Thoughts On: April 2019

27/04/2019

Why Do We Like Marvel Movies?

Thoughts On: The Attraction of the MCU

A spoiler-free review of Avengers: Endgame.


Though I'm certain to see each new Marvel movie, I'm far from a fan of the Marvel works. To the casual and serious fans, my reasoning is likely entirely uninteresting. From a narrative and cinematic perspective, however, I cannot help becoming conscious of how poorly the majority of the Marvel movies communicate with the archetypal senses. This is something that became increasingly apparent to me with Infinity War.

Infinity War is a strong expression of the Marvel style; these films exist on the boarder between tyhlodrama and morodrama. Their fundamental purpose is to manifest conventionalised, contrived narrative fantasies (melodramas) suppressed and contained by inflections of realism. We can rationalise this assertion with the simple realisation that, though Marvel movies are about magic, aliens, monsters and impossible technology, they consistently work to ground these fantastical notions in a familiar reality. This realist suppression is embedded in world design, sound tracks, comedy and themes - all of which reference earth and humans in such a way that the fantastical becomes associated with the mundane and familiar. Melodramas are not concerned with such things. There is a self-reflexivity embedded into the Marvel films that signifies that their dramatic construction is not entirely subsumed in typhlos, but instead has many morodramatic elements. This is evident in the comedic style that allowed Marvel to, arguably, become the Marvel we know more than 10 years after their sardonic break-out blockbuster: Iron Man. Morodrama thrives off the perturbance of melodramatic construction. Comedies commonly use morodrama to create laughs by exploiting convention, pushing melodramatic material into a self-reflexive space of critique and the uncanny. Marvel do this constantly, not only suppressing their melodramatic constructs with realism, but further mocking them--pointing a finger at melodramatic contrivance as to generate comedy. This is why Marvel are so grating, in my opinion, in their construction of tragedy. Far too often, serious scenes are subverted by comedy. A good examples emerges from Infinity War when Gamora asks Quill to promise to kill her before turning her over to Thanos. The scene is entered comedically, then there is a moment of seriousness, but it is transitioned away from quickly with relief from the absurd antics of Drax. This is the dramatic style and approach of Marvel movies, and it works for the most part. Alas, when tragic scenes are to be presented without accompanying, subverting comedy, they manifest as rather flat and unenganging.

It is not too rare to see and hear people cry in Marvel movies - the recent Endgame especially. But, this is a reaction I do not understand very well. Audiences clearly have a strong connection with these films and characters, in large part due to the fact that blockbusters - especially those of the superhero variety - are not mere movies anymore; they are instead just one face of a multimedia storytelling machine. An off-shoot of the serial film's and television's narrative conventional ethos, the Marvel Cinematic Universe embraces the infinite story, exploring not the limiting capacities of narrative creation, but the unlimited capacities, telling as much of a story possible as apposed to identifying a constrained space and time of maximal expression. This narrative phenomenon has become of extreme interest to me of late. Stories are constructed by elimination almost as much as they are selection, which is to say that as important as a writer/director's decision to show something is their decision not to show something. This manifestation of what you might describe in terms of fabula and syuzhet is crucial. The limiting of the infinite story can be understood as, to invent another one of my terms, ragnarrarok, or narrative ragnarok - ragnarok being the fate of the reigning power; narrare, telling; ragnarrarok, the fate of the telling's rule. As in Norse myth, fate and an inevitable end give meaning to a narrative. It is in my opinion that the over-embrace of the infinite story can be detrimental to this meaning-making process. One finds this to be true in the MCU.

It is because the MCU is constructed as an endless story, a multimedia storytelling device, that it generates a certain affect, but not one based upon self-evident meaning. We deal now with a question of why people like Marvel movies. Drawing from anecdote, it seems to me that the key reason as to why audiences are drawn to Marvel movies has much to do with comic books. This is why I suggest that there is no self-evident meaning in the Marvel movies. If the characters are of meaning because of their basis in comic books, then what is the place of the films? They seem only to channel meaning generated elsewhere into a space of spectacle. Hence the concept of 'fan service'. This concept suggests that the meaning of many Marvel movies is not generated internally, but is appropriated, packaged for pleasure to those preloaded to receive it. This cannot be the whole story though. There must be many Marvel movie fans who have never read the comics - especially those of a young age. In the case of children born around and after 2000, the first contact they may have had with superheros may have been through the medium of cinema, not comic books. This is certainly the case with myself. I knew of Hulk, Batman, Spider-Man and Superman only because of movies made in the 90s and 2000s. I can identify meaning emerging from those films. True, none of them are part of the MCU and all operate with different dramatic, modal, logical and stylistic constraints. Alas, the characters and meaning in these films are not, in my perspective, mere appropriations. It seems rational that young audience members may feel the same about the MCU. Maybe then we must infer that the first contact with these characters is what is of most meaning. Maybe this is true, but there's something more specific occurring.

Marvel movies centralise character as something estimating spectacle. Their characters are also high concepts. It is this that seems to ring out of each Marvel movie above all else; a spectacle of character as concept. We love characters like the Hulk less because of the character's unveiling of the shadow archetype, more because of his implication of such a phenomenon. This is where drama becomes pertinent. As an archetypal figure, the Hulk does not create meaning specific to his symbolic presence. Let us pause a minute to clarify some presuppositions of narrative archetype theory.

It is because an archetype bears something of fundamental meaning, meaning bore by the way of nature itself, that it generates affect. This meaning is accentuated with the development of drama by and around character. When an archetype walks an archetypal story, the formula is then complete and maximal affect (dependent on the quality of the archetypal narrative) is manifested.

Marvel characters are archetypes, but they do not walk the archetypal path - not well. DC characters, interestingly, are more visibly archetypal and, often, walk archetypal paths. The contextualisation of this path is often embarrassingly poor, however. Alas, in the case of Marvel movies, the archetypal path is not really there. Marvel movies distract themselves with the demands of typhlo and morodrama; with realism and self-reflexivity. This means that Hulk may appear as the archetypal shadow, Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll, but his symbolic presence as such a figure does not translate well at all to his character arcs and place in a plot or situation among certain themes. As a result, the initial interface that spectators have with these characters is of meaning - we recognise the archetype - but the narrativisation of their internally held meaning is not functional. To the inactive spectator, especially one being serviced a bevy of characters and objects as concepts, this means little. Therefore, Marvel is as popular as it is. It is not just that the brand thrives off of fan service, but that they service fans by drowning them in a spectacle of character-concepts. That is to say that Marvel movies are a world full of entities that represent a thought of 'wouldn't it be awesome if...' To better clarify, Marvel movies function because they present their audience with possibility. This is why there are so many of these films and the infinite story over-embraced. Important not is the quality of a given story, but the possibilities it realises and the possibilities it further implicates. This is what Marvel works off - the momentum of potential.

This is an increasingly common phenomenon. Transformers, Pacific Rim and Godzilla are three prime examples of cinematic universes or series that are based entirely upon potential. Like the Marvel movies, they have archetypal presences within them - spectacular character-concepts - whose mere implication sell the film. Wouldn't it be awesome of there were giant robot aliens who... Wouldn't it be awesome if humans could operate giant robot suits of armour and... Wouldn't it be awesome if there were ancient, megalithic creature who... These are the questions that sell the movies mentioned. These questions are more often than not left inane due to the failing of writers. They fail to manifest narratives worthy of such character-concepts. This is why we are quick to say that the likes of Transformers sucks. However, what the writers and directors do manage to do with these films is answer, to some satisfactory degree, audiences' what if questions and, furthermore, generate more questions in their minds. We are all familiar with this. Think of the cliche: tune in next week to find out what happens next. Of course there is some importance placed upon an audience caring to know what could happen next week in a television show, but, one cannot underestimate the importance of there simply being a next week. When a TV show or movie series has a concept strong enough, such as a Hulk or Transformer, finding out what can happen next week alone can be enough to necessitate the next episode (or next movie). One finds this to be the case, most blatantly, with the Transformer films. (I have a soft spot for these and find them intensely fascinating, but...) The Transformer films are almost universally accepted to be bad in some capacity. Despite this fact, they just keep coming. Quality does not matter too much. The fact that a Transformer film can exist is enough. This is the case with Marvel movies to some significant degree. They are not constructed like the Transformer films and so do not have the same narrative and formal issues, but their fundamental operations are almost identical.

Marvel, in my view, are so successful precisely because they find a balance between fulfilling promises, implicating further promises of possibility and generating meaning of minor substance. It is almost enough that they can just throw characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Spiderman on a screen. Alas, they push just a little further. Marvel movies all have meaning, but its archetypal character is very limited. Marvel constantly subvert their own symbolism for signification. That is to say, Marvel filmmakers, the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon in particular, know only how to make a stories out of signs - they do not know how to work with symbols. This seems to be why all Marvel movie directors, apart from a select few, are all--more or less--pawns of the studio. I am about to be quite a dick and highly elitist, but those who direct Marvel movies aren't just new talent. Look into the filmographies of John Favreau, Peyton Reed, Jon Watts, Alan Taylor, Joss Whedon, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, James Gunn, Scott Derrickson and Kenneth Branagh and you will struggle to find a good film, let alone a respectable body of work. Cop Car, Sinister and Half Nelson are rather good films, that must be said. But, how many other good movies can be listed as predating (even proceeding) these directors' Marvel careers? In my estimation Taika Waititi has a somewhat respectable filmography - it is not excellent, however. And Ryan Coogler was certainly thrown into the deep end after his Fruitvale Station, but has never made a bad film - in fact, his Black Panther may be the only Marvel movie exempt of much of the criticism I am writing at present. Beyond this, Marvel movies are made by filmmakers, who, to put it frankly, show no real capacity to tell good stories. The Russo brothers, who have clearly found the most success working under Marvel, are those who best understand the game they are to play; sell character, sell potential, contrive minimally substantial meaning.

The measurement of a good storyteller is their ability to use their work to position the human spectator among a communication between the collective unconscious, reality and the transcendent. Marvel directors show no real ability to do this for the most part. Thus, they have no capacity for symbolism and archetypes. Instead, they, as suggested, use signs. They use signs to superficially facilitate a communication between reality and the collective unconscious. The unconscious recognises archetypes; it is not fed an archetypal narrative, however. The spectator instead engages minor ruminations on political affairs. Therefore, the drama under so many Marvel movies concerns humanism, feminism and a general libertarian debate on ethics. I criticise not the political and ideological discourse associated with these films, nor even the evocation of them - I care not to engage this at all; if Marvel wish to make humanist and feminist exclamations, that's fine - at present it is rather irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is the lack of something more. If one looks to Captain Marvel, there seems to be something feminist about the film, but, more importantly, there is a lack of cogent meaning-making. What is Captain Marvel about? Realising inner-strength? How weakly this is dramatised. The same could be discussed in regards to Civil War. This is about the greater good and the personal good. The debate is most certainly made reference to, but its dramatisation via a conflict between pseudo-character-symbols is weak. And this is all because Marvel movies have no control and command of symbolism. They are built to fail in this regard. Their narrative meaning develops no satisfactory discourse with the collective unconscious; we are satisfied not just by good triumphing over evil - more is required, more of fundamental abstract meaning. It is not absurd to ask for just a little subtle profundity - not if one understands the mundanity of the profound.


More may be discussed on all of the topics referenced today, but let this serve as my spoiler-free review of Endgame. Endgame is limited just like so many Marvel movies are. Nonetheless it is watchable. I will say no more than this. What are your thoughts on all we've covered today?







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Pet Sematary - A Tragic Failure

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The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy - Power As Goodness

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13/04/2019

Pet Sematary - A Tragic Failure

Thoughts On: Pet Sematary (2019)

A family is thrashed by tragedy yet provided chance in darkness.


Pet Sematary was, without a doubt, quite a disappointing film. I went in without reading King's book and without seeing the 1989 film. I have no clue about the differences in plot between the three versions, but Pet Sematary contains such a pointless, rather amateurish, story about pretty much nothing. To discuss this I will use a major spoiler. You have been warned.

Everyone dies in Pet Sematary. Yet this is not a tragedy, nor is it ironic, comedic, nor particularly horrifying - it is rather dull. Without certain generic tropes inherent, in particular, to the tragedy, Pet Sematary fails where a film such as Hereditary excels. Hereditary brilliantly fuses horror and tragedy into an expressionist allegory about mental health with inflections of more ambiguous symbolic material. It uses serious, weighted means of exploring character subjectivity and what it means to be at the centre of a crumbling family. As much as we are then repulsed and made uncomfortable by certain fantastical, occult and ghostly dramaturgy, we are drawn into the humanity of the narrative; horror used to offset tragedy, tragedy made more poignant by the uncanniness of characterisation. Pet Sematary features a rather plain family going through difficulties, a mother haunted by Hereditary-esque horror-tragedy, a father haunted by the chance to revive a dead daughter. Alas, whilst flashbacks have some glimmers of affecting tragic horror, they are exploited to some degree; dream sequences and flashbacks spectacle add little of particular relevance to the story; and further exposition on ancient grounds and ghosts pretty much irrelevant to the plot remain entirely unused by the subtext.

The horror elements of Pet Sematary simply do not amount to much beyond a few loud sounds and a little body horror. Alas, some work is done to develop a sense of tragedy - in particular with themes of doom and inevitability as well as a somewhat interesting investigation of an atheistic character confronted with the impossible. However, the work done with the father - a doctor who does not believe in the afterlife - is rather unenlightening. One has to do most of the work to appreciate the intensity of his love, how this drives him insane and transforms his moral existence entirely. This is not a positive outcome of a demand of active spectatorship. This is a failure of substantial impressionistic/expressionistic projection. If one pays close attention to the structuring, shooting and editing of key scenes - such as the father digging up his daughter's corpse - one finds a rather unimaginative and unempathetic employment of story and visual language. The scene is shot objectively and with little done between performer and camera to capture the true psychological horror of the given situation.

Pet Sematary is riddled with moments like this - moments in which the writer--and director in particular--show little understanding of their story, character and theme. The final product of this is a story that means very little, that is rather nihilistic. A father betrays his intellectual impulses for the sake of love, and in turn destroys his family. Not a care is given to ideas of redemption. And very little care of the father's transformation and plight is demonstrated. The tagline sums up the entire story: sometimes dead is better. Ingenious. Because of this, Pet Sematary appears to be little more than a near-pretentious pseudo exploitation film. For this, I cannot recommend the film and furthermore cannot say I care too much for it.






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Photogénie - A Definition

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Why Do We Like Marvel Movies?

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06/04/2019

Photogénie - A Definition

Quick Thoughts: Photogénie

A consideration of the morally enhancing image.


I feel I have been profoundly fortunate in my few years, fortunate enough to have learnt much from life, being, reality, the world I live in. In the spirit of melodrama, art as embarrassment, I feel urged to voice one of my most precious lessons: there is no beauty like that of something you helplessly love. That something may very well be a someone. What one can learn from this someone is seemingly infinite and unfathomable. Indeed, one would be lucky to spend a lifetime attempting to learn from this someone. Maybe you understand this.

It is the confluence of love and beauty that can produce incredibly profound affection. Why is this? Why does the mind's eye burst with euphoria upon the sight of a love's eyes? It is the concept of photogénie that brings us close to an answer. We have explored this concept many times before. Here is just one post. My most recent revelation concerning photogénie also concerns the ethereal impact that love has on beauty. Photogénie is indeed a moral process. It is the morality of photogénie that forms a nexus - a fabric. This moral fabric binds reality to something estimating Tao and the realm of the archetypes. That is to say, objective existence can be aligned with transcendent, inherent meaning when morality (a combination of ethic and heart) completes the puzzle. In this sense, photogénie is a phenomena of the eye and psyche - it is not bound strictly to cinema. Cinema, however, with its burgling eye and narrative is a prime place of simulation upon which reality may be aligned with Tao. Cinema is then a place of moral evocation; cinema demands morality and functions upon its assumed existence.

What is and is not moral is not an easy question. Cinema has an inherent capacity for pornographic manipulation. That is to say the moral fibre of photogénie operates in pornographic imagery (it works intensely). Alas, the morality displayed - the meeting of ethic and heart - is veiled in shadow. This shadow can make reality irreconcilable with truth, fact too harsh to be meaningful. Such is a dizzying phenomenon. Truth is cleavable into truth and meaning. Meaning has a moral function. Fact needs this not. Pornographic photogénie operates with morality based on fact: the body may be aroused, the body may be used. Photogénie of a higher function utilises moral meaning; truth resonates with more than fact - a progressive Tao, not a still one. Fact is static, meaning moves; it moves the universe towards higher transcendence. Higher photogénie facilitates this cosmic activity in the human cavity. When beauty is love, when love is beauty, ethic and emotion may find alignment, a kind of bliss or nirvana made tangible. Cinema seeks this. It must.






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Kevin Hart: Irresponsible - Return To Form

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Pet Sematary - A Tragic Failure

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05/04/2019

Kevin Hart: Irresponsible - Return To Form

Quick Thoughts: Kevin Hart: Irresponsible (2019)

Hart's 6th stand-up special.


Kevin Hart is a great stand-up comedian that found his lane in his first few stand-up specials really well, but maybe hasn't changed too much. His career in the movies has been... ok. If I'm honest I stay away from many of his comedies as they aren't that good. For some reason, he decided to tag long intros onto his stand-up specials recently that are all terrible. To my relief, Irresponsible finally breaks the trend. No awkward comedic opening--though I really do not understand why Kevin climbs into a box and is wheeled around before appearing on stage. That said, all goes well from here. Irresponsible is framed with premises much like Let Me Explain, and so is about Hart's own stupidity and general family life. This is maybe less personal, but nonetheless retrieves an edge I think was lost in What Now? - a terrible stand-up special. Irresponsible is then a return to form that had me laughing much like I did many years ago when watching Hart's first few specials. That said, have you seen Irresponsible? What are your thoughts?






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Why There So Many Superhero Origin Stories

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Photogénie - A Definition

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03/04/2019

Why There So Many Superhero Origin Stories

Thoughts On: Origin Stories

A question of why there are so many superhero films that tell us how it all began.


Why is it that 9 of Marvel's 19 MCU films are origins films? Here they are:

Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger
Guardian's of the Galaxy
Ant-Man
Doctor Strange
Black Panther
Captain Marvel

We can augment this list a little. You can argue that The Avengers is an origin movie not for one superhero, but a collection. What's more Ant-Man and The Wasp is, arguably, an origins story for The Wasp - and so is Age of Ultron an origin story for Vision. And if we move beyond the official MCU, there is Raimi's Spider-Man, the Sony re-make, The Amazing Spider-Man, and then there's Into the Spider-Verse, which has seven origins stories wrapped up in one. We can then potentially push some of the X-Men movies into the picture, which gives us the first X-Men, which essentially shows the origins of the X-Men team as most know it, then there's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and then X-Men: First Class, then Deadpool, and then Logan, which you could argue is something of an origin story for the second wolverine. If we really wanted to push things, we can throw into the mix 2003's Hulk, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, its re-make, Big Hero 6, Blade, The Punisher, Elektra, Ghost Rider and Venom. We will not be so pedantic as to count movies such as Infinity War or Spider-Man 2 as origin stories for antagonists like Thanos and Doc Ock. If you want to include minor character origins and antagonist origin stories, very few Marvel films couldn't be counted as, at the very least, part-origin stories. Almost all Marvel movies introduce major new characters in their narrative. One of the only films that doesn't would be, arguably, Thor: The Dark World. However, add up all of the films that feature or are entirely about the origins of a key character and you have 30 origin stories:

Blade
X-Men
Spider-Man
Hulk
Daredevil
Fantastic Four
The Punisher
Elektra
Ghost Rider
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Thor
X-Men: First Class
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers
The Amazing Spider-Man
Guardian's of the Galaxy
Big Hero 6
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Fantastic Four
Deadpool
Doctor Strange
Logan
Black Panther
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Venom
Into The Spider-Verse
Captain Marvel

Fascinatingly, during the last 19 years, there would have only been 4 separate years (2002, 2006, 2010, 2013) in which you wouldn't have been able to go to the cinema and see an origins story based on a Marvel comic. Alas, during the 15 years in which origins films were release, an average of two were released a year. This all presents us with one question: Why?

What is the obsession that we have with origins stories? We have just counted a few from the last 20 years based on Marvel comics. We could add many more if we count the DC origins films and then the likes of Kick Ass, Chronicle, RoboCop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Transformer movies and Unbreakable. If we move beyond the sub-genre, we will be lost entirely, so let us stick with the superhero film and the fact that a ludicrous amount of them are about how it all began.

The first thing that has to be said is that there is not just one reason for this phenomena. We are going to consider a few major examples with some focus on what I believe is the most interesting. The largest group of reasons we will touch on first is all wrapped around the fact that superhero films are conventionally part of a collection of stories. So, our first way of understanding why there are so many origins stories comes from the fact that comic books are not novels. Comic books are a series of stories that can stretch on for years across hundreds of books. When so much story is being told, the start of it all becomes a rather unavoidable subject. Indeed, it is often the place that comic stories start. And, what's more, a question on all comic book readers' minds is so often how did it all start? The answer to this will reveal the depth of a character, provide a reason for their being and adventures and will also provide rich grounds for world building. Here we then have many reasons: not only can we reference the nature of comic books, but we can also consider the demands of its audience, the essence of characterisation and a new foundation of world building. And to add to this: isn't the beginning a great place to start?

Transitioning over to cinematic origin stories, we can easily identify one huge, multi-faceted reason: money. We have so many Marvel origin stories because something is always being set up in the MCU: the next huge movie that will make over a billion dollars. Not adjusted for inflation, only 37 movies have made over 1 billion dollars in the world-wide box office. A quarter of them, 10, are superhero movies. All but one are part of a major franchise (like Disney), a saga or trilogy, or are a sequel: Titanic. And at least 11 of the these films can be classed as origins films - everything from Minions to Aquaman to The Phantom Menace. The Marvel business model focuses on core money makers - the big Avenger movies - that are supported and made so viable by satellite films that make them possible: the origin stories. It is this model that make Marvel one of the most successful companies in the the contemporary film industry. The origin story is a huge part of the current market - which is all about the franchise and cinematic universe; origin stories are a way of starting and continuing this kind of cinematic storytelling. Marvel movies have made this irrefutable.

Looking beyond capitol, we can easily emphasise the importance of the origin story as a structural narrative device of a somewhat new kind of storytelling being developed by the MCU. As implied, the origin film sets up bigger films - indeed, it makes them possible. How would the impending Engame be possible without at least 13 (sequels such as Ant-Man and the Wasp or Iron Man 3 are not imperative) of the MCU narratives given to us? It's just not possible. The origin film is then a simple necessity.

And so we have a broad range of reasons as to why the origin film exists: for narrative purposes, for money, for more story, for different kind of stories/films, because comic books require them, because we want to see them, etc, etc. However, all of these reasons can be boiled down to one key fact: superhero stories are anthological. This means that superhero stories are vast narratives fractured into a plethora of smaller stories. It is because of this that superhero movies can make so much money, need to set up so many characters, can tell different kinds of stories than the average, stand-alone narrative, etc. However, what if I said that there is another incredibly important reason as to why the origin film exists? What if I said that the origin film is a perfect expression of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, is maybe the perfect Hollywood movie?

I am not going to make this argument by talking about Hollywood as a film industry per se. I will make this argument through a discussion of the conventions of the American film and drama. Let us go back to the latter-half of the silent era.

American cinema was established as largely melodramatic. By this, I mean to suggest that many of the narratives that emerged from this era had a dramatic foundation in contrivance. Their narrative conventions emerged from a composition of unrealities finely tuned to evoke meaning of some kind. An example can be found in the Douglas Fairbanks', The Black Pirate. This is a classical adventure film about, you may guess, pirates, treasure, swashbuckling, romance and happy endings. The events that make up this narrative are highly fictitious and are presented without much regard for 'realism' (as defined by its modern, post-WWII conception). Though this is a highly contrived film, it serves its function of entertaining and telling a tale about an emergence from death and darkness, a separation of father and son, the confrontation of darkness and a heroic union of male and female--the stuff of legend; the stuff of fairy tales; the stuff of melodrama. The Hollywood melodrama thrives through the classical period with a vast array of films that audiences accept as dramaturgically contrived and composed - as melodramatic. Think now of the great romances and horrors, the thrillers, comedies, musicals and non-genre narratives focused on the everyday (those films that, to my disdain, we call dramas). All of those classical films - Singin' In The Rain, Vertigo, It's A Wonderful Life, Frankenstein, Dracula, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, City Lights - these are all melodramas. Alas, something subtly changes through the 50s ad 60s. A new kind of realistic film emerges. Think for classics such as 12 Angry Men, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy. These movies are a touch more realistic than the former films. They focus, aesthetically and performatively, on making narrative more plausible. The Hollywood film does not become a realist film as European cinema understands the term - it almost never does. The Hollywood film and its unique attention to plausibility is what defines it at the most fundamental level.

As implied, the definition of realism in the cinema has shifted over the decades. However, if we trace back to the silent era again, we will find that there is a distinguished touch of realism embedded in the films of Chaplin, Griffith, Epstein, Gance, Keaton, Sjöström, Eisenstein, Fuillade, Vertov, Pabst, Murnau and more. Many of these filmmakers made rather melodramatic films, but, verisimilitude and plausibility remain key attachments. In fact, one will find that American films, though they are often fundamentally melodramatic, use narrative, characterlogical and aesthetic techniques to ground the film in something estimating recognisable reality. This technique of giving melodrama greater realism generates what I have termed typhlodrama: a kind of drama that strives for realism, but is rather blind to the rules of reality. The typhlodramatic, semi-realistic American film is distinguished from the kind of realist film developed in Europe. Often, European filmmakers map contrivance over realism where American films map realism over contrivance. This phenomena becomes ever more pronounced as the two forms of cinema developed into the 50s. It is now then that we can understand the functioning of a New Wave film, shot on the streets, but then shaken up by the pen of an auteur; forged as realistic, cut with contrivance. Compare this to the New Hollywood film. Genre narratives are blurred and re-established. They remain melodramatic at heart, but become grittier, more real. Think of Scorsese's Taxi Driver; fundamentally a thriller about a rogue cowboy who saves a prostitute, one made gritty and hyper-plausible.

Whilst Hollywood develops its typhlodrama, focusing ever more on creating a sense of realism, on making fantastical narratives more plausible, there emerges a new kind of melodrama in the late 70s and 80s thanks to new technology: the melodramatic adventure à la Star Wars, RoboCop, Conan The Barbarian, Back To The Future, E.T and Batman. These huge blockbusters are reminiscent, dramatically speaking, of great classical melodramas in Singin' In The Rain, Casablanca, Frankenstein and more. Alas, key conventions of the Hollywood film remain pertinent; plausibility and psychological realism. Characters must appear real and human and they must act as sensibly as possible considering their given situation. These are markers of typhlodrama; the more autonomous a character appears in melodramatic constraints, the more pure the typhlodrama. The new sweeping melodramas of the 70s and 80s coalesce with the New Hollywood social realism through the 90s via classics such as Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, The Truman Show and Saving Private Ryan. And then out into the 2000s we emerge, and so we see the rise of the superhero film - which now rages like a storm over the box office in the latter half of the 2010s.

If the American film has always mediated between melodrama and typhlodrama, has constantly told stories that are fundamentally contrived, but fluctuate in the amount of realism used to control and curtail melodrama, then the superhero origin film is the epitome of American cinema - dramatically speaking. The origins film is, fundamentally, extremely melodramatic. These are stories about mutant spiders, science experiments gone wrong, tech development gone insane, aliens, dimensions, magic and a vast array of otherworldly, highly unreal phenomena. Alas, the origin story is always about a character bridging the gap from a real world to another world, and in their process of becoming a superhero, aligning these two worlds. Tony Stark develops impossible technology, but in becoming Iron Man, protects the real world. Peter Parker is a high-schooler that gains powers when he is bitten by a mutant spider, but uses these to protect his city. Carol Danvers is a pilot who encounters aliens, but re-discovers her earthly beginnings and protect the planet. I have simplified these narratives to a short sentence, but it is self-evident that reality and unreality are two distinct setting that are blurred in Marvel movies. The origin narrative emphasises the divide and merging-point between the two. Furthermore, these are films about the reactions of 'real' people to unreal events; they are about human truth in the melodramatic ether of possibility and speculation.

Let us conclude without delving into copious analysis and discussion. Why are there so many superhero origin stories? The phenomenon has much to do with the anthological nature of superhero narratives. However, I would argue that just as important is the origin's ability to satisfy the demands of Hollywood convention. These films find their success by being incredibly American; by contriving a great fantasy and convincing us that it could be real. As suggested, far more could be said about this topic, so I hand things over to you. What do you think of all we've discussed today?






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02/04/2019

Macbeth - Cinematic Presentness: Why Theatrical Adaptations Don't Work

Thoughts On: Macbeth (2015)

A 'cinematic' adaptation of the classical play.


Macbeth, alongside being a half-decent film, brings about a never-ending discussion surrounding the difference between theatre and cinema--surrounding the sovereignty of cinema as an individual art form. It is then only likely perceivable as particularly weak from the theorist's perspective. In some ways, the downfalls of Macbeth speak to the art form's irrefutable distinguishedness, and so its failures are, you could argue, cinema's successes. The highest praise that I can give Macbeth concerns its aesthetics; this is a visually stunning film, one whose cinematic language and cinematography are consciously impacting the way in which the narrative must be understood and received. I cannot say I am much of a fan of a film trying too intentionally to achieve an effect; therefore, the intense colour schemes appear slightly pretentious to me. Alas, my praise of Macbeth quickly runs aground after the mention of aesthetics. The performances are made spectacle out of - as is common in theatre - but I found nothing particularly special about them (being very far from a theatre geek who creams over a long soliloquy). What makes the story function well emerges, to a significant degree, from the play. The story of Macbeth seems to strongly capture an ever-pertinent narrative, existential discourse on fate, on what it means to impress ones will upon the universe. Our cinematic incarnation elevates this, in my belief, by translating a theatrical play into a cine-poem of sorts, one that makes expression out of Macbeth's psyche to a more intense degree than any theatrical production ever could. But, we bridge here towards the aesthetic paradox of Macbeth that I have been trying to keep at bay.

As initially suggested, Macbeth's failures are cinema's successes. Furthermore, the minor successes that Macbeth has undermine the film's existence. Both of these outcomes are a consequence of cinema's capacity to manage presentness. This issue is two-fold, however; we can talk about presentness in both spatial terms and narrative terms.

The spatial confines of theatre are what make it an art unto itself, but are also what signify the all-important potentials in cinema. If Macbeth was written for the screen originally, sequences such as the banquet scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and breaks down would not exist. This is so obvious in Kurzel's Macbeth as Macbeth's conversation with the assassin is so jarringly loud, as is his conversation with Lady Macbeth. Of course, the scene centralises the simultaneous derangement and power of the new king through his awkward unfolding. However, the plausibility of the king essentially announcing and discussing his own corruption is shakey.


Plausibility and verisimilitude as immutable pillars of cinematic fabrication are constructs of American cinema (the American typhlodrama) post-1950 in my opinion, and so the unrelenting requirement of a plausible, sinless, logically cogent, plot-hole-less narrative is a demand of audiences accustomed to Hollywood convention. Alas, the ques and conventions that make the banquet scene acceptable come from the theatre, they are not cinematic constructs. Theatre owns the soliloquy and conversational bubble. Cinema does not. All attempts to integrate this into the body of cinematic language, in my view, died down after the 50s with the intensified development of self-referentialism, the fourth wall break and spatial incontinuity. A Godard or Von Trier film, as an example, is eager to present the cinematic equivalent of a soliloquy with their V.O'ed self-reflexivity and fourth wall breaks. Films that use expressionism and/or surrealism to mutate the cinematic space into a psychological space (think of the opening of Apocalypse Now, any dream sequence you like, or something such as Lynch's Eraserhead) break the rules of reality's space and time, but do so to contain us in a conventionalised space in which we interact, personally, with a character, theme or event. Slow motion, freeze frames and other such devices that break the rules of spacetime are examples of how cinema introduces the personal and psychological into its spatial confines. We see not this in the banquet scene of Macbeth.

There is no cut, there is no camera, there is no space in theatre: there is a stage. And so personal bubbles must be impressed onto the setting by the audience; we must accept that certain characters just can't hear certain things at certain moments, or that a character is abstracted from the physical space for a soliloquy or a fourth wall break. This is what occurs in the banquet scene; the conventions and language displayed are entirely theatrical, they are not cinematic. And so I do not believe that the scene works; it should have been made cinematic with surrealism, expressionism, maybe a freeze frames (tableau vivant) or spatial incontinuity--something un-anti-cinematic. Indeed, the scene didn't have to use these devices - no film is required to do anything. What I mean to to suggest here is that the appropriation of theatrical conventions are one of the ways in which Macbeth shows that its theatrical elements are only apart of its failings: the scene doesn't work, in my opinion, because it is not cinematic - or rather, because it is too theatrical.

The soliloquies and extended dialogue sequences that work better than this, as alluded to, are the ones that involve an overlain montage of sorts that appears to align the film with the cine poems of filmmakers such as Chris Marker. One such example is linked to the continual return to visions of the young solider that dies in Macbeth's arms at the beginning of the film. These images juxtapose the prosaic speech of, say, Macbeth in the cine poem fashion as to emphasise his trauma and the theme of sacrifice that subtly runs through the narrative. Why, we could ask, is Macbeth's fate presented to him after his glory in battle? It appears that it is because he makes a valiant sacrifice. This is certainly what the film presents us with as we watch bodies crash and devastation wisp around Macbeth in its violent way throughout the battle sequence. It is this courageous sacrifice that is undermined by Macbeth's villainous pursuit of the throne with his wife. The continual references to the sacrifice that Macbeth endured during the battle via the dead boy solider remind us of this as he speaks of his present anguish. This expression is cinematic; montage of this sort belongs to cinema, it is not possible in theatre. It not only elevates the film, but highlights the fact that the cinematic elements of the narrative are the only truly functional ones.

Like Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (which I have not seen recently enough to make apt comment on), Kurzel's Macbeth, as a cinematic document, benefits most from the camera's ability to explore large, enclosed, three dimensional sets and real landscapes. This level of verisimilitude is unthinkable in the theatre. Little must be said about this as its effects are so abundantly clear, but the situation of the drama upon real Scottish landscapes (as well as many English landscapes) provides the film a tact and realistic bite that transports one through the linguistic barriers.

And with language mentioned, we must now stop to make a note. My strongest reservations concerning Macbeth emerge from the fact that I found the film somewhat impenetrable due to the use of 'Shakespearean language'. Indeed, much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the theatrical transcripts, and I simply can't say I follow it very well. I can then comfortably admit that I might be able to understand some Spanish-language films as well as I did Macbeth (y mi español es horrible). I only followed this film so closely because, many years ago in school, I read the play and so could remember most of the plot beats and meanings of the big soliloquies. This theatrical convention of language is just yet another thing I do not find very welcome in the cinematic space. Cheap as it is, subtitles are a profoundly valuable construct of cinema.

To take a step back, however, let us talk about one of the most evident expressions of cinema's ability to be present. As said, the use of sets and real locations in cinema allow us to be in a space of greater versimilitude. But, what does this mean? Most simply, we get to be and feel where things are happening. There is no better exemplar of this than the opening; we actually get to see the battle that catalyses everything that unfolds in Shakespeare's narrative. The original play, of course, opens with sequences surrounding the witches and then Banquo and Macbeth (among others) talking about the battle. Theatre cannot be present at the battle, and so it isn't. As we see in Kurzel's Macbeth, being present during the battle has a huge effect on the narrative as imagery from the battle is carried forward from the sequence, and, furthermore, we perceive Macbeth in an entirely new light. Of all the images I have seen of Macbeth, none are more formidable than Fassbender's. This looks like a man who has gone to war--in fact, we have seen him go to war, so there is no need for speculation at all. It is cinema's ability to be present--narratively as well as spatially--that provides just this and that furthermore allows us to step into his psyche. The effect is purely cinematic.

There is no wonder that so many theorists talk of cinema with rather vulgar language pertaining to voyeurism and scopophilia. Cinema's very existence is predicated, in large part - and especially as the contemporary era expresses with CGI and a developed language - upon the fact that it can go where the eye wishes it could. One of the more questionable results of this are pornographic conventions that make spectacle and sensation out of this disembodied eye that locks away what visions it steals. Alas, the most profound expressions of narrative also emerge from this eye, from cinema's presentness. With cinema, we can see reality, can go where life happens as opposed to bring life before a camera, and we can push the camera into realities of impression, expression and the surreal as to be present in a mind, in an emotion, in a happening in a far more tactile and tangible manner than any other art form. Macbeth, ever so slightly, betrays cinema in this respect by even attempting to adapt a theatrical production. But, let us not admonish it on these grounds alone. Macbeth fails as it does not break away from cinematic convention successfully and fails also in appropriating theatrical convention. But, with that said, I turn all over to you. What are your thoughts on Macbeth and all we've discussed today?






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