Monday, February 25, 2019

Ralph Breaks the Internet and My Suspension of Disbelief

Movie Rant

Warning: Spoilers for Wreck It Ralph 2 and Signs

There’s a moment toward the end of Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, when an insecurity virus picks up Ralph’s insecurities over Vanellope's decision to leave him in order to live in the Internet game Slaughter Race. The virus creates a horde of mindless, needy Ralph doppelgangers, who chase both Vanellope and the real Ralph. As they race away, Ralph looks at the army of monsters and says something to the effect of, “Huh, from this angle I can really see how destructive my insecurities can be.” The delivery suggests it’s a joke, a wink at the audience.

This moment broke me.

And I couldn’t figure out why, for the longest time. All I knew was that I felt an irrational sense of rage, growing stronger and stronger. Then, this morning, while pondering it in the shower (because this is what apparently occupies my mind first thing in the morning), it occurred to me that this line marked the moment when my suspension of disbelief broke.

So what’s the big deal with suspension of disbelief?

When you watch a movie or read a fictional book, you know the story isn’t real—but the writer creates a world that is so compelling, you shove aside this pesky fact and act as though it is real. You want to believe, and so you do. This is called suspension of disbelief, and it’s like a pact between the artist and the audience. The audience pledges to put aside all preconceived notions and view the work with an open mind. The writer pledges to repay that trust by telling them a story that they can believe in.

Which is why, when your suspension of disbelief is broken, it feels like such a betrayal. You, as the audience, feel like all the time and care and emotion you spent on the story is wasted. You can forgive someone for telling a boring story, but you cannot forgive them lying to you.

For example, my dad still talks about the ending of Signs. Signs, a movie about the start of an alien invasion, ends with the aliens being defeated by water. My dad, a highly logical person who reads a ton of science books, was outraged. How could aliens with advanced technology not know Earth was made mostly of water? How could they choose to come to Earth without any kind of space suit or even clothes to protect themselves? That element of the story made no sense, therefore the story made no sense, therefore the whole thing collapsed.

This is a typical case of the breaking of suspension of disbelief. There is a factual or logical error so great that all the cool stuff in the world can’t make you look the other way. You shake out of your trance, realize it’s all fake, and throw the story away in disgust, feeling more duped than delighted.
But what was my problem with Wreck It Ralph?

I’m a writer and moreover a fantasy writer, so I’m much more willing to suspend my disbelief over facts and science. However, I’m also very sensitive to the relationship between the writer and the story. When I read a story or watch a movie, I note how the writer is setting up plot points, relationships, and themes, and make predictions as to how they will pay it off later—and I do it automatically. That’s why it’s so hard for me to enjoy stories—it takes a while for me to shut off my brain and just go with it.

To me, Ralph looking at the virus and pointing out the obvious might as well have been a huge sign planted by the writer with big flashy letters. LOOK! HERE’S THE THEME! HERE’S THE MESSAGE! GET IT! INSECURITY TURNS YOU INTO A MONSTER. LITERALLY. And once that happened, everything that led up to that moment and everything that came after no longer seemed like the organic story of two characters struggling with a new phase of their relationship, but instead like a deliberately constructed metaphor to pound in the message of the movie.

The characters. Didn’t matter. The world. Didn’t matter. The plot. Didn’t matter. All that mattered was MESSAGE. MESSAGE sat like Yertle on his throne of turtles, with character, plot, and setting all cracking under the weight of holding it aloft.

So why is this an issue for me?

I mean, who really cares? It’s a good message (claims the mostly positive movie reviews I’ve read). It’s a kid’s movie. Just go with it and stop over-analyzing.

But see, I can’t do that, because even from a young age, even when I was a kid, this sort of thing bugged me.

I’ve always believed that a story was a thing unto itself. It was meant to be a story and that was its purpose. Same as with people. The purpose of being a person is to be a person. Maybe you have some grand calling in life, maybe you feel that you have a job to spread a message. That’s fine; that’s a part of you and maybe a big part. But the person is greater than the message—always. Whenever a person is made to feel they are less than the message, we start getting cults and terrorism and other very bad things.

A story needs to have integrity. It needs to exist as what it is. Whenever its different parts are bent and warped toward a moral or message, the integrity of the story has been breached. And that is something I cannot stand. It not only destroys the story, it also undermines the message, because clearly the message isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

Do you think that Wreck It Ralph 2 destroyed its story in order uphold a message? That’s up to you. For me, once my suspension of disbelief broke, I stopped believing in everything.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Velvet Buzzsaw and the True Horror of Making Money Off Art

Warning: Spoilers

Velvet Buzzsaw (out on Netflix) is what you get when you mash a satire of the art world with a straight-up horror movie. In it, a treasure trove of art made by a mysterious dead man is discovered by an ambitious gallery receptionist named Josephina (Zawe Ashton). When art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) deems the work to be “the next big thing,” everyone scrambles to cash in. Unfortunately, the art is cursed and soon the paintings begin killing off anyone who gets their hands on it.

The movie is weird, but I liked it. Perhaps, because I like art. I’m not someone who studies art in depth, but I do go to museums and galleries and take an amateurish pleasure in all the weird paintings, sculptures, and displays, some I get, some I don’t, some that move me, some that don’t. 

What is art? What is the artist trying to express? I don’t know, but I like it. Velvet Buzzsaw is filled with art that harkens to that off-color sensibility, from a hobo superhero robot to an audio experience of whale sounds to the ghoulish cursed paintings themselves.

The movie creatively tries to mash genres, which I appreciate, even if I found the horror aspect of Velvet Buzzsaw a little lackluster. There’s blood and gore, but the deaths weren’t particularly scary or suspenseful or shocking—aside from the very last death, which I found gruesome and a little surprising.

Fortunately, the satire elements are stronger. The movie breaks down how art is bought and sold, speculated on and commodified. Art critic, Morf, determines whether art has value or not, casually tearing down any art that doesn’t meet his standards. Gallery owner, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), uses underhanded tactics to secure art and keep it scarce to up the value. Art advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) buys pieces for her millionaire client and browbeats museums into displaying it for “tax purposes.” The process is incredibly cynical. The art may have started as pieces of genuine emotion and fascination, but they end as luxury items, whose value is determined largely by perception.

This comes at a very human cost. Piers (John Malkovich) is an artist undergoing an extreme “Writer’s Block.” Morf jokes he hasn’t produced a good painting since he got sober—a remark echoes this myth of the “tortured” artist, that only someone with a severe problem can produce “true” art. Sadly, Piers overhears this comment. The art world clearly doesn’t care about him as a person but only what he can produce. He’s a factory (cough, Andy Warhol, cough) expected to churn out heart-breaking works of staggering genius. It breaks his spirit.

Now I’m a writer, so I sympathize with the plight of the artist. But I also recognize the need to make money. In theory, it’s nice to have a system with multiple people who help you by explaining how your work has value (the art critic), getting your work to an audience (the gallery owner), and selling your art for a nice paycheck (the art advisor). But at what point does that system turn against you? At what point does it destroy the thing it’s supposed to be championing?

This is where the horror elements come in—striking back at the system and restoring a sense of balance. It does this by gruesomely killing everyone who takes part in the commodification of art. In theory, we’re supposed to hate all the characters who turn art into big bucks—it makes their deaths so much more satisfying. But I don’t—not all of them, anyway.

For example, I found myself sympathizing with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, the art critic Morf. He seems almost unable to stop judging, going so far as to criticize the color of a coffin at a funeral. (Anyone else have an inner critic that won’t shut up? I sure do.) Yet he is genuinely stirred by the cursed art and cares about his friends once he realizes their lives are in danger. At one point, his critiques are echoed back to him, and he can hear the way his words tear down the artist. He seems disturbed, tortured by his words, as if its finally occurred to him that he’s been killing the thing he loves.

But it was the final scene that lingered in my mind. After all the death and destruction, a homeless person finds the cursed paintings, displays them on a chain link fence, and sells one to a couple for $5. In a more traditional horror movie, this represents the scene where the monster comes back to life to terrorize a new crop of victims. Except—I didn’t actually fear for the homeless person or the couple buying the pictures.

Instead, I felt that this scene was the purest expression of the meeting of art and commerce. Here the process is stripped of all pretentions. The people buying the art just like it. The person selling the art is just trying to survive. And, for whatever reason, it was this idea that stirred me, because after seeing art become a speculative object, we saw it return to art.