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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

 

Sequelitis

Writing for the LA Times in the wake of Spider-Man 3's record-breaking opening, Patrick Goldstein seizes on our current 14-sequel summer and the impending Indiana Jones 4 to express his dismay that Hollywood is more than ever ruled by film franchises, and that so many promising directors have chosen to become "brand managers" rather than commit themselves to producing singular works of genuine art. In a broad sense, this argument is dissatisfying. In its details, it is just stupid. (To single out Sam Raimi of all people, who made his career on a zombie movie series, seems particularly ridiculous.)

Goldstein throws out a number of potential reasons why directors might sign up for sequels, including: the money, artistic propriety, the money, the creative challenge of putting a fresh spin on material while retaining a series' core appeal, and the money. But Goldstein entirely fails to account for the particular attractions of serialized storytelling for both audiences and filmmakers. Here I think it is useful to separate the impulses of the Brett Ratner journeymen who sign up to direct part 3s from those like Raimi, Nolan and Singer who have guided entire franchises. (Although the former occasionally gives us such gems as Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

While it is true that very few conventional film series ever approach art, I don't see this as a valid knock against series or those who direct them. It is not clear that movie makers all have a responsibility to aspire to art over craft and entertainment, and besides, series can accomplish things in terms of scope, character development and thematic variation that singular films typically cannot. Some stories are simply take longer to tell than can be accommodated by one movie. Dickens, Trollope, Twain etc. certainly understood the appeal of serials and series. At a time when narratively complex, heavily serialized shows such as Lost and Heroes have attained both critical acclaim and mass popularity, and Battlestar Galactica is hailed as one of the best TV programs of all time, it is bewildering to me that Goldstein would fail to acknowledge one of the core attractions for directors to take ownership over franchises. Well, aside from the money. Namely, the ability to develop stories and characters over time--not just the time glossed over in an artful montage, like Charles Foster Kane and wife at the breakfast table, but over real time, as audiences get to live with characters over a span of years. The arcs traveled by Michael Corleone or even, to a lesser degree the Spidey series' Harry Osborn would not be nearly as compelling if experienced in one sitting. I get the sense that Raimi has genuine affection for the Spider-Man characters, and has enjoyed, up until now at least, navigating them through their paces in a series of interconnected episodes that 1) replicate the serialized nature of the source material and 2) definitively resolve only by the last act of the third film. For its real flaws, Raimi's Spider-Man 3 certainly provides a completion to a number of threads that had been left untied in previous installments. Goldstein doesn't see the possibility that a filmmaker might see a creative unity in a trilogy, and so is left with only the mercenary (paycheck-hunting directors) and pathetic (lazy, nostalgic viewers) as explanations. His value judgments about true artists refusing to "repeat themselves, preferring to explore the unknown rather than revisit past triumphs" seem altogether too limiting to me, and just as nostalgic in their own way.

Comments:
What you said. Try telling Michael Apted there's no artistic merit or real insight to be gained from a film series!

Snark aside (and yes, I realize a documentary series isn't the same as a fictional series) I wonder if this attitude stems from defining a "sequel" strictly in the outmoded sense as "more of the same" -- i.e., if you liked Scary Movie we'll do the same jokes in Scary Movie 2 -- instead of acknowledging that a creator can actually tell more than one story about the same characters.
 
Or that one story could take multiple films to tell. Part of the problem is certainly what you say; that many, if not most sequels to date have been more remakes than true continuations. Even the Spider-Man sequels rely too much on hitting the same story beats as previous films (not to mention hitting the same beats as the first three Superman movies.)
 
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