Thursday, January 30, 2020

Misery Inc.

One of the reasons I had taken to starting the Cannon Cruisers podcast with a friend of mine is because I abhor modern cinema. That is because it is utterly miserable. I wanted an excuse to watch and cover films that weren't mired in the modern obsession with wallowing in the mud.

This sounds strange coming from me, who as a teenager spent much of my time seeing anything that looked halfway decent and spending the rest in the arcade just outside of it playing Drummania and House of the Dead 3. It was a big part of those years for me. Looking back now, much of what I saw wasn't very good but it did feel like there was a serious attempt to entertain the audience at the very least. Yet, as I got older I began to gain interest in older entertainment that I missed out on and drifted away from what Hollywood was spitting out into the crowd.

Cannon Cruisers is meant to focus on Cannon Films at their peak of output when the Israeli cousins Golan and Globus ran the studio between 1980 and 1995. They were the masters of throwing everything at the wall to see if it stuck in a way no one will do today. They might not always be winners, but they're always interesting, and fun to discuss. We even do non-Cannon episodes that also focus on movies outside of Cannon's in the same time period, and there are obvious trends we notice while watching. As a time capsule that era is an intriguing one.

In the early 1980s much of the films were still shaking off the doldrums of the 1970s and still have a bit of a hangover of misery porn to them. But most decades usually find their identity a few years in and the 1980s showed themselves as being a time of identity crisis. Someone once said it was simultaneously a time of fear and dread over instant annihilation and a time of excitement and progress that is going to eventually lead to a better tomorrow. All this at the same time. While this is contradictory, it also led to a lot of interesting stories that could go one way or the other. But even the downer premises usually had more hope to them than anything the 1970s put out. This time period was where content was more important than selling misery, and that is why it is still looked on fondly.

As a contrast check out the action films of Chuck Norris against the Death Wish movies. Same genre, different bent. Which one of the two typically had the more hopeful ending? Even the non-Death Wish Bronson movies of the time had brighter ends. It just seemed like leaving the protagonist broken and empty was a mandate for '70s style cinema.

But even as movies with crazier ideas and more hopeful outlooks such as Ghostbusters, Innerspace, and The Goonies, took over there was still a segment of Hollywood that longed for their preferred decade of misery and destruction in the '70s. They didn't like this sea change and fought it wth every bit of vitriol they could muster up.

Take for instance the movie Radio Flyer from 1992. This is a film that came, bombed, and vanished into the ether where it belongs. But Hollywood really believed the public would go ape for it. They were so out of touch, even then.

At the time when the above mentioned movies were big hits, this is what Hollywood wanted to sell you. From the wiki:

"Mike (Tom Hanks) observes his two sons fighting, with one insisting that a promise doesn't mean anything. To make them understand that a promise does mean something, he tells them the story of his youth. Young Mike (Elijah Wood), his little brother, Bobby, their mother, Mary, and their German Shepherd, Shane, all move to a new town after their father/husband leaves them. There, Mary marries a new man, Jack, who likes the others to call him "The King". Unbeknownst to Mary, the King is an alcoholic who often gets drunk and beats Bobby. The King also plays Hank Williams’s Jambalaya (On the Bayou) over and over again while drunk. 
"Seeing that Mary has found happiness at last with the King, the two boys are reluctant to tell either her or the police about the abuse. Instead, they try to avoid the King by exploring and having adventures amidst the turmoil and traumatic experiences. After the King beats Bobby so badly that he ends up in the hospital, the King also gets bitten on the arm by Shane and is arrested. However, following the death of his mother, the King is released and returns to their house promising never to drink again. Unfortunately, while the boys are at school, the King lied about the promise and nearly kills Shane. In the process, the two devise a plan for Bobby to escape the King once and for all. Mary also starts to catch on to Jack's true nature and, in the end, requests a divorce due to all the times he beat Bobby and for his heavy drinking. 
"Inspired by the urban legend of a boy named Fisher who attempted to fly away on his bicycle, the two convert their eponymous Radio Flyer toy wagon into an airplane. With it, Bobby flies away, and the King is finally arrested by Officer Daugherty, a friendly and caring police officer. Though Mike never sees Bobby again, he continues to receive postcards from him from places all over the world."

Sounds like a fun time, right?

Of course, not every movie has to be bright and sunny, but a movie about child abuse that ends with a boy running away from home and dying is not a story that enriches anyone watching. It offers the viewer nothing. It's misery porn. No one with a healthy mind would greenlight something this sickening or think it is worth producing.

And yet Hollywood was salivating over making it and having you watch it. This was something you needed to see.

Also from wiki:

"David Mickey Evans' script for Radio Flyer was a hot property around Hollywood, and Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures started a bidding war around it in November 1989. Warner had eyes on it as a vehicle for veteran director Richard Donner [...] Just before Thanksgiving, Columbia gave Evans a huge sum for a first-time Hollywood screenwriter: $1.25 million. The deal also gave Evans the opportunity to direct, even though he had no experience in said field; Douglas believed he had the vision to pull it off. This was the first film Columbia put into production under the ownership of Sony, as well as one of the first films to be greenlit by the studio's new management, led by Peter Guber and Jon Peters. 
"Filming started on June 18, 1990. [...] Donner had Evans rewrite the script extensively to find a way to balance escapist fantasy and child abuse without alienating the audience. 
"The film's original ending featured a present-day coda where a now-adult Mike, played by Tom Hanks, takes his children to the National Air and Space Museum, where the Radio Flyer/Plane hybrid is displayed next to the Wright Brothers' flying machine. Test audiences were confused by this ending and re-shoots led to the modern-day prologue and epilogue seen in the final film."

What exactly about this story was worth getting so excited over and spending all this money on? This is a cartoonish glorification (or demonization, if you're feeling braver) of the concept of escapism. It makes it out to be completely useless and for the mentally unsound who can't handle reality. In an era where imagination was not in short supply, this film almost feels like an attack on the whole notion of escapism and the imaginative and creative stories people were making at the time. The whole idea is disturbing.

But because this was an era where high quality was being served to you at a high rate, audiences didn't put up with it. The film bombed, and was quickly forgotten.

The entire project was a failure.

"The film opened to mostly mixed to negative reviews from critics and lackluster box office results."

The reviewers (back when they had common sense) were about as harsh as audiences.

"Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin both criticized the film for presenting fantasy as a way of escaping child abuse. Said Ebert, "I was so appalled, watching this kid hurtling down the hill in his pathetic contraption, that I didn't know which ending would be worse. If he fell to his death, that would be unthinkable, but if he soared up to the moon, it would be unforgivable—because you can't escape from child abuse in little red wagons, and even the people who made this picture should have been ashamed to suggest otherwise.""

But again, this is what they wanted you to see. This is what they wanted you to pay your hard-earned money for. This is what they wanted settling in your mind as you leave the theater. To what end? How does a story like this benefit anyone watching?

Movies like this exist to beat you down.

Author John Gardner once wrote a book called On Moral Fiction that to this day is blasted by moral nihilists as being finger waggling from the squares hoping to keep the edgelord rebels down. Pundits of the 1970s reacted to it like a crucifix taken to vampires.

Keep it down, EvilT0k3r666. No one is trying to take your black metal records from you or make you wear a tie. The point of the book is that every piece of fiction should have a moral point: not a moral lesson. Because stories exist to be moral. The fact of the matter is that every piece of good art, even trash, has a moral point to it. More than all art being inherently political: all art is inherently moral. But you don't hear that being bandied about much these days.

Tragedies show the follies of falling from the true path. Comedies poke fun at the offbeat or straying from the norm. Action stories have heroes stopping villains from destroying the good. Dramas are about tense situations where the just seeks to find a way from being crushed by the unjust. Horror stories consist of rules being violated and everything going to hell as a result, sometimes literally. It's all moral. That's why we connect with them, and why we find ourselves to attracted to the idea of a good story.

And doing it ironically is not an excuse. By being ironic you are admitting such things exist and are going out of your way to highlight it with your own take. You're just too cowardly to outright say it. The morality remains.

Radio Flyer was released in 1992, a transitional period in culture. It was the first dud Richard Donner had made in a decade, but it wouldn't be his last. At the same time, Cannon Films were nearing the end, and action movies had begun to lose themselves to self-seriousness and were becoming more and more obsessed with anti-heroes. Cinema in the 1990s, as a result, is a pretty sad place. Slowly, Hollywood began to wean the audience away from imagination and wonder and back towards their dark and empty grey slop. As a result, they divided their base.

Again, instead of continuing to make what the audience wanted, they not only steered away from that but tried to warp the public's tastes at the same time. If you doubt me then try to name 10 blockbuster movies from the 1990s that are actually good, or better and more creative than what came a decade previous. Movies meant for mass consumption don't have to be total trash. You can find many from the 1980s, but you would have to struggle in the 1990s. Why is that the case, seemingly out of nowhere?

Why indeed.

You saw the same pattern with rock music. When it started via Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and the like, it was meant to be fun and energetic with a touch of the blues to balance it out. Throughout the decades there were multiple attempts to poison the genre and turn it self-serious and overly-processed robotic nonsense. They were trying to rip the soul out.

By the 1990s both the blues and the testosterone were ripped from rock leaving crybaby whining amidst overproduced guitars and lyrics filled with self-loathing hatred of the world. Soul Asylum even wrote a song about it, themselves admittedly part of the problem.

And now rock music is, for all intents and purposes, gone. It was lost to Misery Inc. and its hatred of you and me. You can bring up Obscure Band X as proof it is not dead, but they will never be allowed to have an audience to the extent the old artists were afforded. They will never be allowed outside of their box, and finding them was purposely made next to impossible. Why should you listen to that, anyway? We have perfectly good misery for you here on MTV!

Hollywood might have been lost to this long ago, but there were always those who went against it, and fought the system that tried so hard to stomp a boot on the neck of its audience. But they were eventually crushed. Misery Inc hates you, and wishes you were dead. How can it be anything else? They are producing trash and telling you it is filet mignon.

The odd side of this is that it is bad movies such as Miami Connection that are seen as trash. Sure the directing is bad, as are the writing, acting, and general production values, but there is a legitimate effort at telling a story here. It is an action movie, and the action is good (if cartoony). The music is enjoyable. The goofiness is endearing. The core moral of the movie, even if ham-handed and bizarre, is actually healthy and correct. The spirit behind the film-making transcends its shortcomings to make a movie that is well worth seeing for genre fans. It succeeds as an action movie and its low quality aspects add charm. This movie is not trash at all.

On the other hand, Radio Flyer and other such misery fiction, is trash. They don't offer anything on a moral level, they are meant to bring you low, which does not benefit anyone. Demoralizing your audience is not a goal of good fiction or art in general. If that is your goal you need to reevaluate what you're trying to do.

The #1 rebuttal against criticizing this approach is that this bad art is supposed to "make you think" and "force you to question your values" and other such nonsense. Make no mistake: it's nonsense.

To be real, if you need a piece of fiction to make you think then you have bigger problems than what entertainment you consume. Fiction can help you to think or feel, and allow you to look at the world in different way, but it isn't the job of art to jar the audience out of the good and true in order to do that. The job of art is to connect and enforce ideas we all already understand in order to bring us together. You can help the audience think about things in different ways, but you aren't tasked with dismantling and leaving them a broken, anti-social mess. We have terms for those who would prefer subverting others instead of lifting them up, and none of them are pleasant.

You can't stand together with others if you hate them and everything they stand for. This is why we have so much division right now. Weaponizing art into misery bullets has left everyone firing at each other instead of coming together. You can't understand or empathize if you can't comprehend how someone can have different views than your own without them being irredeemably evil or monsters. And these days very few can empathize with anyone who doesn't think as they do. Thank Misery Inc for this current state. This appears to be what they wanted the whole time.

But times are changing. We're in the roaring '20s now, which means anything can go.

Audiences are getting sick of misery. The death of the old publishing industry and draining profits of Hollywood show as much. The corporate period of art appears to be passing away. We're about to enter a new age of art, and we are more than due for it. What will it consist of? Who knows, but it is doubtful to be as full of content creators who despise us. Things are about to get interesting.

So get ready. Misery Inc. is crumbling, and about to collapse. We are dynamite, and we're ready to explode. Then we can pick up the pieces and start again.

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  1. You see something similar with anime. Otaku wish fulfillment fantasies are huge right now and have been since SAO broke into the scene and ruined isekai (I know there were things like it, but not on that scale).

    But they're nowhere near as big, not even close, overseas or abroad, as I-wanna-be-the-very-best shonen adventure stories.

    Because even the least creative, most paint-by-number story about people pushing and striving to be better than themselves in a cool world with colorful characters will always be more appealing than otaku wish fulfillment isekai.

    1. It is funny since none of the Isekai post-SAO have ever broken into the mainstream as big as it did, but you still see them everywhere.

      Meanwhile just last year Demon Slayer, Promised Neverland, and Dr. Stone, broke out huge.

      I'm not sure how much longer that wish fulfillment Isekai bubble is going to last, but it won't be forever. Eventually hero stories are going to take over again.

    2. Re:Zero did get some traction for awhile. Since it has a (very straightforward and simple but nevertheless extant) character arc for its lead that technically makes it one of the better isekai out there.

      Shield Hero got buzz but that's partially becase it tricked people into thinking it was something new.

    3. We're watching Hiakyu right now. There's nothing g on American T.V. even close.

  2. Notice how the "values" they want you to "question" are always traditional moral values, typically based on Christianity? They never want audiences to question, say, progressive, leftist, or secular values.

    This is not an accident.

    I also can't stand the excuse of the artiste, and that is "We just reflect reality." That is bullshit of the smelliest degree. Yes, art is a mirror. But as light is a particle and a wave, art reflects and influences. Maybe the reflection influences, but more often than not the artists provide the stimulus to change society. There's a reason all revolutions capture the artistic segment of society first.

    Great piece J.D., as always. A lot to think about. And I'm with you on B-movies like the Cannon, uh, canon: enjoyably bad films that actually do what they set out to do: TELL A STORY WHERE THE GOOD GUY USUALLY KILLS A HELL OF A LOT OF BAD GUYS. Just awesome. 10 to Midnight with Charles Bronson is one of my favorites, as are, of course, Bloodsport and Masters of the Universe.

    1. Thanks!

      Art does reflect and influence. At some point we have to wonder just what is being reflected, and if there's any value to it at all. These days there doesn't appear to be much, especially out of Hollywood.

      Cannon is something else. They tried just about everything, and so little of it is poisoned by this idea of hating the audience.

  3. JD

    Excellent post. Misery Inc is top notch rhetoric with mimetic over ones.
    I woneed if Misery inc's origins stmy from the French structuralists teaching in American universities?

    In any case the udience has had enough and is demanding old fashioned story telling involving the good true and beautiful. I want the good guys to win;get the girl and the bad guys get their justice.
    And explosions
    Lots splody action set pieces with cool gadgets, globetrotting and stunning women.