MovieBob - Intermission
The End of Reality (Good Riddance!)

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 9 Apr 2010 16:00
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As I may have said before, I don't particularly care for reality. It's an unpleasant place full of horrid people (aka "people") and not a single dinosaur, alien or even unusually large gorilla to be found. Frankly, I'm glad to be living in a time when the only successful political war movie is set on Pandora, the only successful terrorism movie is the one where the terrorist is The Joker and where - just recently - damn near every youngish white guy in Hollywood was fighting it out over who got to star in the life story of WWII hero... Audie Murphy? George Patton? Nope - Captain America. No complaints here.

But that's me.

One of the most vociferous of the "what happened to realism?" contingent is critic/commentator Jeffrey Wells, whose Hollywood Elsewhere blog is a must-read both for its film commentary and the spectacle of Wells' rebel-yell outbursts against the depressing cluelessness of the average movie audience (on which we'd essentially agree) and the geeking of American film (on which we would not). In an early, unexpectedly positive (for Wells) reaction to Kick-Ass, he provided a fairly perfect crystallization of the argument:

It's gotten to the point that I'd like to arrest and incarcerate every last geek-pandering filmmaker and every last pudgy-bodied, ComicCon-attending comic-book fan and truck them all out to re-education camps in the desert and make them do calisthenics in the morning and swear off junk food and straighten their heads out about the real value of great action movies, and how their stupid allegiance to comic-book values is poisoning the well.

Wells wrote that on April 1st in a piece titled "Geek Apocalypse", later expanding with: "The vast majority of action films used to live by the realism creed. Now it's pretty much the exception to the rule. Many if not most action films these days are committed to the willfully surreal if not absurd. They're all angled towards aficionados of Asian sword-and-bullet ballet."

Now, look, for all the flowery language on any end of this, the fact remains that we're basically talking about asthetic preferences. From where I stand, the idea that a movie - an action film in particular - looks or plays out like some grand mélange of comics, videogames and Asian martial arts asthetics makes me more inclined to check it out, whereas for critics of the above temperament it's often a license to dismiss it out of hand. But what stood out to me in particular was the "lost greatness of the realistic age" encapsulated in this passage: "The vast majority of action films used to live by the realism creed."

Now, that sounds like it'd be the case, and depending on how narrow a net you want to cast in terms of era and geography it might be situationally correct. But in terms of film history, it's just not true.

The fact is realism - especially in the action genre - has been the exception for almost the entirety of film history. Thomas Edison and George Meirelles - who ought, fairly, to share credit for the invention of what we think of as The Movies - invented special-effects trickery and reality-warping abstraction right afterwards.Action heroes of the silent era like Douglas Fairbanks (to say nothing of comedians like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd) performed death-defying stunts and feats of superhuman strength frequently augmented by editing tricks or perspective-decieving sets. German expressionist silent directors sent their actors tumbling through surreal worlds of nightmare imagery and warped angles with little or no rationale in the story.

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