“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.

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Just Peachy

Wanna hear me talk for a bit about James and the Giant Peach? Well, I was invited to discuss that very movie with Josh Spiegel and Gabe Bucsko on the podcast Mousterpiece Cinema. You can listen here. I’m quite fond of the movie, so it was a thrill to go over its ups and downs, from the gorgeous stop-motion animation to the mediocre Randy Newman soundtrack.

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Very Atomic

My friend Peter Labuza invited onto his podcast The Cinephiliacs, which is an audio exploration of “the past and future of cinephilia.” You can listen here. Our conversation was pretty wide-ranging, covering my own experiences as a film lover and critic, my passion for horror movies, and the wonderful 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. I had a lot of fun recording it, so I hope you enjoy listening!

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Looking Away

I’ve wrapped up my tenure writing “Looking Back” for Movie Mezzanine with pieces on three very different movies—a silent Swedish romance, a ’60s drama, and a ’30s comedy—that nonetheless have one big thing in common: all three are about patriarchs who try to escape from the real world into artificial worlds of their own creation.

  • In The Outlaw and His Wife, for example, reformed thief Ejvind is hunted to the ends of the earth by the Icelandic authorities. As a result, he retreats the mountains and starts a new life with his wife and daughter. When the law catches up with him, he retreats even farther, carving whatever measure of privacy he can out of the wilderness.
  • The Swimmer’s Ned Merrill builds up an elaborate fantasy of middle-class stasis in his head, imagining himself loved by his wife, daughters, and neighbors. Ejvind may die, but he’s lucky compared to Ned—at least he still has his wife’s very real love to sustain him! Ned, meanwhile, stumbles deeper and deeper into a morass of personal tragedy, eternally alone.
  • Finally, there’s W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift, who girds himself through all manner of domestic torment with dreams of owning an orange grove. Unlike the other two men in question, Fields’ Harold Bissonette actually gets his happy ending, albeit through a hilariously unlikely turn of events.

Though made across half a century, all three of these movies deal with men in positions of responsibility who are besieged by social, financial, and emotional pressures. And for all three men, the only real solution is to break away, whether mentally or physically (or both). Sometimes, these movies admit, our problems can’t be worked out; sometimes, we just have to look away.

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Link Dump: #93

Aww, it’s Bette Davis with a kitty! And now some long-overdue links!

Some very vaginal search terms lately! For example, “charging vagina images” and “god+told+me+to+show+my+pussy” and of course, “young pussy very weary.”

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Summer Update

Happy 4th of July! In honor of this hallowed day, I’m finally breaking a month of radio silence, mostly to explain that radio silence. As the postcard above suggests, I recently moved two states away from my native Minnesota to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Between the move and some related life upheavals, I’ve been writing almost nothing lately. (You know how it is.) But I’ll be posting some more updates over the weekend and, I hope, settling into a new film criticism groove before the summer ends.

Enjoy today’s holiday if you choose to celebrate it, and if you’re ever in southeastern Michigan, please say hello!

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What is Vulgar Auteurism?

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)”

“Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works.” Jake Cole

“[T]he term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like [Justin] Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” Calum Marsh

“Vulgar auteurism simply seems to be a way for people to intellectualise their guilty pleasures.” Craig Williams

Vulgar Auteurism, often abbreviated “VA,” is a critical outlook that’s been gaining traction (and fomenting controversy) over the past couple of years. The above quotes define it from a few different angles. I’ve been also been repeatedly pointed to Jack Lehtonen’s “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide,” which didn’t coin the term, but—with its collection of screenshots, director names, and movie titles—seems to have helped codify its meaning. (It’s the second Google result for the term, right beneath the “Vulgar Auteurism” Tumblr that Lehtonen co-curates, which was my source for the image above.)

VA has been gradually embraced, “particularly among young critics” as Marsh notes. But it has also been roundly derided as contrarian, cliquish, and redundant, the latter because plain old auteur theory already covers the filmmakers in question. I think the truth of these charges varies, especially since VA’s practitioners are themselves anything but unified, falling all over the map in terms of the approach and quality of their writing. Some speak ardently for movies that, according to received wisdom (my bête noire), merit kneejerk dismissal; others lean so hard on the value of image-making that it’s as if coherent plotting and dialogue had suddenly become vices—symbols of a tradition de qualité that vulgar cinema has displaced. (See the eloquent Sean Gilman for more on this.)

At its worst, I believe VA writing gives excess attention to dumb action movies in a media landscape already dominated by the loud and masculine. It overclaims so insistently that I begin to sense a persecution complex on behalf of movies that are, in reality, high-grossing and well-loved. But that’s at its worst. Personally, what I’ve read on VA and its adherents’ still-developing canon leaves me skeptical but curious. Part of that curiosity is probably because of my inexperience with these movies: for the most part, directors like Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson remain unknown quantities for me, so essays like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” intrigue me; they make me want to dip my toes in and learn for myself the veracity of these critical claims.

My own tastes may not automatically gravitate toward these frenetic spectacles, but that doesn’t mean I can’t scour them for points of interest. Even if a movie is frivolous, stupid, or awful, it can still provide some out-of-nowhere beauty, and I love being startled in the middle of a movie I’d never call “great” by some image or another that sways me, shakes me, grabs me by the neck. At its best, Vulgar Auteurism seems to be about this phenomenon, and about doing what good critics should do: giving every movie a chance, regardless of subject matter or provenance, and examining them from different angles. Whether or not the label is necessary, that particular inclination strikes me as an absolute good.

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