Monday, April 30, 2007

"Summer of the Sequel"... again

Reading the countless entertainment reports previewing the summer box office is just as mind-numbing as the movies they claim to be. These "insider previews" are often hugely hypocritical in their predicatably jaunty critiques of how lazy Hollwyood is, pointing to all the summer sequels as evidence of the creative exodus that is always seemingly looming on the horizon. Amazing how the end is always so near, isn't it?

Let it be known, I will be seeing many of the major sequels released this summer, and I have no qualms about doing so. Will some of them be disappointing? Almost certainly. But if there's one thing I've learned over the past few summers at the movies, it's that a good movie - or even a great movie - can come in any form and in the most unexpected places. (In coming entries, I will explain why I believe some recent sequels are very good, even superb, e.g. Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Spiderman 2.) Nevertheless, some "serious" film lovers would claim that in seeing these Hollywood films and sequels, I am betraying my love of cinema. According to these elitists, the only movies worth seeing are independent and foreign films, many of which are very good. But I think this attitude of film going is quite damaging to someone interested in cinema.

I routinely encourage people to take chances on movies of all kinds and I would agree that too many film goers are stuck on the familiar, cliche conventions of Hollywood fare. But to align oneself on the opposite extreme of the mainstream is arguably just as foolish and close-minded as passive summer sequel film goers. Often, such viewers are equally predictable, comfortably fitting the alternative niche of dominant modes of filmmaking, taking to anything that's "new" and "different" from the pre-determined safe styles of Hollywood films. As a movie lover and critic, I try to see as many films as I can from varying economic, cultural, and social spheres. I am not of the belief that because a story or film treads on established grounds that it's not worth seeing, or for that matter that sequels are inherently a waste of time. Obviously, if one must be selective regarding what she or he sees, sequels or big budget blockbusters in general are obviously not the best selections for someone who loves the art of cinema. But that does not mean that they are fundamentally bad by definition. Vowing not to see a seuqel on the grounds of it being a studio cash-in or a slam to the credibility of film as art is a particularly foolish notion in my mind, as it is almost impossible to separate art from commerce in matters of cinema. Now, I also do not propose that film lovers should be bullied by "the bludgeon blows of mass marketing" (to quote the great Roger Ebert) and onlysee big budget fare or summer sequels either. For me, it's all about balance.

Regarding my own film viewing thus far in 2007, while I tend to get a slow start into the cinematic year, this is the first year in recent memory in which I haven't seen a theatrical release in its first four months. This accounts for why I haven't kept up with the film reviews I intended to write over these months. As I have been working on two substantial research projects (as mentioned here), it's been very difficult to write about matters not related to them. But I'm coming down the home stretch, and in just a few weeks I hope to change direction by providing reviews and commentaries of Hollywood's summer film output, including Spiderman 3, Shrek the Third, Ratatouille, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Stardust, Transformers, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I also plan to review other projects I've been looking forward to, notably Rescue Dawn, The Ten, and possibly Black Sheep. (Note: For an excellent short preview of the true variety of films coming out this summer, check out Scott Balcerzak's recent blog at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope.)

I think it's important to see a wide variety of films, which is why I must be choosy when it comes to which sequels to attend, which smaller films to see, and so on. When it comes to sequels, these decisions are informed by my experience with previous entries in the film franchise. For example, while I do not love either of the previous "Pirates" films, I liked them enough (each in its own way) to warrant my anticipation of the third film. While I thought Shrek was a very good film, its first sequel lacked its freshness and revealed itself as not so much a movie but a product. While I suspect that Shrek the Third may be more in line with the second film than the first, I will see it based on my interest in the franchise and the small desire that it may be different. My future with the franchise depends on this film, however. If it sinks, so too does my desire for any more "Shrek" films. I could go on about all of the summer sequels, but the point to take from this is that each of the sequels I see is preceded by film/s that are interesting and good. And based on the previous output of" Shrek", "Pirates", The "Bourne" films, "Harry Potter", and "Spiderman" franchises, they each warrant sequel viewing this summer.

I do wish that significantly less coverage was awarded in the mainstream journalistic circuit to the mega-budgeted movies and that more attention was given to smaller, quirckier films, but I suppose smaller films don't pay the bills like Disney's "Pirates" film do. Nevertheless, some of these sequels and big budget movies may be genuinely good. I have learned a while ago that sequels (especially to mediocre films) can be very worth the time and very relevant. Having just completed a paper on the hero myth in post-9/11 American cinema, I can attest from my application of a mythical framework to cinema (something I was not previously accustomed to at all) that many of these big budget movies and sequels are worth seeing and represent revealing reflections and projections of our concerns, feelings, and fantasies as a culture. This is part of the reason why cinema is so important as an aesthetic medium. There are so many ways to consume it as movie lovers, critics, and average film goers.

If one truly loves cinema as an art form and medium for communication, then refusing to acknowledge or partake in particular spheres of it severely undermines that love. Capitalism, consumerism, and political economy are part of cinema as an institution in culture and human society. This much is undeniable. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are innumerable possibilities with regard to criticism of cinema. Why must we limit ourselves as critics? As for those of us who are movie lovers in general, balance is key.

On that note, as the air outside heats up and the days grow longer, may your time in the cooled darkness of movie auditoriums this summer be enjoyable and well-spent.


Adam Ross said...

I was recently watching one of the documentaries on the latest "Aliens" DVD, and one of the film's producers touched on something I hadn't thought about before: "Aliens" really jumpstarted the whole Hollywood sequel engine. She said big time sequels kind of had a bad name before "Aliens" (a few exceptions of course), and think about all the sequels that came in the years following "Aliens."

Pacze Moj said...

There's also the issue of non-Hollywood sequels: Sanjuro to Yojimbo, or Truffaut's Antione Doinel trilogy.

And, if people who like non-Hollywood films like those sequels, then they can't really argue against sequels, just against Hollywood sequels.

In which case, they just don't like Hollywood.

Ted Pigeon said...

Very true, pacze. Many so called indie-exclusive film people tend not to realize that the commerce end of film and filmmaking effects the films they watch too.

Adam: interesting point about Aliens. I guess I always thought it all started with The Empire Strikes Back and then the Indiana Jones films. You make a good point in that after Aliens, it became very popular, very quickly. I guess that Aliens is unique as well because while Alien was very successful, it wasn't as successfull as Indiana Jones or Star Wars. So you could say it opened the door for sequels to all kinds of films, not just by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Another notable aspect of Aliens is that it's a brilliant sequel - a great case of a sequel really advancing the world and characters of the preceding film with no interest in rehashing it. It is a perfect example of just how unique sequels really can be.

Damian said...

One could also argue, I think, that the phenomenon of the successful (perhaps even superior) sequel really started with the second Godfather movie.

Great post, Ted. Well said.

jason sperb said...

Hi Ted,
just an fyi--its not my post on summer films. It belongs to Scott Balcerzak.


Ted Pigeon said...

My apologies, Jason. Strange how I did that. When I read it, I knew it was Scott's piece. But then I read the piece below it, which was yours, and when I made the reference, I was thinking your name. It's been corrected. Thanks for point it out.

Scott Balcerzak said...

There is a real part of me that is fine to indulge in even the crassest of commercial sequels, with all their pointless flash. Unlike most popular critics, I found myself entertained by last summer's Pirate sequel - which, despite its muddled plot, really felt like one of the few onscreen "parties" last year worth attending.
In other words, it was a chance to watch Johnny Depp and cast have fun playing pirate dress-up and jump around like self-acknowledging action cartoons. I suspect I will have the same forgiving attitude towards the next one, simply because the great Geoffrey Rush is back onboard to out-ham Depp.
It isn't subtle art, but it is something related to the grand tradition of Hollywood spectacle, both visual and star spectacle, which is nothing new. For a research project, I've spent the last week looking at Depression era Busby Berkeley musical comedies starring Eddie Cantor. In a way, blockbuster sequels are a similar aesthetic in that they contain familiar, well-liked stars surrounded by a visual flash of some sort. Given the heat, gas prices, gun violence, disappearing bees, and (especially) the unending war, this need for familiar spectacle is not surprising in America. And, to be honest, I enjoy the pure escapism of it as well.
But I do wish this spectacle cinema would try to be slightly more original. Couldn't somebody do something not based on previous films or proven source material? I mostly find it discouraging that studios won't bankroll a flashy spectacle with a completely original concept and unknown characters.

Ted Pigeon said...

Great points, Scott. One could argue that all of narrative serves the purpose of distraction and momentary indulgence in someone else's conflict. It projects our cultural desires for happy endings, closure, and meaning, one could say. And it encourages us to shape our own experiences and narratives as such. Mythical Criticism is a great mode of criticism to apply to narrative and cinema, especially, since Carl Jung claimed that cinema is a cultural dreamscape, representing to a culture what a dream is to an individual, a haven for repressed feelings, concerns, and desires.

By the way, I'm inclined to agree with you about Pirates 2. It's one of the few summer films last year that, despite its sloppy first act, really displayed some sort of imagination in its visuals. It certainly has its flaws and indulgences, but I liked the film precisely because it was kind of all-over-the-place. I enjoyed the ride, to be honest. And it's great that Geoffrey Rush is returning.