Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas, a critic-turned-filmmaker with a confessed debt to Guy Debord, operates at the intersection of the essay and fiction film—a dubious proposition, save for the fact that Assayas permits his actors necessary breathing room to develop their roles beyond the limits of generational placeholders. Actresses have given particularly marvelous performances in his films—Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (96) and Clean (04), Asia Argento in Boarding Gate (07), and now Summer Hours co-star Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, which opened in New York three weeks ago.
In Clouds, Binoche plays Maria Enders, an actress in her forties who is preparing to return to the stage in the play which first earned her fame, Maloja Snake, a drama concerning an affair between two women—one an ingénue, the other approaching middle age—which becomes a war of wills. Maria’s participation is set in motion when the play’s author (and her former lover) Wilhelm Melchior dies outside of his home in the Swiss Alps, under circumstances which evoke the death of Robert Walser, just as everything about him seems to evoke the legacy of high-minded European modernism. In this go-around with Maloja Snake, Maria will be playing the elder part, opposite a young American star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz); to prepare, she reads lines (and works through a midlife crisis) with her twenty-something assistant, Valentine (Stewart). Maria has had a prestigious career punctuated with occasional commercial compromise, while Jo-Ann has been in and out of the scandal sheets, and is known for her work in multiplex sci-fi spectacles like Time Shift, which Maria incredulously watches on a research mission with Valentine. For them to work together is as absurd as the pairing of, say, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. In fact, Valentine may be Maria’s projection of Jo-Ann/Stewart—a point teased at when Valentine disappears from the narrative in a scene that at once nods to the midcentury milestone of L’Avventura and kisses it goodbye.
To date, Clouds of Sils Maria has, per Box Office Mojo, earned $545,000 in domestic box-office. It has resolutely failed to topple Furious 7 from the top spot that film has remained astride for four straight weeks. Furious 7’s worldwide gross, at the time of this writing, now stands at $1,321,536,000. Unadjusted for inflation, that makes it the fifth-most profitable movie of all time, so far. Last week, the rumor of an eighth film in the franchise, to be set in New York City, was confirmed. And while the financial success of Furious 7 was, to some extent, a foregone conclusion, the fact that it has been more than moderately successful with critics was not. Metacritic presently rates it at 67/100, while it has an 82 percent “Fresh” rating on the Tomatometer, and these numbers can’t be accounted for by junket junkies stuffing the ballot box, either; Critics Round Up, a curated aggregator which “select[s] reviews based on writing quality instead of popularity,” currently ranks the film at 75/100.
Clouds of Sils Maria
The highlighted reviews include that of The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who begins with a discussion of “the liberated Hollywood of recent years” whose output, in his estimate, is divided between the “conspicuously personal and idiosyncratic” and “the nakedly mercantile.” Pedigree, however, does not predetermine results: “Just as some movies by the most distinctive directors also prove to be profitable, some movies made as part of a baldly commercial slate also have artistic merit—and James Wan’s Furious 7 is among the latter.” (This fact, and this division, happens to be at the heart of Sils Maria, which Brody reviles.)
I’m not particularly interested in talking about Furious 7 any more than I have already. No, really, I’m not—I think it’s a slapdash, deathly dull, and unavoidably morbid movie, and history will validate my opinion. I am, however, interested in the place that it has assumed in the discussion of popular art—particularly “nakedly mercantile” films and music, and particularly in recent years. Though my bailiwick is movie chat, I have always found it instructive to look at music journalism, which is closer to the concerns of young people, and therefore closer to the speed of change, to get a sense of what lays ahead for my own field. In the tenor of the conversation about Furious 7, I detect something like the language which has been used in the discussion around the by-no-means-new issue of rockism vs. poptimism, one of the defining dichotomies of the last decade of pop writing. To recap: the rockist is a devotee of small-band guitar/bass/drum music; he is also, the grievance goes, usually a “he,” and touts the authenticity of the music that he listens to over that of the poptimists. The poptimist is open to various pop/hip-hop/electro/R&B/dance idioms which invite an ethnically diverse/female/LBGTQ fan base, idioms dismissed as synthetic by the rockists who, until relatively recently, at least, held all of the most important positions in music journalism.
The latest chapter in the ongoing saga—or at least the most recent that I’m aware of—is a piece by Washington Post pop-music critic Chris Richards titled “Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?” which appeared last week to a clangor of page views, and which in setting out to curb poptimism’s excesses offered a Cliff’s Notes version of its history, from Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 New York Times editorial “The Rap Against Rockism” to Saul Austerlitz’s “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism” which appeared 10 years later in The New York Times Magazine. Setting aside the laughable idea that the crucial battlefield of any significant question of aesthetics has ever been fought on the pages of the Times, we can say that these pieces are significant as high-profile manifestations of ideas which appeared as bellwethers elsewhere. In the weekly installment of “Do You Like Prince Movies?”, a Grantland pop-culture podcast co-hosted by Wesley Morris and Alex Pappademas, Pappademas linked “poptimism” to a pushback against indie snobbism on the ILXOR message board at the fin de millennium, and the reign of Chuck Eddy as editor of The Village Voice’s music section. (Interestingly, Morris and Pappademas also connect the poptimism argument to the ascendency of the Furious films, and the feeling that “the people who don’t like them now are asked to leave Eden.”)
Richards identifies poptimism as the new dogma, “the prevailing ideology for today’s most influential music critics,” who go unnamed, although he does take shots at Slate, The Fader, and Grantland. While conceding that poptimism was a necessary corrective to existing dogmas and undertaken with noble intentions, he states that it has now entered its period of decadence, going from a considered critical validation of some popular music to a hasty embrace of any and all popular music. Pappademas, for his part, objects to the premise that there is some kind of poptimist politburo now overseeing music writing. I was put in mind of a piece written by Maura Johnston in response to Austerlitz’s Times screed. She notes that rockist revanchism “sounds not unlike the whining of people about ‘men’s rights’ and ‘reverse racism.’ (Oh no, the back of the complainant’s brain says, our ethos might be treated with the same amount of disdain that we give to other people.)”
There is, of course, a great deal that separates the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of pop monoliths like Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Rihanna’s forthcoming eighth studio album from the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of a multiplex monolith like Furious 7, or the forthcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has already supplanted Furious atop the box-office internationally, and will inevitably take the domestic crown this weekend. The means through which they will be discussed in public forums, however, are not altogether different: both will receive their requisite think pieces or hot takes. A concision of expression, minimizing the risk of TLDR dismissal, means that any examples that might seem to call into question the existence of the trend being identified (say, that poptimism is the new religion) will be either ignored or crowded into a digressive paragraph of second-guessing. Context, when it might soften the impact of the argument, should be avoided completely,1 particularly historical context. Sanneh, for example, dates the “rockism debate” to “the early 1980s,” but no one excerpts this part of the article—get out of here with your ancient history, Herodotus!
This is the way things work now. What is less clear is how much, outside of strictly delimited parameters, any of it matters. Johnson understood well ahead of the curve a truth that most commentators are still grappling with—that it is increasingly difficult to define a “consensus” in the atomized Web 2.0 world. “The manner in which people consume media,” Johnson wrote in her rebuttal to Austerlitz, “has become more fragmented and simultaneously more all-consuming; a Twitter feed can seem like it holds a lot of information even though it holds a fraction of a fraction of what’s happening in the world, and the spot-reading that happens means that fraction is only smaller.” As it happens, Johnson is part of my Twitter feed, and while on the ground at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle last week, she tossed off some pertinent points on (what else?) poptimism: “it’s important for critics to dig and question what they’re being sold, not just by labels but by their colleagues and audiences… it’s not about deifying rihanna or blindly accepting that terrible wiz song, it’s about questioning and breaking down narratives of taste.”
The “terrible wiz song” in question is rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” [feat. Charlie Puth], which plays at the end of Furious 7 over an In Memoriam montage paying tribute to the actor Paul Walker. It is his death, more than any vast qualitative difference in the craftsmanship of the latest film, that must be taken into account when reckoning with its exceptional box-office performance. (Fast & Furious 6 earned $788,679,850 worldwide; Fast Five, the best of the bunch, did $626,137,675.) As for Rihanna, whose “unfolding prosperity gospel” was the subject of a recent ode by Doreen St. Felix in Pitchfork earlier this month, she has been busy indeed. On April 6, the video for her trudging, lugubrious single “American Oxygen” debuted on Tidal, the subscription-only music service launched by the Swedish company Aspiro, which is owned by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter through his Project Panther Bidco, Ltd., and which has failed spectacularly, to the great delight of many. The Darren Craig–directed clip for “American Oxygen” cuts between Ri-Ri twirling about on the steps of the Pasadena City Hall, which doubled as the Pawnee City Hall in Parks and Recreation and also appeared in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), and a heap of button-pushing stock footage, juxtaposed for provocative effect (e.g., Wall Street followed by Occupy Wall Street; a teargas canister launch cutting to an end-zone touchdown grab; White/Black Power sloganeering.)2
“American Oxygen”s breakdown—a repetition of the lines “This is the new America / We are the new America”—recurs at the song’s close, accompanied by images of multiracial cooperation and reconciliation. The video premiered something like a week after the release of DreamWorks Animation’s Home, in which Rihanna voices the character of teenager, Tip, the first black protagonist in a DreamWorks film. (And black protagonists do not, precisely, abound in animation as a whole.) And it is on the front of representation that at least a few advocates of the Fast & Furious franchise have staked their claims for the importance of the films. Salon dot com’s Sonia Saraiya notes that the Furious movies “makes a place for women, for minorities, for any number of languages and multiple continents,” while unofficial dean of the Vulgar Auteurists Armond White3, writing in the National Review, praises the series for “transcend[ing] modern racial differences” in its celebration of “social mobility and social velocity,” “cross-cultural camaraderie,” and “genre-movie democracy,” advocating a “united front of brotherhood [which] supersedes and outdates the concept of race war.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, three-quarters of the North American audience for Furious 7 was non-white. I saw the movie with a packed house at my local multiplex in Astoria, Queens, recently touted on Morning Edition as one of the most diverse urban spaces in the world. (Furious 7 was playing on not less than half of the multiplex’s 14 screens, and trying to negotiate the parking garage is a memory which will stay with me for significantly longer than anything in the movie itself.) The argument goes that Furious 7 has, thanks to its multicultural cast, connected to an increasingly diverse moviegoing public starved for representation. I suspect that this tells part, but not all, of the success story. Furious 7 doesn’t contain a single speaking role for a Chinese actor that I can recall, while $323 million of its gross to date has come from the People’s Republic of China—also a credited partner in the production through China Film Co.—and will very likely finish with a higher gross in China than stateside. (Chinese audiences coughed up $66 million for Fast & Furious 6, their first taste of the franchise.) With Furious 7 reviews fresh in my mind, I recently re-watched Resident Evil: Retribution, the fifth film in the inestimably superior Resident Evil series. The cast, which includes Furious veteran Michelle Rodriguez, Li Bingbing, and Boris Kodjoe, is hardly less diverse than that of the Furious films, though to my knowledge the Resident Evil franchise has never been singled out as praiseworthy because of this. (Nor were the representation plaudits anywhere to be found when Blackhat was sinking like a stone.) In fact, I suspect the relative diversity of the Furious and Resident Evil films is a byproduct of Hollywood racism—like other franchises of the last 20 years which rely on ensemble casts (Step Up, Final Destination), they’re drawing from a talent pool of something other than top-dollar name-above-the-title stars, who tend still to be overwhelmingly white. Without megastar wattage, they opt for demographic outreach, a matter of marketing strategy rather than egalitarian sentiment. (If you think this is cynical, I have some leaked Sony e-mails you might like to read.)
Resident Evil: Retribution
Nevertheless, with the impenetrable logic through which these things are decided, the Furious franchise has become a standard-bearer for blockbuster inclusivity. The “new America” that Rihanna speaks of is, we may reasonably surmise, the audience for Furious 7, an America in which the standing racial hierarchy has been upended, and the “White Minority” of the tongue-in-cheek-paranoiac Black Flag song of the same name has become a reality. “White Minority” was written by guitarist Greg Ginn and first performed by briefly tenured Puerto Rican frontman Ron Reyes on the Jealous Again EP which, pressed and released in summer of 1980, was the third-ever release of SST records, an independent label founded by Ginn and based in the working-class environs of South Bay, Los Angeles. The acronym stands for Solid State Transmitters, the name under which a young Ginn had sold electronic equipment, and it speaks to the blue-collar self-identification of the band and label—the logo is of the sort that wouldn’t look out of place on a workshirt with cutoff sleeves.4
As an independent record label, SST created the template followed throughout the Eighties, to a lesser or greater degree, by other independent U.S. labels, including Twin/Tone (Minneapolis), Homestead Records (New York), Touch and Go (Chicago), Bar/ None (New Jersey), Enigma (California), and Sub Pop (Seattle). Retrospectively, the ferment of left-of-the-dial independent rock represented by the above seems today like the last time when the dichotomy that had defined American culture since the ascendency of the Boomers—that of a corporate mainstream, and an “underground” counterculture that germinated, largely unnoticed, in its shadow—was actually applicable. In last week’s column, on the subject of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema and Decker “universe,” I quoted Heidecker on the prerequisites for an appreciation of his comedy—“You have to all be on the same page that we’re all fucked and most things are garbage, most products, whether it’s movies or TV shows or books, it’s mostly garbage and patronizing to us.” This stands in pretty well for the basic attitude behind the counterculture idea: the people in power are doing it badly and for the worst of motives while, given a space of our own, we can and will do it better. The idea of a self-selecting cult audience was built into this music, even reflected in album titles: What We Do Is Secret, This is Our Music, and so on. Where the mainstream put up bridges with welcome signs, the underground built fences.
The rise of the rockism vs. poptimism debate corresponded roughly to the upending of paradigms that accompanied everything becoming tangled up in the Internet: nothing that anybody did would be secret now, and your music would be everyone’s. Fences put up for self-preservation came to appear merely exclusionary when deprived of their original purpose, and the fact that making a show of “opting out” of participation in mass culture is, to some extent, an exercise of privilege was evident as never before. The gesture of abnegation, after all, only takes on meaning if you’ve been invited in the first place.
Scenes From The Suburbs
The dismantling of previous distribution models, per Slate’s Carl Wilson, “blurred any clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders.” The preceding comes from a recent piece titled “Against ‘Indie’,” which calls the designation “implicitly racist,” following on the heels of a Pitchfork piece “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” and takes up the assumptions of poptimist dialogue. (In 2004, Sanneh asked: “Could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.”) Indeed, there is a venerable lineage of these pieces by now: Wilson, mentioning “the endless ‘authenticity’ debate,” links a Slate piece by Jody Rosen from all the way back in 2006, “The Perils of Poptimism,” in which Rosen discusses the ’06 Experience Music Project Pop Conference, where none other than Carl Wilson appeared to present a paper on his struggle to understand the appeal of Celine Dion, the gist of his conclusion being that “critics should spend some time trying to understand other’s tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own.” (This would become Wilson’s 2007 entry in the 33 1/3 series: Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.)
For Rosen, poptimism is based in the “the wholesale rejection of ‘guilty pleasures’”; for Richards in the Post, it’s the recognition that “guilty pleasures are really just pleasures”; and Sanneh uses the same language to address the loaded language which perpetuated rockism: “Rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create ‘guilty pleasure’ singles.” Down with guilt! It’s time to stop holding out and #Justsayyes—to cite the hashtag popularized by Taylor Swift, who The Guardian credited with “lead[ing] poptimism’s rebirth” in 2014. FILM COMMENT, for its part, has intermittently run a feature called “Guilty Pleasures” ever since it was inaugurated by Roger Ebert in the magazine’s July/August 1978 issue. In the September/October 2000 issue, the guest columnist was Harmony Korine who, whatever the merits of the films he’s directed, has always been frightfully of his time. “I have never felt guilty about any pleasure,” Korine wrote, “so what follows is a spontaneous list of those films that seem to be the most important to me, for various reasons. There is no specific meaning to the order and placement of the titles.” Korine’s dashed-off list included Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, and James Fargo’s Every Which Way But Loose.
The placement of a relaxed, quite enjoyable movie in which Clint Eastwood travels around central California with an orangutan named Clyde, alongside two austere art-house classics, is a piss take, Korine’s typically lazy, churlish way of throwing a monkey wrench (sorry) into the idea of canons. This provocation, however, is not so very far from the championing of Cecil B. DeMille in the same space, 20 years earlier, by Martin Scorsese—the nearest thing that American film culture has to an official face and spokesperson. Here is where the parallel between the critical culture surrounding music and film begins to break down. While the mainstream pop/underground rock dichotomy has its rough equivalent in the counterpoising of factory town Hollywood and various handcrafted “fringe” cinemas (avant-garde, Underground, independent, “B,” exploitation, documentary), working film critics who reject Hollywood out of hand are a relatively rare breed, and critical apparatuses for discussing industrially produced movies has existed for as long as anyone who is presently writing about them has been doing so. (This does not prevent some commentators from going full-on Gabbo-style “I’m a bad widdle boy” when “daring” to champion the most expensive and profitable movies in the universe.) The most popular and durable of these apparatuses, which we call Auteurism, classically depended on the identification of an individual artistic personality and force of will at the heart of the machine, while very little that I have read about Furious 7, positive or otherwise, ventures to suggest that the movie says anything about director James Wan, or his worldview. To trot out an automotive metaphor, Furious 7’s champions seem not so much to celebrate the designer, but the assembly line. Indeed, for Grantland’s Mark Harris, Furious 7 is significant of movies becoming something other than movies—what he calls “steroidal Brand Edifices.”
In point of fact, any attempt to divide either music or cinema, at any point in history, into cloistered and mutually exclusive spheres is doomed to failure. Under the name of “Ciccone Youth,” Madonna obsessives Mike Watt, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore released material through SST in the mid-to-late Eighties. I could fill a bulky Spotify playlist with tuff-guy hardcore bands semi-sarcastically covering pop songs. (Gang Green doing ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Sheer Terror doing The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”) Euronymous and Hellhammer, architects of that most forbidding of genres, Norwegian Black Metal, dabbled in trance and techno, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. In cinema, without the anti-model of Hollywood, American Underground/avant-garde filmmaking—think Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, and Les Frères Kuchar—is unimaginable, just as Madonna’s videography is unimaginable without the example of Maya Deren, or “American Oxygen” is without that of Bruce Conner. The over-enthusiastic reporting of “They’re just like us!” instances of “highbrow” auteurs mucking about with “lowbrow” texts—Bresson’s fondness for John Glen’s For Your Eyes Only, Terrence Malick’s Zoolander fandom, Jean-Luc Godard consulting Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D before undertaking Goodbye to Language, and the posthumous discovery of copies of Ghostbusters and Romancing the Stone in Ingmar Bergman’s VHS library—only further disproves the idea that the art house is or ever has been hermetically sealed off from what Pappademas calls “the larger culture.”
I’m sure Assayas is kicking himself for not including a scene of Maria finding a copy of Freddy Got Fingered among Melchior’s effects in Clouds of Sils Maria, though there is plenty of other fuel for Maria and Valentine’s ongoing dialogue, especially on their way out of Time Shift. (Incidentally, it’s the most bizarre film-within-a-film I’ve seen since the crime thriller that appears in Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer.) One of the basic points of contention between the two is wrapped up in assumptions about taste: Maria feels that youth is insufficiently skeptical of self-evidently junky corporate entertainment, as I myself often do. (Though clinging to membership in the advertiser-coveted 18-34 demographic by my fingernails, I had a “cool” brother seven years my senior, which bumps up my age of generational identity into Generation X digits.) Valentine feels that Maria allows herself to be led around by “narratives of taste”—what makes the junkiness of corporate entertainment self-evident?—for with age comes a certain narrowing, a willingness to dispense with things that one thinks aren’t worth the time.
This is called experience or, alternately, prejudice—either one a death knell for a critic, who ought to retain some capacity for being surprised or hang up their beat. I have approvingly quoted François Truffaut’s maxim “All films are created equal” in this column before, and I still believe that it’s a worthy credo for writerly practice. In actuality, however, equality is only a reality for films inasmuch as it is for people born in this great Republic. More than ever we live in an attention economy, and the work that has money behind it gets the lion’s share. On this point the Post’s Richards makes his most salient point about poptimist “apologia”: that even while making strides towards accepted wisdom, it “treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs.” As Johnson wrote, we need to change the way that we talk about consensus—in fact, I think the conversation might be improved if we took a decade-long hiatus from talking about it at all. “Me against the world” rhetorical devices can make for compelling reading—the like-minded reader may feel that they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the author, holding a Thermopylae—and they’re hard to get rid of, consequently. I’ve used them myself, and benefited from the “Right on!” back-pats. But when “the world” is literally at your fingertips, you’re never far removed from forming your own consensus, and the voice in the wilderness act is an absurd piece of grandstanding.
Other, actual imbalances are more easily quantified. The fact is that megaproductions in any medium have never, ever had a hard time purchasing attention, outside of a handful of highbrow bastions—and even these have largely ceased to attempt to stem the rising tide of poptimism/ populism. If you are attempting to make your living as an arts journalist—and I don’t know why you would ever consider doing such a thing—you are de facto a poptimist and vulgarian now, as dictated by editorial mandate and the need to stay relevant. (I am a grown man with a functional knowledge of the Great Books, and I have consulted something called a “Tomatometer” in this piece.) Even the erstwhile friend to “difficult” cinema, the alternative weekly, is now loath to lend space to offer coverage to anything without a celebrity hook, as in the case of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja or, indeed, Clouds of Sils Maria. Under the classic critic-sets-the-agenda model, the idea was to tell the reader what they should know about. Now, you might be lucky to slip a reference to that into a discussion of what they’ve already heard about.
There is, it seems to me, an unresolved contradiction implicit in the poptimist line. On one hand it advocates letting go of the guilty pleasure, to indulge without shame our sweet tooth for invigorating pop. On the other, we’re also asked to suppress the gag reflex when something sufficiently popular doesn’t hit the spot, as in Wilson’s journey with Celine Dion, to reserve judgment and see if it isn’t some kind of acquired taste after all, because 50,000,000 Dom Toretto Fans Can’t Be Wrong. In effect, it’s a matter of self-explanatory work demanding the same prerogative which in the past had been reserved for the obtuse and obscure—the right of repeated viewings. “This is the stuff that we should be talking about as critics,” Pappademas says on the Grantland podcast, “the stuff that most people are excited about.” What troubles me about this statement is that it ignores the fact that a vast machinery exists for the purposes of generating excitement, a machinery which some entities have access to, and others do not. (This is not to speak of the problematic idea that participation in a phenomenon is equivalent to excitement about it—my Furious 7 screening was full, but the atmosphere was one of palpable boredom.)
To in some small way attempt to correct this, to futilely resist the Borg and reserve the discretion to say “Not that, but this,” is part of the role of the critical profession, as I have understood it. When TIME magazine critic and former FILM COMMENT editor Richard Corliss died last week, FC republished an interview in which Corliss described his vocation: “Elevating popular taste and popularizing elevated films.” Without getting into the discussion of what constitutes an “elevated” film, we may note that this mission is the diametric opposite of being led by the nose by Trending Topics. The idea that there’s nothing wrong with feeling and writing seriously about popular art is, certainly, all to the good, but when this becomes tantamount to “Even if you don’t like it or think it deserves further attention, it’s the thing this week… so write about it anyways,” it’s a problem. That’s a stance that just so happens to perfectly answer the demands of the market, like television getting super-duper good at precisely the moment that a new need for constantly refreshed critical content appeared. It’s PR handing down editorial dictate, and it may be as unstoppable as The Age of Ultron, but that doesn’t mean we have to celebrate it.
1. For example, there was a significant dip in domestic box-office in 2014 which anyone who bothered to look could tell was connected to the relative dearth of proven franchise tentpoles, though this didn’t hold back doomy “Hollywood is up against it” prognostications. Nor will the fact that a gangbusters 2015 is a foregone conclusion, thanks to the scheduled returns of Iron Man, Bond, “Ethan Hunt,” Terminator, and Jurassic technology, prevent starry-eyed “Hollywood is back, baby!” pieces later this year.
2. Content-farmers and advanced-degree eggheads alike can’t resist diving headlong in a big ol’ pile of signifiers like this, though I will not dwell on the irony of people who’ve accrued insurmountable lifelong debt learning the vernacular of theory turning around to use that knowledge to “unpack” the prepared-by-committee work of obscenely wealthy pop icons.
3. White was well ahead of the curve on the “mainstream is the new Underground” tip. I often recall a 2007 interview with Steven Boone in which White lambastes the idea of a “Trojan horse” outsider artist bum-rushing the show: “Let that go. You don’t need that. Please understand. One of the greatest American movies of the past ten years is Beloved. Ain’t no underhanded, sneaky thievery thing about that. It’s a mainstream movie made by people with money who were brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and turn that into art. The same stupid critics that didn’t like The Landlord when it came out dismissed Beloved when it came out. But you have a culture of criticism that simply doesn’t want Black people to have any kind of power, any kind of spiritual understanding or artistic understanding of themselves. That’s the example that I think is helpful for you to follow. No need to be a sneak thief. Stand up and say what you believe. Do it. Use the mainstream apparatus to create a work of art that’s useful to everybody.”
4. Furious 7’s fans have tended to highlight the film’s defiance of physics: Brody writes that director “Wan renders the weightiest items weightless,” while The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek notes “there are probably more instances of airborne cars than in any other single movie in the series… There’s something marvelously freeing about watching objects that were meant to hug the road soar through the heavens.” More than a shift in the ethnic identity of American multiplex audiences, I suspect that Furious 7, which is only the latest instance of the gradual elimination of mass and weight from the action movie, signifies another demographic shift: the transformation of the action movie from the province of the blue-collar audience to a white-collar, service industry one, a change from a physical to a virtual economy which has been accompanied by a change in our perception of the world around us. (A while back a former professor observed to me one difference he’d found in recent undergraduates: “No one knows what a transmission does anymore.”)
I’ve written more times than I’d care to recount about the disappearance of weight—physical and moral—from the action movie, but the recent underperformance of those multiplex films (Fury, Run All Night) in which I’ve found these qualities is enough to convince me that I’m fighting a hopeless, rearguard action, and that those of us for whom Mr. Majestyk is the apotheosis of the genre’s ideal will have to find our kicks elsewhere.