This is a paper proposal that was just accepted at the SAS Symposium „Adaptation: Animation, Comics and Literature“ in Stuttgart on 24 April. I’m both thrilled and very intimidated that I get to test the main thesis of my planned book in front of an expert audience. I hope to share the full version of the paper with you after the fact.

When Guardians of the Galaxy hits movie theatres this August, it will probably be yet another box office success for Marvel Studios. It will also be another piece in the astounding puzzle that Marvel Studios is building, producing a series of big budget films that share a universe and a sort of supra-narrative, but not a linear story. And while people will come for the action and the talking raccoon, they might stay for the experience of watching a plan come together.

Jason Mittell, writing about complex contemporary TV shows, calls this fascination with narrative consonance the „Operational Aesthetic“, a term he borrowed from Neil Harris, who used it to describe the success of 19th century showman P. T. Barnum. The „narrative special effect“ (Mittell) that is at work here, fits perfectly for a cinematic continuity adapted from comic books, because it has long been established there. American superhero comics have gone to great lengths to keep their interweaving, decade-old narratives aligned in the same universe, even staging cataclysmic events across all series to retroactively explain continuity errors and escape narrative cul-de-sacs.

The paper will highlight both the narrative and economic intricacies of Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe plan, link it to the concept of the operational aesthetic and trace back its origins to their comic book counterparts. It will show where the „shared universe“ concept of the Marvel comic books finds both limitations and new opportunities in the adaptation process and how the operational aesthetic differs in each medium.

I feel like, if you can do a movie, say two or three words and one of them is the F-bomb and get out, don’t try and repeat that, move on! I always feel about that, because I didn’t get paid for it, but Fox very kindly made a charitable donation to my kids’ schools and I always felt slightly weird handing over the check when, “Listen … Don’t ask me how I got this, but …” I think I may have been the only person to be rewarded charitably and get a tax deduction for swearing on film!
– Hugh Jackman, im Interview mit „/film“ über seinen Cameo-Auftritt in X-Men: First Class

It seems that, like lemmings, we are all racing faster and faster into the sea, each of us trying to outrun and outspend and out-earn the other in a mad sprint toward the mirage of making the next blockbuster.
– Jeffrey Katzenberg, Some Thoughts on Our Business, 1991

I have started reading James B. Stewart’s book Disney War about the twenty years of Disney under Michael Eisner and I’m only 200 pages in, when Disney was at the height of its power with the success of The Beauty and the Beast still fresh and the Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg team still together.

The book does not dwell on the industry’s changing mechanisms during the late 80s, when the advent of home video and globalisation started turning the mechanisms of the business on its head. But it does quote extensively from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s infamous 1991 memo, which is now fully available online.

It’s hard not to see a direct line from Katzenberg’s words in 1991 – in which he goes on to say that „[i]f every major studio release must aspire to repeat the 1989 success of ‚Batman,‘ then we will undoubtedly soon see the 1990’s equivalent of ‚Cleopatra,‘ a film that was made in the hope of repeating the 1959 success of ‚Ben Hur.'“ – to this summer’s speeches by Spielberg/Lucas and Soderbergh about ballooning marketing costs and a possible „implosion“ of the business (which, despite a summer of flops, is unlikely to happen).

You can derive two possible conclusions from this: 1. Things „broke“ in Hollywood long before the Noughties and what we’re experiencing at the moment are just the last ripples of a child that fell into a well long ago (to use a German expression that denotes a lost cause). 2. The „problem“ of today is not really a problem, it’s just the way Hollywood works and there has always been some version of the same problem around.

Your choice.

I admit to being something of a narcissist in that I enjoy reading through old things I wrote. But sometimes that is a good thing, because I come across stuff that might actually be worth revisiting. Like this: A snarky list I wrote almost seven years ago in February 2006, on my old, personal blog – back when the Internet was still somewhat less „sharing“ than it is now.

I thought I’d repost the list here. I seem to remember it was written following a viewing of, amongst other things, Dogville and the Bill Douglas Trilogy. But nothing much has changed in the last seven years, really. What are your thoughts?

10 Tips for Becoming an Acclaimed Arthouse Film Director

1. When you set out to make art films, the first thing you need is a Manifesto. Try to make it as crazy as possible, treat it as if it was a completely revolutionary new way of making films. Then, make exactly one film that adheres to the Manifesto.

2. When your first film is finished, claim that the Manifesto is bullshit and make all your other films in a completely different way.

3. As soon as you have made three films, claim that they form a trilogy. No art film director is complete without a trilogy. The three films don’t actually have to do anything with each other. Proclaim that you will continue making trilogies and let the critics figure out how your films connect. They will find somethng.

4. Bribe a critic you know and let him attribute you to some kind of stylistic movement. The name doesn’t really matter, but make sure the word ‚Realism‘ is in there somewhere.

5. If Hollywood offers you to make a film for them for which you will get paid shitloads of money, decline. Renounce Hollywood and all its capitalist methods and say that you will never work for The Man. Then, a few years later, do it anyway.

6. Insist on casting one specific actor in every film you make. Insist on him (or her) playing parts that absolutely don’t fit him but claim that you have absolute faith in him pulling off the performance. For bonus points, cast a male actor to play a female part or vice versa. At some point, start a liaison with that actor. You get extra credit if he or she is (a) in some way related to you (b) of the same gender as you (c) a lot older or younger than you. When everybody has lost interest in the liaison, break it up big time and marry a childhood friend.

7. After you have made a few films, insist on shooting your next film with some kind of very crazy technique. This can range from simple black and white to digital cameras, original silver nitrate film, continous takes, split screens, silent films, DVD-Versions with multiple endings, whatever. Make up any crazy shiit and claim that you’re doing it because it helps you understand the essence of cinema.

8. Take on a new and interesting Identity after some films. Change your name, grow a long beard, let no one take pictures of you, move to a country in some remote part of the globe. Alternatively, announce your retirement from the world of filmmaking and instantly start working on a new film.

9. Before every film, announce that it is your most personal film yet.

10. Make a film about your childhood. Claim that this is the zenith of your work, that you always wanted to make that film and that only now you feel you are mature enough to make it. Better yet, make a trilogy about your childhood (see point 3). Don’t actually make it about your childhood though but about a kind of childhood the most important critics can identify with.

Bild: JJ Georges, CC-BY-SA

[Y]ou lie to raise money. You lie all the time. I remember to sell Slumdog Millionaire, we said it was Amélie with a bit of Trainspotting thrown in.
– Danny Boyle in the April issue of „Sight and Sound“

This is a little bit old already, but it’s genius nevertheless!

Accounts of cinematic special effects highlight how these moments of awe and amazement pull us out of the diegesis, inviting us to marvel at the technique required to achieve visions of interplanetary travel, realistic dinosaurs, or elaborate fights upon treetops. These spectacles are often held in opposition to narration, harkening back to the cinema of attractions that predated narrative film and deemphasizing classical narrative form in the contemporary blockbuster cinema. While such special effects do appear on television […] complex television offers another mode of attractions: the narrative special effect. […] These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forego strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.
– Jason Mittell, Complex TV, „Complexity in Context“

I do love it, when a plan comes together. And I love it even more, when someone finds a technical term for that love. After reading my defense of Star Trek Into Darkness’s plotting, a friend alerted me to Jason Mittels excellent work-in-progress book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling which is now fully online for free! I have only devoured two chapters so far, but it is an excellent read with not too many academic strings attached. Highly recommended!

As for the „Operational Aesthetic“, that is: the joy of watching a machine work, I feel like Mittell has found me out. Since I have always been a fan of visual special effects, it comes as no surprise that I’m also a fan of narrative special effects – and I think it’s one of the few joys left to us in the realm of market-oriented contemporary franchise filmmaking. Mittell mentions puzzle movies like Inception as examples from the big screen, but I think the same terms fit perfectly with the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and evolving franchises like The Fast and the Furious.

Finally, I also like the fact that Mittell mentions the „baroque quality“ of these narrative shenanigans. I have been trying to link the baroque to contemporary cinema before, and it’s always good to see people agree with me. (Although Mittell’s quotation referred me back to Angela Ndalianis’s book which I remember quoting six years ago in my MA thesis, so maybe the thought wasn’t really my own in the first place.)

startrek

2009. J. J. Abrams directs Star Trek, a Reboot of the original „Star Trek“-Franchise.


super8

2011. J. J. Abrams directs Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin, which allows Abrams, as he points out in Interviews to „share DNA“ of earlier Amblin movies like E. T. – The Extra Terrestial.


Star-Wars-Abrams-Logo

2013. (January) J. J. Abrams is officially confirmed as the director of Star Wars: Episode VII.


startreket

2013. (May) The Abrams-directed Star Trek Into Darkness features a post-credit sequence, in which James Kirk returns to his quarters to find E.T. sitting at his desk. He is pointing a glowing finger at the Captain and says: „Mr. Kirk, you’ve just become part of a bigger universe.“


etstarwars

2015. Star Trek: Episode VII features a longish subplot about a kid on Tattooine making friends with a gnarly outcast from the galactic senate, who has moved into Ben Kenobi’s old cabin.


spaceavangers

2017. SPACE AVENGERS


Based on an idea by Carsten / images: Paramount Pictures (3), Lucasfilm (1), Disney (1)

Quotes of Quotes (VII)

15. Dezember 2012

Food for thought, and the reaction to Retromania and everything around it that I could most relate to:

Retromania is a provocation. It deals in what Mark Fisher calls ’negativity‘. The term is intended to be less pessimistic that it sound. ‚Negativity‘, for Fisher, is a productive spure: discontent as a call to arms. […] Rather than simply represent that negativity, however, Reynolds and Fisher would have us respond to it. This is the difference too between the kind of negative politicism expressed during the recent London riots and those camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral and across the nworld in the name of the Occupy movement. Negativity is obviously not an end in itself, but sometimes it simply has to come first.
– James Parker, University of Melbourne (via)

Quotes of Quotes (V)

2. November 2012

As a big fan of the idea that artistic trends make so much more sense when you take a step back, I very much recommend this article in the „Guardian“ that uses Skyfall as an entrypoint into a discussion of the „New Serious“.

Beneath humanity’s mood swings, a self-correcting pattern can be detected. The laughing cavaliers beget Cromwell’s roundheads, who in turn beget the Restoration’s libertines. Edwardian buoyancy morphs into Great War despair. This delivers the roaring 20s, which bring forth the despondent 30s. Frivolity, it can be conjectured, is intrinsically wearing and eventually boring: it produces a backlash of its own accord. By this reading, we should have been due for a period of pensiveness about now, even without the debacles that have beset us.
David Cox

Personally, I thought Skyfall was probably one of the prettiest Bonds ever, but I could have done without the over-psychologising. I liked James Bond a lot better when he was an almost mythic cypher without much of a past. On the other hand, I loved the first half of Skyfall for the succesful exploration of the new continuum set up by Casino Royale. Can you have one without the other? Believable universe-building without putting too much weight on the shoulders of the characters? That is probably a topic for another blogpost.

Quotes of Quotes (III)

12. September 2012

I did not have time to comment on the most recent „Sight and Sound“ poll, but I loved this quote on Vertigo:

„Vertigo has always struck me as the Hitchcock film for those who don’t really like Hitchcock all that much (it’s long, hasn’t got much in the way of jokes and the plot doesn’t work, when he is known for his economy, wit and storytelling), or at the least wish very much that he had been French.“
Tom Shone (via)

My favourite Hitchcock film, by the way, is The Birds.

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