Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Routinization of the Fantastic

Writing about the glut of special effects disaster movies at the millennium's ass, author David Foster Wallace pointed a damning finger at Terminator 2--or, simply, T2. DFW's view was that T2 ushered in and defined a new genre: Special Effects Porn. "'Porn' because, if you substitute F/X for intercourse, the parallels between the two genres become so obvious they're eerie. Just like hard-core cheapies, [Special Effects Pornos] aren't really 'movies' in the standard sense at all. What they really are is a half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes--scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff--strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative."

It's been twenty-one years since T2 blew my eight-year-old hair back. I was besotted with that movie, spent a few years afterwards obsessively drawing huge, mechanically nonsensical weapons and the T-100's mangled face. Maybe five years ago, in lieu of doing absolutely anything else, I watched the movie again. Apart from a few effervescent memories of being young and wowed, I couldn't stand T2, found it flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid. I got the same feeling from this summer's The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises. There might have been instances where I enjoyed myself, when the eight year old inside me got tickled (sorry, that sounded weird...), but on the whole I just didn't care. 

Maybe I've missed something, or maybe not seen the right movies, but I don't think anyone ever said the point of porn was to make its audience care.

I try not talk taste with people because in the end that's all it is. There's nothing snobbish about my not liking these movies; I just don't. I don't care much for Ethiopian food or Odd Future or Maru either. But I'm starting to wonder whether or not taste has anything to do with anything anymore. In the same gush of enthusiasm over some fight scene, I'll see a movie-goer roll their eyes over how corny whatever movie actually was. People enjoy all these movies--otherwise they wouldn't go--but less and less am I convinced that people actually like them.

Here's New Yorker movie critic David Denby in the introduction to his book, Do The Movies Have A Future? 
Moviegoers who first saw this stuff at ten may still love it. For those of us, however, who first experienced the startling beauties of the early CGI movies as adults, and were ravished by them, the omnipresent spectacle--it quickly moved into television shows and commercials--may often seem fatiguing, even brain-deadening. You can never get away from the stuff. The liberation of the fantastic has led, in less than twenty years, to the routinization of the fantastic, a set of convulsive tropes--crashes, flights, explosions, transformations--that now feel like busy blank patches on the screen. At this point, the fantastic is chasing human temperament and destiny--what we used to call drama--from the movies. The merely human has been transcended. And if the illusion of physical reality is unstable, the emotional framework of movies has changed, too, and for the worse. In time--a very short time--the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of cinema.
Denby goes on to argue that this "default mode" and the business sense that propels it is in no certain terms destroying movies: "If movies mean less to people than they once did, it's because of something more central than changing leisure habits and simple-minded scripts. The language big movies are made in--the elements of shooting, editing, storytelling, and characterization--is disintegrating very rapidly and in ways that prevent the audience from feeling much of anything about what it sees. The creepiest part of this is that the distancing of the audience from its own natural responses is intentional, and the audience seems to like it that way. Or not know what it's missing."

Denby continues, "You leave the theater vibrating, but, a day later, you don't feel a thing; there's no after-image, no deeper imprint, just the memory of having been excited. The audience has been conditioned to find the absence of emotion pleasurable." Denby may as well be describing porno here.

This summer, because I needed to kill some time and sober up in the early afternoon, I paid actual money to sit through That's My Boy. Not once did I ever consider whether or not it was going to be good. And the filmmakers weren't trying for that--they were trying only to fill up an hour and forty minutes with things happening, I think. If I sit down and really cogitate, I might get furious at the thinness of the story and characters and the uselessness of the resolution, but getting mad at movies like that for those reasons seems to me like blowing up at your cat for not understanding the English you're screaming at it. I'm reminded of that parable of the man who keeps a snake for a pet. One day the snake bites him and the man's offended, asks his snake why it bit him. "Because I'm a snake," the snake explains. As viewers of shitty movies, we're kind of stuck: we can't get mad when a movie we knew was going to be shitty shakes out to be just as shitty as we thought it was going to be. So what are we left to feel? Nothing, I guess.

The Master's been playing at the Cinema for a few days now and it's so far been fairly divisive. People come out either scratching their heads or verbally ripping at the movie like it was some great gift that might have a bit too much wrapping on it. I've also heard "That was the best movie ever," or, on the other side of the coin, "That was the worst movie ever." For some, that's a lot of time and not an insignificant amount of money to spend on the worst movie ever. However, when the other option is to see a movie that inspires zero reaction and expects the same, I feel like the price is pretty slight. 

Too, I've heard from reliable sources that the internet is just chockablock with free smut.

- Andrew


  1. Amazed that there are no comments. A thoroughly cogent response to what may be the defining quality of the audience/film relationship in The Great Before. As we say around my house, the worse things get, the worse they get. Ever since I saw Melancholia I've been calling it the "hiding in a magic cave of sticks" syndrome. Von Trier's film was a challenge, to all of us, to stare into it, eyes wide open; the only truly human response to such a calamity. But then one must wonder if The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises perform for us a greater service than those, like Von Trier, who seek to inject some humanity into our daily onslaught of visualizations. Create a less than human world, PKD might have said, and it tends to become populated with less than humans. This is our future, and more and more it seems, we should all get used to wearing tights.

    1. Denby points out that critic Pauline Kael referred to movies as the "national theater." This floats, as far as I'm concerned. But I'm really reluctant to settle on whether we're given what we want, or whether we told to want what we're given. In shit times, I just watch "Cool Hand Luke" and love the fact that a shit load of different people loved that all at the same time once.

  2. It's more complex than the simple dichotomy between what we want to eat/what they feed us, I think. Not much stuck to me from my degree (it was in communications, yeah I know) but one thing that I haven't been able to shake was the idea of overdetermination. All it says, basically, is that all roads lead to Rome, whatever Rome may be. That's just the nature of progress. We need/want fire, paleolithic Edison rubs two sticks together, and we've got fire. (Insert Dawkins meme theory to explain the mechanism by which said idea is disseminated). We want/need to fuel an economy based on consumption, we get films that tend to reinforce the myth of unlimited growth. In this climate it takes a monumental effort to produce anything except films that buy into the prevailing wisdom. Which is one of the reasons that so many movies are based on books, not for the obvious reason that it's a known property, and thus easier to market, but because... but that's a comment for another blog.