When it comes to summer entertainment, movies are shouting about nothing into empty theatres. Then they kill everyone
Summer movies promise us many things, but mostly they promise recognizable brands. The hottest months of the year for many years now have been hijacked by uninspired pastiche and comic book infantilization. You’ve got your Marvel here, your D.C. over there, your ‘80s sitcom rebooted here, your ‘60s sci-fi dressed in newfangled CGI there. Thrilling action, spine-tingling adventure, and genuine spectacle come with, but only if they’re attached to a known quantity. The trailers for modern summer movies almost always hinge upon giving away their money shot, building up for 20 seconds of instant cliché recognition until at last arriving at their climax, splooging a hundred million dollars at the audience in a quick montage.
Many of us know, deep inside, just how bogus a proposition this is, regardless of how resigned we are to the status quo and how aware we are that the same argument has been made against mass cultural products for as long as such things have existed. And, of course, we all know that summer movies have and could be any number of things if corporations spent their money on richer, more satisfying movies. If the box office numbers (85 percent of theatre seats go unfilled, according to leading indie distributor Cinedigm’s CEO Chris McGurk) are any indication, moviegoers want something else than what we’re being offered. Or at least what we know we’re being offered.
This isn’t to say that movies the cinerati wishes were popular would surely find their deserved audiences in a more idyllic system. That would take not just a more judicious and innovative distribution network (one without things like MPAA protectionism, enforced DCI compliance for theatres converting to digital and the end of collusion among owners to keep theatrical windows long), it would require a very strange population. So I can’t shed a tear for Amat Escalante’s Mexican drug war slow cinema nightmare Heli -- its director the winner of the Prix de la Mise en Scène at Cannes 2013 -- even though its final theatrical tally surely clocked in somewhere in the low five-figures. It never had a chance, Cannes or not, in American cinemas.
Folks didn’t know about Heli and even if they did, they wouldn’t have gone to see it anyway. Grimly aestheticized hangings and beheadings and comically brutal shootings aren’t as fun as not knowing or caring where your cocaine comes from. One day soon pot will be legal in the United States and perhaps the lucrative drug trade in Mexico, fueled largely by American demand, will grow calmer, will claim less lives, and movies like Escalante’s sadomodernist tale will have less resonance for those who do care. For now though, it’s the summer’s gold standard, a small flower of reality in a garden of escapist noise.
They don’t make them like they used to is a thing old and usually misguided people say, so it’s better to ask “Where have all the thoughtful and original mainstream movies gone?” The answer is “They’ve long been obscured, left to rot and die on one screen in New York for six days before disappearing into VOD obscurity.”
Since I bypass the multiplexes unless some white magazine editor asks me to trot down to 42nd street to review an overblown black historical pageant written and produced by white Brits and directed by a man who thinks Get On Up is about “singing and dancing,” there’s a chance I might not be the right person to assail summer movies. But these days the summer movies seem to have very little to tell me and you and everyone we know. The senseless and empty advertising apparatus that undergirds studio profits is proof: They’re doing it on purpose.
How did we arrive at this state of affairs, where reliable brand regurgitating and anti-specific content were the order of the day? The conventional wisdom is that they’re trying to address all seven billion of us with something we can understand and be compelled to consume again and again like those black sludge protein bars in Snowpiercer.
And what about Snowpiercer? Is this the thinking viewer’s exception to the rule? A popular hit with brains too? For all the hard work underpaid online writers have put in mulling Snowpiercer and its marriage of pop-cult spectacle and post-Occupy messaging, the masses are decidedly not stirred. Three million dollars domestic and a lot of VOD eyes does not a hit make, no matter what the Weinsteins say. Did audiences really leave Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with any new insight into the eternal struggle between peace and militarism, between hope and fear? No, they did not.
How then should a summer movie be? It keeps occurring to me that I should see the movies everyone is talking about. I’m passing time in Cincinnati weeks ago and three guys in one day tell me what Guardians of the Galaxy is. As of this writing, I do still do not understand what it’s about or who’s in it, but I’m just a Google search or an ignored press release away from finding out. See if I care. I’m starting to feel better and better about not knowing.
Our brains weren’t evolved to find watching Chicago blown up for the 50th time in three summers enjoyable, any more than they were built to take stock of 800 new releases. I mention to a friend at a bar in that same Ohio metropolis that Scarlett Johansson played a man killing, love seeking alien in this great sci-fi movie Under the Skin, which has to date grossed just a little over a million dollars on a budget many times larger. He texts me 12 hours later: “is that scarlett johansen pic called lucy?”
The apocalypse is everywhere. That trailer money shot is almost always of a modern city burning, blowing up, being engulfed by sea, being invaded by aliens, being stomped on by the first post-Fukushima Godzilla reboot. Of all the apocalypses audiences can see at the movies this summer -- like the devastated streets of San Francisco in Apes or multiple world capitals meeting a swift and violent end, once again, in Transformers 4 -- the only one that meant anything to me was Vice Media’s online feature-length profile of the late peak oil advocate and general catastrophist Michael C. Rupport. Apocalypse, Man is also the only one too real for the studios that dominate our cinemas to care about, and ultimately the one too real to ignore.
The movie, directed by Andy Capper, is broken up into six parts on the web, and it’s a little annoying to watch that way. Despite being dominated by single interview with Ruppert (also the subject of Chris Smith’s haunting 2009 documentary Collapse), it is propulsive and alarming enough, that you want to keep it going without having to close five different ironically placed Ford Explorer ads. Capper and his team find Ruppert in a Crestone, Colorado Native American spiritual retreat, years after his brief notoriety following Collapse and after his podcast The Lifeboat Hour had grown unbearably melancholy, broke and openly hopeless.
After briefly introducing us to his legend as an ex-LAPD officer who discovered the department working with the CIA to bring cocaine into America’s black communities and a muckraking 9/11 Truther, Apocalypse, Man has Ruppert give his gloomy account of the catastrophes since then: The government has openly declared war on the American people through the National Defense Authorization Act, the militarization of our police forces and the rolling back of various other civil liberties. Occupy, claims Ruppert, red-faced and weary, looking like a prune faced pirate with an unapologetically wide soul patch dominating his chin, was ruined by its inability to clearly focus on solutions before the department of Homeland Security could destroy it. The only hope for the world is the U.S. dollar failing. But not really. Fukushima and climate change mean we’ve already gone too far. All is lost.
Ruppert, even though his prediction five Marches ago in front of Chris Smith’s camera that peak oil would have cast industrialized civilization into Mad Max disorder by now, clearly felt that way. Last April, he shot himself in the head.
Fukushima’s radiated salmon, Toledo’s lack of potable water due to weird forms of summer algae caused by global warming, methane leakage from nearly exposed ice shelves: these are not terribly telegenic catastrophes. They seem to fit this mild New York summer, where the heat waves that recent experience and apocalyptic documentaries have taught us to expect never surfaced. We can go to the movies and watch the world die a dozen different ways, but despite all the well-founded predictions to the contrary, we’re still here. So I decided to watch some TV. I didn’t have one though, so, like everyone else in my age demographic, I had to steal what we’re still calling TV from the Internet.
The only thing I could find to watch, other than the World Cup on illegal streams from Ghana and baseball on illegal streams from the Ukraine, was Drunk History. It was, I’m sad to report, the only thing worth watching.
Derek Waters started Drunk History as a web series of sketches on Funny or Die. He has taken a simple concept and struck gold for Comedy Central, who are now airing the second season of a half-hour version. In each episode, he visits a distinct American city, one full of tales about America’s long struggle for self-perfection. Waters then gets some great storytellers very loaded and films them ambling through a story of some historical import. Although legitimately drunk, his storytellers are skilled comedians and their retellings, shot as simple interviews, are intercut with narrative reenactments in which the historical characters, often played famous reenactors (Winona Ryder, Michael Cera, Patton Oswalt, and Johnny Knoxville have all appeared in recent episodes), are animated with the drunk storytellers’ words.
The show skews its tales toward subversive chapters of American historical legend, the dark corners of the American story that complicate our enduring myths. Where else on American television is one like to encounter the fact that Claudette Colvin was just too dark to be the face of the Civil Rights Movement, or that Ronald Reagan, failed actor, only became a conservative because he and Nancy wanted to be really famous? Waters and his drunk storytellers pay special attention to aspects of black history that remain underreported, whether it’s February or not. Robert Smalls, the ex-slave who first convinced Lincoln to erect negro regimens for the Union and later founded the South Carolina Republican party, was the type of hero more Americans should know about, for instance. Waters has crafted one of the few half hours on popular American television where this kind of nuanced and, if played straight, incendiary political discourse is tolerated. America has a very difficult time reckoning with its past. In its own peculiar way, Drunk History is one of the few shows on TV making an honest attempt to do the work.