Having gabbed at some length regarding Hollywood's abject betrayal of our cultural hunger for narrative, Elmo Keep and Maria Bustillos repaired to the movies to remedy the defects in their Summer Blockbuster education this weekend. Keep took in The Amazing Spider-Man, and Bustillos, Prometheus.
EK: I quite enjoyed the Spider-Movie!
MB: NO, Elmo.
EK: Tell me why this new one fails. It is pretty audacious I guess. You could not call something "The Amazing Prometheus."
MB: They're trying to be retro. And FAILING to be retro. O the terrible heart-clutching betrayal of this new Spider-Man.
MB: Here's the thing. The myth of Spider-Man is that he's an ordinary teenager who's suddenly crushed by two terrible burdens: one, fate has brought him these superpowers, and two, he feels culpable in the death of his Uncle Ben. The whole pleasure of the story is in seeing him learn to bear his afflictions, and all that goes with them; to transcend the pain, but never forget it. You can always feel him looking back at the mistakes of his youth, choosing to do right because of the awful price he paid for his earlier moral failures. There's hardly an adult who can't cop to the same.
MB: Never again will Peter Parker "take the quick and easy path," as they say in Jedi circles. So it's crucially important that he remain morally consistent after the death of Ben. Where was this message in the new film? They were getting off on some kind of adorable-rebellious-goofball trip that completely undercut the origin story. Ugh, I felt just so horrible watching this thing.
EK: He certainly does not seem burdened in this film, skating around listening to Coldplay WHAT THE SHIT
MB: The worst is the robbery scene, which Sam Raimi handled immaculately in the 2002 version. Tobey Maguire's Parker is visibly ambivalent about letting the robber escape. The moral question makes itself dimly evident to him even before Ben's death. Just like anyone, the seeds of the responsible adult are present in the irresponsible, selfish child. Then the realization of his role in Ben's death, facing the truth, causes the adult character to take root in him.
In the new Spider-Man, this episode is trivialized beyond all reckoning. There's no relationship established between Garfield's Spider-Man and the guy being robbed: the business about borrowing a penny for a chocolate milk couldn't be more random or meaningless.
Basically, I thought they sacrificed the whole of the origin story to turning this Andrew Garfield into a rock star. Do Ya Think He's Sexy. Well, fine.
MB: See, I find that a little bit depressing.
EK: Because I have little investment in Spider-Man, I quite enjoyed it on the entertainment level—some of it, particularly a moment at the end—was visually stunning, more so than Prometheus.
MB: Which one?
EK: When the blue cloud bomb goes off, that was beautiful.
MB: Oh yes. I thought both movies were beautiful, if a bit bludgeoning. But Prometheus. First things first. OMG what a GAWDAWFUL movie.
Elmo Keep: PLAY A FLUTE, ALIENS. It is the absolute worst.
MB: At the end I was simply longing for them to tear everybody's head off like Fassbender's.
EK: If only!
MB: Rooting for the squelchy forced-blowjob octopus guys!!
EK: For Cthulhu, you are rooting.
EK: No amount of preparation for how bad it is can prepare you.
MB: They just squash Charlize Theron with a slowly-rolling spaceship, by golly.
EK: Dodge, Charlize! Sideways!
MB: Not quick enough, alas. And HOW much too much can we say about the magical insta-bortion machine.
EK: Never enough.
MB: With auto-stapling!
EK: Or, her incredible ability to STAND STRAIGHT UP and then go on some brief workouts, followed by some one-two, and rappel down these enormous cliffs.
MB: Yeah!! It's SCIENCE.
MB: I do love Idris Elba, can I say. I would watch that man read a phone book.
EK: Truly he is delicious for my eyes.
In this interview with the Prometheus writers, which is SO UNCOMFORTABLE it's amazing, it comes out that from pitch to screen was 2.5 years&jmdash;that is extraordinarily fast.
MB: Hard-hitting reporting, there! "How comes it that you are so awesome, exactly?"
EK: Then there is the part where Damon Lindelof basically says that they as writers deliberately stopped caring about answering the plot questions halfway through the movie. "So we set up all these questions and then it's like, forget about that! We're in survival mode now, and it's all action." Which, fuck you.
This is the most transparent pitch for a sequel you could imagine. "Oh, it doesn't make sense? Wait for the sequel! Please hire me, Damon Lindelof, not that other guy who pitched it first, to write it too." Even if that sequel, should it eventuate, provides the most mind-alteringly satisfactory and challenging conclusion, I'll still have residual anger because Prometheus was so terrible. Which is I think my anger still about "Lost," actually. I was really invested in "Lost."
MB: Crikey, this interview. "It explodes the archetypes of the universe in this Russian doll of fanatically connected ideas, which gets really interesting," UGH no it doesn't and that is when I clicked SHUT UP, YOU. Ludicrous, trying to dress up the penny-ante nihilism of this daft movie like "ideas," or something.
(Does he mean "fantastically"? No no no noooo, whatever I don't even.)
EK: What I don't understand is, why is there not a script editor who is hired before shooting begins, to read the script with notes as to if or not it makes basic narrative sense. This seems like a minor storytelling investment to make. I should not have to read some dude's insane 4500+ word Space Jesus theory (WHICH IS WRONG) about Prometheus after the fact in order to understand Prometheus. Prometheus should make sense on a basic storytelling level.
MB: I had the same thought over and over during The Not Even Mildly Amazing Spider-Man, and I have a terrible theory about it—namely, that a compelling narrative would be distracting from the sexy stars and the special effects. Same with The Avengers, the whole thing was reduced to the cute little catchphrases of each character, just like in that old episode of the "Simpsons".
So after the movie maybe you will buy a poster of the sexy stars, maybe you will pay to see them in the next movie, exactly as you were intended to do. Maybe you'll buy toys, games, etc. to do with the visuals, the effects. But the studio can't sell you anything particular that is to do with the ideas or emotions called up by a story.
Not to say that this is a deliberately cynical policy, but like, if they have a choice between evoking narrative interest and including a gag or something "adorably sexy" (blech) or an explosion, they will choose those latter things.
EK: This is 100% true of Prometheus.
MB: Isn't that a horrible thing even to think, that storytelling itself is being subverted by commercial considerations, not just now and then, but invariably?
EK: And I wonder if it is even more basic, or base, than that, in that studios' market research would indicate that giant explosions and special effects in themselves sell tickets. So forget story, 97% of the time.
EK: I felt this very much with Inception, too, even though I know we disagree there—that story was second to effects which looked like money being burned right before your eyes.
MB: O yes we super disagree there, I love that thing. So I am giantly looking forward to the next Batman, because I love Nolan's movies.
EK: ARGH HATE SO MUCH
MB: Really?! Tell me, how come??
EK: BURTON FOREVER. I find Christopher Nolan films to be like big-budget art films that a very clever teenager has been allowed to make who has read a lot of existentialism.
They lack for me an emotional resonance, and not in a Kubrickian way that is deliberate; they just feel hollow. Fleshed-out character relationships are a very distant second or third to how cool the film looks or how twist-laden the plot is. Like, The Prestige: "Ah ha! The trick was that you didn't notice this film made almost no sense because WOW this twist and look at that dog with a fluffy tail!" There are vast tracts of The Dark Knight that make no sense; there feels like a whole reel is missing from the section where Commissioner Gordon disappears from the narrative, for instance.
My issue with all these big Hollywood action/sci-fi films that are supposedly "brainy" is that they are not. The Dark Knight, Inception, Prometheus, none of these make any narrative sense, but apparently they bamboozle us with their sheer cleverness and the crazy metaness of their concepts and set pieces that we aren't meant to notice? We aren't meant to catch that they say nothing thematically, but rather dangle a bunch of sorta-cool but mainly ponderous ideas in front of the audience and then do nothing whatsoever to explore them meaningfully?
MB: Haha that is so perfect, I am so guilty as charged, there. Even my kids say that I am an overgrown teenager. I guess I am still all brooding and existential deep down inside, and if I could get away with it I would still dress like a goth, maybe.
EK: I ride a baby bicycle TO WORK so I feel you.
EK: *baby blue!
EK: NOT BABY BICYCLE
MB: Now I am sad. I really, really wanted it to be a baby bicycle.
MB: Well… I think that Inception is very ambitious; I do think it touches on deeper themes meaningfully, and I love that movie a lot. But asking a movie audience to follow you into a world of abstractions, to explore the purposes of art and the relationship between artist and audience, which are the concerns of that movie as I understand it—that's asking a lot. You're right to the extent that Inception is not successful as a story. And that's a real defect. But I think Inception is valuable as a document, something to be reexamined, reread like a book. For me it's like Synecdoche, that way.
The new Spider-Man by contrast has very little to redeem it. It is mainly faithful to the idea that good-looking kids falling in love are fun to watch, which yes they are. Also, the photography and images in the movie are super gorgeous and inventive.
EK: But I have little investment in it as a universe. I was always team Bat. It was made very clear to me as a young that life was a contest and so I chose Batman, which was, I think, because of how affected I was by Burton's Batman as a kid. So I was really into the Knightfall series of Batman comics when I was around twelve years old, and they really affected me also. I could barely read the "breaking of Batman" issue, it was too much. And this was very influential on the Dark Knight reboot, which is where I bring the sort of fandom level to it that you do to Spider-Man.
MB: Oh yeah, I am way more a Spider-freak. But always more than willing to perform inter-universal travel.
EK: There's so much praise for how beautiful Prometheus is, which it most definitely is. But that's kind of like praising the beauty of an Aston Martin; it's extraordinarily expensive and made by expert craftspeople. Part of its function is to be beautiful. Prometheus is like an extremely beautiful car with no engine. Ridley Scott secured development money that was solely for putting together the design bible for the film, down to really minute details, before anything even got written. His background is design, so it is no surprise that he cared that much about those elements. It's like he was so absorbed in getting things to look amazing that he just swatted away the writers, like, "Whatever you're doing is fine!"
MB: HERE IS THE EXPENSIVE SPECIAL EFFECTS.
EK: Yes! But they worked for me in Spider-Man. Plus I cried three times! Maybe I was tired.
MB: I cried zero times. When did you cry?
EK: This Spider-Boy has a lot of FEELINGS, he cries often. Something about watching dudes cry.
When he screams on the roof when the commissioner dies, Uncle Ben (screaming again), and something that happened with Emma Stone, I think the part where he says he won't let anything happen to her.
MB: He has feelings that appear to be all about himself; he more performs his feelings, for you to admire. Beautiful performance-crying, like Demi Moore in Ghost.
p.s. I loved the Morgenstern review where he is sticking up for Sally Field. It made him mad that she was so frumpy in it. "Blue-collar women wash their hair, too."
EK: She certainly got over her husband's death fast. And Spider-Boy just gives up looking for the dude who shot Uncle Ben? Okay.
MB: For reals?! on both things?!
EK: Plus it had too many spiders, a big problem for me.
MB: ONE SPIDER, please.
EK: WHUT, there was the ROOM OF SPIDERS
THAT FELL ON HIM
MB: Ah yes, the famous Keep arachnophobia.
EK: There was A LOT of inexplicable "doing science!" in this movie.
MB: The WORST doing science. Also: goes on Google, which I guess none of the other Science-Whiz kids knew how to do.
EK My boyfriend is very fond of yelling "Doing science!" at cop shows and forensic procedurals. "What's happening here on this computer?" "Never you mind, just DOING SCIENCE!"
MB: Haha, my husband was a biochemistry undergrad and he goes plumb loco when they start showing animated DNA strands changing color and jitterbugging around.
EK: Also, Google my dead parents FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER.
EK: Never really felt the threat of Dr. Cloverfield, either.
MB: Surprise! You didn't happen to know that the girl you have a crush on at school is a Super Scientist with a gig at Super Science Corp. that has a lot of top-secret areas in there!! I guess you two aren't in any classes together.
MB: She's a tour guide?! Very geniusy!
EK: And also it's cool, yo. Just walk around our secret facility, no one will mind.
MB: Just wait for someone to enter a key code, you memorize it and boom! There you are in fluorescent hi-tech Spiderlandia.
EK: And her father is an amazingly loaded police chief!
MB: And you never knew!! That she is blisteringly rich with her police-commissioner dad!! He was probably close with Rudy Giuliani.
EK: This was the worst casting I have ever seen. There is no way to make Dennis Leary into someone we are meant to care about. All I can think about Dennis Leary is, "there's the guy who stole from Louis CK" and is a terrible actor.
MB: Truer words.
EK: But! I LOVE Emma Stone, adore Emma Stone.
MB: LOVE EMMA STONE.
EK: Want to be BFFs with Emma Stone.
MB: But even the unending charm of Emma Stone is insufficient to make up for the BETRAYAL of Spider-Man's failure to buy the eggs that his aunt had asked him to buy. Just, no no no no no. NO.
EK: It was all so we could have the lovely egg presentation scene later on. Look, I didn't break the eggs!
MB: Right, it's turned into another aren't-I-adorable thing. A mockery. In Raimi's version, Peter Parker at whatever cost produces the danged cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner. Priorities. Teasing but very gently. "I had to beat an old lady with a stick to get these cranberries." This is a matter of FIDELITY. To himself. To Uncle Ben. TO ME.
EK: I remembered the eggs! I swung them all over town and they are not an omelette!
MB: Seriously whatever, Spider-Boy, you are a self-infatuated boob who knows a little too well how fetching are those puppy-dog eyes.
Hence my egg-trauma.
EK: As a casual Spider consumer, I found the Raimi films to be this wholly complete immersive universe right off the bat. But this film, not so much.
EK: There was a lot of care in those, you could see. (And I really miss JK Simmons. He is the best! More “Law & Order” actors in feature films!)
MB: This speaks to a deeper problem, I fear, this thing I wanted to talk about most. There seems to have been a shift, even from ten short years ago when the Raimi Spider-Man came out. Because that is a spectacular piece of storytelling, at the risk of sounding like a total doof. That movie is about human qualities motivated by empathy, and the contrast and tension between eros and agape.
The scandalous Tad Friend profile of Ben Stiller in the New Yorker [paywall], "Funny is Money," only reinforces the suspicion that American movies are in untrustworthy hands. Here is Stiller, just flabbergastingly, on the subject of filming "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which it is pretty clearly going to be a complete catastrophe even though it is based on one of James Thurber's funniest and most beautiful stories: "If I say to Fox that this movie is like 'Little Miss Sunshine' or 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' they freak out, understandably, because they're spending real money and they need to sell it as a big comedy." Friend also quotes Tim Rothman, the CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment: "The movie business cannot only make comic books and sequels, because at a certain point there would be no 'Avatar 2' or 'Avatar 3,' because there had been no 'Avatar.' At a certain point, probably now, you run out [...] So we needed to make it happen, to take the big risk. [...] Responsibly, and protecting your shareholders, make it happen."
Lunacy aside, please note the clear suggestion that if it were remotely possible to continue coining it at the box office via just comic books and sequels, mes amis, that is exactly what we would be getting. At first blush this looks like cowardice, selfishness, the merest corporate careerism. Haven't these guys seen The Player? (Or Jesus, maybe they have seen The Player.) Maybe the cravenness is so blatant because the recession has put so much pressure on everyone on the earth who wants to keep his job right now.
Even so, these statements demonstrate a moral, aesthetic and intellectual deficiency that carries straight into the heart of the culture. Here is the cost, if those who determine what we can see, share and talk about on the grand scale are frankly explaining that they are all about the shareholders. In this confiding tone, both Stiller and Rothman saying hey, it's a lot of money! Understandably!—we just can't afford to make good movies and we are too scared to try! No, not understandably.
EK: This is the great sadness of Prometheus for me. Going back to that Lindelof/ Spaihts interview for a moment, in it Jon Spaihts says it takes an auteur like Ridley Scott to sell a studio on an ambitious, huge film like Prometheus which is trafficking in ideas (in completely unoriginal ways, it turns out) like the Origin of Man™. This is the sort of thing that freaks out a studio spending millions of dollars! So, get in that guy who did the Star Trek reboot, that was popular? He can't write an ending to save his life? Whatever! Just get that guy, he's bankable. And then you get what you get in this ungodly mess of a film.