Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Smart pirates and the Evolution of the movie franchise

I discovered Henry Jenkins' blog via this post about At World's End and how it's a better movie than critics are giving it credit for (thanks to the Disney blog for the link). I thought it was a worthy second look to this discussion. He begins with the following assertion: "As a rule, one should never trust the opinion of an established film critic about a movie with a number after its title -- and one should multiply the level of distrust for each number over 2. The whole concept of franchise entertainment seems to bring out the worst high culture assumptions in the bulk of American film critics..."

He goes on to quote from several critics who can all be summed up in this review by Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News: "Unlike, say, Shrek the Third, which works perfectly fine as a mediocre stand-alone sequel, At World's End relies heavily on viewers' knowledge of the previous film, Dead Man's Chest. Seems fair enough, given how many moviegoers were willing to pony up for that one. Still, all the curses, vendettas, double-crosses, reconciliations, trinkets, negotiations and sea monsters longing to be human again gave me severe tired head before the two-hour mark. Summer blockbusters may have many goals, but tired head should not be among them ... So yeah, At World's End has some fun stuff. If only it weren't so stuffed to the gills with moving parts. "

At World's End should've been more like Shrek the Third? Is that really what you meant to say, Chris? Way to shoot your credibility in the head.

Jenkins argues, "At the World's End (sic) ... gets no credit for its ambitions here, no recognition for placing new kinds of conceptual demands on its spectators, and no praise for its craftmanship. Rather, it is being forced back into the box where critics place any and all popular entertainment. The perception that summer movies are mindless and motivated purely by commercial considerations is being forced onto this film; At the World's End is being whacked for every step it takes outside of the confines of a totally classically constructed film."

In other words, it's too smart. And while I still wish parts had been made clearer, I completely agree. It's what got me back to the theater to see it again a couple of times, and the reason I've got the first two movies queued up on my DVD player in anticipation of seeing it yet again. As Jenkins says, "I can only imagine the pleasures that await us when we watch all three films back to back in a DVD marathon or all of the telling details I will pick up on during a second or third viewing -- and that's part of the point. The modes by which we consume these films have shifted. Most films don't warrant a first look, let alone a second viewing, but for those films that do satisfy and engage us, a much higher percentage of the audience is engaged in what might once have seemed like cult viewing practices."

He makes a brilliant observation about the way movie franchises have changed recently from being character-based to being world-based: "Hollywood has moved from a primary focus on stories as the generators of film pitches to a focus on characters that will sustain sequels to a focus on worlds that can be played out across multiple media platforms. This shift accommodates a much more active spectator who wants to watch favorite movies again and again, making new discoveries each time, and who enjoys gathering online and comparing notes within a larger knowledge culture." He cites the Matrix franchise as an example and Pirates as another. To one critic's gripe about there not being enough Jack Sparrow in At World's End, Jenkins replies that Jack's not the selling point for the franchise (though he may have been the initial draw for a lot of folks); the Pirates world is. He gives tons of examples of how the trilogy supports that, but I'll leave those for you to read when you click through. It's fascinating stuff.

Jenkins argues that the critic's job, by its very nature, interferes with critics' abilities to enjoy world-focused franchises to their full potential. "(Critics) went into the film expecting a certain kind of experience," he says. "They hadn't successfully learned how to take pleasure from its world-building; they don't want to dig into the film more deeply after the fact, comparing notes online with other viewers, because their trade demands constant movement to the next film and a focus on their own private, individualized thoughts."

He goes on to say, "Watch a film with a group of critics and it is a rather chilly experience, each trying to suppress signs of their emotional response for fear of tipping their hands to their competition. They don't laugh at comedy; they don't cry at melodrama; and they don't know how to engage in fannish conversation around film franchises, which means that their professional conduct cuts them off from the shared emotional pleasures that are so much a part of how popular culture works its magic on us. For that reason, I trust film critics far more when they are writing about art films which demand distanced contemplation than popular films which desire an immediate emotional reaction."

Like I said, fascinating stuff. And it ought to be since Jenkins is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, which sounds like the coolest job in the world to me. He's also written and/or edited nine books on various aspects of media and popular culture, so he knows what he's talking about.

That's what took me to Jenkins' blog in the first place. What's going to keep me going back is that he's got a series of posts on Gender and Fan Studies. So I'll definitely be talking more about that.


Siskoid said...

Interesting stuff. I wouldn't lump all critics into the same group, of course, it's often a matter of finding one whose tastes you understand. So from any given review, you might know that he didn't like it, but you would (i.e. what's wrong with it isn't a problem for a fan of the genre).

The point about world-building is especially interesting. Yes, some movies cater to geeks. Film critics ARE geeks, but they're movie geeks. Their thing is movies, film history, technique, etc. A movie geek would enjoy things the general populace might find boring, or pretentious, or obscure, or silly.

Is a comic book geek who loved Daredevil any different? A fantasy geek who finds redeeming value in Krull? A Star Trek geek who got her groove on watching Nemesis? If it caters to our particular niche(s), we'll find something to like where a layman might simply be confused and bored.

I happen to be a movie geek in addition to everything else, which is useful in seeing the "true" value of a genre picture. That is, if it's not a good dramatic piece of movie-making, its "world" or "genre conventions" aren't gonna save it, but if its genre conventions get in the way of comprehensibility, then it'll usually do fine (I "get" it, and it is well told for someone who does).

Example. Tolkien is the prototypical world-builder. I can't deny that he built a rich and complex world full of interests. Now, my degree is in literature, and that makes Lord of the Rings unreadable to me. It is NOT a good piece of writing. Style, plot, pacing, they're way off. But the films? Well told and making good use of the world built by Tolkien. I love them, though I know people who have no interest in the genre or the world, and just don't get it.

Michael May said...

I meant to comment on this a long time ago. Sorry about that.

You make excellent points and I don't disagree with any of them. I'm still surprised by how many people (and not just literature scholars) find Tolkien unreadable, but it's too high a number for me to just dismiss.

I mean, I still like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I don't automatically assume any more that everyone else does or will too.


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