OK, maybe B Movie is not the best way to describe movies that costs somewhere between $150,000,000 and $225,000,000. But this has been a great year for big, overblown, Hollywood-blockbuster, movies. Movies that pretend to have no ambition to being art but – of course – are hugely ambitious.
About twenty years ago, the late, great, Robert Altman made a movie about, death, power, taste, and fame in Hollywood. A subplot concerned a writer pitching a movie that sounds great but mutates as it goes through the movie making sausage machine. It goes from being an art film to being a vapid blockbuster (with an implication that vapid and blockbuster are redundant). One proposed scene is of a vigil outside of San Quentin with each person holding a candle under a small, backlit, umbrella: the glowing umbrellas floating in the dark. Of course, in the Altman movie, it gets cut. Almost at the end of Apocalypse, Captain Willard is floating up river to Kurtz with burning torches on the sides of the river.
Somehow, in Skyfall – the latest James Bond movie – both images are combined as Bond goes to a casino: standing on a slowly floating boat as it exits a lit dragon mouth. The whole scene is seemingly lit by glowing lanterns that float – and reflect – on the still, ink-black, water. It is a stunning scene, but far from the only stunning scene in the movie (and Skyfall is far from the only blockbuster with great cinematography). Somehow, Skyfall And it does this while keeping all the James Bond cliches and re-setting the Bond story. In one of the early scenes, Bond meets the new Q – who seems to be a very young 21 – in front of a Turner painting depicting the Temeraire – a famous British warship being tugged to the scrapyard. In one of the last scenes, Temeraire is shown helping win the Battle of Trafalgar won – of course, against all odds – by British resourcefulness and unconventional tactics. It could be the outline of the movie.
But Skyfall isn’t the only far-from-vapid blockbuster this year. It really has been a year of great blockbuster movies. In the summer, we had Prometheus by Ridley Scott which was not for everybody but, scene after scene, image after image, Prometheus is a stunning art film. Then there is the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, with its vision of a dark, dystopian, Gotham rotting from the inside. My favorite line from Dark Knight – and the most visible reference to today – whispered in Bruce Wayne’s ear by Anne Hathaway was There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
Out of nowhere – meaning they were not part of a series – came the engrossing and suspenseful Argo which was every bit as much a comment on Hollywood as The Player (except it was much more optimistic; I suspect the floating candles would have stayed in Argo). And Looper, a surprisingly moving science fiction movie, with no floating candles but a twisting plot with an unHollywood ending.
Then there was Cloud Atlas that I think was trying not to be a B Movie and seemed to succeed in not being a blockbuster and The Cabin In The Woods, directed by Drew Goddard but, really, writer Joss Whedon’s art film pretending to be a B Movie. The Avengers, Whedon’s B Movie that almost become an art movie (except for the end).
I know that I have left off some winners, but the point is, movies are just better than ever.