(NOTICE: This article may contain spoilers for the movie “2012.”)
In October of 2008, The Guardian published a “Life & Style” article by Kathryn Harris profiling a filmmaker with outlandish taste in home décor. African masks and phallic sculptures shared floorspace with blasphemous paintings. Glass tables encased miniature dioramas of the JFK Assassination and Tiananmen Square. Repurposed scraps of warplanes served as headboards and dining-tables. Vintage propaganda portraits of Mao Tse-Tung adorned the walls, as did opulent taxidermy creations to rival the fantasies of any Great White Hunter. Outright political satire was also well-represented: The filmmaker – a champion of gay and lesbian equal-rights causes – prominently displayed a framed photo of Mahmmoud Amedinjad, the notoriously gay-hating president of Iran, that had been Photoshopped to place the infamous dictator in wedding-dress drag.
What sort of eccentric avant-garde artiste dwells in such a place? Surely, the subject at hand must be some obscure figure of the indie scene – an arthouse darling, no doubt known for impenetrable low-budget abstractions never seen outside of New York, LA or Sundance, if at all, right?
Well, no, actually. As it turned out, this was the home of Roland Emmerich – director of crowd-pleasing blockbusters like “Stargate,” “The Patriot,””The Day After Tomorrow” and “Independence Day,” along with this week’s end-of-days epic “2012.” Never can tell, eh?
It almost sounds like a parody in and of itself: The devotee of offbeat, button-pushing art whose own creative output is dominated by mass-appeal epics heavily steeped in mythic traditionalism and unapologetic sentimentality? The same filmmaker known to offer audiences – in the same shot, no less – the nihilistic thrill of seeing an entire city incinerated in a cosmic fireball and the heart-tugging emotional sorbet of seeing an adorable puppy-dog dodge that very same fireball, collects pitch-black “irony pieces?” It’s too perfectly-asymmetrical, almost as though Emmerich’s career is itself just another piece of is-he-kidding-or-is-he-insane object d’arte decorating his maniac mansion.
Well, from where I sit, if Emmerich is kidding he must have a poker face to rival Mount Rushmore. “Joke” is the last word I’d ever associate with his films – followed closely by “smug,” “irony” and, for whatever reason, “cantaloupe.” Let’s be very clear: Roland Emmerich makes profoundly silly movies, the archetypal house-style of a blockbuster industry built on making spun gold from the sturm n’ drang imaginations of hyperactive teenage boys – the type of movies that do the dirty-work of paying for all the other types of movies. But he’s better at it than almost anyone else working in this niche in terms of both cold numbers and also genuine artistry – yes, I said artistry – and I’d argue that a substantial factor in his superiority is the seriousness with which his better films play out. Silly? Yes, except the movies themselves don’t appear to know that.
Take, for example, “The Patriot,” which I’d contend is Emmerich’s best overall work. It has precisely nothing to do with the reality or even the known history of the American Revolutionary War, boiling one of the most multi-faceted, complex political/military conflicts in history down to an eye-for-an-eye clash of wills (and fists, and swords, and pistols, and tomahawks, and flags used as spears) between Mel Gibson’s wronged, revenge-fueled Colonial family man and Jason Isaacs’ psychotic, blood-crazed British Colonel. It’s a 4th of July Children’s Pageant understanding of history, rendered in the garish hues of Classics Illustrated cover art, driven by a soaring John Williams score, the thundering patriotic righteousness of which serves to make the Star Spangled Banner sound like Philip Glass covering Rage Against The Machine by comparison. When Barack Obama concluded his Presidential victory speech, he exited the stage to the music from this movie. Really.
But never once do any of the characters make knowing, winking asides to the audience as if to assure us “don’t worry folks, we think this is silly, too.” Like most of Emmerich’s output, self-consciousness simply doesn’t exist here: When Gibson’s Benjamin Martin charges valiantly across a chaotic battlefield, blasting Redcoats with bullets made by melting-down the toys of his murdered son, wielding a tattered American Flag as a lance with which to fell his wicked archnemesis, it’s the essence of blunt, on-the-nose symbolism. And if even one character had turned around for an “oh please!” or “a bit much, ain’t it?” the whole enterprise would collapse. Think about the constant self-referential “we’re not taking this serious, neither should you” glibness of the “Transformers” films. “The Patriot” has no such self-reflection, and as such ultimately manages a task even more difficult than accurately capturing history: Accurately capturing historical-mythology, the sweeping fantasy of a cultural creation story.
To put it another way: A straight face sells a joke better than a silly one. Stephen Colbert is undeniably a talented comedian, but what sells “The Colbert Report” even moreso than the actual material is his near-perfect delivery – precisely duplicating the stone-faced sincerity of the self-important right-wing commentators he’s mocking. By design or not, I see the same sort of angle at work in Emmerich’s films. Anyone can stage a goofy disaster movie moment for cheap laughs at the goofiness, but it takes genuine skill to stage it straight where – paradoxically – it’s actually funnier and doesn’t deny access to anyone who’s not in on the joke.
“2012” actually ends up containing close to a perfect example of this concept, in a scene that may go down in history as the pinnacle of the Disaster Movie staple “The Dog Always Survives”: During the climactic sequence of the film, as the designated Good Guys struggle to sneak themselves into the bowels of a gigantic rescue ark, one of them spots her previously-separated puppy down among the throng of doomed (mostly “bad”) folks teeming at the edge of a bottomless chasm. She whistles, and the damn thing takes off at full-scurry – clambering up the rocks and even bounding across a cable stretched across the chasm like freaking Jackie Chan – finally hopping into her arms at the last possible moment. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see on “Robot Chicken” ending with the dog most-decidedly not making it, but here it plays out with complete sincerity, underscored by a soundtrack of pounding drums and an optimistically-soaring string section.
I watched this scene play out in a theater full of professional film critics – to a man the most cynical, jaded sort of moviegoer one could ever hope to meet – and from the moment it became clear that we were approaching a “puppy survival moment” the place was going nuts for it: Cheering, laughing and – when the critter had landed in safety – spontaneous applause. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that I can’t be sure how many of us were genuinely applauding the victory of Dog over Adversity versus how many were applauding at the sheer gall of putting such a scene in a 21st century film. Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that it doesn’t really matter.
Somehow, in conflict with everything up to and including their own plots and concepts, this guy’s movies just tend to work through an unnervingly simple combination of good old-fashioned nuts and bolts filmmaking skills (unlike certain contemporaries whose names may or may not rhyme with Bichael May) and even more old-fashioned sincerity. Maybe it’s all a put-on, maybe it’s not, but at the end of the day a satisfied audience is a satisfied audience. And even if “2012” isn’t necessarily the most artistically or thematically worthwhile film ever to make the pile of cash it’s inevitably going to make; it’s just too darn good-natured and honest for me to begrudge it any of it’s success. After all, it’s not the end of the world.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.