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Continuing the theme from a few months back (and for someone who professes to not think much of superhero movies, I sure talk about them a lot), but I've been thinking lately about the age-old idea that Hollywood is a well oiled machine that takes in talented artists, subsumes them into a generic collective and gives them viable careers. Or chews them up and spits them out if you prefer.

The very fact that it's not a new idea proves what a solid driving force behind career and financial evolution it still is in the film industry.

The reason I've been thinking about it is the number of names I've seen lately that are doing it.

Chloe Zhao was the toast of the 2021 Academy Awards as she became the second woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar and the first non-Caucasian woman for Nomadland (which then went on to take Best Picture too), but the whole time I watched the endless tweets and trade magazine email updates I kept feeling sure I knew her name.

It hit me when I remembered the announcements ages ago that she'd been lined up to direct The Eternals, the film iteration of some obscure story from a forgotten corner of the Marvel universe only comic book nerds knew but the rest of the world was destined to recognise (much like a pre-2008 Iron Man).

Now, the issue I'm talking about doesn't strictly apply to Chloe because the Eternals thing came about before (maybe while) she was planning or making Nomadland, so Marvel was ready to snap her up after her big Sundance splash back in 2015.

But you know what I'm talking about. Taika Waititi was part of the New Zealand-based brains trust that gave us What We Do in the Shadows and Flight of the Conchords.

Aussie Cate Shortland made a few very small scale gritty dramas like Somersault and the slightly more resourced Berlin Syndrome. Ryan Fleck and Anna Bowden came from the same background as Zhao doing searing urban drama in films like Half Nelson.

Rian Johnson was known for Brick and The Brothers Bloom, with Looper a step up into a more expensive genre, but still. Ryan Coogler had made an angry race relations statement with Fruitvale Station, which got him the clout to play in and revitalise the old Rocky sandbox.

The Russo brothers had come from Arrested Development on TV. James Gunn had drifted around for years doing Slither, Super and even one of the segments in the movie nobody involved wants to admit exists, Movie 43.

And yet they've all been handed keys to the billion dollar franchises that sit on top of the movie distribution pile, the one that's spent the last decade and a bit crowding every other movie off release date calendars.

But what does that do to them as creators? I've talked before (again, so many times you'd think I was a Marvel fanboy) about how Kevin Fiege is the real creative brain, directors just technical attendants hired to yell 'acton' and 'cut'.

If they feel strangled in the very real pursuit to express themselves as artists while working on these enormous tentpoles they're certainly not going to say so, the axiom around not biting the hand that feeds you one of the oldest and strongest imperatives in Hollywood, the same one that enabled the likes of Harvey Weinstein for far too long.

And look, I don't blame anyone for welcoming the warm but proscribed embrace of Marvel Studios, LucasFilm or their contemporaries.

Directors want to work, and despite the squillions Netflix and Amazon is spending on content it's going to take decades to dislodge our collective love of a big release on a movie screen with all the attention and chatter of an undeniable cultural event, the kind we remember well from the olden days (2019).

Simply put, if you want to be a film director today you can hope Kennedy or Fiege pluck you from festival-hopping obscurity and hand you $200m along with their story bible or scurry away to TV and never be spoken about in the same breath as Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron et al (or indeed, Zhao, Shortland and Coogler).

Anyway, I promise I'll stay away from the big end of town in the next few Filmism Dispatch newsletters. I've been watching a few indie releases lately, and two stand out for strange reasons.

I can't say I enjoyed either Gaspar Noe's Climax or Benh Zeitlin's Wendy in the traditional sense, exactly. In the case of Climax, the story peters out and doesn't really go anywhere except into visual and narrative chaos. In Wendy, I had too little idea what was going on to really get enough out of the experience.

But rarely have I watched two films that stayed with me for so long afterwards but which I wouldn't be interested in watching again. Climax has such a blistering opening dance number salvo that's so full of energy and zest I've watched it on YouTube about 100 times.

I loved the way Noe plays with the forms and conventions of telling a cinema story, even down to the design, delivery and timing of the credits and titles, making the very concept of a movie his own.

In Wendy, Zeitlin revisits a lot of the aesthetics that made Beasts of the Southern Wild so distinctive. You can see how he's cleverly woven the archetypes and motifs of the Peter Pan mythology into a story that's something else entirely.

I was frustrated most of the way through trying to disentangle the connections and what they meant, and even aside from them the plot itself didn't really make sense, apparently all some grand allegory about childhood, adulthood and moving in between them. But it didn't stop one of the final musical numbers and the emotional depths of a kid missing her mother bringing me to tears.

Much more digestible but no less powerful was Brad's Status, a fable about middle age and regret which felt like it was written directly at me and hit me right (as the kids probably don't still say) in the feels.

Till next time,
Drew @ Filmism.net

 


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