Posts Tagged ‘Cinema’

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (1oo years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]

An old Star Trek episode called “A Taste for Armageddon” depicts Capt. Kirk and crew confronting a planetary culture that has adopted purely administrative warfare with a nearby planet, where computer simulations determine outcomes of battles and citizens/inhabitants are notified to report for their destruction in disintegration chambers to comply with those outcomes. Narrative resolution is tidied up within the roughly 1-hour span of the episode, of course, but it was and is nonetheless a thought-provoking scenario. The episode, now 50 years old, prophesies a hyper-rational approach to conflict. (I was 4 years old at the time it aired on broadcast television, and I don’t recall having seen it since. Goes to show how influential high-concept storytelling can be even on someone quite young.) The episode came to mind as I happened across video showing how robot soldiers are being developed to supplement and eventually replace human combatants. See, for example, this:

The robot in the video above is not overtly militarized, but there is no doubt that it will could be. Why the robot takes bipedal, humanoid form with an awkwardly high center of gravity is unclear to me beyond our obvious self-infatuation. Additional videos with two-wheeled, quadriped, and even insect-like multilegged designs having much improved movement and flexibility can be found with a simple search. Any of them can be transformed into ground-based killing machines, as suggested more manifestly in the video below highlighting various walking, rolling, flying, floating, and swimming machines developed to do our dirty work:

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I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.

I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.

About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.

As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.

Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.

So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.

I watched John Pilger’s excellent documentary film The War You Don’t See (2010), which deals with perpetual and immoral wars, obfuscations of the governments prosecuting them, and the journalistic media’s failure to question effectively the lies and justifications that got us into war and keeps us there. The documentary reminded me of The Fog of War (2003), Robert McNamara’s rueful rethinking of his activities as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (thus, the Vietnam War). Seems that lessons a normal, sane person might draw from experience at war fail to find their way into the minds of decision makers, who must somehow believe themselves to be masters of the universe with immense power at their disposal but are really just war criminals overseeing genocides. One telling detail from Pilger’s film is that civilian deaths (euphemistically retermed collateral damage in the Vietnam era) as a percentage of all deaths (including combatants) have increased from 10% (WWI) to 50% (WWII) to 70% (Vietnam) to 90% (Afghanistan and Iraq). That’s one of the reasons why I call them war criminals: we’re depopulating the theaters of war in which we operate.

After viewing the Pilger film, the person sitting next to me asked, “How do you know what he’s saying is true?” More fog. I’m ill-equipped to handle such direct epistemological challenge; it felt to me like a non sequitur. Ultimately, I was relieved to hear that the question was mere devil’s advocacy, but it’s related to the epistemological crisis I’ve blogged about before. Since the date of that blog post, the crisis has only worsened, which is what I expect as legitimate authority is undermined, expertise erodes, and the public sphere devolves into gamification and gotchas (or a series of ongoing cons). If late-stage capitalism has become a nest of corruption, the same is true — with unexpected rapidity — of the computer era and the Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore). One early expectation was that enhanced (24/7/365) access to information would yield impressive educational gains, as though the only thing missing were more information, but human nature being what it is, the first valuable innovations resulted from commercializing erotica and porn. Later debate and hand-wringing over the inaccuracy of Wikipedia and the slanted results of Google searches disappeared as everyone simply got used to not being able to trust those sources any too much, just as everyone got used to forfeiting their privacy online.

Today, everything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment is understood either with a grain of salt mountain of skepticism and held in abeyance until solid confirmation can be had (which often never comes) or simply run with because, well, what the hell? Journalists, the well-trained ones possessing integrity anyway, used to be in the first camp, but market forces and the near instantaneity of (faulty, spun) information, given how the Internet has lowered the bar to publication, have pushed journalists into the second camp. As Pilger notes, they have become echo chambers and amplifiers of the utterances of press agents of warmongering governments. Sure, fact checking still occurs, when it’s easy (such as on the campaign trail), but with war reporting in particular, which poses significant hurdles to information gathering, too many reporters simply repeat what they’re told or believe the staging they’re shown.

Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts, accepted narratives, and propagandist mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

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Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

Only one day away from the premiere of the new Star Wars film (in case it had escaped your notice), I must admit that I did not purchase advance tickets, nor will I likely see the film until some time in early 2016. (As a result, I rather expect to suffer from spoiler exposure, not that it matters much to me.) I have several reasons, but a happenstance conversation today caused me to consider that I may have made to wrong decision to defer.

Over time, I’ve grown numb to media hype, and I tend to be overwhelmed by large, anonymizing crowds and audiences. Smaller, more intimate settings have greater appeal to me. However, I can’t deny the irresistible emotional current that enlivens a truly engaged audience. Sports are perhaps the most sure-fire way of being swept into the crowd’s energy, though I’ve been witness to plenty of lifeless events, too, where players and fans are both merely putting in appearances or marking time. Live musical performance runs a similar gamut between transcendent and lifeless experience. The former is infrequent to rare, while the latter has been my assessment of the modern concert-going experience, and one’s experience is not improved by cranking up the volume to unbearable levels. Political rallies and activism offer further points of entry into the mob mind.

Viewing films in a movie theater is usually a better experience than watching on the TV at home. I’ve only been in theaters a handful of times this year, which has been consistently underwhelming in terms of both film quality and audience response. In fact, given the static nature of cinema, performers have no possibility of interacting with the audience vibe as with live theater, comedy, and music. However, given that I habitually avoid opening night crowds, I just might be shortchanging myself. I was told today that the long lines and breathless anticipation tend to bond audiences together, who typically cheer and applaud at the mere appearance onscreen of familiar and/or beloved characters. Basically, pent-up emotion is purged into the room, which may not possible once opening weekend has passed.

Unfortunately, the most hotly anticipated films these days are superhero blockbusters, which appeal especially to adolescents and adult fanboys still hopped up on hormones. Older, wiser, been-there-done-that adults like me may suffer from a lack of childlike wonder or suspension of disbelief, succumbing instead to jadedness and lethargy. So as we approach the new year, I make the resolution to attend an opening night showing just to see if there is something I’ve been missing out on.

I’m not a serious cineaste, but I have offered a few reviews on The Spiral Staircase. There are many, many cineastes out there, though, and although cinema is now an old medium (roughly 100 years old), cineastes tend to be on the younger side of 35 years. Sure, lots of established film critics are decidedly older, typically acting under the aegis of major media outlets, but I’m thinking specifically of the cohort who use new, democratized media (e.g., cheap-to-produce and -distribute YouTube channels) to indulge in their predilections. For example, New Media Rockstars has a list of their top 100 YouTube channels (NMR No. 1 contains links to the rest). I have heard of almost none of them, since I don’t live online like so many born after the advent of the Information/Communications Age. The one I pay particular attention to is Screen Junkies (which includes Honest Trailers, the Screen Junkies Show, and Movie Fights), and I find their tastes run toward childhood enthusiasms that mire their criticism in a state of permanent adolescence and self-mocking geekdom. The preoccupation with cartoons, comic books, action figures, superheros, and popcorn films couldn’t be more clear. Movies Fights presumes to award points on the passion, wit, and rhetoric of the fighters rather than quality of the films they choose to defend. However, adjudication is rarely neutral, since trump cards tend to get played when a superior film or actor is cited against an inferior one.

So I happened to catch three recent flicks that are central to Screen Junkies canon: Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Transformers: Age of Extinction (links unnecessary). They all qualify as CGI festivals — films centered on hyperkinetic action rather than story or character (opinions differ, naturally). The first two originate from the MCU (acronym alert: MCU = Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is lousy with comic book superheros) and the last is based on a Saturday-morning children’s cartoon. Watching grown men and a few women on Screen Junkies getting overexcited about content originally aimed at children gives me pause, yet I watch them to see what fighters say, knowing full well that thoughtful remarks are infrequent.

Were I among the fighters (no chance, since I don’t have my own media fiefdom), I would likely be stumped when a question needs immediate recall (by number, as in M:I:3 for the third Mission Impossible film) of a specific entry from any of numerous franchises pumping out films regularly like those named above. Similarly, my choices would not be so limited to films released after 1990 as theirs, that year being the childhood of most of the fighters who appear. Nor would my analysis be so embarrassingly visual in orientation, since I understand good cinema to be more about story and character than whiz-bang effects.

Despite the visual feast fanboys adore (what mindless fun!), lazy CGI festivals suffer worst from overkill, far outstripping the eye’s ability to absorb onscreen action fully or effectively. Why bother with repeat viewing of films with little payoff in the first place? CGI characters were interesting in and of themselves the first few times they appeared in movies without causing suspension of belief, but now they’re so commonplace that they feel like cheating. Worse, moviegoers are now faced with so many CGI crowds, clone and robot armies, zombie swarms, human-animal hybrids, et cetera ad nauseum, little holds the interest of jaded viewers. Thus, because so few scenes resonate emotionally, sheer novelty substitutes (ineffectively) for meaning, not that most chases or slugfests in the movies offer much truly original. The complaint is heard all the time: we’ve seen it before.

Here’s my basic problem with the three CGI-laden franchise installments I saw recently: their overt hypermilitarism. When better storytellers such as Kubrick or Coppola make films depicting the horrors of war (or other existential threats, such as the ever-popular alien invasion), their perspective is indeed that war is horrible, and obvious moral and ethical dilemmas flow from there. When hack filmmakers pile up frenzied depictions of death and destruction, typically with secondary or tertiary characters whose dispatch means and feels like nothing, and with cities destroyed eliciting no emotional response because it’s pure visual titillation, they have no useful, responsible, or respectable commentary. Even the Screen Junkies recognize that, unlike, say, Game of Thrones, none of their putative superheroes really face much more than momentary distress before saving the day in the third act and certainly no lasting injury (a little make-up blood doesn’t convince me). Dramatic tension simply drains away, since happy resolutions are never in doubt. Now, characters taking fake beatdowns are laughter inducing, sorta like professional wrestling after the sheepish admission that they’ve been acting all along. Frankly, pretend drama with nothing at stake is a waste of effort and the audience’s time and trust. That so many fanboys enjoy being goosed or that some films make lots of money is no justification. The latter is one reason why cinema so often fails to rise to the aspiration of art: it’s too bound up in grubbing for money.

This is a rant about review of Peter Jackson’s recently completed movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. My review of Tolkien’s novel is here.

Cinema and literature differ, the former being predominantly visual and the latter being textually descriptive. Oddly, the textual approach often yields better results when more is left to the reader’s imagination, sort of like simple darkness, the bogeyman in the closet, or the monster lurking under the bed but never seen. Tolkien’s Middle Earth inspired a rich tradition of illustration from the outset. Readers wanted to see what they imagined, and conceptual artists complied. I remember Middle Earth calendars from the 1970s featuring various characters, architectures, and landscapes, which now form the basis for the design aesthetic of Jackson’s endeavors. (Middle Earth calendars from the last decade often feature pictures of the actors, New Zealand, and/or the film sets, which are quite dissatisfying to me.)

Attempts to bring Middle Earth to life in cinema were exercises in failure before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) trilogy appeared (2001–2003). Until then, appealing as Tolkien’s characters and stories are, they were considered unfilmable in a film era where casts of thousands no longer exist. Technological innovation (i.e., CGI, the acronym for Computer-Generated Imagery) enabled Jackson to overcome many limitations. Casts and costumes could be abbreviated and sets could be made out of foam or rendered digitally. Sadly, those same innovations have returned us to an era when Tolkien is unfilmable precisely because the unbelievable image now overwhelms the characters and story. I suspect that the combination of attributes (e.g., studio oversight of an untried director, fidelity to source material, superior conceptual design, and narrative solution-finding) that functioned so well to make LoTR successful is undercut in The Hobbit trilogy, which is another exercise in failure on a number of levels.

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