Here’s a thing to know about me: I cry easy at movies. Being perfectly frank, I cry easy at many (most) things in life, but there’s something about a perfect moment of cinematic tragedy or catharsis, or just plain beauty, that gets the waterworks flowing like nobody’s business. When all sound, visuals, performance, even the timing of the cuts, are all working in harmony the inherent artifice of cinema fades away and the awesome power of the medium is as immediate as if these were real people experiencing real trauma and triumph right before your eyes.
An example: there’s a cut in Cloud Atlas that makes me bawl every time I see it. It’s the moment when Doona Bae’s Sonmi, awaiting death, explains her idea of the afterlife as a door that she will pass through, discovering her love (Korean Jim Sturgess) waiting for her. And as Bae’s voice recounts this hope, as the Cloud Atlas Sextet swells, the films cuts to another storyline, one set hundreds of years in the past, as a closed door pushes open to reveal Jim Sturgess stepping through to find his wife (Caucasian Doona Bae) rushing into his arms. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer use the most basic of cinematic tools (the cut) to obliterate time and unmake death to give love its ultimate triumph.
(Sidenote: Why are you not out watching Cloud Atlas right now?)
All this to say, my heartstrings are easily tugged.
So it was disconcerting to watch Looper, that movie where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hitman tasked with killing his fugitive future self (Bruce Willis, in what might go down as the last time Bruce Willis gave a shit) for the first time and not feel the punch that writer/director Rian Johnson was putting his weight behind. Johnson had knocked me flat with both Brick and The Brothers Bloom–
(Sidenote: Why are you not out watching Brothers Bloom right now?)
-but the climax of Looper left me cold, primarily because it seemed to me that the film had wantonly abandoned the logic and rules governing time travel for the sake of narrative beats that were surface-clever but that violated the laws Johnson had previously established. As the score rose and Gordon-Levitt made his final choice out in the cane fields and Emily Blunt tended to her wounded son, I kept turning over that time travel logic, kept poking holes in it.
Sometimes I am very dumb.
Because of course time travel logic isn’t what Rian Johnson cares about (this is backed up by the DVD special features in which Johnson admits that he ran the script by Primer-genius Shane Carruth and was told that everything about how he had conceived time travel was illogical and non-functional). Repeated viewings make it clear that what Looper is actually interested in is the idea of trauma being passed from parent to child, generation to generation. It’s a film about people obsessed with a past that functions like a whetstone around the future, with time travel as the mechanism through which Johnson parses these ideas into an exhilarating action/adventure, a device that means Johnson can both deal openly with complex emotional issues AND have a movie where Bruce Willis is caked head to toe in gore while firing machine guns. Best of both worlds situation right there.
You can amass all the CinemaSins or Honest Trailers as you like (just don’t ever EVER link me to that anti-art shit, ever) but what those highly successful twits always miss is that movies work as emotional experiences first. Plot minutiae is irrelevant in the face of earned, honest emotion.
But somehow I missed that with Looper the first time, and for the first couple months after I saw it for the first time, if it ever came up in conversation online or in the wild I would shrug and say that it was a good film, fine, but a mite too messy for its own good. It took that second viewing to realize just how rigidly structured and carefully assembled the film actually was, and every viewing since then has only enriched the experience.
When I first sat down with Looper, I was doing so with a brain laden with time travel stories ranging from Back to the Future to Terminator to all those Doctor Who episodes, and countless others, so I sat down with a mental inventory of how time travel fiction was supposed to function and had a negative reaction when, again, Johnson had no actual interest in playing within those confines.
I still do that, I hate to admit. In a day and age of constant media bombardment, it’s hard to approach a film with something resembling a blank slate. It’s even more pronounced with older films, which often arrive with actual decades of hype accumulated. More often than not, by the time a modern viewer sits down to a repertory classic, they do so with a mental map of what they expect to see and might react with infuriated bafflement should something else present itself.
(Sidenote: this happened with me and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it when I was 15 or 16 and got all pissy because it didn’t at all resemble the 2001 that I had been picturing from all the years of glowing retrospectives and exalting articles about its place in cinema history. My dumbass teen-self thought it was a just a boring movie with dumb monkeys and endless shots of that glowing red eye and an ending that made no sense.)
We see this kind of “How dare you give me something different than what I wanted!” vitriol spew up at least once a year. There was that one lady that tried to sue Drive because she thought it was going to be like a Fast and the Furious movie (my question has always been how long did she make it into the movie before it began to dawn on her that perhaps her money was ill-spent. Did she make it the head-stomp scene?) or that Spring Breakers hullaballoo, to just a couple months ago when audiences apparently stormed out of The Witch ranting and raving with hatred. I saw The Witch (or VVitch, if you wish) with my younger brother, the two of us surrounded by couples and younger children, all clearly primed for a rollicking spookablast flick in the vein of Paranormal Activity or something along those populist lines. They got… not that.
And this is only going to increase as fewer and fewer mid-range films are made, replaced instead by tentpoles with ad campaigns that run year-round and indie films which will spend almost the full calendar year doing the festival circuit and amassing award season hyperbole before any in the public can actually see it. For instance, Disney just put Force Awakens out on Blu, and is now ramping up the campaign for Rogue One in December. Meanwhile, we’re still a month out from Civil War and Disney-Marvel is already gearing up to give Doctor Strange the hard sell for its release in November. Film distributors force films into specific boxes in the hopes of getting specific reactions that will draw specific crowds.
And the unfortunate likelihood is that if a film and filmmaker deliver a work that breaks free from that box, instead of being grateful for seeing something different and personal, the knee jerk reaction will be for audiences to reject this mutant.
To loop it around to Rian Johnson (see what I did there?), he is currently hard at work shooting the next episode in the Star Wars saga. As optimistic as I am for that film, I can’t help but worry that once again Johnson is going to color outside the lines agreed upon culturally and the response will be aggrieved audiences upset they aren’t getting the same high as they did from Force Awakens. Drew McWeeny wrote that Johnson’s script for Episode VIII is unlike any other Star Wars film, which makes me worried that filmgoers will be baffled if Johnson’s film isn’t a continuation of the original trilogy-suckfest that was The Force Awakens (I like that movie, but come on. “It’s another Death Star!” Fuck’s sake, JJ).
And is that what we have to look forward to, as it becomes more and more codified for young filmmakers (particularly young white male filmmakers) that succeeding in Hollywood means “indie film gets you comic book movie”? Are we going to have a generation of filmmakers who have only a meager handful of colors to play with and have been conditioned to believe that you must color inside the lines?
I hope not, because sometimes filmgoers are stupid. I’m living proof of that. Preconceptions and hype and buzz can cloud any film, every film, and so we who love this artform need to be willing to admit mistakes and allow films breathing space, allow them the room to grow in our hearts and minds. Looper is just one example of a film that struck me as, you know, ‘fine’, ‘good’, but that has quietly asserted its mastery and lingered with me longer than could ever have been expected. Not every film is going to have such depths. Sometimes, many times, a bad movie is just a bad movie, but we can never lose that sense, call it hope, call it faith, call it delusion, that there’s something richer waiting to be discovered if we just took a moment and looked a little closer. If we just opened that door a crack.