Worst Practices in American Cinema

When I first started blogging (and actually, I was blogging before blogging even existed, by sending a weekly update by e-mail to a list of friends while I was overseas), I used to like to write the occasional movie review.  Anymore, however, it seems that it can be years before a movie comes out that I am even interested in watching, let alone reviewing.  Is it because I am getting old and jaded?  Perhaps a bit.  But more importantly, as the quality of special effects in cinema has improved, the quality of movie writing has been spiraling downward.  Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenses, in no particular order except that in which they occurred to me.

No heroes

I really feel that I have to start with this one.  Hollywood movies have protagonists, of course, to move the plot forward.  But if you want to see a hero, you’d better set your sights on Asian cinema; Hollywood forgot how to write heroes back in the early 70’s.  Today we are lucky to get anti-heroes; mostly we just have losers.  Even the entire U.S. military, according to Hollywood, is populated entirely by drug-addicted Hippie jackasses and brainless psychopathic mass-murderers.  There’s not a writer in Hollywood who could write a real hero if their lives depended on it.

Ruining villains

There may have been earlier examples of this, but the really seminal work for this steaming pile of ick is Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked.  This is a sort of third-party prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, in which the audience is treated to a background story of the Wicked Witch of the West.  In this version, she actually starts out as nice person, and only becomes “wicked” because she feels victimized by others.  THIS TOTALLY DESTROYS THE CHARACTER.  Maguire takes a strong female character–albeit a villain–and turns her into nothing more that a victim of much-lesser characters.  Worse, it undermines the entire heroic quest of Dorothy–who is now opposed, not by a true villain, but by a victim.  This has leaked into far too many movies–Arnold Schwarteneggar currently has a movie coming out in which he’s protecting a zombie.

This is actually symptomatic of a larger failure of Hollywoods, that of moral ambiguity.  If you watch a morally-ambiguous movie from say, Chinese or Japanese cinema (Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman comes immediately to mind), 99% of the time it will be the case of two persons (or groups) who are both trying to do the right thing, and wind up at crossed ends.  In Hollywood, on the other hand, they are almost always slime-versus-slime movies, in which a bunch of characters with whom I do not and will not sympathize, fight each other.  Guess what happens when your audience doesn’t sympathize with any of your characters?  They don’t care about your movie.

Exposition

Now, I’m not going to say that exposition is totally verboten and can never be used in cinema at any time, ever.  However, it is not used well in modern American cinema.  We wind up with characters having totally unnatural conversations because the writers are trying to force their point of view on the audience, rather than letting the story unfold.  It is much better to leave things to the audience’s imagination; whatever they come up will be perfect for them.  While this is bad enough, it is compounded by the fact that Hollywood writers are idiots.  I mean wholesale, mouth-breathing, how-do-you-not-drown-in-your-soup morons.  From police and military procedure to firearms function to religious practices to elementary-school-level science, Hollywood  writers have never failed to be totally incorrect in every example of exposition I can remember.  They even pay big bucks for people to come in and act as advisors for military matters and science–and then apparently completely ignore them.  Or the people they are hiring are idiots, as well.

Tying up loose threads

One of the most famous short stories ever written is Frank Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger?, which ends with one of the main characters being faced with a life-or-death decision.  This story is famous because the author deliberately does not tell the audience what the character chooses.  No one in Hollywood has apparently ever read this story.  Made a good movie, but there some things left unresolved?  Well, we don’t care if that’s WHY it was a good movie, we’re going to show exactly what happened anyway!  And, just so that we can “keep the audience guessing”, we will do it in a storyline that makes absolutely no sense in conjunction with the original.

The worst offender here is the Star Wars franchise.  I’m not even going to start with the utter failure of story that was “No, Luke.  I am your father.”  Let’s talk about the prequels: in a story which spans an entire galaxy, we discover that the parents of all of the main characters in the original film franchise actually hung out together, even though none of their children (or the droids) knew about it.  I’m willing to suspend disbelief for a cool sword made out of a beam of light that ENDS, but that is just ridiculous.

Sequels written together

Related to ‘tying up loose threads’, we have the phenomenon I like to call “Matrixitis.”  In this condition, we have a single wildly successful film which was written to be a single film.  But we can’t have that, can we?  So, we make a trilogy for absolutely no reason; creating a pair of films which are closely related to each other but which really spoil the resolution of the first film.

Reboots/remakes

Do I even need to mention an offender here?  There have been times in the last few years that I have driven to the cinema and seen that every movie playing is a re-make.  The fact that they are horrible, horrible piles of crap doesn’t even bother me any more (since I have made it a rule that I will never watch one again); movie studios just need to start making their own movies.  This is symptomatic of my earlier point regarding Hollywood writers have IQ roughly equivalent to aged cauliflower–I don’t think that the current crop of writers has the brain capacity to come up with something actually original.

Adaptations that ruin source material

Oh.  My.  God.

Let me preface this with an anecdote: when the movie Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was released, I was serving on active duty in the United States Marine Corps.  Since the novel is (or at least, was at the time) on the Commandant’s Reading List, I bought a copy.  At the time, despite having been through 13 weeks of boot camp, four weeks of Marine Combat Training, and nine weeks of Military Police school, I was still (in my heart) that long-haired, military-hating, gun-hating Hippie boy (What?  They didn’t brain wash me?  No.).   This book literally changed my life: it let me see the inherent nobility of the warrior class, and the idea of putting oneself in harm’s way for the benefit of those weaker.

And then I went to see the movie.

It was the closest I have ever come to walking out of the cinema in the middle of a film, and I honestly wish I had.  I later read an interview with Paul Ver Hoeven, in which he stated that was given a script by the Heinlein estate which exactly followed the novel–but that he rejected it because he wanted to make a film which mocked all of the values of the actual novel (and he certainly succeeded).  I had to re-read the novel three times to get the nastiness out of my brain.  Nor is this the only offender–have you ever seen Brahm Stoker’s Dracula?  The Hell did that have to do with anything?  Remember that part in the novel The Lord of the Rings where Frodo tries to hand the One Ring over to a Nazgul?  No?  That’s because doing so would undermine not only his entire character, but the whole point of Middle-Earth.  But it’s for damned sure in the movies.

And oh, God, the Hobbit movies…

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