Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Sadism of the Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome

http://www.konbini.com/fr/files/2014/04/how-steven-spielberg-made-millions-off-star-wars-after-a-1977-bet-with-george-lucas.jpgDuring my years in grad school, I happened to mention to a faculty member my lifelong affection for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. He replied that he couldn’t really share my liking because he found Jurassic Park “such a sadistic film.” This remark stayed with me for the obvious reason that my professor was absolutely correct. With its litany of attractions – such as a man being unceremoniously plucked off the toilet to be devoured by a T-Rex, a young girl being drenched with brachiosaur snot, an even younger boy being zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity, and a woman being menaced and terrified to the point of near catatonia – Jurassic Park is indeed a pervasively sadistic film. My liking for it nonetheless, however, is due to the fact that it uses a certain aesthetic register of sadism – one that Spielberg and his friend and collaborator George Lucas largely innovated between themselves.When he first undertook Star Wars, George Lucas was just coming off the success of American Graffiti, a project he had only undertaken in reaction to the failure of his first feature, THX-1138. That film had failed to resonate with American audiences who were, to say the least, unused to coolly cerebral art films couched in an idiom of hard science-fiction (2001 would seem the obvious exception, but perhaps that film had already been reified into total uniqueness). Ever since film school, Lucas’s interests had been clinical ones of formal experimentation – abstract filmmaking, tone poems, collections of images – with emotive human drama incidental, if there at all. His 1966 student short Freiheit (which can be seen you YouTube here) shows this sensibility in full effect. Following the failure of THX 1138, however, Francis Ford Coppola apparently encouraged Lucas to try something warmly human and emotive – an idea that Lucas fiercely resisted, saying that “emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” But he eventually came round, and the nostalgia-fest American Graffiti was the result. It was a big success, but still nothing compared to the pop cultural waves that would be made two years later by Jaws – the work of twenty-nine year-old wunderkind Steven Spielberg.
http://static.rogerebert.com/redactor_assets/pictures/far-flung-correspondents/youre-going-to-need-a-bigger-boat/jaws_red_board_shark.jpgThis was the film that introduced American audiences to devoured beach bunnies, dead children, chomped-off legs, eyeball-less severed heads, and sundry other horrors – and American audiences loved every second of it as the most fun they’d had at the movies in years. Clearly the rules for cinematic convention had changed. The “movie brat” generation, as they were sometimes called – the first generation of filmmakers raised from infancy on post-war pop culture – were clearly no longer interested in maintaining a pretence of narrative “innocence” that a movie’s formal logic didn’t merit just out of sheer dutiful convention. From now on, they would have to self-consciously fake it.
Star Wars, therefore, was the result of Lucas having learnt that cynically calculated positivity could produce big aesthetic breakthroughs. He duly approached the film in the spirit of filling the lacunae whereby “Disney had abdicated its reign over the children’s market, and nothing had replaced it.” His goal was thus to reactivate the sort of affect that old-fashioned pirate and western matinee films used to produce – creating a one-dimensional spectacle that would “reintroduce a kind of basic morality. Everybody’s forgetting to tell ‘Hey, this is right and this is wrong.’” The problem is that this sort of thing isn’t as easy to fake as Lucas thinks. The history of American film is filled with artists like Walt Disney, Robert Flaherty, Frank Capra, and Clarence Brown, whose own sensibilities pretty much matched the warm-and-fuzzy-inner-child glow of their films. And the more generic old kiddie matinees were, by and large, made by journeymen whose imaginations presumably didn’t stretch much further than the complacent products they were making. For a more cerebral artist like Lucas, however, so filled with formalist ambitions and ideas, preaching a faith that you don’t really believe is always going to create a lot of evasions and suppressions that will inevitably return in all kinds of nasty forms. Hence, the sadism to come.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120108175034/starwars/images/6/67/WorstSoreThroatEver-ESB.jpgThe Empire Strikes Back is still unarguably the best of the six Star Wars films because, unlike the first instalment, Lucas had the sense to largely drop the “Disney moralism for children” pretence, and make a film that, while still available to kids, is aimed squarely at adults, or at least bright teenagers. Its most grisly moments seem not so much gratuitously sadistic as just organically chilling. There is the moment when, following the Millennium Falcon’s dodge into the star destroyer’s sensor blind spot, a deck officer reports “Captain Needa, Lord Vader demands an update on the pursuit!” Needa – played by Michael Culver, one of those indefatigable British character actors – blithely declares: “get a shuttle ready. I shall assume full responsibility for losing them, and apologize to Lord Vader,” evidently not fully realizing what this means. We, however, having seen Admiral Ozzle’s abrupt demise earlier in the film, know better. A few scenes later, thus, we get a shock cut onto Needa collapsed to the floor, his eyes bugging out as he’s gruesomely strangled by the Force. “Apology accepted, Captain Needa,” intones Darth Vader, as a pair of flunkies immediately dart in to drag away his body like a piece of carrion. One wonders how many thousand military officers in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia one just saw encapsulated

http://abacaxivoador.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/05-Oola_20anos_depois_06.jpg?36ba0eIt’s only when you get to Return of the Jedi, however, that the bills for Lucas’s insincere moralism really start to fall due. The early scenes in Jabba’s palace centre around the trapdoor leading down to the rancor pit, which for sheer sadistic fantasy value surpasses even Ernst Blofeld’s various death-devices for his henchmen. We first have it established with the Twi’lek dancing girl Oola, who for resisting whatever unspecified sexual overture Jabba was making, immediately finds herself down in the deep dark pit, her fate conveyed only by a great roar and her bloodcurdling scream heard back up in the throne room. It’s that single brief shot of her picking herself up upon landing down there – hobbled by terror at knowing what’s coming, and her garish lipstick, makeup and costume suddenly forming a grotesque contrast with the stygian dungeon surrounding – that always gets me, however.

This is only the set-up, however, for the later scene where Jabba drops Luke into the rancor pit, and one his porcine Gammorean guards, Jubnuk, accidently falls in too. The first few moments down there, accordingly, are devoted to Jubnuk’s pathetic attempts to get back up the drop shaft, and his plaintive squeals. These switch to shrieks of terror as the grille is raised and the rancor emerges and makes straight for him. Lucas makes sure the ensuing shot is held for long enough that we really get to savour the spectacle of Jubnuk being hoisted screaming up to the rancor’s mouth and devoured in one huge chomp. Meanwhile, a few yards away, Luke seems no more concerned than if a twig or an icicle had been broken.

http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130401043102/starwars/images/2/2b/Kithaba_death.pngAfter Luke battles and kills the rancor, the emphasis shifts. C-3PO, in his immortally effete tones, then informs our heroes that they are to be “taken to the dune sea, and cast into the Pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlaac.” “That doesn’t sound so bad,” says Han, cuing viewers by now used to the Lucas/Spielberg aesthetic to think “wait for it…” And, of course, C-3PO then continues that “in its belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” This line/image then conditions our viewing of the following battle sequence above the Sarlaac pit, as we get the full sadistic import of seeing innumerable of Jabba’s lackeys fall or be knocked into the Sarlaac pit. By now, Lucas’s assertion that he was making a Disney film for children, that would re-introduce a basic white-hat morality, could be fully appreciated for the self-delusion that it was.

After Return of the Jedi, Lucas was pretty much finished as an original filmmaker, his subsequent projects adding nothing to his original achievement with the Star Wars trilogy. Howard the Duck would prove totally unwatchable; and Willow, while not nearly as bad, now in the age of Peter Jackson, seems more of historical interest – for introducing audiences to the digital morph – than something one watches for real entertainment. The Star Wars prequel trilogy would vastly expand the imaginative/spectacular horizons of the original trilogy, but it would all be on such a grand, de-personalized scale that the sadistic frissons of the first films would not be recaptured. After this, therefore, it fell to Spielberg alone to continue the evolution of the trend they had initiated, and Jurassic Park would be one of the most significant milestones in this regard.

http://jp.popapostle.com/images/episodes/JP/attack-on-Muldoon_02med.jpgWhereas the business with the rancor and Sarlaac in Return of the Jedi felt somewhat gratuitously sadistic – a case of cramming too much into the first act – Spielberg, with Jurassic Park, would succeed in organically integrating the same sort of business across the whole length of the film. The key scene here is when, early on, Dr. Grant goes over to the obnoxious kid who says that velociraptor “looks like a six-foot turkey,” and brandishes his velociraptor claw. Grant then gives a monologue about how velociraptor is a pack hunter, and would attack you with “a six-inch retractable claw, like a razor, on the middle toe. He doesn’t bother to bite your jugular like a lion, say,” but will rather slash you, “here, or maybe here,” he says, sharply drawing the claw down the kid’s side and across his sternum to mime to point. “Or maybe across the belly, spilling your intestines,” he continues, drawing the claw across the kid’s tummy. “The point is, you are alive when they start to eat you. So, you know, try to show a little respect.” 
http://download.lavadomefive.com/members/BigClawz/JurassicPark-RaptorClaws3.JPGIt will be well over another hour into the film before we see an adult velociraptor, but that initial scene is not going to go away, and conditions our understanding of what’s at stake when the scenes do come where our heroes are menaced by the raptors. Also what’s in store when we see the matriarch raptor tackle Muldoon to the ground and the camera cuts away. It’s a lot less gratuitous-seeming than the Sarlaac business in Return of the Jedi, but the foreshadowing principle is basically the same. It also provides the basis of one of the most vivid framings in film – the one where Lex and Tim are hiding low on the kitchen floors, and the under the counter they see one of those claws attached to a live velociraptor, ominously clicking up and down against the tiled floor. We know what it means, and since Spielberg has actually succeeded – against much Hollywood practice – in making these kids sympathetic instead of so annoying that we’re rooting for the raptors, the suspense is very acute. It’s a calculated sadism, but one managed masterfully. 
By the mid-1990s, in the wake of Jurassic Park, a new generation of blockbuster filmmakers had emerged – Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Stephen Sommers being among its most prominent members – who had absorbed the lessons of Lucas and Spielberg’s kind of calculated sadism, and were raring to try it out for themselves. Emmerich’s 1992 film Universal Soldier – about Vietnam casualties being resurrected as genetically enhanced super-soldiers – doesn’t quite follow the pattern strictly, insofar as its sadism isn’t of the foreshadowing type discussed hitherto. What it does instead is have its hero and villain kill each other within the first five minutes, as a way of setting up a rationale whereby since they’re already sort of “dead” anyway, they and their fellow “Uni-Sols” can be abused and re-killed to absolutely any extent whatsoever throughout the course of the film.
More in the orthodox foreshadowing vein described above is Michael Bay’s The Rock, in which one hears about the effects of VX poison gas in the following terms: “It's a cholinesterase inhibitor. Stops the brain from sending nerve messages down the spinal cord within thirty seconds. Any epidermal exposure or inhalation and you'll know. A twinge at the small of your back as the poison seizes your nervous system...Your muscles freeze, you can't breathe, you spasm so hard you break your own back and spit your guts out. But that's after your skin melts off.” In a Hollywood film made under the Production Code, you wouldn’t even have been allowed to hear all that, the imaginative pictures it conjures up are so outrageous. Now, however, under this second, purer generation of blockbuster sadism, you stand no chance of not actually seeing it – not once even, but twice.

The Rock nonetheless works brilliantly as a film, however, because Bay actually knows what he’s doing. The aesthetic of blockbuster sadism described here only goes horribly wrong when a film is helmed by a horrifically clueless director who has no idea how things actually signify or win empathy from the audience. And this brings us to Deep Rising and Stephen Sommers – the future dubious auteur of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, and G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. With all of those films, however, he would obey the corporate Hollywood diktat to always neuter things for the PG-13 rating. With Deep Rising, however, he was allowed to embrace the R, and all the sadism that allows. The result is what is, without a doubt, the most horrible and repulsive film I have ever seen produced on a mainstream blockbuster scale.

The basic plot involves a luxury liner attacked by an absurd deep-sea octopus monster whose tentacles double as innumerable mouths and throats. Described as “some kind of strange off-shoot of the Archaea Ottoia family,” the creature, we are told, does not “eat” people. “No, they drink you. They drink you alive. Sucking all the fluids out of the body before excreting the skeletal remains.” This is the key bit of foreshadowing exposition, and if this sounds to you like it would be intensely, horrifically, agonizingly painful, the film makes clear in no uncertain terms that you’re right. There’s one particularly horrific sequence where we see the “heroes” (none of the character are really prepossessing or sympathetic) shoot open one of the Ottoia tentacles, only to see it spill out one of their previously-devoured comrades, who is now, thanks to CGI, partially-digested but still alive, and obviously in the most acute agony possible. In supplying a large cast just to have the maximum number of victims for this established fate, this film’s sadism is some of the purest I’ve ever seen.  

All this would still be potentially workable if Sommers possessed a competent understanding of screen presence. Alas, he doesn’t, and in casting Kevin J. O’Connor as the insufferable “Joey Pantucci,” Sommers creates the most vivid example I’ve ever seen of what might be called the MUCHAS (Mind-bendingly, Unwatchably Creepy, Hateful, Annoying Sidekick) character. Seriously – every moment this guy is onscreen, there is only one candidate a viewer can possibly be thinking of for who needs to be drunk by the Ottoia tentacles next. And yet Sommers persists in the delusion that he’s somehow funny and likeable, and wins viewer empathy. This reaches an absurd peak at the end of the second act when, trapped by one the tentacle-maws, one of the (actually empathy-winning) mercenary-villains uses his last bullet trying to kill MUCHAS instead of sparing himself a gruesome and horrible death. Of course it doesn’t work and MUCHAS just does some more stupid “WTF?” mugging. Badly done sadism of this sort works very differently than the competently-done kind: namely, the latter plays on your humane impulses, while the former simply turns you into a sadist yourself. Watching Return of the Jedi, I always wish I could save Oola and Jubnuk, and watching Jurassic Park, I almost never find myself cheering for the raptors to eviscerate and devour Lex and Tim. Remembering Deep Rising, however, beyond wanting to see MUCHAS get half-drunk, regurgitated, and then drunk again, my only thought is that, for using the character the way he did, I wouldn’t feed Stephen Sommers to the Ottoia even if I could. It would be too good for him.

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