Thursday, April 26, 2018

SH*T OR SHINOLA? NOTE FROM A PAYING CONSUMER: "DEAR MOVIE SNOB, NOBODY REALLY GIVES A DAMN WHAT YOU THINK" (With respect this includes you, Mr. Cameron) - by CEJ



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VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!


     Remember in FIELD OF DREAMS when James Earl Jones' character Terence Mann says how baseball has served as signposts throughout history? Well, movies (all kinds of movies) do the same. There used to be this awesome antique / collectibles shop near South St. in Philadelphia. I believe it's (surprise, surprise) a restaurant now. But, as a history nut over the years I'd picked up a number of great things there including an actual newspaper published during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition - which is where Alexander Graham Bell first introduced his "telephone" to the public. Those who know a little about historical architecture know that up until maybe one hundred years ago - and perhaps even sooner - many buildings used newspaper as insulation. Pressed hard over the years between horizontal layers of brick and morter, some of the inner layers of that insulation were protected from the corrosive effects of air and sun, and - not unlike the JURASSIC PARK flies trapped in amber - when uncovered years later they too were found to contain a detailed DNA sampling - but in this case that of a city's history.


     Anyway, the gentleman who owned the place (... and damned if I can remember his name right now; he was an awesome fella!) had these three original (not reprints, mind you) 1976 KING KONG posters by illustrator John Berkey. Y'know, the awesome one to the Dino De Laurentiis film which everyone hated, with Kong astride the World Trade Center towers - Jessica Lange in one furry hand and an exploding fighter plane in the other. As a child I'd owned a mini promo version of that poster - one you got for free by cutting a coupon out of a comic book then sending it to the Paramount promo office in New York. I'd long since begun collecting full sized movie posters, but I'd never managed to pick up the Berkey KONG one sheet let alone an original. So, I wanted to buy one of 'em, ... but he wouldn't sell it to me, saying he'd promised all three to one guy who couldn't afford to get them at the time, but promised he'd come back on payday Friday.

     I was a little confused (and maybe even a bit miffed) at first - kind of wondering why the hell one person should get to corner all three of them. Miffed that is until the shop owner explained the guy's story. That KONG film was the last movie his parents took he and his two brothers to see before they split up. It was the very last thing they ever did as a complete family. And he wanted to give a poster to each of his brothers that upcoming Christmas (and keep one for himself) as a reminder to them all - and they all had kids of their own now - as to how important family truly is. WOW! I was floored and said, "Holy crap! You can't argue with that".  Now, ...

     The general consensus at the time of KING KONG's release (and many still feel the same about it today) was that it wasn't / isn't a very good film. Surely not on par with the 1933 Cooper / Schoedsack original or even Peter Jackson's 2005 redo. And sure as hell not something most would consider "important" or of "quality". That assessment of which begs the question as to "What then constitutes a 'good' or 'important' film - either for / towards an individual, for / towards an audience in general, or for / towards the cinematic art form itself?". Not trying to get all American Film Institute or IFC here, but ...

Dino's KING KONG (1976) - "Sh*t or Shinola?" Like it or not, it's all relative, ... and relative!

     There are those - film makers, film critics, and the average social media commenting "John and Jane Q. Public" who, based upon their frequent tweetable comments, seem to feel that there are such things as "quality film making" and "shit film making". And while I don't disagree with that, they also seem to equate what they call "important film making" with "quality", and in auto-pilot mode also tend to equate "fun and / or (a critic's favorite put down) 'disposable' films" - or at least what they consider to be too much or too many of them - with "shit film making". I don't agree with that. But, okay, let's follow that thread of "logic" for a minute. When we do we kind of come full circle back to, "Okay, so, once again what then qualifies as an 'important' film or film making", and what qualifies as 'shit films' and 'shit' film making?".  If "important" is too weighty a term for some, then feel free to swap it out with the word "serious". So, what constitutes serious or important film making? Where is the scale, and who creates it? Is it some electoral college decided upon conclusion, or the opinion (the Roman coliseum "thumbs up or down", or even pseudo-holy sanction) of a critic, a film maker or some film school syllabus - usually a critic, film maker or film school considered to be "important" or "serious" themselves?

"Sh*t or Shinola?" - (clockwise) SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017),
 BLACK PANTHER (2018), THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

     Obviously I'm here referencing a recent quote made by TERMINATOR / TITANIC / AVATAR writer & director James Cameron (it's above there) regarding the recent popularity of superhero movies, and referencing how this quote has been meme-ified and is presently making the social media rounds as if a dire warning proclaimed hither and yon from the mouth of Paul Revere. However, since this isn't national "Let's Beat Up On Jim Cameron Day", I'm also gonna include others who've made similarly (in my opinion) snobbish - if genuinely heartfelt and sincere - remarks of their own along these lines in recent days. And yes, that includes you too Dustin Hoffman, Martin Scorcese, ... and more than a few personal social media friends whose comments scroll across my feed daily. Now, ...

     I've always felt that if let's say you're nervously sitting in a hospital waiting room on one of those too small / too damned uncomfortable plastic chairs while a loved one is in the O.R., and either THE ENGLISH PATIENT or LIAR, LIAR comes up on TV, ... well, which film will probably be more "important" to you at that time? Which will help you decompress a little, and give you the second emotional wind you may need to (as Etta James once musically preached) "Get you through the night". And which may scare the crap outta you, and which will at that particular time and place dig into those psychologically and emotionally raw areas which at present perhaps need more healing and salving, ... or (at the very least) anesthetizing ... rather than dissection and probing with blunt-edged instruments?

The "importance" of being earnestly Carrey - LIAR, LIAR (1997)

     So, "importance" or a "good" or "bad" film, or a "film of worth" or "shit film making" or "mindless and disposable" all ends up being relative to the person and the context in which that person is viewing the film, does it not? Now, that's a microcosmic (or individual) version of a truism. But the macrocosmic (more societal / global) equivalent can be seen in how those "fun", "disposable" and "shit" genre films always see a spike in popularity during times of social unrest - be it the loooonnng run of Universal horror films which became popular in the days between WWI and WW2, the loooong run of (some would call 'em) "empty headed musicals" during the Second World War, the run of cheesy nuclear terror-based sci-fiers during the Cold War 50s, the politically and philosophically loaded  sci fi of the 1960s - 70s (y'know, 2001, PLANET OF THE APES, LOGAN'S RUN, ROLLERBALL, DAMNATION ALLEY, etc.), and on through our superhero movies of today.

Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) - at the time of its release slammed by some
as "the grimmest film I've ever seen", "morally prententious" and "a shaggy God story"

     Keep in mind too how ... every ... single ... one ... of those runs had their more snobbish cinematic detractors who felt those films were destroying quality film making as it was known, or at the very least were just individually shitty films in and of themselves. Such views would run the gamut from Time Magazine's more diplomatic manner wherein it referred to 1931's DRACULA with Bela Lugosi as "Not as good as it ought to be", and the Chicago Tribune labeling it as "Too obvious" and with "... it's attempts to frighten too evident", to the more brutally slung slings and arrows hurled at Kubrick's 2001 by noted personalities such as famed historian, social critic and (who comes up with these designations anyway?) "public intellectual" Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who derided Kubrick's now-classic sci-fier as "Morally pretentious", "intellectually obscure" and more.

The horror of American, then later German, eugenics experiments of the 1930s is implicit (and explicit)
in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), based on H.G. Welles' THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU 

     Repelling further down that rabbit hole, and using Mr. Cameron's word "fatigue" as our tether, how and why is it that the aforementioned cine-arbiters of good and decent taste never seem to ask, "Do you yet have Rom Com fatigue" or "Films Based upon Plays fatigue" or "Historical Drama fatigue" or any other subject matter fatigue based upon a particular kind of source material? No one will deny that within those various sources / subjects, and within the films based upon them, lay a vast array of topics, subtopics, socio-political observations, humor and more, because that's the case with any source material. Yes, even including comics in general and superhero comics in particular. So, maybe scratch that retort off the list. Also if one takes the time to count, you'll note that there are no more comics-to-film adaptations during any given year than there are "Plays to Films", or "True Stories to films" or any other kind of film.

Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (L to R) GOODBYE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017),
PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017), MARK FELT (2017)

     Continuing along with those very basic math skills one also has to note / keep in mind that out of approx. 200 films released in a given year, at most four to six of 'em will be major superhero movies. The only difference (and admittedly a big one!) is that at this point in time those comic adaptations / superhero movies are among the most popular and lucrative ... just as were the Universal horror films (and their endless line of years of sequels and spin-offs) in their day.


     There's a difference between personally not digging something, or even being personally tired of it, and writing something off as "... hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process". I've always referred to that as "pulling a Dr. Smith". You remember how in the old LOST IN SPACE tv series whenever Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith was afraid or nervous or whatever, he'd pull young Will Robinson in front of him and say "Don't hurt the boy" or "You're making the boy nervous and afraid". Essentially attempting to save face and / or legitimize his own personal ... whatevers ... fears, hang ups, etc. onto the canvas of someone else. Y'know, spread it around so it doesn't look like it's just him, but that he's only being logical in a manner in which every rational thinking person would agree.

     People do this every damned day with religions and political ideologies. I mean, how many people begin a debate with "Liberals / Conservatives always do and say such and such" rather than with "Me personally, I believe ..."? So, it's kind of a "no duh!" or no brainer, isn't it, that if the "Dr. Smith dodge" (or more accurately "self delusionary Dr. Smith dodge") is going to be employed often unconsciously by religious and political folk, that said brand of human nature "logic" will also find its way into other scenarios as well, including that of film criticism?

     Maybe "hyper-gonadal" guys in spandex is all that you see based upon your own personal life long combination of nature and nurture, but (as with those three KING KONG posters) others may very well see something entirely different based upon theirs. In the X-MEN films some saw for the first time in mainstream media stand-ins and representations of themselves as those who had long been marginalized from, and even cut out of, society because of race, gender, sexual orientation or because they may have been overweight or had some kind of physical handicap. When in the very first film the blue-skinned Mystique beats the hell out of a bigoted senator while saying, "People like you were the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child", that's powerful stuff.

More Historical Drama "fatigue"? No, not really - (clockwise from top) DARKEST HOUR (2017),
THE POST (2017), DETROIT (2017), DUNKIRK (2017)

     If you can watch BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE or CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and come away from them blind to the fact that both are hardcore (if stand-in / representational) analogies of a post 9-11 America where citizens are divided on "Where do you draw the line between bonafied security and xenophobic fear?", then I think you just weren't paying attention. Or if you can come away from a viewing of BLACK PANTHER and not see a serious discussion among all of the "hyper gonadal" derring-do about the dangers of geopolitical isolation, and one's own national culpability in helping to create what many might call a "terrorist", then I say you either weren't sharp enough to pick up on those obvious thematics, ... or (perhaps more likely) you just never saw them because you never expected or even wanted to see them in that which you assumed - and therefore viewed - as "disposable" if fun Zowie / Pow! fodder.

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia
and isolationism - BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (2016) 

     Not liking or being tired of something is fine. That's cool! That's okay! That's one's individual right! But the final judge and jury is ultimately the paying consumer, and not necessarily the film maker or the critic or the studio guy or gal who sees films for free via advance screening invites. So, it ends up being that consumer (and hey, I'm one of 'em) who has the right to say to Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and others, "Hey man, as much as I love and respect you and your work, I really don't give a f**k what you think when it comes to what I put my hard earned dollars down for". Y'know, "Where do you get your own artistic hyper-gonads big enough where you think you should be telling me what kinds of films as an audience I should be seeing?".

     Shakespeare's plays were performed for the masses - often in theaters of which the 1970s and 1980s equivalents would have been "grindhouse" movie joints. In a 2008 interview with film critic / cinema historian Elvis Mitchell, Tony Award-winning actress Joan Allen mentioned how her career alma mater - Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theater Company - was established so that blue collar working stiffs and their families might have affordable entertainment alternatives on a Friday night. And hell, even the New Testament of the Bible was originally written in Koine Greek - the vernacular of the average person on the street, rather than Classical Greek - that of the more upper crust elite. Hey, you remember I said I was a lifelong history nut, right? That's where that little tidbit came from. Hehe!

Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - CAPT. AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

     As such, I'll borrow elements of Cameron's "fatigue" memo for my own purposes and say how I'm personally pretty damned tired of today's self-appointed "arbiters of good taste", ... those self-believed-to-be elite "quality police" who somehow, and for some inexplicable reason, seem to think they've been bequeathed the right to set the artistic bar for others simply because it wasn't like this back when they grew up or when they first got into the business. Times change, and the film industry, like any evolving life form, must change with them. Either that or the organism eventually dies. Biology calls it the "The Edge of Chaos".

     The idea is that too much stimulation or change at once will kill an organism because it hasn't had the time to physically adjust to the new environment. But not enough stimulation or change will just as readily kill the organism because if it remains stagnant for too long it will become weak and diseased, and in some respects it will begin to start feeding upon itself then cease to exist in that environment where others have been able to make the evolutionary shift. Life therefore thrives and grows and evolves most effectively in a constant ying / yang state wherein that lifeform / organism is constantly (even forcefully) encouraged to change and adapt. The creative arts are the exact same way.

     Try to remember how when people bitched about the 80s era Spielberg / Lucas-like movies "taking over", for its own survival the industry was forced to seek alternatives, and ultimately the independent movement (as well as attendant film channels and film festivals) burgeoned as never before. The same thing here, people. The only consistent thread in an ever-changing industry is the concept that everything changes, and that a new kind of film will force the previous generation of films and film makers to up their game in order to remain not just commercially but artistically viable. When we fail to remember this we end up very much like that 100+ year old, "near-hermetically sealed from air and sun" newspaper I purchased from that antique / collectible shop. It's a fascinating as hell time capsule of a previous era. But that's all it ends up being - a fascinating time capsule.  


Safety and security from terrorism vs. xenophobia and
isolationism - BLACK PANTHER (2018)

     Hey, I'm not gonna pretend that big bucks aren't driving every Tom, Dick and studio exec's (hey, that rhymes) desire for their people to "Get me one of those comic book movies or TV shows right now!". But you really can't bitch and moan about the four to six comic book movies out of 200 movies per year being the cause of that mindset. That happens with any type of film which hits big. How many GODFATHER and SHAFT and JAWS and EXORCIST and STAR WARS clones and sequels and more did we see in their wake? And before you get that "Hollywood sucks, give me the independents any day of the week!" smug look on your face, also remember on that independent cinema side of the coin how many "Get me one of those!" knock offs and wannabes followed in the stripstream of SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and others. And how now everyone just wants another GET OUT.

     Part of show business is indeed business. And some cineastes (both fans and film makers) may say "We want to see more non cookie cutter movies". But if you don't support them with your hard earned "e pluribus unum" you make it difficult for more of them to be made and / or widely distributed. Case in point: within the last six months Paramount ate the big one when they released three such "non cookie cutter" films in a row - MOTHER!, SUBURBICON and DOWNSIZING - and no one went to see them. Then when they chose to release ANNIHILATION overseas directly to Netflix rather than theatrically, there was a scream from holy hell directed at the studio for "Not having faith in a difficult to market film". But they'd just released three difficult to market films which no one ended up giving a damn about. And they weren't big budgeted films either. So, they didn't need to make back TRANSFORMERS or AVENGERS dollars.

(L to R) MOTHER! (2017), DOWNSIZING (2017), SUBURBICON (2017)

     I realize it's a very frustrating time for many within the industry, but choosing the recent popularity of those "four to six per year" superhero movies as the "three legged dog dujour" to kick and blame isn't fair, ... or even accurate.

     Hey, I've got my ticket for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR - IMAX 3D - for opening day tomorrow morning at 9:AM. I'm going with my mother. She was always my first audience. As a child when I read comic books, then started writing and drawing my own, then later took an interest in writing short stories and eventually screenplays and more (hey, I even precociously attempted to write a novel when I was 12), she was always the first person to see the latest project or newest draft. Oh, and it's also kind of neat and nifty that the very first anything of mine I ever saw published was an illustration I did of  INFINITY WAR's mondo villain Thanos - it surprisingly published in a national art newsletter / magazine of the day. So, mom knew who the bad-assed Thanos was long before many others even heard the name. In fact, as I was a serious comic book nut back then, she today is probably the only grandmother who knows more about the Marvel Universe and it's denizens than her grandchildren - my nephews.

Thanos. No, not by me. Hardly! This is by artist Freddie Williams II

    Long before the young'uns she even knew the more "obscure" characters like DOCTOR STRANGE. And she's certainly got ground on them in being long familiar with the more harder-edged characters they're far too young for at present - folks like GHOST RIDER, LUKE CAGE, BLADE and THE PUNISHER. So, all of this personal hot air and reminiscence to get across the point that for me those "hyper-gonadal" comic book movies in general, and Marvel films in particular, are kinda / sorta my personal version of those three KING KONG posters in that these films have personal, historical and even socio-political resonance and importance to me even if they may not hold that kind of spot in the artistic / creative central nervous system of a James Cameron or others. As for the socio-political thing, feel free to check out a GullCottage piece penned on BLACK PANTHER a few months back.

     Mom and I did GUARDIANS 2, LOGAN, WONDER-WOMAN (yeah, I know, she's D.C.), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, THOR: RAGNAROK and BLACK PANTHER on opening weekend. And we'll continue with INFINITY WAR.

     Cineastes and snobs be damned! And that's with all due respect and love to Messers. Cameron, Scorcese, Hoffman and the rest of the gang. Hey, like 'ol NATTY GANN said during her famous journey ...

     "You're not the boss 'a me!".

     Just sayin'.


                                                                                                                      CEJ

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