Tuesday, 2 February 2010

H2: Halloween 2 (2009)

H2: Halloween 2 (Rob Zombie, 2009)
Odeon Kingston: 27th October 2009

Contains a *F***IN' RANT*!

One big Emo/Grunge/Heavy Metal/Zombie-fied middle finger to all Halloween fans of the original and (some) sequels! Lets take some 'white horse' vision and role with it, a terrible way to explain Myers muderous intentions, raping Friday the 13th's maternal reasons for killing! Poor acting by a weak cast of Scout Taylor-Compton (a 'handsome' girl) and an obvious and tedious choice of Zombie's wife Sheri Moon! Compton plays an unsympathetic Laurie who hasn't seemed to learn anything from the first film who cannot stop crying at every occasion! An unecessary Dr. Loomis storyline, bad 90's female dialogue (record shop), shocking soundtrack with no original Carpenter score until the end credits! Brad Dourif was believable as Sheriff Brackett, Myer's gory killings (stomping of face) and some of the cinematography were the only positives to take from this disappointing shower of shite!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Is Disney strongest in its film texts rather than its merchandising?

“Disney in the 1930s, the cottage animation industry produced films of classical nature, interested in unity, closure and practices of realist representation. Monopoly capitalism was the impetus behind a certain modernist impulse, an auteurist attempt to self-consciously produce art that critiques classical representation.”
Harry Benshoff (Animation Journal, 1992)

The Disney Corporation is debatably one of the largest producers of merchandise in the entertainment world and one that has developed with changing generations. Benshoff explains that “[it] is not difficult to argue that Disney is the most recognisable name in animation, throughout both America and the world. The company has maximised its consumer appeal by careful production and marketing strategies that have developed in various stages throughout the past seventy years: from a small cottage industry in the 1920s and 1930s, through monopoly capitalism in the 1950s, to the world-wide corporate conglomerate that is Disney today.”

The popularity of Disney is though, I believe, a consequence of the narrative and characterisation rather than merchandising. The production of new films is on the back of the financing from current merchandising but its success relies on the appeal of the text. In this paper I want to show the strength of this text referencing the animation film Snow White (1937).

One possible suggestion for the popularity of Walt Disney films since the 1930’s is their dominant narratives. Concealed within these narratives are authoritative morals and ethics, consciously included by Disney to engage with its younger and innocent target audience. The importance of folk tales helps to structure the films’ narrative. Disney’s consistent engagement with the fairy tale consequently produces an almost universal appeal for audiences (historically and contemporary). The folk tale narrative is, arguably, the most easily identifiable and commonly read literature throughout the world. One may assert that Disney’s Snow White effectively utilises this classical folk tale narrative in order to establish a strong connection with its audience. Furthermore, through an analysis of Snow White’s narrative ideologies, allegorical representation, audience identification, and references to American cultural values, it may be possible to suggest that Disney’s films are more influential to children through their storytelling rather than their corporate merchandising.

According to Eric Smoodin, Disney has “been and always will be unproblematically ‘conservative’”. Conservative in the sense that Snow White simply centres around a melodramatic linear narrative. Disney purposefully employs a reasonably easy, and adaptable, storyline to simply help its young audience understand the structure of the film. The protagonist Snow White is recognised as the main character, the heroine who must complete objectives by confronting difficult obstacles in her escape from the controlling Queen, our antagonist. The Queen is represented as the imposing force against Snow White whose objective is to create these obstacles. Although designed to follow the passage of Snow White, the narrative presents the audience with the journeys of both characters in order for a conflicting finale.

The character’s narrative oppositions could arguably accentuate Disney’s theme of duality. Snow White’s two main opposing characters are obvious in terms of narrative structure but are also evident within Disney’s visual representation. In relation to their character personalities, Snow White and the Queen are morally polarised, deliberately placed at the opposite ends of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spectrum. Dorothy L. Hurley article on Disney’s self-image supports this observation and asserts “since [Snow White,] Disney productions have become the dominant source of children's intertextual knowledge of fairy tales, particularly in relation to visual and imaginary images. However, Disney's productions of the fairy tales not only deviate a great deal from the source texts in relation to plot and characterization, they also manifest rampant use of the symbolism of white for goodness and black for evil or danger.”

One may suggest that Snow White’s young age plays a significant part in Disney’s ability to engage with its younger audience. Uncertain of her actual age, from her first introduction on screen, although in a position of domestication, she appears innocent and carefree as she playfully sings scrubbing the courtyard of her stepmother’s palace. Snow White’s reaction to the Prince when he first meets her could be read as a child’s reaction to a stranger as when she appears she is scared of him and hides away, despite his efforts to reassure Snow White that he means her no harm. It is interesting that the second, and last, introduction of the Prince presents his significant role within the narrative when affectionately representing “Love’s First Kiss”. The Prince is initially seen as an outsider but ultimately is represented as the saviour.

One could suggest that, in terms of Snow White’s childlike tendencies, her journey may, arguably, act as a ‘coming-of-age’ metaphor: from her playful manner in the courtyard (a child); her “purification and regeneration” in the forest (a teenager); her maternal quality to the seven dwarfs (a mother); finally to her future together with the Prince (love/marriage). Furthermore, this suggestion could be supported by Whitley’s observation that “Snow White’s ‘saccharine sweetness’ is taken to disarm young viewers from perceiving her role as exemplar of a stifling mid-century ideal of female conformity.”

Another possible suggestion is that Snow White also references the religion of Christianity. It could be argued that the poisoned apple made by the Queen for Snow White could be seen to symbolise the Story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Additionally, after the Prince has awoken Snow White they both set off into the distance towards a castle-like exterior. An interpretation of this castle may be that it consciously represents Disney’s own ‘Magical Castle’ image, perhaps a bold self-recognition on its first feature-length animation. Alternatively, this castle may otherwise be seen as a Heavenly imagery to Christianity’s belief of ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. However, if this interpretation was to be further analysed the ending, and entire narrative, of Snow White may be deeply scrutinised. Is Disney pandering to a religious, conservative American community/audience? In relation to merchandising, Disney’s Magical Castle is used as its universal trademark. The castle has even been turned into a full-sized attraction at its global Disneyland and Disney World Resorts. This could be seen as symbolic in selling the dream of a magical kingdom to children. Disneyland has perhaps becomes part of an idealised world in which Disney is selling its own version of the American Dream.

In conclusion, as primary evidence, in my old school an art project on narrative was given to a group of 14-15 year olds; they had to illustrate scenes from their favourite books or poems. Roughly about 75% of the class illustrated Disney’s versions of stories. They had no knowledge of the original stories, authors or background. Jungle Book (1967) for them was only Disney and Disney’s interpretation of character. They did not know of or had never read Rudyard Kipling or imagined that the stories had been illustrated before. It is not the merchandising that has influenced these students but the over-exposure at a young age to the work of Disney.

It does seem that most of the texts, although derived from fairytales and disguised through the use of animals with human characteristics, promote American values and the American culture. The merchandising seems secondary in relation to the appetite for coveting the American Dream after the Second World War and during the 1950s. The merchandising is huge of course especially if you include the parks but surely these only survive because of the strength of the characters and stories. I think Disney is unique in the sense that it is not about a film or series of films but an entire production, unlike Pok√©mon (1999) in Japan where the merchandising was huge but the text unknown and forgotten. Disney is about stories and films that have lasted generations. The stories and characters are timeless and the merchandising has been developed to cater for a changing generation. I don’t think that’s true of something like Star Wars (1977) which in time will seem dated in its technology and texts.

Have we entered the post-star era?” (Richard Corliss 2000). How accurate is the ‘post-star era’ as a label for contemporary Hollywood?

“I try to protect myself a little bit from a certain amount of public scrutiny. And when you protect yourself, you pay a price, particularly from the tabloids [...] Tabloids will pay cash to anybody who has any piece of information about a celebrity. And I find that incredibly disturbing [...] They want to follow me around, stalk me with 600-millimeter lenses. They even have people who will go through my trash, just so they can sell a piece of toilet paper at the checkout lines once a week to prove, once again, that I have foibles just like everybody else.” Michael Douglas (interview, May 1998)

I believe that Richard Corliss’ statement that Hollywood may have encountered a ‘post-star era’ is true. I agree that Hollywood has witnessed a new form of contemporary stardom post-2000. However, on the one hand as this new stardom focuses on a star’s commercial identity over ‘quality’ of performance it should not be viewed as a harmful actor trait but perhaps one that still benefits Hollywood production. In disagreement with Corliss’ view on production’s “return on star investment”, I consider that Hollywood productions are not considerably losing profits due to a decline of the “stars’ investment” but, arguably, consciously utilise this, fairly newfound, celebrity star status to appeal to larger audiences. My argument is that although the star status of Michael Douglas, for example, has developed into, as Christine Geraghty suggests, a “star-as-celebrity” , most Hollywood producers are seemingly impervious to this ‘post-star era’ and can still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit. Moreover, I believe that this argument could be strengthened by Richard Dyer’s proposed “starpower” and how it can be an important economic feature for film institutions that use the “star as a commodity” (Maltby and Craven 1995).

Firstly, I wish to briefly clarify my interpretation of what ‘post-star era’ Hollywood is. In terms of postmodern stardom, the meteoric rise of global media coverage has witnessed an increased amount of public access that directly focuses on actors’ personal and private lives. The emergence of the internet, the increase in celebrity gossip magazines and entertainment television channels all dedicate column inches and live reports to the latest celebrity news and gossip. Actors have become ‘celebrities’ in their own right that have consequently caused audience’s to compensate for a lack of self-esteem or social success which, in turn, is supplied by these gossip magazines that try to construct a bond between actor and reader/observer. The ‘post-star’ relates to this audiences’ celebrity worship insofar as Geraghty’s alternate “star-as-performer” model has been tarnished to present an increased emphasis on the “biographical aspects of a star’s private life”.

I regard Michael Douglas as an interesting case for stardom analysis as I think he could offer arguments for his acting ability (not to digress into the subject of actors’ levels of talent) or performer image on-screen and his celebrity image off-screen. My observation is supported by Paul Watson’s suggestion that Douglas “is also an example of the way a star can embody the various modes of stardom simultaneously without those modes necessarily overlapping to reinforce, complicate or contradict the star image.” In the case of Douglas’ celebrity image I believe that his star investment, and popularity, has debatably increased slightly since his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2000. It could be argued that this pairing of these celebrities could possibly only serve to heighten Douglas’ star investment as an actor.

To return to the subject of the ‘post-star era’, Douglas’ marriage was commonly viewed as the Hollywood celebrity couple. A key example of this ‘post-star era’ is the public fued between glossy celebrity magazine companies OK!, the official Douglas’ wedding day photography, and Hello!, who published unauthorised photos. This highlights the idea of intertextuality within ‘star-as-celebrity’. Geraghty explains,

“[T]he construction, circulation and access of information across a whole range of media platforms- not only describes the ‘form’ and ‘practice’ of celebrity, but it is also a primary focus of research precisely insofar as ‘it is the audience’s access to and celebration of intimate information from a variety of texts and sources which are important’ in this mode of stardom.”

Another possible suggestion for Douglas’ celebrity status could be his emergence into Hollywood. Specifically his early acting career, I consider the factor of nepotism (a relentless tendency within Hollywood) to affect Douglas’ fame and celebrity image, as the son of famous iconic Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas. Douglas’ family celebrity image arguably hyperbolizes the singular ‘star-as-celebrity’ through forms of historical intertextuality. The Douglas’ father-and-son clean-cut, conservative and respectable image has questionably been sustained over the years which could correspond to interaction with their audience expectations for their first family film It Runs In The Family (2003). This film may act as a reason why Hollywood producers are completely exercising this ‘post-star era’ by purposefully using the off-screen persona (not the name) of the Douglas family (Kirk, Douglas and son Cameron) in order to appeal to pre-knowledge of their celebrity consumed audiences. Similarly, Douglas’ appearance in a Will and Grace episode, aptly titled “Fatal Attraction”, in 2002 I think should be valued as a ‘post-star era’/ postmodern homage or, more likely pastiche, to Douglas’ film Fatal Attraction (1987).

Conversely, I need to address the opposite side of my argument that producers still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit. As I’ve already argued that Douglas’ ‘star-as-celebrity’ image has affected his on-screen performance, Watson explains that “in general [,] a more plausible account of his stardom within the cinema, especially latterly, is related to the consistency of his screen persona.” Furthermore, Douglas himself confesses,

“I've been able to choose different types of roles, and I am proud that the audience has been able to accept me in whatever type of role I play. They are not the typical 'movie star' roles. They're more ambivalent character [...] They are not the outright positive type of images that you attribute to selecting a 'star' type role.”

One possible suggestion could be that, audiences have witnessed a shift through his acting career in terms of characterisation. Whereas Nick James describes Douglas’ earlier character choices as “a lightning rod for the anxieties of the US male”, I can observe a shift of roles during this ‘post-star era’. Douglas’ on-screen persona, in his film Wonder Boys (2000), arguably sees a deliberate artistic decision to play a role that is particularly older than his previous performances. Wonder Boys was the first film for Douglas since his last on-screen performance two years before in A Perfect Murder (1998). James explains that,

“part of the power of Wonder Boys lies in the way the more furious, control-freak aspects associated with Douglas are reincarnated in ‘a passive wreck of a man’. The poignancy of the scene in which Douglas’ character, Grady, a disillusioned professor and writer, sits slumped on his porch wearing a tatty woolly hat and his ex-wife’s pink flannelette dressing gown watching the rain fall significantly depends precisely upon his professional star image just insofar as it can be read not only as a key moment in the film, but also as a mileage marker within an overarching star persona.”

One argument that could be made is that Douglas has decided to perhaps subconsciously surrender to this ‘post-star era’ and has acknowledged that his own on-screen identity and “star-as-celebrity” status has devalued, in a cultural and economic sense. His off-screen celebrity image as a husband, father and grandfather is beginning to transfer in his on-screen characters in The In-Laws (2003) and You, Me & Dupree (2006).

In conclusion, I believe my argument that although the star status of Michael Douglas has developed into a ‘star-as-celebrity’, most Hollywood producers are seemingly impervious to this ‘post-star era’ and can still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit has been supported by a range of different academics and source material. Nevertheless, I can accept that Geraghty’s explanation of the star’s image overweighting the actor to be true; “it is not simply that the star image of the celebrity exceeds the film text, but instead that it is dislocated from it altogether and dispersed across a range of extra-filmic texts. [The] adaptability and ubiquity, as well as the proximity of ‘celebrity culture’ to media per se make ‘celebrity’ perhaps the key mode of contemporary stardom.” I consider Corliss’ statement that we “have entered a post-era” in Hollywood but not all actors need to rely just on upon their own star image. On one hand, I think actors like Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis depend upon their ‘star-as-celebrity’ image more than their professional identity within this Hollywood ‘post-star era’. Whereas on the other hand, I believe some actors, including Michael Douglas, offer a greater division between star and actor, ultimately limiting risk for Hollywood production.