Sunday, May 26, 2024

Fiction Should Be Weirder

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Comic Books are weird. They are, and that’s a large part of their charm. People wear their underwear on the outside and have powers that come from space, science experiments gone wrong, magical mishaps, or for the truly melodramatically cursed-all of the above.

The recent epoch of IP blockbusters has spawned a strange trend in that it abhors the unknown and prefers the mundane and “real.” An odd evolution considering that so many of these movies are based on stories and characters designed to be precisely the opposite. Even the ones meant to be grounded in reality had a theatrical flair, a soap-operatic tendency for big emotions, and more significant action set pieces.

D.O.A. (1950) Dir. Rudolph Mate, Frank (Edmond O’ Brien) is told he’s been posioned by radium.

One of our editors, Gretchen, wrote an article about how Science-Fiction used to be weird but so did most other genre fiction. It’s unfair to lay the blame at any one filmmaker’s feet since Hollywood is in the business of chasing trends rather than creating them. The tedious tendency towards “realism” isn’t the filmmaker’s fault so much as ours and the suits who run the studios.

The money men are to blame, not just because they care more about their investments and whether to buy or sell short rather than help shepherd a production to completion, but because they are the ones telling us not to dream. In the end, that’s what this boils down to, a refusal to dream.

If we’re being honest, fantasy movies are less fanciful, and imagination in mainstream films seems to be more stagnant than usual because of capitalism, not to be a broken record.  

Capitalism not only makes us more literal-minded but also impedes us from imagining something better and greater. As a result, our heroes more and more do not resemble us in any fashion whatsoever, aside from basic human aesthetic. More and more, our heroes resemble the one percent, a class that has exploited us and made our world more and more uninhabitable. Our heroes lack any values or principles outside of a catchphrase or a catchy narrative theme. 

Oh sure, many heroes seem to have values and principles. But that’s all they are, illusions, empty, but pretty to look at. They stand for everything and nothing in particular at the same time. It’s a hell of a hat trick.

We have become a culture of small-minded wish fulfillers when we should be dreamers. Capitalism breeds a lack of imagination and rabid fandoms that demand lore takes precedence over anything so wild and dangerous as a new idea. And capitalism and fandom walk hand in hand, helping make a quick road to fascism. 

Some will say it’s always been like this. Yes, to some extent, it has. But in other ways, not in the slightest.

Circling back to the nearly religious fetishization of “grimdark” equaling “real,” or “grounded” equaling “more true,” watching older movies is a reminder that genres that many perceive as “gritty” were not just odd but fancifully weird.

Take the noir genre. A genre much like the superhero genre in which there is no hard and fast definition and, if brought up, could inspire hours upon hours of conversation on the parameters of the genre. But for so many, the noir, or the hardboiled detective, is a gloomy, grim genre. 

To a small degree, this is relatively true. But in reality, they were also trashy melodramas wrapped up in a faux seriousness. They were dark, but you could feel the sardonic smirk on the writer’s and director’s faces.

Robert Wise’s The House on Telegraph Hill is about a woman who steals the identity of her dead friend in a concentration camp. Finally, the war ends, and she is released and resumes living as her dead friend. However, she soon discovers someone is trying to kill her–or her friend–for her inheritance. Rudolph Mate’s 1950 b-movie cult-classic D.O.A. is about an insurance man who gets poisoned with radiation and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out who killed him and why. 

His Kind of Woman (1951) Dir. John Farrow. Left to Right: Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price, and Jane Russell

Much was made of 2019’s Serenity and its bonkers ending, but honestly, it falls right in line with the average noir. This is a genre where it seemed perfectly natural for someone to hire a person so they could steal their face to re-enter the country under an assumed identity, such as John Farrow’s His Kind of Woman. Or Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street, where a married man is coerced by his mistress and her lover into embezzelment and eventually driven to homicide. In other words, noirs are as much about contrived looney nonsense as they are hard-bitten cynical ciphers of masculinity.

But we are to blame as well. When Black Widow came out, the two main criticisms were “Where does this fit in the larger timeline?” and “How was she able to get up after a fall like that?” 

The first complaint is depressing because it implies fiction can only be enjoyed as long as one knows its place in the larger scope of things. A marketing scheme by one particular studio that has worked so well, it has a generation of critics demanding everything “connect” and judging the value of the work by how well it does or doesn’t “fit in.”

The latter critique is undoubtedly a sign of short-term memory loss. Every action film since time immemorial has had our heroes survive from great heights, walk away from explosions that were impossible to walk away from. They did it all with a turn to the camera and an iconic, or ironic, one-liner. How did she walk away from–have you ever seen a movie before in your life?

“You best start believin’ in Marvel stories, Miss Romanoff. Yer in one.”

All this circles back to the absurdity that movies be the one thing they can never-EVER be, real. They are not real. Even documentaries aren’t real in the way people think they are. If you want reality, then go outside and touch grass. But for heaven’s sake, don’t pick up a book, go to a play, or see a movie. Art is meant to be a reflection or an escape, sometimes it’s both. But what it can’t be without risking losing everything that makes it art is genuine and honest because the point is to warp reality into a fashion that we can stomach and understand it.

Because life, real life, is a wild, topsy turvy mess that goes beyond silly things as “hero’s journey” and absurd notions as “established mythology.” Art has to make sense, to some degree, but it doesn’t have to be true. Even then, who said art even has to make sense, since reality hardly ever does?

Images courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures,

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