It’s not easy being as smart as I am. Believe it or not, it’s a goddamn hassle. My accomplishments are far too numerous to mention, so I just won't. Just take my word for it, and leave it alone. Seriously. Back off. When you’re smart(not ‘smart’ the way you are, actually smart)every marvel and mystery of the universe, no matter how notorious or confounding, is deconstructed by this prodigious talent; exposed, dismissed, then flung down and mocked for its bad skin(when applicable). It’s no picnic to know everything, because you know everything. And nowhere is this more apparent than when I enjoy modern entertainment, when I do this world the honor of condescending to, temporarily, experience the mute offerings of these corporeal boundaries and partake of contemporary culture. In fact, it’s way, way more apparent than most of the time. Don’t know why that is. Wish I did. I’ll ponder that issue later.
Where to begin? Where and when do movie lumps come from? The start of this journey, that is, the first step of a thousand miles(the fifth step being into the passenger side of Honda)was back in the year of our lord, 2009 A.D. An interesting year. Not as interesting as, say, 1348, the year the Black Death went on its European tour; nor 1984, pretty much the best movie year ever(Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Amadeus, Bachelor Party, The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds, The Killing Fields, The Last Starfighter, The Natural, Red Dawn, the second worst Indiana Jones movie, and many others very nearly worth mentioning here). Granted, I was a little boy, but, looking back on it, it was pretty damn good. However, most of the interesting things that went on, went on outside of the cineplexes. Within those, once, hallowed halls, before the sequels, remakes, and sequels of remakes contributed to the psychosphere as positively, and constructively, as the Mongols contributed to the quality of life to the good people of China(whom they raped and murdered into near extinction, just to be clear), now resided the pallbearers and non-spiritual descendants of the once profound notion that was drama.
In the 5th century B.C., the playwright Aeschylus contrived the idea of having plays with more than one character on stage, thus, dialogue was born. No big deal. I had an idea, once, for an undercover agent who was undercover as someone pretending to be undercover as him, that would mean he was pretending to be himself. Hence, Triple Cover was born. Never heard of it? Of course, you haven’t. Who the hell are you? People don’t tell you shit. Anyway, I’m not saying that my idea is as good as Aeschylus’, only that I’m as good as he is. The point, actually, is that drama has been around for well over a hundred years, but we forget how to use it, periodically. Heard of the 90s? And we tend to forget, not because Hollywood is dying, but because Hollywood is thriving. It’s only during the times when Hollywood producers are lost and looking to the creative types for guidance and ideas(not that they weren’t stingy as shit), that good things ever get through. Not too long after men like Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola got Hollywood back on track, financially, anyway, the assholes were in charge, again.
Now, my first encounter with lumps wasn’t, exactly, my first encounter with lumps. I had been witness to them, but I had, simply, been as blind as everyone else. So, on the day I came to notice lumps, or, more accurately, I came to put a name to that which I already, subconsciously, knew of(and many other savvy people), it was fitting that I donned a pair of 3D eyewear to augment the limited visible spectrum by which I, being merely human, must navigate the world with. My 3D glasses made me, without exaggeration, superhuman, and my new powers would come to change my life forever. Which is an exaggeration.
On the day in question, I waited in line with my nephew Mowgli. Mowgli was on the cusp of teenhood, which is the last phase of life in which one spends time with their uncle. After that, you’re restricted to holidays and family reunions, and only after an arm twisting and a hefty dose of guilt, so I was enjoying it while I could. People are only aware of how incomparable their uncles are while they are kids. Let’s not get into why that is. I’ll just say that my motto is ‘growing up, is giving up’. Giving up your family is part of growing up. Anyway, as we stood in line with our popcorn, candy and soda, I got to wondering how comfy those 3D shades were and I decided to try them on. I took off my mirrored sunglasses, which serve no purpose but to hide from others where my eyes are looking, and I slipped on the Polarized plastic spectacles that came with the bloated ticket price of a 3D matinee.
Wow. I didn’t learn much. The world is in three dimensions, but it’s not in 3D. The last time I had worn a pair of 3D glasses was when I was a kid and they had come with a mailer from a local network affiliate accompanied by instructions to watch an airing of the 1961 horror film The Mask, one upcoming Sunday afternoon. They were the classic red-cyan type made of cardboard and they are as close to the famous ‘shit-colored glasses’ as we ever encounter outside of metaphor. Loosely band-aiding a swatch of bi-colored cellophane onto your face is not going to change your life much, but it is going to be a disappointment you’ll never forget. I didn’t.
My anticipation of this new 3D film was not exactly fervent. In fact, I was bordering lackadaisical. James Cameron is very hit or miss. He hadn’t been very good to his true fans for a long time. Titanic was not, exactly, a great movie, but it was a great idea, and it had a great pair of tits in it. However, if you were a fan of Aliens or the Terminator films, you were left wondering when his movies would get their dick back. He’d upgraded from making films that made millions, to films that made billions. These are two very different beasts. With millions-makers, you can stride like Tarantino, just worry about your fans, but if you want to make billions, you’ve got to toss out a much wider net. When you do that, you collect a lot more junk. The whole concept of Avatar kind of sounded flakey, to me: A paralyzed guy gets to walk again on a planet full of blue monsters. The planet was called Pandora. I cannot think of a more predictable name for a dangerous planet in a sci-fi flick than Pandora. I, literally, can’t. Can you? This was originality on par with the latest Tomb Raider film.
Anyway, I was coming out for the spectacle. Cameron, as a filmmaker, has always had noticeable limitations. Dialogue, for one. I wouldn’t call him a bad dialogue writer, just not a terribly inspiring one. His movies, however, always had a ballsy momentum that made up for that. And the plot was always compelling enough that it made you forget, amidst the exploding trucks and collapsing highway overpasses, that people even needed to use their voices(outside of yelling LOOK OUT!). He just had a way of making action seem purposeful, that it wasn’t just happening so that something should be happening. Characters were another limitation. His characters never really had much depth, but that was okay, because they had their individual emotional moments, now and then, and a well-defined reason for being there. Even if you didn’t know them very well, you knew their motivations, and you knew their story, and that always seemed to be enough.
The 3D experience is a frontloaded one, so you must have your delights ready for when the initial shock of augmented dimensionality wears off, because, after that, you are stuck just watching a movie. If that sounds pessimistic, well, I’m a pessimist, and cynic, and my pessimisticynicism has rubbed off. Mowgli cracked open his package of sugar wafers he'd sneaked in(a candy far too subtle of palette to be sold in the lobby), but did not partake, waiting for the inevitable downregulation of his adrenergic receptors to initiate, necessitating the sugary goodness of the wafers to fill in the new void. Let’s skip ahead to after he’d already started in on the wafers. We’re now well into the film and Mowgli made a remark about the infamous organic coupling of the lead female blue demon with her flying thingy. They locked tails(or something, I kind of forget), and the two beings became intimately bonded, instantly creating an insoluble emotional partnership that transcended the boundaries of what we, as just mundane human beings, could never even imagine. It was about the most hippy-dippy shinola I’d ever witnessed in science fiction. It harkened back to the dreary 1970s film Silent Running and Bruce Dern’s murderous crusade to save the world’s last trees. Or some such shit. I just wanted you to know I watched Silent Runnin
“Ewww,” Mowgli said, making a face. He was a kid.
“What? Oh, I know. It’s kind of uncomfortable.” And it was. I got the feeling this coupling was bedroom stuff, and not the kind you admitted to doing. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “That bird thing is going to die.”
“It’s gonna bite it. Just watch.”
Later on, after the sappy scene where the blue monster says goodbye to her dying bat, Mowgli looked at me as if I had just proven cold fusion. After the film, when we were walking around the outdoor mall, I explained it all to him. Nothing happens in a James Cameron movie that doesn’t move the plot along. Almost every little incident has a prescribed purpose, and that purpose is getting to the guns and the spewing fire hydrants. There will be some narrative breaks for jokes, like the knife game in Aliens, and such as that, but for the most part, every little crumb on the plate gets eaten. Cameron is not trying to present real life, real life is boring. Just look at your life. It sucks. He’s just getting your blood pumping so that you forget that most of what you are seeing is impossible and makes little sense to begin with. Using your adrenaline to elevate you, like a shot of epinephrine, out of the world you know and into a dream-like state in which nothing strains credulity. What makes his movies work better than most is that he doesn’t forget that you need a rest, now and then, to get your bearings.
Mowgli asked me how I knew the lizard thingy was gonna get put down like a crotchety old house cat. I knew, because it was a lump, I told him. Cameron’s movies are lumpy. A lump is a predictor of what’s to come. If he’s bothering to establish the monster’s creepy love for the ugly thing it rides around on, then it’s gonna come back. Count on it. That’s just economical. If the bad guy is really greedy, it’s going to be his downfall. If a character is really intolerant towards some kind of group or type of person, then his comeuppance is going to come either at the hands of one of those people, or as a result of his hatred for them. As I stated, almost everything has a purpose, usually multiple ones. Since you can only fit so many characters into a story without making it a complete mess, you’ve got to exploit every one of them for all their worth. Since the blue monster had this emotional bond with her croaking vermin, Cameron decided to kill it off and make you, the general viewer, weep like the little girl that I am. That you are. I knew he would do that because most secondary characters have more than one purpose. It’s kind of like when terrorists put bombs on kids’ backs. Those kids don’t just give up their lives to blow the shit out of people they don’t know, they’re also, usually, the children of local shop owners. So, even if that kid never comes home from school, again(because he blew it up and turned his friends into potato chips), that 15% discount he got you at his dad’s store is still good. Two birds, one stone.
The main purpose is to help advance the plot. That’s obvious. The protagonist can’t do everything himself. Another purpose is to help you better understand the motivations of the main characters through their interactions with them. Having some asshole say ‘What’s wrong?’ when the protagonist gets a dire look on his face, prompting him to spill his backstory, is an uncomplicated way to provide exposition. Thirdly, you need people to die. People enjoy a cry, but you can’t kill off the wheelchair guy or his huge girlfriend, that would ruin the Hollywood happy ending that engenders the word-of-mouth that’s so crucial to selling tickets and making Cameron even more rich than you are. So, you kill off their friends and family, and whenever possible, their pets and mounted conveyances.
Truth is, I knew everything that was going to happen in the movie by the end of the first act. I knew the blue ogres were going to find a way to make the gimped soldier one of them permanently. That had to happen, because it was obvious they were going to defeat the nefarious human beings, one way or another, and he would no longer be welcome back into their fold. Nor would he even want to return, of course, having been entirely indoctrinated into the Na’vi’s decent, simple ways and nauseating, primary-hued righteousness. When I learned that planet was some kind of biological internet, I assumed that was going to have something to do with his transformation. Was a secondary character going to die in the first attempt to transfer their consciousness out of the human body? Wouldn’t that be something! I hope that happens, and I hope it’s the old lady and not Michelle Rodriguez(I really like looking at her). And because nature ALWAYS trumps technology, just like organic ALWAYS trumps artificial(just ask the late Steve Jobs), the gigantic, blue demons would be able to do it better than the humans, with all their soulless computers, long-haired books, and hamburger sandwiches. Also, it’s barely worth even mentioning that horseshit ancient tradition that any man who tames some giant flying dragon called the Toruk(roughly translates as ‘really convenient bird-thingy’)shall unite all the tribes just in time for the third act. Let’s not even climb that diarrhea tree.
I know that my guess that the soldier would permanently inhabit his new body, and become one of the Na’vi, sounds more like inductive reasoning than a lump. I threw that in just to demonstrate how Hollywood works. It’s not about challenging the way you think. It’s not about surprising or inspiring you. That’s what films are for. That’s art. Cameron makes movies. Movies are moneymaking ventures, period. If something’s a piece of shit, but makes money, expect another nutty dog turd, just like it, to be announced a week later. It’s meant to give you a hard-on and take your money, not a new take on life. Not that Cameron hasn’t had some good ideas in his time. The Terminator was an excellent idea. Just a very original, fantastic story(even if Harlan Ellison’s claims against him for plagiarism are slightly compelling). It combined sci-fi and action in a way that hadn’t quite been done. Until guys like Lucas and Cameron came along, sci-fi had been more about positing questions about the human condition by putting people in situations and confronting them with decisions that call into question the very things that make them human. After making a gloomy sci-fi bomb that was just like that, called THX-1138, George Lucas switched over to wookiees real quick.
Now, let’s step out of Lord Cameron’s realm, just for a second, and look at lumps in other movies. One of my favorite examples is in the sci-fi/action extravaganza Repo Men. I was able to sit through this movie only one time. I had to return to the site of the crime, once again, to gather information for this article. Fortunately, I got lucky finding the scene I needed, so I ended up only having to relive about 20 seconds of the movie. Repo Men is about two fairly normal guys IN THE FUTUUUUUUUURE who repossess artificial organs from deadbeats who can’t meet payments. Sound like fun? Sound like two likable guys that you want to spend two hours with? Guys you want to care about and root for? No? Well, you and most other high functioning hominids able to amble into movie theaters that year. About 21 minutes into the film, Forrest Whitaker and Jude Law, life partners in repossession(named Jake and Remy, respectively), are idling in their car on one of their stakeouts, when Whitaker says:
JAKE - Did you hear about that new M5 Neural Net?
REMY - Have you been reading those fucking pamphlets, again?
JAKE - I saw it at a trade show. Damn thing takes over your whole Limbic System. Brain damage, stroke, you name it, doesn’t matter. They hook you up to it and it’s like you live the rest of your life in a dream.
The fuck is this asshole talking about? This comes out of nowhere. This isn’t the kind of movie where characters sit around, for a whole scene, bullshitting for several minutes, discussing things apropos of nothing, just to create atmosphere. This isn’t TAXI DRIVER. Jake brings up the M5 Neural Net because it’s going to come into play. This is brought up now so that when it does appear, later on, they don’t have to explain it, right then. SPOILER: I didn’t rewatch REPO MEN in its entirety, so I don’t remember the details, precisely, but the movie ends with Remy post op, hooked up to one of these things, living in a limbic fantasy world in his mind where he’s lounging on a beach next to his girlfriend, whom, in real life, Jake probably repoed and tossed into a mass grave. This was, exactly, what I thought was going to happen, I just didn't know which imbecile it would happen to. It’s a bummer, too. Not that a happy ending would have left you any more fulfilled. The movie’s just werewolf shit.
This a perfect example of a lump. It’s graceless. It’s lazy. It’s predictable. You get moments like this in movies when you have multiple rewrites. The heart of the story gets phased out and replaced with a structure that emphasizes momentum and unambiguous motivations. Plot, plot, plot. Get to the next thing. Cameron’s success has a lot to do with prevalence of this ethic in sci-fi. He, however, is good at it. He mitigates the inertia with intermittent human moments. Not a lot, of course, but just enough. Now, though lots of those ‘human’ moments are rather obtuse, and involve robots, they work. You get a short respite from the confusion of warfare, car chases, and gun bickering, to take a metaphorical smoke break. Not to imply that you can now smoke anywhere in the continental United States. Don’t get excited.
Well, we’re done here for now. This ends part one. I tend to cut myself off well before I hit the 4,000 word mark. This is the era of flash fiction, after all. Until then, remember one very important thing. This a piece of advice you need to pontificate on, so don't just scratch your balls and forget it. I want you to run out into the street and holler it to ever person you meet, grab them by their empty heads, get in their faces, and make them understand that this is a one of the more significant moments of their life. You ready? Here goes:
Ultimate promise leads to ultimate disappointment.