The Pretense of Narrative

But, hold on.

It’s a cliché at this point to talk about a big budget movie as a series of action sequences with only the most tenuous plot holding them together.

People don’t go to Transformers movies to see what happens to Mark Wahlberg or Bumblebee. They don’t really go to Mad Max to find out what happens to Mad Max, for that matter – we’re pretty sure at this point that he’ll turn out okay.

They go for battles, effects, explosions – described sometimes as the Cinema of Spectacle or film as amusement park ride. The job of the stars around whom these movies orbit is merely to hold them together through sheer charisma, to give us a human in the midst of the crashing and explosions, a focal point for our gaze, a sense of scale.

If one were to re-order the scenes of either franchise, or mix them together, would anyone notice? Or is 70% of the audience just waiting for the next fight to break out?

And if we’re really watching a kind of large-scale, expensive visual / sound art, essentially untethered to these ideas of the Hero’s Journey archetypal structure, with a moralistically staged protagonist/antagonist conflict and resolution, then what am I complaining about? Isn’t it all essentially interchangeable with Nascar anyway?

Maybe it’s specifically the pretense of narrative that offends my delicate / puritanical cinematic sensibility. I often think, when I find myself at a mainstream, big-budget action movie (I feel I have to go to at least occasionally to see what’s going on so I can have an opinion about it): “if this were just the effects, millions of carefully rendered polygons flying through the air in slow motion for an hour and a half, I think I would be really into it.”

If it was presented as non-narrative, as a purely formal large-scale visual experiment, I would be so impressed.

Likewise, when classical narrative is done really well, I can definitely get into it. I don’t hate everything with a story – far from it.

It’s a specific contemporary mixture of the two that feels disingenuous and sometimes downright toxic to me. The Age of MacroCinema was not a bad time in the history of Western Art – it was a kind of golden age, during which a great number of brilliant films were made, massive works of art that reflected both personal and societal truths.

I believe that the current state of the art form reflects the fact that we don’t really believe in those things any more – perhaps we in the audience wish we did, perhaps the screenwriters and directors in Hollywood earnestly want to believe it too – but you can’t force yourself to believe anything. It doesn’t reflect their experience, their belief in the American Way of Life or whatever – so it curdles into a cynical tool for attempting to manipulate an audience.

If the incredibly powerful tools of cinema are used to convey a deeply held belief in narrative story form to a receptive audience, with the massive resources and cumulative talent and experience of a Hollywood studio behind it, you get something vast, majestic, powerful, and meaningful. The apogee of MacroCinema, the long golden age stretching from Hitchcock and Hawks to (early) James Cameron and Ridley Scott.

But if you lose the melody, and those same massive resources can only be applied to an ideology expressed via narrative that no one really believes anymore, the films that come out will be subtly grotesque – big and bright and expensive looking, but empty and grating and vaguely depressing in a way that’s hard to pinpoint.

That, I believe, is where we are now – in the Twilight of MacroCinema. The money’s still there, the skill to render the robots and monsters and explosions – but the spark is gone. Perhaps someone will come along tomorrow and renew our faith, but I haven’t seen it yet – not from JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon, extremely talented technicians with plenty of skill but nothing to say. Not from the aging masters who are still cranking out film after film, for lack of anything better to do with their time.

The old narrative, the Hero’s Journey, no longer applies, and the new narrative hasn’t come along yet. It’s still possible to experiment in good faith, but funding grand multimillion dollar cinematic experiments is not a safe investment. It’s analogous to a cinematic ice age, perhaps – the last big lizards thunder on for now, while the small mammals hunker down in their MicroCinemas around the warm flickering fires of their small films, patiently watching to see what emerges with the next thaw.

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