Monday, May 22, 2006

Come back to blockbuster filmmaking, James Cameron, James Cameron.

We have this group called the BBC: the Block Buster Club. As fellow film school rejects and film buffs, we all enjoy getting together every week or so during the summer, stuffing ourselves with fake buttered popcorn and laughing ourselves silly through all of the block-buster movies pumped out by Hollywood. Call it a vacation from intellectual pursuit or just an opportunity to feel morally and artistically superior. The motives don’t matter, in a way. The idea is to have fun by going to a movie with friends.

But lately there hasn’t been a lot of fun involved. In fact, I find myself just getting angry or depressed or just plain old stressed out. Inevitably, after viewing MI:3 and POSEIDON, I’ve come out of the theatre wishing I just stayed home watched a James Cameron movie on DVD.

You’ve probably already been underwhelmed by the mediocrity on display in MI:3. I knew I was in trouble when they decided to put a climatic scene at the start of the film and then go backwards in time to tell us how we got there. This lame device is about the most overused theatric tool in movies today (Okay, so Citizen Kane used it. At least that was a good movie.) It’s as if the filmmakers are saying “Please. Sit through the boring first hour of the film because, look, we have this cool scene that is really suspenseful and we just have to rewind a bit and show you how we get there.”

I will give just one example of why this movie sucked so hard: the action sequence involving Tom’s attempted rescue of Keri Russell. (I won’t bother using their character’s names since I was never really convinced that I wasn’t just seeing celebrities on screen dressed up in costumes.) This sequence was filmed using what I call the Greengrass-Stew Style of filmmaking. (For those who don’t know about my dislike for The Bourne Supremacy, please see the entry from April 10, 2006.) This style of filmmaking involves shooting as much disorienting “action” footage (usually handheld) and shipping it off to the editor to let him/her worry about making a logical sequence. No attempt is made at establishing a space’s obstacles. No satisfying cat and mouse chases. Just lots of explosions and gadgets and one kind of cool slow mo shot of Tom throwing Keri a gun. Has an action sequence ever felt so inert?

So, instead of just being a whiny little bitch, I’ve decided to give an example showing how much James Cameron kicks JJ Abrams’s ass.

For an example of a truly satisfying action sequence similar to MI:3’s Keri Russell sequence, please see T2’s “Target: Syberdyne” (Chaper 52 in the ultimate edition) where Ah-nold and friends have to destroy a top-secret lab and escape without killing anyone.

Notice how the sequence begins: a quiet introduction as the “gang” approaches the security guard and tie him up. We’re led up an elevator and through a hallway before we ever get to the lab. Here, Cameron is orienting us to the space, making sure we know the steps our heroes will have to take (and the obstacles in their way) when they escape minutes later. It’s not all smooth-sailing for them as they head towards their goal of destroying the lab. Cameron establishes parallel action with the guards downstairs who trip silent alarms and the “bad ass shape-shifting nasty” who is also pursuing them. Following these other characters helps move the pace along. Each time we come back to one of the three elements of the story, the other two continue without our knowledge and a sense of urgency is created.

In MI:3, we’re never let in on the bad guys cunning or get a sense that they are a formidable obstacle to the heroes. After escaping with Keri, she still gets her brain blown up. Geez. All that work for nothing.

In T2, characters (yes, characters – remember what those are?) are constantly proving themselves heroes. For instance, a security pass suddenly doesn’t work so the kid’s “computer smarts” get them a necessary key to a high tech security chamber. Ah-nold’s cyborg skills help them get into the labs. But there are casualties, as well. The police soon break in and the heroes must leave one of their own behind who’s injured: “The Black Guy.” (One of Jim’s few missteps. Please, all of Hollywood, why does it always have to be a minority who ends up taking one for the team?)

And we’re only half way done with the whole sequence! But already, there have been all kind of satisfying obstacles overcome by our heroes.

For more proof of how James Cameron could kick JJ Abrams’s ass, see TRUE LIES’ sequence when they blow up the bridge and compare it to a similar “blowing up a bridge” sequence in MI:3.

POSEIDON provides even more opportunities to compare lousy filmmaking to JimBob’s superior talents on display in TITANIC. In addition to offing the minorities first (save for the old gay guy. Gee, thanks Mr. Petersen) this piece of Hollywood fluff at least has a minimum of dialog and throws the boat upside down ASAP and delivers the thrills in a tight 100 mintues. That’s when you know a movie is truly bad: when you’re thankful it’s over in a short amount of time.

This weekend I decided to boycott Da VINCI CODE, not because of it’s blasphemy of the Catholic Church (that would be a reason to see it, in my book). Instead, I’ve been feeling guilty of giving my money to mediocre filmmaking so I decided to go see a feature by one of my favorite filmmakers, Olivier Assayas.

CLEAN is his latest feature featuring the amazing Maggie Cheung in a heartbreaking performance of a musician / drug addict desperately trying to turn her life around. Any expectations you have of a Lifetime Movie of the Week treatment will be shattered when you see this movie. True to its French filmmaking roots, the narrative wanders through her fight through recovery and her attempt to get her child back. The camera work and editing is eye-popping. Is there an Academy Award for camera operation? One revelation I had was Assayas doesn’t have a rigid “rule” system for storytelling. He’ll switch from hand held to dolly work from scene to scene. The effect is that the viewer is always kept guessing what’s going to happen.

I end with a selection of a New York Times profile about Assayas. I found myself a little less depressed after reading his thoughts on filmmaking… Here’s hoping that I can make my first feature one tenth as good as one of his…

Mr. Assayas believes in movies as a dialogue between director and audience. A movie, he said, "has to leave things open up to a certain level so that somehow the viewer has some space within the film." As for his approach, Mr. Assayas said he believed in the marriage of instinct and analysis.

"I think that it's important to understand, intuitively understand, what you are doing," he said. "But when you are doing it you must follow instinct. There has to be a certain level of risk, creating images, characters, emotions, it involves something a little brutal. You must be prepared to go in areas where you lose control."

At another point, he elaborated: "There's such a broad way of representing the world, and specifically representing a world that has become so complex with totally different ..." after a long pause, the word he came up with is "articulations."

"I like the adventure of making films," Mr. Assayas said. "And the adventure of making films has to do with the capacity you have of listening to your guts."


Anonymous Benji said...

all this time gone and no explanation where you went? and no eargasm 2? you leave my heart aching ;)

7:02 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Don't fret, Benji. I will post EARGASM 2 (better known as PUSH IT) come mid June.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Benji said...

cool. will keep reading and watching. stay handsome.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous keco said...

This entry is one of the most lucid comments on current blockbusters I've ever read. I wonder who is to blame, idle movie-makers or undemanding audiences.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Benji said...

both. i remember the summer of 2001 had awful films because of the strike... so crap was put into production. i feel like screenwriters are so predictable because the typical shit is what audiences expect. getting creative like Garden State, for instance, is hard work and somehow less popular... so make generic junk for audiences who expect the same form of entertainment. it's kind of a cycle. it's like a couple's bored sex life.

10:20 PM  

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