Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen with a movie you've heard so much about is to not love it or hate it but find it essentially competent and banal.  You want to be  passionate, to love it and tell the naysayers to go to hell or walk out in disgust and tell its supporters they're all a bunch of morons.   The worst thing is, "Yeah, I can see how people would like that, I guess.  On the other hand, I can also see how people wouldn't like it."  What good is that?

Cabin in the Woods met with such a reception from yours truly and I was desperately hoping for an "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" reaction because movies and me go back a ways and I love being passionate about them but Cabin in the Woods didn't inspire that passion in me. It's one of those "clever" ideas and competent enough that it at once works within its own premise but also asks the audience to ponder the purpose of genre conventions while not merely mentioning them.  

But this isn't about Cabin in the Woods really.  It's about how movies take on certain ideas and get praised for merely taking on the idea, whether they did it well or not.  For instance, Network is praised as a great satire on television, mass media, corporate culture and the utter subservience of the American television viewer (the genius of the "mad as hell" scene isn't the rebellion Beal inspires, it's that he's telling them to rebel against being told what to do by television by shouting "I'm mad as hell" out their windows and like the good sheep they are they open their windows and shout "I'm mad as hell.").  And it is a great satire but it's also on a very short list of media satires so while it may compare favorably to Wrong is Right or A Face in the Crowd, it also only has to compare favorably to those two and a handful of others.

So when a movie like Scream comes out and gets meta about how much it knows that the conventions it's following are conventions in horror movies, it's praised (at least it was when it came out) as the cleverest and goddamnedest thing you ever did see when all it was really doing was saying, "Horror movies do this and we will do it too but we're also going to take a second to tell you we know we're doing it," and, somehow, that exceeded everyone's wildest dreams of cleverness.  Advance to the present day and Cabin in the Woods most clearly outdoes Scream in just about every meta way possible but it's still only taking the idea a single step further:  Horror movies do this and we will do it too but we're also going to take a second to tell you we're going to do it and we're going to have characters who literally control the conventions for a specific reason!   And that reason is utterly beyond ridiculous because if it were banal who would get the joke?

In other words, pleasing the gods of old is brought in as the final statement about the unforgiving horror audience that must have their expectations of horror satisfied or else.  But what if the big reveal was that they were doing all of this simply because they were told to?   What if they're doing it because it's in their job description. What if five young people suffer brutally and horribly for something that became unnecessary fifty years ago but by then the bureaucracy was so embedded they just kept doing it because no one told them to stop?  Isn't that more in tune with genre movies?  We keep getting the same thing because no one comes up with anything new because they're told  the old stuff still works and that we're happy to stomach it because we've never seen anything different because no one told them to make anything different because the old stuff makes us happy.  And on and on and on.  Is the audience really as demanding, or demanding at all, as Cabin in the Woods perceives them to be, or are they more in line with Howard Beal's sheep, happy to go where they're led?  My vote's with the sheep.

The problem is that I fear when something becomes meta, it's essentially dead.  When self-awareness gets adopted as the go-to attitude and smug cleverness substitutes for dialogue, where else can the genre go?  Then I start thinking, "Is this it for horror?  Is it over now?  Will I never again see a movie about a monster or a vampire or a vengeful spirit that isn't overly excited to tell me it knows it's about a monster or a vampire or a vengeful spirit?"  I wonder if there can ever be another movie about the supernatural or paranormal that plays it straight that isn't a found footage film? We still get them but they seem to be fading when thrown up against the meta-movie storm.

Comedies, science fictions, westerns and musicals all have conventions and it's the knowledge and acceptance of those conventions that often makes me want to watch them.  And when I watch a musical, I want to know it's a musical, but I don't want the characters to know. I don't want Gene Kelly telling me, "Yeah, I know it's a musical, too.  Look, now I'm going to dance to music that comes out of nowhere. Crazy, right?"  Maybe if we say that Cabin in the Woods is the best meta-horror movie ever, that it's so good that no one can top it, no one will make any more like it.  And then we can get back to making straight up horror films in which vampires are scary, monsters are real and zombies aren't a complete fucking joke.  There's still time to raise horror from the dead.