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Film Franchises: Closing Time, Please!

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Film franchises have got to go – here are two ready for the scrapheap.

As Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “A character who rules over a multi-billion-dollar global movie franchise always deserves a grand entrance. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Alien: Covenant raise the question: How grand can your entrance really be when you’ve never gone away? In Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jack Sparrow, the sloshed freebooter [. . .] shows up as a dissipated mess, rousing himself to consciousness as he lies inside a great big metal bank overflowing with gold coins [ . . . ] But even as the series winks at the idea that Jack has seen better days, it leaves us with a non-winking reality: He sure has.

In Alien: Covenant, the Alien’s first appearance gives you a similar what’s-old-is-new-but-not-really feeling. We’re on a leafy planet, in rugged terrain that looks perfect for a camping trip; the novelty is that the Alien is going to explode into view not on a sterile spaceship, or inside a slimy obsidian cave with walls like a T. rex’s rib cage, but in the great outdoors. We’ve already seen microbes float into a crew member’s ear like pollen, which leaves you wondering what happened to the facehugger (as it happens, the facehugger is still around, which makes the film seem like it’s playing by two sets of rules, which it is, but never mind). Then the moment of truth arrives. There is much coughing and writhing, there is blood-vomiting, there’s a mood that strains to come off like shock and awe. But when the alien fetus bursts out, the audience feels a bit like an obstetrician presiding over his 10,000th birth. Yep, that’s what it looks like. Next!

It’s worth noting that in the original franchise era, the 1980s, when the word ‘franchise’ was an inside-baseball syllogism that was only just starting to be used by people like Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg, almost all Hollywood sequels were bad — Halloween II, Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Amityville II: The Possession, Grease 2, The Sting II, Conan the Destroyer, Staying Alive, The Jewel of the Nile, Meatballs Part II, The Karate Kid Part II, Revenge of the Nerds II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Ghostbusters II, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, Fletch Lives, Big Top Pee-wee, Caddyshack II, The Gods Must be Crazy II, The Fly II, Back to the Future Part II, and on and on.

There was a cynicism, not just among film critics but among the audiences who went to see these movies, that a sequel might turn out to be cheesy fun, but that it was almost always going to be an inherently second-rate bill of goods, because it was based, transparently, on commerce: taking the original movie and squeezing its appeal dry. The very word “sequel” had a déclassé aura.

That era, of course, is long gone. Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism. Besides, in our era, there have been enough artful and transporting sequels, from The Dark Knight to the Bourne films to the Before Sunrise films to Toy Story 3 to Mad Max: Fury Road, that one’s hope can always burn bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean that the old rules don’t apply. One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. But it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise [emphasis added].”

This raises a number of very interesting points. In the 80s, as Gleiberman usefully points out, we were assailed with a veritable tidal wave of terrible sequels, prequels, and knock-offs from original and interesting films, and they were, indeed, all absolutely terrible. There was something a bit more than “déclassé” about these films – they were strictly down-market affairs, made on the cheap, designed to wring a few more dollars out of an existing hit. Today, studios routinely through hundreds of millions of dollars at the same thing – remakes, sequels – and try to convince us that we’re getting something new and worthwhile.

But are the “franchise” films today really any different? They trod the same well-worn path as their predecessors, where nothing is at risk, and no original ideas are countenanced – answering the unspoken audience request “give us something like what we just saw, only slightly different.” And so the wave of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man films continues on unabated, along with another in the endless series of Bond films, and the moment that something truly new and original arrives on the scene, and is a hit, it too becomes fodder for the remake mill. When Get Out came out earlier this summer, it was something sharp, different, and original – but will there be a Get Out II? I hope not.

It’s said that all genres go through four distinct phases – origin, classical, baroque and finally parody – and then they have to be scraped up off the floor, injected with some new blood – so to speak – and brought back to life, just like the Frankenstein monster, to give some artificial existence to a concept that should have expired long ago. The first Alien came out in the summer of 1979, and was at once original, surprising, and innovative – introducing not only the famous “chest burster” scene and the “face hugger” creatures, but also the concept that the future would be rundown and falling apart, as the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is.

Then, too, the company that all of the crew members of the Nostromo work for thinks nothing of sacrificing their lives to obtain a specimen of a structurally perfect, indestructible killing machine, by misdirecting them to a Hellish planet, knowing that it means certain death, and even secreting a humanoid robot on board to make sure everything goes according to plan. And it has – again, and again, and again, and again. Enough! It’s time to put the plug in all these franchises, and – just a suggestion – go back to making films that are based on books, rather than comic books; on ideas, rather than leftovers; made with passion, rather than in pursuit of a buck.

Of course, I’m dreaming – but what the heck – I can dream, can’t I?

A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

Behind The Scenes

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Director Ishiro Honda and friend on the set of Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).

Here’s a great collection of behind the scenes stills from such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Alien and numerous others. This is a really stunning set of stills, kicking off with some extremely rare stills from the set of Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic, Metropolis.

Click here, or on the link above, to take the tour, and enjoy!

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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