Thursday, July 06, 2023

The Franchise Lives On: Scream and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

I will begin with a story. When I was in graduate school I returned to Hampshire twice to teach as part of the Jan Plan. The college was interested in elevating its January term, which up until then had been a free for all of student led courses. I was looking to get out of Binghamton for a few weeks. Even in the bitter cold of January, Amherst has more to offer than Broome County. I saw the first Scream during one of those Januarys, and the next January I taught it.

My course was meant to be fun. We read some of Lawrence Grossberg's We Gotta Get Out of this Place, some of Steven Shaviro's The Cinematic Body, some Jameson, and probably some of Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Basically books that I thought were cool). My approach to Scream was ambitious. I assigned some of Paolo Virno's writings on opportunism and cynicism as the prevailing attitudes of modern life, and tried to make a connection, albeit an uncertain one, between his description of cynicism and the self aware nature of Scream. The basis of this connection is the way in which the cynic is aware of both the arbitrary and binding nature of  nature of certain rules, norms, and protocols. As Virno writes:

"The cynic recognizes, in the particular context in which he operates, the predominate role played by certain epistemological premises and the simultaneous absence of real equivalences. To prevent disillusion, he forgoes any aspiration to dialogic and transparent communication. He renounces from the beginning the search for an intersubjective foundation for his practice and for a shared criterion of moral value … The decline of the principle of equivalence, a principle intimately connected to commerce and exchange, can be seen in the cynic’s behaviour, in his impatient abandon of the demand for equality. He entrusts his own affirmation of self to the multiplication and fluidification of hierarchies and unequal distributions that the unexpected centrality of knowledge in production seems to imply."

This awareness of rules seemed to apply to the self aware nature of the Scream films which attempt to both recognize the conventions of the slasher film, "there are rules for surviving a horror movie," and keep those conventions in place as the basis for the film. (It is worth noting that the Scream films never offer a justification for a convention, never goes the route of later films, like Cabin in the Woods that ground the conventions of one genre by explaining them by way of another, in this case cosmic horror/government conspiracy). The Scream films both acknowledge the cliched nature of the rules while simultaneously using them as rules, saying that "You will be right back" is a sure guarantee that you won't, engaging in sexual activity is a death sentence. (it demands both a knowing wink and a terrified scream).

This put the Scream films in a difficult position, of constantly commenting on while utilizing the conventions of slasher films, a task made more difficult by the fact that that specific sub genre of horror is subject to its own cycles of exhaustion and renewal. The recent Scream films, the one just called Scream and the recent sequel, that resumes the sequence with the number VI, have offered their own meta-commentary on the genre, and the current state of the culture industry. Scream coined the term "requel," a sequel that is also a reset or reboot of the series. 

Usually such requels attempt to right a series which has lost its way, or its audience.The requel brings back a major character or original director as an attempt to restore continuity and trust. A list of such requels includes the recent Halloween films with Jamie Lee Curtis, Terminator: Dark Fate, Jurassic World: Dominion, and Prometheus. All films that reboot and restore a series. It could be argued, however, that the Scream films have never needed such a reset. The original cast, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette, have been in all of the films, and there has been no diversion from the formula that needed correction just the exhaustion brought about by repetition. This tension between the concept and the film is resolved in Scream (5)  by having The Stab series, the films within the film, lose sight of the slasher premise of the earlier films. The reference here seems to be to such series wrecking deviations as the Friday the Thirteenth in space, Jason X and the convoluted mythos of the later Halloween films. Scream is oddly a better work of film criticism than a film. The film is fine, for what it is,  but it follows its own predictable set of rules, rules not mentioned, opening with a menacing phone call and a killing, and ending with a revelation of who is wearing the Ghost Face mask this time and why. The better the films get at commenting on the unwritten rules of the culture industry the more glaring there own unwritten rules stand out. 

The latest installment, Scream VI continues this odd trajectory in which the commentary and plot increasingly diverge. The commentary now focuses on the idea that the killers are building a franchise. A franchise has its own rules, most importantly legacy characters can now be killed off in order to further the franchise. The intellectual property is the real main character. Such a description fits such films as The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which bring back Han Solo and Luke Skywalker only to kill them off so that the franchise could live on. Once again this is a point of criticism that does not exactly describe the latest Scream film. David Arquette's Dewey character was killed in Scream (5); Courtney Cox's Gail Weathers character is attacked but seems to survive this film, and Neve Campbell's Sydney character does not even appear in the latest installment, but that is because they did not offer her enough money. 

The tension between intellectual property and actor is one of the defining characteristics of modern filmmaking. It is a conflict between an old world of marketing movies based on bankable stars and a new world of carefully managed franchises, and in this interregnum CGI monsters are born. This can be seen in the MCU, which as much as it hides actors behind interchangeable digital masks, putting out three different Spider-Men, three Hulks, and countless Batmen, still has to make an entire film about the death of one of its stars, Chadwick Boseman, and struggles to draw audiences after the departure of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Although that last point has to do with another tension, the tension between serial repetition and narrative closure. To cite the MCU once again, Avengers: Endgame felt like an end to a story spanning dozens of films, and when the story comes to an end people are not immediately ready to just jump back in. 

The recent Indiana Jones movies are defined between both of these tensions, between actor and property, brand repetition and narrative closure. There is no small bit of irony to the second tension. At the level of structure the films revival an older serial form, that of Saturday adventure serials that is completely at home in the modern serialization of intellectual property. One gets the impression in watching the films that they could have made a ton of these movies, there are always new treasures to find and Nazis to punch. Residual meets the emergent, old serials meet the serial form of the sequel. The moment to do that has passed, however, and now the recent films struggle with Harrison Ford, the aging bankable star beneath the IP hat, and the sense that the last film ended with the closest thing to a happily ever after the series offered--Indy and Marion are married and Shia LeBeouf does not put on the hat. 

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny resolves the first issue, that of Ford's age, with an extended opening sequence set at the end of World War II made possible by the combination of old film stock and modern AI imaging. What we get is not so much a young Harrison Ford, but at least a reminder that he existed, somehow his charm eludes CGI reproduction. The opening sequence devolves into the weightless cartoon world of so much modern digital effects. With respect to the later we learn that Shia LeBeouf's Mutt died in Vietnam and the grief of his loss destroyed Indy's marriage. All of this means that he is off an another adventure again with a young god daughter, played by a (hopefully more bankable) Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The film follows the rules of an Indiana Jones film. There are chases, horse chases, car chases, plane chases, some version of creepy crawly creatures, this time eels, and ancient booby traps, all of which are punctuated by jokes about how old Harrison Ford is this time out. The film is slightly better than the last, but, in the final scene, when Marion and Indy are not only reunited but they repeat there "where doesn't it hurt" flirtation from the first film, you get the sense that the directors are searching for their own dial of destiny, a device that could  turn back time and make a half dozen Indiana Jones films between nineteen eighty and eighty nine, back when the IP was fresh and Ford was bankable. 

As I began this piece with my own bit of nostalgia. In the nineties, I tried to make a connection between the Scream film's self aware commentary on the rules of its genre and Virno description of the cynic as  the prevailing attitude of postmodernism. I remember saying to the class, "we see these films because we are aware of the rules, the cliches, but we still want to enjoy them." I would add now that in the age of Intellectual Property we are aware that all of these films are made to build, and capitalize on the brand, the IP, but we want to pretend that they are driven by something else, by something more compelling. The task of modern filmmaking, of the contemporary culture industry, is to make what is driven by market forces feel like it is made for our enjoyment. This task appears to be harder to pull off than digitally deaging an old movie star. 

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