Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Hype-Machines Are Taking Over The World!

I’m eagerly awaiting the time and opportunity to see Heaven Only Knows, The Clouds of Sil Maria, Jauja, Eden, About Elly, and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence but otherwise will probably wait for cheaper/freer ways to check out movies like Results, While We’re Young (though without Baumbach’s name attached I would surely run from this one), Run All Night, Ex Machina, Spring, Girlhood, and 71. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t have the highest of hopes for the majority of these movies though my feelings aren’t based in anything substantial. It’s summer and I’m not as immersed in the movie year. Of course, this will change once the weather roves us into warmer places but for now I’m happy to catch em when I can. So far I have seen Blackhat, Timbuktu, It Follows, What We Do in the Shadows, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hard to be a God, and Inside/Out. Already 2015 is being written off as a dud, and I wonder how exactly a movie year’s worth is quantified. Usually the measuring stick looks a little something like this: “The best movie of this year wouldn’t even crack the top ten of the previous year.” Ok. That works fine, but not for people like myself who have just disclosed a big pile of blindspots not to mention the smaller films that many paid critics haven’t seen. Also, pretending this logic works just fine as a proper gauge, did the previous year have as many “good” films or just a couple of films you personally consider “great?” I’m not saying 2015 is good, bad, or mediocre because a: I don’t know that I prefer one or two great films to ten or eleven good ones and b: I have only seen like 2% of the movies that were officially released.

Blackhat is Michael Mann’s first official feature since Public Enemies in 2009. In between the present day and 2009 he directed one episode and served as Executive Producer of Luck, a series created by David Milch of Deadwood and NYPD Blue fame. That show of course was canceled due to the unfortunate deaths of three horses (50 were used on the show); the concerns were publically raised by PETA and that citadel of journalistic and moral reliability known as TMZ. The first two horses died during short racing scenes and the creators and everyone involved insisted that all proper precautions were taken and insisted that these things tend to happen. Then a third horse died (non-racing related) and HBO canceled the show due to public pressure and the lack of assurance that the same tragedies wouldn’t continue to happen, even under supposed maximum care. Dustin Hoffman expressed disdain for the reporting, TMZ and PETA fired back and the show ended precipitately as Milch’s Deadwood had before. I can’t really weigh in on the mess because, despite being one of those ninnies who abstains from consuming meat, I don’t particularly care for PETA and have a less conflicted abhorrence for TMZ. I also haven’t seen the show, though I’d imagine that I’ll check it out when my life slows down. None of this has anything to do with Blackhat, other than to suggest that after the financial and critical success (if we are going by the heaped standard of critical mass) of Public Enemies that Mann is in need of a little luck, himself. Again, if we are measuring a movie’s critical esteem by aggregators (and I would certainly suggest you don’t do this) as well as taking into account it’s grossing of one-tenth the projected budget and the studio’s decision to pull it from theaters after a measly twenty-one days then Blackhat is fit to be considered a failure by all populist accounts. But therein lies the catch, Mann isn’t a director to sneeze at, even when most (again, aggregated) of the world seems to do just that.  

Back in 2006 Mann directed Miami Vice, a re-envisioned film version of the famed television series that he produced in the 80s. The movie took in an estimated total gross of $163,794,509, most of this from the foreign market which wasn’t a “hit” by industry standards, though it did exceed its budget. Critically it was met with trepidation from the majority of critics, but those on the other end of the gamut went hard for it, yours truly included. Today, a mere nine years later, I daresay it’s considered a masterpiece. Many consider going against egalitarian reason tantamount to being stubborn or blind to the obvious fault supposedly inherent in his films; clumsy dialogue, “bad acting,” dilapidated/recycled plots wandering aimlessly in admittedly beautifully stylized films. The basic argument in defense, one that I thankfully have never officially had to articulate, is that the director’s command of all things visual and kinetic transcends whatever flaws may hold the thing itself down. In fact his style and atmosphere transcend whatever limitations the movie itself has. That sounds about right.

But the real reason I think I’m so fixated on box office and critical success as a measured by numbers and percentages is because of a recent conversation I had with a dear personal friend and burgeoning acidic professional foe. The conversation had to do with finances, specifically regarding a work of “art” that myself and some friends have been working on. At one point in the already tense conversation we had to discuss the lack of time another artistic practitioner would be able to spend working on our stuff. Time is money, literally when you are speaking about this part of the process, and in this case we were/are running just about empty. Ever the impassioned idealist he bold claimed “Fuck money! This is art man!” as though I had forgotten. Now I hate to bring the right side of the brain into the left side of the brain’s domain, but in this particular situation his words happened to embody the maddening hypocrisy that only a self proclaimed “real artist” could fool himself into believing. Only a month before he more than doubled his asking price for his services because he “wanted to own a home and didn’t want to work a real job anymore,” a bold and stupid statement that should have come back to bite him square in the ass if I had a looser tongue at that aforementioned “this is art man!” moment. The other rub was that he had the gall to assume that this person we were about to pay for his services was unworthy of the same right and dignity to name his own financial worth and expect to be compensated for his efforts. Cash rules everything around me, son.  

If I’m being somewhat obviously oblique it’s because I dearly love this person and don’t want to drag his name through the dirt (even if only one person actually reads this), though I’m surely failing for those who do even the slightest bit of research. So let me backtrack for a minute to save my own butt. I think that my friend’s notions about art and commerce are pure and right in their aim, and it’s wrong to mock his genuine belief in separating the two even if he doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to charging people for his “artistic” labor. And I hate to be that old jerk to mock idealism and claim that it has no place in art, because that’s not true. It IS art. But art also lives and breathes within the confines of crooked financial institutions, and not all who ask for money are greedy frauds destroying the sanctity of individual creation. In fact, I should also point out that this particular endeavor will likely only cost me money, money that I earn working the type of job (four hours a day and two days a week more than my friend) that my he so passionately would like to leave in the dust. I can’t blame him. Because time is money and that time I spend earning money is time away from my family. Therefore his statements pertaining to art were somewhat insulting considering the time I’ve personally spent toiling in “art” itself. It’s every artists dream to make “art” for a living, but that requires money and to avoid turning this conversation into an ouroboros I’ll make this applicable somehow to Blackhat.

What I just described was an extremely trivial micro version of the same process that undoubtedly goes into funding and creating a movie through a studio like Universal. The plot or synopsis gets floated around, rejected, revised, and eventually acquired by a bigwig somewhere. He hunts down financers who each probably get involved because they see it as a potential investment. Then people put together a cast and crew, in this case you can view each of these individuals at IMDB and count for yourself because I’m sure as shit not doing that. Bottom line, tons of people are employed and in need of direction. Now I’m aware that not all of these areas fall under the supervision of the director, but he bears a lot of the weight of the film’s respective success and/or failure. Within this complicated, expensive, and stressful structure it’s a wonder that a movie like Blackhat can even exist. This isn’t to say that it’s a perfect termite piece, completely devoid preventable blips but its skill and invention are indubitably the work of a delicate visionary. I haven’t even spoken of the plot, which was inspired by the Stuxnet computer virus which destroyed Iranian centrifuges bringing to light the notion that a digital construct could inflict physical damage. This is otherwise known as cyberwarfare and the events that set the film into beautiful kinetic motion mirror this amalgamation of digital and corporal reality. The other narrative machinations involve an imprisoned hacker employed by the Chinese and American governments to stop this criminal, his relationships with those involved, and the trademark Mann action scenes that drive one event to the next.

As an engineered product it had no real reason to fail so spectacularly and thus we can only speculate, but I love to speculate so hear me out. My theory is twofold. First, it’s a victim of time and place being a deadpan melodrama lacking the playful or ironic cues that render it worthy of certain blasé throng while it’s also enough of a populist narrative product to pass over the pseudo-arthouse horde. Caught somewhere in between, it defies easy categorization. I feel like I know this intimately. Despite acknowledging what I would consider outside factors working against it, I think it’s also worth noting that it has plenty of needless flaws from internal logic, some lagging performances (in some instances including the lead), and moments of terrible dialogue. At times I thought it should have just skipped talking altogether. Mann has helped write all but one screenplay, and at times these same dialogue problems pop up in more than a few of his movies. I guess I don’t understand why he so freely gives fuel to his detractors in this way, why his films seem to handicap themselves. The second speculation would be the evil PR empire that’s setting the schema for what is talked about, hyped, and covered. This segues nicely to It Follows, which was declared an “instant horror classic” before it was released officially into theaters.

I learned of the evils of PR late in the game, and make no mistake the game is rigged. The basic idea that I got (from a PR agent working it the music industry) was that syndicates were picky as to what they would choose to cover. Obviously the music industry is far more flooded and would perhaps require a system in place to sift through the mess that comes pouring in every day. Basically he said that websites and syndicates used PR agencies as their filter; trusted “experts” sending along their client’s music and back-story for possible coverage. Basically three stories sold best, old popular bands reuniting, old popular bands forming other popular bands, and unknown bands with a crazy personal hook that would allure those who care nothing about the songs themselves. So PR agencies could charge starving bands 1k a month, claim that it’s a “crapshoot,” debut a song on Brooklyn Vegan, and call it a day. The more he talked, the more I learned, and the more dismal it got. It’s like rigged DUDE! I’m guessing the PR mafia works along the same lines in Hollywood, big bucks pay for more coverage. More clicks, more hype, more ticket sales. While we’ve established that Blackhat is duly unhip; no 80s synth, caught in genre purgatory, earnest, and starring Thor, It Folllows is readymade to enter the hype machine perpetuated zeitgeist where a new genre masterpiece is crowned every weekend to clickbaiter’s delight everywhere.

All of this is not necessarily a dig at David Robert Mitchell’s second feature length film. It’s not fair to use its success and Blackhat’s failure as a bat to beat it with. On a budget of roughly 2 million, it grossed close to 15 million domestically with its video release forthcoming and still no foreign push. Basically, it’s a megahit, albeit one whose fortune was predestined by media and critical hype. The movie has a great specter in theory, a shape shifting monster stalks slowly behind those who spread it via sexual encounters. If you spread it you delay its arrival/your death which sparks more sex. The movie starts with plenty of promise, making good on the creepiness of its concept, the highlight comes after a close-call in which Maika Monroe’s Jay barely escapes “it” while at her house. Jay sits on a swing set staring intently into the night for emerging figures, the camera embodying her stare. This ends up being the movie’s best trick, the way it forces the viewer to scrutinize open spaces, both vacant and populated, for people walking lifelessly forward. But at some point, I think I can identify the exact moment, the movie caves to modern horror clichés that you would find in the Paranormal Activity movies. And the ingenuity of the premise is basically squandered or ignored, leading me to wonder what Cronenberg could have done with it. I know this is unfair. Also, the specter’s altering appearance ensures unavoidably diminishing results. Despite this I think it’s a fine movie whose hype tempts jerks like me to underplay its strengths in the face of its hysteria.

Like Drive, You’re Next, etc. hype-fiends everywhere feel the need to recurrently declare films as a return to a forgone era of genre filmmaking rather than a nifty homage or just an arty movie with a moog on the soundtrack. This proves good for the films themselves, and I can’t speak against this as someday I hope to benefit from such obvious frenzy, but when movies like Timbuktu and Hard to be a God (both of which I hope to get to next week, along with Fury Road) fall by the wayside you have nowhere to go but to root for the demise of the PR industry.  

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