Listen to "Episode 12: Hollywoodization" on Spreaker.
Hi everybody, and welcome back to the website! Tomorrow we’ll have a new checklist, so that’s when we’ll really get started, but let’s start out with a new podcast first! This one is loooong but fun. I lopped off the Free Story Idea and we’re going to expand it to be its own episode next time.
Wow, James's experience of stories is clearly quite alien to my own.
I could only have made the change from the short story version of Minority Report's ending to the movie's while in the most mercenary mindset, because it pretty much moves the story from something I find interesting to something I would mostly find to be a waste of my time as entertainment.
Like adding pavlovian mechanics and lootbox gambling to a video game or high-fructose corn syrup and extra salt to food, I know the it improves the odds of it catching on and getting big, and bringing the profit that comes with that, but as a consumer... you might not be able to pay me to eat it.
Which is kind of how I feel about Spielberg movies, honestly. I've skipped a lot of them, but the only ones I actually like, in the sense that I would enjoy watching them again after the first time, have been Jurassic Park and Catch Me If You Can. I respect him as a businessman but I have no interest in being a customer.
To be clear, I love most Spielberg until about Last Crusade. After that, just a few.
Eric C! Come on! No love for "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? For "E.T."? For "Jaws"? For "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"? For "Saving Private Ryan"? For "Lincoln"? Even for, yes, "Schindler's List"?
I feel (and the rough consensus of American film criticism would agree) that most of these movies are stone-cold classics . . . so much so that the burden of proof shifts to the other side to argue otherwise. (My personal opinion is that Spielberg has more masterpieces than many other filmmakers have total films.)
Yeah, every prolific artist has their share of stinkers. But misfires like "The Terminal" or "Crystal Skull" aside, there are precious few filmmakers who have consistently given as much pleasure, to so many, as Spielberg. That's no small thing! If one’s trying to be a successful storyteller – and that’s what Matt is trying to do with this blog, book, podcast – then Spielberg is absolutely worth investigating, even if one doesn't care for all of his movies. Indeed, I suspect that the only reason his second-tier-but-totally-enjoyable movies, like "The BFG" or "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," aren't more highly regarded is because we're so used to Spielberg's greatness as a matter of course. I make no assumptions about you, Eric, but I know for a fact that the only reason that Matt is so contemptuous of Spielberg is because he's jealous! Matt's film-school snobbery won't allow him to joyfully appreciate an American master! Matt always must be a bitter hipster about these things, it's his eternal curse! (And the great irony is that Spielberg's movies often fulfill Matt's checklists.)
As Film Crit Hulk says of Spielberg in his “Munich” essay (https://bit.ly/2lvZQoy):
"With children, his movies tend to strike them in profound and moving ways. But by adolescence, many cinema fans develop an instinct to reject his work, often because they are discovering the more subtle work of artists whose strengths lie with ambiguity. They feel those films aren't telling them what to think. And so in their eyes they are rejecting the apparent ‘simplicity’ of Spielberg's work and what they see to be its manipulative qualities. And what tends to happen . . . is that these fans not only come back around to realize that Spielberg is a great filmmaker, but realize that his brand of popular filmmaking is probably the most difficult thing to do on the planet."
On to other matters ...
In this episode, Matt cut much from our discussion of "Annihilation.” One of the things I meant to mention was that I feel that one of the elements horror movies often need to succeed is to have a "Game Over, Man!" person who is the audience surrogate for fear.
One of the reasons that "Annihilation" (the movie) didn't work so well for me was that every character was so damn calm! The Gina Rodriguez character Anya came closest to being visceral and real, but all the other characters were just so professional or chilly or abstracted that there was no place for the audience's reptile impulses to go.
In many horror movies (especially ensemble pieces), there needs to be a character who just up and says "This is fucked! What are we doing here?" early on, and/or who acts as the audience's lowest impulses (cowardice, lust, fear, appetite, whatever) that can ground the story.
In "Aliens" it's Bill Paxton's Hudson character who loudly proclaims his exasperation and cowardice: "Well that's just great! That's just fucking great man! We're in some really pretty shit now, man! . . . That's it man, game over man, game over!"
In "Alien," Yaphet Kotto's character Parker serves that role. In this year’s "Midsommar," Will Poulter's character Mark plays that role (he's the horny asshole grad student friend who pisses on the sacred tree) – he's the most cowardly, the most directed by his base impulses. But we need that person as a release for the audience, somebody whom the audience could look at and say: "Well, if I were in that situation, maybe I wouldn't be the bravest or cleverest person in the world, but I wouldn't be as bad as that shithead."
That crucial “Game Over, Man!” person doesn't exist in "Annihilation" – all the ladies on the team are such competent professionals, and so therefore we can’t help but feel a little distant from their adventures. “Annihilation” is, at least on some level, a horror movie – but horror is a primal emotion, so we need other primal emotions stoked too, or at least acknowledged, because they're all stickily and messily and inextricably kludged together. "Annihilation" tries to be a POLITE, ARTY horror movie . . . and even though on balance I did enjoy it, it was not as successful as it could have been because base desires/emotions/thoughts were not given proper outlet.
There are a number of Spielberg movies, including "Raiders" and "E.T." that I acknowledge are quite good movies objectively speaking, but which just don't resonate with me.
Take E.T. - I never lived in that suburban house, I never had that relationship with my family or my community, I never grew up with those candies or those toys. I don't really see myself or any of the people close to me in the major characters. Probably the character whose experience is the most relatable is E.T. himself, and he has very different feelings and makes very different choices about his situation, because he's really not made with the audience identifying with him in mind.
As I've mentioned before, this is probably largely a cultural thing - Spielberg seems to be an absolute expert at hitting the feelings of particular American market segments that were decisive for both commercial success and critical acclaim in recent decades, and I'm just not in that demographic.
(You might find yourself seeing what I mean in the coming years, as movies make more sacrifices regarding their appeal to the American market in order to try to capture the Chinese one.)
The best-designed men's diving suit in the world is going to feel uncomfortable when worn by a woman. If you're attempting to make the best-designed women's diving suit, there are going to be things you want to shamelessly copy from it and there are going to be things that made it beloved that you want to throw out without a second thought.
So I agree that not particularly liking Spielberg's work isn't a reason to dismiss it - he obviously does what he does really well, and it's important to understand the whys and hows, both because there are lessons that can be adapted to one's own tastes and because sometimes you have to just make what will sell so you can fund what you want to do.
I think your comment on needing someone who doesn't deal with the stress of the situation well in a horror movie is just about right, and touches on a broader principle that Matt's touched on before with his "head, heart, gut" trichotomy - the audience needs to see the the reactions that they'd have and that they'd recognize in others indulged in a bit for the characters to not feel alien, and it's generally better to err on the side of exaggeration than understatement when doing this. You're also right that when you're dealing with a story that is all about a visceral emotion like horror, you really do need to produce that emotion in the audience, and it's a lot harder to do that if you don't have anyone displaying that emotion.
One thing I think you both missed was how awesome Total Recall would have been as something in between the story and movie. Imagine that he did go to Mars, experienced a bunch of the cheesy but very enjoyable things he did but decided that the Martians were doomed to lose. So he worked to contact the earth authorities who were willing to help him get back to earth and escape the madness there along with the promise that they would do something about it.
Then they tell him that the only way for him to lead a normal life is to be run through the memory process again. They feed him the story line of the alien white mice, and he agrees.
While he's in the chair undergoing the procedure the door blows open and he groggily wakes up to see.....
A bunch of blue mice which he suddenly remembers really happened and their leader explains they've now come back to fulfill their contract from the babies now that Leika has died of old age and he broke his side of the agreement.
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