Friday, January 29, 2010

movies again. . .that's winter for you

We are deep into that time of year when I find myself watching far more tv than usual in a desperate bid to cope with cabin fever and SAD. If I could hibernate I would. The next best thing is a mental escape. Not only to I spend more time in front of the tube, but I'm usually looking for viewing with maximum kick. I need something flashy enough to get through the fog and simple enough for my dulled senses to appreciate.

The flic I just watched completely took me away. It had everything I adore in a movie. The camera was decadent and took me places far-flung from my normal experience. The characters were larger than life. It had rich resonant themes, portraying conflicted loyalties, bids for freedom against all odds, and the power of love. And it had utterly breathtaking special effects that had you squirming in your seat. Not least, it sure didn’t hurt that it had a sweeping dramatic score.

The film takes the audience to a lush tropical paradise populated by a tribe of happy carefree natives who live closely aligned to the rhythms of nature. This Eden-like place, though has been occupied by a cold capitalist colonial force, portrayed in stark contrast to the child-like natives. The mingling of cultures does produce sympathizers among the colonials, as indeed, we the audience are directed. The story introduces a cocky, fearless and good-natured hero, whose adventure is set in motion when he tries slipping on the appearance of the foreigners. There really isn’t anything that special about the hero except that he is the rallying spirit of the people.

The director shakes you all about, you experience glee and lightheartedness watching the natives, you channel some anger and indignant sense of injustice and some moral outrage. There is suspense, and hope. And, watching the tragic decimation of the natives, there is heartbreak. By the end of the film, there is freedom, redemption, transformation.

I suppose some criticism is easy enough to level.

The characters were a bit cardboard cut-out, the dialogue stilted in places, occasionally painfully so. The tale may have been a bit on the unlikely side and it had a simplistic kind of morality to it.

I imagine some people watching it lament the dumbing down of cinema, and grouse about the nature of blockbusters with their pretty, vacant faced stars. And while everyone was impressed with the special effects(I know I was), some people probably were so taken by the spectacle as to wonder if it wasn’t a game changer, forever raising the bar for how dazzled we expect to be and what kind of content we want in film.

Have you had a chance to see the film I'm talking about? It’s called The Hurricane; it was directed by John ford in 1937. (and, yes, in 2010, the special effects are still awesome and nerve-wracking). I won’t say anything more about the story of The Hurricane, other than that it isn’t much like Avatar at all, despite my deceptive comparisons. But, I do highly recommend watching it, it is a powerful film.

So, The Hurricane just got me thinking about the kind of movies we love. We enjoy clever twist movies, and slice of life dramas, lofty period pieces, romantic films, and we love our thrillers. But the sort of movies that chew up the most box-office, the kind we most often revisit, re-watch, those films take distilled elements from all the other kinds of stories we like, ratchet them up and package them in the most outlandish stories set in exotic places, told at dizzying pace with every bit of eye-candy Hollywood can muster. The characters are often reduced to symbols of the trait they embody, or their role in the plot. The plots themselves don’t withstand the slightest bit of deconstruction and mighty loads of disbelief needs be suspended to get us all the way through to the resolution.

We call them blockbusters. Critics typically hate them. Everybody laughs or grumps about what is silly about them. But we flock to them time and time again. I'm never sure why it is the norm to be derisive or dismissive of the kinds of films that so many people obviously enjoy. it's like we can't get enough of them, but then are ashamed afterwards and have to distance ourselves from the child-like glee we felt

We are moved by Keannu Reeves love for Carrie Ann-Moss in The Matrix and in the third film we get our cinematic kiss filmed in a beautiful homage to the golden age of cinema . We bite our nails with tension when the dinosaurs are after the children in any Jurassic Park movie. We root like mad for the rebels and their strange mystics to give a come-uppance to the empire. We’ve been astonished and saddened by King Kong in various incarnations for nearly 80 years. We are enchanted to be taken to utopic Shangri-La in 1937’s Lost Horizon(which at the time was the most expensive production ever made)

People often label the blockbuster as something invented or discovered with the movie, Jaws. Or some date it to Star Wars, but the truth is Hollywood has always delivered blockbusters, mainly because we like them. Hell, Homer and Ovid were delivering blockbusters long, long ago. And yet blockbusters are viewed as some kind of insulting de-evolution of film and story-telling. Audiences feign disdain while rushing out to get tickets for the next over-blown hoopla. They wish for better movies, but there isn't actually a shortage of "better" movies, it's just not where the audience dollar tends to go.

I think blockbusters often offer us a wonderful gift. They invite us to leave our brains at the door. You know, our tired, stressed out, consumed-with-mundane-details-of-life brains. The blockbusters disarm us and leave us open to wonder. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a complex psychological drama that lets me explore aspects of the human condition and gets me thinking and leaves me with new perspectives and reflections when the lights come up. But I also really love swooping emotions, epic arcs, desirable ideals, heroes you can trust, identifiable villains, madcap adventure, thrills and danger, allegories.

Deep in the icy belly of winter and its engulfing nights I find greater comfort in Raiders of the Lost Ark than The English Patient even though I loved them both. Ghandi was a tremendous movie that influenced me during impressionable adolescence, but I have seen it exactly once, while I cannot count how many times I’ve seen Jurassic Park(especially during winter). One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest was a groundbreaking movie, but Star Wars became part of English vernacular, and is still relevant to people, and if it were put back in the theatre would still be selling out seats.

I wonder at the etymology of the word blockbuster. The image I always have, is line-ups of people that wrap around the block. I remember these line-ups(before the era of multiplexes). I remember them for Superman, for the Empire Strikes Back. I was such a small child in those lines, but remember them. When the Spiderman movie came out a few years back, even the multiplex made everyone line up outside. It was miserably hot, my gang of nerds had no water and it was hours of waiting. And yet you could feel the thrilling hum in the line-up: Building in anticipation and excitement.

Avatar had been playing for more than a month before I managed to get tickets. That wasn’t artificial hype because the distributors were restricting the number of screens it played on--it's been playing on almost every screen, sucking up revenue from all the other films screening. And that bugger lived up with perfect blockbuster qualities!

Without a shred of irony, here's a mid-winter cheers to blockbusters!

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