I spent much of my late teens and early twenties playing in rock bands around the Great Lakes area. Besides getting paid in beer and playing more often than not solely for the other bands on the bill, there was one other grand tradition of DIY music-making: the show flier.
It usually went a little like this: you open up Photoshop and take a few moments to put together an advertisement for your gig. $5 cover. Doors at 730, show at 8. If you happen to have a home printer (and happen to have ink in said printer), you print off the original and head down to Kinkos to make copies. But your flier is an 8x10 and the venue wants an 11x17 for the front window, and don’t forget you need handouts, so you better shrink it down and put four on a page. When that’s done, you take your poster to the venue and then head out to staple your awesome show info to idle telephone poles and unreceptive humans (metaphorically, of course, with the latter.)
A couple days later, you’ve run out of fliers, but you’ve lost the original and that printer’s now out of ink. So you make a copy of a copy, it’s quality degraded. Now it looks like an $8 cover and no one can even make out when the doors are. But at least the name of your band is still clear, so that’s something. You hit the pavement with your copies.
You show up at the venue a couple weeks later, ready for the gig, and you find the club-owners have made some fliers of their own. They’ve taken that halfway-decent 11x17 you gave them, shrunk it down to handout size, and plastered this copy of a copy on to highlighter-hued paper — baby blue and magenta, blinding yellows and greens and oranges. It looks like shit, but you know 95% of the people who’ve have it handed to them threw it away 2.5 seconds later; the other 5% forgot it in their pocket and will find that it’s confettied their washing machine days later.
This is the life of a show flier. Copies of copies of copies, resized and repurposed and disposal as hell, given new color palettes for attention’s sake and meant to reach as many people as possible without being TOO intrusive.
This is also the life of the Hollywood Blockbuster. It began with Jaws, Star Wars; a few great originals. But it has since gone through the studio system Xeroxing and has come out the other side muddled, brightly-colored, and ultimately completely forgettable.
J.J.’s SCHOOL FOR GIFTED YOUNGSTERS
J.J. Abrams is the new King of Genre. This isn’t an official title, nor has anyone said it explicitly, but given that Abrams has been put in charge of both the Star Trek and the Star Wars universes, it’s a logical assertion. Lost, Fringe, Person of Interest, Super 8. The man has delivered some of the strongest pop genre fiction of the last decade.
He’s also shepherded into Hollywood a whole load of copies.
Abrams, of course, is a copy himself. He’s a self-admitted Son of Spielberg. He doesn’t do everything as well as Steven — there is noise around the edges and the ink has blurred a little—but he manages more often than not to bring entertaining and fresh fair to the screen. And the spirit is there, the passion. I like Abrams, particularly his most Spielbergian effort, Super 8. He genuinely seems to care about what he’s making; he’s a “big idea” guy, which I tend to gravitate towards, and he can write an emotional story (see: Regarding Henry)
But what happens when Hollywood starts to make copies of the copy? Enter Abrams’ X-Men: Damon Lindelof, and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (who often team up with the Captain of The Hollywood Xerox himself, Michael Bay.) Lindelof found his tutelage on Lost; Kurtzman & Orci on Alias. Lindelof is the ambassador, the True Believer to Abrams’ Mystery Box. He wrote the pretty but lifeless Cowboys and Aliens and was called in to “script save” big-budget franchisers Prometheus and World War Z, both of which were highly anticipated films that landed with a bit a dull thump; they didn’t flop, but they didn’t have people raving either. Kurtzman & Orci, for their part, have made a career of the reboot, the reimagining, the sequel. Transformers, Star Trek, Zorro, Mission: Impossible, Spider-man, Sleepy Hollow, Van Helsing.
Admittedly, some of these properties have worked for me. But here’s where that passion, that soul of the original, begins to deteriorate. Transformers is a rough watch, through and through, and the new Spider-man films have been severely lacking. Part of this is these properties’ conceptions: their sole purpose is to make money, and Hollywood feels more comfortable dealing with the familiar. Risk, after all, is adverse to profits. So they look to The Sons of Abrams because they’re proven. They’ve been indoctrinated. And the Sons of Abrams seem happy to oblige.
Now understand for a moment that I am not hating on these guys as people. I’m sure they’re fine gentlemen, and I tend to scoff at calling for filmmakers’ heads. They’re just doing their jobs. But they’re copies nevertheless. And the problem is that, unlike Abrams, they seem insecure about it. One thing that marks their writing, even when it works, is convolution and a slavishness to tropes. They over-plot their films, complicating them needlessly with poorly executed mysteries and twists. They try to come off as clever or smart when being clever or smart should take a backseat to being coherent and satisfying. Look no further than the Transformers franchise if you don’t understand what I’m talking about. Those films — along with a lot of their work — are bloated with pointless plot, numerous set pieces, and one-note characters; like Game of Thrones written in Crayon by a seven year old, everything is meaninglessly dense.
COPIES IN A HALF-SHELL
To say that Hollywood has lost originality is like saying the sky is blue; this is the Internet echo-chamber, after all, and I’m hardly the first person to call out the repetitive practices of the Blockbuster machine. But we’ve been making copies for a long while, and because of this, we’re becoming dangerously removed from the originals. What I mean is guys like Lindelhof and Kurtzman & Orci are graduating, and they’re now making copies of their own.
Case in point: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There are plenty of complaints to lob at this film (and certainly RottenTomatoes has already done that), but my biggest complaint with it was how painfully rehashed it was. The predictable jokes, the ticking off of the plot points and set pieces, the tired tropes (super blood, nefarious corporations, Megan Fox’s ass), the clunky chunks of exposition, the terrible dialogue, the headache-inducing editing. What I was witnessing, I realized, was a copy of a copy of a copy.
TMNT 2014 was directed by Jonathan Liebesman, himself a student at the Bay Academy (having directed the Bay-produced sequel to the Bay-produced reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). And in all honesty, it totally shows. This is a Michael Bay film. Liebesman tries to channel all the things that make Bay a legitimate (if polarizing) filmmaker—the brisk action, the mad cutting style, the sweeping camera movement, the shitty orange & teal color palette—but failed. In my opinion, the film is a mess visually, both in composition and in editing. It’s strange to think that we probably would’ve gotten a BETTER film had Bay directed it rather than just produced it. Because, instead, we get a copy.
The script is a copy as well, penned by “lesser” Bad Robots Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (both Alias and Mission Impossible 4 alums.) Their script plods along, checking off all the Kurtzman & Orci bullet points, third-generation Speilbergians going through the motions. Their story contains nothing fresh, whatsoever.
So are we to expect more of such summer mimicry to come? It could be. The second-tier talent is, after all, stepping into leadership roles: Lindelof is creator and head of HBO’s new series, The Leftovers; Kurtzman will direct the upcoming Vemon film and helm the reboot of The Mummy; Orci takes the directing reigns from Abrams on Star Trek 3.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD
Or at least it doesn’t have to be. Look at Drew Goddard. A student of both Abrams as well as Joss Whedon (another mentor to the would-be genrenists of the world), Goddard wrote the excellent Cloverfield under Abrams and directed with a skilled eye and confident visions Whedon’s genre-bending thrill-fest, The Cabin In The Woods. He’s going to be writing and directing the upcoming Sinister Six movie, and he’s teaming up with Marvel to produce the Netflix original series Daredevil. He seems to be making the right moves.
And that move to Marvel may be the best move yet. Marvel Studios seems to be the one real game in town not content to copy. Yes, the MCU films have a general formula and 4-quadrant appeal, but if you look at the styles and time periods their films span, plus the array of fresh writers and directors they’ve brought in over the years—tapping solid television talent like Alan Taylor (Games of Thrones, Mad Men, The Sopranos) and The Russo Brothers (Community, Arrested Development) and taking chances on small-budget maestros like Frank Black and James Gunn— it’s easy to see that Marvel (at least for the time being) is doing it’s best to keep things fresh.
Will Lindelof & Co. do the same? Can these boys take their pedigreed pasts and their newfound authority and help usher in protégés, apprentices, fresh filmmakers with new ideas? Or will they be content to keep cranking out the copies? I suppose only time will tell.