Friday, April 09, 2010

The Perils of Pessmissism in the Penny Press!

Two things of note in last week’s issue of New York magazine, but the first – a horrifically deceitful and self-serving article by Roger Lathbury on how he almost published J.D. Salinger’s short story “Hapworth, 1924” as a stand-alone book – is simply too harrowing to discuss at any length. It perfectly embodies the hypocrisy and outright lying that drove Salinger into seclusion (the capper is the photo accompanying the article – Lathbury and everybody associated with approving this article should be ashamed of themselves, but that emotion seems to be unknown in publishing these days).

No, it’s the second that prompts brief comment. The thing is a little squib by Lane Brown titled “The Action Figure Method Actor: Must Be Able to Run Fast. Talent Not Essential,” and it’s basically a wiseass little lament about the one-note interchangeability of today’s mega-action-movie heroes. Brown singles out Taylor Lautner from Twilight, Sam Worthington from Avatar (and now Clash of the Titans), and Shia LaBeouf from the Transformers movies and the latest Indiana Jones – three young stars who could spark wiseass little New York squibs in a nunnery, I’m thinking; like Salinger (the only time such a simile will ever apply to these three), they make a lazy freelancer’s job so much easier.

Brown claims that action movies have become so expensive, so big, so bent on sensory overload, that they’ve effectively made their action-hero stars irrelevant. “The days when audiences went to see an FX-filled action movie because of the carbon-based actor at its center (Willis, Schwarzenegger, Stallone) are ending,” Brown tells us. “Today’s moviegoers don’t really care who stars in these films.” Movie studios have handed these huge franchises to actors like Lautner, Worthington, and LaBeouf specifically because “they don’t threaten to overwhelm the effects with big personalities or a crazy need to be respected for their craft.”

[caption id="attachment_910" align="alignleft" width="122" caption="New York's graphics, obviously"][/caption]

Lazy indeed, and it puts the cart before the horse: movie studios being what they are, these ‘FX’ extravaganzas are going to get made anyway – does Brown really believe casting executives wouldn’t add the screen magnetism of a young Schwarzenegger to box office draw, if they had such an actor just sitting there? Blaming moviegoers for the lack of such young action stars is like blaming the passengers on the Titanic for the lack of life boats, and picking these three particular actors just adds to the problem: Lautner is physically pretty, but he has no screen presence whatsoever; Worthington (as every single movie critic in the entire known universe has pointed out, and as every single person who’s seen Avatar has pointed out) has no business being in front of a camera at all and seems weirdly, arrogantly aware of that fact; and although LaBeouf’s obnoxious off-screen antics have prompted all but his most die-hard Even Stevens fans to forget that he possesses an extremely acute ear for dialogue and near-perfect comic timing, his presence in two mega-loud Transformers movies is just poor casting, not a slur on his entire demographic.

What’s missing from this picture isn’t discernment on the part of the American movie-goer: it’s the right action heroes. The ones who actually can compete with the green-screen and the motion-capture and the ‘FX’ outlay – the ones who can take the movie back from such gadgetry with a confidence and a panache that movie-going audiences want to see. The rule here ought not to be zombified sleepwalkers like Christian Bale as Batman or Brandon Routh as Superman (or the worst offender in all the worst ways, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man) – the rule should be Robert Downey as Iron Man. Would the studio have made that movie without him? Certainly. Would it have been nearly as big a hit without his utterly winning performance at its heart? Certainly not.

Warm bodies like Lautner and Worhtington aren’t the problem, and they aren’t the answer: we just need different heroes. And who knows what electrifying young (pre-derangement) Mel Gibson is even now slouching toward Central Casting to be born?


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