26 May 2007

Stop Griping About Sequels!

The summer movie season officially kicked off this very Memorial Day weekend, and you know what that brings: three full months of critical whining about sequels and budgets and the end of cinema as an art form--again (considering I was first made aware of the medium's death rattle around the December 1979 release of Spielberg's "1941", thanks to a "Year In Review" edition of Time Magazine in my optometrist's waiting room, it's been privileged with the most drawn-out demise since Jimmy Smits' on "NYPD Blue"). How appropriate that it's the 30th anniversary of the film everyone blames for the fact that we don't have a new "Mean Streets" or "The Deer Hunter" every weekend...

"Part 2"s and "Next Chapter"s, contrary to the collective lament of aging boomer reviewers, are hardly a recent, post-Lucasfilm invention (prequels on the other hand, are another story, although you can't blame Georgie for "Butch And Sundance: The Early Days") to indicate what is constantly trotted out as evidence of the dearth of creative ideas in La-La Land every g*damned third Friday in May.

When D.W. Griffith scored his first hit with 1915's controversial ode-to-the-Klan "Birth Of A Nation", the followup "Fall Of A Nation" came just a year later. There were 27 (!)"Blondie" entries produced between 1938 and 1950. "The Thin Man" romps had 6 installments in less 10 years. Yet despite the proliferation of such obvious mammon-fueled hackwork (such as we're conditioned to regard such fare), the motion picture managed to endure to give us the likes of "On The Waterfront", "Vertigo", "Dr. Strangelove", "Network", and "Memento". Truffaut made sequels, so did Bergman and Kurosawa. Before film even existed, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and William Makepeace Thackery wrote 'em, too.

Look, I'm not here to defend the artistic merit of "The Whole Ten Yards" or "Speed 2" or "Beverly Hills Cop 3" or god help us, "Superman 4: The Quest For Peace"--but if the pundits want me to concede that too many Hollywood productions are governed by formulas and rote thinking (like that's news), then they'll have to admit that the same is true of what passes for insightful film criticism and analysis these days. I've all but given up on reading the Friday sections--column after column devoted to trashing the weekend's major release and overpraising the latest fashionable arthouse-darling-du jour--maybe instead of the blithe dismissal and the indignant sniff of an old grump who's losing touch with popular culture, they should attempt to evaluate these followups in a context of something other than box office returns and that fact that Robert Altman isn't around to do those long single takes anymore.

Sequels are not automatically "bad"--they only seem that way to those who insist on defining them by their worst possible example, and yes, there are many. The merits of "The Empire Strikes Back", "The Godfather 2", and "Aliens" have been well-argued--suffice to say I'm in agreement. I'd gladly sit through the overlong but dazzling and sweet-souled "Spider-Man 3" again before having to re-experience even five minutes of the shrill and laughably overwrought "importance" of "Babel" any day. And the recent "28 Weeks Later" is, IMHO, an instant horror classic that stands completely on its own and in many ways eclipses its predecessor in terms of its scope, intensity, and timely Bush/Blair-era allegory.

David Bordwell, Professor of Film Studies at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison and the co-author of "Film Art" and "The Poetics Of Cinema", leads a well-armed round-table debate here.