ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Category: Doubled Barrelled Shotgun Review

Doubled Barrelled Shotgun – Bad Movies & ‘Bad Movies’

So after the disappointment that was last week’s review I started thinking about bad movies and  what makes some movies worse than others, and to be honest that didn’t really seem like enough to get a whole column out of. Then I had a little epiphany – there are bad movies, and then there are there are “bad” movies.

Let me explain – “bad movies” appear in a vast array of different forms and the best ones, (in my opinion, as I do accept that tastes vary) come from the late 1980s and usually featured a muscle bound man blowing stuff up. Think ‘Commando’ (1985) or ‘Predator’ (1987). Big, dumb, loud films that had people blowing stuff up, caricatures of bad guys with evil beards and heroes who were unquestionably good and usually packing more muscle than a small bull. They were awesome. But they weren’t and most certainly aren’t even now, critically, objectively or artistically good films. Because films are not art – or rather, films are not just art. Films are fun. Films are entertainment and these films entertain a huge amount. They are ‘bad’ movies – some people use the term guilty pleasure as a way of justifying watching them. It’s strange and guilty language to use about something you enjoy, and it sort of suggests a distancing, a way of saying ‘yes I like it…..BUT I KNOW I SHOULDN’T’

When I stop and think about it, this strikes me as strange but really when you like at most forms of popular art, you’ll find similar language being used. People who enjoy certain pop music, or TV shows, or really popular books (50 Shades of Grey anyone?) You don’t tend to find this kind of thing in art forms that aren’t as populist as film and TV. After all, I’ve never heard about someone saying they’re going to see Edward II because plays by Marlowe are a guilty pleasure. There isn’t such a thing as a trashy opera. In short this might be part of the historical hierarchy of the art world coupled with maybe a pinch of guilt about the level of culture we engage in, but I really hope we can reclaim ‘bad movies’ as something to celebrate. This year the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had another midnight screening of the wonderful bad movie ‘The Room’ which serious cultural reviewers were calling one of the best things at the fringe. When the frankly hilariously bad ‘Showgirls’  came out it bombed and then people started throwing Showgirls parties to come together and watch the film with friends. In a way these ‘bad movies’ are a great cultural education ( OK maybe I’m pushing this argument a little far) but at the very least they bring people together and enable them to have fun in a way that Fellini marathon probably couldn’t.

Another thing I noticed about ‘bad movies’ is that they don’t appear overnight. It takes time for something to be recognised as a bad movie – ‘The Room’ was released in 2004, but it wasn’t until the last few years that it started to get wider recognition. The action movies of the 1980s that I love so much were treated very straight faced when they were released but in the ironic hipster nostalgia boom of my generation they’ve been re-discovered anew. But something has been happening recently – as always – that threatens to ruin everything I like about these films. I’m being given new ones, or even more annoying, new ones that are pretending to be old ones.

Total Recall. The Expendables II.  YOU GUYS ARE RUINING MY FUN!

Let me put it like this – when I look at films like this that are coming out lately, it feels like I’m being forced to have new favorite ‘bad movies’ and as I’ve said, it should take time for these movies to become the kind of movie that you can enjoy on a night in with friends.  Now this can happen more quickly – the frankly bonkers ‘Crank’ from 2006 and ‘Shoot Em Up’ from 2007 being notable exceptions to the rule but lately it feels like I’m being forced into these films. The remake of Total Recall feels like someone sat the writer in a room and told them the plot of the original and left out the one liners and the self-awareness that made the original a great Arnie vehicle. As a film, its fine – I suppose – competent at the very least but it isn’t nearly as good as the original. Will it become one of the great ‘bad movies’ of the future? NO. Will it be found in the bargain bin of HMV in 5 years’ time? Yes. Well, if HMV is still in existence.

Compared with the Expendables II though, the Total Recall remake is a minor irritation. If there was any a film franchise that was aching to tap into the nostalgia of the 1980s it is this one. The Expendables is desperate to be one of the ‘bad movies’ that you watch with a fridge of cold beers and all of your best friends.  And it must be awesome – BECAUSE YOU RECOGNISE THE ACTORS IN IT! AND EXPLOSIONS!

You can sense the neediness – it’s there in the complete lack of original thought and the generic action sequences that ape the action sequences that were interesting to watch 20 years ago, all that’s changed is the effects. What’s most depressing about the film though is how crushingly serious it is and the trailer for the sequel doesn’t give me any hope that they’ve made it any more fun. It used to be that movies like this made the effort to demonstrate some self-awareness in what they were, and not be so Po-faced. I can hardly be expected to find something awesome if all I have to look forward to is Dolph Lundgren glowering at me! Is this what the ‘bad movie’ has been reduced to? These aren’t ‘bad movies.’ They’re just bad.

That being said I do have some hope for ‘Lockout’ – who ever managed to pitch Guy Pearce fighting his way into prison to rescue the president’s daughter IN SPACE, clearly knows exactly what makes a bad movie tick…

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Doubled Barelled Shotgun – Goodreads and Art Criticism

Right,

I’ll be honest, this was not a blog post that I wanted to write and when I detail what I’m talking about I think why I’m reticent to write about this will become clear. Firstly though, a little background will be necessary for those of you who don’t follow scandals in the intersecting worlds of authorship and internet life.

The website goodreads.com is pretty much a mainstay of the literary part of the web and has been beloved by readers as a great way of sharing with their friends what they think of novels, find new ones to enjoy and even keep up with news and announcements from their favourite authors. As a site it combines social networking, forum discussion and literary interests in a way that makes it invaluable as a website if you have even a passing interest in the world of writing. Goodreads also has another aspect – it is an incredible tool for authors, amateur or professional, to publish new writing, whether that is short stories or full novels and receive feedback and criticism on their work. In a way this part of the site reminds me of Myspace a few years back when it was in its prime – it seemed there was a time when a band could become huge simply through that site rather than through the more industry controlled traditional routes. What happened with Myspace is that the music industry, agents, labels etc. moved in and used the site as a way of spotting the next big thing. Goodreads seems, to me as an outsider anyway, to operate in a similar way. Authors can use the site to get spotted by publishers and literary agents. Now for those of you keeping up that combination of the possibility of commercial success and the opportunity for criticism has potential to make people very unhappy indeed.

Unsurprisingly something like this has been trundling away on Goodreads for a while now as several authors and their work have come under criticism that, (to put this mildly) goes further and more personal than constructive artistic criticism should. This criticism has often come in waves, with similar people jumping up and down on an author’s work in large groups. Naturally, some authors and members of the site have taken this rather badly and labelled these critical voices as bullies – even going so far as to set up a website called Stop The Goodreads Bullies to voice their concerns and push back against what they see as personal, damaging attacks.

Already I hope you can see why I didn’t want to write this, so let me make this bit as clear as I possibly can – this is not a debate I want to get involved in. There are others who have written more eloquently and passionately about the rights and wrongs of this situation than I ever would be able to and you can look them up if you feel the need to go through the dirty laundry of this particular part of geek/internet culture. Secondly, as someone who doesn’t have a huge knowledge of the genre involved, mostly from what I can tell YA novels, I feel it would be disingenuous at best to weigh in here. However, this whole debate does raise some wider questions about the act of criticism in the internet age that I think bear some consideration.

The first thing I think anyone interested in cultural criticism can learn from this is the fundamental flaw with the star ratings system. As the internet has grown in size and complexity it is only natural that we as internet users seek quick and easy summaries of opinion. As with amazon, and many other sites goodreads operates on a star rating system for books – and some of the books attacked were given wave after wave of low star reviews. Which as the authors of the books in question rightly pointed out, this was going to be the thing that stuck with readers, agents and publishers when their book was searched for. Let me put this as simply as I can – star ratings suck. As a way of criticizing work, as a way of checking the quality of the work, they just suck. Yes, I understand why they happen but the by-product of their existence is that criticism stops being an expression of engagement with a work – in all of its nuance, complexity, contradiction and ambiguity and instead becomes a way of the reader of the review justifying their opinion. I have literally lost count of the number of times I’ve seen comments on reviews that said something along the lines of, ‘you don’t get…you aren’t a fan of this…you don’t understand what you are saying,’ and so forth – usually with a lot more caps lock than that. The problem seems to be not that the reviewer has disliked the work – but that their dislike conflicts with the commenters own.  This is important, because it reflects an important misunderstanding. Reviewers and critics – me included – are not here to tell you if a particular book, movie or artwork is any good but rather to tell you what our experience of it was, with some measure of our own critical faculties and standards thrown in. This shouldn’t invalidate anyone else’s opinion but should instead be a catalyst for your own critical and intellectual engagement. If you disagree with a review, a good reviewer will have made you think WHY you think differently, and to water that down to five stars or one star rating is intellectually demeaning for all concerned – the artist, the critic and the people who encounter both.

This problem is very much of the internet age – but the goodreads debate also ties into a critical strand of literary work. Like never before the gap between artist and art fan has been reduced to something more like a hyper-fluid membrane. Speaking personally, here as the PageBoy I am a critic and reviewer, but like many on goodreads.com I am also a writer and creator. The internet makes it possible for people to move seamlessly between these two spheres – between being a viewer and being an artist. This comes with a side effect though, and one that the whole goodreads uproar highlights nicely – as artists have become more and more closely identifies as critics, so it has become more and more difficult to separate artists from their art. It is indeed difficult to engage with a challenging text, if the text’s creator is there to tell you in the comment section what their story ‘really’ means. Some may think, almost instinctively that this is a great thing and something that goodreads has been able to encourage – now no longer will authors have to deal with readers who don’t understand the text, confused readers can just ask the author and the author can supply the meaning. Seen in this way the writers who feel themselves ‘bullied’ by certain people on goodreads are merely correcting an interpretative bias by readers blind to what their work is actually about.

(I will leave aside the slightly more sordid details of leaking people’s personal information online and some of the more egregious personal attacks that have taken place on both sides – if you want to read it about that, just google it because that isn’t something I want to get into here)

This method of critical reading is certainly nice and tidy, and it gives the authority to the creators of the art, in this case the authors of the works in question. However, this presupposes that authors themselves have the right to decide how people view and respond to their work.  The act of reading is composed of a triumvirate – the reader, the writer and the text. The above model gives all authority of meaning to the author who passes that meaning via the text through to the reader. And that model is just plain wrong.

If that sounds harsh, then sadly it must do – literary academics have been playing around with this idea for a while and as usual with advanced cultural theory the progenitors of the idea are French.  In 1967 the noted critic Roland Barthes published an essay, now famous in the right circles, called ‘The Death of the Author,’ in it he argued that to impose the idea of a unique authorial message to a text not only limited its power as art but was a form of interpretative tyranny – denying readers the chance to wrestle with a text themselves and come to their own conclusions. Do authors have the right to challenge the interpretations of critics – not if they claim that their view is the only correct one. To quote Barthes,

‘We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations…’

The point is this – once what is written is out, available to the world (easier than in Barthes time) then the writer of those words ceases to exist, (the ‘death’ in the title of the essay.) This is the problem that goodreads.com has brought back into the critical sphere – the author now can refuse to play dead. To adjust Barthes point perhaps now in the internet age the dead author has become something different – we can see a new kind of digital ‘zombie author’, able to obtain anonymity and next to impossible to exclude from the critical debate. For authors the reluctance to stay ‘dead’ is surely understandable -the creation of art involves risk and in a sense, the exposure of an intimate part of who you are and when attacked the instinct to defend yourself is incredibly powerful.

Let me finish by restating – personally attacking an author, leaking the details of their life is shameful and the act of a coward. However, authors have no real right to stifle or dictate how I respond to what they put out in the world because if they do, then what happened on goodreads.com will only be the beginning and this idea of being told what a book or story ‘means’ will start to spread. Readers and critics and authors have to reassert the right of art to provoke debate, as the very act of writing is complex and often paradoxical, resorting to simplistic notions of right and wrong will mean that everyone loses – authors, critics and most vitally the readers themselves.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS I am well aware that seeing as I’ve written this you can all be as mean as you like about my writing  in the comment section…but that is by no means me laying down a challenge so please be nice…

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Realism and ‘Realism’

Right,

From the beginning of the blog I have always tried my best to ensure that this site was kept free of technical jargon and dense language. This wasn’t out of any desire to dumb down, but rather out of the aim of keeping the blog as available to as many potential readers as possible – you don’t and shouldn’t need any background or expertise in arts criticism to feel like cinema and literature are places where you can contribute and take part in our collective culture. Books and movies are among some of the last cultural arenas that everyone can take part in. On top of this I wanted ThePageBoy to be a blog that helped generate discussion, provoked debate and even started some friendly arguments and that should happen in whatever language you possess. I go into all this detail for a simple reason, which is this isn’t a blog I started lightly.  However thanks to things like readers being engaged and full of debate things have reached the point that maybe I need to start being a little more adventurous in what I talk about.

With the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ a few weeks ago and now the first reviews from Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie surfacing there has been a lot talk of how superhero movies have become more ‘realistic.’ The Amazing Spider-Man is different because it is more ‘real’ than the Sam Rami trilogy and the reason this struck me as odd is that these films are about a teenager who is bitten by a spider and then becomes a vigilante to combat his guilt about his uncle being murdered. The Christopher Nolan trilogy starts with a billionaire absconding from university, running away from home and then climbing a mountain to join a ninja death cult. Does this sound like a Ken Loach film? No, not even a little bit – I know of nobody whose life is like this. Real life doesn’t consist of fights on top of skyscrapers with mutated lizard men.  Books also get lambasted for not being realistic enough; conversely a lot of young adult fiction has been criticized for being too gritty, or too realistic as if the two words were somehow synonymous

So this leads to an inevitable conclusion – the word realism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real life; when a film is described as realistic it is not because it has anything to do with real life but rather the term is an aesthetic choice and the same goes for literature. So let’s start with the film and what makes these recent films qualify as ‘realistic’ and thus we need to go into a little history. The term ‘realism’ first came into the arts gradually during the period 1750-1850 (very approximately) in a variety of artistic fields. In a stereotype that is shockingly on point, the majority of the artistic fields that gave birth to the rise of realism came from the cultural heavyweight of France. In painting it came and thus literature inevitable followed. To put it as simply as I can, these pioneers, painters like Courbet and Chardin along with writers such as Balzac and Zola were attempting to do something special – create art that exists in third person or some sort of objective reality. Their aim was the production of verisimilitude of the real world. It sounds basic but this was an incredible radical decision for these artists to make. When literary realism reached England it provoked huge controversy; for an artist to make someone up that seemed to be real was considered to be ethically dodgy –lies sold as truth in the guise of art.

So, if this was the original aim of the realists, what changed? Well, two things have influenced where art has gone, firstly the artists themselves and secondly the people who view art, i.e. you and me. The first is possible more complex and certainly explains how films like the Amazing Spider-man can claim to be more realistic. As time progressed and artists continued to experiment the rules of ‘realism’ shifted. Through the realist writers different approaches developed, things like kitchen sink realism in British theatre and photography thanks to people like Dickens and his depictions of the life of the poor. The brittle sarcastic exchanges of the middle class English gentry in Austen are a world away from life in the dustbowl of America that Steinbeck wrote on, so literary realism became a form of the art rather than a description. The writer Henry James wrote a famous essay on the ‘Art of Fiction’ at the end of the 1800s that solidified this change – realism was less about the art but was no about the form it took. In literature the key points were close third person narrative and a direct access to the representation of a specific consciousness, and in many ways, regardless of genre this is still the basis of ‘realist’ writing today. I hope that goes some way to explaining how JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen can both, in a sense, be considered realist writers  – with content subsumed to form this also applies to movies. As long as the form is still correct then the content can be as wild or fantastical as you like. From the literary form of realism realistic cinema we still have, (in most films in the mainstream) a three act plot structure, a close group of characters and unless the film is particularly avant-garde, a limited POV. Not in terms of cinematography mind you, just in the perspective the film is told from.

There is another, slightly more abstract reason why the term ‘realistic’ needs to be more carefully defined and this is about the very process of making art. Basically it’s this – my life doesn’t have lens flare. The very act of making a movie or writing a book involves a lot that is NOT real! To keep this term unchallenged and lazily bandied about by critics who want to explain how it can be a superhero movie without Adam West in it is just wrong.

Basically, what I’m trying to argue for is a better application of our shared critical language when we try and describe and engage with culture. From Wuthering Heights to The Dark Knight Rises our cinema and literary life is full of big exciting and often complex things that surely deserve more than just having a simple, fix all term thrown at them. So if we’re going to do that we should at least understand what we’re saying.

At least, that’s what I think.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS I am well aware that these thoughts on realism in the critical sense are hardly exhaustive and if there is something worth saying that I’ve missed then please join in, in the comments section.

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Avengers vs. Amazing Spider-Man

Right,

First off, the bright eyed and bushy tailed that no doubt make up the majority of my traffic will notice that this is not a usual Page Boy adaptation.  In a wonder of tautological truth that is simply because this is SOMETHING DIFFERENT! In the most roundabout sort of way I’ve decided that whenever I find two films, or in some cases two books, I’m going to load up the double barrelled shotgun of reviewing and do a little side by side review. I’m not going to make this a regular thing but if I find a couple of films or books that lend themself to a particular theme or topic that’s been on my mind then you’ll see the DBS reviews up here.

So for the first double barreled shotgun review let’s talk about genre movies; namely, as the title gives away The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, two of the big three superhero movies coming out in summer 2012.

First up The Avengers, this has been the climax of Marvel Studios on-going attempt to bring comic style continuity to the big screen, starting with Iron Man and that now ubiquitous post credit teaser scene with the sudden appearance of Samuel L Jackson.  Looking at how popular that scene is now in the superhero genre it is easy to forget the huge gamble that this represented. Outside of the comic community these Marvel characters were as well-known and would certainly not qualify as household names. Now, half a decade on Marvel studios have done something that many believed to be impossible. The movies succeeded in Taking little known and often complex characters to the paradigm of the simple action movie – the good guys who save the world and get the girl. What made the films so great is that they weren’t dependent of viewers being familiar with the entire Marvel universe, sure it helped, but the interdependence of the films means that Marvel can build their universe at the own pace. The plot of all the Avengers movies is basically the same thing, a unique individual is required to use their abilities to save the world/town/nine realms of space/whatever and become the hero they were all along. What sounds initially unpromising is made to work through top-notch understanding of who these people are – their arc may be the same but the way they come to it means that none of these characters feel samey, all the characters drawn deeply enough to bring flesh to the bones of their archetypes.

The Avengers was the culmination of this project and was a colossal success not only commercially but interestingly, for a genre movie, critically. So here’s where we come to it – yes, technically every film is a genre movie but the distinction I’m trying to draw here is the difference between “films” and “movies” and unquestionably The Avengers is a movie with a capital “M” – designed for opening night bonding and popcorn munching. So what made the Avengers able to be acknowledged by critics who would normally ignore something so unashamed-ly ‘blockbuster-y.’ To try to answer this in terminology I have used before – the Avengers does not suffer from cool shit syndrome. Yes, there are loads of cool things that happen in the film, but all of – EVERY SINGLE THING – happens for an incredibly good reason. Nothing is superficial – action is there, not for its own sake, but to further either character or plot development, which is what action is for. All of this is down to one simple thing, the quality of the writing and the directing from Joss Whedon. The well-drawn characters and interesting dialogue allows the film to make the audience care beyond the spectacle. Yes, you can enjoy the stuff blowing up, but it is more involving when the characters being blown up are ones we relate to and like. Plus the fact the film is incredibly funny in places allows for dramatic juxtaposition  – a character we like and laugh at his jokes gets murdered and we feel much more invested in what is happening. In short, the rules of the genre work well together to involve the audience and bypass whatever limitations of the superhero genre might be.

What this allows is for the film to operate within the limits of its genre but not to be trapped by it. Do you want to know what you get when a film is trapped by its genre? Transformers 2. That’s what you get. Messy, loud, annoying spectacle and that is it –and that just isn’t a bad genre movie, that’s a bad movie full stop.

Let’s Move on to the Amazing Spider-Man, which I just got back from seeing. And this, quite obviously, fits in the super-hero genre perfectly. Almost too perfectly and this might well be why I left the cinema feeling that ‘Amazing’ was hyperbole. Rebooting the franchise, clearly for no other reason than to hang onto the intellectual property the film does have some very good points – so lets deal with the good bits before talking about my problem with it and why I think this film shows the limits of the generic movie.

So, the good points, which has to start with the cast. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as the teenage leads are both very good, the fact that they are a real life couple making them the chemistry between them palpable. In the hands of Marc Webb, responsible for the indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer, the scene with Peter and Gwen are probably the best in the film. The new world of the inevitable franchise is skilfully rendered, leaving the somewhat cartoonish Rami vision for something more realistic. The ensemble works well – Martin Sheen being a highlight, because, well he’s Martin Sheen. Furthermore this re-imagined Peter Parker is more complex and the scenes of him and his adopted family working through his issues are very strong. And by and large the rest of the supporting cast do a good job. What’s to the directors credit is that he has talent at conversation and character able to deal with scenes of emotional weight.

When we move to the action part of the movie problems do creep in. Starting, sadly, with the bad guy played by Rhys Ifans unfortunately burdened by some frankly god awful make up and terrible CGI. Yes, Ifans is a good actor but how can an audience be invested or scared of a lizard monster who makes me want to laugh. Whilst this sounds like a minor niggles, it leads into a bigger problem; in short, this would be a great movie if it wasn’t a superhero movie. The actions scene are good, but spectacle wise it isn’t anything new and feels bland and predictable. You’ve seen these scenes a thousand times before, and the final fight can be predicted beat for beat by anyone with an understanding of action movies.

Yes, the same could be said of the Avengers but Spider-man doesn’t make the effort to rise above meeting our expectations. Everything about this film is fine. Just fine. Not bad. Not amazing, but just good. The dialogue? OK. The good guy? Good. The action? Action-y. But that is all. Maybe it might be that a re-boot of Peter Parker just isn’t possible as pretty much everyone already knows the major beats of his character already and if you make the bold choice to mess with it, then it isn’t really the same character anymore.

Now some people will defend it saying this is just the first part of a new franchise and that we need to wait to fully get the vision that is being articulated. Now, there are two reasons why this is rubbish. Firstly, films are not trailers for other films. They are films! If a film cannot stand on its own merits then what I am I doing watching it? The first two Christopher Nolan Batman films stand up well on their positives. For proof that a franchise can operate individually as good films, look at the Avenger’s movies, (maybe not Iron Man 2…)

To conclude then, the two seen side by side show the genre at its very best and at its most basic, when operating within the confines of a genre, creators have a clear choice. they can either use the rules as the Avengers does to try to tell a story of quality or use the rules of the genre as a substitutes for the ambition that this takes. Following the rules of the genre won’t necessarily give you a bad movie, just one that misses ‘amazing’ by quite some distance.

Thanks

ThePageBoy