseph Campbell Redux

I still hold fast to my suspicions about Joseph Campbell's followers. However, the responses suggested that I wrapped up my discussion too quickly, as Walter and Alex were hot on my heels with implications that I hadn't bothered to deal with. The issue of intentionality and archetype came up: Walter noted "Archetypes happen whether you intend to weild them or not" and Alex followed up with "Artist intentionality means nothing when all is said and done." Which leads me to a few conversation-starters:

First of all, the fact that archetypes happen all on their own exposes the uselessness of the Campbellite project. The main thrust of this school of screenwriting is that you must know and deliberately repeat the archetypal structure- forgetting to mention that for millennia, storytellers managed to repeat those structures without the benefit of someone like Campbell pointing them out. If such structures are latent within the human psyche, then wouldn't it be a better idea to concentrate on something else?

And it is that "something else" that makes narrative art valuable. This is where artist intentionality does mean something: it's where the sum total of the individual meets the biological programming and strikes a compromise. Not everything can be reduced to the collective unconscious- there are external circumstances- personal histories and social machinations that don't necessarily gell with the archetypal gestalt. And to serve the infinitesimal possibilities underserved by mere archetype, you have to be able to say, quite intentionally, these are the things that I believe, and here is a form that adequately represents them. You may not know ALL of what you're doing, but that's different from being entirely on autopilot.

Choice really is the issue here. Campbell isn't just some jerk who annoys me, he's industry standard: screenwriting classes teach him right beside the hated Syd Field, executives tremble at the mention of his name, and people who don't follow the party line don't get their scripts produced. And the reason he's industry standard is that his all-purpose ideology is easily assimilated by the capitalist project. Walter was right when he pointed out that 95% of indie and foreign films have the same marks as the 95% of Hollywood films I hate- but that's because the Hollywood machine has become so pervasive that all other films must adopt its style or be crushed.

Campbellism homogenizes every culture into one, and so does capitalist filmmaking: both state that your individual geography, history and culture are basically immaterial. The problem is not just that this makes movies bad, but that it's part and parcel of a negative social trend that is erasing local identity and collecting culture into the hands of a few megacorportions. Freud and Shakespeare may have their pedantic reductionists, but because of their specificity and insistence on outside referents they can't be used against us quite so easily.

We now have a culture that can't deal with anything really foreign. The Fellinis, Bergmans and Kurosawas of the pre-Campbell world didn't look a damned thing like Hollywood (except for the unconscious archetypes, of course), and were enjoyed by a large audience of specialists and intelligent amateurs alike. The F's, B's and K's of our time- Claire Denis, Edward Yang, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, et al- are the province of the hardcore believer and no-one else, because they say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your simple myths.

None of these people care sweet F.A. about whether they fit the collective unconscious. They've got their corners of the world to define, and they do it quite deliberately. The Hollywood players would like to define you too, just as deliberately- but it can't let you know that, or you wouldn't buy. Thus they internalize Campbell to sell their covert ideology to you and give themselves a personal alibi: I swear, your honour, it was the myths, the myths!

The playwright who's most pertinent here isn't Shakespeare, but Brecht. He taught us we could stand outside our myths and see how they affect us, becoming an active viewer and the hero of our own lives. And while we will never shake the structures, saying we have no control over cultural actions is cowardly at best and irresponsible at worst. There's a part of the process that is our conscious doing, and it's the part that keeps those archetypes are curtailed from attaching themselves to things that might harm us.

Incredibly Shrinking Donnie

Finally saw the director’s cut of Donnie Darko and while I like it better overall (Kelly has deepened all the relationships, I think, in ways that for the most part are subtle and lovely), I hate the substitution over the prologue of the INXS song “Never Tear Us Apart” for Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”. It’s not just that the latter has a sense of suspension that the former doesn’t (making sense of Kelly spare, poignant use of slow-motion) but that the latter also speaks more eloquently to the kind of childhood’s end that I think is Donnie Darko’s chief recommendation. Close analysis of both openings also reveals that the Director’s Cut softens the noise of a passing car and almost mutes completely the sound of Donnie’s bike - where in the theatrical cut, the passing car becomes part of the song (menacing); ditto the bike (rattlesnake, and menacing, too). I understand that the INXS song was the original choice for the scene and that after Sundance, Kelly was forced to sub the Echo and the Bunnymen tune because of prohibitive licensing costs (and besides, happy accidents are the stuff from which masterpieces, even minor ones, are made) – but I don’t agree with the rationale that this song fits better during the party scene where it directly presages the death of the girlfriend. That’s the kind of shit I precisely dislike about cut-and-paste soundtracks – but putting it way at the beginning, especially with that brilliant minor guitar sting launching from the white-suffusion. . . I don’t know that there’s a more perfectly stung moment in film that year.

Another story of man in time, space, and the quagmire of existential identity is Jack Arnold’s long-out-of-print The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) that, widely available on eBay in fairly decent DVR editions (most of them packaged with a trailer narrated by Orson Welles, on the Universal set while shooting Touch of Evil), has been denied a proper DVD release because of some stupid thing or another. As you gaze down the endless walls of super special editions at Blockbuster, weep a little for the masterpieces (major this time) that either sit unreleased, or have only ever gotten substandard treatment (like Weir’s Fearless or Penn’s Night Moves) by distributors too lazy or too venal; waiting to release a second wave special edition should the barebones version do surprisingly well. But as the rationale was once explained to me, why promote what no one’s going to see anyway? Good thinking, yes? My dad once told me that it wasn’t wise to argue with idiots because idiots are never wrong, and so my solution isn’t a letter-writing campaign a’la Marge Simpson, but just to shell out the ten bucks ad by the bootleg.

Because The Incredible Shrinking Man is an extraordinary film – perhaps the pinnacle of the 50s science fiction cycle in that it addresses theology from a Kirkegaardian sense (hero Scott Carter must shrink to escape his prison) but also the disintegration of the myth of the fifties suburban utopia. Carter has it all: beautiful wife, beautiful house, beautiful car, and, apparently, a yacht where, one afternoon, he’s exposed to a radioactive cloud that mixes with a pesticide on his skin and sends him on a journey inward. With one of the most unusual endings in film, Carter first loses every single accoutrement of what it meant to be a man in the popular consciousness at the time (and always): he loses his ability to please his wife (a wedding ring slides off his finger in the film’s most loaded metaphor), becomes literally a child all of tantrums and long reaches, loses his job, runs out on his wife, is attacked by his housecat, and is, finally, forgotten by friend, family, and lover alike in a dark basement that he describes as “a vast, primordial plain.” Reduction of man to his basest elements, Carter nonetheless proclaims that he will master his new environment as he did his last – Nietzche rears his grizzled head even here among the spiders and the matchheads – but Carter keeps shrinking, and The Incredible Shrinking Man becomes one of the most thoughtful and philosophically rich pictures in American flickers.

Besides, it has a spider-fight that Peter Jackson appears to have at least borrowed from heavily for The Return of the King’s Frodo vs. Shelob.

August 27, 2005

Dear Joseph Campbell: You Stink

The time has come to deal with an issue that's plagued me, cinema, and myriad conversations with my esteemed webmaster for some time. Something that's become commonplace in popular thought about writing and making film, something that has penetrated the industry itself and continues to shape the Hollywood style of narrative. Something that very often gets treated like a foregone conclusion, and accepted as obvious truth, if not holy writ.

Something like the legacy of Joseph Campbell.

Whom I hate.

Joseph Campbell, you'll recall, is the man who boiled down every single culture's mythology into a few simple formulas- his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pretty much announces his assertion that archetype is the same structure repeated over and over again across the world. He then demonstrated that contemporary storytellers- writers, filmmakers, George Lucas- were in fact the myth-makers, shamen and soothsayers of our time. And the upshot of all of this is that if you follow the bare-bones heroic structures laid out in his work, you, too will be a myth-maker, shaman, soothsayer and all-around happenin' cat.

That, at least is what his followers in Hollywood seem to have gotten out of his work. They've taken the hero-overcomes-evil-to-triumph structure and applied it over and over again, to the point where it's taught in screenwriting classes and treated like something more than what it is. You're no longer just writing a movie: you're healing the world with Eternal Truth. And in taking this astonishingly self-regarding rationale, they have ruthlessly attacked everything that makes narrative, filmmaking, and art itself interesting and valuable.

I can accept that the myth structure is actually there; what I can't accept is that the structure is the myth itself. If you said all music had rhythm and notes, would that make all the world's music the same? If you said all food had protein, carbohydrates and fat, would that make every culture's cooking the same? Archetypes mean nothing without the values and quirks a culture invests in them. And they sure don't all look like Hollywood movies. For one thing, Western narrative form is different from other cultures: where the West has the crisis-climax-denouement structure that's a holdover from Aristotle, Japanese narrative (for instance) is episodic, not necessarily moving towards its conclusion in the same methodical way. You'd miss all the action of a movie (and a culture) if you just watched basic archetype- it's the form of how they're deployed that defines a culture's storytelling.

And the quirks aren't just formal. I wrote a paper recently on Cure and Seven for the Reverse Shot website, and said the films used the form of the serial killer drama in culturally specific ways: the killer of Seven responded to transgressions that could only have come out of Western individualism, while the murder-enabler of Cure was releasing his charges from the dictates of Japanese consensus culture. The structure of both was pretty close indeed- but would I have been saying anything by pointing out that the two were using the same cop-and-killer archetypes? No. Better to point out the ways in which the form was used to explore currents in their respective societies, in this case the moral ramifications of committing to a culture while dealing with its frustrating negative side effects. You learn nothing from the structure; you learn from its application. Not the hero, but the thousand faces.

This isn't just academic nitpicking. The Campbell method has been distorted to say that if you have the archetypal structure, that's all you need for a screenplay: you follow the paint-by-numbers and you wind up with a picture of yourself as myth-making shaman. But you aren't a myth-making shaman. You are merely doing THE ABSOLUTE BARE MINIMUM required of a narrative. And so we have films that do the absolute bare minimum required of a movie: films that shoehorn complex information into a precis of a story, shaving off anything extraneous that might give us more understanding beyond the completion of a Herculean task. One task is as good as another in this universe, and so we wind up with all films boiled down to nothing. The pleasures and insights in a film lie in the variations on the theme: mindless repetition is as boring as... well, 95% of Hollywood's output.

There's another, more insidious application to pop Campbellism. We live in a time of intense cultural homogenization, when the Hollywood juggernaut is riding over national cinemas and forcing them to conform to its formal/narrative practices. And so it becomes awfully convenient to have a philosopher king who tells you it's all the same, one myth is as good as another, nothing is really being lost. Peel of one of the Masks of God and you might find Jack Valenti underneath: someone saying that you don't need to make your own culture, you can let the as-good machinations of Tinseltown do the work for you. And this is completely unacceptable.

Joseph Campbell's theories may be absolutely correct. But letting the matter of writing end at a basic structure is absurd. It's like reading the Coles Notes instead of the novel, getting the gist of things while leaching out the felicities that give a story texture, life, and intellectual precision. The measure of a screenwriter is how he can distinguish him or herself- structurally, thematically, formally- from the rest of the pack: Cambpellism says repeat, repeat, repeat what you already know. And so we have lazy filmmakers who don't feel compelled to learn outside information or apply their own understanding, but do once again what's been done a million times before. It's mind-deadening, soul-destroying, culture-corroding and the single most negative influence on filmmaking in the last 30 years.

August 26, 2005

"Oh look, it's a lovely spider and it's eating a butterfly!"

The cover art is such a paste-job that it took a few seconds to realize I had just fished from the Jiffy Pak one of my personal holy grails (regardless of the fact that I'd never actually seen it): Jack Clayton's 1961 masterpiece The Innocents. The Innocents has the distinction of being the film recommended to me by more people than any other, and when the consensus is that overwhelming, it becomes my moral obligation, as the kind of guy who had a subscription to VIDEO REVIEW--a periodical in which detailed assessments of video transfers appended original reviews by the likes of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell--at the age of twelve, to pre-empt any mitigating circumstances (e.g. the wrong aspect ratio, commercial interruptions) for not enjoying the film.

The Innocents had me from the thirty seconds of pitch black that open the film (and, in an extraordinarily modern gesture, precede the 20th Century Fox logo), over which a little girl croons the chilling, melancholy "O Willow Waly," a persuasively timeless ditty written by future scribe of the Planet of the Apes sequels Paul Dehn. The only other Clayton films I've seen are The Great Gatsby (which is hamstrung by Francis Ford Coppola's deadeningly literal-minded adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel) and Something Wicked This Way Comes, which, although probably the best entry in Disney's horror cycle, in no way prepares you for Clayton's conversance with genre here. A more detailed review of the film and disappointingly bare-bones DVD to follow (below, find a video capture comparing the disc's widescreen and fullscreen viewing options), but the long and the short of it is, this is the movie that Alejandro Amenábar's curiously ephemeral The Others wanted to be...and then some. It was worth the wait.

August 24, 2005

A Rebuttal to Walter's Missive

The worst year in the last five for movies?

I'm looking at your page on Rotten Tomatoes and you have already given four stars to: The Best of Youth, Grizzly Man, Last Days, The World, Batman Begins, 3-Iron, Old Boy, Sin City, Nobody Knows, and Kontroll. That's 10.

Last year at this time it was: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill Vol.2, The Return, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azhkaban, Last Life in the Universe, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Control Room, Spider Man 2, Code 46, and Mean Creek. That's 11, though if we throw in Hero which was on your top ten for 2003 but was reviewed the day after Mean Creek, we would have 12. If this is in fact the worst year in the last five, it looks like it wasn't by that much.

Of course, there is also a list of films that you have given three and a half too: Junebug, Broken Flowers, Palindromes, Unleashed, and The Jacket. I guess what I'm saying is that I've found there to be a whole glut of good stuff coming and going through the theaters. Just last week I found myself having to choose between seeing Last Days or Saraband. (I chose Last Days.)

I think I can understand what prompts these rants of yours, but my friend, you have to put these feelings you're having in their proper context. I would hardly prefer a cinema which consistently produced something that interested me. The forming of distinct and exclusive associative groups (elitism, in some form) is certainly one of the major formative elements of movie love.

I am not yet a liscensed film critic and I pay to see movies out of my own pocket. I have then paid to see Dukes of Hazzard, Must Love Dogs, The Perfect Man, Fantastic Four, even though I didn't hate them as much as you Bewitched, The Island, and Because of Winn-Dixie; and even though I actually did hate it more than you: Robots. Yes, they were bad but no, I'm not going to let them get away by pretending that they aren't important. With the notable exception of The Island (which was just nakedly bad; a film for particularly dim Red Staters; while attacking stem cell research and by extention of abortion, and superficially attacking anti-individualist systems of oppression it also attacks, and with great fervor, free market capitalism) all these bad movies were bad because they are smug about being bad. They were movies made by assholes, for assholes, and about assholes. These are not stupid people, they know exactly what they are doing. They are nothing less but cinematic terrorists, cinematic Osama Bin Ladens intent on demystifying and degrading our noble art form.

To pretend that the people who support these movies are naive or stupid and thus safe to ignore is enabling them to continue what it is that they are doing.

Notes from the Trenches

Stuck in the middle of the worst year so far in the five years or so that I’ve been reviewing professionally – the first that I’d actually classify in print and public as wretched – the question arises as to whether the movies are actually that much more profoundly poor or if I’ve just had it. I’m aware it’s not like digging a hole or working at WalMart, but film criticism is maybe as brutal a profession emotionally – made worse because as it’s not physically taxing (if you don’t count the thirty-pounds I’ve tacked on while sitting on my ass “physically taxing”), it also doesn’t provide those essential depression-stalling endorphins that comes from hard labor. But if you care about your job, then you watch all the movies that are released and, should you miss the press screening and your deadline, you catch them at the dollar theater in a couple of weeks because the shelf life of 90% of today’s cinema is around two weeks – less if it’s complex arthouse fare. If you don’t watch everything, then you don’t get to have an opinion at the end of the year. How, after all, do you know what’s good if you only have other peoples’ carefully-cultivated “buzz” to influence your viewing choices? If you don’t watch everything, you’re a tourist and you’re too, too influenced by which way the wind is blowing.

The first casualty of this calling is the belief that your opinion matters; the second is that film criticism matters; and the last, if you stay in too long, is the feeling that film itself matters. I see it in the slouch and expression of colleagues who’ve been in the game for too long, and I see it poignantly lacking in the idiots hired as stopgaps to provide press kits masquerading as vacuous creative writing exercises: only the obvious targets get bad reviews – the rest? three stars or better to avoid any sort of controversy from advertisers and subscribers. What’s the point anymore of fighting a fight that you hear others refer to with mild condescension? Who’s that steadfast in their passion when so much of the hate mail nowadays begins with a “who are you to deviate from the consensus?” It’s existential after a junk cultural fashion: Yoda’s (Empire Strikes Back Yoda’s) kitchen sink Romanticism disdaining effort in favor of hanging your vitals over the breach. Do or do not, there is no try: the battle cry of a generation squandering their options on glib pronouncements and a sloppy, at least misguided, application of democracy to art.

So it’s possible both that the movies are bad and that I’ve just had it in just the right combination to catalyze a minor meltdown. A shame that it happened last week after a screening of Election in the Colorado mountain resort of Beaver Creek. I hope I’m redeemed for being such a gloomy bastard after tonight’s largely ebullient, productive chat about the endlessly tricky The Truman Show. If any exclusive to that first audience happens to stumble in here – sorry about that, I feel as though I abused the privilege of your attention and I hope that you’ll come back next week for Dark City – I’ll foot your bill if I try to wage my own battles against my personal demons again in your foyer. I know that not everyone sees the luster worn off the magic of going to the movies, I do not mean to disabuse others of the bliss, should it still be fresh, of going to the theater and watching a flicker – I did not mean to suggest that you were wrong to like March of the Penguins, just that March of the Penguins is wrong for taking you for granted. I’d offer as Versailles that you most certainly would have still liked the film even if it hadn’t treated you like an idiot.

But I want to tell you what it’s like to go to a press screening in the evening. You go in the morning and the screenings, for the most part, are closed to the public – credentialed professionals only or so the theory goes. You go in the evenings and they’re focus-group packed with radio listeners and shop-shoppers with a few seats taped off for the working press. We’re asked to show up fifteen minutes beforehand but most of us don’t show until the lights are almost down. We’re asked to show up early so the PR reps (you might as well paint giant red targets on their chests: the critics talk down to them, the public eviscerates them) can release the seats to professional screener-goers (seniors who through some complex jungle communication network always hoard a lion’s share of the free screening passes – some of these people see more films in a year than people paid to do so) and thus avoid ugly scenes where folks attending a free. . . a free. . . screening for members of the press (For. Members. Of. The. Press.) have developed big enough balls to ask members of the press for their “press pass” (as though we wear fedoras with “Press” cards stuck in the hatbands) and, failing that, to ask for a list of publications to verify that these seats saved for the people who must make their living watching this treacle aren’t freeloading assclowns.

Unlike, for instance, themselves.

Not everybody, mind you, just the ones that shove around the PR reps, speak in stage whispers about who does and does not look like a member of the press, and refuse to move when they’re caught stealing seats. It follows, then, that we don’t show up early because we don’t want to start the evening being interrogated by idiots with a bloated sense of entitlement who suspect that we might be attending this over-booked screening of Must Love Dogs because we, like them, for some unfathomable reason want to.

It’s bad, believe me, because since it’s a free screening, people feel more like they can talk and kick and make phone calls and bring their toddlers. It’s just as annoying to check your messages and send text messages – the human eye is extraordinarily sensitive to light, you see, and when Mr. Popular decides to mash-in a note to his baby-mama in the middle of some film – hey, I’m noticing. Children run up and down the aisles of R-Rated sex comedies and since there aren’t trailers in front of press screened films, at least a dozen people a show, show up a good half an hour into the picture and then talk, in normal voices, as they try to find a place to sit. (Either next to you or behind you so as to proceed to kick your chair ten-to-fifteen times in the next ninety minutes.) The projectionists at certain multiplexes hosting these events don’t ever seem to know what lens to use on what print and how to center the film in the middle of the shutter – and it’s a rare night at the job, anymore, that doesn’t start with a pat down and a wanding (against the possibility that one of us wants to record Bewitched on our cell phones) before progressing into none-too-subtle intrusions by security staff outfitted with night-vision goggles – making sure surreptitiously that no-one’s taking home a free, crappy copy of Because of Winn-Dixie. But the worst is the reactions of the crowd who, primed by its freeness and emboldened by their run-ins with the beaten-up PR reps and the grilled press, proceed to love the film unconditionally because, hell, it’s free. This makes for very positive crowd survey reports filed with very happy studio executives who will all later wonder why no one who raved about Cinderella Man when it was free, decided to go back with their pals when it was not.

But it's not a problem, see ,because the only reason that there are evening screenings at all is because the studios that set them up know that the conditions are not optimal for critics to critique their product and, in fact, hope that the invited crowd will sway the crix opinions positively – or confuse them utterly (see
Ebert on The Longest Yard or Owen Gleiberman on The Dukes of Hazzard). The only reason that most of these screenings are booked late on Tuesday nights is because most major dailies have a Wednesday afternoon deadline for the Friday entertainment sections and it doesn’t behoove them to give the smart ones enough time to really mount an effective counteroffensive. (That some of them do anyhow is a remarkable testament to their dedication.) And the only reason that a lot of us do this anymore, having digested how much a part of the machine we’ve become just by dint of agreeing to do it professionally (particularly when most of the fringe benefits of the job involve being savaged by pinheads and fanboys while slowly losing your love for the medium you love the most), is because like anyone dangerously obsessed with an object of desire, you hold out hope every single time, for every single movie, that a connection, vital and vibrant, will be made and we can be reminded, even if it’s only for a hot second, of how film can harbor the secret of living in its simulacrum of life.

August 23, 2005

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?

Well, we bit the bullet and set up a blog. And finally bought a pet rock. Periodically, the FFC gang will ventilate here and hopefully not make fools of ourselves in the process. We also plan to use this as an outlet for news relevant to the site and to a [cryptic]certain upcoming project[/cryptic]; it's going to be a free-for-all, in other words, so keep checking back.

In the meantime, please be aware that we no longer send out a mailing list. It's flattering to see that dozens of people still (attempt to) subscribe on a daily basis, but a shortage of time and money prompted us to kill it last fall--we just haven't had a chance to leech the subscription form from all our templates yet.