For my first column – as I’ve been saying to myself for a while now – I was going to write about Lee Marvin’s scarf in Seven Men From Now. Next column I might do that. But I had a talk with Devin Faraci the other day for his new Bad Ass Digest podcast and one of the things he wanted to talk about was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As you may know, I don’t care for the class politics of the film, though most people don’t think about it. But – as I said on Chud before – if you look at the class issues, it opens a different reading. Ferris Bueller is a child of privilege. The people he gets one over on are not. Classically, we root for the underdog, whereas Ferris is decidedly not oppressed in any way possible. I don’t think John Hughes was necessarily thinking about it (it’s a very Reagan-era movie), but it’s definitely there in the text.
“In the text” is an interesting notion, and perhaps because the world of the internet is often populated by nerds (of which I am one, LOOK AT THAT PHOTO, I’M WEARING RIPLEY’S HELMET AND PANTIES FROM ALIEN*), there are often readings of texts that prescribe plot points that are not there, or will wholesale discount elements of the story onscreen. Online writer Silas Lesnick and I had a twitter discussion about Tron Legacy because he found a lot of interesting things in the film, but when he was describing how Kevin Flynn was a bad father and Clu and Sam were his yin-yang sons, it was interesting but the truth of it was not reflected in the scenes between Kevin and Sam in the opening of the movie. The film tells us that Kevin got stuck in the computer, so his absenteeism was not intentional. Were someone stuck on an island for a couple of years, I wouldn’t blame them for not being around – they had no choice. But I think a lot of people do fill in the blanks and create successful narratives for the films they see and possibly respond to things that aren’t classically “good” or well written. I bring this up because there’s been a reading of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that casts Ferris as a Tyler Durden character who exists only in Cameron’s head. It’s an interesting take, but in no way textually supported. What it really does is points out that the main character arc of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Cameron’s (Bueller doesn’t change).
When finding interesting parallels or new readings, I prefer comparisons of how Citizen Kane has a similar structure to Lawrence of Arabia, or looking at the political implications of Eli Roth’s Hostel (which speaks to the Anti-American attitudes that dominated Europe during George W. Bush’s presidency). Or I like looking at – as with Ferris – the class ramifications of certain films, which is also apparent in Hostel 2. Not to give Eli Roth a boost.
Part of the fun of reading movies though is comparisons to other films or current events. Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers packs even more of a punch in a post 9/11 world, because the film follows a similar blueprint to what happened to our country (American meddling in a foreign country leads to a terrorist attack, which then leads to an endless war that thrives on thoughtless patriotism). Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of the Shadows (which Criterion just put out on Blu-ray) was made at the end of the 60’s, but one can watch the film and see it through our modern war’s perspective. Melville used to say that you can only appreciate films if you go every week to watch them, because then you can see how the art-form has progressed, or devolved. Films usually have two contexts, the art as a thing removed from time, and a thing made and released in its moment. Ultimately, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition has been a great song for over 30 years now, but though an appreciation of it may happen in a vacuum (shit’s funky), the art itself did not, and understanding and appreciating the artistic evolution of Stevie Wonder only deepens an appreciation of Talking Book. Whereas watching Psycho it’s helpful to put yourself in the position of the audience who watched it in 1960, and understanding the taboos it broke, because the film is exceptionally dated in terms of how audiences see horror now. I don’t know if anything in that film is as horrific as – say – some of the violence in Dawn of the Dead or Maniac, but in its time it was just as transgressive, and that becomes harder to understand. But trying to view the film in the context of 1960 recently made me appreciate what Hitchcock accomplished on a level that previous viewings couldn’t match.
Some texts are more open to interpretation and metaphorical readings than others. When Robert Zemeckis uses Leni Reifenstahl-derived imagery for The Polar Express, he intentionally or unintentionally connects the celebration of Christmas to fascism. It’s much easier to theorize about that film (which is so vacuous) than, say, a similar appropriation of imagery in Star Wars. Or as Freud would say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. To that point, I have a reading of Madagascar that is textually sound in which the film is about homosexuality, and that theory gains more weight in the sequel. In the first film a zebra and a lion live together in a big city, but once they go back to their provincial hometown, their relationship is considered unnatural. In the sequel, the lion comes to meet his parents and they think he’s macho, but it turns out he’s a dancer on Broadway (only an old woman denies his talent). Also in the second film a Hippo and a Giraffe fall in love, so the film is all about “unnatural” but true love. These sorts of readings often come about when the text itself is complete but boring. I think some stories close off such outside interpretations – I don’t think you can dig too deep on the metaphorical content of Quentin Tarantino’s work, and most readings of his text like that bore me. Some of this gets into preference though and whatever excites you. But I reject such “heavy lifting readings” partly because I remember a board poster here who would go off about things they found in Van Helsing that had nothing to do with the film on hand, which is a more isolated but fair example of people doing heavy lifting for films that don’t deserve it.
I think some people can’t separate what the first Star Wars did versus what Tron Legacy does. Star Wars told a story that left a lot of room for imagination, be it bullseyeing wamp rats, or what the dudes from the bar did on their off hours. Han and Lando’s relationship from before. Et cetera. The thing is you don’t need any of that information. The prequel trilogy proved that you didn’t need to see how Anakin became Darth Vader, or how the Emperor came into power. Whereas with Tron Legacy, a lot of the readings of the film that are positive fill in narrative blanks that should have been provided in the text itself. What does being an Iso really mean, and what are the practical ramifications of Clu’s plan?
We’ve gone from a system that used the language of cinema to imply things they couldn’t show – or were unnecessary – to a language that asks the audience to believe things that aren’t on screen. The old way was that a man and a woman would look at each other, you’d know they’d want to fuck, and then you’d see a closed bedroom door. Nowadays, you’ll have two actors who have no chemistry together, and then you’ll see them somewhat naked in bed (depending on the starlet will determine how much skin and/or underwear you get). But you may not buy the chemistry, even if you’re happy for the nudity/sex. I mean, did anyone believe that Megan Fox was in any way attracted to Shia LaBeouf? The more this continues, the more that is lost. Cinema is a language that people understand, because it’s based on empathy, and we understand emotions. When Luke looks at the dual sunset, it conveys a feeling that is universal. Longing. I have no emotional connection to anything in Tron Legacy, because there is no emotional thrust at the core of the film. If it’s a film about a father and son, then there’s the core dynamic. But that’s not that film. I love Seven Men from Now, which I’ll write about soon (I swear), and it has a number of gun fights left off screen. What’s great about that is that we know implicitly that the hero will win in these instants, but also, it’s about how fast he is. We can imagine his speed. The point of the movie isn’t the gunfights, it’s about revenge, and manliness.
Nowadays in action films you’re more likely to have no thematic concerns, but ten minute CGI-enhanced action set piece that somehow manages to be less exciting. I don’t watch that much porn, but it feels like Hollywood has followed their blueprint. Wherein the 70’s, adult cinema tried to emulate the Hollywood style, it seems the majority of stuff just about getting down to business. Hollywood has followed that lead by dedicating themselves to the money shots more than the stories told. Even James Cameron appears to be complaining about this. I think part of this is that (if I may digress yet again) so many people who want to write – or do write – in Hollywood want are children of the “talent as stars” generation. No longer are playwrights and the like being brought in, but people who grew up on Clerks and Pulp Fiction and want to be Kevin Smith or Tarantino or Spielberg, and so they know big action beats, but are not great observers of the human condition. Then again, I don’t know how much humanity is required to write Tron Legacy when the idea of the film becomes ore important than the end result. There are a number of films this year – and for the last couple – that don’t come across as passion projects so much as brand name products that people will pay to see. Pirates 4, Men in Black 3, etc. The levels of perfunctory-ness have changed how the writing process happens, so a release date is more important than having a story to tell.
I brought up Fight Club, and I want to head back to that in terms of interpreting text. Here I will get into spoilers for it, The Tourist and Black Swan. For me the great thing about Fight Club is that when Tyler Durden reveals himself to be a project of the narrator’s imagination the rest of the actions of the film become meaningless. Perhaps that’s compensation for the text, but the main character’s thrust to stop the bombs from blowing up has more to do with what he has to do to become a man than stopping a non-tragedy. I understand why it exists on a narrative level, but the narrator says from the beginning this is a film all about Marla. And so the narrative is not about a dude who started a cult (though it is), but about empowerment and growing up. Project Mayhem is the natural extension of the moral immaturity of everyone around the narrator, it’s about looking for leadership and turning yourself into a sheep for something that exists as a response to not wanting to be a sheep. It’s the ultimate “dabbling with Nietzsche” film. But I’ve never thought about what happens next, because the film is self contained – the world’s credit ratings haven’t been destroyed, but that act is a perfect visual metaphor for finding love. I never watched the film and thought “I want to start a fight club,” because I saw everything that happened within the context of the narrative, and at some point (when the trick is explained) the character’s actions no longer are about the real world, but about the film’s world. With the modern male not having gone through wars, and with so many working desk or computer jobs, masculinity and adulthood are things that no longer are as codified in modern culture. How many people reading this have a gaming system at home? I know I do. But the point of the film – to me, at least – is about knowing you can be Tyler Durden if you want to.
It’s interesting to me to compare that to The Tourist, which isn’t a great film, but what I like about it – what makes me think it’s worthwhile – is that at the end of the film Johnny Depp is revealed to not be the Midwest rube he’s introduced as but a white-collar-criminal mastermind. This makes for an interesting commentary on movies, as so many films posit that Cary Grant is our avatar. The Tourist takes one of the biggest stars in the world, and suggests he’s our figure of sympathy, and then at the end of the film points out that he isn’t.
I bring up Fight Club, because I had a similar reaction to Black Swan. At some point I honestly don’t care about the literal reality of the film. What interests me about that narrative isn’t whether or not Natalie Portman’s character is going to die at the end, or how much of what was on screen was real. To me the point is that the artistic process is inherently schizophrenic. And to create something that is not you requires the artist to put their mind into uncomfortable situations that may have never happened to them, so the process requires them to experience things they haven’t. I was writing something and the character was turned on, and I found myself also a little turned on, but not by something that would normally turn me on. That’s the headspace you can find yourself in when creating. Perhaps these readings are contray to the narrative, but I don’t think so.
Of course I don’t, that’s my reading of them.
*Panties not pictured. Or worn.