It is what it is – Intro
What makes a film cool? And what does “cool” mean, anyway? It feels like a word that means a million things and nothing at the same time, but it’s a concept that’s constantly used to promote, review and defend a huge amount of Hollywood mainstream cinema. If you ever watch a Michael Bay interview, you’ll probably notice he doesn’t really talk about the basics that much—he’ll mention the script a bit, say the actors have done a good job, but you know he’ll tell you Optimus Prime doing The Ram Jam on Megatron will be the most awesome thing anyone will ever see. So why does “awesome” become so important? What does it even really mean? Is it just a more fan accessible and media appropriate way of describing spectacle? In a sense, it probably is, but how many big budget action/adventure films have you seen that supersede this type of spectacle over every other part of the production—the films that think looking and being “cool” is a perfectly suitable substitute for any attempts at characterization, narrative coherency or originality? And the worst thing is, they get away with it.
This isn’t a particularly new thing. Exploitation cinema and B-movies of the 1930s and beyond relied on spectacle in lieu of financial capital. The filmmakers couldn’t afford a decent marketing budget, so the films were sold on their shocking and extreme premises. In recent years, it seems like Hollywood has sold films on the abstract notion of them being cool, or, after the financial and critical success of Jaws in 1975, an Event. So, for the rest of this article, I’m going to try and discuss the two key themes that I think are quickly becoming absent in Hollywood cinema: characterisation and narrative structure. Then, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll attempt to apply them to two films that use “cool” as a crutch. These films weren’t the biggest productions, but were still hugely costly, massively hyped, and somehow escaped real scrutiny, even with mediocre reviews. Next week I’m going to look at Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil and attempt to understand why huge changes were made from the characterisation in the source material and why. I’ll then attempt to analyse Nimrod Antal’s Predators and examine its place as a sequel, its narrative structure and how it functions to promote and advance the Predator franchise. I’ve chosen these two films because I think they wasted a huge amount of potential, with both relying on spectacle over any attempts to tell a well-told and structured story, and I hope to attempt to find out why. Spoiler: I suspect it will have something to do with money. But first, here’s a quick question: who is the coolest fictional person you can think of?
If you’ve thought of anyone other than Arthur Fonzarelli, then we’re all in for a long day. So who is The Fonz? Well, he was the leader of two biker gangs but also has a strong moral code; he has the Midas touch—when he hits the jukebox his favourite song will magically come on; he’s a ladies man and rebel but also really respectful to Mrs. C., and he doesn’t give Tom Bosley too much shit. So, to examine why the Fonz is cool and where his longevity comes from, for what is first seen as a two-dimensional sitcom character, there’s quite a lot of contrasting facets to take into account. Unless you work in Hollywood, that is—you probably think it mostly comes down to the jacket.
It’s unfair to call Mutt Williams a cheap version of the Fonz; with that hat he’s obviously a cheap Marlon Brando in The Wild One, but it all comes from the same place. Who is Mutt Williams? He’s a greaser, a rebel, essentially a James Dean clone, but what do we learn about him? Well, he says he’s handy with a blade, which sets up his later sword fight; he’s really good at fixing engines, which plays no part in the narrative at all; and to further establish his counterculture persona he tells Indy that he’s quit a ton of schools—pretty cool, eh? Really though, he’s probably just made his widowed single mother’s life a complete nightmare and cost her a small fortune. Mutt Williams is about as two-dimensional a character as you can get, with all the cracks papered over with hair gel and leather. His costume and demeanour invoke a personality that has no substance, but when you attempt to delve deeper into the character, you find there’s nothing there. Everybody involved in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull thinks the jacket will do the hard work for him; it’s like dressing up like a chicken and being upset when you don’t lay an egg. But it’s unfair to compare Mutt and the Fonz, really. The Fonz had ten years to establish himself (and we all know he jumped the shark first), but in film you don’t have that long to establish the character. It has to be direct and in shorthand. So, since we’re already on the subject, let’s look at Indiana Jones.
George Lucas created Indiana Jones to be an American equivalent to James Bond. The opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most memorable beginnings to any film I can think of: the golden idol, the boulder, Alfred Molina with a spike through the face, and all the while Indy appearing as the unflappable, flawless hero. We then meet the villain and rival treasure hunter Belloq, who has exploited the local tribe for his own nefarious gain, and then Indy is chased to the awaiting plane. The character’s instantly humanised by showing his fear of snakes when he sees the pilot’s pet boa constrictor. Immediately our opinion of the character is shifted again, when the scene cuts to Jones in a suit and glasses as we learn that he’s also a professor of archaeology. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, the audience is shown all of the main conflicting characteristics and qualities of the lead character. The everyman and the academic, the uncompromising hero with a completely relatable phobia, and the treasure hunter who chooses to preserve instead of exploit. Unlike Mutt Williams, Indiana Jones has depth and conflicting personality traits that create a rounded and relatable character. But how does he progress? A character arc should really show the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey; the main character will start with one agenda and eventually reach a climatic point nearing the end of the film, when they will have to make a choice. This can be sometimes be handled extremely well and can become a memorable and poignant scene, like Wikus making the decision to return and save Christopher in District 9.
Or it can be like this.