Wednesday, August 24, 2016

TL;DR: "Stranger Things", "Suicide Squad" and Storytelling in the 21st Century

I had to have a picture, so... here you go, Barb-Heads

It's funny.  Way, way back when I was a young Signal Watch back in film school, one of my instructors proposed the idea that, in the very near future, story would not matter.  This was, of course, preposterous, but something that has come back to haunt me over and over again in the years that have followed.

It wasn't entirely clear what my instructors meant by "story will not matter", and so it became easy to dismiss, even as people lined up for Michael Bay movies and we were all vaguely aware that one does not show up for, say, a Kung-Fu movie specifically to see how events will unfold so much as to see Jet Li perform aerial stunts and kick people in the sternum for 90 minutes.  The change was blamed a bit on video games which, in the mid-90's, had yet to really evolve much past Doom or side-scrollers.  And, frankly, were thought of quite differently from movies in the zeitgeist - although that quickly changed (I guess) with games like Wing Commander (which I never played but people seemed to love) and certainly with the early 00's-era Grand Theft Auto.

Muddying the waters, "it lacks a story" was often the vague criticism of the tastemakers from the 70's through the 90's.  Nothing took the wind out of your sails quite like watching something you'd enjoyed only to have either a tweedy-type or someone whose opinion you cared about come along and say "well, it didn't have much story now, did it?" and you'd be considering "well, it had characters, a beginning, middle and an end.  There was an arc or two in there."  And, man, "lack of story" was a favorite dig at superhero faire at one point by folks with jobs at newspapers, and that was where I learned to more or less understand.  Because it often meant "it didn't have a story that resonated with me, a person who doesn't think a story about a mad scientist needing to be stopped by the swift right hook of justice is equal to a story about people very politely going through a divorce while wearing tweed coats and having a humiliating and/ or unlikely sexual encounter or two."

And that's okay.  It just means you need to look at "it doesn't have much of a story" as a criticism as sort of a smoke screen unless we're getting specific.

I can name many things which lack story that seem to nonetheless delight people, often earning a rabid, nigh-manic fanbase who is immune to your accusations of lack of story (hello, Dragonball Z fans!).  And there are lots of folks who are really, really into, say, Mario, despite the fact that his storyline is "plumber who does very, very little plumbing".  And that all feels to me a bit like getting really into, say, Tony the Tiger because every commercial has a fifteen second story arc where a kid masters a sport thanks to Tony and sugar.

But I digress.

In a very short window I watched both DC's third entry in their superhero universe, Suicide Squad, and Netflix's summer darling, Stranger Things.  In varying ways, both made me wonder if my instructor back in film school had a point.

To be clear, I liked Stranger Things.  But I am also aware that while Stranger Things has many, many positive attributes from performances to re-capturing the 1980's all-ages science-fantasy vibe, it was so much a pastiche in so many ways - while it absolutely has a solid storyline, it's also one cobbled together from other things.  Maybe not necessarily better things, but certainly familiar things to us who grew up on VHS rentals and cable television.  (note:  while actually done with the portion on Stranger Things but still working on this post, this article went up, and it's maybe a more straightforward and more pithy take on the same idea.)

While watching Stranger Things I was reminded of the time I paid to see Girl Talk at the Austin Music Hall.  Girl Talk is the stage name of a DJ who seamlessly fuses together a wide spectrum of American post-50's pop music to phenomenal effect.  While, yeah, it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, the real joy is in hearing how Girl Talk takes hooks from familiar songs, overlays them with yet another song and then another - so you might have Fleetwood Mac with Tone Loc with Trina with Rick Ross.  And, I'd argue, to great effect.

But paying to see Girl Talk was a weird experience.  There's no question you could dance your ass off, that the effort, the mind, the ear that put all of that together was remarkable.  But - I was also watching a young man behind a set of laptops sort of pretending like he was doing something, when I was 90% sure all he'd done was hit "play" on a web-app and the rest was stage-craft.  Whatever he was doing up there was not a band working in harmony, it was not musicianship, but it was musical craft that understood how these pieces that should not work together absolutely could if you found the underlying rhythm and beats that could syncopate and create something new from the parts.

None of this is a surprise.  Hip-Hop has been sampling, re-using, re-mixing since it's inception (and I'm only two episodes into The Get Down, but so far so good, and it's re-cast Grand Master Flash as a venerable kung-fu master), and the work to get there, pre-computer, pre-Cakewalk, pre-Sound Forge was @#$%ing hard, man.  But there's no question that from the co-option of The Amen Break, that sampling and re-sampling of existing content to make something new has been a core part of our culture.

I'm not really even talking about covers - that's it's own discussion, and we can talk about that during a conversation about the depictions of well-worn superheroes or something sometime.  But when you take something near wholesale, like the Dolly Parton/ Kenny Rogers hit of my youth, "Islands in the Stream", and transform it into "Ghetto Superstar" - you've done something else while also simultaneously tapped a part of the brain that was already liked "Islands in the Stream".  And you can like those songs, or just one of them.  It's all okay.  But the second could not exist without the first.*

I'm also reminded of a conversation I had in high school with my Dad when he was talking about seeing Star Wars with my mom back in '77, and he walked out and rightly said "wow!  That was like Flash Gordon mixed with a World War II fighter place movie!  That was amazing!" (he was unlikely to have seen The Hidden Fortress, but he knew his WWII fighter plane movies).  Throw in some Roman History 101, and you've basically got a good chunk of Star Wars covered.  We think that re-mixing is cool because we saw it when we were kids and didn't get the references.

I'd argue that my own enjoyment of Stranger Things was hugely bolstered by the referencing, the re-capturing of a vibe of an era, a type of character and characters that I hadn't seen successfully deployed in decades (Super 8 didn't really work, did it?  And it may be true that the best thing about Midnight Special, which was a modern Escape From With Mountain, was the score.).  It wants to be so many things from so many sources, and it does it pretty well with fewer anachronisms than your usual period piece - and it absolutely IS a period piece, one of the first for us, Gen-X'ers.  And, yeah, because it was made by Millennials, they made a few mistakes.  I also know you were not finding a pristine Evil Dead poster in the wild in 1983.

At the end of the day - the story itself is a wee bit messy here and there, despite the fact the center holds.  But it's so buried in other, more familiar material, it barely does any work to tell its own story - and, honestly, it also relies on some shockingly good performances from its corps of child actors.**

While the Duffer Brothers pulled this off, one wonders how sustainable this sort of thing is - because it is coming.  A generation told that fan-fiction was legit reading material, that was raised on music that was either re-mixed from older music or which cycles through movements that previously existed, that has grown up on well-respected remakes and which has always had access to everything at the touch of a button, is going to be making stuff now.  Gen-X'ers are the establishment.  The young turks coming in are going to be the ones bringing the new visions, and if Tumblr, etsy, DeviantArt, etc... are any indication - they're not even particularly interested in faking that their rejumbled ideas are something new (we've discussed how Superman is a blatant rip-off of about six characters, right?  Batman is Zorro with ears?  And already dissertations are written on Tarantino's plagiarizing refactoring of original material.).

But after this - what's next?  Where do you go from "this imitation works"?

I don't know that I'm *excited* to see what the kids do.  I won't oversell it.  But they will be making media that speaks to them and how they think.  And while I suspect the pursuit of that "authenticity" that Gen-X was seeking, the belief that you were to make your own works, and they'd stand alone, may not be that important.  And this may be the penance Gen-X will pay for elevating Tarantino like an Elvis of film (and all that that implies).

Something else I saw recently - Suicide Squad, got my attention when it came to storytelling for it's utter failure to tell a story and the initial rabid defense of the lack of story from an audience primed and invested and ready to like the story - something I've had more than passing familiarity with myself in my younger days when I still had hope and feelings.

There have always been defenders of the sub-standard who buy into the hype (see my rousing 6 month defense of The Phantom Menace) and will pull at any string they can to suggest that story existed.  Story was there.

I don't need to outline Marvel's formula for success, but the first 45 minutes of Suicide Squad will tell you why it was so much better an idea than leaping head-first into the choppy waters of team-book storytelling.  The movie exists in two separate parts, believing itself to have the counter-culture appeal of The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven, pulling together a ragtag bunch of characters to accomplish a mission.   And, yes, arguably those movies spend more time than usual establishing characters and recruiting players, but they don't repeat the process three times prior to the film actually getting rolling.

What's concerning is that Warner Bros. seems set to repeat this process with the upcoming Justice League film, replacing Amanda Waller with Batman as he goes around recruiting his own squad (who, at least, aren't just people with boomerangs, guns and a baseball bat).

If Marvel has had success, it's that they've applied the same mega-narrative structure to their movies that made their comics successful.  Story, and expansion on that story, matters.  As recently as Captain America: Civil War, we have factors that work perfectly with what we knew before - and it doesn't matter if that was part of Feige's plan all along, so long as it works and makes sense and there's a forward progression to events in an episodic manner.

Further, establishing a character as minor as Ant-Man in his own film does all the heavy lifting and development of that character to get him to a place where even as a very minor bit in Civil War, he's a fleshed out idea, not a one note character (see: everyone in Suicide Squad who isn't Harley or Deadshot).

That a major film would be released in as poor shape as Suicide Squad and Warner Bros. is okay with that tells us that development and release schedules dictated by corporate overlords willing to put just any old thing out there (and who have mastered the ability to drum up opening-week business) took what could have (nay, should have!) been a fascinating inversion of the superheroic tropes.  Or at least a freakshow.

That the audience was so angered by poor reviews for the movie that they supported a petition to take down Rotten Tomatoes (which... guys... sigh...) and seems oblivious to what amounts to terrible film-making***  So my concern is, yes, with how DC/ WB is dealing with storytelling vis-a-vis their superhero universe, but I'm more surprised that a fanbase - that saw the same movie I did - walked away from the movie honestly believing there's a critical conspiracy rather than try to make sense of the criticisms or ignore them outright (always an option, people).  Or accept that the movie isn't good (at all) but that you had fun watching it.  We ALL do this.  I like Godzilla movies ferchrissake.

Is any of it new?

Probably not.  I am sure there are still folks doing new and cutting edge things on the periphery.  I'm older and have been exposed to infinitely more stuff than your average 20-something, and I've lived through my generation's co-option and recycling of media components.  I'm unclear as to who the name indie director darlings are, or if it will matter in a media landscape as splintered as its become.

I'm curious to see what happens when/ if DC pivots and starts making movies that aren't dreadful.  Will those same fans follow them or bemoan the fact that Superman isn't "realistic" anymore?

Circling back to my original question - Does Story Matter Anymore?

There's a great sequence in Idiocracy in which Joe Bowers talks about how being smart is okay, and we can go back to that state.
And there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn't just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!
I am unsure Suicide Squad is a movie that cares a lot about who the ass belongs to, but not necessarily why it's farting.  I could see Stranger Things as caring that there's farting, but not necessarily drawing the connection between whose ass from which it originated.  Maybe get lost in what they ate.  And the farting sounded a bit too much like the farting from "Buttz".

You know, 1 out of 2 ain't bad, I guess.

But I want to live in an America that cares about both the asses and the farts.  I like to think we can do both.  But maybe that's a lot harder than we think it is.  Maybe that's when the story is that good and we remember it for a long, long time.

*Before we get too nostalgic for musicians who we give credit for writing their own stuff (not that Dolly and Kenny wrote their #1 hit), before we point to the folks we think were creating stuff from whole cloth - in the U.S., white people appropriated rock from black people, and then the British appropriated it from both.  Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Pink Floyd - all essentially trying to make blues rock.  Hell, early Beatles is a riff on Buddy Holly, and Buddy Holly was playing "black music".  And, so with TV and film.  So - let's be careful out there.
**Which, I mean, watch the Disney Channel sometime for comparison and there isn't any
***look, I grew up in an era when pretty much anything that didn't star Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep was given a side-eyed review.  You cannot come at me with your expectations that your Harley Quinn movie gets excellent critical reviews when I survived the 1980's when all that material that inspired Stranger Things was getting panned.


J.S. said...

I feel like audiences have simultaneously gotten smarter and dumber. They're more aware than ever of all the predicate material that is referenced in the launch of new works. They've read the comics, seen the original version, watched the European/British version that it's based on. In short, they've absorbed a lot of content. The flip side of it is that audiences seem completely uninterested in a lot of the literary concepts that we learned in English class or college literature courses. They don't care about what makes characters compelling (strengths, weaknesses, internal as well as external struggles, quirks, a character's change or failure to change), and they don't really care about how the plot of a story helps to build a bond with the characters. Audiences these days seem mostly concerned with checking off boxes in terms of reference points. And, of course, it can be hard to care too much about the depiction of a character's development in a particular work when that same character has been portrayed countless times before, often with the same story (gotta love those origin story relaunches) and will undoubtedly be portrayed countless times again with the same or similar stories. It doesn't surprise me that certain audiences are utterly unconcerned with the successful introduction of characters when these audience members already feel like they know the backgrounds of these characters. In short, for certain audience members the movies really are all about style, special effects, and costumes because they largely know what the story will be, and, hey, if they don't get the story right this time they'll probably clean things up in one of the sequels. These films and works often don't stand on their own at all anymore, and that's sort of a problem for the people who still want to see individual works that actually connect with the audience on a stand alone basis.

The League said...

"Suicide Squad" is a fascinating study in exactly this issue. Will Smith, an actor who had been around a while (we won't call him 'older' lest we ponder our own frail state), is the only character with a traditional storyline. I'd argue that they tried with Harley, but basically you get this really distracting completely secondary storyline that should have been it's own movie because it doesn't impact the A plot - it just established Harley. And not particularly well.

The rest of the characters are literally introduced with GI Joe style title cards with their stats and whatnot. It's meant to be stylish and to save time, but it's a @#$%ing mess. Especially as they don't actually do anything with any of it. Well, maybe Diablo, but when they reach the end of his arc, it just raises more questions than it answers.

But, yeah, it's a new landscape.

What's odd is that, as much as I like it, I could make some comparisons to the FX TV show "Fargo", for similarly iterating on ideas presented in prior Coen Bros. work and then iterating upon itself.

It's a crazy world.

J.S. said...

There's also an interesting dichotomy between movies and shows which actually use pre-existing characters (e.g., the superhero movies) versus movies and shows which pitch themselves to be in the style or genre of pre-existing work, but which actually have original characters, with their own unique backgrounds and issues. The former seems to mostly involve an evaluation of how well pre-existing material is being depicted, while the second category, though perhaps derivative, requires the audience to at least absorb new characters and a new story as opposed to simply measuring the thing against other representations of the same subject. I get what you were saying with the Stranger Things/Girl Talk metaphor. Still, the characters had a few unique qualities, AND if they were to do something totally unexpected, the audience isn't going to be respond by saying, "Well, that was totally ridiculous. Joyce never would have done that in the comic/original movie/series". The audience for Stranger Things, despite the obvious influences of the show, still ultimately has to judge the thing on its own, independent merits.

The League said...

Yeah, that sounds right. That's part of what's kept Fargo working for me - I literally have no idea what's going to happen.

And, yeah, I DO think Stranger Things' story was strong enough in Season 1, or at least as strong as most Season 1 of many sci-fi shows. I DON'T think it would have the same impact as water-cooler conversation if it didn't riff so heavily, but ultimately, the story held.

But it's also challenging to watch a scene that looks like they rotoscoped it from "E.T." and not compare notes between Elliot and Will. It creates both resonance and dissonance, and it's going to be the clever filmmaker who knows what to do with that and it isn't just a gimmick or stunt.

Adaptations of books and plays were among the first bits of motion picture, and bitching about how they've been adapted then became everyone's favorite pasttime. And there's an excellent discussion to be had about comics fans' critical analysis of characters often being centered around whether or not a character was handled 'correctly' by a new writer/ artists team combo.

ncapp said...

I wish Stranger Things had focused more on character. There's not a lot of depth for anyone. I liked the show, but if the Duffer's had taken their influence from something like Freaks and Geeks rather than from style-homage, it would have been stronger. The entire first episode should have sucked us into the relationships of the characters and ended with the disappearance, but the kid goes missing so fast. It relies wholly on our familiarity with character type. "Oh, these are the dorky kids because they play D&D."

It's weird for me to have this complaint about making references in a show/movie as Joe Dante and Edgar Wright are two of my favorite filmmakers, but they are (or was in Dante's case) masters of the balance. Tarantino, not so much.

And, ending aside, Super 8 worked like gangbusters for me, but I was totally on board with the kids.

The League said...

It would have been a different show, certainly. Look, real honestly, though, i watched two episodes of Freaks and Geeks and never got into it in part because nothing was happening. It was all set up. But everyone's wired differently and I know that show has a rabid cult following and the actors went on to have great careers. But, yeah. I dunno. But I know what you mean by looking for the slow burn. The part that did that- Joyce freaking out - seems to be the part people hate (but not me). So, I don't know. I could have done with more slowly building horror, but I don't know if that would have had the mass appeal. The masses like their easily understandable characters so they can get on with it.