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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why it’s OK to like stupid crap like Transformers 3

One thing that is often forgotten—especially by critics, English majors, etc—is that movies, like comic books, are actually visual forms before they are narrative forms (you can have wordless comics/movies, but not imageless ones). Unfortunately, most people judge movies and comics by the same limited criteria used for novels and short stories, ignoring the visual element, or even condemning it in a strange mutation of some lingering strain of cultural Puritanism: it's just pretty, it's eye candy, etc. These people deprive themselves of sensory nutrients that are pleasures as pure as any clever plot twist or great character development: a brilliant panel or page by Moebius or Jack Kirby, Quitely or Koike—hell, even Ernie Bushmiller. I suspect they're also unlikely to fully grok a gorgeous film shot by Tarkovsky or Kurosawa, although they will give it props because it has widely recognized intellectual cache.

In the name of this death-grip on traditional narrative, people walk out of movies like Tree of Life and The Fountain, or shift into that clownery that germinated in my generation’s high-school intellectual gutter: “You gotta be stoned to watch (or listen to) Pink Floyd: The Wall, man.” In other words, if you can’t box it up neatly in clear intellectual terms, it must be down the rabbit hole, in Stoner World.  (Even though there’s nothing particularly difficult about deciphering the symbolism in The Wall—it's seminal, but not subtle.)

They forget that some things can't be conveyed in words. Yes, there are narratives implied in montage, and yeah, Transformers movies are dumbass attempts at regular narrative, but there's also pure joy in the brand of visual adventure that can't be had anywhere but a good, rollicking dorkfaced Hollywood blockbuster. The same goes for martial arts movies or amusement park rides. Thrills that tilt the senses and push us to project ourselves into new perspectives, unheard-of velocities, near-miracles of plummeting, skidding, rushing, sight-and-sound gluttony. Sure, it’s spoon-feeding for the imagination, and sure, it may overlap uncomfortably with the definition of pornography, but what are we, sensory ascetics?

Is this a jab at movies that tell substantial, literary stories about complex human characters? No way. Do I like all balls-to-the-wall special effects movies? Not even close—I don't bother with most of them. The John Cusack movie 2012 was hamhandedly weak, and The Golden Compass, which I wanted to like, was a CGI-varnished rough draft with no visual heft. Do I like all comics? Only a relative few, usually requiring both writing and art to be original and interesting. Does everything need intellectual content? Nope—not Nancy comic strips, not the landscape of Yellowstone, not Michael Bay. Sometimes I just get tired of all the pompous internet chatter complaining about how idiotic Transformers movies make America stupid—as if these people don’t wax poetic about food, dance, sex, or any number of other topics which are as intellectually indefensible as they are goldmines of sensory glee. Most armchair film critics also tend to spend way too much time evaluating actors acting, even though their commentary on cinematography was likely limited to one word, such as “beautiful,” or “sweeping.” It’s possible that they’re trying not to spoil the surprises in store for your eyes. It’s more likely that they’re drawn to movies by their cult-of-personality celebrity worship/jealousy. It’s just funny that criticism for a visual medium is so visually impoverished.

I just watched a documentary on PBS called Sweetgrass, which had no narration and no real thrust other than to follow cowboys as they herded sheep across Montana. There's actually nothing to it but landscape and lifestyle, plus some details of animal husbandry most folks will find harsh, but it's a brilliant pictorial account, and contains barely five ideas. But as a world, you can lose yourself in it.

That's my best defense of Transformers 3—I liked it so much, I may go see it again in 3D.

1 comment:

Marcus Howell said...

might be the most substantial thing about movies I will ever read.