Only So Much Wall Space in the Louvre
It’s easy to write off the mediocrity that comprises the majority of culture’s creative output at any given time. I mean, how many crappy poems did Homer write before he got to The Iliad - only to sell out immediately and crank out a sequel? And I don’t even want to think about the also-ran poets, painters and playwrights lost to history - One can only imagine how much garbage adorned the Greek amphitheaters or the bookshelves of antiquity that time has spared us from seeing. Most art, good and bad, just goes away. It’s a perishable good. Wonder why we don’t see revival screenings of not-good-enough-to-be-noteworthy/not-bad-enough-to-be-campy films like “Leviathan,” “Jingle All the Way,” or “Hamburger Hill?” It’s not that they’re blights on humanity, per se. My unprovable theory goes like this: Culture acts like a clogged sieve, retaining more than it should but still very little. So “The Silence of the Lambs” stays, but so does “The Da Vinci Code.” Fair enough.
Drill Baby, Drill
But we’re humans, and what we do better than anything is try to make something that works REALLY work, like forever. Whether it’s petroleum or James Bond, we’ll figure out how to pump it out until there’s nothing left. But what, in storytelling, happens when we just can’t be bothered to contrive the next chapter? We can’t even be bothered to go back to the well, so we make a higher-tech Powerpoint presentation of all the symbols of what worked the last time, we glue it together with as little story as we possibly can, we trot it out in front of the drooling crowd and hope nobody will notice that there’s no there there anymore.
In short, we create a pageant. An empty parade/dramatization designed to remind us what it was like to be entertained, and through that sense-memory perhaps we will believe that we were. And sometimes it actually works!
Which brings me to the other night.
A few nights ago, I went to see Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2,” and even though I tried to keep my expectations as low as possible, I realized immediately that I’d faceplanted into an “Iron Man”-themed pageant. The first “Iron Man” had been a fresh entry in the overdone superhero genre, a comic book adaptation that managed to feel grounded in the real world just enough that one could almost believe that it was possible to drive to Malibu and hang out with Tony Stark at his weird mansion. The idea felt fresh. The characters felt motivated. And the story (to me, a neophyte to the “Iron Man” world) felt organic and spontaneous.
By contrast, the sequel felt like the filmmakers were ticking off a checklist, and we the audience were at a parade watching float after float of Iron Man symbols all shined up and spray-tanned, waving at us as they drove through the center of town. Pepper – Check. Suit – Check. Rhodes – Check. Smarm – Check. Jarvis, fighting robots, warmongers – check, check, check.
And as an audience member, my singular hope when I plunk down $45 to see a movie (am I being overcharged?) or go to the theater or turn on my television or crack open a book is to experience the best possible realization of the concept I’ve been pitched. If it’s a horror film, I want to be scared. If it’s a comedy, I want to laugh. You get it, we all get it. And I want to see the elements of dramatic storytelling – character, dialogue, plot, theme, and spectacle – used skillfully to realize that concept. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
But in a pageant, you get none of those things. Maybe you get a good line of dialogue here or a loud explosion there, but there’s nothing tying it all together except the audience’s memory of when it did work, a long long time ago on a movie screen far, far away.
This Lost Ark Ain’t Gonna Raid Itself… Again…
Probably my most epic recent frustration with going into a theater in search of a story only to find a pageant-in-waiting was the craptastic “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” To those who say “Battlefield Earth” was the worst film in the last ten years, I suggest they watch ‘ol Indy IV again. It’s not just a normal bad movie, it comes with this guarantee:
No matter how stupid you are, IT WILL MAKE YOU DUMBER.
We’d all read the stories of the endless negotiations between the principal people involved in the Indy series, the infighting, the quest for the perfect script which was itself as epic as an Indy movie should be. Supposedly George Lucas insisted on aliens, and nobody else wanted them, so the movie has a “compromise” number of aliens. Really. As for the “plot” or “characters” or (gag!) themes of the film, there are none. It was like Kraft Foods had made a shake-and-bake product with directions so simple ANYONE could make their own Indiana Jones film. All you need are the following ingredients:
- A cold open in which Indy narrowly survives (generally involving a rapid loss of altitude) but loses the artifact he wants
- A second antiquity worth finding
- Theme music by John Williams
- The Hat
- The Bullwhip
- A scene with lots of disgusting critters of some kind
- A scene with a snake or snakes
- An antagonist, with a foreign accent, who is also obsessed with antiquities (which will ultimately destroy them)
- Three implausible chase scenes that go longer than human endurance
Shake. Bake. Adorn with cheese sauce to your liking.
You don’t need to see Indy hate a snake ever again, yet you crave the nostalgia of Harrison Ford’s snake-hating to awaken the neural pathways that lit up brilliantly so many times before. Maybe it’s not about the movie at all; it reminds you of a simpler time when you saw Indy do something similar in a better-written film and who you were at that time and seeing Shia LaBeouf hand Harrison Ford a snake to use as a rope (yes, that’s what happens) for a flash you mentally time-travel to your earlier self. If that’s true, it’s fascinating. But it’s lame storytelling.
And of course the irony is not lost that George Lucas is the man who shined a bright light on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a man and a book which understood the most primal need for storytelling by the human race. How and when did Lucas decide that a parade of archetypes was the point of story, rather than making the myth feel alive?
(answer: sometime before 1999)
A Living Museum
Here’s the thing: Pageantry is a necessary thing. It’s a ritual. And it’s a kind of storytelling that we all crave – just not in our fiction. When we go see a concert, or a political debate, or watch the Oscars (or, obviously, a beauty pageant), we’re participating in pageantry. They’re pretending to be a symbol of something we crave, and we’re pretending to be an audience for whom that’s interesting. It’s not feigned, it’s just interpersonal theater where both sides play a part. We may not know the specific nuances of the spectacle (exactly who will win the debate or go home with the Oscar, or exactly when Courtney Love will flash her breasts at us), but we know what we’re in for more or less and if we all do our jobs properly we leave the pageant with a sense of our tribe-ness reinforced, making everyone happy.
But narrative fiction is a different thing. Although we’ve all learned to respond in the proper Pavlovian way to every beat of Save the Cat! when we see it in a movie, when it’s done well it surprises us, catches us off-guard. We go to narrative fiction in order to get lost, not to see Iron Man or Anakin Skywalker perform his greatest hits in the most predictable way.
My guess is that we’ve always had empty pageantry in our fiction and we always will, and if anything has changed recently it’s the placement of the pomp as a placebo for actual writing. In the case of “Iron Man 2,” it’s well-known that the sequel was green-lit the week the original came out in 2008, giving filmmakers just two years to churn this multimillion-dollar mess onto the screens. Imagine trying to spend $150M (or whatever) in just two years – it can’t be easy. And all the money in the world doesn’t buy you better writing, just ask George Lucas. So perhaps a Kabuki Theater version of “Iron Man,” “The Matrix,” “Star Wars,” “Spider Man,” etc. is all we get when the audience rewards mediocre spectacle by lining up around the block to see it. And perhaps the empty ritual of Peter Parker is all they really want – no story required. And I count myself in having paid good money to see all of those films, helping to enable the next generation of lazy storytelling.
So where does this leave us? In the same place, really – perhaps producing entertainment designed for history’s scrapheap without the pretense of narrative value that one hopes to find in the film vaults of the future. Although forgettable, maybe the pageantry tells tomorrow’s generations more about us and what we thought of ourselves and our world through our poorly-staged visual dreams.
Is there a course of action out of this? Not really. Just a nagging question that haunts me about what our creative legacy, and who will be in it.
Sorry, Indy – Or at least Indy IV.