Why John Carter’s Failure Spells The Death Of Storytelling
It is seven-thirty on a Monday night.
I had paid seventeen dollars, bought the over-priced diet coke and popcorn without grousing, and sat myself down in the theatre, jamming the 3-D glasses down hard on my wide-nose and over my other set of actual practical (though still capable of enabling me to view the world in three glorious dimensions) and hunkered down. I suppressed the involuntary shiver at the back of my neck – no matter the season, the anticipatory chill of entering a movie theatre is the same. Caves located deep underground, that’s what I’m always reminded of. The world outside changes, but inside the temperature, the smell, the touch of the slimy walls and the loud silence remain the same.There is the thrill of exploration, there is the primal awareness of how your body fits into a space, there is the very distant knowledge in the back of your animal brain reminding you that death is inevitable for a moment – and because of circumstances – heightened for the duration.
This is what the movies are to me. They always have been.
My mother talks about taking me to the movies for the first time. It was Follow That Bird. I don’t remember going, but the flick came out in 1985 and I would’ve been not quite 2, so that’s not evidence of like, a suppressed memory or anything. Sesame Street was something I adored on a little screen, but sitting in the depths of the cave even beside my mother I can only imagine how deep my terror must have been to see affable Big Bird morphed into a giant-sized monster of a creature. We had to leave the theatre. What with all my sobbing.
I have watched a lot of movies not because I’ve wanted to see them but because I’ve wanted to go to the movies and have that experience. A lot of people might not remember the zombie comedy flick My Boyfriend’s Back and faaaaair enough (I’ll be real, I own this now and you guys it does not hold up.) But when it came out in 1993 I was amped – comedy? Zombies? A pointed reference to one of my favorite oldies? Color me game! What really made the experience so memorable was not the movie itself, it was that, through some mean feat, the film’s marketers had crafted an ad campaign so cunning that my Dad wanted to see the movie too, making for a joyous father-daughter-zombie outing.
There are only two movies I’ve ever walked out of – The Human Stain and Legally Blond (The reasons behind my leaving are neither here nor there nor are they particularly interesting). It never mattered what the film was I am always game, always, because of just how much the experience means to me. If that means I’m going to have to occasionally leave because really you guys I don’t think I can handle my practical friend Babs’ running commentary on Anthony Hopkins’s implausibility as a black man or because I was in the mood to deal with a film I viewed as homophobic – so be it! (See, irrelevant – not that interesting.)
A lot of writers – paging Walker Percy – have used going to the movies as a metaphor for a sense of isolation from interpersonal interaction and true connection permeating our contemporary cultural. Which I can understand on the surface – a bunch of people, in the dark, not talking. But if I think about it for longer than a second I find myself talking about catharsis, that shared experience is the complete opposite of isolation, and how maybe it’s good we’re in the dark not looking at each other – so we can genuinely react. When an entire audience laughs at something – you know it’s funny because no one is laughing just because someone else is. In the dark there isn’t any space for social clues. In the dark, emotions are permitted, hell, encouraged even – there’s a reason people make out at movies. Or touch themselves, I guess that happens too.
Sometimes the whole experience proves to be too much for me. If a film is edited just right, it can work me into a sustained form of suspenseful anxiety that is almost embarrassing to admit to. “Becca, why are you shaking? We are just eating hamburgers,” “Oh you know, I still am a bit freaked out about how Al Pacino couldn’t sleep and how maybe it was driving him to madness that will prevent him from SOLVING THE CASE.” “But…” “Just shut up and eat your burger while I quiver.” When I saw the Cell in theatres, I had to leave at one point and call my mom because I was worried I would be abducted and murdered later. I am, and will forever be, a pleasure to know.
The inverse has happened as well. I’ve started bawling immediately after a film ha sended, not because it was particularly sad, but because as the lights come up and I know the story’s over I have to come to grips with the fact that a world I loved and felt as though I existed within has gone away. Elizabeth. A Life Less Ordinary. Kill Bill (BOTH OF THEM). METROPOLIS. BLADE RUNNER! Hell, when I was home last night and sitting down to watch TV with a bowl of day old couscous a commercial came on for the new 3-D Titanic and I PREEMPTIVELY STARTED BAWLING.
I think there is a sort of jadedness that comes with how most folks view the movies now. Instead of going in with a sense of abandon, of eagerness for potential escape, we go in ready to rip something to shreds, insane, apparently racist shreds. We don’t trust the story. We don’t trust the storytellers. We don’t want to. The very notion of the willing suspension of disbelief – an integral component of all successful fiction in any form – seems to be evaporating. God, I sound like an old person saying this, and I don’t even care. I think it’s this attitude – in addition to yes, terrible marketing – that killed John Carter before it even opened. This criticism murdered a movie that twenty-years ago would have been rapturously new and different and taken up immediately by a group of die-hard fans. If those fans exist I haven’t met them. And I mean, I would know if they did.
After all, I’m in this movie theatre seeing John Carter for the third time. Alone.
Here’s where we make a joke about how it’s all for Taylor Kitsch’s abs (because DELICIOUS). But as I sit there, popcorn cold, stale and neglected. I feel the tears pooling in my eyes when my favorite sequences begin – Carter single-handedly fighting off an alien horde with incredible violence is intercut with Carter on earth discovering his burned out home and murdered family, Carter surveying the beauty of Barsoom at nightfall, the heart-pounding recounting of his plans to return to the planet he views as his home. In so many ways, it’s classic movie making. The knot in my throat, the familiar feeling of transportation, the awareness of this very real-seeming world was not real and the grief that comes once its over. I talk about my profound love for movies like Speed, Waterworld, the Mummy, and people laugh thinking I am being ironic and cute and I guess on one level I am. But the rest of me has never been more grave – my simple, emotional, reaction to these films, my inherent appreciation and love of the stories and the people in them – good AND bad – I think is a testimony to the essential importance of real story-telling, what real story telling should be, and that’s something I’ll testify to until my dying day.
But not Speed 2, you guys. Speed 2 was just terrible.