Sunday, December 7, 2008

Stop filming those unhappy things, right now!

Apparently, some people are really adamant about getting their happy ending fix.
The message from Hollywood increasingly seems to be -- to glibify it to a tag line -- bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.
Sorry, but when you have a type of media that is entirely focused on keeping your attention and getting a message across to people who, for the most part, want to be entertained rather than trying to analyze the intricate complexities of things that were flashed on a screen for a grand total of 7 seconds, you are going to have to go with strong, memorable events, instead of nuance. This makes it so that the entertainment industry is, and has been for some time, an exercise in churning out things that:
1. provoke strong emotion (thus making them more memorable) and
2. are simple enough so that it can be remembered easily, while still being complex enough to successfully fulfill number one.
Turns out that people are sick of having their happiness, their taste for sappy romance and their love for the adorable, sweet, and corny exploited, and are actually seeking out something different that is an emotion distinct from the sickeningly optimistic portrayals of reality offered by certain television programs and movies. They want to see sickeningly pessimistic potrayals of reality to act as a counterbalance. Not exactly a new development, but, if it is gaining more momentum than it has had previously (doubtful), I am very much pleased at the thought.
The penultimate shot in "Cloverfield" is of the remaining characters getting crushed under a bridge in Central Park. No reason is given for the monster's massacre. Death, randomness, mercilessness. These things just happen. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Pffft. How unrealistic. We all know that bad things never happen. Especially not in New York City...

Cloverfield was Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. Obviously, this is an entirely new paradigm.
Big movies have tent-poled 2008 with a tarp of cruelty. No resolution, no absolution. Just the raw misery of the human condition. Buh-leak. We expect this of fringe foreign films, the confounding subgenre of torture porn, and most documentaries, but not the biggest hits and highest-praised movies of the year.
Can't all be happy endings, can't always get resolution. Some people do not want to be absolved (normally because they don't think they've done anything wrong...the worst kinds of tragedies befall due to that mindset). And, yes, part of the human condition is misery. As much as everything else. It does not hurt to play around with the more sadder side of life, because doing so is the basis of the genre of "tragedy", which has been around for more than the past round of Oscar picks.
The Batman franchise, which started as a kitschy carnival, morphed this summer into a dystopian nightmare in "The Dark Knight." The Joker's metier is large-scale terror and chaos. The movie is a series of agonizing moral dilemmas, capped by the conclusion that, for order to be maintained, people must view the hero as a villain. "The Dark Knight" is the highest-grossing movie of the year, and one of the best-reviewed.
WTF? The Batman franchise, whether you are talking about the television franchise, the movie franchise, or the comic franchise, have been dabbling in the kind of dark themes you are bitching about (and worse) for a long time before now. The most successful Batman movies were dark (just look at the other one where the Joker was the villain), the comic books that this new movie was inspired by were the most successful and some of the most bleak and morbid stand alone series in the franchise, and you cannot base your opinion on whether Batman is "a kitschy carnival" based entirely on its Adam West era television iterations.
Even James Bond has a case of the bleaks. In "Quantum of Solace," he has hardened into a morose assassin "blinded by inconsolable rage."
In fairness, shouldn't it be worse if he was cheerful assassin? That said: this trend in the Bond series is also not new. In fact, it has kind of fluctuated back and forth over the years when it comes to his grittiness and willingness to kill. They've occasionally had a hard time deciding whether to emphasize the "gadget toting, charismatic, diplomatic playboy spy" aspect or the "super-skilled spy with a license to kill" aspect.
What's causing this spike in bleakness, and why are we eating it up? Is it just a reflection of the real world and its Big Problems (global warming, war, an economy gone mad, blah blah)? Or is it that Hollywood sees bleak and apocalyptic movies as easy to market
It's not a spike, but we eat it up because it is part of an essential diet of perspective. The bleak worlds they present in these movies aren't necessarily reflective of the real world anymore than any other emotion-centric perspective is, but it does tend to deal with issues that other perspectives tend to color differently or ignore. And that is their source of appeal: they are worst case scenarios for issues that are pussyfooted around, in the form of a 2 hour long visual short story with characters with flaws that make the viewers feel comparatively better about themselves, and special effects.
Allow us to be presumptuous: The book is repetitively bleak. Ash, cold, starvation, repeat. The story "is bleak, but it's actually about what makes us human in the most bleak situation," says Hillcoat. "So it actually amplifies humanity because it's a love story between a father and son. . . . It's set in this extreme world, but all that does is amplify that basic human drama."

Stop saying "bleak"! Anyway, this quote is talking about the book that served as the source material for a movie, that is about a father and son wading through an apocalyptic wasteland. I'm not quite sure whether the "love story" part rings true, but I think the "basic human drama" part is actually true for post-apocalypse type stories. Even completely alone, and subjected to unfathomable horrors, it is an exploration of the human mind in the face of such an overwhelming source for potential pain, loneliness, agony, and woe, with a slight detour in gawking at how awesome the fiery hellscape is. It is an inversion of typical, gentler stories of self-discovery through exploration in a world that was seemingly styled by a Romantic painter.
Maybe that's why we're weirdly attracted to bleakness. It gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights. At least that's what directors might have us believe.
I agree that it strips away the banal, but I do not agree with the last part. It does not "raise our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights"; it replaces those pedestrian struggles with titanic ones that we cannot possibly prevail against, and which real people in less privileged positions than our own do not get the privilege to witness within the sole confines of a movie theater. It is, again, a portrait of worst case scenarios, whether or not they are realistic ones, or based in reality.
Do we want a fictional taste of our world, in which faceless, random terrorism has jumbled the narrative rule book, in which we can't tell our friends from our enemies, to paraphrase Judi Dench in "Quantum of Solace"?
Issue the first: YES! When it comes down to it, a story needs to have some basis on the world as we know it. Without such a connection, the story has no relevance to us, and we either won't care to pay attention, or won't relate enough to it to remember. And, sometimes, we want to see a little bit of the worse parts of our world, put to work on different stage for our amusement and reflection.
Issue the second: The idea that "we can't tell our friends from our enemies" is hardly new. It disgusts me when people try to pretend that such common themes owe their exclusive existence to a recent event. Why terrorism? This same thing could have been said about Vietnam. It could have been said despondently as WWII ally Russia became our Cold War enemy. It could have been said in the same manner about Italy's turn from an ally in WWI, to an Axis power in WWII. It could have been said in the wake of the Civil War, as brother turned against brother in allegiance to their country-fragment. It could have been said in the Revolutionary War, with possible Loyalist neighbors flying under the radar. Or, it could be said in any dramatic play where there is a three conspiracy minimum. Treachery, and ambiguity are not new to the post-9/11 world. It might be inspiring new people to delve into the tradition, but it is not new in of itself.
After this season, we may see bleakness retreat back to smaller films, says movie industry columnist David Poland. His rationale: During a recession, major studios will bankroll only surefire hits. In the end, Poland says, people want inoffensive commercial films -- like this summer's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Mamma Mia!" -- not somber movies in which directors and actors push themselves and their audiences toward despair.
Fluff. That's all it is. And during troubled times, who wants to actually face reality and deal with things that are troubling, right? Just cuddle up with those fluff pieces, and pretend that it will all go away soon. Why does it seem like that is more or less the plan for coping in regard to every imaginable issue in this country?
These movies will not be billed as "The Most Depressing Movie You Will Ever See." We don't go to the movies to be depressed. We do go to movies that have A-list casts, are an "official selection of the Cannes Film Festival," or ask us, cutely and ironically, "Why So Seriousss?" ("The Dark Knight" teaser poster). There's a bit of mutual deception going on among us, the filmmakers and their publicity machines.
I'm beginning to think that this guy is fucking out of it. Look...Dan...some people to do go to sad movies to be sad. It's cathartic (well, as cathartic as anything else is...). And you really thought that the "Why so serious?" statement could be taken as "cute and ironic"? You should have watched the actual trailer instead of just reading posters, because that line was delivered in a relatively deranged and sinister manner.

The mainstreaming of bleakness has caused a bit of retaliation from Mike Leigh, the rogue British director whose first film, in 1971, was titled "Bleak Moments," and whose movies since have been stark set pieces of life's little brutalities. He has just released a relentlessly upbeat film. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is about a woman who skips like a cheery pebble over the murk of the world.

"I wanted to make what I've come to call an 'anti-miserablist movie,' " Leigh told an audience at the Telluride Film Festival in September. "We're in tough times. We're destroying the planet and each other, and there's a great deal to lament. But there are people out there who are getting on with it and being positive."

Mike Leigh is ever the contrarian, isn't he? I really don't see why there would be any particular reason for one to be irrevocably miserable, but I also don't think, in light of the very things you mention, that there is really anything to make one's disposition "positive" overall either. It's neutral country for me, baby.
Miserablism. That's the word. It's artful. It's attractive. And perhaps that's the key to the chic of bleak. Why else do we click through photo galleries of shell-shocked stock traders, and California wildfires, and the latest unrests from abroad? Why else do studios cheerlead Oscar campaigns for titles as darkly blunt as "Doubt"? There's something majestic about watching the suffering of people (especially when portrayed by great actors). And there's something self-satisfying about sitting through a movie, however bleak, and enduring it, and declaring it beautiful and important.
How can you consider "Doubt" to be a "darkly blunt" title? If there was ever a reason for me to guess your religious leanings, it would be that little jab. But, anyway, we "click through photo galleries" of people being affected by tragedy, because it helps to 1. be informed of those tragedies and 2. put a human face on it so that we might actually give a damn. There is nothing majestic about watching other people's suffering, but it is something that we just might to submit ourselves to in order to see whether we can feel basic human empathy and sorrow when such abysmal conditions are presented before us, plain as day. Bleak movies are beautiful, and they are important, because they are a necessary exaggeration and, to an extent, "bleak is chic" has been a prominent sentiment in the world of art and literature for some time now. This is part of a larger, longer trend that has been going on for over a century now, which itself owes its existence to earlier influences (as most things do).

I can't even imagine what your favorite kinds of films are. My feeble attempts thus far have almost resulted in putting myself into a diabetic coma. Fluff, in the form of cotton candy, churned out for mass consumption. If ever there was a hell for me, it would be you bright-eyed optimists' heaven, Dan.

17 comments:

Stacy said...

Well, the next Harry Potter movie should fit right in - if they do it right.

pboyfloyd said...

"There's always an alien battle cruiser, or a Corellian death ray, or an intergalactic plague intended to wipe out life on this miserable little planet. The only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT!"

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I've been a fan of French Cinema for a long time - I'm used to bleak ;)

GearHedEd said...

Holy Crap!

I'm gone for two days and when I come back, there's like, seven new posts to catch up on...

I don't even have time to think up my own snappy comebacks anymore. I've hired that out to my minions here at work...

Asylum Seeker said...

The entire Harry Potter book series actually seemed to swing into progressively mature and "bleak" territory over time, with the original three books or so having elements that could have been considered tragic, but that were handled in either a light-hearted manner, or just able to be overlooked due to fact that "OMG, magic is everywhere!". But, the Goblet of Fire tournament changed everything. Just like 9/11.

Poignant little quote, pboy. MIB's comical little take on the infinitely exploited canard "ignorance is bliss". And it is just so true.

Pliny has just piqued my interest for a new source of films.

And, only just outsourcing now, Ed? I've been having a group of 16 Korean boys doing all my typing for me since at least the second quarter of 2005. And, as the young kids like to say, once you go sweatshop, you never go back.

GearHedEd said...

So THAT's the trick, eh?

GearHedEd said...

True story:

I was in the library at college a couple of years ago, and I was talking to a girl there. I was complaining that I never really learned to type, I only use two fingers and I have to look at the keys.

She said, "Yeah, I'm a 'hunt & peck'-er, too."

I said back, "Indeed? My name's Ed. Glad to meet you. I might have just what you're looking for."

:o)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Oh BTW - thanks a hell of a lot Seeker - I've been waiting to see Cloverfield on cable. Guess I won't get to enjoy the old 'guess who's gonna buy it game' that usually is the most pleasurable aspect of those films...

As for the history of cinemadiableak, it's hard to fault Romero's first Night of the Living Dead. That movie was literally and figuratively a marrow sucking experience.

Asylum Seeker said...

Wait...what did I do? I didn't think I said who lives or dies in the film (especially since, well, I don't really remember). [Reads post] Oh...the quote. Heh...sorry. Take it up with the guy who wrote the article.

And speaking of marrow sucking, Ed: did that story have a happy ending, or did it end with a sexual harassment suit? Or did it end, in the theme of the post, with you trekking across the scorched ruins of Southern Detroit, trying to fend for yourself by rummaging through garbage and killing off genetically enhanced alley cats with a shotgun, while trying ever so carefully to avoid the omnipresent gangs still ravaging the destroyed city and cavorting around in the still burning flames, thirsty for your blood after taking the lives of everyone close to you? Because I am banking on "none of the above", but I cannot bear to not know.

GearHedEd said...

Nope. Sadly, no marrow-sucking. And the rampaging gangs in Dee-Troit are really unemployed UAW workers, pissed that I shot their dinner.

pboyfloyd said...

"I said back, "Indeed?...""

At least tell us that you had a 'wicked' goatee that you were stroking, and that you were thinking, "... and I like my pecker shaken, not shterred."

GearHedEd said...

No, but I WAS working on a pony-tail at the time. Too bad I'm going bald, 'cuz it made me look like Worf when I didn't have a hat on....

The Maze Monster said...

Yeah the next Harry Potter is horribly horribly sad. However, the two after that have a happy ending.

I'm just one of those people who likes dark endings. I'm not fond of happy go lucky movies with la-de-da endings.

Stacy said...

" However, the two after that have a happy ending ..."

TWO after?? I remember the "bad thing" happening at the end of #6.
Then things wrapping up in #7.

Were there 8 books?? I must know!!

Asylum Seeker said...

"I like my pecker shaken, not shterred."

Nope. Can't come up with a wise crack. Just completely dumbstruck.

"I'm just one of those people who likes dark endings. I'm not fond of happy go lucky movies with la-de-da endings."

In case you couldn't tell from my rants, I concur.

"Were there 8 books?? I must know!!"

Well...she did write "Tales of
Beedle the Bard" as influenced by the Harry Potter series, but they were handwritten and sold for a few million a piece. So, considering that they are not actually about Harry Potter, I doubt that he was referring to it. I dunno. I haven't really been paying attention to the series for a while.

pboyfloyd said...

""I like my pecker shaken, not shterred."

Nope. Can't come up with a wise crack. Just completely dumbstruck."

Not even something about a Sean Connery, James Bond accent?

I always thought that that vodka martini thing was SUPPOSED to be some kind of innuendo.

Ed, might have 'thought' that, but SAID, "Yesh, Miss Moneypenny, perhapsh I could interesht you in a vodka martini...(cooly as usual, then 'out of the blue', switching to a Monty Pythonesque..).. "know what I mean, know what I mean, shaken, nudge-nudge, not shterred, nod's as good as a wink.."

(Us in the background..)"Sadly, there can be but one outcome to this faux pas.."

Asylum Seeker said...

Still dumbstruck. But I must say that I have never seen someone so accurately represent Sean Connery's manner of speaking in print before.