Johnny Depp, Buster Keaton, old-age make up… and so forth… a mystic loon with a dead bird on head, etc… Armie Hammer, “what’s with the mask?”, yes, that’s his real name and his real jaw… blah blah… ‘30s radio show, ‘50s TV show, Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels… yeah yeah…and so on…
Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Pirates director Gore Verbinski, Pirates writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (plus newbie Justin Haythe)… blah blah… Tonto-centric tale… revisionist reverence… blah blah…
Monument Valley, Once Upon a Time in the West, Little Big Man, Rango… blah blah blah… railroad, civilization, progress, future, justice, the law, corrupt American empire … and so on… bad guy eats a human heart… whatevs… anti-Native American racism, genocide, noble savage slapstick, buddy cop shtick… and all that… light comedy and tragical history, tonal and thematic incongruities… deeply offensive, exploitative… truth, legend, stories, fact… blah blah blah… big stunts, sloppy storytelling… too long… Silver steals the show… blah blah… Helena Bonham Carter, whore with an ivory leg… same old, same old, on and on…
All right, stop. Collaborate and listen.
We’ve been going at this all wrong.
Every year since Pirates of the Caribbean was a surprise hit a decade ago, Disney and other studios have not so much released as launched, landed, and stormed more and more giant-sized “events” like The Lone Ranger into theaters. Massive, sprawling affairs based on familiar (“high brand awareness”) pop-culture properties; full of big stars; bejeweled with CGI special effects; and crammed full of over-complicated, nonsensical and pointillist plots that feel as if they’ve been mapped out with a Spiralgraph.
And for years now, with the Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Princes of Persia, the Alices in Wonderland, the Transformers and Battleships, the John Carters, and the Great and Powerful Ozs, film critics, writers, and observers (myself included) have understandably twisted themselves into apoplectic knots decrying ridiculous pacing problems, narrative tangles, and thematic muddles and contradictions.
We complain about how these films’ creativity is hollowed out in the shallow service of expedient entertainment and “four-quadrant” profits. In other words, like birds in gilded cages (another from The Lone Ranger’s smorgasbord of motifs), we critics have been flapping ourselves to death trying to explain why these are bad films.
But they’re not. They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.
And while that may sound like a sneering condemnation, I’m not so sure it’s entirely a put down. Yes, these sprawling, invasive entertainment properties are recorded by cameras and later edited (I think) and projected on screens. And yes they utilize sets and lighting and actors and music and “scripts”—all the elements of sound and vision we usually associate with motion pictures. But anymore they exist in both the Zeitgeist and Cineplex as something else. Something different. And God help me, I sometimes find myself enjoying parts of these something differents.
Just as you know that most of your time in an amusement park will be spent waiting in line or trying to wash Slurpee syrup off in a bathroom sink… Just as you know that even when you get on the roller coaster log flume loop-de-loop, you’re going to spend the first half of the ride being slowly, painfully yanked, jerked, and pulled up a hill by aging, creaking machinery… Just as you know the first hour of a rave is going to be a lot of standing around over-packed into a sweaty crowd of people and their body fluids until the E starts to roll…
So you enter over-sized “happenings” like The Lone Ranger knowing there will be lulls. There will be long stretches of clumsy character and plot exposition tailor-made for bathroom breaks and visits to the concession stand. There will be multiple ginned-up plot tangents that feel jury-rigged solely to pad the running time out to nearly three hours. There will be gags that do not work or are offensive–or rather would be offensive if any of it bore a connection to anything like reality. You know the parts will not add up to any sort of whole.
And yet, there’s funny stuff here and there, some of it very funny. Sure, Johnny Depp’s particular brand of on-screen peculiarity has long felt less inspired and more processed for mass consumption—the pre-packaged eccentric; a noble bescarfed and braceleted nut job bemused by his own sardonic misbehavior.
But that well-worn wryness only feels weary if you insist on thinking of Johnny Depp—and everyone else in these films—as “actors” instead of “attractions.” If you keep trying to think of their “performances” as whole endeavors, instead of as a series of on-stage moments strung together. And I laughed at many of Depp’s moments.
In fact, I say the only way we’re going to survive this never-ending, forever-escalating march of bigger, dumber “event movies” is if we stop looking for the whole. Adapt or die! These things are not cinema, but multi-faceted, spinning mosaics made out of movie parts, shined up for endless resale. You don’t watch them; you hide out inside the air-conditioned distraction of experiencing them. You move over them like a scavenger on a garbage scow, picking and choosing a wry joke here, a bit of stunt spectacle there. If at the end, you’ve filled your bag with enough “good bits” to feel okay about how you’ve spent the last two hours, then you call this thing a “success” and head home.
I know some of you think I’m being facetious. I’m not. Well, mostly not. I really did have a generally enjoyable time at The Lone Ranger. Once I stopped pretending I was watching a “film” and embraced the inherent narrative, thematic, and artistic disjointedness of an “event” like this as fact, not failure, I ended up liking more about it than I disliked.
And if that’s not really a rousing endorsement, let me add this: The climax—when “The William Tell Overture” and the Lone Ranger and Silver all gallop across the screen with genuinely impressive, joyous, heroic precision and glee—is one of the best-executed, most rousing, fun, action-movie finales in years. (And yes, that includes the one that opens tomorrow with the giant robots punching the giant monsters.)
Studios like Disney, producers like Bruckheimer, and directors and writers like Verbinski, Elliot, and Russio are not making these things as films anymore. They don’t think of them as films, and neither do the audiences happily paying to see them.
We film critics like to tell ourselves that we stand in the wilderness, howling like John the Baptist in the hope of educating and enlightening everyone about why these are bad movies. But it looks like we’re the last ones to get the memo.