04 June 2014

Movies Make Us Feel Things, or How Nostalgia is Creatively Bankrupting Hollywood, but Hey, it Always Has

Yes, that is the vaguest possible title for any cinematic post in the history of the Internet. But it's true. I really started thinking about that this weekend after viewing two films on Netflix. The first was a consolidation of Star Wars nerdia exhibited by The People vs. George Lucas (2010). The second was the film version (I feel weird that I have to distinguish that now) of Fargo (1996). I investigated the former because it had been sitting in my queue forever and I was bored, the latter because after developing a heady addiction to the F/X show, I wanted to revisit the source material for a refresher.
Haha! Some dweeby kid had to be Grievous!
Ah shit, he probably liked it.

So, the conceit of this post is going to be sort of everywhere, but I want to focus it through these two lenses - Star Wars and Fargo, because they're the last two movies I've seen. Let's talk by what I mean for second: films of all shapes, colors, and sorts make us feel in a weird way. They're innately hypnotic; even the closest observer for a moment or two may get lost and find themselves transported into another realm consisting of someone else's imagination. It's a trippy concept - the suspension of disbelief. Your conscious brain shuts down, not permanently or significantly, to allow the steady flow of new information in. By the end of it, we're so jazzed up that we want to see the exact same thing again.

That's the important part - we want to see the exact same thing. This brings us back to Star Wars, and why The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was a far more significant game changer than Star Wars (1977) - it was a sequel that did different stuff. See, before then, sequels were just about the same beats from the first popular flick with a new shiny veneer or maybe a new location or a secret long lost brother in there or something. Empire was really completely distinct from Star Wars, and that was important.

Essentially Star Wars did so much to ingrain itself into the consciousness of not only the first generation that witnessed it in theaters, but for generations to come. It was really just the mixture of competent character studies, an archetypal hero's journey that was easily identifiable with, cutting-edge effects applied to B-movie sci-fi, and really articulate and efficient world-building. And they wanted more. So much more so that after the first two films fans descended into creating an incredibly fleshed out expanded universe in addition to re-creating their own scenes just to lay some kind of mark on the franchise. We're at the point that Star Wars: Episode VII, directed by self-proclaimed fan, J.J. Abrams, is essentially a full-length fan-film, albeit with the backing and input by Lucas, himself.

All this is to say that things aren't going to get better than that first time we saw Star Wars for the first time. All these franchises spring up from this urge to replace that initial feeling with more. What we can't understand is that we'll never get that original feeling back. It's tough to do, both creatively and passively, to be comfortable moving on to the next film or whatever pop cultural artifact we can get our hands on.

The notion that sequels serve to deliver the same exact crap that the creators gave audiences the first time around is pertinent, and actually hasn't really changed all that much even in the post-Star Wars era. I've talked about this at length concerning The Hangover (2009) and The Hangover: Part II (2011), but the ironic thing is that when the cast and crew abandoned their premise for The Hangover: Part III (2013), they failed creatively and commercially. And I even gave them a beat-for-beat template. It's not only wholesale plot, but sometimes characters in sequels suffer from returning to the state they were in at the start of the first movie. What we get here are then soulless carbon copies of prior successes that don't actually advance character. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) did this wholesale, as did Star Trek Into Darkness (2009), which really regresses its characters, which was summed up recently in a nice one-year anniversary piece over at The Dissolve.

This is what Star Wars actually does really well - building its characters between each installment. They achieve this through subtle things in addition to character actions, like Luke wearing white in A New Hope, grey in Empire and black in Return of the Jedi (1983). There's also the fan-maligned Han character transition from scruffy smuggler to Rebel General. Honestly, he's a General at the Battle of Endor, how the hell did that happen? He spend the last year in carbonite.

This makes me think of Indiana Jones, too (naturally), and its prequel that is generally hated, but perhaps deserves a second consideration. Temple of Doom (1984) ends up being this red-headed step child because it opens this bizarre way that "Indy shouldn't" and Jones himself acts like an asshole but thats precisely the point of crafting a character arc that leads into Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The thematically safe Last Crusade (1989) is considered the best Indy sequel, and if you take the vile hatred towards Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), it becomes apparent that anything out of the Judeo-Christian wheelhouse established with Raiders is high treason, despite Indy's natural predisposition for self-contained variable adventures. Anyway, all of this is to say that these films exist as an attempt to re-kindle nostalgia, even in the sense that it's merely nostalgia for that elated feeling we first got while witnessing a really engrossing film.
Bilbo and Slingblade team up for Midwestern Mayhem

So that brings me to Fargo. At first glance, the Fargo television show would appear as another installment in the line of cash cows attempting to find its way through mimicry rather than innovation, which is made all the more sadder by the fact that the movie Fargo was an adeptly original affair. As the show has progressed, however, it has taken the tropes of Fargo '96 - the archetypes, the setting, and the tone - and fully evolved them into a complex narrative wholly distinct from the themes of the movie. Watching TV Fargo has surpassed a need to re-hash previously developed stories and feed nostalgia and instead blossomed into an adventure completely enjoyable on its own. It's what every sequel or reboot has tried (or blatantly not tried) to do.

What's the moral of these ramblings? We need to be able to move on. There is room in our pop culture landscape for new iconography and new stories and we need not be bound by a fruitless nostalgic chase after what used to make us happy. It's just masturbation. But this is an old argument. If this year's May is any indication, though, it may be that people are actually getting sick of the same shit, even though it's what they've been asking for, or maybe just that you can't cram these many huge movies alongside each other.

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