Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


July 13, 2016

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Dissenting Opinions: Everyone Does Not Get an Arc

@vitogulla yells at the Internet once again

It seems like anymore that the politics—or potential politics—of a movie have begun to outweigh the quality of a movie. That is to say, as Bret Easton Ellis puts it, ideology trumping aesthetics. This trend, unfortunately, seems to be only worsening as the new culture wars play out, and our corporate movie overlords do their damnest to reinvent old franchises to compel us back to theaters. Strangely, these ends of the spear have received little push back from artists themselves, with many bowing to the demands of both. On the one hand, the artist is supposed to have a moral obligation to control all meaning or potential meaning of the text. Should someone read a message that some Neoplatonist finds corrupting, then the text is somehow less meaningful, less aesthetic. This is particularly hard to accept in the face of undecidability. On the other hand, we face the growing commodity fetishism of art, where a movie is no longer a series of images on screen designed to demand our empathy but a monetary value to be collected and counted. These two tensions have formed a odd kinship in recent years and may be one of the reasons that this has been one of the worst summers for movies in recent years. It has infected not only how we perceive art but how it is made. 

When we look at a movie like say, Captain America: Civil War or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we find an enormous cast of characters, all of whom are sanitized and purified, purged of any possible sins to avoid sending a disheartening message. Characters must be, first and foremost, likable, affable, a true friend. Moreover, filmmakers shouldn’t leave out anyone’s favorite, as they too must be thrown in to the mix. These large diverse casts, while well-meaning, only serve to muddle the story at its center. In Avengers, there’s never an explanation of how Bruce Banner can suddenly control his rage: He just can. In The Force Awakens, Rey can use a Jedi mind without any training. In Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther recognizes the errors of his ways because the plot demands it. These characters have no grand epiphanies. There is no causation for their actions. They do it because the plot needs it to happen. Strangely, it because of these choices that character has been dwarfed by plot. The protagonist does not drive the story along in opposition to the antagonist. Things happen to create a semblance of causation, not because of some equal and opposite reaction. 

Why exactly do these movies need such large casts? Why should there be so many characters? How do all those people help tell the story of one person? They don’t. Han Solo’s story in Force Awakens, his reconciliation with his son, has no bearing on the rest of the story. It is not, as far as we know, his character goal when we first meet him. And it doesn’t intersect with Rey’s or Finn’s stories either, even though all three are ostensibly about finding a family. What commentary does Han’s death provide on those other two? Finn doesn’t even seem to know what he wants other than to run away from the First Order. 

But all of this, at its heart, is founded on good intentions. The need for representation. It is, I would agree, an admirable thing. There is something irrationally pleasing seeing someone who represents you onscreen. However, what we are seeing is not the case. These characters are not our protagonists, the focal center of our story. In many cases, these characters have competing narratives with other characters, which do not compliment each other. The truth is, in order for a story to work, you cannot tell everyone’s story. They are all in service of our protagonist. 

Look at a movie like Aliens. It has a somewhat large cast too. But none of them ever are as complex or developed as Ripley. She is the focal center. And her goal is to accept what she has lost and make life anew. She is the agent of change in the story. Newt, who has a similar goal, is never more than Ripley’s surrogate child, the replacement for the daughter she had lost. Newt has wants, desires, motivations, but once she crosses that initial hurdle, she never really changes. She always stays Newt. So too does Hicks, Burke, Bishop, and the rest of the crew. They never really change. It is Ripley’s perception of them that changes. Ripley learns that Hicks is a pretty good guy, that Burke is nothing more than a manipulator only interested in money, that Bishop isn’t going to betray her. This is the rhetoric of the text, the way it colors our understanding of the world. 

Some might cry foul at this point, citing that just from such a brief description, we can infer a political message in the movie. I no doubt agree. But to suggest, simply, that this is a “good” message or the “right” one or even worse the only one is to, as Nieztche wrote in Birth of Tragedy, condemn “art, all art, to the realm of falsehood. Behind such a mode of thought and valuation, which, if at all genuine, must be hostile to art, I always experienced what was hostile to life, the wrathful, vindictive counterwill to life itself: for all life rests on appearance, art, illusion, optics, necessity of perspective and error.” It is the word that ends the quote I’d like to focus on, “error.” There is no conclusive truth to existence, and how we perceive it is all just “error.” We cannot say, definitively, that corporate interests should always be depicted as duplicitous or that the military must always be shown to be super macho or that mothers must be presented as strong, willing to do anything for their children. These are not truths. And to do the same with any political discourse possibly expressed through art, whether you agree or disagree, is to imbue it with the centrality and perfection of Christianity’s God.

So what’s a filmmaker, or any artist, to do? If we are truly interested in representing the diverse experience that is human existence, our emphasis should be on a human being—not all human being. Force Awakens could have very well have been a very good movie. It had plenty of talent behind the camera and in front of it, but the vastness of its story was too large for a two hour movie. No movie could achieve its goals, at least not in the timespan of most modern feature films. 

Character matters. 

The protagonist is the heart and soul of every story. It is, first and foremost, their story. Had J. J. Abrams just told Finn’s story or Rey’s story, it likely would have been a much better movie as one of those characters could have been fully developed and explored rather than the uncertain mess we have now. Of course, what could have been does not matter very much. 

And of course, we have others who falsely claim that we cannot empathize with those onscreen who do not look like us. That is possibly even more disheartening, as it presumes we are all little sociopaths, unable to look beyond our own navels, but such an evaluation is foolhardy to say the least. Regardless of the protagonist, regardless of identity or morality, we will always empathize with them as long as they are drawn well and their motivations clear. I would like to think that this kind of fan-service, both to those of the movie’s universe and to those of a particular political aim, would marry itself with good storytelling, placing its reliance on the aesthetic and the formal over "meaning" and "inclusion," but if this summer movie season is any indication, I won’t get my hopes up.    

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast and writes the column "Dissenting Opinions." He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead Chapel, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla                    


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