Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nobody Home: The Absence of Dramatic Realism in World War Z, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Blue Jasmine and In a World...

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

You can see the pervasive impact of marketing on contemporary movies today simply by observing just how many pictures are driven more by their advertising concept than the actual drama itself. In the big budget apocalyptic picture World War Z, for instance, where zombies are overtaking humans, the undead have more dramatic motivation than the people trying to stay alive. In one scene, Brad Pitt plays a father desperately attempting to get medicine for his asthmatic daughter who is suffering from an attack. But as soon as he finds a pharmacy, not only does he forget to administer the medicine, her attack magically disappears and the movie forgets all about it. The audience hardly notices though since they are eagerly awaiting the next zombie attack. But this kind of dramatic deficiency isn't just the domain of the Hollywood blockbuster, where the sheer size and spectacle becomes the only form of engagement the mass audience seems to want from movies. This lack of realism is also germane to the success of many independent and art house features.

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is a picture of human behaviour – adult and child alike – that one might have perceived at the age of ten, but the film isn't actually an examination of that behaviour. Anderson's idea of whimsy is to enshrine the sort of adolescent narcissism that most of us learn to outgrow. All of his films (with the exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) avoid confronting the pains of moving into adulthood because they are about protecting the tender preciousness of staying young. In other words, his pictures are a treacly tribute to arrested development. Yet when I hear audience and critics applauding Moonrise Kingdom for its charm, I can only guess they are responding to its quirky solipsism, where the characters don't so much reveal themselves in the dialogue, but rather the dialogue comes to define their quirkiness. People may want to see their own preciousness celebrated rather than examined through drama. This could explain why Wes Anderson's work, over the years, has become a successful commodity that marketing executives can sell as 'unique.'

P.T. Anderson's The Master.

P.T. Anderson's hugely-celebrated The Master, a film about cultism, has also developed its own little cult of followers. And like in most of his previous work (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), the ideas don't spring from any dramatic logic in the story but instead from the imposed style of the director. This is an age when film directors are worshipped and screenwriters barely acknowledged, so The Master gives us cinephilia at its most solipsistic. It doesn't matter to those who admire it whether anything makes dramatic sense because it makes filmic sense. Who cares why Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is trying to raise money among society matrons for his Scientology-like enterprise, takes on Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) as his disciple and spokesman, a war-damaged World War II vet? What does it matter that Freddie's unpredictable violent outbursts would surely alienate those who might otherwise support Dodd's The Cause? We're just supposed to believe in the interdependence of their relationship. For some viewers, this could be a tony commentary on the appeal of the con artist in American culture that comes to confirm their already held opinions about America. The rigorously stylized script and the obsessive tone of The Master, acclaimed as masterly, only shows us film technique as a fetish at the expense of sense and sensibility.

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.
In the recent Woody Allen picture Blue Jasmine, in which Allen is clearly inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the great American plays, there is little understanding of what makes Tennessee Williams' work so dramatically compelling and complex. Despite a breathtaking performance by Cate Blanchett (as the Blanche DuBois figure, she takes the picture to levels of tragic realism that the rest of the picture seeks to avoid), Blue Jasmine is hopelessly incoherent and tone deaf. (The audience I saw the picture with didn't even know whether they should be laughing or not – and often found themselves laughing at inappropriate moments – because Allen shows no empathy for or understanding of the working class characters that surround Jasmine, a social climber who has taken a tragic fall.) But the picture is currently being praised as a masterpiece that shows Allen going to new depths despite his total failure to understand even the basic workings of procedural drama. For instance, when Jasmine discovers her husband (Alec Baldwin), a corporate criminal, has been sleeping around on her, she takes revenge by calling the cops to rat on him about his business dealings – and they show up immediately to arrest him without gathering any evidence to build their case. How can you believe the bigger picture in Blue Jasmine when Woody Allen can't get the smaller dramatic details right? The audiences for Moonrise Kingdom and The Master are attracted to those pictures because they have the perceived outside status of the art house. Blue Jasmine is the work of an industry insider who makes movies for the kind of literate audiences who read The New Yorker and already reject the Hollywood that produces World War Z. Since popular culture has become more and more niche marketed to target specific audience tastes, the movies today (like pop music) don't deviate from their dictated norms.

If the younger intelligent film audience that turns up for Moonrise Kingdom has no patience for conventional drama, it isn't necessarily because they're more hip than the mass audience. It may be that they prefer their stories pre-interpreted for them as detached irony. They often take their cue from the tone of TV satires like Arrested Development that have acquired a cult following. And you can feel the residue of that kind of thinking in the acclaim currently being bestowed on writer/actress/director Lake Bell's In a World.... Describing it as a sharp feminist comedy – as many critics have – is merely another way of reiterating what the film already explicitly tells us it is. Carol (Lake Bell) aspires to be a voice-over narrator for movie trailers (in particular, for a feminist tetralogy called Amazon Games which spoofs The Hunger Games). The obstacle to her success is not only her father (the lugubrious Fred Melamed), who is the 'king of voice-overs,' but the male-dominated profession that stands in her way. A clever and ironic comedy could be made about how an independent career woman seeks success in a business that demands that you become the impersonal voice for ads that sell movies. But In a World... isn't that picture. It's far too conventional (while chalking up timely gender commentary) for that. The stakes simply aren't very high here – you can pretty much guess early on that Carol will not only triumph in her quest, but will also win the love of the sensitive guy who knows and appreciates her true inner self. Yet it's not just the soft-sell romantic charm the picture promotes that makes it so innocuous. At the screening I attended most people laughed almost the entire time. But the laughter didn't feel like a form of surprise, of being caught up in an inspired gag; it seemed in response to a movie telling them exactly what they already wanted to hear. (Which is what early laugh tracks on TV comedies were used for.)

Lake Bell's In a World....

Lake Bell (Children's Hospital, Surface), in her directorial debut, doesn't allow the comedy to breathe and percolate. She flattens out the story by creating characters who are exactly the kinds of people we assume them to be. Bell provides no subtext and no mystery to discover in them. And when they do speak, it is in a lingo that isn't dialogue, exactly, but more an ironic commentary on dialogue. (Many of my friends who enjoyed Arrested Development, a show that mystified me, loved that program for just those qualities.) In a World... actually most resembles those popular and celebrated Susan Seidelman comedies from the Eighties like Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right,  films that were very insular, as if the characters only existed in the world the movie created for them. Like Seidelman's films, Bell sacrifices dramatic and comedic engagement for self-conscious social commentary. For instance, I don't think we're supposed to care about why Carol desires the voice-over job, or even if she is talented enough to take it. We're just supposed to be in there rooting for her because she's standing up to the patriarchy. (Ken Marino as Gustav, the boorish and chauvinistic heir to the voice-over throne, is the kind of straw man whose wardrobe announces his misogyny before his mouth does.)

In a World... is actually a marketing division's dream because it's a sure package that can't miss. It features a female actor/writer/director on the rise who has pulled the movie together through her own perseverance. She raised the money and garnered the industry support that took the film to Sundance where it won Best Screenplay. But while it's an independently made film with a feminist subject, it still has the beating heart of the most blatantly commercial projects. Even public radio, seizing on the movie's pedigree, is getting good at providing ad copy rather than critical observations. In praising In a World..., American NPR recently said that "underneath the comedy, it's a moving story about female empowerment." And, with no whisper of irony intended, they also added that "it's a movie trailer industry counterpart to Rocky." Maybe someone at NPR is also itching to voice trailers.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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