Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


Auctor Rerum Mirarum

BEING THE AFTERMATH OF THE WAGES OF ENTROPY

Hi. Sorry I'm not in right now, but I'm sure I'll be back soon, so just leave a message and your name after the beep. Thank you . . . BEEEEEEP!

"It is difficult to form a correct estimate of the significance of contemporary events and the danger that our judgment will remain caught in subjectivity is great."
Carl Jung

"Alone in the dark, freezing, and there is 10,000 feet between us. I know how you feel, alone in all that cold blackness. But I am in the dark with you."
Lindsey the Over-Acted

" . . . knowledge does not consist only in answering the question of the What. It reaches fulfillment only when it is able to discover the Whence and to combine it with the Whither. Knowing becomes understanding only when it embraces the beginning, the continuation, and the end."
JJ Bachofen

"Aaaarrrrch Aaaarrrrch Aaaarrrrch."
The sound my battery-powered Godzilla toilet-paper dispenser makes when I tug on the roll.

Sorry to be late, but let's get on with it, shall we?

Damn - if I hadn't wasted precious time I could have had one of those snazzy beginnings you've come to expect - probably something like: the Great Movie Beast Kammorron crashing through the back-lots of Hollywood, sucking up millions and millions of film investment dollars while massive crowds throng the surrounding hills cheering for more. But then again, I can't really be stuffed waxing lyrical to pull you out of your catatonic state caused by the under-whelming quality of the sci-fi action flick.

"Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in."
The Player, in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead

"Okay, we knew we were going to see this."
Coffee the Psychotic SEAL.

"I can't help myself. It has become a kind of fetish with me."
Bullwinkle the Moose

Hey! Come on - snap out of it!

Look that moronic Grunt-Thunder Big-Weapon Mega-Explosion Nasties movie right in the frames and say: "Hey, I'm a conscientious film watcher and I ain't gonna take this Hollywood tripe no more!"

Yeee-hah! Get along little dogey! You wave to the roaring crowds cheering your tenacity, principles, ethical integrity and commitment to the cause of Film Sanitation. Awards abound. Children love you. God gives you the thumbs up as a fine representative of your carbon-based life form.

But enough of this pretentious fantasy and on to the sad, sad truth.

First, a short pause . . . and then a question:

How many of you saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day?

Come on, hands up. How many?

Now let's see - not everyone but a hell of a lot of you. If your answer was "yes", and "I had a jolly good time too", then fine. I couldn't care less. If you answered "no", then that's fine too because you didn't miss much.

Well that's enough about that movie.

What's that? You don't think we've covered it?

Oh alright, I'll dribble on (because you "know what to expect").

"Come with me if you want to live."
Reese the "so cool" rebel (in The Terminator)

"Get out."
T-800 (in The Terminator)

"I'll be back."
T-800 (in The Terminator)

"Pattern is essentially something formal and non-intellectual."
Robert Treat Paine

"Come with me if you want to live."
T-800 the "so cool" Terminator (in Terminator 2)

"Get out."
T-1000 (in Terminator 2)

"I'll be back."
T-800 the Terminator (in Terminator 2)

Come with me on a trip - back, back to the dawn of James Cameron's directorial career. No points if you thought it was The Terminator. It was, in fact, Piranha 2: The Flying Killers - and boy was that a wretched film or what? But wait! The point of this jaunt back through time and space (in our Ship of the Imagination) is not to review some ancient piece of schlock celluloid, but simply to take a quick glance at the characters and story-line of this airborne piscine blood-fest.

And what is the most frightening thing we see, kiddies?

"It would be frivolous of me to try to conceal from the reader that such reflections are not only exceedingly unpopular but even perilously close to those turbid fantasies which be-cloud the minds of world-reformers and other interpreters of 'Signs and portents'. . ."
Carl Jung

"He'll reach down her throat and pull her heart out."
Reese the Doomed

"But that trick never works."
Rocky the Flying Squirrel

What do you mean, you don't know what I'm talking about?

A diving instructor and her estranged water-cop husband. How she witnesses a pack of nasty, wire-led piranhas snacking on some extra, and strangely no one believes her, not even him. And how, being an open minded fellow (who never really stopped loving her) he eventually stands by her. And how the one guy who does actually believe her turns out to work for the company that put them there in the first place.

What? You still don't know what I'm talking about? Good God man, haven't you seen it at all before?

No, you may not have seen Piranha 2, but doesn't it sure sound like the plot to an SF/Horror movie that you've seen somewhere else?

"If he's alive, he has everything in his power! Whose fault is it he doesn't understand that?"
Dostoevsky's The Idiot

"In technical terminology - he's a loon."
Dr Silverman the Silly Psychologist

"What a mah-roon."
Bugs Bunny the tre cool

In fact, Cameron used the same plot for both Aliens and The Abyss.

Now come on, don't tell me you didn't notice.

I will admit that the plots aren't exactly the same. I mean, the estranged husband who never stopped loving his wife is not in Aliens and the corporate con-man fooling the lead female character that his intentions are legit is not in The Abyss. But both films did feature the military man who goes bugfuck and is responsible for killing off 60% of the cast in the space of three minutes and then goes silly for the rest of the movie. Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's synchronicity, but it's more likely an ardent (or should that be stringent?) lack of imagination. I could be wrong . . . but I think not.

"Knowledge can only be iconic and iconism can only be absolute."
Umberto Eco

"That's it. Game over man, game over!"
Hudson The Comic Relief Colonial Marine

"Oh finky-foo."
Bullwinkle The Moose

What I am saying is that the works of James Cameron - Piranha 2, The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss - can best be described as an amorphous blob of sometimes pacey heavy-load action, cobbled together from scenes of extreme violence and interludes of pseudo-pacifists wankin' on about love, kindness and the marriage ethic before blowin' the shit out of whatever it is that the audience get wet seeing the shit getting blown out of.

And Terminator 2 is no exception.

"I am, to be quite frank, concerned for all those who are caught unprepared by the events in question and disconcerted by their incomprehensible nature."
Carl Jung

"If you don't send your father, you'll never be. God, someone could go crazy thinking about this."
Sarah Conner the Confused

"Wich way did dey go? Wich way did dey go?"
The hunting dog from the Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoons

Terminator 2: The Huge movie of the year; that's what the publicity said. And they weren't lying. The distributors spent so much money on promotion it couldn't help but be The Huge movie of the year. Remember - publicity is deceiving. One film can look like a big hit, but in fact make very little money, while another film can look small and obscure and be a hit. Just how a movie appears to the public is determined by its promotion. Promotion; all those posters, TV commercials, magazine covers, interviews, etcetera, etcetera, can constitute the major part of a movie's budget. If you want a film to be big, you make it big before the fact. Don't knock it, it works.

Thus, Terminator 2 was the Hugest movie of the year before it actually hit the screens. And boy, did they need to make it the Hugest movie of the year. With a budget the size of the one for Terminator 2 you could have had ten Akira Kurosawa films, or eight David Lean films, or nine David Puttnam films, six Stanley Kubrick films, twenty David Cronenberg films (and with Cronenberg, who needs Kubrick?), or over a hundred Peter Greenaway films. Jeez, what would you do with a hundred Greenaway movies? I suppose you'd have the longest wank-fest in cinematic pretentionoire history (or at least since the last Warhol retrospective). Goodness, think about all the soundtrack music, all sounding like that one Italian cantata.

But I digress . . . or do I? I mean, both Greenaway and Cameron seem to treat their work with equal seriousness yet, other than that, is it fair to consider them as a part of the same pretentious cinematic society? After all, Greenaway is a marvellous visualist while Cameron simply hires them. Well, some film aficionados pride themselves on their knowledge of good films, and some pride themselves on their knowledge of bad films. But perhaps it is more important, when dealing with pop culture - especially SF - to have a good knowledge of the mediocre. And Cameron and Greenaway are two of the Great Mediocre Directors of current, finger-on-the-pulse, transitory cinema. Both keep telling the same story (be it ever so simple) over and over again; Cameron's being the tormented woman no one believes until they have their heads chewed off, and Greenaway's being a man's self obsession leading to his own demise. Both indulge their creative hard-ons, yet at least Greenaway does not indulge so gratuitously in the expenditure of such vast budgets. And Greenaway would not accept such unsubtle placements of products like Pepsi and Subway unless, of course, he thought it was artistically appropriate.

"That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead."
Reese the Poetic Doomed Rebel

"You cannot harm me. My wings are like a shield of steel."
Batfink

Ultimately however, where James Cameron differs dramatically from the likes of Peter Greenaway is that he aims for a different market. Indeed, intended market makes a surprising difference to the style of most film-makers. Remove the marketing angle and the apparent diversity in intention and ability is significantly lessened. But market objective is the great divider for producers, writers, directors and critics alike. And what market does Cameron aim for? What is at the forefront of his imagination when he scribes his vision, first on paper, then word processor, and finally light sensitive chemicals? The answer's simple: The Lowest Common Denominator.

Cameron is a cinematic product of the seventies and eighties, and the attitudes developed during those decades have remained with him right up to this latest of his grunt creations. Another thing to notice is that Cameron doesn't do much with colour, but keeps his look fairly grey, and aspects of his work are reminiscent of '50s sci-fi flicks like War Of The Worlds, The Thing From Another World and Them. (All this is not a criticism but simply observation). So basically, Cameron has taken his inspiration from childhood, imposed an "A-Team" sensibility and retro-fitted the current action-movie formula used for most of the big-budget action block-busters that take such vast amounts of moola in those multi-screen cinema complexes that have so casually woven themselves into the lower middle-class life-style.

This all-important formula can best be represented on the Action Emotion Graph as shown below [not reproduced here].

Now, as you can see, it's a fairly straight forward plot progression sequence. {It was.]

(a) The film begins with a catchy enticement into the plot, often an action sequence of some type; impressive but not too big. It tends to be empathetic but not overly so 'cause we're saving empathy for later on.

(b) Next comes a short, relaxing drop, in which we're introduced to the characters (particularly the antagonists or villains) and the plot begins.

(c) Here's about the spot where we have a nice action scene - often a brief confrontation with the enemy, or maybe just a thug in an all-nighter if the plot doesn't allow more.

(d) Around this point the antagonists do something or other that gets the heroes moving, and we have another nice action sequence that uses up a few hundred metres of film. No one wins, but now everyone knows that they have an adversary, and the battle lines are drawn.

(e) During this segment of the unfolding drama, the villains decide to take out the heroes. Of course they are doomed to failure, but they're sure to cause so much damage (commonly by way of killing the dear and close friends of the characters we are supposed to identify with) that the heroes are so completely disheartened that they feel they've got nothing to lose.

(f) So how is all this plot development brought to resolution? By the heroes going berserk - do or die - and kicking the shit out of the nasties, in order to laugh it all off right at the very end as the credits start rolling and the poppy theme-song (strategically attuned to the hit charts of the time) plays, letting us all know it's time to go home.

With surprisingly minor variation (a stretch here, a tug there), James Cameron (along with most action film-makers) follows this formula of intense "WHAM! POW!" film-making. And why not? It makes a lot of money for a lot of people and we all lap it up.

"The art of good film-making is to successfully hide where you've nicked the ideas from in the first place."
Robin Pen (I've always wanted to be quoted)

"Cyborgs don't feel pain, I do."
Reese the Exasperated Rebel

So what is it that really ticks me off with James Cameron movies? Well, I'll tell ya. They're all so painfully, obviously, the same! Couldn't we see something from him that's just a little different? I mean, that's not asking too much, is it? And then there's the dialogue. You expect cheap schlock dialogue from a cheap schlock film, not epic productions in the tens of millions.

And his action scenes are so obviously set-up. Key plot developments often hinge on someone going psycho, and often inexplicably so. And characters are so artificial; I mean, like, Cabbage-Patch protagonists with trite moralizations who mouth gross generalisations and say pathetic things like "You don't know what life is until you've felt it growing inside you". Hypocritical banality that pretends to be intelligent. Moronic plot contrivances, and story-lines that seem to be written around the special effects concepts. Severe, repeated abuse of poetic license, and using a barrage of loud noise and heavily compressed action scenes to cover up major logic holes an idiot could spot if he took a nano-second to think about them. His intentional copy-catting looks far more like lazy writing than any recurring theme, and in fact leaves you wondering if it is intentional at all. He labours his points. He flogs ideas to death. He uses crude symbology. He keeps chucking ludicrously poignant darts in the hope that a few may stick, but they all end up on the floor. He grabs his audience by the eyes and ears and screams "Are you listening?", but then has absolutely nothing to say. Now, my point here's very simple, but before I make it, let's push that rampant indulgence out of the way, shall we?
Let's just elbow in here, shall we? So, "he" has finally lost it. I knew that Cameron chap would do him in eventually. Pathetic really, isn't it? Getting so irrational over a mere handful of films, that is. Well, not me. I keep a keen eye and a cool head when I get into film Quality Appraisal, unlike this dear fellow who just randomly expels the demented ideas that are chewing on his brain like some ravening, semiotic worm. It can be amusing, but in truth it has little validity when it comes to the evaluation of the intrinsic and sensitive cinematic art. For instance, he has failed to acknowledge that James Cameron's films frequently display certain technical mastery and often feature a marvelous control of pace. He has yet to mention that, while The Abyss and Terminator 2 were financially extravagant, The Terminator and Aliens were very effective within their restricted budgets. This is because he's quite deliberately attempting to stimulate an emotional response in you, the reader, so you'll develop an irrational dislike for many of the attributes of a James Cameron film. Don't be seduced by this obsession, this enthusiasm, this need for films he sees to live up to his ideals. Just remember that he occasionally pictures himself as "the world's greatest would be director"; you should appreciate just how much crap he can be full of.

There; that's a lot better, isn't it? But back to this point I wish to make: Why should one care about a film like Terminator 2? Why bother pointing out the film's sub-standard story-telling when the world is full of far more significant movies to watch, enjoy and analytically explore?

To put the question in perspective, why should you want to waste time, effort, paper, ink and thought on a film like Terminator 2 when there are films like Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King out there? In that light, why bother with it at all? So The Fisher King isn't always slick, and it is inconsistent in its quality, and it occasionally suffers from being overly self-conscious in its exuberant style. So what! Okay, it isn't perfect, but there is certainly nothing seriously wrong with it. There is plenty wrong with Terminator 2, and I'm sure they had everything just the way they wanted it. For example, while it's difficult to point to real flaws in the script for Terminator 2, as a whole it was just so much shit. Richard LaGravenese's script for The Fisher King had identifiable problems with the narrative, but it was a marvelous script, even a superior script. This demonstrates the "Russian Gymnastics Principle" in action: flawlessly performing simple actions doesn't change the fact that they're still simple, and doing something brilliant with the occasional stammer leaves its brilliance intact. So forget about Terminator 2. Don't waste your precious time on shit like that, despite its cute computer graphics. Remember, sprinkle chocolate chips on shit and all you get is chocolate chip shit. It may taste sweet for the first few licks, but you can bet it won't stay down long. So The Fisher King isn't so sweet, but it is damn good for you. Get that in ya gob, and be bloody proud you did. And no, I don't mean that you have to wax intellectual over The Fisher King. The film works on all levels (except, perhaps, the head banger front). You can enjoy it in a purely vegetative state, you can apply Brechtian analysis and have a ball, or you can open up your subjective unconscious and revel in the almost numinous experience, as little threads of your mythic hind-brain are tweaked and tugged by the richly symbolic undertones of the film. Can you get much better from a cinematic experience, other than by watching Lawrence of Arabia or The Seven Samurai?

So, who gives a fig's whistle about Terminator 2 when there's a film like The Fisher King out there? Who'd give a rat's arse for Terminator 2 when you could have Jackie Chan's Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (the movie that gets my vote for the best action/adventure/comedy since Gunga Din). Who cares a turkey's pimple over Terminator 2 when there are movies like the Australian film Proof out there. Or Jesus of Montreal (Canada). Or State of Grace (USA), Monsieur Hire (France), The Elephant Keeper (Thailand), Holidays on the River Yarra (Aust), Song of the Exile (Hong Kong/Taiwan), Life is Sweet (UK), The Nasty Girl (Germany), Jungle Fever (USA), One of Us (Israel), Falling Over Backwards (Canada), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (USA), Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia), A Chinese Ghost Story III (Hong Kong) and Open Doors (Italy). (All these films, and others not listed for fear of boring you, were screening in Perth at the same time as Terminator 2). And yes, even Greenaway can find a place there somewhere.

In short, why are we wasting time with Terminator 2 at all? The sole reason is that the distributors have spent a great deal of money promoting it and telling everybody that it is an important film, and thus we should give it a lot of attention. And, by God, it works. Look here: A whole article on Terminator 2 because it was just such a big, big film. Pity it was so very, very small at the same time. In fact, I apologise for wasting your time. I certainly wasted mine.

But a brief word before I go. "Auctor rerum mirarum" means "maker of wonderful things". My advice; go out there and find those makers. Begin by going out and looking for real films and not the shit that needs heavy promotion to convince you that you must see it. Go on - you'll be surprised at what you find. Maybe you can begin with the suggestions I've made in this article, but remember there comes a sense of real excitement when you discover those special films for yourself. It is worth it. Believe me, it is.

Oh, and by the way, I've seen (The Adventures of the) Rocketeer and The Addams Family and I have my opinions. I know what I thought of them. Why not write in and let me know what you thought. It'd make a change.





Originally appeared pp. 60-67, Eidolon 7, January 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.


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