By Dan Poorman
These days you get in a lot of trouble no matter what you say, you know what I mean? You can say anything in the world and get in trouble. I know this for a fact. So I’m just going to say ‘Thank you.’
Billy Bob Thornton
That’s Thornton accepting his Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Television Film for Fargo at this year’s ceremony. Granted, here’s a man who has garnered his fair share of weird looks and controversy over the years, on a scale of wearing Angelina Jolie’s blood around his neck to lashing out at radio personality Jian Ghomesi when he was introduced on the program Q as “Oscar-winning screenwriter, director, and actor” rather than just “singer-songwriter-drummer.” (In the same 2009 interview, Thornton made a questionable remark about Canadian concertgoers). Thornton, on the whole, is a Hollywood figure with what appears to be a rather tumultuous and increasingly curmudgeonly relationship with the primordial movie star lifestyle. At the very least, he’s an eccentric.
But I believe his words here have some significance.
Let me begin by addressing a phrase I’ve seen thrown around almost daily for what feels like just over a year now: “It’s [Insert Year Here].” First, I’m going to go ahead and agree with anyone who cries out “It’s 2015!” because it is, in fact, 2015. The connotation, of course, is that as a society, we should be fully progressed by now. We should be embracing diversity and, particularly as Americans, phasing out of our grandfathers’ archaic ways of thinking about rising social issues majorly associated with gender, race, and class. Do I agree with this idea as well? Yes. Do I think we have fully progressed? No. Of course we haven’t. Life doesn’t have such smooth edges.
As a living, breathing, thinking person, I do however have a bone to pick with the ways in which a lot of folks promote social change. Catch me on a normal day and start in with me on this dialogue, and you’ll probably hear me attribute much of my frustration to this hyperconnected age we are living in. Frankly, the Internet is a blessing and a curse. In many ways, it has expanded the very area of the world; it has connected us. Hell, I’m thankful to be even writing this right now. I’m thankful that it will be accessible, in an instant, to many other people of varying walks of life. That’s an amazing thing.
But then there’s the recoil: In some cases, the Internet, and in particular social media, has pitted us against one another. Sure, these platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and the like) have successfully fostered our differing opinions and moral codes, and sparked countless diplomatic conversations and debates inside and/or outside of our computer screens—but what I am horrified to see more often is the increasing inflammation of those Internet dwellers who appear to be fundamentally incapable of admitting theirs is not the single, authoritative opinion.
Now, I want to clarify, before a bunch of people jump on me (Because—AH! That’s today’s climate!): I’m not personally stating a political bent here, or by any means calling out any one specific ethnicity or creed or gender identity at all, and I am aware of bigotry, and point blank a bigot is a bigot, and we do have a lot of work to do. But what kind of example are we setting as people, in the broadest sense of the term, when the behavior some of us resort to is just as comparable to childish shit-throwing as the other side’s is?
And, you know, while we’re at it, regardless of any collective demand for social change, why is nothing good enough in 2015? Why does everything have to come with an exhaustive PC Checklist?*
Guys, why are so many of us rolling our political luggage into the movie theater?
I’m not going to be a total dunce and ignore the fact that art imitates or is at least largely influenced by life. Of course it does, and is. This is a matter of culture, after all. And on that note, I’m not saying that a lot of films these days are not edging towards social reform in their own right by encouraging sociopolitical dialogues. It’s totally important, in any kind of storytelling, to take some kind of stance. I get that. Now, I’m also not going to discount the handful of movies we’ve seen recently that have, in fact, blatantly made some ignorant and offensive choices (Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, anyone?).
But can we talk about how movies are innately amazing? Really, seriously, stop stressing yourself out about content and narrative implications and whether or not a certain film is accurate enough or representative of a certain social talking point, and chew on the idea of a moving picture for a moment. What the hell is a movie? And why does it captivate us? That’s some tasty mind food if I’ve ever smelled it.
Now, here’s where I could brandish words like “Ontologically” and recall the Allegory of the Cave to show I’ve taken a few undergraduate philosophy courses (I had one teacher who consistently made the most incredible connections between reality and fantasy), but I won’t, because this isn’t about how hip or learned I am—it’s about how much I love the experience of watching a film. It’s about cinema as a kind of magic, regardless of my “role” in society. And personally, I don’t care what movie is in question. I love plenty of movies, and I hate plenty of movies, but I’m glad they all exist, because watching them enriches my life.
To each his own, of course—and I don’t discourage freedom of expression—but I feel at times, as a young writer and aspiring film critic living in 2015, that I must pry through a morass of radical, self-assured think-pieces presenting themselves as demi-law in order to say one damn thing that I think about a movie. And it’s uncomfortable, this feeling that, if my particular thought is by the slightest degree opposed to what is written in the article that’s getting the most shares or retweets at the moment, I am guilty of something, or in some cases I am not progressive enough, or maybe I am even flat out wrong or a bad person. I often must remind myself that I am not. You know, subjectivity.
A lot of times, these troubling critiques of which I speak come in the form of the childish shit-throwing that I also mentioned above, i.e. the recent case of writer-director Joss Whedon in the wake of Avengers: Age of Ultron, accused of sexism, classified under a litany of vulgar names, and even threatened with death by a swarm of Twitter users who had literally nothing better to do, all because the character of Natasha Romanoff was given a love interest in the (mind you, far weaker) Bruce Banner.
There was speculation that Whedon had deleted his Twitter account in response to this onslaught of militant feminists, but Whedon himself told BuzzFeed News this was not true, remarking that he had grown a thick skin against people of the sort, that “Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.” His real reason for leaving Twitter? It was “too loud,” and he wanted to focus on his writing and his personal life.
I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically. Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.
Some celebs came to Whedon’s defense on the popular microblogging platform, in the name of his unmistakably layered and progressive writing, and as a call to many tweeters to lay down arms and realize the absurdity of their attacks. (Like, can’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy your goddamn superhero blockbuster?).
Here, user @thordinsons cries out “internalized sexism” on Whedon’s part for turning Natasha into a love interest who needs saving. The Hulk himself, Mark Ruffalo, responds:
@thordinsons @josswhedon Weird I thought he turned Banner into a love interest that needed saving.
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) May 2, 2015
Writer, comedian, and noted cinephile Patton Oswalt, though the tweet has since been deleted, wrote: “Yep. There is a ‘Tea Party’ equivalent of progressivism/liberalism.”
Apart from these more vicious amateur Internet critics, there’s another prevalent personality today which, while still quick to bite, refrains from the juvenilism of death threats and still manages to retain the same sense of self-righteousness in albeit usually well-written political over-criticisms of film and television (come to think of it, of genre films in particular)—and this kind of often professional writer’s calling card is a coolly cynical sense of contrarianism. (And you can bet their army of my-liberal-is-better-than-your-liberal activists is real and very determined). I guess I could just say that a lot of people out there are bitter, and don’t want the rest of us to have nice things.
One of these recent nice things is the announcement of Trevor Noah succeeding Jon Stewart for the Daily Show throne, the issue at hand being, whether or not Noah’s old Twitter jokes were offensive or at the very least unfunny, the frothing-at-the-mouth sourpusses of the Internet still felt obligated to dig them up and forge a contrarian case. The other nice thing, which is even more relevant now, is the success of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
The formula is simple: Is it critically acclaimed? Is a large portion of the Internet community generally excited about it? Is it subltly or modestly, as opposed to loudly or radically, progressive? If ‘Yes’ on all three counts, publish a piece or write out a tweet highlighting its imperfections and how far we still have to go. Throw it on the pile of bones of “problematic” things past. Literally hunt for the thinnest of flaws, and assume the kind of all-knowing attitude which should in fact belong solely to the artist.
On May 18, 2015, just three days after the wide release of Mad Max: Fury Road, the independent magazine In These Times published a Web piece by Eileen Jones entitled “Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist; And It Isn’t That Good, Either.” Jones, credited as film critic at Jacobin and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is also the author of a book called Filmsuck, USA, which, according to its Amazon.com description, is “For anyone wondering why both Hollywood and independent movies suck so badly lately.” Amazon goes on to say that “this collection of hilariously angry film reviews excoriates the recent film flameouts darkening our multiplexes. An extended introductory rant provides historical perspective on the long decline and fall of the American cinema.”
As I have noted several times (or so I hope, God help me) in this essay, anyone can say or write anything they want. But when it comes to the morale of the modern American moviegoer, it’s people like Jones who threaten it—and who, by extension, threaten the modern movie itself, with their outright negativity. (The Critic Who Cried Wolf, perhaps?). Of course, we must remember that no matter how resounding the general public’s call for “good” or “bad” in regards to any piece of art, it’s all subjective. Concerning the work of Jones, specifically in her tackling of Fury Road, however—what starts out as a fair display of personal taste and opinion soon meanders into downright cynical, jeering, and borderline supremacist territory. She just doesn’t want the moviegoer to have any fun.
I give her props for the commanding headline, and I do think she’s intelligent; a great writer, even. What I also think is that she is molding her talent and clear filmic knowledge into a rather menacing poker that is imposing on the enjoyment of people like me, who frankly don’t give a shit about the degree to which a film is progressive, so long as it has no ill intentions and is not made with blatant ignorance, and you know, is still a riveting story with a possibly even more riveting visual edge. A movie, if you will.
On the front of that visual edge, Jones is not impressed. Okay. That’s fine. She is especially passionate in her rejection of color grading in the modern action film, citing David Christopher Bell of Cracked.com and his idea that “Color grading makes everything look like a fantasy” to reinforce the point about Fury Road she sets forth at the top of her piece: It is not a good movie; it is cartoonish in the worst way, apparently tacky, “hammy as hell,” and an inadvertent joke. Jones contrasts this Mad Max for the new generation with the original Mad Max film series, also conceived by Miller, defending and mourning—like a true-to-form puris—a sort of primeval Aussie ruggedness. Again, fair enough.
But it is when Jones begins to pick at Fury Road‘s pretty straightforward social message like a fruit fly in her salad that things get a little ridiculous, I think. I am reminded immediately of what Joss Whedon was getting at, actually: As informed progressive thinkers, we are splitting ourselves off into fractals of categories and satisfying a ludicrous system of segregation which ultimately does nothing for the greater democratic good we are all supposed to be most interested in. Jones shows how this practice has unfortunately leaked into our viewing and discussion of movies, first when she questions George Miller’s feminist nature because he hired Vagina Monologues author and apparent “knock-off” (or, let’s be honest, lesser) feminist Eve Ensler as a consultant to the female performers in Fury Road, and second when she decides that, because antagonist Immortan Joe’s “prized breeders” are reminiscent of (and played by) fashion models, and because Charlize Theron is in her opinion more conventionally attractive than Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979), Fury Road is a flaccid attempt at whatever the coolest form of feminism (or, human equality) currently is.
Whatever over-reading (and remember, folks, this is just my opinion) Jones continues to perform in her piece, she’s going to gain followers who are going to start bickering with their political rivals on their Facebook feeds, and she’s going to stick to her convinctions and carry on living and writing, and more power to her—but she is no end-all-be-all authority on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially considering she did not have a hand in creating it. Sure, it’s a shame it was not good enough for her, but that does not change its influence as a substantial (I think, incredible) feat in filmmaking, no matter how “hammy” or mainstream progressive it may be.
It is my belief that the truest of movie geeks will look at a film like Mad Max: Fury Road through an intensely similar if not identical scope for which I’ve lobbied throughout this entire blog post: It is a movie in the most magical sense, an intricately crafted universe (and mind you, as a genre feature, a fictional and entirely speculative one—not one that necessarily prophesizes a real future) which tells an important and empowering story whilst simultaneously appealing to our senses. Making a film, from what I understand, is a tirelessly collaborative process; a multi-faceted art project which, in order to land, must depend on the full mechanical and spiritual investment of each contributor—which is larger than any political classification or Internet dissection.
Talk to my good pal Matt, a film school grad and a budding cinematographer, about the few friends he knows who worked on Fury Road, whether on one of the few camera crews or even in the stunts department. I doubt he’ll tell you that they all worked startlingly hard on this groundbreaking blockbuster film in order to be sociopolitcally scrutinized. No. They did it because they love this kind of work. They love movies, with or without all the underlayers; the thematic frills. They likely grew up cinephiles always craving substance, but never forgetting spectacle.
So is it possible to, now and then, think less of how PC a film is in the turbulently progressive times of 2015, especially if its intentions are centrally progressive? And whether we are film critics, or casual popcorn-munchers in the theater on a Saturday night, or Web fiends streaming on VOD or Netflix, is it possible to pay more mind to the motion picture which made it—somehow, incredibly—to our screen?
I’m just going to say “Thank you” now.
*This snappy term coined by my friend/co-founder of The Taste Basket, Kevin Redding, in a personal conversation.
Now, if you’re a weird cine-romantic like me, or even if you don’t own that label and just really liked Mad Max: Fury Road, here is some more positively-charged and very interesting recommended reading: