Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mad Max: Fury Road

Insider awards, outsider art

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Concept art for Inside Out

I really have no business writing about the Oscars at all. My curtailed moviegoing habits these days mean that I only saw one of the Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome—and for all my good intentions, I haven’t yet managed to catch up with the others at home. (My wife is a journalist, and like all her peers, she’s been a passionate member of team Spotlight ever since she saw the earliest photos of the cast’s painfully accurate khakis, brown shoes, and blue button-down shirts.) I can’t even write about Chris Rock’s monologue, since I was putting my daughter to bed when it aired, although the rest of the telecast struck me as the most professional ceremony in years: it hit its marks and moved like clockwork with a minimum of cringeworthiness, even if there weren’t many memorable moments. The ongoing debate about diversity and representation in popular culture is an important one, and it’s going to be even more central to my life and this blog as I continue working on Astounding, which raises huge questions about our default assumptions about the stories we tell. But today, I’d like to focus on just one issue. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, wasn’t Inside Out nominated for Best Picture?

Because it’s a real mystery. Inside Out was one of the five most successful films at the domestic box office over the last calendar year, and it was the second most highly rated movie over the same period on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in behind Fury Road by just a hair. (It actually has a higher unadjusted score, but falls back a notch because it had fewer total reviews.) It also comes at the end of a stretch in which the Academy has been uncharacteristically willing to find room for animated features in the Best Picture race, as well as in their own category—as long as they’re made by Pixar. And Inside Out is the best Pixar movie ever made outside the Toy Story franchise, or at least the most visually and narratively inventive: its rousing aesthetic freedom is a reminder that even the best recent animated movies have been bound by gravity and mindlessly realistic texture mapping. Yet in a year in which the Academy Awards embraced unconventional nominees without regard to genre, from Mad Max to The Martian, Inside Out didn’t make the cut. And since there were only eight nominees, there was ample room for two more, according to a confusing sliding scale that I don’t even think most awards buffs understand. It wouldn’t have had to knock any other deserving movies out of the way: there was a slot right there waiting for it. But it was nowhere in sight.

Inside Out

This might seem like a moot point for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, made a ton of money, and choked up audiences worldwide. (My wife cried so much when we watched it that she practically went into anaphylactic shock.) But the larger implications are worth raising. It’s tough to analyze the collective psychology behind something like the Oscar nominations, which is why the problem of racism in Hollywood has been so difficult to address: it’s less the result of obvious structural shortcomings than an emergent property arising from countless small decisions made by players acting independently. When you try to find a solution, it slips through your fingers. Still, when the industry votes together, inclinations that might pass unseen on the individual level suddenly become all too visible. And in the case of animated features, when you amplify those tendencies to a point where they result in a concrete outcome, like a nomination or lack thereof, it’s obvious that a lot of voters find something vaguely suspect about animation itself. Thanks in a large part to its history as a children’s medium, it still feels like kid’s stuff, despite so much evidence to the contrary—or the fact that studios are increasingly dependent on a global audience for movies that are either animated or might as well be. It’s treated like outsider art, maybe because it naturally tends to attract visionary weirdos who wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.

This isn’t the Academy’s only blind spot: it also doesn’t much care for subtitles, sequels, or movies that fail to break even. But when you take into account the usual inverse relationship between artistic merit and job creation, the reluctance to recognize animated features as playing a grownup’s game is even harder to justify: these movies can take half a decade to make, employ hundreds of people, and involve the solution of many intractable creative and technical problems. (In fact, the development of Inside Out appears to have been exceptionally difficult: Pete Docter has spoken of how the entire script was junked halfway through, once they realized that Joy had to go on her adventure with Sadness, rather than Fear. It’s the best example imaginable of the Andrew Stanton approach—“The films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them”—succeeding, for once, to a spectacular degree.) And what makes Inside Out such an instructive test case is that everything else was lined up in its favor. It was moving, formally elegant, incredibly entertaining, and it wasn’t a sequel, the last of which probably counted against Toy Story 2, which was also unambiguously the biggest critical and box office success of its year. For an animated film not just to get nominated, but to win, would require both a masterpiece and a sea change in how such movies are regarded by the industry that relies on them so much. And if that ever happens, it’ll be a reason to be joyful.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

The inherent vice of the movies

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Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Earlier this week, I caught up with two of the titles on the list of movies I’ve wanted to see from the last twelve months—a harder matter than it might first appear, since I haven’t seen a film in theaters since Interstellar. They were Inherent Vice, which I rented, and Mad Max: Fury Road, which I was able to see, thankfully, on the big screen. And while they may seem like an unlikely pair, they have more in common than first meets the eye. Both are the work of legendary directors operating near the top of their respective games, and both push in intriguing ways against our assumptions about how a movie ought to be structured. Inherent Vice is deliberately designed to undermine any expectations we might have about a profluent plot, with an endless series of incidents following one another in a way that teases but frustrates our hopes of a larger pattern, while Fury Road comes as close as any movie can to a single uninterrupted action scene. Both create the sense of an entire world existing beyond the edges of the frame, and both are too dense to be fully processed in a single viewing. And although Fury Road is considerably easier to love, both serve, in their own inimitable ways, as reminders of how rich the movie medium can be, and how rarely we see it taken to its full potential.

And what’s especially noteworthy is that each film arrived at its final shape by following a path that had little to do with how movie scripts are usually written. Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Inherent Vice by transcribing Thomas Pynchon’s novel in its entirety, sentence by sentence, into one massive screenplay, reasoning that the resulting doorstop would be easier for him to edit: “I can understand this format,” he explained to the New York Times. With Fury Road, George Miller took the opposite approach, but for much the same reason:

Because it’s almost a continuous chase, you have to connect one shot to the other, so the obvious way to do it was as a storyboard, and then put words in later. So, I worked with five really good storyboard artists. We just sat in a big room and, instead of writing it down, we’d say “Okay, this guy throws what we call a thunder stick at another car and there’s an explosion.” You can write that, but exactly where the thunder stick is, where the car is and what the explosion looks like, it’s very hard to get those dimensions, so we’d draw it. We ended up with about 3,500 panels. It almost becomes equivalent to the number of shots in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In starting from storyboards, Miller—who won an Oscar for Happy Feet—may have been harking back to the technique of the great animated movies, which were planned as a series of thumbnail sketches rather than as a conventional script. And in both cases, the approach was dictated simultaneously by the formats the directors understood and by the demands of the material: a challenging literary adaptation on one hand, an action extravaganza on the other. The result, in each instance, is a movie that inspires a unique set of feelings in the viewer. Inherent Vice encourages us to stop trying to piece together a coherent story, which is probably impossible, and just lie back and wait for the next gag or visual joke. Fury Road leaves us in a state of similar serenity, but by very different means: by its final half hour, we’re in the kind of blissful high that Pauline Kael liked to describe, and instead of feeling pummeled, as we might with Michael Bay, we’re carried along on a gentle wave of adrenaline. It’s a reminder that a script, which has been fetishized as an object in itself, is really a blueprint, and that it can and should take whatever form seems most useful. Books like Save the Cat! and similar manuals have distilled scripts down to such a formula that act breaks and turning points are supposed to happen on particular page numbers, which is as much a convenience for harried studio readers as it is a recipe for storytelling. But it’s not the only way.

And it’s significant that these departures from the norm owe their existence to acclaimed directors, working from their own scripts, with the clout and support to make it happen. Your average screenplay is written from a place of minimal power: to be read in the first place, much less to make it through the development process, it needs to look like every other screenplay that crosses an executive’s desk. And while I’m skeptical of the auteur theory, it’s worth asking if the grinding sameness of so many movies is an inevitable consequence of the screenwriter’s imperiled position. A writer knows that he could be replaced at any point by someone else who can follow the beat sheets, so he paradoxically has an incentive to make his work as generic as possible. You could say that blandness is the inherent vice of the modern screenplay format itself—a property that causes material to deteriorate because of an essential quality of its components. “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” as the narrator of Inherent Vice reminds us, and scripts written according to a fixed template will bore us. Inherent Vice and Fury Road are both throwbacks to a time before these formulas took over the world: Miller has his own movies to serve as inspiration, while Inherent Vice harks back consciously to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, much of which is about Philip Marlowe literally trying to save his cat. We deserve more movies like this. And the fact that the system is designed to deny them to us should make us a little furious.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2015 at 9:12 am

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