Monday, June 29, 2009

The Text Itself

For the uninitiated, let me lay down an interesting fact about movies, specifically movie theaters and their methods of film projection.

Until movie theaters switch completely to digital projection, films played at movie theaters are done so via prints. A print is the industry term for a single copy of a movie that is rented by a movie theater. A print is rather a rather large thing made of a long strip of polyester (also called film stock) and, when looked at under light, is merely a seemingly endless series of small images placed one on top of the other (individually called a frame). Running down both margins are holes for sprockets which allow the print to be pulled through the projector at such a speed that the human eye detects what's really a series of still photographs as a single, moving image. The average print is rolled up into a big circle next to the projector, laid out on a large platter like a gigantic, grayish-brown pizza without any toppings and the middle cut out. The width is usually the length of a person's wingspan, reaching from fingertip to tip when one stretches out one's arms, though it is probably a little smaller than that. What I'm trying to say is that a print is a large thing, too large to be delivered to theaters in such a form.

So what do they do? They cut up the print into smaller reels and place all the reels into big cans with disproportionally small metal handles that cut into your fingers within seconds of lifting one. It is the job of the theater's projectionist to assemble (called "building up" the film) these prints together from the five or six reels that it was divided into. These reels are usually clearly marked and a print's assembly is normally a rather boring exercise (although you get to play with some pretty cool pieces of equipment). Rarely, prints are assembled incorrectly, the most common mistake being an out of order reel. When I mean "out of order" I don't mean "broken" or, if it were a pinball machine, "tilt;" no, I mean reels 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 were put together as 1, 2, 4, 3, and 5. It's a hard mistake to make, but once it's made the only way to catch it is to watch the movie; you can't tell just by looking at the print sitting on the platter.

Going into Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with this knowledge, I wondered at the movie's end if a reel was out of order because, without even having to think about it, the movie didn't make sense in terms of contiguous continuity. It pushed the film, for me, to a point where I didn't enjoy the film (though there were many warning signs along the way, to be sure). To be fair, this issue did not detract from what story there was, and on the whole I actually like the story of Revenge of the Fallen more than the first movie. But the problem that infected the first movie also infects the new flick: Michael Bay is a terrible storyteller.

I don't ask for much and my expectations are amazingly simple when walking into a Transformers movie. I simply want to see Autobots punch the shit out of Decepticons and for the Decepticons to return the favor. I want to see Optimus Prime be a paragon for all that is good and Megatron be a vindictive asshole with Starscream being even more so. All of this I got with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Most of these elements were missing in the first movie, so color me reasonably satisfied.

Now, having the aforementioned knowledge of film build-ups that I do, my first thought was that the print may have been assembled out of order, but this idea was quickly squashed. Too many cuts between the fights within the same reel proved this. So, I did what any nerd does when he or she is perplexed by a beloved franchise: I went home and got on the internet. Explanations are rampant, extolling multiple ideas that are all well and good but ignore the simple fact that nothing was explained in the movie.

In literary theory, specifically in the outmoded realm of New Criticism, critics developed a new way of interpreting literature (this is in the 1950s, so stay with me): gone are ideas like author's intent and socio-cultural influences on a work--the only thing you need to interpret the text is the text itself. Everything you need to develop a specific reading of the work is within the pages. While this theory has been largely disregarded, a lot of ideas introduced in New Criticism are still quite valid. When I go to see a movie, that is an insular experience, a self-contained event. Everything the viewer needs to know about the movie should be presented on-screen since a movie doesn't have the benefit of building a story over episodes (as TV does) or an infinite amount of time to draw out narrative and exposition (as books do). Movies, especially, need to present everything within that run time or else you'll have an unbelievable twaddle (as my father likes to say). In other words, a movie can't exist without its audience's sympathy, and a movie has to persuade the audience to care about it. Without a successful persuasion, as you can probably guess, the audience won't care.

If there are reasonable explanations for the contiguous continuity errors in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen then they weren't in the movie, and that is all I had to rely on when I walked through the hefty, fuscia-painted double doors of the local Cinemark's Auditorium #4 (coincidentally, both the Cinemark theater chain and the Transformers franchise celebrate their 25th anniversary this year).

Being confused, I left the theater mildly upset (for this and other movie-related reasons); in an effort to fill the screen with as many robots blowing the crap out of each other (violently, not sexually) did the filmmakers forsake quality for mere quantity? Could it have been so hard to simply make new models to stick into these scenes than the horrible Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V attitude of a freshman Photoshop user? Or were they simply too proud of their (admittedly) awesome 7 or 8 character models that they just said "Fuck it" to continuity and common sense simply to give these beautiful monsters more screen time? I don't know! I'll never know unless the DVD is 3 and 1/2 hours long with a bunch of deleted scenes that explain everything. This is Michael Bay, however. He makes movies where sunlight only lasts 30 minutes before falling to night. So, with that in mind, I doubt I'll see the affirmation and explanation I want to see in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

But that was hours ago, how did I get to where I am now, a man mostly contented with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? While driving home from the theater, pondering these head-scratchers, I escaped to my memories of the original cartoon. How I revel in their substandard quality! Like many cartoons of the 80s and 90s, the Transformers was full of technical mistakes: characters would speak with other characters' voices, a character was mysteriously colored differently for a single shot, characters don't seem to be standing on the ground, etc. Those glitches didn't bother me back then (hell, I thought they intentional and such artistic integrity was over my head), the simple stories they were trying to tell still worked, it was all part of the package. Seeing them now, I chuckle at the breaking strain of trying to throw together a show based on pre-existing toys and the further strain of writers trying to create a story with said toys, trying to make them into characters.

It's the lack of character that pervades much of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. New robots are shown without introduction. That was the benefit of the television show, Hasbro wanted the audience to know who each character was so you would run out and buy the toy. In the television show, nearly every character was given an episode to shine (or fumble), all in an effort to sell a toy, an unintended side effect of which was the development of a sympathetic character. Many of the new robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are nameless, some even colorless. Robots, to Michael Bay, are hollow golems to throw at explosions and each other.

If you could hold back your dismissive chuckles, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is actually dumber than the early 80s television show, but between the two movies, this sequel is closer in terms of story and character with the cartoon than the first movie. But I'd like to think how much of a better series of movies these could have been had Steven Spielberg stepped into the director's chair instead of merely throwing money at it as a producer.

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