Friday, May 18, 2007

Half start taken too far

The following in more like 4 posts in one, as it strays from topic all too often. Apologies in advance but untangling it would be too much right now, what with the studying to be done and political strife, domestic and abroad, not to mention my empty stomach and need for a cup of tea and the fact that this is a blog and who really gives a shit?

The Rev. Bill Hicks, in one of his many anti-marketing rants, told anyone in his audience who worked in the industry to kill themselves. “Suck a tailpipe, borrow a gun from an N.R.A. buddy…” etc. Marketing, to him, was lowering our cultural stock and making us all dumber, lazier and less tuned in to the greater truths of the world. It’s difficult to disagree, and today I was thinking about the way in which art in particular is marketed. The struggle between artistic purity and making a buck is a difficult one and the results can be interesting, if not a little upsetting.

Recently I have had debates with my roommate about two films I have enjoyed and he has not. Or, he liked them but not nearly as much as I. There’s no accounting for taste I know, but I figured out that the reason he was so disappointed had more to do with marketing than the films’ content.

The movies in question: Pan’s Labyrinth, a wonderful movie, and Hostel, a grisly gem. We saw Hostel, he and I, and his reaction, though amused at the chainsaw scene, was to dismiss it for not being as gory as he thought it should be. The ads made it seem as though it would disturb and damage the average viewer—something akin to over-the-top “This movie will fuck you up for life!” ad within Crazy People. My roommate, not damaged by Eli Roth’s little shock fest, felt ripped off. Never mind that the first thirty minutes of the movie is full of bare breasts— that did not compensate for the lack of severed limbs.

But looking at the film closely, there is no lack of severed limbs. Sure, it is not as shockingly violent a film as any by Takeshi Miike—Roth’s clear influence— but it still packs a bloody punch. There’s severed Achilles’ tendons, slashed throats, dangling eyeballs, a meaty pile of arms and legs, chainsaws to the chest, suicides on train platforms, and small children pounding men in the head with large rocks. It’s got some splatter. It’s got some breasts. It’s got some shock. And it’s got sweet, sweet revenge. In short, it’s a fine little horror film. But the marketing of the movie did make it appear as though watching it would be the equivalent of taking a walking tour through a slaughterhouse, after which one would never be the same. Sadly, my roommate represents a large number of the population who swallows that shit clean and believes a lot of what they see in ads.

Jump forward to Pan’s Labyrinth. I though the film was terrific. It had all the cool special effects and computer monsters that make everyone in this post Lord of the Rings world drool. It had a damn good story as well. I was touched and, to use a tired but true metaphor, on the edge of my seat. The end of film was moving and sad and beautiful all at once. I loved it. My roommate? Not enough fantasy, not enough monsters. The ads made it seem as though the movie would be more like The Dark Crystal. Perhaps the title of Guillermo del Toro’s film, containing the word “labyrinth”, conjured up memories of David Bowie prancing about with a bunch of muppets. Jump, Magic!

There is nothing going on in Pan’s Labyrinth that lacks the absurd. The fantasy sequences are strange, to be sure, but even the scenes filmed in “real life” are nothing short of bizarre. Seeing a Franco bastard smash a farmer’s face in with a bottle (though shocking) strikes us as infinitely more acceptable than fairies and giant creatures with eyes in their hands. There’s a sense of horror throughout the film regardless of the dreamlike or all too real setting. Nevertheless, the lack of goblins and wizards was felt deeply by a significant audience, epitomized by my roommate. He felt cheated by the Spanish Civil War setting. Not enough room was made for the patently surreal.

Again, I blame the ads. Marketing departments within movie studios feel it is their job to save a movie, which the directors have ruined. They have to cut a trailer to tease an audience and get those important asses in the seats. They really do believe that the director has fucked up the project and will inevitably bring ruin on the studio if they do not make the perfect trailer, a three-minute white lie designed to dupe the dupes into paying nine bucks to see a bungled project. This is their belief, for if they had faith in the movie they would not need to market it so incorrectly.

I remember the trailers for the Three Colors Trilogy being particularly misleading. Red mentioned something about a beautiful model meeting a seductive stranger who shatters her life, or something. Blue and White were equally bizarre. I felt bad for anyone who came to the films expecting international intrigue, sex and so forth. Sadly, many a viewer's first instinct is to blame the film and not the marketing department that fooled them. The trailers are never wrong; it’s the films themselves that don’t deliver. To the duped, the movies are always to blame because, as sad as this seems, they were more entertained by a brief glimpse at a director’s vision than the full version. A trailer takes a few minutes and delivers quick thrills while a movie requires at least ninety minutes of one’s attention—far too much time to spend when there are no explosions or naked people to be seen.

I’m trying to remember the tag line for Mike Leigh’s Naked. I think it was, “A cross between On the Road and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Dear lord…

According to some articles I’ve read, book publishing, while victim to the same sort of disease, feels above this sort of thing. Nevertheless, the oft-practiced art of selective quoting, which has long been employed by Hollywood marketing machines, is to be found on book jackets eliciting outrage and even exile from the publishing community. But it has not stopped so whenever you see ellipses in a blurb, take warning. It’s not as though literature is above cinema and should be exempt from these practices. Cinema is a legitimate art form. I find the salacious tactics silly and sometimes offense, regardless of the medium. Still, I think we are trained to expect this sort of thing from movies (they take less time to disappoint us) than from books. If we are going to shell out nearly twenty bucks and invest a week or more in reading a book, it ought to deliver. Or so we tartly believe. We feel doubly angry when a book’s duplicitous jacket, lined with lauds and praises, suckered us into investing that much time with so little pay off.

I suppose this is logical but it also speaks to the developing idea of cinema as pure entertainment absent any intellectual and/or artistic pleasure. Yeah, Hostel is trash, but wonderful, well-crafted trash. There’s a place for that and I’ll defend it to the death (pun?) Saw II, on the other hand, is just bad trash. Oddly, I think more people liked Saw II than Hostel, as it delivered the expected amount of artless gore.

While we have come to accept more and more films that move away from the nebulous arena called “art” we tend to demand that books remain sacred. This worshipping of the printed page is difficult to understand (I am more than guilty of this). While books do maintain a certain holy allure that cinema—with its ceaseless remakes, incestuous plots and give-‘em-what-they-want challenge free effects— has lost, there was a time when popular movies and art did not seem so mutually exclusive and books themselves were largely considered silly distractions. Maybe I’m misreading my history but it seems that the film was once on par with the best of what literature had to offer. And yes, I am aware that novels have a history of being dismissed, ridiculed and even advised against by many a revered thinker, right down to the fathers of this country. (Little has changed in that regard.) For whatever reason, the current state of things is that print and film culture are met with different expectations. Is it the films that are to blame for being so damn moronic? Is the books fault for being so smart? God knows there are pop novels and bodice rippers galore that are as insipid and offensive as any schlock movie spewed from the most infected open sores of the Hollywood beast. I’d dare say a good majority of the books printed in one season are unreadable wastes of time. Still, if it is printed and bound, it gets a bit more leeway than celluloid. Even "printed telelvsion" is somehow held up as being special. The mere fact that people read anything, no mater how inane, seems to be worth celebrating in our culture. [I disagree, but this is really getting off track. See how it it is all slipping away? How's he gonna pull it back into place? Oh no, the train is beginning to derail]

I blame marketing for this. [Somehow, amid all the above digressions, it starts to wind back... here look, I’m tying it all back together!] Marketing has raised our expectations for art and, in the cases where we are duped, brought about disappointment. Subsequently, we have become jaded and simultaneously hungry for nothing but the basest of fares that will provide instant, easy gratification. When a movie or book fails to deliver on what we expect, we get upset and dismiss the effort and ignore any artistry or challenge that might be present. It is easier to find something that resembles what we have previous experienced and digested, as that effort was taxing enough and we’d sooner not repeat it. Just more of the same, please.

Then again, there has always been trash. [Really getting off topic now.] Every time someone speaks to the great works of art that were being produced in the past, I get suspicious. Sure, there were great bands in the 1960s. One might believe that every album released was on par with the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks… but look closer. More shit came from that decade then we know. It just didn’t survive the test of time. Similarly, I am sure Saw II and its ilk will not be thought of very often in the coming years.

[Christ, while I rant about the decline of artistic product, I also realize that this is a dull and tired call to arms. Its only purpose is to call attention to the ranter and evidence his/her great cultural awareness in a sea of stupidity. It is only meant to boost an ego and intimidate the uninitiated. Still, I rant, guilty as charged.]

[And the essay trailed off at this point like Gogol minus the madness and genius. I present it here so that the humble readers of this blog, both of you, can see a working example of the manner in which my mind tends to fixate on one thing well out of proportion and then plop into something only tneuously tied. Enjoy. i'm off to get tea.]