Saturday, December 5, 2020

Consuming Movies

A Year Without Movie Buzz

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Richard Brody treats movie art and movie consumption as two unrelated things, but movie art (a social art for a social animal) and the way movies are viewed have always been intertwined, and the health of one is tied to the health of the other — which Brody hints at when he says that “the rising tide of publicity and its echoes seems to lift all boats.” With nobody going to theaters this year — the Plague Year — we’re all watching movies on our iPads and phones and TVs. It’s a new dimension of experience for audiences, as Brody says. But I don’t think that consuming movies only in private isolation is going to enrich a popular art. Maybe you can even find the same kind of degradation in pop music and attribute it to the same changing patterns.

Many movies, like The Godfather (1972) or The Conformist (1970) or Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) — you could go on and on listing such movies — are great, immersive experiences that unleash their full power only in a theater with an audience, where visual dimensions can be appreciated in cinematic terms. The silent comedies, for example (Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman [1928] or Seven Chances [1925], Harold Lloyd’s Speedy [1928] or The Kid Brother [1927], Chaplin’s The Gold Rush [1925]), certainly deserve to be seen in a theater, a collective setting for which they were specifically designed. Those moviemakers intended audiences to feed off the explosive, balletic inventiveness and bust up at the visual gags and camera tricks. Those gags developed in live theater and vaudeville and probably circuses, and were extended and perfected by these artist clowns to make full use of the new medium. And an audience’s enthusiasm for silent comedy has as much to do with the responses of fellow moviegoers as with what’s on screen.

But imagine watching movies only in privacy or on your personal thingamabobs for the rest of your life. That changes you and that changes movie art. When your reactions are isolated from the reactions of others, the things you’re responding to don’t resonate with the same power; the effects are deadened, and you’re likely to assume that the moviemaker has failed, somehow, to make you laugh. Sooner or later, that “failure” gets back to filmmakers, who make contrived modifications in later projects — usually in kinetic, dizzying extremes in camera work or incompetent scripts — and, slowly, there’s an erosion of quality and sensibility. Movies started as a communal art, although they may not end as one.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Suckers

I managed with little effort to miss Twilight (2008) until very recently. I knew it was intended for a young adult audience (adapted from a wildly popular series of teen novels by Stephenie Meyer) and figured it probably didn’t have any of the macabre fun of the old Universal horror classics, but I was unprepared for the lurid look and the stoned, senseless rhythm (everybody’s face, human and vampire, is the same sickly gray-green, the same color as the landscape). It’s been awhile since I’ve seen something this mediocre take itself so seriously. It looks and sounds like an Eighties rock opera in some parts and an indie chamber drama in others, and it’s unrelenting. It’s also weirdly static. In many scenes, the actors just stand there, glancing around nervously, trying to push enough air out to deliver the next line, and you wonder whether they’re parodying youth or paying tribute to it. 

Postpubes. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart
The pictorial effects are gloppy–beautiful, like an issue of Condé Nast Traveler, and despite periodic moments of suspense, the movement of characters through the frame is poorly staged, and scenes repeatedly turn into pudding before they end. The production feels like a revolving tableau of celebrity glossies without any actual celebrities. Some sort of bizarrely postpubescent world view motivates it all, so the emotions all feel wobbly and terribly phony to adults. These bloodsuckers, who can swim underwater, experience all sorts of internal anguish, and they talk in pained, halting tones. All the actors appear to have used the same acting coach, and whoever it was probably works a day job in the food truck hospitality industry. Aside from their acting, the kids in the movie don’t embarrass themselves because they so obviously belong there; they’re of a piece with the surrounding movie and the somnambulant banality of the conception. But that unity of form and function is still pretty feeble; some of these actors give you the impression they were hired at random in the school cafeteria. Moreover, the adults — the parents — all seem lost; in scene after scene, their faces wilt, possibly with shame over being stuck in a movie that is so patently not their own. (Maybe the adults were hired at random in a post office?)

I can understand why this movie was such a huge hit. It feeds a primal longing not for shocks or gross-outs (the staples of most teen horror films) but for liberation from high school routines or smothering parents or middle-class values, and I think young audiences projected themselves onto the hip, confused characters. It’s vampire psychodrama. But it all seems the product of an unformed mind and personality; it could have used some comic subtext instead of all this lugubriousness — the two leads must have the heaviest eyelids since Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao (1952). The idea that some vampires don’t want to kill people and so resort to chasing after forest critters does have comic potential (remember how Dwight Frye’s eyes lit up when he ate juicy flies?), and the soundtrack works best when it ditches the gloppy score and incorporates some funky pop songs, but practically none of that potential is tapped. This movie bungles its chance to put the groove back in the undead — it could have been the best thing since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”