Genre-bender

Copyright Dan Goodswen for TotalFilm

Copyright Dan Goodswen for TotalFilm

There’s a reason why people invented stereotypes.

Humans are hardwired to recognize patterns.  When we observe repetition of the same, or similar, occurrence over time, we recognize it as a pattern.  Our neuron bundles are impartial to the details behind the pattern; our brains simply take it at face value.

A stereotype is born when one group of people sees another group of people behaving in a different way, repetitively, over time.  Thus, the brain sees the pattern.  If one attempts to rationalize or disprove the pattern, we enter the realm of philosophy.

Of course while clinging to stereotypes offers a chance to form personally validating relationships with others – namely, by making fun of the people you’re stereotyping together – they can be a destructive force.  Often, the most baseless spreading of misinformation about a particular group has stereotyping at its root.

Artworks are subject to stereotypes just like people are, although since artworks aren’t living beings, we give it a different label: genre.  Genres and sub-genres are our way of lumping together works of art that have superficial similarities.  In the case of film, genre is arguably one of the worst categorizing systems ever implemented.

More often than I’d like to acknowledge, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of discussing an upcoming film with a friend or relative, only to hear them say something along the lines of “Oh, it’s a (slapstick comedy/historical drama/science fiction) film, right?  I don’t think I’d like that.”  Inevitably, no amount of plot summarizing or touting of top rate actors can convince them to get past the genre of the film.  Thus, they never choose to watch it.

As I related in an earlier post, I was a slave to artistic stereotyping myself for many years.  Luckily, I’ve since had the joy of maintaining an open mind.  It’s incredible what having an open mind can do to one’s taste in entertainment.  Like adding new or unusual spices to a familiar casserole, watching a movie you think you’re not going to enjoy can not only expand your horizons, but enrich your life in unexpected ways.

A great example of a genre-bending movie is Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, 2004).  While in Hollywood the horror/comedy mesh gained some popularity with films like Little Shop of Horrors (Howard Ashman, 1986), Edgar Wright certainly pulls it off beautifully.  Horror is one of the ‘touchiest’ genres in American film, harboring a rather clear-cut fanbase and avoided altogether by many.  However Wright builds up a multi-thread plotline in not just two but three genres: romance (win back the ex-girlfriend), comedy (both witty and slapstick), and of course horror (the main premise is a zombie apocalypse).

The main protagonist Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a classic underdog, with not only his personal life problems plaguing him, but an entire town of undead after his brains.  Oblivious to the sudden appearance of a zombie populous around him for a good part of the beginning, Shaun ultimately redeems himself by the end, as he should.   It’s incredibly hard to not enjoy this film, even when the blood splatters really start to fly.

There’s a shared desire amongst industry pros and moviegoers to see more of these hard to categorize films come into production.  In the meantime, highly creative writers and directors will be busy doing their best to end the “Green Eggs & Ham” mentality when it comes to film.

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Trends

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As artists, and especially as writers, trends do us no favors.

Take for example the recent onslaught of “modernized/retold fairytale” movies.  I thought for certain society would never receive a reprise from these ridiculously overdone monstrosities that rely on eyecandy and nothing more to make studios a quick buck.

The younger, currently-adult generations (X and Y, the latter of which I am categorized under) have been trained from an early age with a Pavlovian model to respond positively to colorful, bright things.  We twenty-somethings get a rush from playing video games and watching candy colored cartoons.  Many modern movies play into those learned behaviors in an almost shameless way.  Such films have a few technical features in common: needlessly oversaturated tone, an overabundance of bloom (hazy, ethereal glowing light) and action scenes that are so heavily clipped they are sometimes impossible to follow.

Perhaps more important is their consistent lack of substance.  Specifically, substance would be a combination of believable characters, a clear plot, and concise dialogue.

In other words: they’re poorly written.

If this trendy genre does anything for humanity, it’s to make clear how the screenplay is the backbone of a movie.  No matter how artful or manipulated a shot is, if the spoken lines sound like they came out of a fortune cookie, the scene is irreparably cheapened.  No amount of CG can fix a poorly written script.  Indeed, some of the more enjoyable movies I’ve seen recently were fully animated, but they had solid stories supporting rich visuals.

As a testament to how true this is, the latest of the fairytale movies, Jack the Giant Slayer (2013, Darren Lemke) was considered a flop at the box office.  The summary on RottenTomatoes.com is sufficient:

 

It’s enthusiastically acted and reasonably fun, but Jack the Giant Slayer is also overwhelmed by digital effects and a bland, impersonal story.”

I would say that’s an accurate description for any fad film, and a testament to how essential solid writing truly is.

Writers Love/Hate Writing

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Writing is like being pregnant and giving birth.

Even male writers must understand this analogy.  Once an idea is conceived within a fertile mind, it is gestated during a lengthy creative process.  The culmination of said idea is the forceful pushing out (onto paper/screen) the last, pristine, complete miracle that is The Finished Project.

If writing is not for leisure but performed with a tangible end product as the final goal, the process is nothing less than excruciating, costly and time consuming.  For me, personally, it becomes costly when I down no less than four twelve ounce bottles of Perrier per day just to get through three pages.  If it’s so horrible then why in the hell do we still do it?  Why do we sit here for hours on end, sometimes fidgeting, writhing in sheer agony as we type exactly 5 words per minute?

Because we’re addicted.

Writing is an addiction.  Doing the deed, performing the act, is no less than excruciating.  It is painful.  We do this to ourselves, knowing full well how absolutely miserable we will be during the next few weeks or months.

We do it knowing that when we are finished, the high we get will be incomparable.

Print out a completed project wrought by your own hands and hold it for a moment.  Feel the heft of the pages.  Smell the warm paper.  Now look at the precisely splattered blobs of black ink that are the words upon the page’s surface. This stack of paper, with its ink blobs, is a piece of you.

Did you write something horrific?  Poetic?  Fluffy?  Comedic?  It doesn’t matter.  Every word on those pages is a tiny piece of you.  And you will send it out into the world in the hopes that it will make it, be loved by someone else and come into its own.

Eventually, we authors come down from this incredible high. We mope around for a week, trying to think of what we should write about next.  Then, the compulsion hits us.  Word must come out!

And the cycle begins again.

About Quentin Tarantino Films

Copyright Alan Aldridge

Copyright Alan Aldridge

I’ll admit it – I wasn’t always a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films.

Around age twelve I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time, during a lazy summer afternoon that I decided I’d had enough of my Sega Genesis for the next few days.  The fact that Pulp Fiction was airing on some random afternoon is, in itself, a testament to how much Tarantino’s movies have become a facet of American pop culture.  While watching, half distracted by other things like magazines lying around the living room floor,  I instantly felt a notion akin to “What the hell is the point of this movie?” exactly at the moment Uma Thurman is resuscitated from the grip of OD-induced death by a quick jab in the heart from John Travolta.

To my twelve year old self, the premise seemed not only contrite but rather uninteresting and two dimensional.  Unfortunately for me, the whole drug culture scene hit too close to home to be shocking or intriguing.  Perhaps that was a rare point of view for a young girl in the nineties, but I felt that a movie full of what should have been ‘shocking scenes’ seemed little more than an obtuse attempt at something profane.   Was this what Americans found entertaining?  People who snort too much coke, get drunk, do stupid things and shoot each other?  I was not impressed.  After all, just a few weeks ago I myself had entertained a drug dealer from Detroit – an immensely muscular black man who was surprisingly soft spoken – while my mother dug cash out of a dresser drawer to pay him off.  We played Sonic the Hedgehog together.  I won.

Reality aside, I hardly had the capacity to take the movie for anything other than what it appeared to be on the surface.  Unfortunately, because of that early, unfavorable exposure I spent the next ten years saying “I don’t like Tarantino films”.   This was a terrible shame because now that I’m mentally and physically free to truly appreciate things without a gigantic, nihilistic chip on my shoulder, I have to play catch-up.

Quentin Tarantino’s films are, for want of a better word, creative.  He is one of the very few prominent writers in Hollywood who doesn’t have his screenplays butchered to shit by a team of overenthusiastic interns every time it’s put into production.  And it shows beautifully.  The excellent thing about his films is you can absolutely tell they’re as close to an original artist’s pure expression as you can get, aside from some seriously esoteric indie works.  I appreciate those indie films too, but there’s nothing quite like the support of a solid budget and truly professional crew to smooth out the edges of a finished project.

Recently I saw Django Unchained.  Admittedly, this was the very first Tarantino film I had seen in a theater.

There is something to be said of seeing one of these films in a theater.  It’s a certain kind of crowd that you’re sitting with in that dark, faintly vomit scented room.   They laugh.  They gasp.  They clap and cheer and whistle.  These are people who are actually experiencing the film.  It had been a very long time since I had enjoyed a movie so thoroughly – my last recollection of such being one of the infamous midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings I frequently attended in Denver during my early 20s.  I felt as though I belonged to a greater cause – we all booed the villains, cheered the hero as he defeated his enemies.  And what a rare thing that is, to feel such camaraderie in an age where we do much of our personal social tending with impersonal, virtual text rather than in person communication.

What Tarantino gives us with his films is not only an opportunity to reflect ourselves upon a screen, but to band together against what is fundamentally wrong and in support of what is universally right.  His movies consistently share this theme.  That is what makes them an experience, and not just another way to pass the time.

A Theater is a Church

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We congregate, en mass, to a single locale at a specific time.  We sit together in rows of seats, inches away from complete strangers.  We, as a single body, watch, listen and ponder.  Afterwards, we discuss, debate and philosophize what we just experienced.  The movie is, perhaps, the most universal of sermons.

What else can one call a visual performance but a kind of sermon?  A sermon serves to tell a story, to offer wisdom on life’s many trials and mysteries.   Even the most abstract art-house interpretive dance performance is the expressive culmination of a fellow human being’s personal experiences and emotions.

Likewise, even the biggest flop at the box office only exists because someone was, at one point, inspired to make a film.  No matter how ‘bad’ a film is, it’s still the reflection of someone’s innermost workings.  What you see on the screen are the things that live inside the minds of others, whether they’re cheesy, bland or downright excruciating.

This kind of creative expression, and sharing such with our fellows, is a large part of what we like to call ‘humanity’.  After all, look at the first few definitions of the word:

humanity [hjuːˈmænɪtɪ]

n pl -ties

1. the human race
2. the quality of being human
3. (Philosophy) (plural; usually preceded by the) the study of literature, philosophy, and the arts
The very word itself is ancient Latin, used to describe these specific forms of creative expression.  It implies that to create works of art is analogous to being human.  This is what brings people of all sorts together into a relatively uncomfortable, smelly room, far from the comfort of our own cushy couches – never mind that we even pay good money to do so.  It’s that movies, like other artworks, speak to us as human beings.