The Grey Area
So I was watching G.I. JOE the other night.
This isn’t a review for G.I. JOE, because there’s not a lot to say. It’s pretty much idiocy, top to bottom. Characters are less than one-dimensional, dialogue made me flinch like I was being physically assaulted, bad guys’ motivations make no sense, VFX favor quantity over quality, and despite having a huge budget and Ray Park as Snake Eyes, the best action sequence was a flashback of two kids fighting in a small kitchen which was probably shot second unit.
I tweeted my opinion as I was watching it:
Watching GI JOE just for the hell of it. Sucks like a sumbitch, as anticipated. So, so dumb.
I got a number of responses, most of them agreeing and commiserating the loss of precious, precious life that was those two hours of it. But I got one response similar to what I’ve seen before:
I too, was surprised that no one re-enacted Shakespeare plays with their action figures as I did… Oh well. (@MattWBP)
I didn’t really follow up on what exactly he meant by that, but my interpretation of it is that it’s a more nuanced and sarcastic way of saying “What did you expect a G.I. JOE movie to be?”
I may be misinterpreting the message (the brevity of tweets makes it easy to do so), but even if that’s not what he meant, that is a comment I’ve literally gotten when complaining about senseless movies. I got it after TRANSFORMERS 2, and a few others just within the last year alone.
“It’s a movie about cars that turn into giant robots. What do you expect, Shakespeare?!”
What fascinates me is the idea that the quality of storytelling is a binary proposition. That you must choose between either incoherent, gibbering dreck, or the First Folio. I would posit that there is, in fact, quite a large grey area between the two extremes.
First off, the question itself: Do I expect TRANSFORMERS or G.I. JOE to be Shakespeare? Well, no, not really. But that doesn’t mean they inherently couldn’t be, does it?
Consider THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I don’t think anyone expected STAR WARS 2 to be Shakespeare. But throw in some thees and thous, and pepper the script with more clever wordplay and innuendos, and it almost wouldn’t look out of place alongside some of the Bard’s historical tragedies. (Though the spaceships would probably give it away.)
Are the universes of TRANSFORMERS or G.I. JOE inherently more silly than the STAR WARS universe?
How about BATMAN? After Schumacher made his…things…it became very apparent that the Batman universe, if handled incorrectly, was a very, very silly place. But then Christopher Nolan took over. And although THE DARK KNIGHT is a flawed masterpiece, it is still a masterpiece that shows that a superhero movie can still be an actual movie, too.
Is JURASSIC PARK really, inherently less silly than G.I. JOE? If your heart can stand it, imagine what JURASSIC PARK would have been with McG directing.
So while my answer to the question is no, I don’t expect Shakespeare, at the same time I don’t think any concept is necessarily precluded from being executed brilliantly. There is a parallel dimension where TRANSFORMERS was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. And it’s not because the Oscars’ standards are lower over there.
But that’s over on the other end of the black and white scale. I’m not even asking for that. I just want movies to more often fall somewhere in the grey area.
If I order food from a taco stand, and what I get back is sawdust and raw chicken, I don’t think anyone would consider “What did you expect? This isn’t the Ritz-Carlton here!” an appropriate response. I didn’t buy food from the taco stand expecting the quality of the Ritz-Carlton. But I did expect it to be at least fucking edible, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation from someone purporting to be selling food.
Likewise with movies. I’m not expecting the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare every time, but my god, at least give me the cinematic equivalent of basic literacy. You’re supposedly selling a movie, it needs to be watchable.
It takes almost as much time, money, and effort to make a shriekingly stupid movie as it does a brilliant one. And I think every concept has a potentially brilliant execution. But unfortunately this attitude that hey, it’s not Shakespeare, means most filmmakers don’t even try, and the audiences let them get away with not trying because, hey.
And I think the audience’s giving free passes is the biggest problem. There are good versions of these movies. But when TRANSFORMERS 2 makes nearly as much money as THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s hard to tell from the movie executive’s Ivory Tower which is which — and more importantly, it’s even harder to care.
There’s nothing we can do about the system as it is. I’m really just imploring the up-and-comers like me to expect more from ourselves when the torch gets passed. Resist the urge to shrug off quality problems with “Oh, who cares. No one’s expecting Shakespeare, here.”
Because while you may be right, no one’s going to ask for their money back if you were to give them Shakespeare, either. And even if you don’t make a great movie, you’ve significantly increased your chances of at least making a good one.