Filmism.net Dispatch July 20, 2016

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As a movie lover, I have a conflict. In the flurry of movies about toys, comic books and the like in the last 10-15 years, you might have felt the same thing yourself.

Here's a direct quote from a recent story in the Hollywood trades by a Marvel executive; 'the more movies, the better because there's more consumer products to sell'.

Now, I'm not some wide-eyed innocent who thinks the Hollywood film industry exists to expand human consciousness or enrich our culture of sharing stories. But the modus operandi of a film studio to cultivate brands it can commercialise in ever-longer long tails because of licensing tie-ins has become all the more pervasive in the 21st century, and it bothers me more and more.

A movie studio is an expression of what's known in corporatespeak as 'vertical synergy'. It's more common for a movie to exist based on a character from a popular toy or comics line. That movie exists in at least some measure to advertise the products that will be spun off from the existence of the movie. When kids (you know who you are) go and buy the products – plastered though they are with the aesthetic design we associate with the property – they serve as advertisements for the movie.

Which begs the question; what's the product? One is an ad for the other, and there's no end point. It's a perfect Ouroboros figure of modern marketing (that's the symbol of the snake eating its own tail, if you don't know your ancient Egyptian mythology).

Not to take this conversation too far away from the movies, but commerce was supposed to be about creating things humanity needed, and the media was supposed to be a means to disseminate art and political discourse.

Along with the rest of the media, the film industry is just another mechanism of the economy that fabricates needs, spinning up and inventing products or services that don't really exist, various divisions and departments factory-lining artefacts that serve only to market the others, none of them the actual product that enriches some part of life.

What the hell does all this have to do with loving movies? With all that going on, and with the modern film lover mired in cynicism because of it, where can we find something as pure as appreciation of art? Is art anywhere to be found in Warcraft, other than the efforts of some software engineer to make huge tusked man-creatures look realistic? Is it anywhere to be found in Finding Dory, which is a virtual remake of Finding Nemo?

Is it anywhere to be found in the recent announcement of a movie based on Wicked, which is a stage show based on a movie that was based on a book (at least that marketing stream has – to use a Hollywood term – an inciting incident). I talked about something similar years back when Alien vs Predator was first announced.

There are movies around where it's obvious the artists behind them care about what they're making and for whom making money seems to be merely a means to let them do it again. A good example is Anomalisa, which wasn't a perfect movie but was certainly something you've never seen before. It didn't even make half its $8m production budget back.

Of course there are a lot of gems to be found in independent and arthouse cinema, but I hate the idea that's the only place I'll find art. After growing up in the 70s and 80s I have a soft spot for big budget blockbuster spectacle as well. The loving touch of art and craft used to be there in movies like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. Why does it feel so absent today? Even though JJ Abrams got the tone of Star Wars: Episode 7 - The Force Awakens pitch perfect it still partly felt like an effort to synergise assets on some corporate balance sheet.

Seen lately, Nic Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. Despite myself I liked it, it had a more coherent story than the impenetrable Only God Forgives and a more authorial vision than Drive, which I found little more than a weird pastiche piece.

I'd also invite you the witness the old style, golden age-tinged moviemaking styles and tools in The Wiz if you've never seen it (or if you didn't really appreciate it when you did see it).

But among the most interesting movie watching experiences I've had recently was Diary of a Nymphomaniac. Yes, it sounds like bawdy soft porn, and as a European erotic drama it certainly has the trappings of one.

But while it's not by any means a great film, it has so many strange tones and plot turns and such misguided but eager confidence in its own presence I found myself thinking about it for weeks afterwards.

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