Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Double Feature Review: Pitch Perfect & Sharktopus

To paraphrase musicologist Hans Keller, great art diversifies a unity. One of the principal challenges of art, then, is crafting episodes which both stand alone and reflect the whole. The essential challenge of this craft is threefold: he must depart, do something, and return. These miniature journeys are easily observed in the musical form called the rondo, which features variation episodes punctuated by a return to the main theme, announced at the outset. In the form called the fugue, the main idea is the fugue subject and the "plot," so to speak, is the many forms which this unity can assume. In drama, the episodes, called scenes, relate back to a plot which constitutes a main idea. This is an ideal toward which all great artists struggle.

Lesser works, as Keller observed, merely unify disparate elements, elements which may or may not add up to something significant. For example, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction persuasively unifies various stories by means of plot and style, but they don't add up to anything in the way the dramatic and philosophical symmetries of Altman's Short Cuts or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey constitute themes from which seemingly disparate rivers spring. Pulp Fiction, though, strives towards unity.

All forms are subject to degradation, though, and there are still lesser degrees of unity, the lowest of which allows each form wholly to dissipate into its constituent parts without any attempt at unity. Works at this level exist to fulfill the stock requirements of the genre, not to express ideas. Such insincere attempts at expression which merely model the forms of art are not unique to our age. Vivaldi's Venice knew too many thinly-plotted operas which were little more than vehicles for screeching sopranos and Mozart's Austria drowned in thousands of dry, drowsy string quartets. Our own age knows the phenomenon in the form of cheap genre movies.

Directed by Jason Moore. 2012.

Pitch Perfect doesn't care about anyone either in or watching it. No one involved bothered about doing anything new or with even a teensy bit of flair or variation. It has a weekend script which strings a series of stock elements along a plot for which it has so little concern that occasionally it skips the bother of scenes altogether, preferring to summarize the plot in narration or outright dropping action which nonetheless takes place and whose results we are forced to infer. This reduction liquefies the plot into something as complex and significant as the summary of a Chinese cookie fortune.

The movie of course does have the obligatory genre elements, namely, 1) adolescent angst, 2) spontaneous singing, 3) gross lowbrow comedy, 4) paternal finger-wagging, 5) rivalries, 6) a kinda-sorta romance, and 7) safe, oblique references to non-SWPL life, all played for cheap laughs.

There is no touchstone of direction or purpose, and certainly no attempt toward style or even tone. We only generously call it a movie.

Budget: $17,000,000 (estimated) 
Opening Weekend: $5,149,433 (USA)

Directed by Declan O'Brien. 2010.

At least Asylum Studios is frank about their motivations: they're gaming the system. The only fact I doubt from their remarks is that it takes so long as ten days to write one of their scripts. Just like Pitch Perfect, there's no plot to speak of, and while I wasn't looking for much, you need something. Jaws might have set in motion thirty years of inferior knock offs, but only because it perfected the formula. You had Chief Brody's awkwardness in suburbia, the interplay of the three men on the boat, and of course the looming presence of a giant killer shark, culminating in a man versus beast struggle. Sharktopus has many of the same parts, people running, people on the beach, people being eaten, and so forth. Throw in some tech gizmos, a couple of jerks to give the hero some grief, and a pretty girl, and I guess you have a movie. Unlike the terrifying Jaws, though, there is no effect because the parts are so incongruous. 

On the one hand these movies are a clear cash grab, but on the on the other we get a whiff of Duchamp's urinal. There's a challenge to art somewhere in the audacity, not of defining these pieces as art, but of throwing them in the ring with art. Lowbrow adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars demonstrate that with enough skill you can turn even junk and old stiff models into veritable entertainment, at least. These works, though, aspire neither to craft nor effect of any kind. They are vestiges of Western art: evolved, but impotent. Most people look at such movies with a light heart, but I wonder if we ought not be at least a little offended. 

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