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The Grey Area

June 8, 2010

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.

  1. Very very true. Great post, thanks.
    With all the technological marvel around the filmmakers are starting to forget what’s really important – the story and the emotion.
    – MK

  2. Jake permalink

    This doesn’t have to do with your post (though I agree with it)… but I found it quite funny to see an ad for Carly Fiorina on your blog. I’m hoping it’s just a random occurrence on the part of the Google Ad… or Google has a decidedly wicked sense of humor.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      It’s particularly surprising considering that I don’t have Google ads on my blog at all. So I have no idea why you’re seeing them. Does anyone else see Google ads here?

  3. I agree 100%. Although I’ve been known to like less than stellar films, I too won’t just watch anything and caulk it up to genre. I do however, like the first Transformers, but Transformers 2 is horrid. I also acknowledge that while The Dark Knight is a very good movie, it’s just a tad overrated.

  4. MattWBP permalink

    Hey Scott,

    My tweet was meant more as a poke at myself. My G.I. Joe’s were literally used to re-enact plays and movie scenes. One of my action-man figures even got married to the barbie doll of a girl I liked. I believe whilst still wearing a full scuba suit, maybe it protected him from cooties.

    So imagine my disappointment.

    Even the most basic of action figure playtimes involved a cast of toys so wide… Jurassic Park, Terminator, He-Man, Action Man that the outcome was so much deeper and exciting that comparatively, it was Shakespearian.

    Great post Scott, I agree. And whilst Imagining McG directing one of my most treasured films is painful, I have already seen the result of him directing a remake of my most treasured tv series.. Spaced. I’ll never recover.


  5. Well done essay. Like many, I have had the rhetorical “What did you expect?” posed to me and, you know…it’s a real question and deserves a thoughtful response like yours.

    On this Primary Election day I’d also note that it’s not only Arts/Entertainment where people throw out the “What did you expect?” but Politics sees too much of this as well. “Eh, he’s a politician. What did you expect?” Frankly, I expect a person to keep their word, represent me and respect the effort of my support and vote.

    Having high expectations is not a crime.

  6. MattWBP permalink

    Completely agree with any concept not being precluded from brilliant execution. But you have to weigh in who exactly is executing that concept too…

    I knew what I wanted from G.I. Joe, but my expectations were very different and based on Stephen Sommer’s recent directorial work (Van Helsing).

    It doesn’t make that G.I. Joe was as bad as it was okay, by any means. Much in the same way as locking a psychotic murderer in a room with a hogtied schoolgirl. The results are predictable, but not acceptable. High expectations have to be tempered with a memory of the past if they are to be realistic.

    Going in armed with this knowledge and I admit, a cynical streak – What else would I expect?

  7. Hey Dorkmann, I was inspired by this post and wrote my own article about importance of good story in the age of vfx. I’d be really glad if you check it out. Thanks.
    – MK

  8. Here’s the link, sorry for double post>

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