“Tenet” is Bad, “Sound & Fury” is Good

Twitter impresario Mencius Moldbugman stomps on the Last Film in Theaters with both feet.

Apparently Nolan has been utterly corrupted by his early Hollywood success and is now incapable of directing something better than mediocre (which is kind of the vibe I got from Dunkirk). Apparently Tenet is two hours of rampaging nonsense. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’m even less inclined to see it now.

This is part of a longer Thread of Worse 5 Movies of All Time, which are also somewhat interesting, and relatively obscure, so it’s worth reading, if only to absorb another human’s thoughts about Art. 50 First Dates, is on there, and who can resist Adam Sandler films getting savaged as they deserve?

But why lament Bad Art, when we can discuss Good Art? In the next Shallow & Pedantic podcast, we’re going to be chatting about the nexus of Samurai films and Westerns, and part of that is going to be spent on Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 film Sound and Fury, which is not really a “film” so much as it is, well, honestly, this YouTube commenter summed it up best:

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a respected alt-country star went into surgery and, in its aftermath, refused pain killing narcotics and instead just took a bunch of weed?

Imagine then, in his fugue state, he decides to take a departure from country and produce a crazy good synth rock album. Now imagine he decides to have the entire album animated, writes a vague anime screenplay, goes to Japan, and has some of the top anime artists compete to see who could be the nuttiest in producing his vision. He then puts it all together in a 45 min montage that can only be described the three way love child of Heavy Metal the movie, Akira, and The Wall.

I actually thought this level of unrestrained creative expression from a popular artists had died sometime in the 1980s. Maybe it did but, if so, Sturgill Simpson resurrected it here.

Jeffrey wyshynski 2 months ago

It’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year, and it’s on Netflix. And I don’t even really like Anime. You should check it out.

Movies are Short Stories, TV Shows are Novels

This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).

So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.

Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:

  • Establish setting
  • Establish character
  • Establish conflict
  • Build conflict
  • Resolve Conflict

Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.

Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.

TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.

In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.

So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.

The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.

This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.

Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.

What is More Boring, NPR or Sports-Talk Radio?

The significance of boredom, as a cultural force, cannot be overstated in the modern age. Our economy and culture revolves to a strong degree on Entertainment, on the manufacture of excitement and drama. When food is plentiful, and most of the necessities of life available, excitement and drama, outside of the struggle to obtain newer and better forms of these, which is itself something of an artifice, can only be manufactured, or synthesized. Therefore, the failure to create this means something. So I’m not asking the question in my headline in order to be obnoxious towards two things that I have long disdained. At least, not only for that.

I want to know, on an aesthetic level, what makes these two things boring to me. To do that we shall examine them, and to by that, I of course mean, mock them cruelly.

What NPR Sounds Like To Me:

“Hello and Welcome to Book Blab on National Public Subnambulance. I’m your host, Garn Hippleshitz. Today I’m joined by one of my five rotating co-hosts, Felecia Turnblatt, and with us, we’re very excited to have celebrated author Revna Salkanufluffluh, fresh off a highly successful book tour for her new opus, Things I Lost in My Butt, the follow-up to 2017’s Chunkugaya-Award-Winning Tell Daddy I Itch. Powerful stuff, Felecia.”

“So Powerful. So Moving.”

“Mmm, yes.”

“Mmmm.”

This isn’t a new observation about NPR. Their sacred charge to appear absolutely neutral and objective yields a vocal performance that is both deeply pretentious and soporific. Absent any video evidence of their insect-bodies emerging from their humanoid forms, we have to assume that NPR hosts are normal people. But they sound like eunuchs who couldn’t have sex if you dropped them into the middle of a Tri-Delt rager with a lifetime supply of MDMA. NPR appeals to people who stopped listening to new music in their late-20’s and believe that others enjoy being corrected.

What Sports-Talk Radio Sounds Like To Me:

“Hey, this is Norv Wankfol, on the All-SPORTS SPORTS-Talk with SPORTS. Today we’ve Got ANALYSIS and BREAKDOWNS of GAMES and HIGHLIGHTS of OTHER GAMES and questionable RUMORS and obvious TIPS for all you FANTASY players out there. I’m joined by my co-host, Scott Turdsling, who will be doing most of the actual talking, describing all athletic events using a quiver of six adjectives: outstanding, amazing, impressive, large, major, and key, while I chime in to ask for dubious predictions in order to keep the guys hiding from their bookies tuning in. With us as always is Gimp Mosely, who gets duct-taped to the telephone pole if he speaks more than twice every half-hour, as we only let him on ’cause he’s the station-manager’s nephew. Let’s just get into talking about the draft, Scott.”

“Yeah, let’s Norv. MAJOR developments at the Draft yesterday, some OUTSTANDING choices, and some AMAZING surprises. Overall an IMPRESSIVE day.”

This, it must be noted, is an entirely different kind of boring, the opposite end of the Gradient of Dull. Unlike NPR’s soulless droning, this is the boring that comes of endless rhetorical inflation of mundane events. It’s of a piece with the Weather Channel, which used to be a friendly source of local weather and nationwide radar, and is now stuffed full of sub-History Channel dramas about people interacting with extreme weather events, with titles borrowed from B-movies. I can’t tell you who sport-talk radio appeals to, as every time I try to picture someone who enjoys it, my mind touches the void. It’s all gabble and marketing under the guise of “analysis”, which is pointless, as analyzing a sporting event does nothing to change your ability to enjoy the next one. The team with the most points wins. The rest is commentary.

But as it turns out, there’s a very clear idea of who listens to Sports Talk Radio: Nerds. Sports Fans are Basically Nerds:

  • Themed T-Shirts
  • Gathering with Like-Minded Obsessives
  • Attention to Facts and Dates
  • Hatred of People Who Love a Slightly Different Version of What They Love
  • Cosplay
  • Undying Loyalty To Something That Will Never Reciprocate It

But this awareness brings new light. Sports Radio, like a Comic-Con, is boring to me because it amounts to obsessives talking about things that I have, at best, mild interest in. It’s the subject itself that loses me. It’s not anything the sports radio guys are doing. Sure, I can make fun of their witless chummery and lack of formal erudition, but that’s audience-appropriate. If anything, it would be more ridiculous to drop ten-dollar words in a discussion of a baseball game. These guys know they’re subject, they’re passionate about it, and at their best, can discuss it on a level that improves their audience’s understanding of it. My lack of interest is on me.

On the other hand, NPR is talking about things that I do have an interest in: literature, politics, art, etc. I should be a regular listener. Instead, I would rather claw my ears out. Because unlike sports radio guys, NPR hosts act as though they’re observing everything from a great height, like museum curators picking apart a thing long dead. They’re actively making interesting things boring through their performance (yes, being on the radio is a performance). And aside from introducing a few new facts or lukewarm takes into public discourse, none of them have anything interesting to say. There is nothing truly subversive or thought-provoking on NPR; it’s all Approved Narrative, Pravda read into a microphone by WASPS.

It’s one thing not to be able to interest someone in a subject despite your best efforts. It’s another to ruin someone’s enjoyment or understanding by your dullness. NPR is guilty of the latter. They are more boring. So Let it Be Written.

Why in the Hell Does Anyone Care That It’s Carrie Fisher’s Birthday?

Every now and again I like to indulge in the temptation to rail against the mindless repetition of uninteresting facts. I know it will accomplish nothing, and indeed is probably counterproductive, but I cannot help myself. This is stupid and I’m going to tell you why. Cry about it in the comments, nerds.

I could easily be mean about this. I could easily go the Ace of Spades route and declare her a coke-addled void-child of dysfunctional Hollywood nobility, who looked so elderly and fragile in the Sequel Trilogy that I expected her to shatter into pieces like a frozen T-1000 (that’s an old movie reference, kids).

Famous for her catchphrase, “Let’s go fuck injustice up!,” Fisher was known for her young-in-life rebellions and scandals, including her May-December romance with Lorne Greene, and playing Andromedan Whore #6, causing an uproar and national boycott due to her participation in Captain Kirk’s first and only non-interspecies kiss.

After her career in acting slowed, Fisher turned her attention to writing, where she turned in famous-but-officially-uncredited “punch ups” to scripts and books, such as Predator 3: Predators In Paradise and “The Bible.”

Considered Hollywood Royalty since her birth, Carrie Fisher was famously the daughter of Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher.

Ace of Spades, “Carrie Fisher Dies at Age 60”

But one wants to be fair, and the older I get, the more I appreciate what Fisher was able to do with the could-have-been thankless role of Princess Leia in the Original Trilogy. Honestly, her acting in that holds up, and her prickly aristocratic mien makes her role as the Resistance Leader in the Sequels at least plausible, however little she had in the tank at the time. Yeah, it would have been nice if they’d given her more to do in Return of the Jedi, but that’s expecting more of Lucasfilm screenwriting than it’s ever been capable of delivering.

And I can’t escape the notion that if she’d read Ace’s mock obituary, Fisher would have laughed hard at it. Because no one was quicker to send up her own career than she was. I caught one of her spoken-word shows on one streaming service or another, and she had her moments, perhaps not as “OMG, hiLARious” as people are wont to say, but seeing a celeb allowed to be merely human, and wryly comment on this, is always to be saluted.

Nor was this an isolated reality, the joke turn at Comic-Con. This was Fisher’s second career. She wrote a comical pseudo-fiction novel about her life, and had that turned into a movie she wrote the screenplay for, both under the title Postcards From the Edge, which is a pretty good title. Not many people actually have the talent and drive to turn their down-and-out moments into art. She did. Can’t take that away from her.

But she’s not a Saint. She’s not even a Blessed. You don’t know her, and you honouring her Feast Day is creepy.

This is gross. You’re being marketed to by sharps and drones. Her death took literally nothing from your life (if she’d been alive, she’d have done exactly what she did in Rise of Skywalker, which is to say almost nothing). It is human to honor the dead and the great. But celebrity is false greatness, the intersection of momentary marketablity and fragile talent. They are feeding you pap and calling it Spirit.

Stop retweeting this crap. Stop reacting to it (But aren’t YOU reacting to it? Yeah, you got me. Walk away and enjoy how much you totally DeSTrOyeD my point. Nothing to see here, move along). Stop pretending you were a massive fan of the next old rock star who kicks the bucket. Honor your family, your friends. Honor the art that stands the test of time. But stop building emotional cults of devotion to corporate product. None of them will ever reciprocate your love.

I Almost Saw “Tenet”, But Didn’t. Apparently I’m Not Alone.

My wife suggested we go see it, when we had a free evening. I was willing, but not enthusiastic. In the end, we ended up not doing that instead. The film had good word of mouth, and I know Nolan to be a competent director, but the excitement to do it wasn’t there. And according to Variety, my experience is microcosmic:

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” willed itself past the $300 million mark globally this weekend even as the overall domestic box office appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

Disney’s “Hocus Pocus,” a Bette Middler comedy that flopped when it was initially released in 1993, but became a cult hit on cable and streaming, almost matched “Tenet’s” grosses in North America and beat those of “The New Mutants.” Re-released just in time for Halloween,” “Hocus Pocus” picked up $1.9 million from 2,570 theaters. “Tenet” earned $2.7 million from 2,722 venues, pushing its domestic haul to a paltry $45.1 million. “The New Mutants” eked out $1 million from 2,154 locations, bringing its domestic total to $20.9 million

Variety.com, “‘Tenet’ Tops $300 Million Globally, but Domestic Box Office Is in Crisis Mode

Getting beat by “Hocus Pocus” (a film whose charms have always eluded me), is newsworthy enough, but the deeper question is why? There’s a whiff of a suggestion in the article that the Pandemic is to blame, but I’m not buying it? If people are willing to come out for a re-release of a Bette Midler cult hit, why not a buzzworthy film from a seasoned director? Is this just Millennial Nostalgia choking off the roots of everything else, like a weed?

Or is this the Uninteresting Name factor, as with “John Carter” back in 2012? I for one wondered what “Tenet” was supposed to refer to? A tenet of what? For whom? What kind of movie is this? Arty? Action? Arty-Action? The name doesn’t tell you anything. All we have to go on is director-name-recognition. And it appears Nolan is no Tarantino in this regard.

It might be that the pandemic suspicion is correct, in a different way. It might be that the habit of Going To The Movies is fundamentally altered, and we don’t go to the cinema anymore unless we really feel it’s “worth it”. Things were moving in this direction anyway, and the lockdowns didn’t help. Sure, “Tenet”, whatever it is, might be good, but I don’t know, and do I want to pay $40 to find out? I’ll just wait for it to stream.

The consequences of this are real. If Hollywood can’t sell a big-name director, with a lot of buzz, then their business model is fundamentally flawed.

Entertainment vs. Edutainment: The New Pulp Narrative

In my wild opinionated youth, I was something of a disdainer. Where other readers and writers widely explored what certain genres had to offer; I tended to stick with the first thing that brought me in the door. I liked Star Wars, and never found another sci-fi world that interested me until I read Heinlein. Star Trek was fine, but I didn’t want to converse with nerds about it, so I held it at arms length (yes, the irony of that is breathtaking. It was a different world then). And after reading Tolkein at age 11, no other fantasy write would ever do.

I tried the mainstream ones. Raymond Feist’s work I found dull and lifeless. Robert Jordan had an interesting take before he drowned it in a sea of skirt-smoothings and braid-tuggings. And Martin… Well, we will not speak of Martin. The only other author I held in Tolkein’s tier was Frank Herbert, and even his series got silly before it ended (I’ve never cared for the expansion novels. They don’t have the same feel. The intensity and insight isn’t there).

But there was another side of Fantasy that I haven’t explored until recently. I speak of what is known as “Sword & Sorcery” or “Blood and Thunder”, i.e. the Pulp side of things. And as I have earlier written, I have found prose craftsmanship and strong storytelling in the works of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber. They may have been Low Art, as these things are defined, but that doesn’t mean they were garbage. Quite the contrary.

The moral quality of art is something of a bugaboo. On the one hand, to the extent art and aesthetics are tied to Philosophy, they are tied to some pursuit of Truth, which has moral considerations. On the other hand, art as a transcendent experience does not fit neatly into the finely-ground gradients that ethics and politics create. There is something to the experience of watching say, Trainspotting, that exists even if you come to deplore the ethos limned therein. Aesthetic quality and moral quality are related but distinct.

And the Pulps, generally speaking, inhabited a moral universe. There may have been gradations between darkness and light (Conan and The Grey Mauser are certainly no Paladins), but overall there was an awareness in each story of who traded in deceit and corruption, and who was honest and forthright. Justice, a Cardinal virtue, involves not just fairness but also honesty, the keeping of ones word. The ability to tell the truth and do as you have promised has always been admired, and it’s opposite reviled, across culture. Human society does not function without it. Violent pulp heroes tended to be those who could and would do that.

What isn’t found here is preaching. Pulps were not interested in subverting, inverting, or otherwise altering the moral awareness of their readers. They acted upon the moral universe common readers were familiar with. The need for art to be at odds with culture, something I’ll talk about in another Ruskin-related post later on, was not present. That was the secret of the pulp’s success, as chronicled in J.D. Cowan’s Pulp Mindset, which I’m currently reading on Kindle.

So far I’ve read Cowan’s summary of pulp history, and how it differed as mass entertainment from 20th century litfic. It has its repetitive moments (you are unlikely to forget how Cowan feels about OldPub, as he calls it), but overall it functions as a discussion of what pulp is, and its overall aesthetic. So it is of use to writers of genre fiction, especially if they want to avoid the politicized slapfights that have plagued SFWA, The Hugos, and suchlike. I look forward to reading the rest.

Chadwick Boseman’s Death is a Reminder of All That We Do Not Know

I’ve never seen Black Panther. I think the last MCU movie I saw was the first Avengers. This is due to indifference. I’m not big into Marvel, and only slightly more into DC (the last DC movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises, which doesn’t count). That whole journey went right by me. Don’t take it personally.

So I don’t have anything to say about Chadwick Boseman as an actor. I’m sure he was good, or at least good enough to play the lead in the only comic book movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (what an antiquated term. No one calls them “moving pictures” anymore. Why don’t they call it Best Film?). I’m not here as a critic.

But that Twist. The fact that he’s been fighting Stage3/4 colon cancer since 2016. That he gave those performances, fought his way through Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame while undergoing chemo, catches the heart somehow. And sure, acting in a film is not storming the beaches of Normandy. But it’s not manning a checkout line at Safeway either. They pay you to do it because it’s work.

Above and beyond Bosments’s suddenly-apparent nigh-superhuman toughness, however, sits the fact that such a secret stayed hidden. Granted, Hollywood is good at hiding things. But health ain’t always exactly a secret. If Betty White had the sniffles, the internet would shut down for a day in pre-emptive mourning. But Black Panther had butt cancer and not even the 4channers knew.

That’s the lesson. Whoever you know, whoever you don’t know, whoever you hate, whoever you love, they’re carrying things that no one but God and their general practictioner know about. Things that are not spoken of outside of the four walls of their homes. What you see of a person – any person – is no more than what they show you.

That’s why The Man said Don’t Judge. Not because we’re incapable of judging, but because the full content of a human soul is hidden from us. We need most desperately to remember that in these supremely judgey times. For we are fragile, and our time is short.

Requiscat in Pace Æternam.

The Milennial Nostalgia Machine

Back in the 90’s, when concepts such as “youth culture” seemed relevant to me, I was known to lament the chokehold Boomers had over pop culture. Every time the same damn Beatles songs were repackaged into a new format, I got incredibly annoyed, especially when someone my age bought it.

Looking back, this exercise seems entirely natural. There are a lot of Boomers (hence the name), and naturally as they move from youth to peak earning power, their tastes will dominate the landscape. The Boomers felt the same way about the Hello Dolly/Vegas/Laurence Welk aesthetic their elders went in for. Plus, and if I’m being honest, that era had some quality cultural product. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Classic Rock era, and I’m entirely comfortable with saying that most of it didn’t suck. Neither did late 60’s-mid 70’s New Wave cinema, although I understand why it died. There isn’t any reason for any generation to not want to look back fondly on their youth.

But here’s the twist: When 80’s nostalgia started resting it’s head 20 years ago (just let that sink in), I didn’t like it any better. Mostly because I didn’t enjoy the 80’s all that much, or relate to it while it was happening. But at any rate, I found it boring: a strange, low-cal reproduction of an era, without any of the dark parts that balanced it out. Boomer nostalgia always paid homage to Vietnam and murdered Kennedys; the struggle between order and freedom, and the memory of playing their part in it, was an integral part of the story. But 80’s nostalgia has always seemed shallow; wistful, rose-colored escapism.

It’s been a steady lamentation for most of the past decade that movie companies are unable to move product unless it’s a remake or a film of an existing IP. The question must be why this is the case. Some of it must fall upon corporate inertia/laziness, the habit of the industry to exploit a trend until its dryer than the Red Wind in August. But that dynamic also leads to hunting for new trends, the next big thing, to exploit. Sure, New Wave Cinema had its successes, but that didn’t stop studios from greenlighting Jaws and Star Wars. For some reason, though, the current Nostalgia Well hasn’t dehydrated yet. It doesn’t seem to be the normal kind of trend. This seems to be where we are now, and likely to be for the forseeable future.

You could probably assign a thousand causes to this, and all of them play their part. Large historical trends are ever thus. Single causes yield single effects. But one thing that strikes me about ongoing 80’s nostalgia (which has absorbed 90’s nostalgia, which is wierd, as much of 90’s culture was a reaction to 80’s culture), is what the manner and the persistence of it has to say about its use. And that brings us to the generation that’s using it.

There are a lot of Milennials (which shouldn’t surprise us, as they’re mostly the Boomers’ kids), so their tastes are going to be dominant. In fact, you could argue that their tastes have been dominant since the late 90’s, when the crusty, wierd, ironic grunge aesthetic was replaced, almost overnight, by the Day-Glo Autotuned Bling aesthetic that rode hard into the new century. I felt that whiplash as hard as anyone of that era, and was shocked at the speed of it. I mean, for all of Nirvana’s legend, grunge didn’t come out of nowhere. It was seeded throughout the 80’s underground years, and the mainstream 80’s rock aesthetic wasn’t as uniform as memory suggests. Guns N’ Roses, for example, was a different beast entirely than say, Poison, for all they seemed at the time to be just variations on a theme. So were Motley Crue and Metallica. You can trace the connective tissue. The techno-pop, rap/rock late 90’s, on the other hand, seemed to just arrive from a spaceship and take over, apropos of nothing. It was an odd experience, feeling like you were already on the wrong side of the Generation Gap in your Early 20’s, but there it was.

But as time has gone on, the Millenials have become very protean in their tastes. The Spice Girls/Limp Bizkit era had even less staying power than Nirvana’s heyday. By late 2001, there was a Garage-Punk Riot going on. That gave us some good fun rock songs, but the whole hipster aesthetic that gave rise to it went mainstream as time went on and forced itself to become sillier and sillier to go on. Pretty soon it was impossible to embrace anything without irony, unless it brought some level of comfort.

And the experience of Millennials, by their own admission, seems to be a seeking after comfort. If you hit your teen years at the end of the 80’s, you became keenly aware of how wicked the world was, but also that it was full of hope. The combination of Crack Wars and the Fall of the Berlin Wall made an impression on me, that things that seemed to last forever could change, and that change could be good. But if you were too young to catch that lesson, history seemed to offer nothing but down notes. The Lewinsky Scandal shredded any faith in the Political Establishment. 9/11 shattered the idea that we had reached the End of History. And the 2008 Financial Crisis exposed the extent to which our economy has become a three-card monte game.

Who wouldn’t rather look back?

There are those who argue that this just opportunity. Unlike older generations, who had no capacity to indulge in the past, and younger generations, for whom the digital world has always been there, Millenials straddle the line between a pre-internet childhood and an online adulthood. They have the capacity to live in the past, so they can.

For our parents, and their parents, that was never an option. From childhood, all the way to adulthood, there was no internet — no easy access to the experiences of their pasts. For our children, the internet will always have been there. They’ll never know what it’s like to not be able to find a friend from summer camp or rewatch a TV show they loved. But millennials are somewhere in between — we remember a time when the past was out of reach, and we’re tech-savvy enough to make full use of the resources we now have to bring it back within our grasp.

Evie.com

That is as may be. But a crowning obsession with things past always hides a discomfort with the present, and fear of the future. Paradoxically, the very loss of tradition can feed this. When the future is understood to be some variation on the past, because we will do what we have done, then we can let the past be the guide it can be. But when all things are in flux, all understandings subject to disruption, the longing for Known can take over. The practical upshot of which is that there was a Baywatch movie precisely because Remember it? This is what Millenials want. The world is full of harshness and fear, and entertainment is escape (Oscar Movies are not entertainment). And it just might be that this is where we are right now, until another generation becomes dominant.

Why Movies Need Stars

Movies are a strange art form. They immerse an audience in a world that looks and sounds real, yet we can only access them through two-dimensional screens. We observe them as though we’re part of them, but the Fourth Wall is absolutely inviolable to us (not to the movie itself, mind). We can’t crash them or disturb them as we can a live performance. Movies are perhaps more product then they are performance. This isn’t to say the form has no artistry or craftsmanship. I rather think, with all the moving pieces involved, there’s more ways a movie can go wrong, and so more craftsmanship and discipline to do it right. But a greater part of that’s the responsibility of the filmmakers and their army, not the performers. There’s only so much even a brilliant actor can do if the director, cinematographers, editors, sound engineers, etc., fail at their jobs.

But the audience can’t see the filmmaker’s army. They can only see the performers. The filmmakers mediate how the audience sees the performers, which can be done a million different ways.

This differs from theater. A stage director puts together the moving parts of a show, rehearses it, builds it, tweaks it, sweats with his actors. And then he walks away, leaving the actor and crew to put together the show, night by night. Once this happens, the show belongs to the actors. I once went to a run of shows at a theater in Baltimore (Single Carrot Theater), where my wife was performing, and saw a performer give a different take of a single line every night for three weeks. It was just one line, but it differed by minor variations, each one communicating a distinct meaning. In a play, every show is different from the one before.

Movies don’t do that. Once the thing is “in the can,” it exists as an infinitely reproducible entity that will be exactly the same every time it is watched. In a film, it’s the actor who does his work and goes. In a very real way, film actors are almost entirely removed from the audience experience of the film. If an actor does ten takes of a scene, he’ll have no way of knowing which one the director will decide to use, or what it will look like. This explains the phenomenon of film actors not even bothering to see the movies they’re in. Such a thing could be an alienating experience.

This is not to say that none of the craft of performance goes into film acting. In fact, knowing from a shooting script and a treatment how to give the director and the camera something resembling what they want, and to give ten variations on that, cannot be easy. But it does present a challenge of a different order. It’s a challenge that will depend to a great degree on whether the actor looks like he fits in the world being built around him. This will depend on the kind of movie being made, and whether the actor steps into the world effortlessly or is swallowed up by it. So the movie actor needs to present a lifelike stability, a persona that the lens can interpret, that the director can build a world around.

And that’s why this quote from Rotten Chestnuts explains the 80’s far better than any nerd-sniffing ever has:

The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.

Insert John Wayne, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, anyone Warhol iconographed, and you get the idea. Schwarzenegger, above all else, was a known quantity: he shows up, commits to the bit, gets his work done. He’s a professional. You can build a movie around him and never have to worry about him not giving you everything he’s got. Arnold was never anyone’s idea of an actor, but the camera loved him. He made, over the course of his peak working years, a slew of films that not only were hits, but that are endlessly rewatchable, and will continue to be rewatched long after this year’s art-house cinema is forgotten by everyone except the Criterion crowd. Schwarzenegger made adventure films for the ages.

And those are the films studios relied upon to keep the wolf from the door. That army a director needs doesn’t pay itself. Star power, of the plodding, committed, Schwarzenegger kind, keeps people buying tickets. Once an actor becomes a star, he becomes a bankable commodity. That’s why Tom Cruise keeps making Mission:Impossible movies. More the point, it’s why he was hired for making the first one. Tom Cruise is a star: he’ll commit, he’ll get it done. What everyone laughed at in that leaked footage from The Mummy – Cruise yelling loudly at nothing – was precisely why he was there.

It sounds way less ridiculous in context, doesn’t it?

It becomes paramount, then for films to have stars whose personas fit the movies being made. Some actors will have greater range than others, and be able to make their work fit a variety of worlds. Others will be more limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stars or that their work is any less valuable.

Take Harrison Ford. He was and is a star. But after his initial hit films, his career went on a weird tangent. He seems to have picked up the idea that he was, or could be, a Serious Actor, and so wasted decades of marketable time chasing roles that never suited him. Ford was, when all was said and done, the low-rent Clint Eastwood. If he’d had the balls to go truly counter-cultural, he could have made westerns relevant in the 80’s (and at what time in recent history would movie audience have loved Westerns more than in the 80’s?). Instead, we got The Mosquito Coast, a movie no one except Ford still cares about, and pseudo-emotional schlock like Regarding Henry. No one wanted that. We wanted variations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, who were really just Harrison Ford, as much as John P. Chance and Rooster Cogburn were just John Wayne. “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” was, if not a line for the ages, at least memorable and droll. Watching him yell about how he didn’t kill his wife (more than one film centered on this) had an unpleasant desperation to be liked. Even DiCaprio doesn’t sweat that hard.

{Also, not a great Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero; he’s a bookworm who has a Marine somewhere in his muscle memory. Alec Baldwin got that, and made his Ryan vulnerable, constantly trying to keep ahead of a world-historical devestation, so when he gets the drop on the KGB guy at the end of Hunt For Red October, and reveals that really, Ryan has seen death before, and isn’t just an analyst, it means something. Ford fulminating about “right and wrong” is not only boring, it’s words no one at Langley has ever said, ever. But there hasn’t been a good Tom Clancey novel since Red Storm Rising, anyway, so whatever.}

The result is, movies need stars, and stars need to know themselves as such, that they may understand their work. And critics need to understand what stars bring to movies, and stop judging them by theatrical thespian standards (Meryl Streep might be a star, but Elizabeth Taylor was a bigger one, and Taylor’s films are more rewatchable than Streep’s), the way the audiences already do. Then the art of cinema might finally understand itself.

Beyond Cowboys and Indians

{The following was first written for my defunct Medium.com account in 2012. In some sense it has been overtaken by events. The success of the indie film Bone Tomahawk, among others, in some sense supports my premise. And the points it has to make about the nature of the Western, especially as against the Noir, are worth reconsidering.}

I am an unrepentant fan of Westerns. I love old ones; I love new ones. I love John Ford and Sergio Leone. I appreciate them at their most romantic, and at their darkest. I enjoy it when they confound the genre’s expectations and when they play to them. And I weary of the contention that they are irrelevant.

People have been declaring the genre dead for decades. They said it in the Eighties. They said it in the Nineties, despite the existence of two big-budget films — one the truth, one the legend — about The Gunfight at the OK Corral (Everybody loves Tombstone, but it’s Costner’s Wyatt Earp that gets better on repeated viewings). Most recently, the utter collapse of the big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger prompted Atlantic writer Michael Agresta to offer an interesting premise:

If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it’ll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

He goes on to craft a curiously incomplete history of Western films of the last quarter century, seeming to believe in the hype of Unforgiven as the “last Western”. He makes no mention in his piece of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, of 2003’s Open Range, 2008’s Appaloosa, all of which were traditional westerns with known stars, and all of which turned a profit (a more modest one in Appaloosa’s case, but still better than The Lone Ranger’s utter commercial flop).

Agresta then praises The Lone Ranger on highly questionable grounds: for being a film with the courage to stare the subjugation of the American Indian in its face without blinking, thus faintly suggesting the film’s honesty made it simply too much for an American audience, clinging quietly to the white privilege of a conquered continent, to bear. He also suggests that such continued honesty might be the seeds of a reborn Western, heroically confronting the baggage of the past.

This is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, The Lone Ranger hardly broke new cinematic ground on the suffering of the American Indian. In the second, Western stories are not really about the Indians.

Indians are less important to the Western than they would seem. Most of the time, they exist as part of the backdrop — a threat that can irrupt, but may not. True, some films — John Ford’s 7th Cavalry trilogy, for example — deal with the conquest of North America directly. But even these do so with a great deal of moral ambiguity. The righteousness of white colonization of the West is rarely assumed, and often challenged.

The Red Man’s View, 1909

In fact, awareness of the injustice meted out to the American Indian is present in the earliest Westerns, from D.W. Griffith’s The Red Man’s View, to Buster Keaton’s The Paleface. Even 7th Cavalry films like Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On, make a point of portraying the natives as more sinned against than sinning.

This does not mean that those depictions of Native Americans are without their own problems — how could they be? And certainly, the Nations should be encouraged to tell their own stories, find their own voices (provided, of course, they want to do so). But collective guilt over the conquest of North America is a nonsensical reason to avoid our homegrown genre of romance. We can deconstruct it, and we have. But we can reconstruct it, too, and that must be just as legitimate.

In any case, most Westerns take place in a land where Indians are already gone, but the new civilization barely present. The reality that everything could come crashing down is the true driver of the plot. You can argue that this glossing over of how and why the Indians are gone is itself questionable, but it’s a problem of what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. Every act of writing or speaking consists of saying one thing and not another. The existence of once voice does not preclude another.

Claudia Cardinale on the set of Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969

So if the Western is not really about the Indian, what does that leave us? A bunch of white people killing each other? How is the Western then any different from any other setting of shoot-em-up?

To answer this, I compare the Western with that other old-school genre of violence, the noire. In noire, evil triumphs, or at least survives. The rich bastard has the cops in his pocket and gets his way. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown. No matter what happens, the powers that be remain the powers that be. They have been too long on the ground, they fulfill a need. They have become respectable. Noire takes place in the tight, square urban landscape: the only way out is through a door that only leads to another room. The city has been built, and you cannot fight city hall.

But the western takes place in the wide open, in untamed land. Possibility has not yet been closed off into concentric squares of concrete and steel. Have gun, will travel. Civilization is light on the ground and we can make up the rules as we go.

And as Deadwood points out, that’s not always a good thing. Natural man is remarkably un-free from exploitation; indeed, he makes exploitation his common coin. When the powers-that-be are still in flux, they are the more ruthless because of that.

James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicut, and John Wayne, El Dorado, 1967

But they can also be fought. The first Western I ever saw, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, pits a ruthless, cruel cattle baron against a drunken sheriff (played with flinty brilliance by Robert Mitchum) and his gunslinger friend (John Wayne, showing a few small chinks of vulnerability in his usual heroic panoply). Indians are mentioned only once, in passing and already passed. The rich man employs thugs to push out competitors and acts as thought the law does not apply to him; the sheriff must see him punished. Law and wealth are directly opposed to one another, and it’s possible for one side to win, and for that victory to matter.

Or take Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the jumping-off point in the Man With No Name Trilogy and at first glance, the polar opposite of a film like El Dorado (both were made around the same time). A reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo¸ Fistful depicts a border town under the uneasy dominance of two warring clans, one Anglo, one Mex. Both claim to be the true authority, both employ gangs of hoods and engage in an endless cycle of murder on each other. Our anti-heroic protagonist plays both against each other to put money in his own pocket. This would seem a brutal inversion of the law vs. lawlessness tale that El Dorado spins, in which the camps of good and evil are clear.

But it happens that the leader of the Mexican clan, Ramon, exceeds his opponent in cunning and cruelty. He is a man without scruple, who murders the innocent and forcibly steals a poor man’s wife. That the level of his corruption differs only in degree from his enemies does not matter. He is manifestly a bad man. He’s got it coming, and in the Wild West, one man with courage can make sure he gets it.

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, 1964

“What does it take to make justice happen?” is a common question in Westerns, from True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Shane. “What are the fruits of violence?” is another, found from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven and on and on. These issues are timeless, and they should be discussed at face value. Westerns are a good vehicle for discussing these issues precisely because the wildness of the backdrop puts them at the center of human existence, where they belong.

So I propose that we dispense with the notion that the Western needs to be “fixed”. It doesn’t. It just needs to do what it always does, spin tales of good and evil, of corruption and honor, of exploitation and heroism. And it will adapt itself naturally to the needs of our culture, if we let it. The Western is only as dead as we declare, and nothing that has to be declared dead ever really is.