The Best and Worst Thing
Movie Subject Trends: The Relevant Biopic and the Vapid Sci-Fi Fantasy
By Adam Gropman
Nov 5, 2007

Movies often come out of Hollywood in subject or sub-genre clusters. For example, a few years ago you had both Armageddon and Deep Impact -- asteroid destruction movies -- released around the same time, followed by the vaguely similar The Day After Tomorrow. Years before that, when the Vietnam War was still a vital, happening subject, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket appeared one right after the other, followed by yet a third, Hamburger Hill. Broads sports parodies have been in season for a long time, but seem especially red hot right now. In recent memory, we've had the Bad News Bears remake, Dodgeball, Hot Rod, Happy Gilmore, Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights and Balls of Fury and I'm probably leaving out at least half a dozen others. The point is, rather than steer clear of a specific genre or subject matter that's already hit, Hollywood often temporarily swarms to the topic that's just proven itself a viable moneymaker. This can, depending on one's subjective opinion, be a very good or very bad thing. 


My favorite repeated sub-genre or topic of Hollywood films as of late is the hard-edged, modernist biopic. From Ray to Walk The Line to Last King of Scotland to The Queen to Man On The Moon to A Beautiful Mind, the biopic allows those of us who take pride in being some sort of well-read, semi-intellectual to not have to read long, dense biographies of important historical or currently living personalities, but instead to ingest the whole historic ball of wax in a two-to-three hour audiovisual spectacle, with a sprinkling of sex, violence and gratuitous swearing thrown in to make the experience that much more fun.

I also like the biopic as a format because I believe in a loose approximation of that famous old adage: The truth is often, if not stranger, at least more believable and dramatically compelling than fiction. Especially for those people whose lives burned hot and bright in their time on Earth -- the Mahatma Gandhis, Johnny Cashes, Jim Morrissons, Larry Flynts and so on. And when astounding and seemingly impossible dramatic twists and turns take place in the story, no one can dismiss them as contrived plot points by a heavy-handed writer, because they were obviously authored by the very hand of fate.


My least favorite of the recent Movie sub-genres is the make-believe, fantasy, sci-fi. You know, your Lord of the Rings, Harry Potters, Narnias, and even the sacred Star Wars series, especially its later installments. It's gotten out of hand with the elves and the goblins and the goblets and the stupid, anthropomorphic monster-like creatures with their scrunchy, hairy faces and wacky, extreme voices but otherwise cute, ornery human personalities. Why are people so turned on by this crap? Why are otherwise intelligent adults turned on by it? And why do they find it so hard to believe that I and others night not be?

Is society experiencing some sort of rapid regression toward infancy? If grown, relatively mature adults want or need an escape into pure fantasy, there is broad, slapstick comedy, there is violent action-adventure, there's even musicals, soap operas or porn. But why are otherwise functional adult humans getting so absolutely obsessed with these simplistic, archetypal, fairy tale pieces that have about as much deep emotional content and everyday verisimilitude as a Rapunzel pop-up book or a game of Dungeons and Dragons?

I first started rebelling against this infantile, regressive crap when the original Star Wars got huge, during my childhood. I loved the movie -- it was amazingly good -- but I never became a fetishist. My separation from the other kids, who did become body snatched by George Lucas and company, became clear the first time I asked, in casual school or playground conversation, “what's a wookie?” or “who's Jabba the Hutt?” I remembered the movie itself and all the important plot points, but I honestly didn't remember all of the characters' cute, crazy little sci-fi, future-world names. To my Star Wars-fanatic friends, I might as well have been admitting I didn't know the names of the U.S. President, the governor of Massachusetts or the Red Sox's center fielder. I did remember the names of flesh and blood, live-action movie characters, though, like Jake Gittes, Jack Torrance and Travis Bickle.

The same thing is happening now on an even larger and more insidious scale, and to people my own age who should have left this kind of uptight-nerd fixation behind in their middle school lockers. I am stating for the record right here and now, very openly and forcefully, and with nary a hint of apology: I don't know very much about Lord of the Rings and I don't care. I didn't read the books when I was a kid and I'm not interested now. Same with the Narnia Wardrobe Witch thing and Harry Potter.

I've had to read Harry Potter to elementary school kids who achingly jones for that book like it's a combination of heroin, cocaine and Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. It's all simple actions and far-out, zany objects and characters. I don't care if Harry's working with a goblet of lightning or a chariot of mice or a prisoner from Uzbekistan, it all goes right past my bored, glazed over mind like the mindless chattering of a three year old. 

Like most juvenile literature -- with a few classic exceptions -- Harry Potter has little or no depth, no philosophical exploration, no nuanced shadings or lyrical poetry crafted out of the gray mundane texture of life. I'm not saying that third and fourth graders need to be handed Richard Ford or T.C. Boyle, but I'd think there was at least a middle ground.

I saw Star Wars -- the original and probably best of the series -- when I was but a wee youth and it was great, but I am not part of your brittle, borderline autistic, figurine-collecting nerd herd. I don't know who Queen Amidalia is or how Anakin Skywalker is related to either Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.

When it comes to those wizard, witch and warthog movies I have no clue about Dumbledorf, Sniggledee, Hammenschnack, Frizzle-bizzle or Herpenia. Seriously, this is what the onslaught of childish, escapist garbage names sounds like to me when I catch it in conversation out of the corner of my ear.

I don't know what the One Ring is nor if there is a Two Ring, a Three Ring or an Onion Ring. I do know that respected thespians like Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Cate Blanchett and Samuel L. Jackson have contributed to these insanely popular, cash-cow monstrosities. And I'm sure they are extremely well-made and moderately entertaining pieces of filmed entertainment. But what they are not are subtle, complex, applicable slices of reality, dramatic stories that attempt to portray the actual Earth that we live in with its myriad issues and problems -- like for instance, full gravity, the existence of only one species of biped creatures that talk and the absolute absence of magic.

I enjoyed cartoons and comic books as a kid, and I think there's nothing wrong with those forms of entertainment. But they didn't masquerade in any way as serious, grave literature or examinations of the human condition. Wizards, talking serpents and magic spells belong in video games and in the lyrics to Led Zeppelin songs, but not in huge, live-action Hollywood blockbusters that are obsessed over by grown-ups.

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