At some point in time there was a level of concern about comic books. Would they seduce readers away from books without pictures? With their hyper-action storylines and fantastic visions of worlds beyond our own, parents might have wondered if escapist comic books would spawn a generation of day dreamers whose only aspirations would be to create more comic books. And then sit and read them.
Doesn’t sound like such a bad life, and maybe we’re living it. The influence of comics is cited in almost every profile of a director or writer associated with this week’s latest “popcorn” movie, although the young artisans now toiling away at digital imagery were likely goosed by the third or fourth renaissance of comics since the earliest days of the craft; more prone to be apostles of Marvel’s Stan Lee rather than of Superman’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
But they are toiling away. Let’s consider just three summer movies, all of which ask nothing more of us except that we surrender the admission money and flip our brain knobs to the “idle” setting: Transformers, GI Joe, and G Force. Some will argue that these movies are not all meant for the same audience; I disagree. Whether good economic omen or bell weather of dumber days to come, I would contend that Transformers, and GI Joe are meant for the same exact consumers who can sit still for an hour and 26 minutes of schtick-tastic guinea pigs. Whether you contend that too many films aimed at adults are truly childish, or that films aimed at children are loaded with violence and innuendo that should rightfully play to (undemanding) adults… there’s a meeting place that’s shared by millions of “moviegoers” and the numbers prove it.
If we went back in time to something like the wildly inaccurate accounts of western gun fights that filled dime novels, we might agree that there’s always been a certain level of junk culture in America. Here’s what I think is brand new: Transformers, GI Joe, and G Force aren’t simply similar in their exertions of loud audio married to digitally-generated chaos and destruction; they’re all exactly the same movie. There’s “action” involving digital images, with one crushing against another. Roll credits. Yes, dime novels all told of one cowboy shooting another. But they weren’t produced with budgets risking the treasure of large corporations and they didn’t ever become the cultural epicenter of an entire nation’s weekend.
Back in the day you might have opted to attend what was called a “demolition derby” at your local race track or fair park. You’d watch guys driving junk cars one into another, and eat a hot dog. It was about as mindless as entertainment can get, yet… The drivers in those cars were real humans, they produced real sound and fury instead of Hollywood actors voicing-over flatulence jokes, and you were having a real-world experience rather than one rendered in a computer. Of course the makers of the three films I’ve invoked are more than hopeful that your child, or inner child, will want to integrate with the real-world merchandise for which these movies are platforms.
Deeper into my angst about same-same movies that deliver nothing of value is a nagging concern that we’re piling-up mountains of complex digital rendering that isn’t taking us anywhere. There’s a neat moment in the otherwise not too special feature film of The Coneheads where the Conehead space ship approaches their home planet. Two actors look out the window and softly gasp, “Remulak” as we view a very cheesy representation of that planet. I believe it was meant to be a joke on the level of visual fakery we were already ingesting by 1993, the year of that film.
At a time when things such as stem cells are offering true hope for all humankind, we have thousands of bright and motivated computer technicians laboring to get a digital guinea pig to tell clunky jokes and echo stereotypes. Yet I could live with that pathetic irony if these movies were in some way distinguishable one from another, or bothered at some point to offer some meaningful connection to human experience.
Instead they pile-up in our junk culture toy box and, from a stand point of recycling, we will never recover the energy that was poured into making and marketing them. It is here that someone would logically argue that Pixar products such as Wall E and Up have the integrity and humanity these other movies lack. I agree that some computer animation products are better written than others, but the heart that beats in the creative center of these films is the same heart that replaced cell animation with computer-rendered imagery. Not because the public was particularly enamored with the smooth dimensions and faux realism of computer-rendered art, but because it would be faster and cheaper and still sell toys. There’s nothing wrong with progress as long as it is, in some way, progress. Did we get better movies this summer than we did last summer? Maybe we’ll have to ask a child.