I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.
Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.
I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso Cuarón making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.
Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.
I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.
And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.
After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.
Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane
I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.
Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.
Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:
Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.
Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.
Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.
Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.
So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).
Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.
Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!
Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!
Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.
Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!
Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable
Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.
In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.
But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.
Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!
Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.
It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.
Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.
Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination
I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.
Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.
Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”
When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.
I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.
One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.
The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.
Not All Sloths
Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:
Thanks for your thinkpiece on Zootopia. What a pity it'd be for kids not to hear a middleaged white guy's take on cartoon animal sex & race.
To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.
While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).
In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:
“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.
Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.
And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.
Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:
It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”
While Seitz describes it:
The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.
This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.
The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.
You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.
And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.
If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.
The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.
For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.
It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.
That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.
I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.
A cursory and non-reductive look at Hail, Caesar! by Joel and Ethan Coen
I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.
After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.
It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.
If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.
After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.
It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.
So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.
Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.
I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.
I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.
Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.
I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.
I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.
And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.
So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.
Another note about The Force Awakens, merchandising, and spoiler culture. Contains huge spoilers, obviously.
This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.
While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.
And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.
Why I unabashedly love Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and how much I’ve missed being able to unabashedly love a movie
A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.
Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.
If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.
But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.
A Long Time Ago
Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.
It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).
And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”
The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.
And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.
But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.
I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.
Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.
Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.
Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.
I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.
(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).
What terrible reviews of Trainwreck tell us about the sorry state of pop-progressivism on the Internet
Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.
What Trainwreck isn’t:
I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.
It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.
But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.
Our Miss Schumer
Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.
In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”
It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?
Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.
The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.
Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.
For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.
That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.
I Feel Like I Won
As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.
Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”
But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.
Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:
That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:
The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.
I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”
Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.
The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”
The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.
The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.
Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).
She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.
What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.
I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”
By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.
But At What Cost?!
Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.
What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.
The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).
Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”
in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.
Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.
Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:
But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.
Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.
(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).
Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”
To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.
But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.
And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.
In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.
Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”
Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.
It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):
We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.
Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.
And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.
While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!
It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.
What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.
Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.
What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.
In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.
But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”
In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.
Strong Female Character
There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.
Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:
…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.
In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.
We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”
When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.
Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.
In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.
And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.
I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.
Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”
Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.
(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).
Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.
Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You
This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.
Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.
Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.
That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.
And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!
As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:
Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.
At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.
Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.
Can you see what she did there?
I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.
What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.
Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.
And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.
This Is What You Think Is Hot?
I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.
In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.
When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”
Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”
And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.
It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”
But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.
To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.
And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”
Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.
Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”
Inside Out reminds us that we can’t be happy all of the time, an idea that angered, disgusted and frightened me.
It’s taken the better part of 24 hours and three drafts of a blog post, but I finally have to begrudgingly concede that I liked Inside Out.
That’s not a review of the movie, since this isn’t a review. It’s just an unfocused — and completely personal — attempt to sort through the aftermath of the movie.
(And it doesn’t make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s probably best to avoid this if you haven’t seen it).
If I were writing a movie review, I’d just cut-and-paste the review by Dana Stevens on Slate, because I agree with it completely, from the non-hyperbolic “astonishing” all the way to that killer of a closing sentence:
As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.
The only part I’d take issue with is the suggestion that it’s a “kids’ movie,” even if it’s just used for contrast. Maybe that’d help put a little emotional distance between me and a movie, but lumping it in with “kids’ movies,” even in passing, just seems oblivious to what Pixar’s been doing for decades. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation by insisting on making deeply personal movies that try to focus on themes that are completely universal.
And Inside Out takes that one “irreversible tragedy” that is completely universal and submerges us in an extended metaphor that forces us to confront it head-on. Like the reconditioning scene in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of violence, it’s the loss of childhood.
The Toy Story 3 Scale
When early reviews of the movie started to pop up, I made an only half-joking request that reviewers include an indication of how likely it would reduce us to heaving sobs. Crying in a Pixar movie is all but inevitable — I found myself tearing up at the storyboards for Brave — but I wanted to avoid something like Up‘s completely unfair sucker punch. I suggested a scale from Finding Nemo (bittersweet sniffling) to the finale of Toy Story 3 (complete emotional breakdown).
As it turns out, Inside Out affected me like the end of Toy Story 3, stretched out to feature length. It was too potent. It just left me feeling drained, exhausted, and pretty miserable for the next day.
It didn’t even feel like a cathartic “let it all out” venting, because there wasn’t a devastating but optimistic thanks for the adventure, or even the implied promise of new adventures with a new child and ongoing specials on ABC Family. It’s not that I think Inside Out was poorly structured or manipulative, but just the opposite. The “problem” is that I think it insists on being honest. The actual tear-jerking moments felt earned because they were an inevitable and integral part of the story. Which means that an uplifting “here’s how everything turned out great forever” would’ve felt artificial, too.
So instead, I interpreted it as a celebration of sadness as necessary and inevitable. Which may be true, and surprisingly mature, and exactly what I’ve been asking for as an alternative to what usually tries to substitute for a profound statement in “family movies.” But instead of a promise of adventure, the promise is… life as a relatively well-adjusted adult. I’ve seen how that turns out, more or less, and it’s not that great. There’s even the gag about the looming specter of puberty and the repeated question of “what could go wrong?” that seem — if not dark, exactly, then a little sardonic and defeatist.
“You’re going to be sad. A lot. It’s part of growing up.” It’s entirely possible that it’s just because my own headquarters functions better when Anger and Sadness are kept in check by the happy sprite of Wellbutrin, but I left the movie wishing it had been a more explicit, obvious, and artificial celebration of the grand triumph than an acknowledgement of the irreversible tragedy. That it’d let me keep on enjoying my already ridiculously overextended arrested development, instead of reminding me that “Growing up means that joy and optimism need to learn their place.”
Don’t Spoil Titanic For Me
Instead, they introduced (among other things) the character of Bing Bong, and as soon as it was clear that he was Riley’s imaginary friend, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because I’m sitting in the audience, realizing that it’s not just nostalgia for toys that I’ve put away or happy memories from childhood, but I can’t even remember the name of my imaginary friend. It played out less like an abstraction of a growing child’s mind and more like a primary colored version of Final Destination.
There’s more subtle foreshadowing throughout. When we first get a glimpse into the headquarters of Riley’s mom and dad, it’s played for gags but has an undercurrent I felt like a slow-motion punch to the gut as all the implications sunk in. Dad’s mind is run like a submarine in war, dominated by Anger keeping a tight check on any outbursts of emotion. And while the movie is still in the process of answering the question “what is the purpose of having Sadness?” we see inside Mom’s head, where the emotions are sitting around like the hosts of The View, pining over a long-lost potential romantic adventure, and we have to notice that Sadness is clearly in charge of the show.
“Here’s what you have to look forward to, kids! Now let’s get back to the action and find out what could possibly be in store for this little girl’s brightly colored imaginary friend!”
As it turns out, there’s a good bit more to it than that. Using colorful abstractions to tell the story doesn’t just make it universal beyond the experiences of one little girl, but it also allows the movie to make some pretty profound observations without stating them explicitly. So I’m going to do exactly what I’ve resolved not to do, which is to be reductive about the “message” of the movie. Simply because it took me a while to parse through everything I think it says and think it implies.
I also just want to call out some of the decisions that make Inside Out astonishing, since the movie doesn’t draw that much attention to them.
On the technical side, Pixar has progressed to the point where I’m too much of a layman to even identify what’s remarkable. It seems like every feature has required at least one big technical breakthrough, but usually they exploit the hell out of it — if not showing off, then at least making sure they got their money’s worth. So if they’re going to set a movie underwater, you’re going to get a lot of sequences that just show how beautiful the ocean is. Or if they’re going to simulate every hair on Sully’s body, you’re going to see it in close-up. I wouldn’t have noticed the natural lighting effects developed for Monsters University if they hadn’t been pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense for a story that’s set over the course of a year.
With Inside Out, I initially had a minor mental criticism that Pixar’s gone all-in on its House Style for human characters — they’re fine, but ultimately inoffensive at best, too cartoonish to be realistic but not cartoonish enough to be interesting. I quickly realized that that criticism is missing the point when the “stars” of a movie are toys, fish, bugs, robots, and emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions need to be expressive (obviously), but the humans need to be universal enough that every human in the audience can project herself onto them.
And with the emotions, the character design goes all-in on modernism. That’s possibly not the “correct” term, but it’s referring to the style from the 50s that was more graphic and abstract. So you get the character of Fear, who should only be able to work in two dimensions, and yet he coexists with the others with no obvious cheats. And then we get a sequence that drives the idea home, where the characters are rendered in more and more abstract forms until they’re reduced to a single line.
It’s even more apparent with Joy, who looks like someone took a piece of concept art done in pastels or crayons and said, “We want this, exactly, to be the main character in a feature-length piece of 3D animation.” I can remember only a couple of scenes where the camera’s allowed to linger on them up close, to show off the effect. But much like the animated paintings in Ratatouille, it takes what is steadfastly a static, two-dimensional art style and gives it depth and movement. It insists that the rough speckles aren’t just an artifact of Joy’s concept art, but an integral part of the character.
It seems like a confident decision that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of convenience. The movie’s full of confident decisions that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of “accessibility.” Most obviously, it’s a movie driven by female characters. It’s worth pointing out, even though it’s a shame that it’s worth pointing out, and even though it goes so far into the realm of universally accessible story that it makes the entire question seem irrelevant. Maybe its success will finally put the stupid “debate” — which is itself a modern invention, as a simple scan of centuries of female protagonists would illustrate — to rest.
What interests me a lot more is that there’s no villain. It’s especially astonishing considering that both Up and Frozen were brilliant movies that also took on more subtle and sophisticated themes than usual, and yet each one still suffered from a third act that required a Disney Villain to pop up and cause conflict. Again, maybe it’s optimistic, but I’d hope that the success of Inside Out will finally convince people that you can have a story based entirely on emotional conflict and it’s still completely accessible.
Sunny-Side Up, or, Happy Together
Which gets back to the last confident decision I’ll mention, which is the one that took me a while to get. Because it’s a question that’s asked at the beginning of the movie but isn’t explicitly answered. (At least explicitly enough that I picked up on it).
I read a review of Inside Out that made the minor complaint that the beginning of the movie, where Joy introduces herself and the other characters, was regretfully necessary exposition in an otherwise subtly-told story. But I don’t think it was just exposition. I think it was setting up the central conflict that Joy (and the audience) would spend the rest of the movie — and in my case, the weekend after — trying to figure out.
When Fear, Disgust, and Anger are introduced, we get an illustration of what they do and why they’re there to protect Riley in one way or another. In fact, that assertion that they’re not just manifestations of personality, but deeply invested in making sure she’s okay, is one of the subtle ways that Inside Out makes the complaint “this idea’s been done before!” seem laughably irrelevant. Tasha Robinson’s review on The Dissolve lists more examples of films and TV series that started from the same concept, but in comparison, they feel like gags riffing on a premise instead of a genuine attempt to explore all the deeper implications of a premise.
But instead of just an introduction to the “rules” of how all this stuff works, it asks the movie’s important question: why is Sadness there? For as much as I talk about Pixar being universal instead of just for kids, and how it tackles some mature and sophisticated themes, it could seem like “Why do we feel sad?” is an insipidly childish question. But it’s clearly one we struggle with as adults. Anyone who’s tried to figure out what’s “normal” vs what’s a breakdown in brain chemistry has had to ask it. Anyone who’s been frustrated to be told “stop trying to fix things, I just want to feel sad,” has had to ask it. If you use Facebook, you likely see people struggling with it every day, with self-actualization aphorisms like “Today I Choose Happiness.” How is sadness productive? What practical purpose does it serve?
On the surface, Inside Out seems to suggest an acceptance more than an answer. “Being grown-up is complex, yo.” The age of “pure” emotions doesn’t last long, and our memories are really tinged with a bunch of different emotions. Sadness is just there, and being an adult means learning how to deal with it. At best, it seemed to say, sadness made the joyful memories stronger. The explicit “moral” seemed to be that you can’t suppress it and contain it. You can’t expect to be happy all the time.
That was the part that hit hard with me, because it seemed to be reaching directly into my subconscious and calling me out. Cripes! They’re onto me! They know that I feel like I’m constantly trying to stay content and optimistic and put a positive spin on things when I’d rather just lie on a couch and moan.
And just like the jackasses who call me a “grouch” or “curmudgeon,” or tell me to “smile more” (as if I were a woman in corporate management or running for office!), they’re calling me a charlatan! They’re saying I’m doing a lousy job of it, and they can see right through me.
And if that weren’t bad enough, they’re saying it’s a futile effort in the first place! I just came here to see some bullshit about believing in my dreams; I didn’t come to see a Disney/Pixar movie whose uplifting message was “You are fated to a life of sadness so Deal With It.”
(Ever since I heard multiple men say that The Little Mermaid was exactly what they needed to deal with coming out in the 90s, I’ve made it a point not to under-interpret family movies or resist taking them too personally).
But then: movie studios don’t stay profitable with an audience of one. And if I were the only person feeling like that, then they wouldn’t have made a movie about it. Maybe the message is that everybody feels the same way, that they’re struggling to stay happy and keep sadness tightly controlled and prevented from leaking out. And it’s not necessarily that I’m doing a bad job of it, but that people can recognize it because they do it themselves.
Which brings back to mind the scene where Sadness helps the imaginary friend* get back on his feet by being able to relate to him, while Joy doesn’t know what to do. [*It’s hard to insist that these are adult, sophisticated concepts that it’s perfectly normal for a 44-year-old not to grasp immediately while talking about Sadness and Bing Bong]. Or the scene where Joy figures it all out, where the revelation isn’t simply that happy memories have an element of sadness to them, but that sadness has a purpose, too. It was sadness that brought the family together and turned the memory into a happy one.
Or the finale, which isn’t the scene showing Riley at hockey practice with all her personality islands back in place. It’s the one just before that, where Angry Dad and Sad Mom tell Riley that they’re sad too. Maybe I would’ve picked up on it faster if they’d included a sequence in which Sadness begins sparkling and magically transforms into Empathy.
But of course they didn’t, and of course the movie is a billion times better for not making it completely explicit. And the peek inside Mom’s mind magically transforms from quietly defeatist foreshadowing of a life dominated by sadness, to one where they’re all cooperating and sharing a happy memory together.
Trying to resist my natural impulse to overthink Mad Max: Fury Road
One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”
I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.
But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.
Turning Your Brain Off
Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.
(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).
I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.
I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.
Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.
After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.
Not All War Boys
Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.
I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.
Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.
A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.
The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.
With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.
Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.
THIS. All the things.
My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.
So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.
When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.
From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”
I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”
In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.
It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.
But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.
Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.
But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”
Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.
Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.
One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.
Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:
It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
“Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”
In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.
In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.
(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)
Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.
But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.
Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.
I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.