Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review Types: Food and Therapy

Reading reactions to Justice League made me realize there are two ways of reviewing movies, in terms of the logic they present.

The most popular, and often mocked, is movies as food. You know the type “Sometimes I want an expensive steak, but hey, sometimes I want a fast food cheeseburger, and this movie was a good cheeseburger.” There’s plenty of snark about that specific metaphor, but the logic behind it is less absurd and worth critiquing.

In this sense, what matters in the movie is the ingredients. We’re asking “is the movie good?” and the determinant of that is “Were quality ingredients put together using a known recipe?” If a movie isn’t good, it’s just because you can point to one ingredient and say it’s bad. The pacing was bad, the writing was saccharine, or the director is overrated. Such reviews are not a discussion of how different elements work together to produce something, but just operate on the assumption that if one of the ingredients is bad, that explains why the whole thing is worse. Or in the positive direction, a review will tell us the actors have good chemistry, that the CGI is seamless, the director is hip and capable of working with politically challenging themes - though not how any of these elements interact, beyond goodness multiplying with goodness.

This all points towards a very mass produced view of art. After all, that’s how we think of hamburgers, right? Once you’ve figured out how to make hamburgers, well then, just keep getting good ingredients, put them together the way you know how, and viola, you reliably have a finished product that will please as much as the first time.

If you liked Iron Man 1, well then Spiderman: Homecoming has the exact same quality ingredients, why wouldn’t you like it.

(The moral public image and political leanings of the stars of the film, are just one more ingredient these days that adds to its goodness or badness.)

Empirically, the philosophy doesn’t really work (or else churning out box office successes would be as simple as running McDonalds), but it’s still the basis for almost all professional reviews. It’s just easier to understand.

I'm lazy and examples of these are everywhere, so here's a random Justice League review from Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.screenit.com/ourtake/2017/justice_league.html

The good news is that those behind the scenes finally figured out that audiences of superhero movies prefer them not to be as morose, grim and humorless as most of DC Comics latest offerings, and like them having a little Marvel style humor thrown into the mix. I can't say if the late in production replacement of original director Zack Snyder with Joss Whedon (due to a family tragedy for the former) had anything to do with that change, but it's a welcome one that greatly benefits the offering. 
I'd wager there's more humor in this single film than all of its immediate predecessors combined, and much of that stems from Ezra Miller showing up to play the hyperactive, lightning bolt activated The Flash character. Much like Quicksilver in the "X-Men" movies, he zips along at high speed (thus making everyone else seem frozen in a freeze frame collage), resulting in some similarly fun scenes. But his naive eagerness and interaction with others are what makes him stand out. 
Jason Momoa gets some less hyper moments of humor playing the loner surfer dude type Aquaman character, but it's the presence of Gal Gadot reprising her Wonder Woman character that truly saves the day...and the film. The actress is so natural and comfortable in the part and the character is so powerful (above and beyond the physical) that you simply can't take your eyes off her, and the film really excels whenever she's present. Ray Fisher is okay as the part-human, part machine Cyborg character, but isn't explored enough to make him that interesting. Ben Affleck seems tired and ready to hang up the caped crusader character (which sort of parallels his Bruce Wayne alter-ego), and a character from past films makes a return (guess who) and livens up the proceedings in the third act. 
Which is a good thing as both the villain (Ciarán Hinds, heavily assisted by CGI) and his plot (assembling some powerful boxes to destroy the world) aren't anything worth writing home about. Many of these films really fail to create compelling antagonists and this is yet another prime example. As a result, you're not as invested in watching him get his comeuppance that you automatically know is going to involve lots of CGI heavy, multiple character fight sequences where too much is occurring and looks fake up on the screen. 
Thankfully, the return of that one significant character along with the presence of Gadot, Miller and Marvel-like humor makes most of the film easy and sometimes quite entertaining to watch. I would have preferred a more compelling story (rather than the usual end of the world material), better villain and less reliance on special effects. But enough of the pic works, even considering its various issues, to earn a recommendation. "Justice League" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

***

At the other end of the spectrum we have looking at movies… like a therapy session.

You would not say about therapy: the client was very charismatic, and the story of their childhood had excellent pacing, but the lighting was flat and boring. B+.

Instead of grading it at all, we’d discuss how the elements (which might be awkward on their own) worked together to say something larger. “The way the client stuttered while talking about his mother,” says one thing, and “the fact that the client brings up academic success at any opportunity” says another. We find meaning both in the plain content of their utterances, and the details around the way they are delivered. The result isn’t good or bad, but it’s interpretable.

This is where the Group 3 type of film critique (and most academic work) ends up. The type of acting (flat, naturalist, manic, sensual) is seen as a filter on the words said and the plot elements. A director’s history is seen as context for themes they deal with in this work. How does the beginning of the session/movie compare to where things are at the end - are things the same, are there important changes, and what does that say about the nature of the problem the characters were struggling to solve?

Sure the movie is ugly (or the client is disruptive.) What does that tell us? In what ways is it ugly, and how can those be seen as deliberate choices?

Compare the above Rotten Tomatoes to people deciphering David Lynch's Twin Peaks, which emphasizes various unpleasant aspects to tell us how they comment on the broader work. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/david-lynchs-late-style/#!
Lynch holds on this scene for an uncomfortable amount of time, lavishing seven cuts and nearly a minute of footage on Mr. C’s tactile show of dominance, the effect of his gesture passing from intimidation to a strange kind of tenderness, registering the tragic feeling of the strong for the weak they nonetheless mean to exploit. We later find out that Jack gets murdered in this scene, but we never see the act take place. His death, we feel, is already written in the lines of this gruff but malleable face, the skin gone slack, vulnerable, now just an unresisting sculptural material for the dark forces that menace and shape it. In this gloriously inexpressive pause, Mr. C seems to be asking himself: what can this goony, docile face be made to sing? 
In many ways, this long squeeze is perfectly representative of the oblique, beguiling aesthetic of the new Twin Peaks. It is not only that the pace is so exquisitely slow or that the scene’s narrative purpose is unclear. We are also left to wonder about the spotlight of lyrical dread lavished upon a character so soon to disappear from the story, just as we may be disarmed by the proliferation of arresting minor characters, stray images, and tangential action throughout the series. 
Lynch has always had a way of elevating peripheral performances to derail our sense of narrative logic (think of the man in Wild at Heart who quacks like a duck, or the inexplicable presence of anthropomorphic rabbits in Inland Empire). But no work of Lynch’s has been so gloriously digressive as Twin Peaks: The Return, nor has any work of his been so elliptical or so unforgivingly distracted by the characters, images, and scenes that seem to exist to the side of its story line. In this, the series embraces a narrative style that is arguably even more inventive and jarring than the narrative itself, with its baroque mythology of lodges, personified evil, and interdimensional rabbit holes. 
The new season challenges us most in the way it seems to undo the story it is telling, moving out of sequence and perversely out of rhythm, indicating a wealth of paths it has no interest in going down, spending long stretches of time in scenes that do not immediately further the plot, and jumping without warning from characters and locales we know to those we don’t (and never come to know). The result is a feeling of erratic, transfixing chaos. A greasy drug-addled woman sits in the Roadhouse talking with her friend about zebras and penguins, scratching the “wicked rash” in her armpit. A woman frantically honking her horn screams at Deputy Briggs to let her car through traffic because, as she puts it with incredible and hideous fury, “We’re laaaaaate!” while a diseased young girl lurches from the passenger seat, vomiting a dark trickle of green slime. A young girl waiting for a friend at the Roadhouse is removed from her booth by two grown men, drops to her knees in the middle of a concert, and crawls through the crowd of dancers before screaming at the top of her lungs. In any other series — even the original series of Twin Peaks — these scenes would have consequences: they’d be explained or taken up again or at least referred to in passing later on, in order incorporate them into the larger plot. In Lynch’s hands, they are left only as refractory trace variations of the show’s central action.


This way, every movie becomes a complex inkblot, a source for endless analysis and conclusions that are both more and less than “good, bad, should I see it.” This view has its flaws as well (such as the reader bringing so much subjective baggage to their interpretation that they can’t really provide useful information for anyone else) but the point is how different it is, and why it’s valuable to keep this attitude in your toolkit.

(This is not the same thing as SECRET MESSAGES delivered through a film, like explaining how random names are actually references to some historical event, a la a Wizard of Oz being about the gold standard, or Room 237 about The Shining. These sort of fan conspiracy theories aren't really substantive, anymore than if you believed your therapy client could best be interpreted by taking the first word of every anecdote, and stringing them together to find out their message from their Russian spymasters.)

The therapy mode is much more engaging with the Real of the work, picking up on random details and incorporating them. As I mentioned with Justice League, few of the professional reviews that wanted to tell us whether it was “humorless” or “grim” or not, said anything about the fact that the first minute is nothing but a diagetic paean to Superman, let alone what the meaning of that choice of introduction was. When you read a therapy review, at least you see the elements the critic is talking about - when you read a food-type review, you might wonder “did she even watch the movie?”

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Comics movie roundup: Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Punisher, Justice League.

Only halfway through the new Netflix/Marvel "Punisher" series, but admiring it so far. It's much more apolitical or even reactionary than the previous fare, staying loyal to the comics themes of "crime demands revenge", "violence is primally satisfying" and "men suffer from psychological trauma." All of these are examined critically, but they're very much front and center. There's nothing like the topical political messages of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, which at this point is fairly surprising.

It feels kind of disjoint for a comic book series to deal so much with wartime PTSD. It provides these moving portraits of men who saw horror in war, even just on a banal level, and can never escape thinking about that. Next week Daredevil will kill, like, a hundred zombie ninjas and never mention it again. It causes the message to have a "very special episode" vibe, rather than a universal problem.

I might have more to say when I've finished it, but it's definitely worth watching, for a number of political perspectives.

***

Balioc wrote a thoughtful review of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, over at his wordpress. You should read it, and take in its valid points, before I disagree with it.

For one, it's not a very good movie. The first 15 minutes are not only forgettable, they are interminable. The best scene is a nearly silent dreamlike fight sequence between two sisters, that feels like its from an entirely different movie. The one good technique GOTG had going for it - running cool scenes to eighties tunes from Starlord's mixtape - is built up to the point of awkwardness, and no longer really carries any emotional punch. The climax is even more interminable, busy almost to the point of satire.

But mostly to address this:

This would allow him to make a real case to his son, providing a real dilemma worth grappling with — are you sure you want to fight for the status quo, like every other self-appointed hero?  Are you totally unwilling to embrace my vision of Something Better? 
…which would be a desirable thing in any story of this kind, but double-ultra-desirable in a story where our heroic protagonist is literally the son of God.  It is narratively unforgivable that Peter Quill is never presented as any kind of Christ figure, that he at no point grapples with the awesome responsibility of having been created to save a universe of lesser souls.
Ego does make a coherent case though, one with serious implications. Ego shares his love of an eighties song with Starlord, one that idolizes 80's/70's/60's caddish/beatnik lifestyle: we love our women so much, but the sea calls and its irresistible. It's nothing about you baby, I just gotta be free. He hammers this point with no subtlety whatsoever.
Now this may come off as a completely anachronistic boogeyman - modern media is more concerned with the overly attached male paramour, not the irresponsible one - but it acquires different meaning in a franchise about "we're a chosen family." It becomes a familiar plot: Starlord has questions about the burdens of his new family, he is shown all the glory of the option of leaving it all behind, but he chooses his friends instead.
GOTG2 just makes this a lot darker, acknowledging the awful/awesome responsibility of power. Ego's choice to leave Peter's mother is identical with him choosing to kill her. On one hand this is because of his terrible self-centeredness: he knew so long as she was there he'd be tempted away from his work, so he killed her. But on the other hand it's making explicit what was ignored: he could make her, or any of his lovers, immortal fairly easily. In choosing to leave them he is choosing their mortal fate, and he decided she was disposable.
This may sound fairly stretched, but what is friendship in the GOTG universe anyway? Every time someone "goes back" for a friend, it's to save their life. In a world of danger, when you choose to love adventurous rogues, leaving your friends will always mean leaving them to their death.
So Starlord must choose between always being stuck with this family, or letting them die. He is chained to obligations we would find intolerable, or repugnant consequences.
(This is still not the "terrible responsibility of Godhood" Balioc wants, not really. But what he's interested would be too dark for a Marvel movie, and besides, is the central philosophical argument of Man of Steel, between Superman and Jor-El against Zod.)
***

Speaking of:

Justice League is a fitting addition to the DCU movies. There will probably be more thorough analysis later, though for now I'm just bedeviled by critical reaction. It's definitely a little more light-hearted and witty than the previous DCU movies, something ascribed to the influence of last minute writer addition Joss Whedon, but not like, a ton. The character still believe in themselves and their mission, rather than undercutting everything they do or say with ironic detachment every thirty seconds. (Also the villain is a total letdown - a big ugly with few lines and an army of drones. We really are Marvel now.)

The box office disappointment of this movie is like some sort of ironic justice, where deviation from the artistic monstrosity of the first few DCU movies is punished. Give us more of Grandma's Sweet Tea, audiences demand!

But that conclusion is too far gone, and it's still hated by critics just as much as BvS or Suicide Squad was. That alone should be a good sign. I was particularly shocked by the review from fairly thoughtful film critic Walter Chaw:

The consensus seems to be that Justice League at least isn't as bad as Suicide Squad, which is like comparing something favourably to eczema. Granted. Yes, you got me: it's better than skin disease. I would offer that Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman and Man of Steel were at least fascinating in their atrociousness while Justice League is so desperate to be pleasant (when its core is so obviously bleak) that the best thing you can say for it is that it's puzzling.
I like how early DCU entries are now getting this sort of Prequels retrospective praise: at least they were trying to do something interesting, mainstream critics notice years later.

Consider that all that desperation shares time with two or three superhero origin stories crammed into whatever cranny's available, leaving the genesis of Cyborg (Ray Fisher) a garble right up until he bonds with Flash (Ezra Miller) over their being the team's "accidents," setting up a bro-bump that is never paid off because the script is a piecemeal slop-and-shuck. 

The multi-polar cast is actually quite efficient at telling their own nuanced stories (except Aquaman, which is not limited because of its lack of screen time, but because the "ronan prince" story is so uninteresting.) The origins and personality of these characters are all told deftly and quickly, and their small details pay off. You just have to actually be watching it, instead of expecting to be spood fed through exposition. In particular the bro-bump Chaw didn't notice happens in the final victory shot.

I definitely don't agree with everything said in Justice League, but the meat is there, and refusal to grapple with it is weird. In particular, analyzing director Zach Snyder is like a modern-day Clinton Derangment Syndrome, where anything he does is evidence of some inexplicable depravity.

Justice League is a hot mess, a film that was probably about something accidentally before it became about nothing on purpose. The thing to appreciate vis-à-vis Snyder's truncated run as the DC Cinematic Universe's showrunner is that he doesn't understand and maybe hates Superman. He captured the despair of our current state: the toxic masculinity, the triumph of mediocrity, the destruction of empathy and critical capacity.
Snyder hates Superman??? How do you even get that? Quick, here's the first sixty seconds of the movie.


(Apologies for the quality, but a bootleg filmed on a phone of an interview diagetically filmed on a phone, is more fitting anyway.)

How do you get more loving than this? The children are adorable. Superman is beatific without being arrogant or self-satisfied. The last question, answered only by Supes smiling and looking off into the distance, perfectly sets up "what question is this movie trying to answer" better than any Marvel movie has even thought about doing.

Hell, the worst you can say for Snyder is "he sure doesn't care about Batman, because he'll deface this fan favorite in any way if it can make Superman look better."

And yeah, he captured "our current state of despair" well. Here's the song that follows that initial flashback.


Thanks for using music and specifically chosen shots to capture the subjective feeling of a particular historical moment in time. Which is, you know, the whole point of being good at making movies.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Thor: Not Very Deep Thoughts

Before I really think about Thor Ragnarok, I just wanted to jot down what was really obvious throughout the movie. Most people reading this will have seen the same thing, but I guess it's helpful for those who haven't.

In current progressive politics, you have the Red Queen Race of always needing to be more woke than thou, just to stay in the same place. So what was comfortable as the ideologically dominant position five years ago - identity politics over Marxist analysis - has given way to a need to be radical if you still want to be socially secure.

The MCU movies were from the beginning firmly aligned with the culture of progressive politics. The leftist criticism of this, from Iron Man through Avengers 2, is that their vision is sorely incomplete.

In particular, Stark Industries and Asgard both stand in for the utopian ideal. We get all this awesome tech from them, renewable energy, female CEO, pleasantly multi-cultural, etc. We don't see the work or industry necessary to uphold these shining cities, they just are good.

I can provide evidence if you don't see it, but hopefully anyone reading this blog is familiar with this running theme. It reaches it's most blatant imagery when "Vision", the messiahnic robot who embodies good, is brought to life with Stark science and Thor's lightning. Thor, Stark, and Vision then simultaneously use their three "beams" to drive off Ultron, the champion of totalitarian revolution.

Image result for iron man vision beams

And yet, Ultron comes from Stark. Baddies just happen to pour out of these pure institutions. As SMG repeats over and over "Stark is Hydra."

So you can be a smug leftist (hi) and dismiss the stories of the MCU because they are about superficial attempts at fighting for progress, while ignoring the fundamental problems that make the main characters rich.

Red Queen's Race though... and Thor: Ragnarok submits to that criticism, and gives the left everything it wanted there. (So why do we still dislike the MCU?)

Ragnarok says that for all the peaceful harmony of Asgard, Asgard was built on a campaign of violent war by Odin. Odin tried to repress it, but Asgard could never be fully cleansed or redeemed. Hela effortlessly defeats any forces of Asgard because Hela is Asgard. She is the bloody truth of its origin, which can only be repressed but not defeated.

The answer, obviously from half an hour in, is to destroy Asgard and make a new world without that original sin. Which they do.

(There's an obvious Trump parable here. America was built on violence and white supremacy. That was a long time ago, and the liberal era tried to redeem America into a paradise for all its people. But once the unifying element that kept society pacified was gone, that original anger rose up again, and showed it can overwhelm any bindings you put on racism, slavery, and war. This isn't the best reading, but it's a fairly transparent one.)

So, why is this unsatisfying? Hell, in Captain America 2 they did roughly the same thing: Shield had to be destroyed in its entirety, not just weeded of a few bad apples.

It reads very much as hip culture's attempt to assimilate every buzzword without understanding the truth beneath it. "Destroy the foundations, check." But Shield is back in the next movie, looking so similar you didn't even need to see Winter Soldier to know why it changed. It's radicalism as a cargo cult.

Yeah, all of Stark Industries will probably be destroyed in Avengers: Infinity War: Part 2. Hell I expect one of the main problems will come from a weapon from the bad old days when they primarily sold weapons. (Agent Carter tie in maybe.) But why did it take fifteen movies to get to the same point Man of Steel did in its very first act?

***

Back and forth with redantsunderneath:

I had similar thoughts from a different angle.  The primary mode I saw working was a “shedding” of things (like Ishtar) in return for seeing the world more clearly - loss of the father, the comrades, the hammer, the eye, and the homeland.  The movie was about getting past false consciousness through loosing your crutches.  It is easy to see the crumbling dome revealing the real story beneath as a reflection of how Sakaar is what Asgaard is “really like.” I know you’ll do the “Alderaan/Death Sta(a)r” take on this, but the image of the Neo-liberal utopia covering up the violence and oppression with its gleaming facade being “replaced” as a setting by the less fortunate fighting to the death for the entertainment of the elite seems, like, right up front.
I think you are underestimating the mid-period-on Marvel movies’ engagement with liberal self critique (2nd phase on) - Ant Man was about alienation/emasculation in the neo-liberal economy, Age of Ultron was about societal engineers working for our own good creating an anti-life force (whoops), and Spider-Man Homecoming was explicitly about rejecting the call to join the global elite.  
So on the more nuanced levels, you are probably right. I need to think about the movie more to relate the actual imagery and more complicated choices.
I only brought up this because it was the one they were hitting us over the head with. ASGARD HAS TO GO BECAUSE OF THE SINS OF THE PAST, and I wanted to set it up as the agreed upon context before delving into the more interesting questions.
I should have also included the garbage planet. Thor has to fall from the top of royalty to absolute garbage (beneath the Devil’s Anus) to begin his redemptive arc. And there we get both the face of true exploitation that Asgard relies upon, and some funny characterization of the two-facedness of a capitalist order that disavows its violence.
“The slaves have gotten into the mainframe” “I hate that word” “mainframe” “No… the s-one” “Oh. The prisoners with jobs have gotten into the mainframe”
And yeah, 2nd phase across the board has definitely moved into this liberal self-critique. I brought it up with CA2, but CA3, GOTG2, and your examples fall into this. Black Panther certainly will. Avengers 2 on the face of it is the apogee of “liberalism and new-age mysticism triumphs over proletariat totalitarianism”, but if you read it as at all satirical, Ultron raises some valid points.
The question is why all of these, especially with the on-the-nose examples in Ragnarok, just feel so empty and hollow, compared to even the ending of fucking Agent Carter Season 1.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Someone's Fargo Video Review

This is not by me, and I don't even entirely agree with it, but it's someone at least talking in the ballpark of blatant themes in the show, which is better than the interminable "oh hey did you see this Easter Egg referencing No Country for Old Man? It's the same brand of cigarette!"


Of course the flaw with Subjectivity vs Objectivity is a theme already explored in this work: the randomness of the universe belies neither truth. It's just pointless, cold, and uncaring, and we forge our subjectivity out of that. But you know, good for him at least having the discussion.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Adapting to the Eighties: Little Drummer Girl

Combining the themes of the last two posts, let's talk about a book that was adapted into a movie in the 80's, by John Le Carre. "Little Drummer Girl", starring Diane Keaton. The experience of watching this movie is positively bizarre.



So the book. As described elsewhere, the introduction is an excellent and romantic depiction of the class differences between Palestinians and Israelis. You can read it for free with the Amazon preview.

But really, it is Le Carre's most disturbing book. Sexual relations have always been a metaphor for the spy-business in his novels (usually adultery), and LDG is about Israeli black ups recruiting a young, radical actress to be a mole in Palestinian terrorist organizations. So he makes the metaphor seduction, and is extremely in your face about it. The mood of the book can only be described as "incredibly uncomfortable" as this actress is exploited and seduced by both sides, and her mental world collapses as she can not keep up the difference between reality and her illusions (a disintegration encouraged by her cynical spymasters, and the sheer surrealism of life under occupation for the Palestinians.) None of the sex would pass modern standards of consent, and it only gets worse from there.

It is terribly dark and disturbing. One might even say "sick." And from the introduction, it's quite clear this is what the author was going for. There's nothing light-hearted about any of Le Carre's novels, but especially this one. (It's still very good, so if you can stomach it, definitely read the book.)

Which makes this movie so very tonally different. Now, often when books with intense psychological depths are adapted, losing the main character's inner dialogue changes the presentation dramatically - we no longer have the anchor of their explanations for everything, only the appearance of their surface behavior, and so the story becomes much more archetypical. We have to do the interpretation for ourselves. ("Twilight" is an excellent example of this: Bella goes from someone we know is deep in thought about everything to... a rudely brusque and spacy persona.)

But as you see from the trailer and the star, this movie has the surface of... 1980's action film. It cinematically feels like... "Ghostbusters" and "Big Trouble in Little China." The alluring bell sounds about something being revealed, the bouncy music of a romantic or exciting night happening, or Diane Keaton proudly-but-naively demanding to know just what the hell is going on (until a big strong man comforts her.)

Watching the movie feels like someone demanded absolute fidelity to the plot of the book, and keeping certain key lines, and then looked away when the director changed everything about the tone and delivery. It's a wacky adventure story of a girl falling into a hidden magical world, with all the same visual and audio cues that we've gotten from fighting ghosts.

You want to yell "No, Diane K, stop getting flustered and then soothed by these men who know what's going on, you're supposed to actually be losing your mind at all this, never recovering."

Which is a pity, because the surrealism of what Charlie thinks is going on, contrasted with the "objective" point of view of what is being orchestrated by the intelligence unit, would make some fantastic cuts. Instead all attempts at that - such as the climax where she hands a bomb sent by the terrorists to the intended victim, surrounded by a disposal team in hazmat suits with guns, but has to go through the dialogue she would have had if she was faking being an innocent student returning the victim's briefcase - just read as funny and confused.

This all of course raises the question: are these 80's film techniques necessarily trivializing and comedic? Or have they just gained affective association, and we think they are action-y because that's what all the other movies who use them (and have survived) are like?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Eighties Adaptations

I guess we're talking a lot about filmed adaptations now, and that's good, since too often discussion of adaptations devolves into "Is it good or bad? Were they LOYAL to the original? Is actor X perfect as classic character Y?" instead of interesting questions like "Why does a visual medium benefit from this change? What is different about the themes now, than when the previous version was written three decades ago?"



So we've got "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Tick", both originally written work from 1986. Despite very different plots, they are fairly similar thematically: the main character is extremely weird, with unexplained supernatural phenomenon going on with them, and a complete unwillingness to follow conventional society. This character surreally interacts with the rest of society, who are stubborn in focusing on their normal concerns and methods of interaction, and generally willfully blind/dismissive to how much weird shit is going on around them. The title protagonist has a sidekick who acts as a bridge between them and the normal world.

There's a lot of differences, but these parallels aren't coincidentally. The fundamental theme of both is a sort of existentialist "how we let the psychological absurd into our lives."

(I can't believe there isn't more writing on the influences of French existentialism on the Tick. It seems really obvious, from the way "French" is their default variable for "foreign" and the way characters resemble French wrestling costumes, which have always been more about abstractions of our inner selves more than American professional wrestling, and just the way everything is both very erudite in its references (Die Fledermaus) and abstractly non-specific (The City).)

And fortunately, both of these have recently come out on internet streaming prestige TV series.





You can get both from Amazon, and they are pretty worth it.

And they are of course substantially different from the original - but precisely in the way you need to to capture the themes of the original. We're in a different time and a different medium than we were in 1986, and so you have to approach this differently to get to the same place.

What's most notable is... neither of these shows are about the title character. The protagonist and focal character is unmistakably that "somewhat boring sidekick figure" from the written work. In the Tick this is the perennial butt-of-jokes Arthur, and in Dirk Gently it's a completely new character (played by superstar Elijah Wood), due to fact that Gently has a new buddy in each of his novels. But we open with them and their boring life, see their personal struggles, their shock and resistance as this bizarre extrusion from the weird invades their lives, and eventually their embrace of absurd adventure.

We've gone from the main character being Don Quixote, to focusing on Pancho.

And it works really well. The quasi-normal sidekick is a much better stand-in for our modern audience than the mythic figure. We easily identify with Arthur and Elijah. And then the title character now works very well as largely an extension of the main character; both Gently and the Tick are hinted as as figments of the imagination.

(The Tick much more so: he disappears so conveniently that they lampshade it with a moment where Arthur has the revelation that he's imagining the Tick, only to be anti-climactically put down by someone else seeing him. But that doesn't really take away that the Tick has no identity outside Arthur: he doesn't remember anything before meeting Arthur, he's incapable of acting on his own much, and he literally says "I am the you that you always wanted to be." The entire series so far is about Arthur's battle with sanity as represented by the Tick and the emotional state the Terror.)

As always with my reviews, I'm not saying anything very insightful. (I should have a lot more to say about what the Tick and Dirk respectively say about the mental health of the person they are orbiting, for instance.) I'm just really struck no one else is saying this yet. The new Tick series is about Arthur mostly! The Dirk Gently series relegates him to a side character! Why is this so under discussed? Why can't we watch a film and say what we see in it?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Satire, Adaptation, and My Dumb Mistakes

One of the challenges in talking about critical analysis of films and the ideological content they display, is how people view satire. You may argue that Jurassic Park or the Star Wars Prequels are satire, and your interlocutors will grumble. After all, we know what satire is - it's loud and outrageous. It's Gilbert and Sullivan or the "Scary Movie" franchise. In real "satire", every line is comical and non-believable, and it has as much understatedness as the Something Awful Political Cartoon Thread.


I know this attitude is wrong, but I can lazily fall into, and why I flopped on watching a "serious" movie: John Le Carre's "The Looking Glass War."


The Looking Glass War Poster

Check out that grim poster and that IMDB page. It's a dry espionage thriller. And all the European talking heads giving dry dialogue give no other impression than that these players are somewhat unpleasant, and rather slow. Hey though, at least it has a young Anthony Hopkins.

Now unfortunately, watching this movie now is tricky. You've got two options. You can buy a DVD off Amazon and wait for it to arrive, or for whatever reason, sketchy warez sites are happy to provide.

For the latter, follow this link or ask Google, it works fine, but make sure your anti-malware is up to date and for gods sake don't click on any ads.

As you see, the plot is so difficult for us to follow (well, for me anyway), that it's challenging to be critical enough about what we do understand of the characters to see it all as satire.

In particular what is up with this scene at 15 minutes in.



















Two of the officers go to a rundown apartment building, trying to find someone, but all they see is a little girl speaking through a mail slot. She tells them her mummy is at work, she's left home alone to take care of herself, and her dad has gone on an aeroplane to get money. It's very surreal, and didn't advance any plot I could understand.

***

So then I read the book. Which has a great, bitter introduction by Le Carre.







So yeah, actually reading the book with this spelled out for me, it is goddamned hilarious. It's still very dry and bureaucratic, but I can understand that the fact that everything they are saying and doing seem out of place or misguided is the bloody point. I have the all important context.

Take the hallway scene I mentioned before. Leclerc, the department chief, is permanently lost in sentimentality about the heroism of World War 2. He pushed one of his non-combat desk clerks to fly into Soviet allied territory to retrieve some photographs (of a military facility that turns out not to be there), and thinks he's launched the next Normandy invasion. Leclerc isn't some loud Teddy-Roosevelt caricature though; he's sad, a little noble, a little foppish, and muted enough to be respectable. When he finds out his "agent" has died, he begins reminiscing about all the times he had to tell wives and girlfriends and mothers that pilots under his command in WW2 had died.


This terrible confrontation is the core of Leclerc's identity. He'd like a prouder department and all the perks that come with it, sure, but they really only serve to remind him of the emotional duty he once carried. He even slips up and gives his agent an alias that was the name of his favorite pilot who died on a mission. It's weird to think "his desire is to tell women their husband/boyfriend is dead and he can't tell them why because it's classified", but that moment has become such a mawkish touchstone that yeah, it can become a fetish for the right identity.

American movies are no better:

And now, after twenty years of sleepiness, Leclerc gets to do it again. An agent died in the field, and in the wee hours he must immediately rush and tell his wife in person. He is too understated for gleefulness, so it's hard to see his eagerness, but off he goes in the middle of the night.

Except it's not a beautifully lit farmhouse, with a domestic woman waiting at home on her man. The man in this case has drunk most of the money away, and certainly wasn't paid enough by the department in the first place, so he lives in a shithole with the rest of the underclass, and his wife is off making ends meet while his six year old child sits home listening to the radio. And Leclerc can only relive this glory moment by trying to explain it through a mail slot to a young girl and her doll. (It doesn't even have the dignity of being classified; of course the terribly trained "spy" told his family right away.)

This scene is bizarre, and hilarious in its absurdity. After reading it on the page, you immediately want to actually see this, in all of its gory detail, because of just how surreal the imagery is. There is no way flat text can capture the perfection of this anti-climax.

Right. This was the movie I just saw. I couldn't understand the scene then, but once I did, I immediately needed it realized in full technicolor. That really explains the entire tragedy of the movie: it lacks the necessary context, but is full of the superficial viscera that makes it real.

***

Now, I hate to fall back on "see, the author said so." If the author's words were the sole truth with regard to their work, then we could just read the foreword and be done with the hassle of reading the whole book itself. But in this case they taught me that yes, even very dry things with somber characters and no laugh track, are written to skewer the foibles of those misguided fools. We've got to look at their actions ourselves, and determine what this says about the universe of the story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Murder in Triplicate

There's a new trailer for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's "Murder on the Orient Express." It looks marginally less bad than the last trailer.


But really, this is just a reminder that the David Suchet series production of this was AMAZING. Just go watch that.

Amusingly, it's the most controversial of the classic Suchet series by far, because it's so atypical for the cozy mystery series. But this episode builds off of the fidelity from everyone other episode of the series to make the point "the crime is so sacrilegious that it drives Poirot to towering heights of anger." The difference between this and his attitude in every other episode (and every other production) matters, directly contradicting the ending of the award winning 1974 movie.

If you care about justice, watch the David Suchet episode. It will be interesting to see if this new movie offers anything remotely as passionate.

Video submitted until Youtube takes it down. After that just go pay $2 on Amazon.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Comments

For the first time ever, we have multiple, good comments.

1angelette writes in reply to Fountain Creed Runner
You've really helped me to understand the shortcomings of humanist critiques about the objectification of women in archetypal films. It's more effective, for that goal, to start from the ground up in that kind of movie instead of writing a couple lines about a maiden being a math major, isn't it? 
lol

Yeah, exactly.  If you want more of that, make sure to read my post a while ago on the best character from Hancock, Mary.

For the recent best, most extreme version of archetypical critique of sexism, check out Sucker Punch.



SMG has written a lot on this most controversial Zack Snyder film, in the original thread, and more recently:
Well, exactly: even an idiot can understand that Sucker Punch depicts a triad of imaginary, symbolic and real. And the imaginary fantasy sequences are blatantly ideological fantasies: you have the 'Strong Female Characters' cutting down hordes of faceless drones that stand for a generic totalitarianism. 
These 'propaganda' sequences are the ones that obviously look like 300. But this is not fascist propaganda at all; Sucker Punch's women are creating liberal propaganda. They are multicultural time-travellers from 20XX, wielding present-day spec ops weaponry to fight the failed ideologies of the past. This is exactly Black Widow in the Avengers: inexplicably fighting Egyptian mummies using wire-fu, tasers and dual-wielded handguns. 
Predicting his work on Wonder Woman, Snyder puts these propaganda heroes in a WWI setting weirdly mixed with WWII and Lord Of The Rings fantasy. The message of the propaganda is plainly that WWI was not the result of industrial capitalism, but simply caused by the evil Nazis. Let's get some strong liberal feminists to refight those Nazis, and we'll maintain world peace. 
But again, as you point out, there are two more levels. Beneath the Buffy/Avengers fantasy level, we have the symbolic level - the level of everyday reality where 'Buffy' is actually the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and 'Black Widow' is actually the actress Scarlett Johannson. On this level, the actresses have some formal freedom, get money, but are still working in a sexist industry - being pressured to fuck director Joss Whedon and so-on. 
Finally, beneath everything, you have 'the desert of the real' from The Matrix, where the capitalist exploitation is laid bare. The heroes 'put on the sunglasses' and are fully aware of the ghouls and their messages. "They Live, We Sleep", etc. 
Sucker Punch is branded sexist because it is not a liberal feminist film. It is not Joss Whedon feminism; it is a left-wing feminist film.
***

 And AG writes in reply to Genre:
It's just the heist genre, stylistically, as applied to a less traditional heist. A systemic heist rather than a MacGuffin object heist.  
Showtime's House of Lies applies the format to management consulting, and not coincidentally resembles a white-collar version of a classic fast-talking con man film. Non-violent Guy Ritchie by way of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean remake, set in a world where the bag of cash is now a number update on a screen. But the pacing, the music montages, the dialogue rhythms, they're all out of the heist genre playbook.
Well you're half right. There is something shared in the quasi-documentary meta-storytelling style of both films, told with sly self-awareness and shock value. However, they are as different as a comedy versus a tragedy. The whole second half of a heist movie is about "it sure looks bad now" when you know the heroes will pull it out in the end, whereas this genre is the mirror opposite: it's too good and you know the crash is gonna be epic. It's a tragedy, one that dominates the entire style of sad narration, but one that tries to educate you "the real villain is systemic corruption."

(Which isn't wrong, and why I appreciate more recommendations.)

@jadagul on tumblr mentioned that 21 (based on the true story "Bringing Down the House") was also this style, and yes, I just forgot to mention it. I watched it for exactly this reason.


(When I say "Based on a True Story", that's the tongue in cheek tone from someone who's a fan of the Coen brothers.)

***

And unsurprisingly the Wonder Woman review got several comments, so you might want to go read the discussion over there.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Genre

I'm trying to identify a movie genre that seems a) really obvious and b) I have not heard anyone else describe. If anything I would call them "Lewisian" because they all seem like they come from a book by Michael Lewis.

This is movies that are a recounting of "that time I made a shitload of money unethically exploiting an inefficiency or loophole in the system. We are talking hilarious amount of money for me, a working class joe. This epitomizes how morally bankrupt the system is. Eventually it all came crashing down and I am telling you this from a jail cell."

So, you know, we've got Big Short.


Now I am not referring to the above as plot elements, but rather it's the film-making style that unites this genre. It's got a lot of first person narrating, and "you're not gonna believe this" flashbacks, along with fairly preachy moralizing about how wrong it was that this sort of thing was allowed to go on. There's a lot of montages, and therefore a lot of well known pop-music on the soundtrack to go over these pop montages (usually of excess.)

Compare it to the non-Michael Lewis-based movie "War Dogs."


See? Very similar styles. Or, the upcoming movie "American Made" with Tom Cruise.


Now from purely the style elements, I also count the Lewis movie "Moneyball" among this genre. Obviously it's not about breaking the law, but it is about "exploiting the hell out of an inefficiency, and going from laughingstock to hailed as genius" in a way that allows a lot of these same filmic elements to work.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fountain Creed Runner

Extremely pithy summary: the Assassin's Creed movie is the story The Fountain wanted to be, but done with the superior film techniques of Blade Runner.

***

Long version: As we've discussed before, there are two approaches to movies that make them truly powerful stories:
  • Humanist storytelling: emphasizing the complexity of characterization, the source of their motives, their deep and multifaceted personality. (Logan is a good example of this.)
  • Archetypical storytelling: characters aren't really people, so much as masks for mythic concepts. The Star Wars Original Trilogy was extremely good at this.
There are great films in both camps, but usually when popular critics attack a movie it's with the perspective that a movie needs to be more successfully humanist. Such criticism complains that the characters' actions "do not make sense" and are shallow stereotypes, and we need more dialogue and backstory to "flesh them out." Sometimes it would be a good idea - but other times it goes against the entire point.

For instance in Star Wars, Darth Vader is iconic as the dark overlord figure. Finding out that his genes have midichlorians, how his mom died and why it made him angry, and the exact circumstances that he lost track of his son and daughter, just undercut his archetypical appeal. (Which is fine, because in this case the Prequels serve as a satire of the follies of humanism.) That's the problem with most "expanded universe" type world-building and fan-fiction, that it's often applied to stories that don't need it.

This leads you down the dark path where movies like Prometheus and the video-game adaptation Assassin's Creed are criticized for their shallow characterization and emphasis on imagery.

Of course, you could make the exact same complaint about a classic like Blade Runner. It's full of holes! What is the backstory that led to Rick Deckard being the asshole that he is? Why is the "best scientist in the world" sitting at the top of a golden pyramid playing chess with hobos? What sort of life are the replicants running away from? How dare Deckard treat Rachel like an object? And dear god why is there so much time spent looking morosely over the blasted cityscapes of Los Angeles?



Except that's all the point of the movie. It's not "inside" that counts, but the actions you do that make you "human." And it's a very good movie because we understand all these characters immediately - Deckard is the archetype of the bitter detective, Rachel just is the femme fatale even though she never thought she would be (and her rich backstory is just a lie to deceive her,) and Tyrell is playing God.

Which brings us to the unpleasant truth of this post: acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky's attempt at a sci-fi masterpiece The Fountain is just not very good.



The Fountain is an ambitious attempt at mixing together three timelines: one story about a medical scientist who can't accept that his wife is dying, one story about a conquistador searching for the fountain of youth to save his beloved queen from the Spanish Inquisition, and one story about a post-human monk taking a dying tree of life across the galaxy to find renewal (which are united by having the protagonist always played by Hugh Jackman.) The moral at the end is that the search for immortality succeeds, but only in providing a chaotic, destructive/creative jouissance that is far beyond what the explorer was hoping for.

Except everyone talks too damn much. For instance with the conquistador story, we understand the figures of Knight, besieged Queen, and greedy Inquisitor very quickly. But we get scene after scene explaining the Inquisition's intentions and the Queen's desperation when yes we get it already. The first modern day scene with the doctor's lab doesn't come across as Jackman playing god and toying with the very elements of the universe, but much more like Tony Stark in a lab being witty with his subordinates and hoping a banal experiments works. It's all completely unsublime.

(The scifi scenes are closer to the pure imagery, but even then rely too much on monologues and turn the whole story more into the internal dialogue of a self-doubting monk, rather than a mystic voyage across space and time.)

They go to so much effort to over-explain what's going on in each timeline specifically, that the rhythm that unites all three timelines is almost completely lost. And even if some fan video explains it for you, you're not really left with any satisfying experience as you watch it yourself. It's not good, because it takes too much of the humanist criticism to heart.

So we have the movie based on the Assassin's Creed videogame franchise, which as far as I can tell, mostly ignores the games and provides very little fan service, and instead tells a very abstract, austere story.


Now that's a very regrettable trailer for a number of reasons, but most amusingly is that it basically provides as much exposition as we get in the entire two hour movie. There is an object of desire that represents freedom and the will to violence. Authority wants to possess this object and thereby destroy both. The protagonist goes on an internal journey to their hereditary past that will reveal the location of this object. There are not elaborate explanations for how this object can "get rid of violence/free-will" and whether it will require submitting all of humankind to genetic therapy or something, or for how the Animus works, it just expects you to accept this Science Fantasy.
Again, the point is that sci-fi and fantasy are relative.
We can all read Lord Of The Rings as alternate-universe Sci-Fi, and the orcs as clones - but that means asking basic questions about, like, where the food comes from if there are no onscreen farms outside Hobbitsville. That stuff doesn't matter in fantasy because, in a fantasy, you don't need food to live. The difference is clearly expressed at the start of Mystery Science Theatre 3000:
"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes (and other science facts), just repeat to yourself: 'it's just a show. I should really just relax.'"
Fantasy begins at the point where you stop wondering. 
-SMG
There are instead a ton of debates between Patriarchal Figure and Athena Figure arguing over the ethical implications of this all. And the actors chosen for this - Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard - are the best you could ask for such abstract scene chewing dialogue.

The scenes from the Inquisition time period serve as an effective metaphor for the doomed battle between rebellious violence and authority, and no exposition needs to explain to death why.

Assassin's Creed is a step in the right direction for video game movies but slick action and beautiful visuals are undercut by a hollow hero story. 
-- Ben Kendrick, Screen Rant

No, the slick action, beautiful visuals, and hollowness of the hero are the entire point of the story - right up to the psychedelic ending where the walls of reality between the two timelines start collapsing and every modern day prisoner becomes their past life assassin, complete with cosplay cloak. And there's no attempt at a "scientific explanation" for why the hero suddenly sees all his ancestors appear in the real world and talk to him.

If you read the quotes than its few fans have pulled from the movie, they would usually sound like failed attempts to be Epic in any other franchise, rare peaks above the witty dialogue that are crippled by the self-awareness of the characters. But instead, this dialogue is all there is! Every single line is only intelligible in a grand, metaphorical sense, and is surrounded by silence and statue-esque delivery.

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Violence is a disease. Like cancer. And like cancer, we hope to control it one day.
Cal Lynch: Violence is what kept me alive.
Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Well technically, you're dead.
or

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: We're not in the business of creating monsters.
Alan Rikkin: We neither created them nor destroyed them. We merely abandoned them to their own inexorable fate.
or

Cal Lynch: You're here to save my soul?
Father Raymond: I understand it's your birthday.
Cal Lynch: Huh... Yeah. The party's just gettin started.

No one talks any other way in this movie.

(Compare this with the dialogue from Blade Runner:

Batty: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

or
Tyrell: [Tyrell explains to Roy why he can't extend his lifespan] You were made as well as we could make you.
Batty: But not to last.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!
Batty: I've done... questionable things.
Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.
Batty: Nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for.  )

Everything the Fountain should have done, Assassin's Creed does more effectively. This is how you should talk (and I haven't even gotten into the slow crawls along vistas) in a mythic story uniting multiple historical periods to discover the meaning of life.

I haven't done a very good job yet explaining the AC movie, because it feels like there's so much work to even get people to take movies like these seriously. "Oh hey it's about videogames and critics didn't like it. Why would I waste two hours on this?" Except it's fucking amazing, and they didn't like it because it didn't fall into the videogame ghetto of movies. So go watch it yourself, and form opinions about what it's saying about freedom, violence, and ahistoricity.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brigsby Bear and Evolving Irony

I just saw the indie flick from the SNL comedy group "Good Neighbor".




Some points.

1. It's very good and you should go see it. I expect it will leave theaters soon (and is only showing in LA and NY as far as I can tell) but then you should be able to watch it on Amazon or something.

Everything after this will assume you saw it and don't mind spoilers.

2. The reviews of it are dreadfully misguided.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Pointed Elsewhere

I've got one review in me, but otherwise for the next two weeks, I will mostly be writing at the new website "Exploring Egregores", about Lovecraft and existential horror. If you like my writing style, you'll probably enjoy that.

Fans of the themes of this blog will particularly appreciate the posts on Hastur and Azathoth.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cargo Cults: 17776 and Homestuck

Jon Bois' epic about the future of football, 17776 just finished. If you haven't read it, you should, or at least read the first page/chapter.

A number of commentators, both on tumblr and reddit have said it's very similar to Homestuck, the MSPA adventure, and there's definitely an overlap of fandom. Homestuck, remember, is a meta-textual experimental piece of outsider art about kids who find themselves going on fantastical quests in a computer game after the world has been destroyed.



They're not wrong, but they're not right either. And their comparisons are a great example of cargo cults.

The phrase "cargo cult" refers to island cultures that would make first contact with Western civilization, and would see all the material goods they brought, and so try to replicate this process of receiving cargo by building runways or statues of planes or whatever else looked like the Westerners.
So the term refers to worshiping the superficial aspects of something complex, and ignoring the true reasons it works.

The basic explanations for why Homestuck fans like 17776 is "they are chatlogs with different colored text and typing styles to represent different characters" and "JUICE is a lot like Dave" (sarcastic, mean, but so enthusiastic that he can't resist info dumping about things he cares about) and "it's a mix of video and bad, static html" and "it references pop culture."

Except this is a pretty bad explanation. Why? Well for one it's really easy. To make, that is. Like do you know how many Homestuck fan artists have made fanfic with "different colored text" and "someone who sounds like Dave?" It's not a hard thing to try. And yet "capturing the feeling of Homestuck, enough to enthrall fans" is much harder. Why is that? They're mistaking the tactile details for what is actually compelling. Cargo cults.

The first thing that really makes it work is the "rapid recontextualization." Already on chapter one, you have this slow dialogue happening between Nine and Ten over the course of years, slowly revealing stuff but mostly a) entertaining us with their dopishness and b) slowly doling out facts that explain the situation. It's agonizing. And then, on a dime, something unpredictable happens that accelerates the fuck out of the story, giving them instant communication and explaining who the satellites are, complete with dramatic screenshots of satellite related stuff. And after that point everything in the story is in this new context and new speed.

Hussie did that a lot too, with interminable dialogues between John and whoever, point and click hunts by John (or whoever), until a random thing happens and then bam, we know a whole lot more about the (much wider) world in one instant. This is frankly some kind of operant conditioning that addicts a non-negligible part of his audience. It's no surprise it would grab the same people.

Bois in particular does this with the video pieces. It's not just "it uses both static html and video", but the way it uses video. Which is to provide a sudden jump in information, showing the project exploding to a whole new scale. Compare the first video at the bottom of chapter one, with something like Act 2 End: Ascend. They are very similar feelings of suddenly "everything gets real now."

In this way "dialogue, dialogue, snarky/self aware dialogue -- eye opening video of sublime realization (followed by similar dialogue commenting on that video-enlightenment)" operates as a tandem pair, neither entirely working their full effect without the other. This is where Homestuck draws its power, not "someone is snarky like Dave."

Although it's not a coincidence the Dave voice repeats either.

I mean, the most important voice is not the Dave/JUICE voice, but John/Nine. They are, in Tarot terms "the Fool." They are the blank slate protagonist who is only just now learning everything about the world, along with us. Many critics would call this "the audience identification character", but it's not really who we see ourselves as, they are just the lens we can most easily learn about the world from.

Well, it makes sense that the Fool is first introduced to the world by someone smarter than us, but patient and benign. That is the Rose/Ten character. Only after we have the discoverer character, and the teacher character, can we have the third: the meta-aware character. That's Dave, that's JUICE, and that's our actual audience identification. We're genre-savvy, detached from the story, and prone to snarky comments. So both MSPA and 17776 have this same introductory tryptych: Fool, Teacher, Irony-master. It's a good combination for laying out a fictional universe (and explicitly stating to the audience the literary themes of this universe, as Dave/JUICE often does), and that's why people feel such similarity between the two.

Same with the pop culture references. Every work of art references pop culture these days. The key here is that 17776 and Homestuck both blatantly reference pop culture, and aspects that are not at all relevant. You get Con Air and Steely Dan coming up (but not Hillary Clinton or I lik cow or the Wire.) It's decidedly silly stuff, that tells us a lot more about the characters involved, than really makes us feel a connection to them.

Of course, both artworks explore a post-apocalyptic scenario. Homestuck deals with an Earth that has been destroyed, and what the relevant kids do beyond that, and 17776 deals with an apocalypse that ended all struggle and meaning to life, forcing people to discover new meaning. It's about what happened to our world after something major destablized everything important about it. Post-apocalypses are just commentaries on the world as it currently is, but laid bare. And with this tryptych we can get an accessible explanation: the Fool asks what's going on, the Teacher answers in the Watsonian sense, and the Ironist answers in the Doylist sense, explicitly telling us why the author is doing this here.

This works well with the middling desires of most of the audience: they are reading webfic because they want to explore something new, they want world building that is interesting and makes sense diagetically, but they want a little bit of thematic awareness that makes them knowledgable art critics.

Once we have gotten used to this trio (or rather, right before we have gotten used to them, and when we feel we are just getting the groove of the conversation,) both works then suddenly switch gears and add new voices. These are very down-to-earth voices, that assume a high degree of context to understand. (Often when switching scenes, you're coming in mid-scene to the next thing, and the first few lines of dialogue will be the reader trying to catch up to what's going on. It's mildly intellectually challenging, but more, it's constant and addictive.

Now in Homestuck, those new voices are eventually built up and worked into the diagetic plot, whereas in 17776 those voices are instead worked into the overall thematic message (often as explained by JUICE.) This split between emphasis on building plot, vs explaining its themes goes all the way through to the two very different endings (one of which was fulfilling, and the other of which... was really not.)

There are other thematic and mechanical parallels that make 17776 and Homestuck work similarly, and you can play around with them yourself.

**************

However, this obsessing about cargo cults can be a trap, like the old lady asked about what supported the turtle who carried the world on its back. "It's cargo cults all the way down."

The phrase cargo cult creates a dichotomy between that which is superficial and misleading, and that which is deep and the real meaning of the work.

But, breezy thematic analysis (like my own) can be just as cargo-cultish. You list off some words like genre-savvy, paganistic, or ironic detachment and at least some people will just nod along to how cool you sound. There's no guarantee you've found the real meaning, and haven't just found another idol to worship.

This is of course because there is no core, essential meaning to the work.
Holloway’s desire is to ask the alien-gods the meaning of life. This goal is utterly unobtainable, and the film establishes elsewhere that life has no inherent meaning (existence precedes essence) and, even if one could speak to the alien-gods, the message would be something unsatisfactory like 7*7=42 or horrific like Event Horizon’s ‘we don’t need eyes to see’.  
SMG on Prometheus
Especially in art. There is only the superficial.
One should thus invert the usual opposition within which true art is “deep” and commercial kitsch superficial: the problem with kitsch is that it is all too “profound,” manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while genuine art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract its subject from the “deeper” context of historical reality. 
Zizek
So you're peeling back the layers of the onion. On the first layer is "different colored text, and sounds like Dave," and the next layer is "uses video as a climactic way to broaden the scope of the work." And in some ways that next layer can be more useful - in this case I think it explains affinity between these two works better, and offers a more reliable predictor of what else fans will like.

But it's still layers of the onion, and you'll never reach some inner kernel of pure meaning. You can never guarantee that you have found "what audiences want."

To address the original analogy, you could imagine some start-up entrepreneur who laughs at the cargo cults of Pacific Islands, and thinks the real idols you need to worship are the global supply chain, and synergy, and strengthening the free market. Now they might have a practical understanding of how to build their company, or they might just think that if they say enough buzzwords then investor capital will be drawn to them and they will get rich.