Link to check out: Obsessive Advertising in Jurassic Park

Max Tohline, a professor at Ohio university, provides a fascinating investigation into the overabundance of branding in Jurassic Park:

I was struck by his reference to cathexis and consumption surrogates, since that is precisely how I, and I suspect many others, approach this movie: as a voracious carnivore glutting on its content. If you want to talk about morbid accumulation: I grew up, as all my friends did, on watching the film, reading the junior novelization (and later the original novel), playing with the toys and the SNES videogame adaptations. It may be that I have seen the film so often that it almost takes on a surreal jamais vu (similar to when one repeats the same word over and over until it loses all meaning). My over-consumption and subsequent satiation corresponds, in a way, to the response of Dr. Grant when he first sees the dinosaur: a kind of catatonic stupor that defies articulation. One which leaves the good doctor with little more to say than a meagre whimper, “it’s a dinosaur”. I think the correlation between the responses of a fictional Dr. Grant and my own speaks volumes of the affective power of Spielberg’s film–at least over me. Over twenty years on and I’m still pointing indiscriminately at the screen and raving, if only to myself, “it’s Jurassic Park”.

“Are you a good flick or a bad flick?”: The Waste of Arguing for Goodness

In 1983 Siskel and Ebert got into a frivolous argument with fellow critic John Simon, then film critic for the National Review and Drama Critic for New York Magazine, over whether Return of the Jedi is a great film or not. I include this piece because it displays the profound emptiness associated with a profession that wastes its time classifying films according to prescriptive judgments. It also reveals that these issues with which we contend in contemporary popular criticism are not so isolated. Though I am undoubtedly on the side of Siskel and Ebert in arguing the technical and affective merits of the original Star Wars trilogy, notice how both sides lapse into strings of non sequiturs when asked if the film is great. The reporter asks “Is this film good?” To which Ebert replies “it excited me, it made me laugh, it made me thrilled, and that’s what a movie like this is for.” I agree with him completely, but this gets us no closer to answering the original question, precisely because the original question is a useless question. Not a good or bad question, but a useless one. Nothing can be made of it. It’s the work of youtube viewer satisfaction tallies, not the issue of prolonged study (though the results could then be tabulated to form the basis of some anthropological observations about cultural responses to art, yet this work would be an abstraction from the original product in question: the film).

The real valuable statements are found precisely in Ebert’s response to the movie. The question “what did this movie do” provokes a more solid and valuable answer than “is this movie good or bad.” Ebert’s remarks are a useful foundation for exploring the film further, while ostensibly acknowledging its intent as an affective rather than intellectual piece of pop art. How did it excite Ebert, and what tools did it employ to do so? How did it thrill him? Arguing whether a movie being thrilling or not thrilling is good or bad is a useless debate. Continue reading

The Trouble with the Opening of “Man of Steel”

The narrative structure of Man of Steel‘s opening is about as chaotic as the events it depicts. The film begins with all bombastic fury when the planet Krypton is plunged into chaos by General Zod, a militant general with grand designs for a eugenically pure kryptonian race. In the midst of this, Jor-El is trying to save his son from an impending Armageddon of a different sort than Zod’s revolution. So already we have three competing story drives. Zod’s revolution (#1), Jor-El’s desire to save his son (#2), which is related to impending destruction of the planet (#3). Less than 5 minutes in and this film is stuffed with plots to explore. The whole thing plays out like an explosive, overly rambunctious homage to the opening of Star Wars, without much grace or eloquence to the execution and with hardly enough of a nod to suggest homage. Theft might be a more apt term then, but not simple wholesale appropriation–that version would at least be coherent–this is merely tactless retrofitting.

Allow me to explain the charge. In Star Wars, Lucas didn’t need to keep explaining his story more than what he already had because the events in the opening were directly related to the remainder of the film. The conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion, Leia’s goal to overthrow this empire, Darth Vader and his goal to stop them, the hunt for the death star plans: it’s all set in motion by this opening. Not so in Man of Steel, in which Krypton’s problems only serve as marginal backstory for a much broader narrative about taking over the Earth. So the problem is that rather than deal with any of these three elements outlined already, the story instead takes an abrupt turn to have Jor-El go hunting after an item. The most marginal problem with this, and the only problem I shall explore since it’s the only one capable of being fixed with a minor adjustment in the script, is that the film does nothing to signal this detour in the narrative. Quite simply we don’t know he’s going after an item until he finally retrieves it. Granted, he does allude to a mysterious object called “the codex” after a brief chase sequence, and after three plot themes have been crammed together, but why be so needlessly obscure in your opening? I admit, this is probably my own failing as an audience member to pick up on the most marginal of details in the most chaotic of openings, and generally I wouldn’t bother describing my own personal response in this case, but I use this instance as a vehicle for talking about the brilliance of The Dark Knight and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I’m going to take it.

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“How to Score with Women”: Why the Bechdel Test is not the solution to gender inequality in cinema


Adèle Exarchopoulos in a still from “Blue is the Warmest Colour”

Featured today in The Guardian was an article about a new rating being promoted in Sweden, whereby cinemas “are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it.” Admirable though the attempt may be, appealing to the dictates of a standardised test is a flawed way of determining which films ‘make the grade’ to promote gender equality.

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A Meaningful Murder in Star Wars Episode III

You’d be forgiven for thinking the original trilogy was a bit too coincidental, given that the whole Galaxy is ruled over by this one bad guy, and the only people who can bring down his Empire are his unwitting children. But Lucas wanted to keep things as a family affair, and it’s notable that rather than roll our eyes at the absurd improbability that Luke Skywalker would happen to find almost the only eligible human female in the galaxy just to discover she is, in fact, his sister (which actually makes some sense given the first condition), we instead accept all these coincidences as a matter of destiny. Part of the interest in Lucas’ original trilogy was precisely this appeal to myth and fantasy. His intent was, in his own words, a space opera, a science-fantasy in which destiny was the primary theme.

It seems though that Lucas ran out of things to say about this theme by the time he got around to finally making his new trilogy. Continue reading

Documentary to check out: “Death By China”

Though the subjects in Peter Navarro‘s patriotic lament for American industry occasionally lapse into fear-mongering doomsday proclamations, this lean, mean documentary nevertheless loosely sketches the growing and troubling issues developing in the US as it exports its manufacturing base on a one-way street. Unabashedly one-sided and hopelessly short of solutions, it nonetheless makes a compelling case for the argument that trade reform with China is vital for a prosperous American future (which obviously has a large impact on Canada as well). If nothing else, would-be filmmakers would do well to watch it as an exercise in creating a compelling evocation of dread. Agitprop cinema rarely has me so fired up. The narrow picture it presents suggests more widely available information on this issue is needed (if anyone knows of any such material I would be grateful to learn of it). I admit I may be taken in by the pathos of this documentary, yet it nonetheless seems an issue worth investigating.
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