Sunday, April 27, 2014

Movies: Things Get Fixed, They Don't Get Better

My sophomore year of university, my roommate announced without prologue "I think I'm going to become a film buff."
Thus we were left with 'where do you begin?'
Learning about technique? Just watching a lot? If so which?
Over the next few days he went around the internet gathering bits from various list (I'm wholly unsure of his methodology) until he produced a list title 'Movies to Watch Before I Die.'

Saving the early years for later, we started in the 60's. Psycho, 2001: A Space Oddessey, Dr. Strangeglove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Planet of the Apes, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Spartacus, Bonnie and Clyde, Night of the Living Dead, and the Manchurian Candidate, Cool Hand Luke.

Quickly we saw an emerging (and predictable) pattern of anti-authoritarian and modernist motives with smaller groups pitted against larger ones. But anyone could tell you that's what the times were about. There was civil rights, civil unrest, the Vietnam War, and drugs.

Then we moved into the 70's.
The Godfather I & II, One Flew Over the Kuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Rocky, Star Wars, Harold and Maude, Dog Day Afternoon, Soylent Green (arguable on quality), Network, Annie Hall, and Grease.

Again we see some of the same themes, but with a stronger lean for paranoia and conspiracy, but still smaller characters fighting against huge opposing odds and changing to get there and often challenging the status quo by the end of the reel.

One could (and has) written on these ideas in film for ages, but the one that struck me was transformation.
The great majority of films of this period deal with two stages: struggle or challenge and change.

So What?

 I only noticed this due to striking contrast of movies of today. Each one is more focused on struggle and repair. I'm not saying that change/transformation is absent but that characters are more likely to face a problem and solve it without significant change. If change is present, the transformation is to enable problem solving and is much less strongly emphasized or relegated to a montage.

This ignoring of change is conflated with the glut of magical/super-powered characters we've received in the cinema's last decade.
Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Twilight, Hulk, Iron Man, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, , X-Men, Thor, The Dark Knight, Superman, The Incredibles, etc.
All of these characters started the film with the tools to solve the problem before we walk in the theatre (unless it's an origin story).
If the character isn't superpowered;Taken, Die Hard 4 and 5, James Bond, The Fast and the Furious V and VI, 300, Gladiator, Django, they were highly trained (again before we're introduced, except Django who is a perfect shot because Tarantino says so).

Movies that should focus on transformation like Avatar get caught up in visuals and pandering. Jake Sully begins the narrative handicapped and regains his body while adapting to a new culture. But we see none of his change from being crippled (he can instantaneously walk after about 6 seconds in an avatar) and the only knowledge we get of his cultural appreciation is clips less than 30 seconds in total.
And the system change is engendered by a problem he caused. He must fix his mistakes, rather than create a better system. The new system that takes over is only grafted onto a voice-over epilogue like an afterthought.

I'll refrain from making any connections with our economy or political strife, or having a skill set immediately instead of working hard being a correlation with the tech-age and Millenials. Someone's surely done it already. Nevertheless, I find it enormously unsatisfying that so much of the last decade's cinema is dedicated to repair rather than renovation. I never get to see my characters really change or grow and they all too often just become over tropes place holders for a superpower, set of skills, whatever.

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