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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

And Maybe an Executive Producer Credit

So we touched on postmodernism in architecture yesterday. We kinda wandered pretty far afield from the original topic: What the hell happened to movies? This is not “old man yells at cloud” territory, no matter how much the people who are systematically destroying the movie business would like to make it. I don’t think your movies suck because I’m cranky. I’m cranky because your movies suck. In the words of Beavis and Butthead, “I hate movies that suck.”

We mentioned Lawrence of Arabia the other day. I gave it a glowing review, others gave it a meh. Different strokes. But I’d like to point out something in the movie that stuck way too hard in Hollywood’s extremely low foreheads. The story is deliberately told out of order:

Three minutes into a three-and-a-half-hour movie, and the main character is deader than disco. I wasn’t around in 1962 to see it, but that little bit blew a lot of people’s minds. I’m not sure the movie business ever got over it. Because it was the first big example I can think of a movie that didn’t close the same week at the arthouse theater that exalted a postmodernist idea about how to make movies. They didn’t really know what they were looking at, and it morphed into this (from the Wikiup):

Postmodernist film is often separated from modernist cinema and traditional narrative film by three key characteristics. One of them is an extensive use of homage or pastiche. The second element is meta-reference or self-reflexivity, highlighting the construction and relation of the image to other images in media and not to any kind of external reality. A self-referential film calls the viewer’s attention – either through characters’ knowledge of their own fictional nature, or through visuals – that the film itself is only a film. This is sometimes achieved by emphasizing the unnatural look of an image which seems contrived. Another technique used to achieve meta-reference is the use of intertextuality, in which the film’s characters reference or discuss other works of fiction. Additionally, many postmodern films tell stories that unfold out of chronological order, deconstructing or fragmenting time so as to highlight the fact that what is appearing on screen is constructed. A third common element is a bridging of the gap between highbrow and lowbrow activities and artistic styles – e.g., a parody of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in which Adam is reaching for a McDonald’s burger rather than the hand of God. The use of homage and pastiche can, in and of itself, result in a fusion of high and low art.

But David Lean, the director, wasn’t deconstructing anything for shiggles. He was solving a problem. The movie was made in 1962. T.E. Lawrence died in 1932. The movie portrays his exploits in WW I. Lawrence might seem like someone from a very obscure and far away time to people now, but there were plenty of moviegoers in 1962 for whom Lawrence was a real person. They knew all about him. The public knew he was dead, dead, dead, and many knew how mundane the circumstances of his death were.

Lean didn’t want the climax of his movie to be an anticlimax, because leading the revolt in the desert certainly trumps a motorbike accident for stirring the blood. Life gave Lean lemons, so he made lemonade. He killed the hero while the opening credits rolled to instruct the audience to take it as read: we all know how he died. This wasn’t about that. It wasn’t a cheesy biopic. It was about great themes. Identity. Heroism. Populism. Yellow journalism. It jumped all over the place, but it had an underlying theme, and the story had a trajectory.

Postmodern movies are just messes. Look at that description of it again. They can try to tart it up with ten-cent words like intertextuality, but what they’re dancing around is a more cogent description: they’re a mess.

Stories generally require a trajectory. Kurt Vonnegut might be the ultimate poster boy for postmodern writing, and even he knew how to operate a story:

So James Joyce can write 762 pages about a guy that walks around Dublin and nothing happens. Vonnegut can write about the bombing of Dresden and Tralfamadorians in the same book. But Ulysses is weightlifting. Vonnegut is assigned reading. They are burdens placed on the audience. Movies have a different job. And postmodern movies show up late, leave early, and hide in the break room all day at their job.

Postmodern movies are mostly just disconnected scenes chucked in a cutting room Cuisinart. Some of the scenes might be pretty good, but they don’t really knit themselves into a coherent narrative. If you question them about what they’re doing, they simply say, “I meant to do that.” Postmodernism is the artistic version of a Get Out of Jail Free card.

I’ll  give you one example. In one of the great “Thanks Dad” moments in Hollywood history, they gave Coppola’s kid an Oscar because Bill Murray is plain funny. Here’s the ending of Lost in Translation:

The whole movie is a mishmash of what I did on my summer vacation on my dad’s gold card. Like most of its oeuvre, it is, as Homer Simpson so aptly put it, “Just a bunch of stuff that happened.” It was immensely successful, of course, because mind-numbing solipsism is a way of life for entire generations at this point. A Rambo movie for girls. But as a story, outside of Bill being amusing, it’s just slides of someone else’s trip to the Luray Caverns.

So Bill wanders around maybe three-quarters of a script she wrote and they get to the end and the payoff is Bill Murray whispering something in her ear. Sofia Coppola can clutch the same statue they gave Herman J. Mankiewicz, and say I meant to do that all she wants, but I know how it works. She didn’t know where she was going in the first place, so how could she possibly know what to do when she got there? We’re supposed to fill in the blank for her with the most romantic thing evar…. Duh, you just know it was. Totally.

If I have to supply the dialog in your movie, honey, I’m going to need to see a check first.

4 Responses

  1. Nice. But you omitted all the showbiz navel gazing where we have movies about movies about Broadway shows about movies. As though the only interesting stories are about cops in the movie business (I’m lookin’ at you, Bosch), Wall Street sharpies (who finance movies), or mentally ill artists who make, act in, or write scores for movies. Lennie.

    And who can forget Hollywood’s colossal self-own music video “We Are the World?” Hey! There’s lots of poor hungry folks in the world! LET’S PUT ON A SHOW!

    I never meta post-modernist I didn’t wanna slap in the face.

  2. Lean’s concept is ‘Everybody dies; What did he do in the meantime.’ It’s in Zhivago too.
    Make it count.

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