Sunday, May 26, 2024

Witness Me: Intellectual Property and Pleasure in Furiosa and I Saw The TV Glow

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga and I Saw the TV Glow

When one looks out at another summer of sequels, reboots, and prequels it is possible to resort to the cliche that "they are out of ideas"--to pose the problem as a crisis of originality. It is for this reason, among many others that it is worth reading Daniel Bessner's piece for Harpers, "The Life and Death of Hollywood: Film and Television Writers Face an Existential Threat" One of the merits of Bessner's piece is that he makes it clear that the crisis Hollywood is facing is not one of ideas, of the imagination, but of capital, of profits. As Bessner writes,

"But the business of Hollywood had undergone a foundational change. The new effective bosses of the industry—colossal conglomerates, asset-management companies, and private-equity firms—had not been simply pushing workers too hard and grabbing more than their fair share of the profits. They had been stripping value from the production system like copper pipes from a house—threatening the sustainability of the studios themselves. Today’s business side does not have a necessary vested interest in “the business”—in the health of what we think of as Hollywood, a place and system in which creativity is exchanged for capital. The union wins did not begin to address this fundamental problem. 

Currently, the machine is sputtering, running on fumes. According to research by Bloomberg, in 2013 the largest companies in film and television were more than $20 billion in the black; by 2022, that number had fallen by roughly half. From 2021 to 2022, revenue growth for the industry dropped by almost 50 percent. At U.S. box offices, by the end of last year, revenue was down 22 percent from 2019. Experts estimate that cable-television revenue has fallen 40 percent since 2015. Streaming has rarely been profitable at all. Until very recently, Netflix was the sole platform to make money; among the other companies with streaming services, only Warner Bros. Discovery’s platforms may have eked out a profit last year. And now the streaming gold over. In the spring of 2022, the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates after years of nearly free credit, and at roughly the same time, Wall Street began calling in the streamers’ bets. The stock prices of nearly all the major companies with streaming platforms took precipitous falls, and none have rebounded to their prior valuation."

It is from this perspective that we could view what could be called the decline of the rate of originality. It is not a lack of new ideas that drives sequels and reboots, but the way in which an existing property, a comic book, movie, or television show appears, as the metaphor goes, as a house to be stripped for parts. It is an asset that already exists, and it is cheaper, easier, and supposedly less risky to mine these intellectual properties for whatever last bit of nostalgia they might contain than to develop new products. As Bessner writes,

"Executives, meanwhile, increasingly believed that they’d found their best bet in “IP”: preexisting intellectual property—familiar stories, characters, and products—that could be milled for scripts. As an associate producer of a successful Aughts IP-driven franchise told me, IP is “sort of a hedge.” There’s some knowledge of the consumer’s interest, he said. “There’s a sort of dry run for the story.” Screenwriter Zack Stentz, who co-wrote the 2011 movies Thor and X-Men: First Class, told me, “It’s a way to take risk out of the equation as much as possible.”

Here we can see how the experience of the audience and the executives both converge and diverge. In some way what the audience wants and what the studio, or its backers, want is the same thing and that is to eliminate risk, which is to say the guaranteed repetition of the same. This repetition is defined differently, what the audience wants is a repetition of the pleasures that they remember from certain movies; what the studio wants is a predictable return on investment, a repetition of the box office returns. These two repetitions diverge. The audience wants to feel like they did when they first saw Star Wars, Alien, or whatever, which is interpreted by the studio as making another film in the series of Star Wars, Aliens, or whatever particular franchise. The audience wants to feel they way that they first felt when a movie entertained them, but the only way that can become standardized or commodified is to remake, reboot, or requel of that movie. Instead of a repetition of that original experience we get another entry in its expanded universe. Repetition of an original experience is replaced by its serialization into a franchise. 

We can also think of these two different repetitions according to the formulas that Marx sketches out in Capital as the basic contours of commodity exchange. For the audience it is a matter of C-M-C; they have exchanged their labor power (C) for wages, money (M), and are now buying a ticket to a movie C. This exchange is driven by use value, although what the use of a movie is open to a myriad of different possibilities, some want to laugh, some to cry, some just want to pass a few hours in air conditioning, and some want to just be able to say that they have seen it. Repetition of this formula is an attempt to get the same use, the same value of an experience again. The studio, or its financial backers, are engaged in a different process M-C-M; they have invested money (M) in a commodity, or rather commodities, that include the labor power of writers, directors, actors, gaffers, set designers, makeup artists, and, increasingly CGI programmers, with the hope of making a profit. It is exchange predicated on exchange value, not use, all that matters is that more money comes in then went out, M-C-M'. Studios do not care about why you see a movie, what you get out of it, just that you pay to see it. If a movie fails as a serious film it can be marketed as kitsch, as studios did with Showgirls years ago, but there has been a tendency for even irony to exhaust itself as a marketing tool. People made many jokes about "Morbin' Time" and Madam Web, but the online jokes did not translate into real world tickets. 

Sometimes the two repetitions coincide. A studio puts out movies that people like, or at least want to see, and the audience is happy and the studios make a profit. The history of the marketing or selling of movies is an attempt to focus on a different way of understanding, or presenting this overlap. Movies can be marketed by genre, by star, by director, or, as is increasingly the case by Intellectual Property. These are different ways for the audience to be promised a repetition, see another western, another Cary Grant film, another Steven Spielberg film, or another entry in the MCU, after all you liked the last one. There is of course difference in these repetitions, not all westerns are the same, actors make different films, and even directors have a tendency to branch out and diverge. Intellectual property is an attempt to predicate the repetition on something the studio owns, the intellectual property, and is more controllable, more of a guaranteed repetition, in terms of pleasure and profits, than the same genre, actor, or director. Actors and directors come and go, but Spider-Man is eternal. 

I was thinking about all of this when I saw two movies in the last week.


One of the films was Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. I should say that I have a particular attachment to the Mad Max films. I saw The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) when I was far too young and it blew my mind. I am not really alone in this, although at the time I was the only one in my grade who was allowed to see such an R rated film, the movie effectively produced the image of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is now taken for granted. 

The Mad Max films are also unique in the current realm of franchises in that they are still driven by the same writer and director, George Miller. In that sense they are not a franchise at all. Furiosa is a bit of a departure in that it is the first film to dispense with the central character, Max Rockatansky. It is also a prequel, even though I read somewhere that Miller wrote it first as part of one big story, but made Fury Road first due to studio pressures. They wanted the film with Mad Max in it. 

Miller's filmmaking is fundamentally at odds with the prequel function. The Mad Max films excel at creating a world and dropping you into it. The audience gets fragments of this new world, figuring out how these odd things, mohawks and muscle cars, Bartertowns, Bullet Farms, and War Boys, make a world.  Don't worry, the film does not go into the kind of excesses of over explaining that the Star Wars films are known for, we do not meet Immortan Joe as a little boy, or find out why Max was ever called Mad in the first place. The story is focused on Furiosa, and the events that led up to her stealing a "war rig" and trying to rescue Immortan Joe's wives in Fury Road. In Furiosa we meet the titular character first as a young girl, who is captured from her small community, the closest thing we get to a utopia in this series. She is hell bent first on getting back to her community, then later on revenge.

The prequel puts her decision to focus on collective liberation in a new light. In some sense it is an anti-revenge story. In this way it goes full circle. Mad Max the first of the film series, was a revenge film. Max Rockantansky went after the bikers that killed his family. Furiosa makes the point that revenge is no way to live. In doing so it touches on the central philosophical question of these films known more for their car crashes and crossbow fights. How can one live in a world defined by loss, by death. Is it possible to not go mad in such a world. The film opens with the question, "As the world falls around us. How must we brave it's cruelties?" 

Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) gets her moment of revenge, is face to face with the man who killed her mother and took her from her utopia, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth). It is at that moment that she realizes that she needs to live for more than just revenge, she needs hope, or at least be a source of hope for others. In a strange way the film provides the emotional core for Fury Road's kinetic chaos. It also offers a different way to think about the compulsion to repeat that defines contemporary film making. If you have to go back to the past, to return to the wasteland, to the idea of revenge that started the whole series, then it perhaps makes sense to transform it, to acknowledge that one can never go back to the beginning. The film opens with the question of how to live as the world dies and ends with Furiosa's answer, we do so by trying to create a new world, with hope. In Furiosa the Mad Max films shift from anti-hero, from Max who reluctantly makes it possible for the compound to escape Humungus (in The Road Warrior), and the children to escape the Wasteland (in Thunderdome), to hero. Furiosa does not save the wives in trying to save herself, but saves the wives in order to save herself. Furiosa is the first hero, the first one to make it epic.

As much as I appreciated this point, and the relevance of the question of living with loss and anger as we live through our own slow apocalypse, I found myself caught in that fundamental problem of all franchises and series. You can build a bigger war rig but you cannot reproduce the feeling when you first see one of Miller's meticulously choreographed chase scenes, even as this film has a few excellent ones.

This brings me to the second film I saw this week, I Saw the TV Glow.  This film is not a franchise. It is, however, about the nostalgia that drives our fascination with past popular culture. 

The film is about two teenagers who bound over a television show called The Pink Opaque. The film is set in the nineties and the show they bound over bears a striking resemblance to a popular show with supernatural themes, teenage angst, and quippy dialogue. (The show is clearly Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, or at least meant to invoke it, right down to a cameo by Amber Benson who played Tara in the series). I am not going to go over the whole film here, and honestly suggest that you just go see it. There is one scene that sticks with me, actually one of many. One of the teenagers, Owen (Justice Smith) tries to revisit the show as a young adult, years later when it is available on streaming. One of the many admirable things about the film is how it conveys the fundamental different experience of watching television from the old days of broadcast in which you had to be in front of the television at a particular time, or have some one tape it for you, and the contemporary age of streaming. Everything, well almost everything, is more accessible, but the experience of stumbling on some program, or rushing home to watch some program is a fundamentally different investment than having everything at one's fingertips. The movie connects the history of media technology, from broadcast to video tapes, and, later streaming with the more intimate history of the experience of media. In doing so it also illustrate the gap that separates memory from the attempt to relive it. When Owen watches the show years later it looks fundamentally different. It is no longer the smart and scary show that he remembers. It is cheesier, cheaper, and more childish. It is nothing that he remembers because he is not the same person. 

This is the fundamental problem with the compulsion to repeat that defines contemporary film. It is not just that the repetition cannot recreate the original experience. It is not just that the sequel is not as good as the original, but that the original is not as good as the original, as that first experience. What we remember is not the original, but also in part who we were when we first saw it. We will never be the the person we were then, especially when many of this sequels and reboots try to recapture our childhood memories and experiences, times when we were more impressionable and more likely be impressed by space battles or giant trucks. This is why a Hollywood that is stripping the past for parts will never give us what we want. Its compulsion to repeat is fundamentally misguided. To take risk out of the equation is to lose everything we go to movies for.

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