Cinema Pornographia

Here is a follow up to Tommy’s post a few weeks ago:

My friend Paul Smith is a football player. He’s not a giant, but he is significantly bigger than me for being a year younger. He’s a pretty tough guy with the robust build of a running-back, and I’ve always thought of him as a fairly “manly man.” That’s why I always fondly remember the first time either of us saw Psycho.
         We were at a Middle School halloween party. The father of the family hosting the event wanted to show us youths an older horror film, so he started up the Hitchcock classic Psycho. He turned out the lights, we flocked to the surrounding couches and chairs, and our attention was hooked. Looking back, I’m surprised the black-and-white film was able to retain our uncouth teenage interest, but I’m glad it did. We sat there intently watching, being sucked into the movie—and when that infamous shower scene came and that frightening score blared, my manly friend Paul sprung from his seat. I specifically remember turning to see him crouching behind his chair as if hiding, quivering with fear. He had been truly and deeply afraid.

         In addition to the comical mental snapshot that episode has afforded me, I also appreciate Paul’s great leap because it demonstrated for me what a movie can do. Psycho—a 1960 film without many special effects and no color to speak of—was able to scare the wits out of some punk middle schoolers. It had, what I would call, a profound impact. Films that have this kind of impact are movies that stay with us as a culture. We remember them in our collective consciousness—we remember the injustice of Radio Raheem’s death or the nazi-face-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant; we remember the shocking knife attack in the shower. The movies that achieve this level of impact may do it by a potently told story or poignant dialogue, but either way they stick.
         Not every movie, though, has a profound impact. Some movies are pulp—they craft their story and write their dialogue well, but they don’t have a lasting impact. These are the sort of movies discussed by Tommy. They don’t achieve an infamous scare, articulate an idea, or produce a lasting metaphor. But that’s fine; they do what they were meant to do, and they do it with skill. Beyond pulp, there is yet another sort of movie: pornography.
         I don’t mean in the literal, nude sense (though that’s a thing, too). It’s pornography because of how it appeals to us. It’s titillating. It meets our raw desires for violence, noise, and sex. More subtlety, it may meet our desires for cute faces, romance, and happy endings. These sort of movies will almost always do well at the box-office. People like feeling good. They’ll pay a little money for a couple hours of societally-accepted titillation.

         The work of Michael Bay is a common example of pornographic filmmaking. The Transformers franchise is one of the highest-grossing film franchises ever (with 3 movies in the top 50 and 1 in the top 10). People flock to see them, despite the movies being increasingly nonsensical. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott explains that Transformers: Age of Extinction’s story is simply “scaffolding for the action, and like every other standing structure it is wrecked in a thunderous shower of metal, glass, masonry and earth.” To say it another way, the movies’ main goal is visual and audial spectacle—to overload the senses. Moreover, the latter Transformer movies are morally offensive, saturated with mindless violence, swearing, and both subtle and overt sexism. (Scott describes the women in the latest movie as “on screen mainly to be ogled, shamed and rescued.”)
         Another example of this pornographic filmmaking—and this one is a little more controversial—is the new Amazing Spider-Man series. Undoubtedly, these movies are less trashy than those discussed above, and I don’t mean to insinuate they are on the same level at all. But Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man series, again, panders to the senses and our desire for pretty faces—all at the expense of storytelling. The enigmatic Film Crit Hulk (who always writes in caps) explains that movie studios like Marvel and Pixar have succeeded—in contrast to Sony—because they understand, “THAT STORYTELLING ISN'T ABOUT HITTING CERTAIN BEATS BY PAGE X, OR SETTING UP AN ENTIRE CLOCKWORK SYSTEM OF WHEN THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPENING, BUT INSTEAD BY ESTABLISHING A CHARACTER ETHOS AND TELLING A STORY THAT BEST FITS THEIR PERSONALITY… COMPLETE WITH CONFLICTS THAT EMANATE FROM WITHIN THEM INSTEAD OF HAPPENING TO THEM.” The Amazing Spider-Man movies are less concerned with the art of storytelling than with producing another movie to attract viewers.
         In some ways, the movies are even morally offensive. Again, this is not on the same level as the misogynistic work of Michael Bay but is nevertheless present. The whole movie subconsciously supports Peter Parker’s narcissistic selfishness. The story bends so that Peter never learns anything and nothing is ever his fault (see Hulk’s 237 BURNING QUESTIONS for more). This sort of vapid filmmaking is the reason the series got cancelled (after the second installment!) despite making boatloads of money.

         I believe I’ve seen each installment of the two franchises discussed above (I can’t be certain, as I really can’t remember them), so I won’t be mad at people for seeing these pornographic films. See them, whatever. I also don’t expect Hollywood to stop producing them—quite the opposite. However, I think that we can all work on being aware of what we’re seeing. It is our responsibility to realize what we’re watching and admit why we may like it. That may lead to less of it in our personal viewing-habits or at least to constructive conversation and an attempt to flush it from our minds.

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