Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Change, Stasis, and Predictability in Hollywood

This week, Culture Warrior gets personal as he covers why Hollywood and its characters always seem to be the same but different.
By  · Published on June 2nd, 2009

I’ve never intended this column to be personal in any way. With the prominence of personal blogging and social networking sites, I’ve felt a responsibility to spare the Internets from the mundane events of my daily life. I recognize the fact that, chances are, 99.9% of you reading this just don’t care about the life of some dude you’ve never met, and want him to just get along making overwritten, meandering, pseudo-intellectual, far-too-serious arguments about moviegoing (and, sincerely, thank you all for reading). But, frankly, sometimes the events of my life create such a determining frame of mind for the movies I watch that’s it’s really impossible to separate one from the other.

I’m currently in the process of making a move to the home of FSR headquarters, Austin, TX (which also marks a return to my home state), leaving my beloved New York City behind after only two years living there. This is the third major move in my life, and although it’s been great to have made so many personal connections with people after living in the two biggest cities in the US, these moves have consistently showed me that a substantial amount of these connections will be lost in the meantime, and I will often lose touch with the people I least expect. I made some personal connections my last days in New York, the type of which I never expected to make, and I was given all the reason to pull a spontaneous last-minute movie-moment turnaround, dramatically leaving my original plans behind in favor of staying put. But alas, I am not a spontaneous person, and my life, as it has proved over and over again, does not resemble the three-act structure of a movie. Thankfully, I’ve stuck to my original plans and I welcome the chance to do my part in keeping Austin weird.

Yet I had a profound moment as my flight home on American Airlines screened last year’s tearjerker blockbuster Marley & Me (yes, you read that right, I put “profound” and Marley & Me in the same sentence), a film that made over $140 million domestically despite that I can’t find a single person that’s admitted to seeing it. The conventions of this film, and the influence and cultural pervasiveness of films like it, seem to be why I envisioned the possibility of staying in NYC in dramatic movie terms.

If one looks at Hollywood as an ideological machine (and there are many convincing arguments stating how this does or does not take place), one can effectively argue that Hollywood promotes a rather conservative agenda: the enforcement of family values and the family unit, consumerism, the importance of professional achievement, and the triumph of the hero. But, most of all, this ideology is articulated through one general, flexible stratifying trope: the promotion of stasis. It seemed last week in my personal life that the natural next step would be to move as I had planned and start the next chapter, yet I felt, after indulging in Hollywood movies the past two decades, a powerful voice in my head telling me to stay put that I couldn’t ignore. Because in Hollywood, it seems connections between characters only matter if they’re continuing rather than finite.

Granted, it can be argued that the entire point of Marley & Me is to chronicle the inevitable changes that life brings: moving cities, having children, death, and all the adjustments therein. But all this is presented in the context of being consistent in one way or another, keeping in control those things that humans seem to have the capability not to change, namely the preservation of the family unit. Throughout the film, Owen Wilson’s character is surrounded by people, single or not, who are totally dismissive of the idea of a fulfilling and functional marriage, and he has a forever-bachelor best friend (the type of which no married man ever really seems to have) who instructs him to bail at any sign of trouble between he and his wife. Wilson’s marriage, of course, endures throughout the film, overcoming any of the problems they may encounter, and this is obviously the perspective on marriage and family life that the film wants the audience to come away with. After Wilson’s family has moved to a bigger house outside Philadelphia (as the necessity for change is only motivated by social mobility and enduring preservation of the family unit, we never witness the family struggle with such a change—in other words, place is besides the point as long as the family unit is contained throughout such transitions, so the significance of “change” here hardly extends beyond background scenery), Wilson runs into his former colleague in the city who, hair now turned white, is still on the prowl as the forever bachelor.

This scene suggests the ultimate victory in Wilson’s more traditional approach to relationships, positing his friend’s endless conquering as sad and pathetic, leading to an inevitably unfulfilling life of loneliness (emphasized by the fact that Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, who live a life of stasis over the decade-long narrative, never seem to age while their friend, who lives his life in constant flux, appears significantly older). Marley & Me suggests we pity those who do not value or make an effort to sustain meaningful connections in life, that one can only find true worth in life if we are not always on the move, and instead take time to settle and hold on. Yet this scene contradicts its own message by also suggesting that Wilson and his friend have still maintained signs of an amicable friendship despite the wear and tear of time and distance, that true connections can sustain, outlive, overcome, or even be enlivened by such constraints, and finally that those people we truly connect with can be once again encountered later in life through pure serendipity or force of connections. In this contradiction I find a hint of my personal view of the world: that a constant state of change and transition does not necessarily prevent valuable human connections from being reconciled, nor do they render lost connections insignificant simply by their lack of endurance.

Yet the pressures of the three-act structure, the happy ending, the overall conventions of genre filmmaking, and the management of audience expectations cause much Hollywood fare (especially family-friendly films like Marley) to walk a tenuous tight rope between change and stasis for their characters. On one hand, change must occur to push the narrative forward: the protagonist much learn something and change his/herself in the process, moving somehow from point A to point B. On the other, audiences never want anything too new or drastically surprising—there needs to exist a certain degree of predictability, aligning with the conventions of previous Hollywood films like it, to give mainstream audiences the experience they are looking for going into the theater. Not giving the audience what they expect often results in a frustrated filmgoer, yet keeping it too familiar will result in a bored filmgoer.

The relative degrees of change and stasis that filmic characters must go through is reflected in this overall management of predictability in Hollywood filmmaking. Audiences don’t flock to romantic comedies, for instance, expecting the characters to break up at the end—they merely want to see variations on the same form.

I’ve also recently seen two other films that were released last winter which manage change, stasis, and predictability in pertinent ways to this view of Hollywood. The entire conspiracy plot structuring Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie rests on the notion that every audience member with the faintest knowledge of twentieth century western history knows that the protagonist will fail in his goal, so the appeal of this moderately successful suspense thriller must not have lied in the outcome, but the means. The audience can predict what will happen, but knowledge of the end result gives them a comfort level that allows the filmgoer to, at least in theory, appreciate the process instead. At the same time, events in these characters’ lives change, but their character remains static—they end the film believing exactly what they believed at the beginning. In this year’s surprise hit Taken, Liam Neeson’s retired CIA agent forgoes most of the conventions that make the suspense thriller suspenseful or thrilling, as no point in his journey to retrieve his daughter does he seem to have any degree of difficulty or real threat of death or failure. Taken acts as a rare wish-fulfillment narrative, allowing its main character to kick anybody’s ass with unbelievable ease. Once again, the outcome here is predictable, but the entertainment value lies in the process (however stale that process might be portrayed) and the comfort in knowing that the film will deliver on our expectations, while its major characters remain fundamentally unchanged by the end.

Yet perhaps there is no clearer manifestation on Hollywood’s management of change and stasis, or familiarity and variation, than the summer blockbuster sequel. In films like Terminator Salvation, Night at the Museum 2, Angels & Demons, Star Trek, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there are a very clear set of expectations outlined by previous entries in the film series which must be satisfied, yet the movie must not be so similar to its predecessor that it feels like a carbon copy of a previous entry rather than a variation of a previous installment.

It seems as audiences we take comfort in, if not outright need, the confirmation of expectations bestowed on us by Hollywood cinema. We need our characters to be consistent and reliable, and our movies familiar and predictable, while (sometimes to the point of contradiction, as illustrated in the Marley example) bestowing a necessary but cautious dose of change or variation. Perhaps, when our lives change in often startling and unpredictable ways, the dramatic endings and consistency of Hollywood’s emphasis on staying put and staying the same is a comforting and rare place where redundancy and predictability are the norm, and the threat of loss due to major life changes don’t exist. Thank you, Hollywood, for your beautiful and entertaining lies.

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