James Bond

Elsewhere I wrote that one of my frustrations with Hollywood action films, above even escalating body counts, is the common scene of careless heroes wantonly causing collateral damage in the name of stopping “bad guys.” Yet, when I recently re-watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, I noticed the same type of collateral damage and was reminded of similar scenes in past installments, including Brosnan driving a tank through a Russian city, but the damage didn’t bother me nearly as much as in generic action films. Although the studio equation is not nearly so nuanced (boom = $), I wanted to tease out why the message in James Bond films bothers me less than the message in other films, even though the actual scenes are practically interchangeable.

James Bond to me: the perfect embodiment of British imperial hubris. Women, even if they really want to kill him, are compelled to sleep with him first, he has a tendency to tell everyone his name (useful for a spy), and, to the best of his ability, Bond operates as though no foreign government has the ability or authority to impede his mission. Bond is a sort of imperial terminator more than an actual hero meant to be emulated.

Because I see Bond as this sort of caricature, a personified tentacle of the Leviathan, collateral damage is par for the course. Perhaps this is a grim view of the state, and, certainly, government shouldn’t want to destroy cars and buildings, and should respect the territorial integrity of other states, but, well, as anyone checked the news recently? This minor difference makes it possible for my hackles to stay down when watching it on Netflix.

I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. Bond is imperial wish fulfillment. Flipping the narrative or turning the monomaniacal/communist/totalitarian/monstrous villain into a scrappy freedom-fighter would make Bond practically interchangeable with Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

They just don’t make heroes like they used to

I watched GI Joe Retaliation…and feel the need to justify myself…it was background while I did odds and ends at home. The point is that I watched GI Joe Retaliation. It is a bad movie, but the impressive part is how much of the absurdness of the first movie they trimmed out and still managed to make a movie just as bad or worse. the lesson here is don’t skimp on writers, I guess.

For the uninitiated, GIJ I ends with Cobra having captured and replaced the president without anyone knowing. In GIJ II, the faux-president frames the Joes as traitors and has his Cobra allies wipe them out.♠ Of course, three survive and trek back from Pakistan♣ to find out why the President betrayed them and to stop Cobra when they find out the President is not hte President. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the world, the US military/Cobra have built a series of satellites that drop rods from space.♥ The not-President then brings all the nuclear powers, including North Korea (it is unclear whether Iran attended) to a disarmament summit at Fort Sumter, prompts them to launch their nukes (all of which are on missiles) by launching the US nukes at their countries and then coerces disarmament by himself volunteering to destroy the US nukes.♦ Voila! The threat of a nuclear holocaust is over! The president then demands their surrender, revealing the rods-from-space weapon and destroys London, just to prove his point. Cobra then threatens to destroy the rest of the countries in attendance, but the ‘Joes show up just in time to stop them and destroy the satellites remotely. Naturally, the bad guy escapes.♠♠ The ‘Joes, finally, are treated as heroes. Fine.

My big problem with GIJ I was the excessive destruction caused by the good guys as they rushed to prevent Cobra from destroying the Eiffel Tower.♠♣ This time was more of an old-school action flick where the good-guys are limited in their ability to cause collateral damage, but there was still a damage quota to fulfill♠♥….so they leveled London. Don’t worry, though, the ‘Joes saved Tel Aviv, so they can still call themselves heroes. But suspending disbelief about everything else, what about the fallout from this event? Let’s recap: the Not-President used the US military, presumably, to build a series of super-advanced satellites and then after a push of a single button launched the entire nuclear arsenal, used his sole authority to get the US military to launch an unprovoked attack on the close US ally.♠♦ That’s alright, though, because the bad guys did it and the ‘Joes stopped (most of) the destruction.

At the end of the movie, I quipped on Twitter that someone should make a mockumentary detailing reconstruction of the world post-action movies. The same could be said of the US position in the world. The ‘Joes might have won, but that does not change the fact that the United States military wiped out London and the resolution amounted to “oops.”

I do not hold with the doomsayers who claim a causal relationship between the violent movies and video games and violence in society, but there is an escalation of movie violence that bothers me. First, I dislike the wanton damage and tendency to shrug aside collateral damage by the people the audience is supposed to relate to. Second, blowing things up substitutes for dialogue and plot, which degrades the quality of the movie. When that happens, it is insufficient for those heroes to stop the first cataclysmic event because that would stop some of the “cool” CGI that is really the only reason people are watching. So bring back clever dialogue and, barring an actual narrative contingency, let the heroes stop entire cities from being destroyed. Please.

♠ Or at least the ones on the team we care about. There were surely more and with secret bases in GIJ I… *waves hand* these are not the details you are looking for.

♣ National borders matter not to super famous-yet-secret US commandos *waves han…you get the idea.

A real thing, actually.

♦ All nukes in this world are controlled by wireless/satellite capable briefcases carried around by world leaders.

♠♠ How else would there be a GIJ III?

♠♣ They failed there, too.

♠♥ Lives, sq km flattened, value of property damage…it is unclear what unit of measure Hollywood uses.

♠♦ A certain defense from Nuremberg comes to mind

Why I Hate Hollywood III, are you not entertained?

My third installment of thoughts on why I dislike most movies.

Over the last few days there has been some news about The Hobbit film(s) directed by Peter Jackson. The plan had been to make two films out of the book, but now there will be three. I have seen some speculation about what, exactly, the films will portray and how the narrative will work (see, for example, Tim Burke’s thoughts), and at least one person has mentioned his concern with Peter Jackson getting too epic-y (particularly after the adventure with Godzilla), quipping that Jackson needs to learn how to edit. These are valid questions and concerns (as is his development of a female lead for the Hobbit, but I am a stickler for detail), but I do not care that much about the films. I will see the films, but had considered not doing so on the grounds that I have been disappointed by every film or movie created about a book series I like–including Lord of the Rings.1 My resignation and disgust about splitting the film further has little to do with Peter Jackson, though, since it feels to me like a move designed by the studio in order to get people to go see the story in three parts, rather than two. This, then, is another reminder that filmmakers are only beholden to the audience so much. The higher up the corporate ladder the calculation goes, the more this is true.

I am reminded of a blog post that John Scalzi wrote wrote on Whatever in 2006, wherein he annoyed a number of people by saying that Star Wars is not so much entertainment as “George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning millions of people into watching the money shot.” Lucas created a mythology and then put it on film and licensed it out so that a whole bunch of other people had an opportunity to play in that mythology. I enjoy Star Wars tremendously, and somewhat disagree with Scalzi about its entertainment value,2 but I agree with him in the sense that a lot of people mistake what Star Wars is. It is George Lucas’ playground that he merely licenses out to the rest of us. The entertainment value of Star Wars is an unintentional byproduct of the creation process.

Then there is the issue of rebooting series. A blog post on the economist suggested that the rumors about a new Batman series already in the works is a response to Christopher Nolan’s infidelity to the Batman comic books in his own reboot of the earlier movies. While there may be some truth to that underlying rationale with the people pitching scripts and plotlines, and in how the studio will publicly justify the reboot, and there may evern be some truth to that rationale as to why people would go see another Batman film, I suspect that the studio is planning another reboot of the Batman film because the last one was spectacularly successful and there is money to be made from such a venture. It is the same reason that a studio purchased the rights to 50 Shades of Grey and there is a plan in the works to re-do the Twilight films.

Yes, some films are excellent for their plotting, their acting, and the overall appearance, but far more make (or try to make) money based on other charms, sexual or otherwise. The basic fact is that most of the movies that come out are bad, but for one reason or another they appeal to an audience and people go fill the seats. Certainly, not everyone is as mercenary as I am describing, but more often than not I feel that what is put on the screen is a noxious attempt to make money rather than to create any legitimate artistic entertainment. This does not mean that I require every film produced to be high-brow entertainment, but there does need to be some sort of readjustment as to what we consider entertainment.

To start, I would prefer that people just stop attempting to recreate written stories when those stories are already available for people to read, but I understand that that is not likely to happen any time soon. Surely there are other stories to tell, and stories that are better suited to a visual medium. After that, there is a difference between providing a smart product and a high-brow product. For example, I would not consider the sitcom How I Met Your Mother particularly highbrow, but it does attempt to give actual story lines between the jokes. A comparable example in film might actually be the new Batman films, which I believe bring in a lot of different thematic and narrative elements and are well acted, but still having a lot of violence, explosions, and, at the end of the day, a guy who runs around in a cape beating people up. Part of the problem here is that there is often no attempt for movies to appeal to anything but the lowest common denominator, which is basically a pair of tits and some explosions, or some fast cars and a sex scene or three. I like action and adventure films, but, most of the time, those, films aren’t entertaining. Distracting, perhaps, but not entertaining.

The idea that movies are inherently meant as entertainment bothers me because I don’t believe it to be true, at least not now that they are ubiquitous almost to the point of being obsolete. Once upon a time, perhaps, movies had an inherent novelty and therefore were entertaining in and of themselves, but no longer. No, the job of the filmmakers is to get people to pay to watch whatever they put on the screen. I won’t go so far as to say that the entertainment and artistry of film is an accidental effect of this process, but it is close. Screenwriters, directors, actors, and producers probably do care about their product, but, ultimately, the film itself is a commodity that the industry wants people to purchase and nothing more. As it so often seems (particularly with books, and not that this is anything new), there is more profit to be had by catering exclusively to ratings and rankings rather than the quality of the product in question. These are not always mutually exclusive, but there does seem to be a growing gulf between them. My frustration is that more and more I get the impression that films serve no purpose but to scam me and everyone else out of our money rather than showing us a story we can actually enjoy.

1The films were pretty good, but I had significant problems with them. I believe that it is impossible to get the level of accuracy in film that I desire and it makes more sense for me to avoid seeing the movies. I will be happier as a result, my imagination works plenty well, thank you very much.
2Then again, when I am reading a book set anywhere other than earth, I look first and foremost to the world created by the author and have been known to overlook other literary flaws if the world pulls me in. Star Wars is a perfect trap for me.

Reasons I Hate Hollywood II

Part two of a three part discussion of my frustrations with Hollywood movies.

Sometimes a movie needs an explosion or ten, that I cannot deny. And, sometimes, truly bad people will destroy lots of random things for no apparent reason (or have the mission statement of destroying, rather than conquering, the world)–how else do we know that they are evil, after all?1 But, as I have gotten a bit older, I have become increasingly troubled by what I consider excessive collateral damage–not even violence, per se, but explosions and damage for its own sake, often committed by good and evil alike.2

Once upon a time in my mythic glory days of Hollywood that probably had more to do with the limits of special effects than any actual moral integrity, the good guys only killed bad people and blew up property that belonged to bad people. There was a limit to the collateral damage and an implicit guarantee that no innocents were harmed in the filming. No more is this the case. Now in moral decay, ever action movie features damage that feels that it serves no particular purpose for the movie except as filler. Larger, expensive, flashy filler.

The list of action movies that do this encompasses nearly every movie that comes out these days. To name just a few: Bad Boys (I and II), Iron Man (particularly II), Conan,3 Transformers, and GI Joe (One of the first movies taht really bothered me). One of my favorite lines in a review was for the International, saying that it had potential as a movie, but that it ended up being a movie that was cobbled together. In particular, the reviewer was upset that the movie included a car chase at a particular point not because the car chase fit with the rest of the movie, but because the movie had not yet had a car chase. This is how I feel about most of the collateral damage: it is included because it is a genre specific feature and the movie had not yet reached its quota. For what it is worth, a good counterpoint to this phenomenon is the movie The Expendables, but more on this below.

Collateral damage that serves no purpose to the movie is more evident in bad movies, but is also in good movies, and movies that I like, which make this blatant disregard for damage and innocent bystanders that much more troublesome.

People have long argued that sex and violence in video games and movies has led to an uptick in violence and otherwise decayed morals. I don’t actually accept this argument, not to mention that short attention spans, apathy, lethargy, and obesity are causing more harm to individuals in society than is violence–even if you do not subscribe to Steven Pinker’s theory that violence is at a record low. For what it is worth, I am not sure that I do agree with his theory, which, from what little I have read, has some significant holes, including that while violence affecting percentages of world population may be down, but the total number of people affected has risen dramatically. But I digress. My concern is more that possibility for and tolerance of, say, the lethal presidency and the use of drone strikes has risen along with the nonchalance of collateral damage. In this way, it is not that movies encourage people to cause wanton destruction, but that it in some way normalizes and legitimizes it. In fact, I do not know if there is any correlation here, but in seeing two trends rising side by side, I am given pause.

Here are just a few examples:

  1. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009): The bad guys are preparing to unleash a weapon on the Eiffel Tower, so the Joes get their advanced suits and run down the street to try to thwart them. Unfortunately for the Parisians, the Joes not only fail to stop the bad guys destroying the tower, but they manage to destroy quite a large number of cars, trains, and buildings in their haste to get to the bad guys.
  2. Iron Man 2 (2010): In this particular movie (one which I did enjoy), there is a fight scene at the Stark Expo, and Tony Stark does a fairly good job of protecting the innocents. My quibble here is that while flying around and attacking the various robots, both sides launch off quite a few rockets that often miss each other, landing in locations unknown. The message seems to be out of sight, out of mind, but, if anything, that is a more worrisome prospect in this age of drone and missile warfare. I was troubled and found myself wanting some assurances that the missiles landed in empty warehouses, parks, or streets…something better accomplished if the scene had not been set at a crowded expo in a city.
  3. Transformers, Dark Side of the Moon (2011): In this movie, the Decepticons promise to let the leaders of earth live if they force the Autobots to leave, thereby removing the only force on earth capable of resisting them.4 The Autobots then fake their flight and reappear after the Decepticons have laid waste to Chicago. Then their leader, Optimus Prime, says: “Your leaders will now understand: Decepticons will never leave your planet alone. And we needed them to believe we had gone. For today, in the name of freedom, we take the battle to them!” My interpretation of this monologue is that the Autobots went into hiding and let Chicago get destroyed to prove a point to the human leaders. Am I reading too much into this? Probably, but willingly sacrificing a city of nearly three million people to prove a point is hardly a heroic action, but the heroes do it anyway without a hint of irony.

It was this very reason that I enjoyed the first Expendables movie (2010). It had a cast that included Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, and it was basically one extended shootout between these guys, an elite mercenary unit, and some Latin American petty dictator. And yet the only people killed by the good guys were bad guys and the only property destroyed by the good guys belonged to bad guys. There was something refreshing about this, perhaps unrealistic, stark division between what good guys do and what bad guys do. Even if it isn’t realistic, shouldn’t this be the model that we aspire to?

1 Movie logic here. I actually disagree with the underlying principle since wanton, thoughtless destruction is a mark of madness, not evil per se.
2 This is more of an issue for me in live action films and the more of a spoof a film is, the less I care. Archer, for example, gets a free pass.
3Conan did this by having Conan and his crew roll rocks down a hill into a slave camp and his slave carts and cages that may or may not have been full of people. There were also actual explosions. For a movie about a guy whose basic m-o is to run around hitting things with a sword, I was stunned at the extent to which the collateral damage endemic had taken hold.
4The logic circuits in my brain overloaded with this particular issue, though, since the basic storyline is that the Autobots get absolutely wrecked by the Decepticons on Cybertron and only a few of them escape to Earth. Then, somehow, they are consistently able to thwart the Decepticons (of whom more survived, it seems) here. I don’t understand.

Reasons I Hate Hollywood I

One of my main problems with Hollywood is that most movies are bad. Yet, people still pay to see them due to gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence (or they seek a distraction, etc). I don’t really begrudge them what they wish to spend money on, but I am disinclined to do so myself. More than the flat characters, limp plots, and lame dialogue, my main issue to that for all their multimillion dollar budgets and fancy special effects, these movies are (usually) sloppy.

Now, I do realize that no movie truly has an over-mind who can guide all decision and that, in many cases, flaws (some, at least) emerge in the many steps of filming and production, but the basic calculus de-emphasizes a great deal of accuracy often in favor of brighter flashes and louder explosions. The calculus is excellent in the sense that Hollywood is a business, but does little for the artistry of the medium. Yes, snobbery at its finest. Also, note that I am largely talking here about the big budget movies and television shows, such as Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and the Immortals.

1. Lord of the Rings: There are a multitude of flaws (vis a vis the books) in these generally well done movies, but I will focus on one scene in particular. Boromir, son of Denethor, kills many orcs in an attempt to save the hobbits and redeem himself. He dies in the process. This happens in both the book and the movie, but in the book, the send-off (the outline of which is accurate enough in sum in the movie) includes the swords of all the orcs Boromir killed–unseen in the movie. This is a relatively unremarkable issue and a quibble, but something I attribute to sloppiness since the addition of the swords is such a minor added cost (they had plenty laying around, right?) and an easy homage to the richness of Middle Earth that would further demonstrate dedication to a craft. And this is a moment in which the filmmakers chose to follow the book, so the failure in this way bothers me all the more than the points at which they ad-libbed.

2.Game of Thrones: Two words: hair color. George RR Martin makes such a big deal about hair color in the books, so the failure of the show to follow through drove me crazy. Such a small cost, but not one that could be bothered with. Heights were a close second of my pet-peeves.

3. Immortals: This is a legitimately bad movie and I had low expectations, but bear with me. I expected nothing from the characters, plot, mythology, skin color, acting, or effects. Nothing. I was saddened, but not surprised to see the soldiers carrying Roman gladii, the lack of a phalanx, a modern-looking bow, and even the cheapness of the props. What got me was the geography. The movie claims to be Greece, but there is a desert and nothing but high sea cliffs. In short, the terrain is utterly unrecognizable as Greece. Most people likely would not know this, much less care, but it is a never-ending irritation to me. What does a company lose for this? It seems though Greece, utterly picturesque, would look better than that..plastic CGI landscape shown. I’m not asking for total accuracy or for them to film there, just to actually use Greece as a model if you want to say the movie is based there.

One of the reasons that this bothers me, though, is that Hollywood is asking me to spend my money to support their lifestyles that are significantly more luxurious than mine is. In return, they offer me several hours of entertainment, a distraction from whatever issues I face. When I sit down to watch something that feels cobbled together or seems sloppy, I feel cheated by a group of businesspeople who know that they can put out garbage and (often) still make money. Then it is a relief to see a movie or show–of any genre–that is put out by people who actually give a damn.

Yes, movies usually can only show the spine of a story and, usually, are not actually a good medium for story-telling. And yes, I should be more selective about what I watch (usually on Netflix, rarely in the cinema; and no longer watch books I like become movies), but I am often also disappointed in critically acclaimed movies and shows. Perhaps I am just feeling crankier than usual this week, but that does not change how I feel about Hollywood. I also realize that my wish for a change is a pipe-dream, and, frankly, my own discipline to avoid movies I am well aware will disappoint is suspect. Still, it is something that bothers me about media.