Friday, May 25, 2012

Bond and Skyfall (by way of Nostalgia)

During a recent research presentation, I gestured towards the next phase of my current project, Haunted Nerves, which will focus on the key role of nostalgia in so many of today's blockbuster transmedia franchises--namely, Prometheus (Alien), Transformers, Tron, GI Joe, Star Trek, Terminator and so forth. In its very early stages, Haunted Nerves is an attempt at historicizing the modern era of digital cinema, with "history" being largely defined here by the digital's negotiation (or lack thereof) with affect, labor consciousness and nostalgia.

The recent trend towards this deep affective investment in the past goes beyond just the obsession with serialization, sequels, transmedia storytelling and other forms of brand expansion. I'm tempted to argue that they point towards a new iteration of Jameson's "nostalgia film," a type of movie that he saw as more invested in stylistic (mediated) conventions of the past than the past itself (the most famous of his examples, perhaps, being Chinatown, a recycling of noir-ish iconography and motifs and symbolic shorthands--Roosevelt, Seabiscuit--in place of any investment in documenting everyday life in late 1930s Los Angeles).

The idea, though, wasn't just an aesthetic description of the media text, which is where much of the use value of Jameson's work on the postmodern migrated over the years. What was lost in pastiche and nostalgia was a space for historical consciousness and, by extension, political critique. The modern (digital) iteration of the "nostalgia film" then might operate in similar fashion--dependent upon surface signifiers of "pastness" rooted in pre-existing transmedia brands, and with little investment in a kind of historical consciousness beyond self-referential franchises.

Why then "nostalgia"? Its here where I think Sean Cubitt's work on the "Event Film" might be telling. Cubitt provocatively suggested that the modern blockbuster has no investment in reality--not a Baudrillardian claim that reality doesn't exist per se, only that Hollywood is indifferent to it, favoring the reassuring (depoliticized) fantasy worlds that posited themselves as above critique precisely because they're not interested in claiming to be about "our" world. Cubitt then posited the re-occuring, timeless theme of "undying love" as that which affectively anchored these otherwise detached and elaborate fantasies for real audiences.

Yet I'm wondering if nostalgia might be equally relevant in making these purely digital worlds, often spread across immense media landscapes, recognizable and reassuring for modern audiences. The best example, I think, may be Tron: Legacy (2010), a media text which depicts an elaborate sci-fi world unlike our own, and that doesn't make any narrative or technological sense internally. Its very continued existence as a contemporary franchise only works as nostalgia. But that's another story for another day.

I've been thinking about this lately because of my own research on the commodification of nostalgia (both Haunted Nerves and the earlier Disney book), but also because so much of my interest in event films from last few years has grown explicitly out of nostalgic impulses. I've wanted for years to do something with the waves of generational nostalgia that seems to have sustained some franchises in particular for decades--namely, GI Joe, Star Trek and James Bond, all of which can trace their popularity at least as far back as the 1960s, but which also seem to have periods of success that have come and gone over that time. One short answer--as I discuss repeatedly throughout Disney's Most Notorious Film--has something to do with how so many parents raise their kids, knowingly or otherwise, on their own nostalgia.

Speaking of Bond, one of the first images released from the forthcoming Skyfall (above) was deeply rooted in nostalgia, as producers once again brought back the famous Aston Martin DB5, which has made several appearances since its debut in 1964's Goldfinger, which rightly remains the quintessential Bond film (even though I am as personally fond of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, From Russia with Love and Casino Royale--the latter being the only one in the last thirty years that comes close to the greatness of Bond in the 1960s. One might also notice in the image above that its the exact same license plate number--BMT216A--as in the original Connery classic. More subtly too, though, the landscape behind Daniel Craig and the car are also deeply evocative of the same barren, hilly Swiss landscape that Connery was driving around five decades ago (right).

Although much of the promotion for Skyfall so far, such as its underwhelming teaser trailer, doesn't seem as overtly nostalgic (there is, after all, more than one target audience), its not at all insignificant that there is presently a major push to get consumers to buy the 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray collection, which includes every Bond film ever made. Without exception, Sony uses every new Bond film as an excuse to re-release "new" versions of old movies onto home video formats as a way to both promote the new theatrical release and to continue milking consumers for every dime the old franchise can still grab. Bond blu-rays were originally released in tandem with 2008's Quantum of Solace, and some manner of similar re-release strategy has stretched back over the last 10-15 years.

Of course, its too cynical to only focus on the transparent money grab--though the whole thing is pretty disgusting, particularly in its strategic withholding of certain titles in order to force people to buy the whole thing just to get one or two films still missing from the library. But I've got bad news for Sony--I'm not spending $200 just to see On Her Majesty's Secret Service in high definition. Of course, I'm sure the plan is to release them all separately in another year or so, anyway, once they've gotten all the cash out of the 50th Anniversary edition they can.

But less cynically, the constant obsession with releasing old Bond films onto DVD and Blu-Ray with each new theatrical release speaks to other considerations as well--for one, it highlights how the appeal of Bond in the contemporary moment always coexists with a deeper nostalgia for the entire, accumulative franchise. And, for other, it reminds us again that "newer" media and their various platforms are always largely anchored by the nostalgic remediation of older properties instead of anything truly "new."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers (2012) feels like the epic two-part finale to a high-profile sci-fi television show—no less ambitious and well-crafted, but inherently meaningless without the fan investment in everything that came before it. Of course, any film with this much hype for this long will inevitably be a disappointment, so we’ll forgo that. At the same time, Joss Whedon’s long-gestating epic benefits tremendously from the films which came before it, allowing the audience to remain invested in a wide range of characters that would be otherwise lost amidst an over-bloated ensemble cast such as this. It also frees up the co-writer/director from having to spend too much time with backstory on any one character. If we are already familiar with the characters and story lines in earlier films such as Iron Man (2008), Captain America (2011), or Thor (2011), we are less likely to be distracted by the relatively shallow attention given to each character—they don’t feel like one-dimensional stock characters because each has had a whole discursive history behind them. The film does a good job of honoring each character, their respective interactions, and the larger group dynamic, all the while keeping the story moving along briskly.

At the same time, The Avengers does feel quite by-the-numbers too—just like the other films, but with more characters and a higher budget. The movie’s success as a blockbuster is predicated as much on getting out of the way of formulas already established, as on coming up with anything particularly new or clever. The most interesting aspect of the new film remains the complicated, ambivalent relationship between “adopted” brothers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that was so effectively established in the earlier movie. One unspoken irony in the narrative seems to be how Loki’s desire for fascist control and world domination clearly echoes the franchise’s desire for a similarly passive and willing global audience. Meanwhile, Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) remains as smug and snarky as ever. If anything, by the end of the movie, the ensemble does him a favor—a little Stark goes quite a long way. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the focal point of many of the film’s most amusingly memorable moments, but his inner conflict, as Bruce Banner explains late, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when looking back at earlier developments in the film.

Meanwhile, Captain America (Chris Evans) retains his inherent, necessary dullness—has anyone else noticed that Evans’ narcissistic “hero” in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) would make a far more interesting character to build a big-budget action movie around? At the same time, “dullness” here isn’t meant as an insult, as part of the appeal of his earlier film was the way it articulated this romanticized nostalgia for an earlier (imaginary) period of impossible heroism which remains the guiding myth of selflessness and sacrifice for the Avengers today. Yet the film misses a chance to play more on Captain America’s anachronism—the sense of his temporal out-of-place-ness in the modern era. Although, it must be pointed out, a throwaway joke between him and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), which plays to his “datedness,” may be quietly the most clever and subversive moment in the entire franchise (though I was left wondering how he managed to not lose his wallet after all these years, or why he would still need money now, but whatever).

One is left wondering how long before the inevitable sequel. Despite the obscene amounts of money the film will continue to make, Disney and Paramount may wish to slow down a bit, letting the anticipation building for another reunion to resonate across several other films first. Part of why The Avengers works at all is the rare novelty of uniting this cast of characters. If we get a new one every two years, the appeal will grow old very quickly, and the plot holes, character inconsistencies and rushed development on display in this one will become more and more glaringly apparent. The franchise would be wise to ease up on the pedal, go back to the individual films and revisit an Avengers sequel further down the road.

The Raven (2012)

As with his debut film, V for Vendetta (2006), director James McTeigue seems attracted to projects which offer highly stylized and factually loose interpretations of noted historical figures, situated amongst settings which exude postmodern pastiche. In The Raven (2012), John Cusack plays the legendary American author and poet Edgar Allen Poe who discovers that a serial killer is loose in Baltimore, and who is using excerpts from his body of work as the muse to a series of grisly killings. Although the film is set in 18th Century America, one feels as though the entire narrative exists within a purely imaginary space as much rooted in the generic literary iconography of Gothic America as in any actual historical research on the time and place. Is historical fidelity the main goal of the film? Should it be? No, and no. But, on a visceral level, such creative superficiality speaks to a larger shallow incoherence which mars the film. The Raven seems to be using a hodgepodge of classic Poe references—sure to go over the heads of the other 90% of non-Literature majors in the audience—as a means to lend a certain aura of prestige to an otherwise lifeless genre tale.

The Raven ambitiously seeks to fill that unexplored niche of the “torture porn” market which caters to the literary crowd, though one is doubtful that those die-hard academics scattered in English departments across the country will find much of value in the film either. The film is ultimately as condescending and it is celebratory in its treatment of Poe’s final days. On the plus side, Luke Evans’ performance as the inspector who (predictably) at first suspects Poe’s involvement in the crimes only to eventually side with him continues to suggest a career on the way up. However, his character’s function in the end seems to serve little purpose beyond the closure offered in a tacked-on ending. Cusack’s performance, meanwhile, is rather uneven; he starts out with a good faith effort to channel the voice and mannerisms we might attribute to Poe, but halfway through the movie seems to abandon the effort, descending into bouts of general yelling not unlike the second half of the much sharper Room 1408 (2007).

Is The Raven a terrible film? No, especially when placed within the larger context of a B-movie cinematic legacy filled with other cheesy Poe “adaptations”—dating back to the days of Roger Corman—with little interest in the figure’s actual biography or body of work. Again, it’s not fair to judge the film against such criteria; yet, the fascinating challenge for future filmmakers would be precisely to tell an engaging story within the confines of such facts without resorting to obvious genre clich├ęs, or hiding behind historical indifference in the name of creative liberty. The latter actually makes one’s job more, not less, challenging. By reducing Poe’s (fictionalized) final days to the backdrop of a generic serial killer story, the filmmakers certainly give themselves more narrative leeway, but the end result must be judged against that wider range of creative possibility—where it does not fare too well.