Sundance, MP3’s, and Corporate Art

January 18, 2009

I recently took my sons to see The Day The Earth Stood Still. It was during my phase of “closing out 2008,” tying up the loose ends left dangling because we had Christmas celebrations early and were out of town from before Christmas until after New Year’s Day. We had been planning to see the movie over the Christmas holiday from school and were filled with anticipation by the time we saw it in early January. It disappointed me so much I wound up learning a lot.

This is not meant as a movie review so I won’t be careful keeping plot details secret. Be forewarned if you haven’t seen this movie and want to be surprised. My forewarning is that the surprises won’t be good ones.

The story arc and many plot points were confusing. They had the feel of being contrived so a particular visual effect could be achieved in a scene with little concern for overall story continuity. In my sideways view of things, I have started equating contrived scenes that sacrifice story with corporations that contrive marketing of a particular product and sacrifice overall mission and purpose – and integrity – in the process.

This leads to my speculation that the disappointing story holes in The Day The Earth Stood Still are not the result of one director’s or producer’s short-sighted vision. I imagine they are the result of committees of people fighting for control of the story. Special effects are key in big-movie planning so scenes are thrown in with special effects. Don’t worry if they make sense – the audience isn’t really paying attention anyway! The guys want special effects and the girls want to see Keanu Reeves.

The original had a warning to society about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the violent nature of mankind. The remake wants to have a warning to society, too, but it jostles between the dangers of mankind’s violence and the risk to the planet from carbon dioxide. It never clearly chooses one, but rather flips back and forth depending on the scene. Thing is, an extraterrestrial race of supersmart beings probably can’t take the aggressive tendencies out of mankind quickly, but they could certainly share technology for removing carbon dioxide or developing sources of energy that don’t burn fossil fuels. Great big huge plot hole you can drive a carbon-spewing truck through.

In one scene the Keanu Reeves extraterrestrial superbeing character Klaatu uses his electro-magnetic powers to drive one parked car into another, crushing and killing a policeman. He immediately gives the policeman some of his extraterrestrial embryonic goo and “shocks” him to bring him back to life. Why? Great question, which he answers by saying only that he doesn’t really want to harm people needlessly. He never explains why he would kill the policeman and immediately resurrect him, as opposed to stopping him in some other way. But, wow, does it set up the great scene where the little boy takes him to his father’s grave and wants Klaatu to resurrect him!

Klaatu says he has a message for the leaders of earth, which he never delivers. Never, as in not ever. Mankind never gets its warning. Instead, he is ready to destroy mankind until he tells an earthling scientist that his own race reached a pivotal point of crisis eons ago and evolved forward. The scientist recommends letting earthlings face their crisis to see if we evolve, too. The superbeing couldn’t figure that one out on his own, or offer guidance to the human race instead of destruction.

To get the textbook final conflict scene, plot and sensibility collapsed totally. Klaatu, in a human body, is susceptible to the technology bugs that will destroy people. The technology bugs, however, are so stupid they can fly across cities disintegrating everything but can’t fly under a bridge, where Klaatu takes the mother and child for safety. The techno bugs heed his “command” and leave their bodies to go into his, but they can’t heed his command not to eat him. He tells the mom and son he can stop the attack, but it will come at a great price to humankind. He walks into the cloud of people-eating techno bugs to get to his ship and command the techno bugs to stop attacking. It appears that he is dissolving in the cloud, but then the bugs collapse immobile on the ground, and his ship takes off.

What was the price? What was his message to mankind? How in the world will anyone know what they’re supposed to do? It seems that all technology is now inactive, but anyone with a tiny bit of imagination knows that human civilization designed around technology, including transportation, will fall into angry chaos due to food and water shortages when there is no electricity, no transportation, and no ready supply of groceries or Starbucks.

The counterbalance to the failures of corporate art is the reminder in the news that the Sundance Film Festival is taking place right now. Started over twenty years ago, when filmmakers and promoters would entice people off the streets of Park City, Utah to attend screenings of independent films, the festival is now an internationally recognized event. Thousands of films are submitted and hundreds are chosen to be screened. I have no doubt that producers with a corporate mentality try to sneak their films in as “independent” because they recognize the influence of the festival. But it continues to focus on low-budget, independently made films as a way to bring fresh talent and fresh ideas to an art form.

Art form? Absolutely film is an art form, and that’s why film festivals exist. The huge potential for profit in a big-budget, star-packed film means large companies have a lot of control over what gets made. People with their own vision have to go outside the studio system to make their films their way. They almost have to be as dedicated and sacrifice as much as documentary filmmakers!

Movie ticket sales continue to diminish. The occasional blockbuster gives hope to the industry, but Hollywood has produced dozens of poorly attended, very expensive films in the past few years. The formulas aren’t working as well, especially since the formulas fail to respect coherence in the plot.

The music industry is having a similar paradigm shift. Sales of CDs continue to drop, but sales of music online continue to increase. The music industry is having a harder time keeping the consumers focused on a “pop” market, where one artist can generate a lot of profit. Instead, music fans look for fresh new sounds and find them among independent artists. Someone finds a song he likes, and he sends it to his girlfriend, and she tells her friends… and so on, and so on, and so on.

This is dangerous to corporations. They’re used to telling us what to like and what to buy. Now the corporate marketing messages don’t work as well and personal opinion can be shared in seconds. In the entertainment art world, consumers are driving consumer choices. Appalling!

Artists are producing music and films that reflect their vision and passion. Audiences are finding them and sharing them with their friends. Artistic entrepreneurship is a powerful force.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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