Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.
IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.
The serving below – Flatliners, Darkman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – appeared first in Interzone #45 (March 1991).
I think it’s time for the truth about the international Jewish conspiracy. Oh yes, go ahead and laugh; they laughed at Keaton, &c., &c. But there is one, right under our noses, and it has nothing particularly to do with international capitalism, secret political cabals, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet it’s being quite literally beamed into our homes, reprogramming our thoughts every time we watch an imported sitcom or a segment of LA Law, and it’s all over the movie theatres like a creeping brain fungus consuming all it touches. Whole communities have succumbed across America, and spore clusters are already forming on the maps of Paris and London. Soon all of western Europe may fall to the deadly sludge, with only isolated pockets of immunity in remote parts of Norway and (of course) Scotland. Frankly, I fear for civilisation.
And the instrument of control? it’s the therapy model of plot. You’ve seen it a thousand times. It’s there in every film where a character (usually male: a giveaway) confronts his fear, or hugs his father, or drags out some cringingly gratuitous childhood memory, or makes his peace with the past, or tells some repugnant squit of a kid he loves it. In the more shameless cases they’ll actually do this to a therapist character, but it’s nowadays quite normal to bypass the formal process and cut straight to the ick scene. The one constant principle is that characters’ problems are rooted in the individual’s past trauma, and can be resolved by coming to terms with their assorted weedy neuroses and tedious molehills of guilt.
Now, I don’t think it’s terrifically tendentious to say this is a distinctively Jewish-American plot type, and arises from the prominence of therapy in the cultural group that happens to dominate the entertainment, and particularly the screenwriting, industry. It certainly seems to have become orthodoxy in screenwriting courses up and down the nation’s colleges that films are about individuals going through personal crises that bring them to a better understanding of themselves. Well, maybe this is my north-of-border upbringing speaking, but it seems to me there are two things wrong with this formula as a recipe for interesting entertainment. First, it’s a whole lot more interesting to people in therapy than to the presumably wide majority who find all this confessional narcissism contrived and vaguely embarrassing; second, it’s really not terribly entertaining compared with (say) getting a press release from Warner’s in one of their envelopes with the triboluminescent glue, or discovering over Christmas that if you try to read ‘Santa’ upside down it comes out as ‘Satan’. In fact, it’s one of the surest formulae around for totally wrecking a really brilled-out initial movie concept.
Take all these stiff movies. Now, this is neither a humorous nor a tasteful thing to remark, but I write at a time when a considerable slice out of the key English-language moviegoing ageband faces imminent bodily dissolution in the desert, and very possibly by the time you read this it will have come to pass. And it just struck me as one sad irony among many that the last religious text many of those people will have consumed will have been Ghost, Flatliners, or one of their innumerable eschatological satellites. When there’s so much else to feel gutted about, this probably doesn’t sound a big deal. But whatever 1990 meant for the global game, in movies it was the year of five all-conquering things: really idiotic superheroes; totally cool guys in suits shooting one another to jello; too, too kissable Julia Roberts; even more kissable Kevin Bacon; and, far ahead of all, the great American dead people picture show.
In past years, afterlife movies have been kept within scrupulously silly genre confines of horror and comedy. But suddenly here’s all this stuff posing as serious speculation on the world to come, and asking its audiences to give their emotional assent to scenarios of the terminal that abdicate any aspiration to irony, allegory, or other figurative distance. And it’s just goo. It’s happy lights and candyfloss clouds for the good persons, and Mike Jittlov in a Disney devilsuit for the punks. Despite the (on surface) resolutely agnostic and non-sectarian afterworlds in all these pictures, Hollywood pop morality has clearly colonised the higher planes: notice how, for instance, in Ghost you go to hell for computer fraud but heaven for beating people up and hounding them to lurid and improbable deaths. But above all, you have to settle with your past, tell people you love them, and go through a process of painful personal growth before you’re ready for the pearly elevator to beam you up. It’s so transparent. Even after death, there’s communicative caring and saying yes to pain.
The difference between the rest of the pack and Flatliners, apart from all those kissables in the cast, is that Flatliners at least sets out from a different tradition altogether: the literary sf tradition of Silverberg’s Recalled to Life or Watson’s Deathhunter, where exploration of the NDE is a Shelleyan odyssey beyond the barriers that segregate science from God. The sheer quality of concept in the seed scenario beats anything else in a genre movie all year, and until about halfway in it’s possible to believe they’re really going to cut free and lift from the strings of Hollywood tack. There are moments of early doubt when fanatical scienceboy Kiefer is converted by a few copter shots of Himalayas and dogs bounding through cornfields. But rescue arrives when it starts to appear that the afterlife is treacle spread thinly over brimstone: that Julia Roberts has been going round the cancer wards telling dying old ladies that they’re going to ‘a good place’ and all they have to do is make sure they’ve told everyone they love them, when in fact it’s all a horrible hoax and they’re all going to burn in hell forever. It’s going to be like the afterlife glimpsed at the end of Wells’s ‘A Dream of Armageddon’: ‘Nightmares, I tell you, nightmares! Great birds that fought and tore…’
Except it’s not. The brimstone layer turns out to be just the crust, and beneath is a superdense core of even purer treacle. Just when the plot’s about to soar away free from its earthly ties, somebody jump-starts its Hollywood heart with a fistful of kilovolts, and the plot crashes back into a peculiarly exhaustive working-out of the therapy model. Each character is allotted one (1) shadow from the past, invariably centred on childhood sins and traumas, with which they are obliged to make their peace; and even crazy-eyed junior mad scientist Kiefer turns out to be redeemable by the healing power of humbug. The deathbed turns out just another version of the movie therapist’s couch, and everyone gets up with their petty crimes cured to realise their total human potential. We shouldn’t judge harshly: the concept’s still great even if it’s clear nobody had a clue what to do with it, the fabulous gothic production design is the most pointlessly gorgeous in months, and the kissable people correctly get off with one another. And yet, for a while there, it really looked like a higher plane altogether.
Superheroes, on the other hand, might not seem such suitable cases for treatment. But even in comics it’s a venerable ‘realistic’ motif that the kinds of people who dress up in strange outfits and wage moral vendettas of violence against criminal hordes are likely to be a couple of triangles short of a Toblerone. And part of the Batman movie legacy is that totally preposterous characters with a fractal dimension somewhere below 1.8 can be made speciously interesting by the simple conceit that they got that way as a result of personal trauma. Standard model A is the old loved-ones-whacked-by-street-undesirables routine, which comes as a package with a medium-gauge prefab revenge plot. Its main rival is model B, the traumatic-accident-with-the-radioactive-acid-bath scenario, retailing in an attractive presentation case with free improbable superpowers. But why choose, when you can have the super all-in-one action pack combining both, as used in Darkman (bad guys blow lab, kill lovable ethnic assistant, leave hero for dead but actually endowed with amazing physical powers, hideous scars, and insatiable thirst for vengeance) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (bad guy kills master, drops pet in radioactive sewer sludge where he can raise clutch of irresistible cartoon heroes to take out villain and endow worldwide merchandising empire)?
For about three reasons, I felt Darkman was fairly wonderful while Turtles was rather poor. First, I’m over seven, so not a natural member of the community to whom the Turtles primarily speak – though that doesn’t mean to say we’ve a right to get cynical about an institution that certainly plays at least as powerful a role in the culture and imagination of current seven-year-olds as Thunderbirds did in ours. Second, aside from a lingering affection for Ninja III: The Possession, all western martial arts stunt movies are insultingly sub-standard compared with what’s currently coming out of the east, whereas Sam Raimi could still teach Tsui Hark a thing or two about daft routines featuring Irishmen with dissolving heads. But above all, Darkman just hasn’t its heart, despite the odd gesture of trying, in the feeble old therapy-plot wittering about the hero’s attempts to come to terms with his mutilation and the awkward effect of his plastic face on his long-term relationship. None of this new age twerping about channelling your anger so your ninja powers can develop their full potential: let’s crash some copters and throw the heroine off a ninetieth floor. Now that’s what I call a pathway to personal growth.
Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).
Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.
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