There’s a scene in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis’ time travelling fugitive and Madeline Stowe’s puzzled psychologist hide out in a movie theatre showing Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Willis’ character comments that the film appears different every time, not because Vertigo itself changes, but because you are different every time you see it. Now, at the time, I hadn’t seen Vertigo, but I was immediately fascinated and made it my mission to see Vertigo as soon as I could.
The point isn’t that films concerning the subjective nature of memory are awesome; it’s that Gilliam was relying on, at most, a good knowledge or awareness of another film. I had the latter, and that was enough for the scene to make sense. This was back in 1995; a time when Quentin Tarantino’s cine-literate influence was still finding its pervasive way through the zeitgeist. Skip to just a few years later and being wilfully postmodern was the height of ‘cool’ – the likes of Richard Kelly blurred genre boundaries with aplomb in Donnie Darko. For that film to function, it requires the viewer to have a decent knowledge of high school movies, science fiction, time travel, and certain tropes of horror movies. Likewise Rian Johnson’s Brick, which transplants film noir narrative conventions (and dialogue) into a high school setting. Kathryn Bigelow is often cited as one of the best directors for postmodern cinema: Near Dark (vampire Western) and Strange Days (a sci-fi cover of Peeping Tom, plays games with subjectivity) are two great examples. More recently, Johnson’s own Looper takes the time travel-causality angle, explored in Twelve Monkeys, and turns it into a quasi-Western. For these films to work, it’s helpful for the viewer to be familiar with the genres that have been chopped up and combined. On one level, they are films made for film fans.
Tarantino is certainly the most prominent example of the cine-literate director today. His films are, superficially, genre pieces (more like sub-genre pieces: heist, gangster, Blaxploitation, martial arts, car chase movie, ensemble war movie, western) but littered with so many subtle references to his own favourite films, often very obscure, that they work on their own merits. Is it necessary to have seen a Zatoichi film to appreciate Kill Bill? Certainly not, but it offers another layer of enjoyment. Tarantino’s popularity and influence has awoken studios to the fact that audiences are now more cine-literate than ever, and most of them probably don’t even know it. This has opened up possibilities.
I recently watched Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me, Earl, And The Dying Girl; a film littered with very deliberate and prominent cinematic references, used for comedic purpose. The film ultimately fell into some fairly predictable structural trappings, despite doing its best to transcend them with some postmodern narration and chapter titles – reminding you that you were watching a story (hell, even the title gives the plot away). Even with the odd shot cribbed from such strange places as 2001, the film doesn’t exist without the library of cinematic knowledge contained within.
Studios, so heavily dependant on franchises and ‘sure’ things these days, play on and indeed rely upon the audience’s existing knowledge. Remakes are hardly new news: Hitchcock even tried his hand at it with a 1956 remake of his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. With varying degrees of success, remakes of Robocop, Ghostbusters, The Magnificent Seven (a remake of a remake), Dawn Of The Dead (I could go on) walk a fine line between familiar and new. Often a familiar plot or set up, with new cast and direction and the audience’s knowledge of / affection for the original will bring them back like a zombie horde. These films are often littered with what have become known as ‘callbacks’, and can be seen as either a witty nod to the original, or a sad reminder that originality is currently out to lunch.
The audience’s newfound cinematic literacy has, however, been put to good use. Whatever you may think of them, the scale and ambition of the Marvel cinematic universe is staggering. For a studio to trust their audience to follow plot threads through films and releases spanning over years, requires a huge financial and creative gambit (pun intended, comics fans). Often, these films would not function without the audience’s previous awareness of plots and characters. Colin Trevorrow’s hugely successful Jurassic World worked so well because it was affectionate towards the original, with callbacks and nods throughout, but enough original impetus to carry it as its own beast.
As much as some have criticised it, The Force Awakens was a fine addition to the Star Wars canon. Among the critical voices was South Park, who have dedicated an entire story arc (‘Member Berries’) to poking fun at such nostalgic fluff; the suggestion being that the lack of original ideas and reliance on nostalgia are the film’s main faults. Personally, I thought that The Force Awakens main strengths lay in the references to the previous films. Yes, the plot could be transposed onto that of A New Hope but there was enough new drama, as well as enough nostalgia to keep existing fans happy. The best example being Han Solo explaining “The Force, The Jedi; it’s all true…” to Rey and Finn. This works as a dramatic moment in its own right, but it’s so much better if you know the other films like a true geek!
2016’s Rogue One works well on its own as a sci-fi war movie, but does so much more when you know how it fits in. There are callbacks aplenty, and despite any fan knowing how the film has to pan out, it builds to a tense climax and a punch-the-air Princess Leia cameo. There is so much more to enjoy about it when you know your stuff and can see the whole jigsaw coming together.
Sequels are going nowhere; studios love the sure-thing certainty that comes with returning to a trusted formula, but in the case of Rogue One, a broader knowledge of A Galaxy Far Far Away is needed, if you compare it to the knowledge required for The Phantom Menace. For one to follow Captain America: Civil War, it’s pretty much necessary to have seen at least Age Of Ultron and preferably all of the others… and Jurassic Park wasn’t exactly height of the zeitgeist when Jurassic World came out, but the references to the other film made it all the richer and more fun, from the jokes about merchandise to the T-Rex-baiting flare. Bond films, to use another example, never required prior knowledge of another Bond film until Daniel Craig wore the tuxedo, but Spectre’s plot draws heavily on Craig’s previous efforts, trusting the audience to have followed the breadcrumbs.
It’s not all roses and stolen Death Star plans, though. Knowing that they have a modern cineliterate audience allows studios to get somewhat lazy with the green light or rubber stamp or whatever they have. An ever-increasing depth of knowledge often execs free reign to think it’s ok to just rehash things that were once popular, rather than take chances on new things. For example, recent remakes of Ghostbusters (pretty much terrible), Point Break (what’s the point?) and The Magnificent Seven (a remake of a remake) all attempted to cash in on nostalgia by offering precisely zero new ideas. What would you rather see: a remake of Robocop or something new and deeply unusual from Paul Verhoeven? I know my answer, but for studios, enough not-so-subtle nods to the original (“I’d buy that for a dollar,” primary directives, yawn, yawn…) are apparently enough for the modern cineliterate audience. A fine line between this and The Force Awakens cribbing almost the entire plot of A New Hope? Possibly, but I can tell the difference between affectionate and cynical.
Whether it’s Tarantino’s wholesale movie magpie routine, to Donnie Darko’s subtle genre salad, or grand scale blockbusters placing faith in their audience without a “Previous on Marvel…” intro sequence, we’ve never known so much about the artform. We should be trusted, we know what we’re doing, and we deserve better than Carrie and Clash Of The Titans.
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