Tag Archives: movies

Things December 2015: Star Wars Special

As you may recall from Things 43, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan.

So in terms of Things I found interesting in December, there was really only one. If you hate Star Wars I’ve got one other Thing for you below, a bit more music, and then it’s wall-to-wall Space Opera. I’ll save spoilery stuff until the very end and give fair warning.

Meine Schmusedecke / Patchwork Pals

At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2010 (which I wrote about in this Things special), one of my favourite short animations was Lebensader by Angela Steffen. Last year at the DOK Leipzig film festival I was pleased to recognise her hand in a series of very short children’s animations about the adventures of some animals on a patchwork quilt.

There is an English dub, but I most enjoy the original German – I don’t know the language, but that’s what I like about it: the context and certain similar-sounding words make it a lot of fun to guess what’s going on. It’s about 3 minutes, and you should at least stick with it until the fox shows up:

Things Updates: Music and Dialogue

In Things November 2015 I quoted Dennett’s recommended method of dialogue, which involved carefully identifying areas of agreement, disagreement, and accurately re-stating your opponents position before attempting to debate it. Tarim wonders if this is inspired by “Buberian Dialogue” (pdf link):

The emergence technique proposed herein is sometimes called “Buberian dialogue.” The technique calls for two discussants, a moderator and an audience. The discussants each say their initial piece. It is the role of the audience to listen for what the two discussants have said or implied which might be in common. The audience is called upon to inform the discussants of these commonalities (which the moderator captures on a white board) and then for the discussion to turn to the revealed items. This occurs through three or more rounds. The aim is for a transformational experience. There is no effort to reach consensus or conclusion. Rather, the goal is for a transformation to take place in how the discussants view each other in the context of the debate. If a more human based respect emerges, the technique is successful.

Just imagine a political debate taking place through this form!

Tarim also adds his nominations for notable musical reworks (which began in Things with covers, reworking in general, and other examples from Things readers), while noting that unfortunately most of his favourite covers are those he heard live:

(also)

Frank Zappa’s takes on Bolero and Stairway to Heaven:

And finally Far-Cue, a “3 piece punk band who do notable versions of: Mike Batt’s Remember You’re a Womble, Motorhead’s Ace of Spaces and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.” Youtube videos exist, but “they just don’t capture the essence of Far-Cue” – which I can well imagine!

So what is this ‘Star Wars’ thing anyway

I grew up with Star Wars, and it’s now so much part of the cultural furniture that it’s quite hard to see what it really is.

Strip away what you already know, and think about how odd it is to launch a franchise with ‘Episode IV’. So odd that Fox didn’t allow it, and it was just ‘Star Wars’ until George was allowed to change it for the 1981 re-release (and of course he’s continued to change the films whenever he has the chance). This is just the most telling sign of what Lucas was trying to do: recreate the adventure-serial movies he enjoyed in his youth, in which you would usually be encountering a random episode and hearing talk about back-story you knew nothing about – “You fought in the Clone Wars?!” The other biggest clue is that he had first tried to get the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, and being unable to get them, decided to just make his own thrilling space adventure instead. (As if annoyed how many people don’t realise this, Lucas mentions it repeatedly in all of the commentaries on the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release!)

The best modern analogue for what Lucas was doing is probably Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, in which Rodriguez tries to make an exploitation B-movie as good as he always wished they were.

This is all very reasonable; the really weird part is how ridiculously successful it was. Here’s the US box office of the top 10 grossing movies in the 5 years running to 1977:

In 1975 Jaws was an outlier, a freakish break-out hit… and then Star Wars almost doubled Jaws’ US domestic takings. Worldwide, across all re-releases and adjusted for inflation, ‘Star Wars’ (aka Episode IV or A New Hope) is second only to Gone With the Wind, which came out in 1939, when 45% of the US population went to the cinema weekly, as opposed to 1977 when that figure was down to 10% (pdf source). Incredible.

I personally think three main factors helped Star Wars achieve this excessive success.

Generational Nostalgia

It seems for various reasons that people have their greatest ability to create influential cultural works between the ages of 30-40. That age group also commands a large amount of the money going to entertainment: those without children are at a peak ratio of earnings to needs, those with children will spend to entertain the whole family. This means entertainment that resonates with the 30-40 year-old generation can prove disproportionately popular, and nostalgia for their youth is a good approach. (When you enter this age group yourself, the first sign is that shops start playing the pop music of your youth).

Back to the Future  went back from 1985 to 1955; Hairspray, The Wonder Years, Grease, Happy Days, and perhaps most nakedly That ‘70s Show all did a similar nostalgic leap. So in 1977 an audience existed that, like George Lucas, was nostalgic for the adventure serials.

This is also why we see favourite movies of the 80’s coming back 25-35 years later with sequels or remakes: Alien, Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, Ghostbusters, Rocky, and Indiana Jones to name a few of the biggest.

Hairspray actually benefitted from the effect twice (set in 1962, made in 1988, remade in 2002). Star Wars has arguably benefitted three times: the initial adventure-serial throwback, and then the prequel trilogy and (just about) sequel trilogy each resonating with the generation that grew up with the previous Star Wars movies.

The Hero’s Journey

Aka the Monomyth, this is a story structure George Lucas studied and then consciously followed with Star Wars, and is one of the most popular story types that exist. Whatever else is going on, with this at the core you have a very strong narrative hook.

Execution

Episode IV’s script is weak: “This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade”, “Boy, it’s a good thing you have these compartments!” The pacing is also weird – at age 7 a friend and I were playing with our Star Wars toys when we realised we could watch the movie on VHS; after about 20 minutes we got bored and went back to the toys.

But apart from that (!), much of the execution is really incredible for the time. For one thing, Lucas founded a special effects company and a sound company that were each so successful they remain leaders in their fields even today. Relatedly, I suspect Ben Burtt’s sound design in particular elevated the film dramatically above other genre fare of the day (lightsabers, Vader’s breathing, blaster bolts, alien languages, background hum on ships… hundreds of convincing, world-building sounds in a single film).

How do you follow the most successful film in a generation?

Lucas found directing Star Wars incredibly stressful. With so much success, the world’s expectations would make directing a sequel even worse. I also suspect he knew a sequel would be held to a higher standard, and this adventure-serial schtick was going to wear thin. The one thing he had going for him was that the arc of the Hero’s Journey had plenty of life left. So he brought in a different director, got some pretty good script-writers, and took a back seat.

After seeing Star Wars films frequently throughout my life, it was only after a 5-year hiatus that I could re-watch them somewhat afresh as an adult, and realised that The Empire Strikes Back really is a step up in quality. Return of the Jedi then concluded the Hero’s Journey beautifully and assured Star Wars a long-lasting place in the minds of a generation.

In light of all the above, the seemingly weird prequels make a lot more sense. With financial security behind him, Lucas was able to get back to doing what he really wanted: adventure serial movies, complete with cheesy lines, melodrama and slightly wooden acting. I think the prequel trilogy is just the kind of movie Lucas wanted to make all along, and he actually got better at achieving that rather than worse.

I suspect the greatest problem for the prequels was that they’re not doing the ever-popular Hero’s Journey, but rather some sort of rise-and-fall tragedy, which the nuance-free adventure serial form is terrible at supporting.

The Force Awakens (no spoilers yet)

Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Back in 2005, after queuing for 16 hours, I got a ticket for the first 6-film Star Wars marathon and world premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Leicester Square (showing the Original Trilogy and then the Prequel Trilogy, in order to save the newest addition until last).

At the end, George Lucas came over from the more star-studded premiere that had taken place in the nearby Odeon, and addressed the crowd. He was quickly drowned out by a chant that spontaneously arose from the fans: “We want nine! We want nine!”

Lucas calmed the crowd, and answered the request with these words I can still hear now:

“Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker. It begins when he’s 9… it ends when he’s dead… there is no more story.”

(The BBC reporter recorded slightly different wording).

[Update – I rediscovered the recording I made of that intro! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC reporter’s wording was closer than my memory – T.M. 16th April 2017]

As we now know, Disney thought there was at least $4bn more story, and they’re set on proving it, with new Star Wars episodes and spin-off films planned for every year from 2015 – 2020.

With all that history and no more Hero’s Journey story arc, how could Disney possibly satisfy the expectations of three generations of fans?

Well, that looks quite plausible. I particularly enjoyed the way a seemingly new and haunting piano progression evolves into a familiar theme – Han and Leia’s love theme in fact, which is a particularly apt choice following the end of Return of the Jedi.

At the time of writing, The Force Awakens has set the record for (unadjusted) US Domestic box office, and more impressively is at number 15 in the worldwide inflation-adjusted box office, putting it ahead of The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, and just about on track to overtake The Empire Strikes Back, which would make it the most successful Star Wars film since 1977.

So that seems to be working.

I would say The Force Awakens has three major elements which could be ‘spoiled’, so is well worth trying to see with as little knowledge as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should really do so before reading the rest.

Here’s a video to make it less tempting to read on:

The Force Awakens: True Successor or big-budget Fan Fiction? (SPOILERS!)

Over the first half an hour of the film I alternated between feeling that scenes, characters and designs were either not Star Wars enough, or just too much like old Star Wars. I finally realised I was holding the movie to an impossible standard, and substantially enjoyed the rest of it.

But by the end, it was undeniable: The Force Awakens looks a lot like a remake of 1977’s A New Hope. To try to make that assessment more fairly, I picked the most important 10 story elements from each and put them side-by-side:

Episode IV: A New Hope Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey
Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military
Destroy planet-scale superweapon Destroy planet-scale superweapon
Death of the mentor Death of the mentor
Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith
Males free female from captivity Males free female from captivity (subverted)
MacGuffin in a droid: superweapon plans MacGuffin in a droid: location of old hero
Escape from a death trap Male frees male from captivity
Triumphant return of a protagonist Bad guy turns good
Conclude with award ceremony Conclude with ambiguous meeting with old hero

So that’s 50% alike, 20% related, 30% new.

I can’t help wondering if this was actually the master plan: take the structure of the most successful of the series, add a scriptwriter of the most well-regarded, have the original cast pass the baton to the new, and laugh all the way to the bank. It seems to have worked.

In terms of style, I was very pleased to find it kept my favourite things from all of the Star Wars films: the adventure-serial (more mysterious back-story), family melodrama, and a script much more like Empire than any of the others (which makes sense, given Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement).

Let’s Get Nerdy (MORE SPOILERS)

Finally, as a Star Wars fan I can’t leave off without addressing some of the questions people tend to ask immediately after seeing the film.

How did Kylo Ren get beaten by amateurs?

The movie goes to extraordinary lengths to show Chewbacca’s bowcaster as some kind of devastating superweapon. Kylo Ren then gets shot with it, and the movie emphases his heavy bleeding and difficulty with the wound. Meanwhile it’s fair to assume Finn has some training in melee combat, and so is able to slightly injure Kylo’s sword-arm before being beaten. This means when Rey enters the fight, she’s fresh, and has been demonstrated capable in melee combat, while Kylo has two serious injuries!

How can Rey be so good with the Force so quickly?

I wondered this while watching the film, but it’s worth benchmarking. Anakin could drive pod-racers at inhuman speed at age 9, and demonstrated some sort of telepathy / far-seeing (in Yoda’s simple test) with no training. Luke deflects three blaster bolts while blindfold on his second try, uses the force to make a missile shot that was ‘impossible, even for a computer’, and later extracts a lightsaber from ice, again with no formal training.

By contrast, Rey does a Jedi mind trick on her third go, and beats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber summoning contest; in the latter case we again have his injuries to consider, and she was also pulling in the same direction as him.

Why did R2 take so long to wake up?

This requires some mumbo jumbo about R2 taking a while to process the information of BB-8 returning with the map piece and to come out of hibernation. The real reason is if he woke up immediately, it would create a difficult story-fork between fighting Starkiller Base and seeking out Luke.

Where are these planets relative to one another in the galaxy?

It’s unclear how Starkiller Base can really be “aimed” at another solar system, but apparently it can. We’re told it can somehow shoot through hyperspace, hence the ability to hit something light-years away. Dramatically less justifiable is that in a completely separate solar system, it’s possible to look in the sky and see the beam traverse and hit several planets in real time.

The only ‘explanation’ is that Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction: planets are simply locations that are ‘far apart’, hence their uniform environment and the fact that everything that takes place on a planet seems to happen in one very small part of it. The worst offender in the original trilogy was arguably Empire, in which the Millennium Falcon apparently travels between two solar systems without a hyperdrive in a matter of weeks.

Who is Rey?

Child of Solo and Leia? Seems very weird they did not mention her when discussing their past troubles in The Force Awakens.

Grandchild of Kenobi? Seems very weird given that in Empire it is Kenobi’s ghost who says “That boy is our last hope” and Yoda who says “No… there is another”. Unless Yoda followed up with “Oh, and didn’t you also have a kid at some point, how are they getting on?”

Child of Skywalker? It seems insane he would abandon her with no training, and the whole bit with Kylo turning to the dark side and disrupting things comes much later.

In terms of trying to second-guess the series, I think it’s worth remembering that A New Hope set up Empire’s surprise-parentage twist by explicitly lying about it! As reliable old Ben told Luke, “A young Jedi named Darth Vader […] betrayed and murdered your father.”

So, and as usual: trust no one.

- Transmission finally ends

Things November 2015: Movie ratings, Pain, Empathy and Expathy

Movie Rating Distribution

Walt Hickey was curious about the ratings on Fandango (which are clearly suspect), but in his investigation he brought together this nice collection of rating distribution data:

Just as I found when considering the ratings of animated movies, IMDB ratings tend to span around 5.5 to 8.3, whereas Rotten Tomatoes actually spans 0% to 100%.

Check out the whole thing to discover some of Fandango’s shenanigans.

Pain is Really Strange

For excellent research and presentation of a complex and important topic, I highly recommend the comic Pain is Really Strange by Steve Haines and illustrated by Sophie Standing:

Copyright © Steve Haines 2015, Illustrations Copyright © Sophie Standing 2015, reproduced by permission of Jessica Kingsley Publishers

The key insight is that pain (and particularly chronic pain) does not correlate reliably with tissue damage, with psychological / neurological factors also playing a huge part. I was particularly interested to find out that the term “slipped disc” is not only innaccurate, but can actually cause a patient to experience more pain than if a more benevolent-sounding term is used!

I give this the Thing of the Month award. Go check it out on the publisher’s site or put it on a Christmas wishlist at Amazon.

(Also just out, Trauma is Really Strange, which I assume to be similarly good).

Mobile Game: Horizon Chase

If you enjoyed any racing games from the 80s or early 90s, Horizon Chase is a brilliant throwback to the gameplay of that era. You can buy it on iOS, or, in a fascinating nod towards the different store design that represents a whole other subject I’ll get to one of these days, you can get the first few levels for free before paying to unlock the rest on Android.

Three things to know:

  • Features fake driving physics, which is more fun than real driving physics! (I found the article about how they achieved this quite fascinating).
  • Your car has a slower acceleration but faster top speed than all the others! This means every race is about overtaking your way from last place to first, which is the most fun thing.
  • The soundtrack is chiptune-tastic and by Barry Leitch if that means anything to you.

Empathy vs. the Viral Straw Men

Empathy: Understanding the experience of others.

Othering: Explicitly or (more often) implicitly suggesting a group or particular person is somehow “different”, with intent to slightly turn the listener against that group/person.

These two concepts are often tied up with our tribe-like identities: when someone we consider to be “one of thus” says something, we tend to empathise; when someone from an opposing tribe says something, we consider them ‘Other’ and tend towards the opposite of empathy – I don’t see a good term for it but we could call it “expathy”.

The Daily Mail provides regular examples of this. News stories about people the paper wants us to feel sympathy for will emphasise the traits that align them with the presumed Mail readership’s tribal identity: atomic families, hard-workers, church-goers.  Stories that tilt the opposite way will make note of how their subjects differ from this group: single mums, people on benefits, followers of other religions or atheists. Describing a group of people as a “swarm” is an Othering technique.

As is often the case, it’s easier to see this mechanism at work in others than ourselves. A liberal encountering a conservative expressing their views on wealth redistribution might demonstrate expathy by assuming the conservative hates poor people, worships money, and is selfish – but the conservative may be none of those things, and genuinely believe that if policy reflected their views perfectly, everyone that truly “deserves” success would get it. (You can tell I’m a liberal and still can’t shake the expathy from the distancing quotation marks).

Similarly, a conservative encountering a liberal expressing their views on wealth redistribution demonstrates expathy when they assume the liberal is blind to real-world complications, and/or that they are some kind of Western-society-hating communist.

If you want to understand someone and possibly even try to change their mind, empathy rather than expathy seems a good place to start. I think this is what lies behind the quote:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
– Martin Luther King, Jr

If you need more practical advice on how to do that, Daniel Dennett has it:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I think this is particularly important as the tribe-shaping influence of social media means that content which mocks straw-man versions of opponents’ views goes viral but only serves to polarise us and silence meaningful debate.

Digital Culture update: Music Industry Seems Fine Actually

I’ve  been very curious to know the impact the internet has had on the music industry now that the dust has somewhat settled. More importantly, how are the actual musicians doing? John B sends in this NY Times article which does a wonderful job of rounding up the pertinent data (for the US at least), and finds that things are actually looking pretty good.

Things updates: Propellers and Music

Back in Things 80 (September 2010) I shared a surreal photo of a spinning propeller generated by the rolling shutter effect. Richard sends in a link to these lovely animations that make this process much clearer!

After discussing various ways music can be reworked last month, people continue to send in interesting examples.

Deb sends in a rare example of the ‘remix’ in which the lyrics are the only part that has been preserved, with Tom Basden’s version of Mamma Mia:

For my part, I realised I forgot one of my all-time favourites, The Apples’ jazzy instrumental take on Rage Against the Machine’s famous Christmas number 1, Killing in the Name:

Laurence points to the strange outlier that is the French version of the A-Team theme tune, complete with weird lyrics. He further provides an example concatenating as many examples of reworking as possible in a series with Hooked on a Feeling, which I paraphrase here:

  • The original is by B.J. Thomas
  • This was … somethinged … and had the ‘ooga chaka’s added by Blue Swede (This is the version that most people know from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.)
  • The Blue Swede version was covered by David Hasselhoff
  • And the Hasselhoff version was relyriced by David A. Scott of Literal Video:

Is it possible to find a longer string, or one covering more types of rework?!

- Transmission finally ends

Things August 2015: Movies, books and stand-up comedy

Momo (1973 novel)

Six years before The Neverending Story, Michael Ende wrote Momo, well known in his native Germany but undeservedly less well known here. It takes a fairly common message (to do with how you should spend your time / what is important in life), but rather than using a fantasy setting to metaphorically imply the message, he uses a fantasy setting as a way to state the message as directly and clearly as possible. Some books change how you look at life if you take the time to really think about them; Momo leaves you no choice. I thought it was brilliant.

Also, here’s a a quote from it that I like:

He looked down at the tortoise. ‘Cassiopeia, my dear, I’d like your opinion on something. What’s the best thing to do when you’re under siege?’

 

‘HAVE BREAKFAST,’ came the reply.

 

‘Quite so,’ said the professor

 

Street Fighter (1994 film)

The Street Fighter movie is fascinating. Here’s a few key facts that let you know right away something weird is happening:

  • Written and directed by Steven de Souza (the writer on Die Hard, The Running Man, among others)
  • Budget $35m ($57m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)
  • IMDb rating 3.7
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 12%
  • Worldwide gross $99m ($161m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)

If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the Polygon article Street Fighter: The Movie – What Went Wrong, which pieces together the extraordinary story of how that movie came about. It sounds as if de Souza had a truly nightmarish experience as director, blocked from making the movie he wanted to at just about every turn (seriously – it’s incredible the movie got finished at all).

Having read the article I just had to see the movie for myself. As it turns out, it’s a rather brilliant B-movie that knows exactly how silly it is, and is tremendously enjoyable as a result! This often seems to be the case when the IMDb rating dips below 4.0 (it’s the 4.0-6.5 region you should avoid). My personal highlight: Guile (Van Damme), leading an assault on the bad guy’s base, in his state-of-the-art stealth speedboat, takes a moment to watch some home movie footage of himself and his good buddy (now captured) on a VHS casette he evidently brought with him, on the CRT monitor built into the stealth-speed-boat control panel, perhaps to remind himself what he’s fighting for. Amazing.

Even more brilliantly, there’s a director’s commentary evidently recorded by de Souza a few weeks after the movie came out (intended for the Laserdisc edition), in which he betrays no bitterness about the process of getting the film made, but rather conveys a genuine warmth for the material and pride in what they managed to achieve. The Street Fighter movie is a great example of someone being given life-lemons and making life-lemonade out of them.

Mitch Hedberg

I originally referenced Mitch Hedberg back in Things 104 in 2011. I finally bought one of his CD’s, Strategic Grill Locations, which is as funny as the many YouTube clips you can find of him would suggest, but instead lasts for almost an hour, which is pretty great.

He has some nice one-liners, such as:

I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.

But what I didn’t adequately convey in Things 104 is his delivery style. His laid-back demeanor and accent are part of it, but his unusual prosody is what really makes his material work. So I can give you this quote, which is okay, but it’s infinitely better when he’s saying it:

I was at the airport a while back and some guy said “Hey man, I saw you on TV last night.” But he did not say whether or not he thought I was good, he was just confirming that he saw me on television. So I turned my head away for about a minute, and looked back at him and said “Dude! I saw you at the airport… About a minute ago… And you were good.”

Stewart Lee

In some ways the mirror opposite of Mitch Hedberg and his non-sequitur one-liners, Stewart Lee makes long-form stand-up comedy. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do until I read his book, which I guess makes him hard to recommend.

That said, when I saw him live, I found one particular segment – in which he responds to a silly statement from UKIP with a 12-minute long Reductio ad absurdum argument – to be a brilliant result of the weird territory he has been exploring. So I was glad to find that someone has taken that segment from his TV series and put it online.

 

Zathura (2005 film)

Let’s have another breakdown:

  • Written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones… 4) and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Cowboys and Aliens)
  • Budget $65m
  • IMDb rating 6.1
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 75%
  • Worldwide gross $64m

… ouch. So what went wrong there?

One problem was the release timing: they went out against Disney’s Chicken Little (which people went to in droves, assuming Disney’s first foray into 3D would be as good as Pixar – Chicken Little made more money than Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, conclusively disproving money as a measure of movie merit), and in the second week when people realised Chicken Little wasn’t that good, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out.

The other problem was the perception that Zathura was just “Jumanji in space, without Robin Williams”… which is actually a very accurate description.

But while it is that, it’s also brilliant, partly because space is cooler than jungle, and partly because Robin Williams isn’t the best thing about Jumanji anyway. Jon Favreau makes use of practical effects wherever possible (for example in the trailer below, that robot smashing through the doorway is literally doing that; even the jet-flames on the ships are practical), and this is particularly effective for the ever-increasing destruction of the house. Also featuring before-they-were-famous starring roles for Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, it’s just a really lovely film that is unjustly overshadowed by its precursor.

Okay, one caveat: there’s some stuff that’s almost cool sci-fi but then is instead just fantasy, which some of you might find a bit disappointing. As is so often the case, keep in mind it’s a fantasy film rather than a sci-fi one, and it’s all good.

- Transmission ends

Things 134: Overanalysis of popular media for Fun and Recreation

At school, I thought the purpose of English Literature was to argue about hidden meanings in books, meanings I believed were not remotely connected to the author’s original intent, and that I therefore considered worthless.

Since then, I’ve completely changed my mind. Intent is bunk, over-reading things is fun! Are the Star Wars prequels actually the purest embodiment of George Lucas’s original desire to recreate the adventure serials of his youth? Or is Lucas in fact the world’s greatest troll, deliberately irritating the original trilogy’s fans, perhaps because he resents the way they feel a kind of ownership of the material he originally created? I don’t know, but it’s a lot of fun to think and argue about both, preferably simultaneously!

“Any man who inflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.” – H. L. Mencken

So, this edition of Things is dedicated to finding joy in metatextual resonances and overanalysis of popular media that I have particularly enjoyed.

 

Candy Crush / Addiction

Art Hawk is a video series that’s all about over-reading meaning in games, all delivered in a silly voice and with layered, weird and occasionally relevant imagery. Needless to say, I love it. Here, Art Hawk explains why Candy Crush is a wonderful piece of ARRRRTTTT:

 

Seinfeld / The Ballardian Infinite

Claire Evans writes about how the Seinfeld episode about a seemingly endless car park is part of a rich tradition going back to J. G. Ballard and J. L. Borges, and finds meaning in the fact that the traditional apartment set was physically replaced by the garage set. Were these layers of meaning intended? Probably not! And that’s fine.

 

Movies in general / The lives of the stars

I’m interested in movies and how they are made, but not in the personal lives of actors and actresses – what would usually be termed ‘gossip’. But I was fascinated by The Rules of The Game, an excellent long-form article on the relationship between celebrity, gossip and publicity in the movie industry over the past 100 years. In particular, I was interested by this core insight (emphasis mine):

… media outlets report that George Clooney, whose picture personality is that of a handsome, charismatic, yet hesitant to commit man-about-town, replicates those characteristics in his “real” life, gallivanting about Lake Como, switching beautiful girlfriends every few years. The extra-textual information ratifies and authenticates his overarching image; the “real” Clooney is in fact all of the things he is in, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, that coherency is at once pleasurable and reassuring.

Yes! That’s exactly it. I suspect this is why the media frenzy about Clooney’s recent narrative-breaking engagement was so large that even I heard about it.

 

The LEGO Movie as message-bearing trojan horse

Film Critic Hulk wrote a lengthy, heartfelt piece on why The LEGO Movie really works. Hulk suggests that one of the key plot-points within the movie represents what the makers of the movie are actually attempting to achieve with the movie itself [Spoilers approaching]:

LORD AND MILLER ACTUALLY OUTLINE THEIR ENTIRE MODUS OPERANDI RIGHT THERE IN THE MOVIE ITSELF […] DISGUISE YOUR THING SO IT SEEMS LIKE A THING THEY’LL ACCEPT […] THEN WORK WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THOSE ACCEPTED WAYS IN ORDER TO DO WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO. IT’S A LITERAL HEIST, BUT IT’S A METAPHOR FOR A CREATIVE ONE TOO.

Specifically, they disguise the movie as a light and fluffy fun-for-all-the-family frolic, while delivering (a bit heavy-handedly in my opinion) a message about adult responsibility and what life is really all about.

 

Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to stardom and The Hunger Games

I first saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, an independent movie she carried almost single-handedly. She plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels.

A couple of years later, she was cast as the lead in The Hunger Games, in which she plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels. She puts herself forward to be thrust into the limelight of something called ‘The Hunger Games’, where she is a tremendous success thanks to her grit and skills. And of course, by being cast in The Hunger Games movie, Jennifer Lawrence herself was thrust into the real-world limelight, and is currently enjoying tremendous success thanks to her skills and, possibly, grit. I’ve got to admit, I do find that coherency strangely reassuring.

(Her intervening appearance in X-Men: First Class only breaks this narrative a little bit).

 

Baron Munchausen’s defeat(?) by bureaucrats

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the more extraordinary entries in Terry Gilliam’s canon, a wonderfully creative and madcap romp through various ridiculous scenarios which betrays none of the difficulties that beset its production. [Spoilers about to break down the gate.]

In the movie, bureaucrats, following entirely rational procedures, prolong the suffering of the people in a city under siege. The Baron defies them, and through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends, defeats the attacking army. But the chief bureaucrat then has the last laugh, assassinating the Baron.

Similarly, despite bureaucrats at Colombia attempting to fatally restrict the movie’s budget, and in the face of all manner of other challenges, Terry Gilliam nevertheless created something wonderful – through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends. But the bureaucrats got the last laugh, as a political change within Colombia resulted in the movie being given such a limited release it could not possibly succeed, effectively assassinating it.

In the film, with one final, surreally creative twist, the Baron nonetheless declares victory. In the documentary accompanying the movie on DVD, Gilliam feels that this resonates with real life still further: despite everything, the movie is everything he wanted it to be, and it lives on with home releases; this represents his final victory.

(On the subject of Terry Gilliam, the parallel between Doctor Parnassus peddling incredible things to an unengaged modern audience and Gilliam’s late career is almost too overt to mention here).

 

The Wachoswki’s Speed Racer as a triumph of Art over Commerce

Speed Racer is my favourite movie. It’s utterly ridiculous and visually stunning, which I find an irresistible combination. This quote from the Ain’t It Cool review explains that a little better:

You know how sometimes you see a trailer for a film like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and they show you all this eye candy and it looks like the whole film is full of that? And then you see the film and it’s actually about 10% crazy eye candy and the rest looks like a regular movie? Well, that ain’t SPEED RACER. Every single image in this film is outrageous, hyperreal, and color-saturated, and at first, it’s sort of a shock to the system. But by about 15 minutes in, your eyes get used to it, and suddenly the entire palate becomes sort of beautiful.

But it’s more than that – in Adam Saltsman’s Vanquish retrospective he draws a parallel between that underrated video game and Speed Racer, and sums up this other brilliant property of the film:

In SPEED RACER, time is completely relative; a viscous fluid, the passage of which, like our place in the chronology and memories of the characters, is utterly dependent on the story, rather than linearity, or even cinematic tradition. Time and space shift according to the needs of the narrative and cinematography, but in a way that is intimidatingly holistic and with a degree of confidence that would be unnerving if it wasn’t so thoroughly saturated with real human love.

Anyway, to get back to the point, and what really cements the movie’s place at the top of my all-time-favourite list, is Chris Stangl’s observation that it is essentially a metaphor for its own creation:

Because Speed Racer is about something; about something moving and important […] Speed Racer is about art and commerce, though the stand-ins are racing-constantly-compared-to-art and patronage in the form of corporate driver sponsorship, with Speed Racer as a virtuoso whose work in content and form reduces crowds to tears of ecstacy. It’s about accepting that your art exists in a commercial sphere, that money and power are in the balance, from sponsor on down to spectator… but the artist needs to do what the artist does, and ignore all that. Listen to what the car needs. When you turn in something bizarre and startling, garish and strange — even when it gets upsetting and your mom has to look away — as long as you drove as hard as you could, you did your goddamn job […] The Wachowskis are encouraging artists who can’t help but make the weird new things they make, to be bold, proud. When it’s in your blood, you have no choice anyhow.

The fact that the film proved to be a financial disaster makes this message all the more poignant for me.

- Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim and writes more about films on his personal blog