Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Storytelling vs. Movie Essence

Criticizing criticism and a look at what really matters...

1. WARNING

This column is about me trying to do a better job at Hulking. Which also means it's pedantic, self-reflexive when it comes to my process, and spends a lot of time talking about the nature of criticism itself. So apologies as I am basically going to spend some time disappearing up my own butthole, but I talk about Logan later soooooo *shrugs*

2. DILEMMA

"What the hell am I doing?"

I stop and ask myself this question just about every day. It's actually a pretty grounding exercise to do in general, but I've been thinking about that a lot lately when it comes to criticism. Because, believe it or not, I am constantly paying attention to the how stuff I write is digested and received by you, the actual reader. Because you're actually super critical to the overall Hulk mission of: "deeper cinematic understanding for all, myself included."

Now, when it comes to your responses to whatever the heck I write please understand I'm not really seeking agreement (which is pretty flat and boring when it comes to engaging a given topic). No, the thing I tend to value above all else is when whatever idea I'm trying to put forth is 1) accurately communicated 2) understood and 3) prompts a new line of discussion and thought. Often, my favorite kind of comment is something along the lines of "I can't disagree with what you're saying, but still I like the movie for x and y reason," because it means I communicated well, but it also gets me to consider the larger alternative. It shows we're both engaging with an idea that's in flux. And that's grand.

So let's just say that my ears perk up whenever the tenor of a conversation moves away from this kind of sentiment.

To wit, there's currently two popular lines of criticism I frequently encounter. The first is very old. That would be the perceived streak of me going negative, with sentiment along the lines of "Oh, Hulk you hate everything now!" To that point, people have been saying this same exact thing since my first few months on the site. I'm not exaggerating. And this happens to every critic. It doesn't matter that the most of my reviews have been glowing recs, this reductive sentiment crops up virtually anytime you criticize anything popular. For instance, I wrote about Stranger Things and Luke Cage because I saw real deal problems in the craft (it didn't matter how much I wanted to love those shows), that one-two punch becomes a narrative trend. I just "hated everything" now. But as a counter-point of agreement, I would argue that far more problematic is the few times I slide into being combative on a given issue. For instance, the problem with my Black Mirror piece isn't necessarily the negative evaluation, but the confrontational nature of the article, especially the headline. How much different feeling is it if I write "Is Black Mirror kinda bullshit?" Because you can get at the same idea by inviting people to question, participate, and disagree. After all, everything is framing.

But there is a new strain of a criticism that I think genuinely reflects some real changes in my overall framework. I've been I approaching criticism more and more specifically from the point of storytelling craft, and I think this has two distinct effects. The first is that it brings me closer to understanding the genuine effect of story mechanics on the audience and makes me much better at my job. The second is that it makes me more divorced from the popular holistic approach that many others bring to watching movies and thus makes me much worse at my job. This contradictory dynamic came to a head in my Rogue One column and I've been thinking about it ever since. There were two comments in particular (but please understand I have no interest in singling out people for disagreement) that prompted an introspective response. The first comment was within a larger point, but at the end it said "Frankly, I think the movie works precisely because it zagged every time your screenwriter impulse said it should zig." Now, this comment is actually getting at something really important, but first I really have to defend a couple aspects of it in order to get there.

The core problem with this statement is that I think it implies that the storyteller impulse, and thus storytelling in general, is inherently a deeply personal thing. For an extreme example, it's almost implying that any point on storytelling is like saying "there should be a dog in the movie. Dogs are great." Yes, dogs are great, but that's not the point of criticism. And I think the conversation about "storytelling impulses" is much more complicated than that. Because my Rogue One criticisms were a reaction to the logic of what the movie itself is setting up and failing to address within its own established goals, not some outside druthers. And it's definitely not about whether it changed direction on some set-up; it is whether or not the movie is aware of that change of direction at all. Which is the difference between a story zagging and story chaos. Put simply, there's huge difference between the way Rogue One falls away from its narrative intentions and the craft of what someone like, say, Shane Black does. Black creates a perfect sense of misdirection, throwing you off-balance, and bringing plots together. Or heck, watch any great episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and you'll get a masterclass is how to play with the audience's expectations, whether through doubling down on those expectations or coming out of left field to make a completely different point. The key to both is that it contextualizes that expectation. Note how often the zigs of Buffy are deeply dramatized and are experienced through the character's understanding. This is critical. So I feel confident disagreeing and saying, no the last act of Rogue One was not zagging. They are not carefully executed changes of direction like what Shane Black does. Really, it just really wanted to indulge the audience and congealed into some sloppy unfocused bullshit that had a different, more fun tone. So okay, I guess I didn't expect sloppy unfocused bullshit. But again, not even referencing Riz Ahmed's memory loss and acting like it never happened isn't zigging. That's just dropping one thread and starting another. And the humanity in criticizing this does not come from saying "eh, whatever." The humanity comes in understanding that there are a lot of valid reasons this stuff can happen. In understanding that making movies is really hard and the movie was reshot to a huge degree. But that doesn't change the stark nature of the actual storytelling results. A lot of people had problems with Rogue One. I'm just trying to account for why. 

Which brings me to the second comment that echoed the same sentiment: "Yeah, I think you get to the heart of why Hulk's Crits have become so divisive. It seems like he's using the template of old school storytelling to criticize storytelling choices, and the blockbusters coming out are trying to do something different, which he's at odds with." Again, I would disagree on some of the point because the criticism of these films is the same criticisms we've been making of wonky, unfocused blockbusters forever. We could have a giant conversation about dropped threads and the empty spectacle of a film like EARTHQUAKE!, our we could get lost in the obvious relativism that Rogue One is infinitely better than most brands of Bayhem. So what are we really arguing about, here?

What's the reason for feeling divisive?

What's the reason I'm writing and something is not clicking? These two comments not only got me thinking about that division, but specifically that second comment got me thinking about what modern blockbusters do well and why people like them... and that is essence. Whether it's the new Star Wars movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or a few new releases I'll get to later, we have figured out a way to make movies that feel nice and feed the audience what they want (mostly through incorporating heavy reshoots). They capture a feeling and iconography that resonates. And don't get me wrong this is important (and it's what a lot of '90s blockbusters were bad at, as they often looked down on their subject matter), but it's not the whole story of functionality. So the crux of this division means we're really having a conversation about something else entirely...

We're arguing about Storytelling Vs. Movie Essence.

3. ESSENCE

When I wrote about La La Land I spent a lot of time talking about the depth of the characters and the specificity of the formal choices. But I could have just as easily written the following few sentences about the film: "La La Land is a beautiful, lovingly-made film with one foot in Umbrellas of Cherbourg and another in L.A. Story. The two actors soft-shoe their way into our hearts, making a film as charming as it is earnest, as goofy as it is suave, and as emotional as it is frank." While I have story criticisms, what I just wrote is a lyrical and completely true characterization of the movie's essence.

And it matters.

It matters so much that it is easy to forget.

I'm not talking about the simplicity of a statement of "we like films that about things we are interested in." There's always something more eclectic and mysterious to movie essence. Even in that La La Land piece I talk about movies having personalities and souls and how we like movies the same way we like people. Nobody's perfect, but there are all these ways charms and bright spots of a movie can add up to something affecting, even without perfect execution. That's exactly why I wished I wrote more about the charms of Stranger Things amidst its problems, because it helps us understand the overall effect for everyone. I don't want to make it seem like I'm always this hyper-cynical standards person who is above such thinking. Heck, there are times I will go to the wall for movies on a pure essence level, like when I write about Who Killed Captain Alex? and Bad Black, where I'm making a huge case for not just the merits, but the spirit of these movies. I also feel like "rarity of essence" sums up the approach to many uber-movie fans; the kind of people who see everything and are always looking to whet their appetite for the unique. Which is totally the core mechanic behind outsider cinema and appreciation for things that blow expectations of "story function" out of the water. Which all adds up to something I don't really acknowledge:

People care more about essence.

And they're not wrong to.

There's so much power, warmth, and love in the intangible, the feeling, the poetry of a movie. But the inherent problem with this reality is two-fold. One, trying to create a film purely in terms of essence is ultimately a limiting approach to storytelling. And two, it's also much easier. I see essence-based filmmaking a lot more than we like to admit. Particularly in the Marvel films which basically have become exercises in charm and fun, while playing mere lip-service to the ideas of character growth and meaning. But they've gotten really good at that. And I've also long talked about this with J.J. Abram's obsession with vague mystery, surprise, and momentary effects on the audience versus him trying to earn the big, coherent beats in his stories. And those are the incredibly successful examples. Because when I also look at Snyder's take on the DC Universe, everything feels attitudinal. It's grit and posture and dourness and vague Randian sentiments strictly divorced from what the material actually needs. And that's the whole thing, it's not that these essences are "only" wrong. It's just that try drop the key components of earning it with the storytelling behind the essence.

But more than with popcorn movies, I actually see "the goal of pure essence" plague indie filmmaking. Because unless you spend time on the festival circuit, you don't realize how many films out there just don't work on any real level, abstract or otherwise. For every Under The Skin or Blue Ruin, there's a hundred films you've never heard of that fail spectacularly to get anything going on in terms of engaging an audience. They're almost always these dysfunctional mood pieces that cryptically hide their themes not under symbolism, but under vague contradiction all because they don't really have any. Or they mistake time sitting around for character development. Or they mistake nudity for vulnerability. It's nothing more than juvenile fears of the adolescent artist who is afraid to say something meaningful. They'll defend it under the guise of not wanting to be cliche or on the nose, but they're making movies like they've never heard of character psychology. And these movies fail time and time again. And look, I'm not saying this essence-first approach is inherently something that dooms you. You could make a great film like this, and many have. But it will always catch up with you.

That's the whole thing about capturing essence: you can fake it and hide behind it, but only for so long. Because when you try to make things that really have to work even in some small story-driven way? Then the magnifying class on your craft shines bright. Now understand that I think Michael Fassbender is awesome for his continued efforts to support interesting first-time directors, but when I saw Assassin's Creed recently I nearly had a conniption fit. I wanted to call time-out for all of Hollywood and have this giant "back to basics" conversation, particularly about the storytelling craft of blockbusters versus art films. Because the director of the film was Justin Kurzel who also directed Fassbender in Macbeth, a movie full of beautiful, strange, evocative imagery, but one I still couldn't help but spent the entire running time going "wait, does this person have any idea what he's doing?" It's kind of hard to tell when you're adapting the greatest storyteller of all time. But after some long development hell, they brought Kurzel onto Assassin's Creed with hopes that he would bring some of that apparent class, thoughtfulness, and power into the project. But the result? I am hard to think of a more dysfunctional movie in recent memory. It so spectacularly fails the very basics of character motivation and understanding the audience viewpoint. Literally everything that is being conveyed in the movie is unclear, even when it's being explained. And that's not just with the plot, but the character, objectives, goals, the whole deal. Even the overall factioning between the two sides is completely wishy-washy and you never, ever understand who is behind what and why (and I actually had a damn frame of reference from the games). The whole time the movie keeps getting lost in this evocative imagery and choices that are not only counter-intuitive but counter-productive. The result is a film that not only doesn't work, it is shockingly boring. It is a movie that dies because all it has to offer is essence.

Put simply: the audience always needs more than that.

But how much more? How far away is Rogue One from Assassin's Creed? What are the differences that matter? That's the whole point of all this discussion. Filmmaking and our digestion of it are endlessly complex. The idea that essence both matters or doesn't matter is both ethereal and irrefutable. People watch blockbuster films and are starved for basics of functional filmmaking, yet people are absolutely enamored of the charms in their stead. And sometimes it's vice versa. But why? Why does essence matter sometimes and not others? The truth is that it always matters, but that's where storytelling comes back into play. It's always about the exact push-pull between them.

4. NAVIGATION

So I liked Logan!

But I am also very aware that people are going nuts for it. And let's just say that my ears always perk up a little extra when people love a film that I only liked. It's not that I'm afraid of being out of step (please let the record show I've never been afraid of that), it's that I very much want to understand why things work for people. The truth is that learning about movies always starts with listening to people and trying to understand their reactions. That's what I've done my whole life. To that, I've probably read more pieces on Logan than I have any other movie in the last year. Seriously. And if I was going to start painting a portrait of why people think it worked, a large chunk of it comes down to essence and how it taps into this moment of the zeitgeist. They are throwing around respected words to describe it like adult, serious, and meaningful. But there are also constant discussions about how fresh and different it felt compared to the recent glut of superhero films. That word "felt" shows up again and again. As does the pointed differences between this film and a certain Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Matt Singer writes, "I don’t think Mangold and Frank would argue that Marvel is bad, or harmful to the film industry, or anything like that. The larger issue isn’t Marvel, or scale, or never-ending stories; it’s sameness."

Now, I would argue that never-ending stories and lack of meaningful real consequence and impact does hurt the MCU, but that's less important than the fact that Singer's practically making the case for the importance of essence. How movies feel is so very important and as Billy Wilder famously said "the audience is fickle." But of course, the poor essence lessons that studios learn is often the same poor essence that many movie fans take away, as well. For instance, I'm seeing talk about how this is proof we need more hard R stories, etc. The truth is that Logan ended up resonating precisely because it navigates between essence and storytelling in a way that ultimately works.

But first let's do the thing where I dig in and talk about the simple story problems of the film. Again, the purpose here is just diagnostics and identifying better function. Like the opening with Logan waking up in the limo and raging out may seem like it tells us about his character, but I think it actually hurts the impact of the movie to a surprising degree. For one, the opening practically begs for him to get beaten up and hurt and getting left there to show Logan is in very different place than we expect (and give him somewhere to go that's different by the end). But him raging out and murdering all those guys in a very violent way is no different than any of the things he does in the rest of the movie. In fact, I think it particularly robs us the cathartic release that great later scene offers when all the bad guys show up 30 minutes in and we realize what the girl can do too. That sequence works so much better if we have serious doubts about his ability to go berserker. But even more damaging is how the violence of the opening limo scene steals what Shane Black always called "quality of edge." The intensity and level of violence of the opening scene is the same as at the end, just as it is in every scene. It's constant, pervasive, and repetitive. I genuinely felt worn down by the sheer amount of times Wolvie put his claws through somebody's head, all to the same relative effect. It dulled the "quality of edge."

Also, I think the film is great at making things feel well-worn and lived in, but I think it loses its sense of propulsion a bit too much for its own good. The dramatic intention of scenes and what we're supposed to take away from them actually gets muddled frequently. In terms of pure plotting, there's so much sequencing with "and thens" and imagery of people waking up and falling asleep. I know Mangold's loving, quiet direction makes this all feel nice, and he did much of the same in The Wolverine. But those moments worked so well because they were a part of evolving relationships. It becomes more problematic in this film because the movie takes too to even begin dealing with the crux of Logan and Laura's relationship. Because Logan just spends the entire movie flatly rejecting his mission, his responsibilities, refusing the proverbial call for 2 hours, all while kind of acting on it out of the side of his mouth. Even the conditions of his final springing into action are solely motivated by the same "imminent danger for them" framework, rather than a real change in their relationship. If that moment is going to mean something more, Logan and Laura have to mean something more, which means she probably has to talk much sooner than she does in the film. To be clear, I'm not asking for something hunky dory or the witty barbs and one upsmanship of Paper Moon (though it wouldn't hurt), I'm asking for something besides the constant begrudging one-note approach that exists in the film. It's a connection, a vulnerability, something more human. Because without it, their sentiment ultimately just feels like an essence too, not one that's really there.

But then this ties into the way the way the film deals with information and the intent desire to leave things unsaid. Most notable of all, "The Westchester Incident" in which Professor Xavier probably definitely accidentally killed a whole bunch of mutants including what can assume was a bunch of the X-Men. And Logan's been carrying the effect of that with him, both in his resentment of Charles and also in his inability to kill the man who has been a father to him. And I think the way it all unravels ultimately works. It's a testament to the power of what Lubitsch said, albeit to a much different purpose: "let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever." The filmmakers even talk about this decision and imply they filmed a flashback that actually showed it, but I think they're right in that it works with Xavier's fugue state apology. But, and this may seem like a tiny thing, I honestly think it would work better with 8% more emotional clarity about the event from Logan. I'm not talking about him going off on some super clear explanation of what happened and why. It's not logistic. It's emotional. So I'm talking about the pained start of a monologue to Laura, something he can barely get through, the kind of acting moment Jackman could nail in his sleep. But Logan wouldn't do that! He keeps his feelings bottled up! you shout, I know that, which is what makes it so powerful when those internal characters actually try to express something. Like the other adage goes, someone trying not to cry is infinitely more effective than someone crying. And it's precisely the kind of thing that, if well-done, can put a movie like this into the stratosphere. But ultimately what the film strives for in subtlety, it ends ups hurting by withholding

And yet, Logan really works.

The reason for this is what I like to cite as the old "80/20 rule" of economics, in which 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. And that in all the biggest, most crucial aspects of the movie, its proverbial 20%, it totally nails it. Mangold and Scott Frank get the feel of these characters and their world. There's a grave sense of not only importance in their mission, but consequence. Like most good westerns it's a movie about the end of things. A daring, unsentimental story about the men of yesteryear who carry around an endless weight of guilt, and the young who will go off into the world beyond. There's a delight to seeing how the baby mutants reveal their powers, especially in seeing the way Magneto is reincarnated. But in the end, what makes Logan a good movie is that it nails the core theme of "letting go." It's a movie about how what is meaningful is not the things we were, but the things we can still give in the now. As Singer puts it (somewhat contradictorily to the earlier point), the success of the film "suggests that even as Logan provides a definitive conclusion for its particular storyline, it also represents a new, smaller beginning for the world of superhero cinema; one where the story you’re telling today is more important than the stories you might tell tomorrow."

It's the merit of the 80/20 rule shown through and through. And in a way, it's The Wolverine that highlights the 80/20 rule in the opposite direction. Popular wisdom regards it as a great movie where the last act shits the bed. Well, if by last "last act" you mean that last 10 minutes of climax where there's a guy in a big goofy CGI suit, then sure. And I guess it doesn't even matter that this development actually makes sense to the character/theme of the story they were telling; it just "felt" wrong to people because it was not like the movie before it. So it just became this tangible detail people harped on. In pure storytelling terms, the choice was more forgiving. But in essence terms? It was heinous. To the point that it's still the number one thing people talk about with the movie. But such is the nature and power of endings. And by comparison, Logan's final moments ring far more true than the whole last bunch of comic book movies where we get the endless teaser slogs for future movies, the ones that often belie the meaning of consequence itself.

I think about these differences constantly. Mostly because I understand that even though I like both, I'm the kind of person who ends up liking The Wolverine better than Logan. You can call this blasphemous. You can say I'm wrong. But I can't help looking at the execution and saying "more of that story was better executed than this story and I think it was harder to do." But the amount of people liking Logan is undeniable. And yet, it's not in the unanimous air. I can still point to the story faults of Logan and say, as much as it works for a lot of folks, these problems really are barriers for some of the audience. But if both are right, how the hell do you write about it?

Well, that's always been the exact challenge.

5. BALANCE

I liked La La Land. I liked Logan.

So why do I care so much about their faults?

Simple: because I think there's a lesson in every movie. Criticism isn't really about assigning relative value. It's not about taking things down a peg. It's not about ranking. There is only the understanding that (almost) everything can be made better. And better in a way that doesn't simply have to do with personal taste, but better in the way it reaches out to as many eyeballs as possible and resoundingly accomplishes its own goals. Because when you can do that you're truly making the film to your intentions. I think it's all about striving for your story to be undeniable. I just saw Get Out and it's so amazingly well-made that America just bought all-in on a non-bullshit movie about the state of modern racism. And I'm telling you it's twice as effective because Jordan Peele understands sound design. Or I think about the perfect storytelling and craft of a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, which is precisely why it gets nominated for best picture. It's a perfect movie. A gift from the heavens. So while essence is an inescapable part of what makes these films work...

I still think incredible craft is the way to make any essence work.

That's the whole point. These films were achieved from a place of studiousness. From a place of understanding. And so I try to be a part of culture that fights for that. That values the notion of craft. That demystifies the idea of cinema as being this vague unknowable thing and our opinions as just other things written on the wind. Sure, it's impossible to master, sure it takes us sorting through our human instincts and reactions, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to understand better. And the truth is I just need to talk about more about the power and function of essence right along with the mechanics. But talking about all this in terms of relativism is still tricky.

Because while I don't look at any this as a science, I am still reminded of the end of Kinsey where he's asked, "Why did you never speak of love?" and he simply answers that science is about what can be measured, and you can't measure something as big and meaningful as love. And when it comes to analysis, I can write poetically about essence, and often do... but I can't measure it. Heck, any attempts I've made to do just that are often met with the derision that feeds off most critical conversation (like how people were apoplectic with me for "putting Manchester above Moonlight" in my non-ranked rankings. I adore both films), but it's just another cog in the endless push-pull. Another vague understanding that we have to sort out... together.

It reminds me, I have a running joke in Q+As where people ask me comparative questions like "Godfather or Goodfellas" and my answer is always "and." To that point, there is no "vs." when it comes to storytelling and movie essence. They are linked like muscle and bone, utterly helpless without the other. And in their symbiotic relationship, they strive for the best of what art has to offer.

And I'll always fight for them.

<3HULK

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