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Marvelous, Furious, Avenging Blockbusters
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Before the new Avengers movie settles in and obliterates every mega plex in the country, I'd like to go back and revisit Pauline Kael's 1986 review of Arnold Schwarzeneggar's hideous action flick Raw Deal, for in that one review Kael manages to accurately access every single tentpole/blockbuster film that's been released in the past 30 years. And she does it in one sentence: "It's reprehensible and enjoyable, the kind of movie that makes you feel brain dead in two minutes — after which point you're ready to laugh at its mixture of trashiness, violence, and startlingly silly crude humor."
Obviously, the Avengers movie is geared toward the largest audience possible, so any impulse toward "trashiness" or "crude humor" has certainly been squashed by the Marvel team long before production began (pity, that.) But the rest of the sentence, especially the "brain dead in two minutes" bit, sounds like the perfect description of every Marvel, Transformers, Fast and Furious, apocalypse porn, or name-your-franchise movie released this decade.
I'm sure my carping about the new Avengers movie in the Fort Wayne Reader will of course immediately slow its domestic box office take this summer to something like $680 million dollars, and I'm well aware that I'm violating a major critic commandment by trashing a movie I haven't seen (and won't see.) But I don't care. I've already seen three trailers and about two thousand commercial product tie-ins for the film and I'm completely fatigued by everything--by Robert Downey Junior's quips, by the Transformers slug fights, by how crappy and fake the Hulk still looks. (Four Hulk movies now, and he still looks ridiculous.)
And the thing is, I like the actors. All of them. Renner, Downey Jr., Scarlett, Ruffalo. I like the director, too. Joss Whedon made Much Ado About Nothing, a great modern-dress Shakespeare film. He's smart, funny, a great writer. I'm sure he manages to make a lot of the "Avengers" movie witty and playful. And I'm not against escapist entertainment, either; as a rule, I like genre things, I like thrillers, page-turners, time-killers. But for some reason the new Avengers feels like the tipping point for me, when I just can't bear another Hollywood behemoth.
I'm still bothered by an article I read by a brilliant Hollywood director a few years ago — it was either David Fincher or Steven Soderbergh, I'm not sure which (for some reason, I always get those two guys confused — even their films feel somewhat similar to me.) Anyway, he was talking about getting on an airplane, and the 30ish guy sitting next to him was cuing up a compilation of movie scenes on his computer. Each scene, the director said, was from a big-budget action film, and all the scenes were "mayhem porn"--big, loud action sequences where things blew up and chaos reigned. Transformers fights followed by War of the Worlds destruction scenes followed by airborne cars in The Fast and the Furious followed by the White House blowing up in Independence Day. No dialogue, no character scenes, no story, just one disaster scene after another. It shook the director, who wondered, is this what people want from the movies? To be, as Pauline Kael would say, brain dead after two minutes?
Maybe it is. Maybe that's part of the thrill of going to the movies, after all, to see those epic catastrophes happening on huge, 72 ft. x 53 ft. IMAX screens. Maybe there's a tiny part of everybody that craves seeing the world explode, that loves the catharsis of the shock and awe. Y'all. But I'm still haunted by that lonely guy in the airplane, staring, blank-faced, at all that stupid and mindless destruction.
If there's a silver lining to this particular era of massive Hollywood tentpoles/franchises, it could be that the studios have to take some chances on smaller films — with all the money being sucked up by the blockbusters, there's precious little left for the other titles, so often studios will take a shot on a brilliant, inventive, young, hell-fired director who's willing to make his movie on the cheap. This past year has seen some terrific, small-budgeted horror movies — It Follows; The Guest; Under the Skin; The Babadook — all unnerving, all amazingly effective, all scary, and all made for a fraction of the usual studio offering. Much like the film noir directors of the 40s and 50s, who had to rely on creative camera angles, dark story lines, and night settings for their miniscule-budgeted films, modern horror directors are using the limitations of their budgets to their creative advantage. Something about having to rely purely on ingenuity and chutzpah brings out the best in artists; when you have to move fast and think quickly you often get closer to true artistic achievement. Horror films might be the defining, saving grace of this era, simply because horror films are always cheap to make. They may not be as much fun as watching mile-high robots clank building apart, or seeing New York get pummeled by a massive tidal wave, but they do have their own, miniscule, small-budgeted, non-brain dead appeal.