Taking a break last night from another typically explodey summer of billion dollar Hollywood spectaculars (that’s what the kids are calling movies today, right? “Spectaculars”? I try to keep up on all the current lingo), I decided to watch the lovingly preserved Criterion blu-ray of Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film The Magician (Ansiktet), starring Bergman regulars Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Bibi Andersson. I’d never seen it before, even back in my 20s when I watched something like 900 Bergman movies over the course of a few months. Turns out it’s a great one. And it started me thinking about dumb movies, smart movies, and the dubious advice, so often proferred this time of year, to turn one’s brain off.
In The Magician, Sydow plays Dr. Vogler, leader of a tiny travelling sideshow called Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater, rambling through 1840s Sweden. Vogler wears a fake beard and claims to be mute. His eyes are deep and scary. He shows up in a town where a doctor, a police sergeant, and a wealthy official, skeptical of Dr. Vogler, and having heard suspicious rumors and complaints about his show, demand a private performance the following morning, that they might see just how harmless an entertainment it really is.
The next part of the movie is all about sex. It’s funny and surprisingly blunt. The loudmouthed impresario of the theater goes off to bed with the horny widowed cook, and the young, innocent carriage driver is whisked away to a giant laundry basket by the buxom maid. Meanwhile, the impressionable wife of the town official propositions the silent Vogler, begs him to come to her room late that night.
Sixty-seven minutes into the movie, Vogler finally speaks. He’s with his own wife, having ignored the official’s wife’s plea. His first words: “I hate them.” It’s a nice move not to have your lead character speak for an hour. You know he’s not mute. What will he say? It’s an effective way to build tension, even without the aid of things blowing up.
The show goes on the next morning, it’s obviously all cheap chicanery, until a strong man, mysteriously bound by invisible chains draped over his hands, becomes enraged and strangles Vogler, seemingly to death. The doctor brings the corpse up to the attic and performs an autopsy. Only we know Vogler isn’t dead (he had a spare corpse on hand; did I mention that?). He uses the opportunity to scare the living hell out of the doctor.
But the logical doctor is unimpressed by his surreal scare. The theater company begs for money, Vogler, out of his disguise and talking, is pathetic, no longer the darkly ominous showman, and they all seem about to be arrested, when a letter arrives from the King of Sweden, requesting a performance. Off they go, rather smugly.
I relate the plot because you know what? It’s not complicated. There’s no subtext you need to winnow out, no requirement you deeply comprehend the language of cinema to enjoy The Magician. Yes, it’s an older movie, and as is often the case with such, the pacing is slower than what we’re used to today. You’ll need a bit of patience to enjoy it. But not much. It’s a fun, entertaining little story. Now, if you happen to be some kind of film nerd (like me), you can marvel at the beauty of the cinematography and the compositions, you can appreciate the witty dialogue and the skillful acting. You could even think deeply on the issues of life and death the movie alludes to, and the conflict between belief in the magical versus the wisdom of science. But you don’t need to do any of that to enjoy the movie.
So what’s this about brains? It’s this. Every time I see a giant Hollywood spectacular and come out saying, “Wow, was that ever stupid! How do they make movies so incredibly dumb? What a nightmare! It was awful. I loathed it. Here’s a list of everything about it that made no sense whatsoever, beginning with the first frame,” every time I say that, which I admit is depressingly often, there’s inevitably a chorus of voices telling me to relax, it’s just a fun movie, lighten up and enjoy it, were you expecting Bergman or something? Just “turn off your brain.”
Turn off my brain? How do I do that? How does anyone? What does that even mean? I am unable to turn off my brain. It’s always on. When one day if finally does shut off, that’ll be that for me and my brain. It won’t be back. I think what people mean when they say this is, “Shut up, I liked it. You’re not supposed to think about it. You’re supposed to enjoy it. It’s entertainment!
What can I say? My brain doesn’t work that way. It thinks about things. It watches movies and when those movies are dumb and boring it gets bored, and when it gets bored, it thinks, and mostly what it thinks about is what’s at fault for boring it, and by the end my brain will likely have rather a lot to say about the idiocy on display and how such idiocy might have been avoided. And some people don’t want to hear about it.
To hell with them. Who doesn’t think? Who doesn’t experience the world without a thousand questions swirling around every corner? Maybe lots of people? Maybe. What do I know? If I go for a walk in the redwoods, what’s going through my head isn’t, “Big tree. Big tree pretty. Bird go tweet. Nice air. Salty. Bigger tree. All red.” I’m imagining what that tree has lived through and seen, I’m picturing the world when that tree was a sapling, I’m wondering how many peoples through how much time have walked past this same tree, and what were they thinking? Had they ever seen trees so big? What happened when they got through the trees and first saw the ocean? What must it have been like to have seen the Pacific Ocean never having known such a thing existed? Had they heard rumors of a lake so big the other side couldn’t be seen? When they saw it did they believe it was the edge of the world? What lived in it, they must have wondered. Monsters, surely. Dragons. Are there dragons living in the redwood forest? Are they hiding behind that one there? Run!
The same goes for movies, doubly so when the movie’s so dumb I have to think about something just to keep from falling asleep or punching someone, preferably the director.
I want to be entertained the same as anyone does. When I sit in a theater, I have no set of rules at hand for the movie to follow. The lights go down, the movie begins. Why do some grab me instantly and never let me go? Why do some lose me in the first minute? I spend altogether too much time asking this very question, but the answer is not always easy to come by.
When I saw Children of Men, the first scene played, a single shot, maybe a couple of minutes. It ends with an explosion. And then an all black screen and the title card. I was hooked that fast. Completely. Why? Another sci-fi movie that goes boom! in the first minutes? And I’m in love with it? Ask me and I’ll have an answer, don’t doubt it. Something about the mood, the handheld camera, the all-in-one-take, the brief glimpse of the futuristic yet dirty city, that it was all of a piece. I know a bit about movies. I’ll make the case, and it might even sound informed, it might even sound like I’m stating “facts” about it, and not merely my opinion. But what was it really that hooked me? In the end it may be impossible to say. “I like it because it’s good,” is what, essentially, any discussion of art is reduced to in the end. The rest is bells and whistles.
I like it because it’s good, and I hate it because it’s bad. Star Trek Into Darkness lost me as soon as the first scene started. How does a movie do that? I don’t know. From the first instant I felt manipulated, I felt pandered to, I felt like someone was screaming in my face as though being screamed at is what it means to be “entertained.” Is this when I’m supposed to turn my brain off?
It’s not a matter of not thinking about the screaming. It’s really loud. I can’t turn my brain off to it. When character motivation is absent, I notice. When stupid dialogue is spoken, I hear it. When action sequences have no meaning to the story, I am not fooled by the pretty lights. I like mind-bending special effects as much as anyone, but throwing a bunch of CGI on screen, however technically and/or artistically stunning, isn’t entertainment. I need characters to follow, be they humans or aliens or robots or a family of anthropomorphized billiard balls, and I need them to act according to their given personalities, and not on the whim of the writer.
I don’t need every movie to be directed by Bergman, or Kurosawa, or Kubrick, or Herzog. There needn’t be any profound subtext. There needn’t be slow pacing and nothing but characters talking. I like action movies. I like film noir. I like giant bugs. I like them when they’re not stupid (or when they’re gloriously stupid; I tell you, this defining what’s “good” is a fool’s errand). Is this so much to ask? The problem with Into Darkness and its ilk is that it’s so much easier to make a stupid movie, and studios have learned that stupid is no barrier to profitability. Why try harder when you don’t have to?
All a movie needs to do is make sense, and the beautiful thing is that “sense” may be defined however a filmmaker wants to define it. Every movie makes its own rules. Does Holy Mountain make sense? Does John Dies At The End make sense? Does Zardoz? Yes, every one. Each follows its own logic, and just because that logic appears to have been conceived of by a scurry of squirrels on acid makes no difference.
Take the transporters in Into Darkness. In the universe created by J.J. Abrams and his writers, there are no set rules for how transporters work. Almost every dramatic moment in the movie involves a transporter either working or not working, and in every case a character is forced to mutter some kind of explanation for why, this time, it can or can’t be used. A good writer invents the rules of their fictional universe and sticks by them. Breaking them breaks a contract with the audience. If you don’t have rules, if you make them up as you go, you’re just playing Fizzbin:
Into Darkness is one interminably long game of Fizzbin.
Imagine watching a nice little movie taking place here in the real world, a simple story about characters and their relationships, and there’s a key scene where a guy is drowning in a lake, and the hero, his girlfriend, can’t save him. All of a sudden, he rises up out of and above the water and drifts upon the air to shore, where he falls back to earth unharmed and says to his girl, “Wow, it’s lucky gravity reversed itself and an invisible force pushed me to shore. Really dodged a bullet there!” And the movie continues with no other mention made of this miraculous event. You would not turn your brain off to it. You would feel cheated.
Here’s a classic way to describe how to write a screenplay, or really any drama: “Chase your hero up a tree. Then throw rocks at her.” Which is to say, make things impossibly tough for your hero, then have her extricate herself in a way unique to her character, and bam! You’ve got drama. Drop a ladder and an invisibe force-field to your hero from the clouds, and you’ve got a classic deus ex machina, a fake solution, a boring movie.
Brain-state is not a factor in entertainment. Different movies play with brains differently. Sometimes, naturally, you don’t want to watch a black & white Swedish film from ’58, however pleasantly enjoyable. Sometimes you want to watch a Hollywood spectacular. The point is, there’s no reason a spectacular can’t be smart, or at the very least, not dumb. There’s no reason a 200 million dollar sci-fi adventure can’t take place in a universe with unbreakable laws. There’s no reason dialogue has to be stupid. There’s no reason human emotion has to be missing. There’s no reason a movie has to suck, save one: it’s easier that way, and the studios still make their money. Alas.
I’m not going to fall into their trap. I’m not going to praise lazy moviemaking because it’s summer and that’s what I’ve been told to expect. I’ve seen smart spectaculars. I’ve seen wild imaginations turned loose. I’ve seen hallucinogenic squirrels. My brain stays on.