My 2013 in Film

As I mentioned last time, the end of the year offers a time to look back at the offerings—be they movies, music, or books—of the last twelve months and evaluate them.  I’m always interested to see what critics hold up as the best of the year, although in most cases I’ll put titles on my mental “to see or read” list rather than compare my opinions directly to theirs.  When it comes to movies, I’ve fallen behind; my wife and I used to be frequent moviegoers, but the arrival of children has an impact in more ways than one.  (I see more animated films, for one thing, and fewer documentaries.)  Not only does a night out at the movies entail getting a sitter, it means giving up precious time (of which I’m now more conscious of the scarcity).  Movies as a whole aren’t trivial, but specific movies—G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I’m looking at you—are another story.  Perhaps that’s why I tend to be more forgiving of movies I watch at home.  Transformers exceeded my expectations as a cable TV offering, but I doubt I would have been as pleased if I’d trekked out to see it at the theater.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I probably won’t have a very complete picture of 2013 in film until 2016 or so, or possibly never.  The films I saw in the theater this year don’t even add up to ten, so my top ten list would of necessity include some movies I didn’t even like that much, and I had to search my memory to come up with some of them.

Pacific

A few years ago, I was discussing movies with a relative I didn’t see very often.  He revealed that he keeps an ongoing log of every movie he sees, with a numerical rating system of his own device.  Any movie that came up, he was able to tell me what he had rated it, and which movies were adjacent in rankings.  I doubt I could do that: I’m not that compulsive or organized, for one thing.  Asking around online, though, it seems that quite a few film buffs do track their reactions in that kind of detail.

I wonder how much their rankings change over time, though.  Some things I enjoyed the first time around wear thin after just one or two viewings (comedies are especially vulnerable to this).  Others stick with me, even as I’d rather they didn’t: I’ve only seen A.I. Artificial Intelligence once, and I hated it.  Really hated it; it was refreshing, in a way, because how often do we have such pure reactions to things?  Yet, large chunks of it stuck with me: that must be worth something, right?  And even the fact that I had such a strong reaction puts it on a somewhat higher level than the many movies that I’ve occasionally remembered and thought, “Oh yeah, I saw that, I think.”  I’ve read passionate and intelligent defenses of A.I. that have given me different perspectives on it; I don’t think I’d enjoy it any more if I saw it again, but I might appreciate it more.  How do I put a raw number on such an experience?

Professional critics, of course, do it all the time, and they, more than anyone, know the limitations of a star, number, or letter-grade system, boiling their nuanced and (hopefully) insightful consideration of a film down to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”  And critics’ opinions change, as well, so even a listing of their favorite movies of the year won’t necessarily line up with the ratings they originally gave those films.  That’s okay, and as long as we don’t pretend any given opinion is the final word, it’s part of the process of evaluation we all take part in.

In any case, it’s easier than ever for anyone to be a critic, or at least to publicize their opinions.  Amazon and iTunes have featured customer reviews for years, some of them lengthy essays by prolific writers; now services like Letterboxd (“Your life in film”) allow users to keep track of their viewing and ratings, just like my relative (I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a Letterboxd early adopter), with the added benefit of making their reviews public and allowing them to compare them with others’ and cross-reference their film choices with influential lists such as the AFI 100 or the various critics associations’ year-end lists.  Like many other elements of contemporary online life, Letterboxd takes activities that many people were already doing in isolation, and turns it into a social activity.

Another change in recent years is the increasingly narrow gap between the big and small screens.  Many of the films that came out earlier this year are already available on DVD or Blu-ray, and the lead time between theatrical release and home video gets shorter every year.  Streaming and video-on-demand services make it even easier to catch up on the year’s releases at home, something that is increasingly important for those smaller movies that don’t have wide theatrical distribution.  I watched Escape From Tomorrow on Vudu at home; it didn’t make it to a theater near me, as far as I am aware.  This year, Stephen Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, was released in theaters in Europe but made its American debut on HBO.  Although I would have liked to have seen both films on a bigger screen, TV time shifting made them much more accessible to me.

It goes the other way, too, although rarely: this year my wife traveled to Olathe to watch the Doctor Who fiftieth-anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in a movie theater, a rebroadcast of the international simulcast.  While undoubtedly an unusual move designed to mark a significant occasion, special engagements like this will probably become more common as theaters look for ways to create communal “events” and spectacles (like IMAX and 3D) that will bring people to the theater.  Simulcasting of live performances is even farther ahead: concerts and stage shows are available in local theaters.  I can even see performances of the Metropolitan Opera here in Wichita.

So what did I think of the movies I did see? I’m glad you asked me that, Senator:

The Lone Ranger: No, it wasn’t quite as bad as its toxic reception indicated, but it wasn’t very good, either.  I enjoy Westerns, I’m open to the reinterpretation of popular characters, especially of the pulp era, and I even liked Pirates of the Caribbean, at least the first one, so this should have been a slam dunk for me, but The Lone Ranger was mostly a giant mess.  This might be another one that I enjoy more at home, where I can skip or tune out the boring or silly parts (of which there are many) and just focus on the bigger-than-life action sequences.

Oz the Great and Powerful: Another critical bomb that I thought was just okay, not flat-out terrible.  In crafting a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, director Sam Raimi’s appropriation of the 1939 classic film’s art deco and Technicolor visuals was both a strength—I thought it looked fantastic—and a drawback, as it couldn’t help remind viewers of the superior original. Films like this are stuck in a bind: the audiences who would in theory be most interested in it are also going to scrutinize it more than average and hold it to a higher standard before accepting it.  Properties with already-passionate fans are a double-edged sword, as NBC recently found out with The Sound of Music Live!

Oz

Escape From Tomorrow: I’ve already written about this one, so I’ll just add that this is one case where I’m glad I read some reviews before I saw it.  If Escape had been as incredible as its trailer promised, it would probably be my pick of the year, if not the decade.  Although I still enjoyed it and think it’s worth seeing, getting a sense of the buzz around it brought my expectations down to earth.

Speaking of trailers, another one that had me pumped this year was for Pacific Rim.  Personally, I loved it, but I can understand audiences being underwhelmed, as it’s kind of a “fans only” prospect—if you already love giant monsters and robots, the one-dimensional characters are genre conventions, not flaws.  I saw it twice, and took friends with me, both of whom are genre fans: one a fan of action and superheroes, the other a fan of Tolkien-style high fantasy.  They enjoyed it well enough, but weren’t as enthralled as I was.  Oh well, to each their own.  The only plot point that struck me as insultingly dumb was the “Gipsy Danger is somehow ‘analog’ while the other jaegers are ‘digital,’ and that somehow protects it from the electromagnetic pulse” thing. And while it’s kind of a nitpicky complaint, I was very excited to hear GLaDOS (the AI in the Portal video game series, voiced by Ellen McLain) prominently featured in the trailer.  McLain’s voice is heard in the finished film, but the resemblance to GLaDOS is toned down, as confirmed by director and Portal fan Guillermo del Toro for Ain’t It Cool News:

“I called Valve [the makers of Portal] and asked ‘Can you give us the filter?’ so we went full GLaDOS for the first commercial, but I thought it was too much. If you’re a gamer, it’s too distracting so we created our own GLaDOS 2.0 filter that’s a little less full on.”

I get his reasoning, and it’s probably the right call, but as someone who’s been interested in Portal almost completely because of GLaDOS’ lilting, half-mechanical voice, it was a letdown. Finally, although there’s been some criticism of the formulaic rivalry between hero Raleigh Brackett and cocky Chuck Hansen, after ten-plus years of Harry Potter and knock-offs thereof, it’s actually refreshing to have a story that knows the difference between a rival and a villain.  Hansen is abrasive to the end, but ultimately he and Brackett are on the same side, and the two characters are able to set aside their personal differences and work together.  It’s sad that something so simple has become novel.

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Points of Connection, Part Five: Shadow Kingdoms

“If the Pirates of the Caribbean [ride] breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” –Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park

WallyWorld

Many of the narratives discussed so far serve as commentary on the relationship between appearance and actuality: the actors on Galaxy Quest learn to live up to the roles they portray; Squadron Supreme, Watchmen and The Venture Bros. contrast the glamorous and well-intentioned ideal of the superhero with its flawed, sometimes squalid reality; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen plays with the very notion of storytelling’s ability to shape events.  This is directly tied to the revisionary, “postmodern” stance, of which pastiche, parody, and intertextuality are such an important part, as well as making it easier to critique thinly-veiled properties that might otherwise be off-limits due to copyright or marketing needs.

In film and television, the need for doppelganger brands and trademarks goes beyond storytelling requirements and is frequently undertaken as a matter of course: there is a cottage industry of production designers that supplies television and movie studios with fake products (like Heisler Beer) for set dressing.  Although they are sometimes the vehicle for critiques of branding or consumerism, they are usually just part of the background, used in order to avoid litigation or fees that might be demanded if a trademark holder were unhappy with either the portrayal or association of their product with a film or television show.  Similarly, filmmakers may wish to avoid the stigma of paid product placement.  Fictional branding is often just another aspect of crafting a believable setting or extending an aesthetic (such as Community‘s Greendale, where Let’s Potato Chips and Hot & Brown Coffee are popular brands), and some filmmakers have brands that permeate their creations, like J. J. Abrams’ Slusho!  No matter what the motivation, or whether real or fictional brands are used, the implication is clear that brands and logos are now so ubiquitous that realism demands their presence.*

"Pearbook" on iCarly

“Pearbook” on iCarly

"Heisler Gold Ale" produced by Independent Studio Services

“Heisler Gold Ale” prop packaging by Independent Studio Services

Leaving aside cases of paid product placement, critiques are more likely to be effective when brands are named directly instead of implied by doppelgangers (even with paid placement, filmmakers are sometimes able to get the last laugh: witness the future society of Demolition Man, in which “all restaurants are Taco Bell”).  Plenty of fictional products have skewered commercialism in films and television, but they are often deliberately unreal, placing the emphasis on the stupidity or crassness of marketing, making the satire clear but less believable in a fictional context (as an example, see “Mooby,” literally a golden calf, in Kevin Smith’s Dogma).  Films like Fight Club or Idiocracy have more bite in this regard for using real-life brands and making their target perfectly clear (although Idiocracy also included fictional brands: who could forget Brawndo?).  The use of brand names in such critical ways is generally protected by the First Amendment, but film producers aren’t always willing to invest in a court fight against big corporations and choose to play it safe; hence the common blurring of even innocuous background logos in documentaries and the proliferation of fake brands on television.  In general, the bigger the company brand, the bigger the target it makes for satirists and the more aggressive its lawyers are in policing its trademarks.

It doesn’t get much bigger than the Walt Disney Company, which is famously protective of its image and is known to be very litigious when it comes to unauthorized use of its intellectual property.  That made it all the more incredible when Escape from Tomorrow was released in 2013: Escape was largely filmed surreptitiously at Disneyland and Walt Disney World with handheld cameras, the cast and crew posing as tourists.  It caused a sensation at film festivals, not least from the audacity of its production, but whether it would ever be distributed was debatable, based on the presumption that Disney would never allow a film secretly made on their property (and in which EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth is shown blowing up and rolling off its foundation, among other dark images) to be widely seen if they had anything to say about it.  Ultimately, it was released with a prominent disclaimer disavowing any connection with Disney (or the Siemens Corporation, which also figures prominently in one of the film’s most bizarre scenes).

Walt Disney and his company, characters, and theme parks have been fictionalized, parodied, and referenced in ways too numerous to count, but a few examples will suffice.  Mooby, referenced above, is a clear Mickey Mouse analogue.  The Magic Kingdom is recognizable in Walley World, the frustratingly out-of-reach destination in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and in Brisbyland, the home of “Busy Bee” in “The Incredible Mr. Brisby,” an episode of The Venture Bros.  (In both cases, the park founder is still alive and present at his park, and has the first name “Roy,” surely a reference to Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, or Roy E. Disney, Roy O.’s son and a longtime Disney executive.) Disney’s futuristic outlook, epitomized by EPCOT (originally intended to be a self-contained model community) but apparent through his entire career, has been a rich source of inspiration for both fiction and urban legend (for example, although Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t address Walt Disney’s supposed cryogenic preservation, it does include memory manipulation, robots, and other technologies behind the scenes—but how much of this is real is open to interpretation; more on this momentarily).  Finally, Disney is a natural focus for stories targeting whitewashing, controlled environments, prefab narratives, and illusory realities: whether one believes Walt Disney to have been a visionary artist, a commercial hack, something more sinister, or some combination of the three, the impact his company’s work has had on (for example) our understanding of familiar fairy tales, American history, and branding (not to mention our expectations for immersive entertainment: the “theme park” as we know it would be much different without Disney, if it existed at all) are incalculable.  If P. T. Barnum epitomizes nineteenth century show business in all its hucksterism and canny exploitation of the audience’s secret desires, Walt Disney is his technologically-empowered twentieth century heir.  Disney is thus a useful mirror for any artist interested in the contrast between calculated cover stories and messy realities.

Beyond association with Disney specifically, the haunted/abandoned/out-of-control amusement park has a long history, going back to the shady and dangerous “otherness” of the traveling circus (see the dark carnivals and mysterious midways of Ray Bradbury, who made extensive use of this setting)**, and kept alive in the malfunctioning high-tech entertainments of Westworld and Jurassic Park (both from the pen of Michael Crichton). The scary old carnival was something Disney actively tried to move away from: “carnies” with tattoos and facial hair would not be employed at his parks; every detail would be looked after to make sure guests felt safe, welcome, and at home; recreations of “old time” entertainments, such as Paradise Pier, the idealized Boardwalk at Disney California Adventures, are scrubbed clean of anything potentially offensive or threatening.  As for Crichton’s cybernetic system failures, those too drew inspiration from Disney, sensing a fatal hubris in the technophilia and micromanagement of Disney’s parks. The Simpsons knowingly brought things full circle, parodying Disneyland, Westworld, and Jurassic Park in “Itchy & Scratchy Land.”

Escape from Tomorrow thus makes a potent counterexample to the pastiches discussed in this series: it’s unlikely that the same film set in a fictionalized version of the park would make such a splash.  To point out that theme parks conceal things from their guests, or that “it’s all fake,” would be trite; everyone knows this, but like the audience for stage magic, we want to be seduced, to be tricked, at least for the duration of the show.  Escape’s trailer makes this case explicitly, and sells the film, with one line of dialogue: as Alison Lees-Taylor’s jaded ex-princess says, “People come here because they want to feel safe.  Bad things happen everywhere—especially here.”  The specificity of its references play with our familiarity with the urban legends and jokes about Disney—some are referenced directly, and others are left to our imagination.

(Spoilers follow.)  In the film, written and directed by Randy Moore, husband and father Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is fired from his job (via phone call) on the last morning of his Disneyworld vacation; while attempting to put a good face on it, he is continually distracted in the park by a pair of beguiling French teenagers, whom he clumsily follows around.  Other subplots abound, and the story is largely episodic, broken up by periodic flights of fantasy (reference is made to Jim’s “blackouts”) which provide the more overt horror elements: the characters in the rides suddenly turn into demonic tormentors; Jim finds himself entangled in a high-tech conspiracy; other park visitors, such as a scooter-riding Southerner, take on sinister significance.  In other words, the “Happiest Place on Earth” has its mask ripped away.  As Lees-Taylor’s character says, “You can’t be happy all the time.”

Pastiche is still present in at least one element of Escape from Tomorrow: the music.  Licensing requirements would have made it prohibitive to use the actual songs from Disney’s catalog, so composer Abel Korzeniowski provides convincing and frequently gorgeous backgrounds in the lush, cinematic style associated with Disney’s “golden age,” and sound-alike ditties for the rides.  The film is better for it.  This is especially clear in an early scene set on the “It’s a Small World” ride, in which the song of the same name is suggested–and its cloying, repetitive qualities exaggerated–but not actually used.  The end title song (“Imaginate!”) similarly toys with the optimistic “marching into the future” genre, giving it a vaguely threatening edge: compare it to “Miracles from Molecules,” a song (by Robert and Richard Sherman) heard in Disney’s Tomorrowland, but note that the transformations in “Imaginate!” aren’t in the inanimate materials of chemistry, but in the listener: “Everyone is here, no time to fear / And we will never let you go. . . . Imaginate! What can we do / When tomorrow there’s another you?”

Ultimately, Escape from Tomorrow pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience not unlike Disney’s hard-to-keep promise of happiness: the most surreal and dramatic scenes (like the explosion of Spaceship Earth) are fantasies, whereas the real horrors are those of the mundane world, playing on fears anyone can relate to: unemployment, alcoholism, infidelity, being separated from a child in a crowd, getting sick far from home.***  Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was the third in a loose trilogy (with Time Bandits and Brazil) focused on the importance of escapist dreams.  While Randy Moore’s cinematic language is closer to David Lynch than Gilliam (one of the spookiest scenes involves a slightly out-of-focus balloon, hovering just inside the frame), Jim’s breaks from reality clearly serve the same purpose as Sam Lowry’s in Brazil.  Even the French teenagers, in whom Jim’s interest is primarily sexual, can be seen as emblematic of a tempting other life, the specifics not so important.  It’s surely a commentary on our times that even as frightening, disorienting, and paranoid as Jim’s fantasies are, they’re still preferable to his everyday life.  That’s not to say that “reality” isn’t still a malleable concept: as in Gilliam, the boundaries of dream and waking are permeable.  At Escape‘s denouement, a “fixer” implants a happy memory in Jim’s son’s mind: who’s to say that Moore’s film doesn’t perform a similar alchemy in reverse, supplanting the company’s narrative with its own?

* David Foster Wallace notes the change in attitude toward brand names and other mass media references in literary fiction, and the role television has played in shaping that transition, in “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” especially pp. 41-44, included in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

** “Something Wicked This Way Went: Whatever Happened to the Creepy Circus?” by EsoterX has a nice take on the subject.

*** A comparison can be made to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Max Brooks’ World War Z: the political and social ills in both scenarios are plausible enough to be scary by themselves, but presumably wouldn’t draw as much of an audience without the sci-fi “hooks.”